How not to get information

by | Sep 14, 2011 | FOI, ICO, VEXATIOUS

I reviewed some Information Commissioner FOI decisions recently for a presentation, and as always, I was drawn to the vexatious ones, both actual and alleged. There’s an intriguing one where a resident had a vehicular disagreement with a council lawnmower and made FOIs as the insurance case went on. I’ve had my fair share of insults, and being told by an applicant that they weren’t born yesterday and facing accusations of chicanery over some lawnmower insurance documents doesn’t come close. Until they threaten to have you imprisoned, it doesn’t impress me. The applicant and her fiancé (also an FOI regular) aired their grievances in the local press – connoisseurs of punning headlines can only hope that the sub-editor came up with something grassy.
Not every FOI applicant is a joy to deal with, but the Lawnmower Two certainly weren’t vexatious. They may have been angry and were definitely persistent, but that’s not the same thing. A remarkable recent case of vexatiousness demonstrates what unacceptable language really looks like. An applicant asked the London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames about arrangements for a police consultative body (the decision notice is here: Correspondence ensued.
Staff were told to ‘pull their finger out’. We can all live with that. They were accused of being ‘devious’; I’ve had that one too. But then the applicant drew attention to a staff member’s ‘colourful name’, suggested English wasn’t their first language, and asked if they were a refugee. OK, I’m out: this is vexatious. But there’s more. The chief executive was alleged to be involved in corruption, an officer was described as a ‘tart’, and another was labelled a ‘pig-ignorant turd’. There is a letter headed ‘Prostitution’ which reads like what I invent to liven up training exercises, except it’s real. Robust correspondence slides quickly and inexorably into what I would say is straight abuse. Even if an applicant doesn’t like or respect an organisation or its decision-making, there’s a line you don’t cross. Our friend here diligently shows us where it is. The Decision Notice suggests that Richmond were open and helpful, making all of the above even harder to fathom.
Some people start from the position that all public servants are inherently corrupt and / or incompetent. But the rudeness here is unforgiveable, and is matched only by the Herculean self-sabotage. After all, if one actually wanted an answer, this is the mirror image of how to achieve it. The people who deal with FOIs are human beings, not shop dummies to be kicked around. They’re going to say no if you call them turds and worse, and every step in the chain is going to vindicate them.
I suppose that the ‘fun’ for the dedicated vexationeer (new word – what do you think?) is the frustration they cause – it’s vandalism via correspondence. I once dealt with an FOI applicant whose aim was to cause offence and then complain when he was turned down, so my regular tactic was to answer their questions as fully as possible. It drove him nuts. But for the applicant who wants an answer, like this one seemed to, I don’t get it. The DN makes the valuable point that not only is the language unacceptable, but a constant insistence that things are corrupt when all the evidence provided shows no such thing is obsessive.
An FOI officer, like any public servant, needs to be resilient and have a sense of humour. In my experience, the majority fit the bill. But a council officer should not have to swallow stuff like this. The worst thing is, the Richmond applicant may have thought he was being funny. He started his emails with “Greetings”, a hallmark of A Man Who Thinks He’s Hilarious, and often wrote with a cheery nudge-nudge tone. But this wasn’t tactless buffoonery, it was vexatious, causing understandable offence and getting nowhere with the Council or the ICO.
Commiserations to the fine folk at the Council for this request, but it sounds like they did sterling work despite such provocations. I hope they don’t mind if the next few rounds of FOI training I do includes this as an example.
And now, to find the news coverage of the lawnmower.