A fairy story

by | Sep 12, 2014 | FOI | 2 comments

A stupid FOI request made to Wigan Council about their preparations for dragon attacks has hit the headlines at least twice. In  June, the first time it made waves in the local press and on the BBC, I blogged about how such daft requests brought FOI into disrepute; rather than make a fuss, a council should simply ignore them. More recently, the LGA issued a press release detailing ten requests that exemplified what they felt was the burden of FOI requests, and once again, there was Wigan’s silly dragon, proudly displayed as an example of everything that was wrong with trivial time-wasting FOI. Of course, a publicly funded lobby group like the LGA should be subject to FOI rather than undermining it, but they caught the imagination. For days afterwards, people around the world tweeted their amusement at the story in general and Wigan’s dragons in particular. The council joined in, drawing attention to the BBC’s coverage of the story and making slightly tendentious points via Twitter:

There is a serious point to all this. The number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to us has more than doubled in four years.”

There was some push-back. My esteemed colleague Jon Baines took the LGA release apart, pointing out that several of the requests were entirely legitimate, and that the LGA’s derision was misplaced. Moreover, one applicant on What Do They Know responded to the FOI fuss with metronomic predictability – he made an FOI request to each of the LGA ten, quizzing them on how they dealt with both the original request and the LGA.  Among other things, the applicant asked “Did officers working for the council search for any information, given the extremely unlikely nature of the proposition in the FOI request?”. Wigan responded last week, and Their Answer May Surprise You:

No search for information was made. The request received the standard acknowledgement but no further response.

On two separate occasions, Wigan has used this FOI request to illustrate the burden that FOI represents for cash-strapped councils and to make itself the poster child for FOI abuse. But there was no burden. Terence Halliwell, a senior councillor and member of the Cabinet put his name to sombre soundbites to the press about the cost of FOI, but this emblematic request cost them nothing. The only cost to the Council incurred by this FOI is the time and resources they have expended in chasing headlines. If Wigan took the money they spent on spin and put it into servicing their statutory obligation to answer FOI requests, they would probably have less to complain about (as would some of their disappointed applicants).

Nobody can deny that the annually rising number of FOI requests is a challenge from which there is little respite. The routine cry of commentators (PUBLISH MORE) is futile, as FOI applicants frequently ask for individual correspondence, collated facts that the organisation does not hold individually and genuinely sensitive information that few organisations would publish willingly. The only answer for those citizens is FOI – the right to ask bespoke questions, and get an answer. In an era of cuts and austerity, these questions will increase, but the ‘burden’ of FOI should be seen as a basic running cost, like the electricity bill. You can’t run a publicly funded organisation without bearing those costs.

FOI Officers often do a thankless job, toiling in the shadow of PR staff who usually outnumber them, and resented by colleagues who want to get on with their “proper job”. Wigan’s handling of the Dragon request exemplified this trend – the Council didn’t make any attempt to answer the request, but enthusiastically exploited it for anti-FOI publicity. I don’t actually criticise them for the first part, but the second part shows a gobsmacking level of cynicism. Is it too much to suspect that the requests that might drain the council’s resources are actually serious enquiries to which no sensible person could object? Dragon requests are an open goal, but they’re also not the expensive problem that some councils would like us all to think.

I’ve written it here before, and wearily (especially given my previous, wholly positive history with Wigan Council), I write it again. FOI is the law. It’s a front-line public service, and council managers should see it as such. Wigan’s Council Leader recently claimed that it was an ‘open, honest and transparent organisation‘, but his evidence for this claim was the Council’s participation in a TV show. Given some of their recent ICO decision notices and unanswered legitimate FOIs on What Do They Know, as well as this depressing episode, some scepticism about whether Wigan is truly committed to transparency is understandable. And if they ever moan about the burden of FOI requests about Dragons again, the fine folk of Wigan should breathe fire on them.