Tribunal tells council to disclose criteria used for grading positions of employees

Bradford Metropolitan District Council has been told that it must disclose the criteria it uses to grade employees’ positions.

The Information Rights Tribunal ruled that the grounds cited by the council for keeping the scheme confidential were unconvincing since there was little prospect of detriment arising.

Janette Sagar, an assistant manager in service support, had submitted a freedom of information request asking for full details of the decision and the scheme used to grade her post, where differences lay between her post and those other assistant managers in the R&B structure, the rules of the appeal process used, and the account taken in the grading process of the matrix management of staff.

In July 2013 Bradford provided partial answers but refused to disclose the criteria it used to grade employees’ posts. This decision was upheld at an internal review. However, the Information Commissioner directed that disclosure should be made.

The council had originally argued against disclosure under s. 43(2) FOIA (prejudice to commercial interests) but at the tribunal changed this to claim an exemption under s. 36(2)(c) FOIA (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs).

Bradford argued that disclosure would lead to “a risk that a proportion of applicants will exaggerate the responsibilities of the post which could then result in an undeserved higher grading” and that were the methods published there would be an incentive for a significant proportion of the 3,000 or so staff to whom its ‘Professional Scheme’ applied to make fresh grading applications.

The resulting applications would “themselves place a significant burden on the authority’s resources and would be likely to thereby prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs,” it argued.

The council suggested that the balance of the public interest favoured non-disclosure.

But the Information Commissioner said that even where applicants do not know the criteria upon which their posts will be graded, it was still open to them to speculate on this and non-disclosure could not, therefore, sensibly be said to prevent exaggeration by applicants.

The idea that disclosure would lead to an increase in exaggeration was merely a hypothesis unsupported by evidence, it said.

If employees did exaggerate, this would not necessarily create a cost burden for the council since a single evaluation might apply to a number of individual post-holders.

It was therefore unlikely to be the case that each individual application would need to be dealt with separately, the Commissoner said, adding that transparency – as guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission made clear – was “the cornerstone of a non-discriminatory pay structure”.

The tribunal said it agreed with the Commissioner and the requester in their analysis of the public interest test, concluding that there was a significant public interest in favour of disclosure of the disputed information.

“Further we are not persuaded that there will be any significant damage to the public interest by disclosure,” it added. “In particular we are not persuaded that such risk of exaggeration by applicants as does occur is either increased or altered in any way that cannot be dealt with in the normal scope of the Human Resources work. [The council’s single status project manager] conceded that exaggeration is commonplace in any event.

“We find little tangible evidence of the nature or extent of the perceived increase in applications or in difficulties that would arise in dealing with any increase in the number of applications as a result of disclosure. Again we find little evidence about the increase in the financial burden that the council might suffer over and above that which will be incurred in the transfer that is already planned.”

Mark Smulian

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