FOI Man brings you a guest post explaining what it’s like being an FOI Officer with limited resources.
Today’s post is a guest post from an(other) anonymous FOI Officer. I think it gives a powerful insight into the challenges facing many FOI Officers – which after all is what this blog is all about. Please do leave comments – I’m sure the author will want to hear them, and I do too. Meanwhile if you want to submit a guest post, drop me a line at foimanuk (at) gmail dot com. The next few weeks will be very busy for me (not just at work), so a few guest posts will keep the lights burning here in FOI Man HQ.
For almost six months now, the resources available to manage FOI requests at my public authority have been reduced by half.
This was as a result of cost saving exercises in my public authority, targeted at the Corporate/administrative staff many journalists love to hate for their lazy, useless, red-tape loving ‘non-jobs’. Cuts which are referred to internally as something like ‘Becoming More Brilliant’.
At the same time, the volume of FOI requests has increased yet again, and crucially, my non-FOI workload also dramatically increased.
So what’s it like?
Absolute hell. Demoralising, stressful, and depressing.
As an FOI Officer I believe in FOI. I want to do a professional job. I take pride in meeting the deadlines. I genuinely want to do a brilliant job, not just for my own professional career and reputation but for the requesters. Yes, I moan and grumble about some of the annoying requests, but my approach to them in practice is absolutely professional.
Ever since my team took on FOI we’ve been consistently meeting around 95% of FOIs within their deadlines: not perfect, but pretty good compared to many others in my sector. We were proud of that.
When the cuts were proposed I warned that the impact on my workload would mean that we’d see that drop to about 60% or worse. I put forward every argument I could muster to keep the resources I had.
We’d have more complaints, more ICO interest, potentially a damning Decision Notice (we’ve only ever had one since 2005 and that was for a request that was not passed to the FOI team).
It didn’t work.
And guess what? I was proved right.
Every month the number of requests we’ve been able to meet within the deadlines has dropped. A snowball effect, as the backlog gets bigger, it just gets worse and worse. If I’m off sick – which is more than likely, given the stress I’ve been under – or on holiday, the FOIs gets worse again.
At first I tried to do everything and keep up with them all, but I could not physically manage it without putting myself in an early grave.
I am forced to choose daily between working on the ever increasing backlog of FOIs, or working on the rest of my job, which has a direct day to day impact on ensuring that the service we provide to the public can continue.
What would you choose?
Some weeks all I can manage to do is to log the new FOIs and give them a reference number. I’ve decided that at least with this strategy, we will at least know the extent of the problem and our failings. And it gives the requester a reference number with which to complain about.
And who does everyone think is at fault? Me, of course, the FOI Officer.
I log on and see more angry complaints coming in every day, accusing me of ignoring them or being negligent.
Of course, they’re quite right to complain.
But all I can do is apologise. I can’t explain the background to it, tell them I agree, understand, and explain everything I’ve done to try to ensure FOI is adequately resourced. It wouldn’t be professional. And anyway, why should they care?
But one thing does make me angry. Have I ever heard of a request from a journalist asking about the resources public authorities give to FOI and whether it is adequate? And have I ever read an article from a journalist arguing that public authorities should properly resource FOI?
I think you know the answer to that.
I know this post is moany and self-pitying. But I can’t say it to the requesters still waiting for their answers, so I’ll say it to you.
I’m sorry. I really, genuinely am.
But if you want FOI to be dealt with properly, you need well resourced FOI Officers. It is as simple as that.
Believe it or not, I’m on your side. Are you on mine?