NI Water refuse to disclose attendance record of interim Chair

Fascinating little sidebar matter on the Northern Ireland Water issue. Jim Allister has been refused information relating to the attendance of the Chairman Pauric White at Board meetings. The reasons given are astounding:

“Premature disclosure of information pertaining to the investigation, whilst the investigation is ongoing, could potentially result in closing off options through adverse public reaction.”

Acting CEO Trevor Haslett is the individual who authorised this refusal. When contacted by Slugger, an NI Water spokeswoman stated:

“It is, however, stated within this response that information may be considered for release in the future. NI Water is minded of the fact that the sensitivity of the information requested may decrease over time and that this information may be suitably released in the future.”

So we can’t have it now, but we might get it later? Not alone does this ambiguous response subject the question of how regularly Mr White attended NI Water Board meetings to ‘unhelpful’ conjecture, but it suggests that even the most mundane question cannot now be answered if there is a possibility that it could change public opinion.

I’m not sure that’s a welcome precedent to set.

  • Cynic2

    A sign of desperation.

    There is no way that information of mere attendance or non-attendance at Broad Meetings could be withheld.

    I don’t like Allister’s politics but I agree with him on this one.

  • So of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, reading Jim Allister’s news release I see they’re relying on section 36 FOIA “where releasing information would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

    Never seen this used before … an interesting casestudy

  • Mick Fealty

    It begs the question of just what that attendance record says. It’s like getting the artillery out to crack what ought to be a *very* small nut.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I would persume that for anything short of 100% attendance an EXTREMELY good reason would have to be given when you consider the the state of NIW for the last 6 months.

  • Mick Fealty

    For context SF are currently complaining about UUP and SDLP Ministers not turning up for OFMdFM committee meeting (they were attending funerals). Just less than 100% seems to little to provoke a public interest defence, surely?

  • Pigeon Toes
  • Mick, the refusal/reluctance of NIW to release information on more than one occasion is more than just a side-bar issue. There’s the related matter of DRD’s failure to keep notes and minutes of some meetings with NIW executives. An audit trail is required for justice to be done and reduce the option for scape-goating.

    Prior to the creation of NI Water, Water Service Board/Executive Team minutes were published in line with good practice. To date NI Water Executive Team/Committee minutes have continued to be published. At its September meeting the NI Water Board decided that going forward, Board meeting minutes will be published on this site in place of Executive Committee Minutes. .. source

    I persuaded NIW to publish Board minutes on the internet and to update the publication of Executive minutes ie the second sentence is untrue, ET minutes were discontinued in November 2009 and were only updated in August 2010; I failed to persuade it to produce minutes in the sort of detail that was available prior to November, 2009, and to continue Executive minutes. Why haven’t the NEDs been acting on these transparency and accountability issues?

    The Minutes of the meeting of 29 July, and 9 August conference calls were agreed. The Board agreed that in future, minutes of its meetings would be published [on the internet]. … 30.09.2010

    The draft Minutes of the Board Meeting held on 30 September were noted. It was agreed to incorporate some additional points into the final agreed minutes. … 28.10.2010

    The online Board minutes are in pdf format but not in user-friendly cut and paste form; I use an OCR program, especially for lengthy quotes.

    Padraic White was present at the September and October meetings. As the minutes are only available for publication after the subsequent meeting I don’t know whether or not the November meeting should be online.

  • “attendance of the Chairman Pauric White at Board meetings”

    Isn’t the Chairman paid to attend meetings in addition to Board meetings. Jim Allister hasn’t published his FOI question on his website. Instead he’s said this: “I lodged a straightforward FOI request asking how often their Dublin Chairman troubled to attend their offices in Belfast during the crisis.”

  • alan56

    Bring Brian Cowen in to run NI Water

  • cynic49

    More ways than one to skin a cat. Ask for copies of recent minutes of board meetings. That will show attendances

  • ‘Twas the week before Christmas

    “Surely Sara, the water service cannot continue to afford this level of sickness?”

    Non executive Director Donald Price was polite but firm in his questioning of Sara Venning, Director of Customer Service Delivery.

    “An average of fifteen day’s sick leave per year is simply not acceptable.”

