The Value of Nothing

by | Nov 12, 2013 | FOI

A few days ago, a tweet from Philip Nye alerted me to the fact that Bury Council have joined the short line of organisations who include the cost of processing an FOI request when responding. FOI Man wrote about a police force doing this last year. Given that Bury still answer the requests, it is not a crime. If they want to tut every time they send an FOI response, you might say that it’s nobody’s business but theirs.

The stated aim is ‘transparency purposes’. I hope my (probably now former) friends in Bury will forgive me for saying that I don’t believe this. I think the hoped-for effect is that the tedious, time-wasting FOI applicant will recoil from the figure, and beat a chastened retreat. They certainly won’t be asking any more stupid questions now that they know it cost the Council £25 to answer it. Free from the burden of FOI, Bury will be saved from the grinding nightmare of austerity. Rejoice!

I’ll make a prediction for what will happen in the short period before Bury come to their collective senses and drop this daft wheeze. Firstly, the number of FOI requests they receive will go up, even if only marginally. The average person who just wants the answer to a question will go about their FOIing unruffled. Journalists will keep asking about foreign trips and confiscated weapons. The Taxpayers Alliance will keep using FOI to represent people who pay certain sorts of tax that the TPA believe counts more than other sorts of tax. However, if Bury has any axe-grinding nutters making FOI requests in their Borough (that’s a small if), it will not take long for some of them to start questioning the maths. When you say it cost £100, how was this calculation done? Who did it? Who authorised it? And of course, how much extra is it costing you to make this calculation? Given that we’ve got local journalists making moronic zombie requests now, how long will it take them to sniff a new way to fill a column next to an advert for a shed sale?

Indeed, for a certain kind of specialist applicant, seeing how much money is being spent will be a red rag to an angry bull. Although deeply flawed in most other ways, when I see one of those road signs that display your speed, I see it as a sensible reminder to drive carefully. If speeding, I slow down. I once worked with two mobile library drivers who had a running challenge between each other to see who could clock the highest speed on the display (driving a mobile library, mind), and they told me that the aim of local boy racers was to get the sign to show the elusive ‘00’, a sign that that they had hit 100mph. A truly vexatious applicant will surely be desperately seeking the highest possible amount – for local government, the fabled £445 will be a badge of honour for the vexatious.

£25 to set out the number of racist incidents recorded in the Borough’s schools sounds like a  reasonable amount. But how long before Bury are obliged to put a huge figure to find information that many people would expect to be at their fingertips? Though many applicants underestimate how long some of their requests might take to process, unless Bury’s records management is flawless, they will end up quoting hundreds on something that will embarrass them.

The fine folk at Cornwall Council lost an EIR case over the summer at the First Tier Tribunal. They argued successfully that spending around 28 hours to assemble information about planning agreements was manifestly unreasonable, but lost on the public interest test. They should be forced to spend the time doing so because the Tribunal said: “collating and publicising such information should in fact be a core function of the public authority rather than being seen as a distraction”.

And that’s why I am here. FOI is not a tedious pettifogging distraction. It is the law. I unrepentantly advocate a robust approach to FOI – if the request is woolly, get clarification before doing anything else. If the request is vexatious or repetitious, refuse it and don’t be apologetic. If disclosure will genuinely cause harm, say no properly and move on. But nobody can deny that FOI is a public service. It is not – probably should not be – comfortable for the public sector. To recycle one of my old smartarsed remarks, when David Cameron said that it furred up the arteries of government, he was talking nonsense. FOI is not a creamy-rich indulgent pudding. FOI is spinach. FOI is prunes. It doesn’t matter if you do not like it, it is good for you. Including the cost in an FOI response for ‘transparency’ purposes is petulant and slightly diminishes an otherwise respectable organisation.

And if we need to be proactively transparent about how much stuff costs, I have a few suggestions. I know of no organisation in the United Kingdom subject to FOI that employs more people in the FOI team than the press office. So if any organisation wants to put a price tag on FOI requests that they are obliged to answer by law, why do they not do the same for the press releases that come out voluntarily? I bet many of them take a lot more than the average FOI to construct, especially with costs of arranging the photo opportunities with crowds and props and approval. Press releases often also include an editing process and approval process that takes in very senior people. Kerching!

And why stop there? Why not price up the leader’s blog, the tweets (I’m following the Manchester Santa on Twitter, how much do his emissions cost?), the Facebook messages, the Team of the Year Awards, the Christmas Card competitions, the logo redesigns, indeed any and all of the stuff that they don’t have to do, the public don’t ask them to do, but they choose to do because it suits them? If transparency is important, limiting it to FOI looks like carelessness.