When I see people post about it I sympathise, but mostly refrain from commenting. I don't worry about people being able to work out where I live from my blog. I don't even worry they'll be able to work out what I'm doing on any particular date, or where my child's future schools are. They don't need to put in that much effort.
You see, a requirement of my job is that my name, address, telephone number, and any number of other personal details are in the public domain.
What is this job which requires such disclosure? I'm an elected councillor for Torfaen County Borough Council. You've probably never heard of it, but the onus placed on me is placed on around 20,000 other county and borough councillors around the country, plus thousands more unpaid community, town and parish councillors. When you stand for election, your address becomes public domain. If you are elected it gets plastered over the web, printed in council newsletters, and put up on notice boards. You can choose to ask people to only contact you care of the council - but you will be discouraged from doing so, on the grounds it reflects badly on the transparency of the organisation. The public purse is paying you £13k per annum, in return you should be contactable at all times of the day and night.
|Screenshot of my page of Torfaen's councillor directory.|
Nuisance phone calls, damage to personal property, and threatening mail is all par for the course. Because some people will take violent exception to your views on anything from litter to planning decisions; a quick google search brought up the stories of numerous councillors who have been forced to rethink their open contact policy after receiving death threats. (See HERE, HERE, and HERE.) The most common problems, unsurprisingly, are around identity theft and fraud. When I started this job I was living back with my parents, so it was their address which was public. That was enough for people to use it to take out mobile phone and utility contracts they never bothered to pay. My poor mum wasted hours on the phone dealing with irate companies hoping to speak to the transgressor; the council wanted to know why council tax wasn't being paid for this mysterious extra occupant, and we had the pleasure of a bailiff turning up at the door demanding payment.
Then there is the register of public interests. You need to declare your pecuniary interests, such as properties you own or occupy, and details of your employment. You also need to declare other interests which are in the public, well, interest, even if you're not financially benefiting from them. This will include the charities and other organisations you sit on the board of / are a member of / give money to, trade union membership, and any gifts or hospitality you receive in connection with your official duties above the value of £25. (I'm still waiting for that last one to be an issue...) You can see my declaration of interests HERE, which makes me realise that a) mine is massively out of date, and b) even my signature is out there in the public domain!
The declaration of interests is a constant ongoing process. Every time you discuss something which you have a personal interest in at a meeting, you need to declare it. For instance, you could be considering a planning application for a distant relation, that's likely to be a personal but non-prejudicial (i.e. you can still take part in the decision) interest, or you could be discussing the school your child attends - that one would be personal and prejudicial. The result is that information about your children's schooling, your relatives' addresses and employment, and scores of other details will end up in the public domain when the minutes of the meeting are published and put on the internet. These days lots of meetings are webcast live, so you don't even need to wait for the clerk to finish writing their notes up.
|Credit: cifas.org.uk, "Just a single piece of personal information, such as your date of birth, can be used to commit fraud in your name. So imagine what a fraudster can do with a lot of personal information."|
It's not just politicians and their families affected by these issues, anybody actively involved in public life will be expected to publish certain details. Addresses of charity trustees are not usually made public, but it doesn't take a technological whiz to tap what is public into google and find what they're looking for. For example, HERE is the BBC Trust's register of interests - you'll be able to see what I mean. In an age where we're all bombarded with how important it is to protect our personal data, and the data of those around us, it's just a little hypocritical that we are insisting on the publication of ever more information about people who are willing to give up their time and energy for the greater good.
Because you might think I'm irresponsible for choosing to blog about myself and my family. You might think it's my own damn fault for choosing to run for council - I'm perfectly entitled to stand down if I don't like the status quo. But I do think there should be a debate about the risk run by people who want to help their local communities by becoming charity trustees, sitting on boards, and generally getting involved. We should be asking ourselves whether there is any correlation between the fact that one of the most underrepresented groups in governance - women with young children - is also one of the groups most worried about their family's privacy?
The answer might be no. We may well decide that the public interest overrides the personal. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't bother having the discussion.