I assume that somewhere, there is a rota. Once in a while, an organisation emerges to complain about the moronic FOI requests they receive, and the high cost of dealing with them. Inevitably, a small number of idiots will have obliged by making some eye-catchingly stupid requests, and so the public authority will be able to imply that the £100,000s required to deal with FOI is being squandered on requests about the supernatural and the ridiculous.
This week, it has been the turn of Wigan Council*, who report receiving requests about dragons and exorcisms, before seamlessly moving to a statement that FOIs “can take a long time to process and can be very labour intensive“. Here are two true statements: councils (and other organisations) receive some moronic requests, and some FOI requests swallow up large amount of resources to deal with. They are not the same requests. Any organisation that spends more than two minutes per moronic request is doing them wrong. You don’t have to be a paranoid, self-styled ‘FOI campaigner’ to wonder whether some senior people are more concerned about unwelcome scrutiny elsewhere in FOI, but the daft requests are a perfect cover to take a swipe at the legislation. We already know that the coalition is minded to do something about FOI ‘abuse’, so what better excuse than a torrent of expensive requests about zombies and clowns, even if it’s an illusion?
So once again, I present some suggestions for dealing with silly FOI requests.
1) IGNORE THE REQUEST
What’s the worst that could happen? Dare the applicant to go to the Information Commissioner to demand an answer to their idiotic request. The ICO has a power to reject frivolous complaints – it’s time they used it. I’ve made this suggestion before and it was universally derided, but if you were to follow my advice and ignore only genuinely moronic requests, there would be no harm in it. NB, despite much evidence to the contrary, it would not be appropriate to ignore completely a request about lightning protection, as lightning does actually exist. See option 3 for more on requests about lightning protection.
2) ANSWER THE REQUEST TRUTHFULLY
Send a response that says ‘We do not hold any information’. Do no searches. Ask no one. Ghosts, dragons, demonic possession, zombies and UFOs are all imaginary, so you will not have any plans or programmes to deal with them. If your organisation cannot confidently say without checking that it has not carried out any exorcisms (and there is at least one council in that position), the FOI request is clearly necessary and in the public interest. If the applicant is asking you to look for incidents associated with clowns, hipsters, or ghosts, do the simplest, most basic search of whatever database or system you have, unless you have the common sense to go for option 3 which is….
3) REFUSE THE REQUEST UNDER SECTION 14
Tell the applicant that their request is vexatious. It is. You do not need to do any searches, and no public interest test is required. Unless / until Alan Dransfield wins his case at the Court of Appeal (contrary to some excited exaggeration on Twitter, he has merely won the chance to appeal, not won an appeal itself), the definition of ‘vexatious’ is sufficiently wide to encompass any stupid request they can think of. This may not even be an entirely good thing, but it’s true. FOI is for serious enquiries about matters of public interest, not time-wasters.
4) BE RELENTLESSLY BORING
Add no stylistic flourish to your response. Exhibit no style, no sense of humour, no panache. Give the idiot nothing to reward their efforts, nothing to elicit even a tiny giggle. Make it feel like a tedious waste of everyone’s time, and make the applicant wonder why they bothered.
5) DO NOT PUBLICISE STUPID REQUESTS
I am guilty of this, merely by mentioning the Wigan story. But I guarantee that one concrete result of Wigan’s complaint will be more requests about dragons and exorcisms. The more the stories get reported, the more idiots will be inspired. As a side issue, all of the journalists who breathlessly cover these stories should ask themselves why they want to feed the perception that FOI is a tool for morons, thus encouraging the government to constrain legislation that many journalists actually use for intelligent, public-interest stories.
6) IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT THE COST OF FOI, COUNT YOUR PR STAFF
Any organisation that is concerned about the cost of FOI should count how many people they have working on FOI, and how many people they have working on public relations. If there are more PR staff than FOI staff, the complaint is invalid. Stop talking. FOI is a legal obligation; PR is not. End of story.
* Yes, I did, for six years. Best 9-5 job I ever had.