    The conversation paused as the chairman entered the room, and knowing looks were exchanged. Padraic White, the so called invisible chairman. He habitually arrived late at board meetings simultaneously opening the door and mouthing an apology to no one in particular. Undoing the buckle of his briefcase he padded round the perimeter of the room until reaching the empty seat at the far end of the table to sit down without acknowledging anyone or offering an apology. In the twenty five seconds it took from door to seat he met nobody’s eye. This was a source of satisfaction to Padraic White. He inferred invisibility from a lack of eye contact. He’d even banned publication of the minutes so that no third party knew whether he was present or not.

    Albeit forewarned, this curious behaviour attracted a great deal of attention from fellow board members who quickly accepted the challenge. At different times, they delayed the start of the meeting, impeded his progress around the room, lowered the height of his chair, and even poured water on his seat. Mr White, however, negotiated or ignored the challenges and each time sat back in his seat having never once looked anyone in the eye whatever the distraction; and once having sat down he never spoke unless directly addressed by name and even then only after a physical gesture, perhaps a shrug or a grimace, had failed. His goal was to be present but not to be recorded in the minutes. He was to all intent invisible.

    Mr White’s latest successful entrance concluded, the interrupted conversation resumed.

    “I quite agree, Donald, which as you know is why we introduced an absence management policy, and in the eighteen months since its inception the sickness levels have halved.”

    “And we should not forget those who turn up for work day after day” volunteered Kevin Steele, a supporter of Sara, switching the conversation to focus on the positive.

    “Indeed it should be noted that 50% have no sick record at all.”

    “In fact we should be rewarding them” added Kevin.

    “And do we Sara?”

    “Yes indeed Donald, we incentivise them and the results are proving very positive.”

    “And how exactly do we incentivise them?”

    “What the fu..!”

    A beautifully wrapped and ribboned Christmas gift in front of Padraic White suddenly sprung open revealing a “Jack in the Box” with hideous red face, black hair, black eyes and black teeth lunging back and forth atop a coil. Strangely only Padraic White reacted. It was as if he had been electrocuted in his chair, his expletive cut off, and his hands playing a piano that wasn’t there.

    Mr White having spoken, the secretary recorded his presence in the minutes under the unwritten rules shared by all.

    “And how exactly do we incentivise them?” Donald Price carried on ignoring the distraction at the other end of the boardroom table. His fellow members were equally rigid in their concentration trying hard not to turn in their seats but inwardly exulting at having triggered a contribution from the Chair.

    Sara sighed inwardly “Boys!” and carried on.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Articles, when do we get the rest of the story? some of the earlier chapters must have been fun!

  • Pigeon Toes

    Wonder if they had received any FOI request for this.

    “A senior civil servant has apologised to a Stormont committee after a crunch memo on the burst pipes crisis was lost — and then found again.

    Malcolm McKibbin, the permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development, said he was sorry for the confusion after he and Minister Conor Murphy told the committee on Wednesday that the memo was missing.

    The note, sent on December 23, said NI Water staff and contractors have been put on “high alert in readiness for a Major Incident Plan response to thaw conditions predicted to set in during the Christmas weekend and Public Holiday period”

  • Sorry Drumlins rock, no can do.

    Premature disclosure of information pertaining to the story, whilst the story is still being made up , could potentially result in closing off plot lines through adverse public reaction.

  • Sam McBride NL 21.01.11: “In a highly unusual refusal to answer an FOI request by TUV leader Jim Allister, the publicly-funded utility said that it would not answer several basic questions because it could lead to “media comment”.”

    The NIW respondent failed to realise that the refusal to answer would, er, lead to media comment. Was he/she expecting Jim Allister not to look a gift horse in the mouth?

    Information about the chairman’s attendance at board meetings is already in the public domain (see above). Allister’s focus was AFAIK on the extreme weather period when key decision makers in NIW and DRD may have been absent:

    Jim Allister: “Mr White is paid by Northern Ireland taxpayers. We are entitled to know where Murphy’s hand-picked chairman was during the crisis.”

  • William Markfelt

    As Nevin points out, the lack of information in the NIW saga has been something of a constant thread throughout.

    Indeed, failure to disclose mundane information is something of a constant throughout government. I’m personally aware that the HSC (who oversee the Health Service’s machinery) are doing it to me, as we speak.

    And it’s for exactly the same reason(s): the public (or individuals) simply get proof that the government machine and its employees are liars, and revelation over mundane matters would reveal them to be liars and charlatans or, in this instance, absentee ‘representatives’ (but not absentee on the day when the cheques are issued?).

