In November 2015, the Managing Director of Wolverhampton Council, Mr Keith Ireland, gave his considered verdict on Freedom of Information:
“The vast majority of requests come from media across the country, be that the BBC, local media, or media in general. They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research. Others come from big companies who can’t be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation. It is a really costly exercise. The original principal (sic) of FOI is not what is happening in reality.”
Although the council has previously estimated that it cost them £199,200 to process last year’s FOI requests, Mr Ireland told his council’s scrutiny committee that the cost was more like £500,000.
Mr Ireland is no stranger to the expensive burdens of running a modern local authority or FOI requests designed to make trouble for councils. In July 2011, while he was acting as an interim Big Cheese at Northumberland Council, an FOI request made by a local councillor revealed that his services had cost the council £131,600 in six months, a rate of £1175 per day. It’s possible that the consultancy firm Gatenby Sanderson (currently recruiting the new Information Commissioner) might have trousered some of that money, but Mr Ireland was apparently not pleased by the revelation, sending a “scathing email” to the councillor in question.
Mr Ireland is clearly keen for a debate on the costs of council activities, so I decided to dust off a favourite old FOI request – how much money does Wolverhampton spend on FOI staff, and how much does it spend on PR? FOI and PR are a good match – both are concerned with delivering information to journalists and the wider public, both are delivered by a small core of dedicated staff, but involve a huge variety of council officers on occasion, including senior officers. There are two main differences: FOI is statutory and PR is not, and while many happily participate in PR (here’s Mr Ireland involved in a completely pointless photo-op marking his appointment at Wolverhampton), they resent FOI.
This is what I asked for:
“For the most recent financial year for which figures are available, the total number of staff working on public relations and communications, and the total salaries paid to those staff. I do not want to request a breakdown of the figures per member of staff.
For the most recent financial year for which figures are available, the total number of staff working on freedom of information, and the total salaries paid to those staff. I do not want to request a breakdown of the figures per member of staff.”
You can pick apart the way that I phrased it, but one thing you cannot deny: the two questions are the same. However you interpret the first question, you must interpret the second one in the same way. FOI and PR are not done simply by those who have FOI or PR / communications in their job title. All sorts of people get roped into both activities – the Leader of the Council will even stand outside the Council offices to shake Mr Ireland’s hand. So even if you read that question and think “I have to tell this guy about all the extra work FOI involves, even though it’s not what he’s asked for”, you’d surely have to think the same for the PR question.
There are two possible answers; either Wolverhampton gives me the total salaries of the PR staff and the FOI staff, or they assume that I want to know the total cost of both activities, given that I have asked for both activities in exactly the same way. It would be really weird if they gave me the total salaries for the PR people, but made an assumption based on absolutely nothing in my request that I wanted the total cost of FOI compliance.
But that is what they did.
The PR answer was:
“For the period 2014/2015 there were nine people working on public relations and communications with a combined annual salary of £431,062.”
But the FOI answer was
“The total estimated cost of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in 2014/15 was £490,000. This comprises an element of process management and administration and is based on six people working on FOI requests for a percentage of their time. This figure also comprises an assessment of respondent time across the organisation based upon the number of requests received last year (1245) broken down into categories of complexity; but does not include any costs associated with Councillors or Strategic Directors.” Several paragraphs follow about how they cannot be any more specific about the total costs for all the process management and administration I didn’t ask about. The effect, needless to say, was to ensure that the FOI figure was higher than the PR figure, and perhaps coincidentally, it was remarkably close to the £500,000 figure brandished by Mr Ireland.
Needless to say, I asked for an internal review, pointing out that they hadn’t answered my question, and asking why it was that they had approached my two identical questions in two completely different ways. I didn’t expect them to say “We deliberately massaged the figures so that you wouldn’t be able to say that our Managing Director moans about FOI while spending double on PR”, though that would have been fabulous. Instead, I was told that the Council assumed my “focus” was on the “total cost of overall compliance with the provisions of the Act“. The reviewer said that “the actual answer to your query based upon your most recent email” was £242,280, a little under half the figure for the PR staff. The implication that somehow they only realised what my original request meant when I explained it to them bears no scrutiny at all.
If I had wanted the total cost of overall compliance with FOI, I would have asked for, I don’t know, the total cost of overall compliance with FOI. I asked about staff “working on freedom of information” – even if an estimate of the total costs of all the people who might get involved in FOI was available (an estimate I wouldn’t handle with gloves on), it was plainly not what I had asked for. If there had been any doubt about what I wanted, they could have asked for clarification at the outset, something which the reviewer begrudgingly acknowledged when I emailed them again.
There are various arsehole things I could do at this point – complain to the ICO, do a meta-request to see all of the correspondence that led to this, dig deeper into how the additional £247,720 was calculated, or even ask how much it cost to stage this surreal crossover of weather warnings and football mascots – but I have my answer, so I am done. As is usually the case, PR is given a higher priority in Mr Ireland’s council than FOI, so I don’t care what he says about FOI and neither should you. PR is what the organisation wants to tell you; FOI is what you want to know. FOI is the law. The only other thing that I can say is that he cares so much about the expense associated with FOI, maybe Mr Ireland should ensure that his Council answers reasonable questions first time round, rather than making people ask twice. Imagine the savings.