Just before Easter, the leader of Essex County Council David Finch gave his thoughts on FOI. He was careful to temper his comments with the usual ‘some of my best friends are FOI applicants’ line (“I would never deny it was a valuable tool”). But the thrust of his remarks was that FOI was a drain on resources. The £238,000 estimated cost of dealing with FOI could be spent on “frontline services for children, the elderly or on highway maintenance”. I’ve said many times that I’ve never worked for an organisation that had as many people working on FOI as it did on PR, and I doubt Essex is any different. I don’t think anyone should comment on the cost of FOI without mentioning how much their organisation spend on public relations, communications, or town-twinning.
The only likely outcome of such complaints is more FOI requests. For starters, I bet someone asks how Essex worked out the £238,000 figure. Meanwhile, there isn’t a single FOI applicant who will read the story and think ‘I was going to make an FOI request, but now that I understand the burden it causes, I will take up Ikebana instead’. FOI applicants come in all shapes and sizes – politicians, campaigners, journalists, ex-employees with axes to grind, and yes, honest-to-God concerned citizens too. Nobody thinks their own request is a waste of time, so all the requests that would ever have been made will all still be made. As the Cabinet Office’s transparency agenda proves, publication is most often about what an organisation wants the public to know, not what the public want to know.
The sensible writer of a blog on this topic would now build to a stirring crescendo on how important FOI is holding the powerful to account, and list all of the marvellous things it has done. I believe that this is an accurate picture. In the round, £238,000 (if that is the figure) spent on FOI by one of the largest Councils in the United Kingdom is money well spent. I also think that Mr Finch would be wiser not to put his head above the parapet, given all the What Do They Know hobbyists might notice him. A council I know experienced a significant upsurge in FOI requests after their leader made similar comments in the past. However, much as it is an unpopular opinion, I don’t think we should sanctify FOI applicants by pretending that Mr Finch doesn’t have a point. Examples of how FOI can be a time-wasting and annoying waste of money abound – I’ve picked three I’ve noticed in the last seven days.
Doing the rounds on Twitter as someone’s favourite current FOI is this gem from What Do They Know?, requesting the number of times tripe has appeared on BBC cookery programmes. It will probably not take the BBC’s FOI team very long to explain to Ms French that the derogation in FOI means that any data held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature is exempt from disclosure. Given that they told me last year that information connected with ‘The Call Centre’ was similarly exempt, the use of stomach lining on ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ will doubtless remain unscrutinised. But even if this moronic request was answered, it would tell us nothing other than that tastes have changed. It adds nothing.
Also this week, the Manchester Evening News published the shocking revelation that Manchester City Council have spent £190,000 on iPads for staff, figures obtained using FOI. Any story that contains the phrase “Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said:” is obviously nonsense, but even for a mechanical ‘organisation spends money on a thing’ story, it’s almost aggressively lacking in insight. There is no indication that the MEN asked why the iPads were deemed necessary, or whether they were more or less secure or efficient than cheaper options.
Manchester may be frittering our money away on luxury gadgets, or it might have taken a rational decision based on the security and utility of iPads compared to other devices – a dumb FOI request, requesting no context or background, doesn’t tell us which. The story quotes the appropriate elected Member (who says, of course, that the deployment of iPads is an unalloyed triumph), but for all I know, he’s making it up while playing Angry Birds. The point is, neither does the MEN. Their FOI request obtained the least illuminating piece of the jigsaw: the thing was bought. So what? Indeed, the only interesting element is the claim that the Council has ‘gifted’ the iPads to staff. That would be a great story if it was true, but it’s just a misleading alternative to the more accurate word ‘issued’.
I have no doubt the MEN will be focussed on something else very soon (they may even find some space to consider the resignation of David Moyes from Manchester United, a subject the paper has oddly neglected). Another recent What Do They Know request is plainly the opposite – a deeply personal request, obviously the work of a motivated and passionate person. It is, nevertheless, a complete waste of time. The applicant is Andi Ali, a former HMRC employee, who makes very serious allegations about the reasons why he was sacked, which you are welcome to find for yourself.
The request is as follows:
“The Information Commissioner’s Office have 100 per cent record in finding in favor of the Civil Service Commission who fund your department via the Ministry of Justice. Under the freedom of information act, can you tell me what other departments or organisations you have a 100 per cent record of finding in favor off, or is just the department who pay your wages you never find against.”
Even if the ICO has never found against the Civil Service Commission (an independent public body that is not part of the Ministry of Justice), that proves nothing without analysing each case in detail. But Ali wants to know whether there is any other organisation where this is the case. There is no time limit on the request, and no specific sector. He wants the ICO to look at the outcome of every case or complaint connected with every organisation it has ever dealt with and then identify the outcome of every single case to see whether any organisation has the aforementioned 100% record.
It’s possible that the ICO has the ability to structure every complaint it has ever received in this way within the 18 hour finding / extracting and collating limit, though I think it unlikely. But even if they could, even if there are organisations that the ICO has never found to have breached the DPA, FOI, EIR or PECR, that is even more meaningless than the CSC total. Many organisations will have had a single complaint with the ICO which was not upheld. There may be no adverse decisions because the organisation is compliant. There may be no adverse decisions because the ICO made a mistake. The implication is that the ICO is biased, but by itself, without context that the ICO is some cases legally prevented from disclosing, the information is meaningless. I wonder if Mr Ali – who has already lost a vexatious case at the Tribunal – is really concerned about that. His 84 other WDTK requests make me wonder whether he’s using FOI as a stick to beat organisations with, and the fact that the answer will likely be ‘No’ is irrelevant to his campaign. I guarantee he will ask for an internal review if he doesn’t get his answer, and will establish nothing new if he does.
Councils sometimes waste money. Whistleblowers are often badly treated. Tripe is perhaps unfairly neglected in favour of other more telegenic offal. The problem is, as a result of these three FOI requests, we don’t know anything more about these three issues. Nothing has been achieved. We still don’t know whether Manchester should have bought the iPads. Mr Ali will prove nothing about his treatment, or of the treatment of whistleblowers. We won’t find out anything meaningful about the ingredient choices of BBC light entertainment.
The National Trust currently has an exhibition at its Dunham Massey estate commemorating the outbreak of World War 1 and the country house’s role as a hospital during the conflict. Part of it is the display of propaganda posters from the period, and one lists a series of extravagant activities that will not help the war effort – the use of petrol for leisure purposes, employing people as servants who could be more usefully employed on defending our shores and so on. Before anyone makes an FOI request under a Government that sees FOI as something that furs up the arteries, they should think: is this FOI request necessary? This Government needs excuses to curtail FOI. They need reasons to tighten the finding time limit, to introduce a fee for making requests.
If Mr Finch knew that every FOI request received by Essex Council was a serious, on-the-nose enquiry, I doubt he would feel entitled to complain. I think the cost of FOI should be swallowed without complaint by every public authority. It’s part of a healthy democracy. But equally, I think that vexatious, time-wasting, axe-grinding or space-filling requests should be resisted by public authorities wherever it’s legitimate to do so, and ideally, should not be made in the first place. I don’t believe that FOI should be changed or curtailed. But I think some FOI applicants should grow up.