    And, oh, look! Criticism for attending funerals, by a party determined to deflect attention to their stooge. Pathetic in all directions.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘the publicly-funded utility said that it would not answer several basic questions because it could lead to “media comment”.”’

    Well, they didn’t answer the questions, but it still led to media comment.

    Is pig-headed stupidity a pre-requisite of employment in NIW (or any other government agency for that matter)?

    It certainly looks like it.

    The Vatican certainly can’t sit on their laurels as far as ‘globally derided PR machine’ is concerned. NIW desperately want that title!

  • malairt

    NIW sadly misses the professional hand of Pat McParland. Although he’s probably wondering if a move from NI Water to Fianna Fail was as good an idea as it seemed at the time

  • “NI Water is a transparent and open organisation.”

    William, I think this ongoing claim by NIW has been well and truly blown out of the water. When I challenged the statement I got and continue to get a positive response from the NIW Communication team.

    However, it would appear that both the CEO and the new interim Board were determined or were directed that the minimum amount of information possible would in future be placed in the public domain.

    Quite detailed Executive minutes (about 8 pages) were published online up until early November, 2009, but there were no Board minutes. I wouldn’t have known about the Murphy, McGlade, Priestly, Patterson and MacKenzie September 2, 2009, meeting in a downtown restaurant when the Steria and PC10 issues were on the menu but for MacKenzie’s report to the Executive; DRD allegedly kept neither notes nor minutes so we don’t know what advice/directions, if any, the CEO was given.

    Executive minutes were eventually put online in August, 2010, but in a much abbreviated form (about 2 pages), and discontinued in September. Very abbreviated Board minutes were introduced in September.

    Who is responsible for this deliberate withholding of information, information that would shed light on the NIW as well as the Minister-DRD-NIW decision making processes?

  • malairt, Pat McParland gave an interview to PR week (published 5 June 2009)

    [McParland] is eager to move the organisation away from mistakes it has made previously, and make it a more open and transparent body.

    It seems he failed to persuade other members of the NIW Executive of the merits of openness as its online minutes were discontinued whilst he was Director of Corporate Affairs.

  • malairt

    If I remember correctly, MacKenzie was unaware that the Exec Team minutes were published verbatim on line. As soon as he realised they were, he edited them to nothing and then stopped them altogether. So it was no decision by Pat McParland that led to their demise.

    Bryan and Mellor on the other hand were quite comfortable with them being published as there was nothing to hide. Anything commercially confidential or politically sensitive was edited out but there was never much.

  • Thanks, Malairt, there appear to have been several significant changes at the beginning of November, 2009.

    The ET minutes went from 8 to 2 to Zero during the course of two meetings whilst the Executive was slimmed down from a Team of 10/12 to a Committee of 6. These changes coincided with the ‘sensitive souls’ email and the ‘get used to it’ epitaph.

    The position of Director of Corporate Affairs, then held by McParland, was one of the casualties of the November restructuring. Did the recent weather crisis expose a weakness in the new Executive structure?

  • One further point, Malairt, I’m surprised that one member of the Executive, albeit the CEO, could over-ride the collective view of the Executive team/committee. I wonder if the Board and the Shareholder was consulted about and/or agreed to the restructuring.

  • malairt

    Funny one that. Pat’s role stayed the same, but the title was changed back to Head of Corporate Affairs as Light Fingered Larry reduced the number of sensitive souls on the Exec Team from 11 to 6. Pat didn’t leave NI Water until mid 2010.

    The Exec was weakened by MacKenzie’s aggressive management style more than anything else. The collegiate approach that makes Exec teams work was lost.

    A CEO isn’t first among equals, neither in spirit nor in fact. The CEO is your boss and you can argue if you want but you’ll lose. The CEO sets your objectives, measures your performance and agrees your pay rise and your bonus: can take away your resources, give you all the rotten jobs and make your life miserable: ultimately he or she can sack you. All you can do if you don’t like it is leave. You could appeal to the Board but they’re very unlikely to go against a CEO unless it’s a matter of legality or ethics.

    CEO’s aren’t weak: they’re generally quite comfortable at being in a minority of one when it’s a a subject they’re convinced they’re right on. Exec Teams are anyway most unlikely to be united in opposition to a CEO. Few would stick their necks out on a subject that it’s obvious that the CEO is determined to win on – life’s too short.

  • malairt

    The Board would be told of a restructuring but I doubt would be consulted. I’m sure the Shareholder Unit would neither know nor care.