FOIMan examines an outburst of enthusiasm for transparency (of a sort) from Staffordshire County Council.
It must be silly season again. Local authorities are shouting about the cost of FOI. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they did it in an even-handed way that recognised the facts.
Yes, of course FOI costs money. Providing any public service costs money. What other costs are they keen to highlight? Yep, thought so.
This time it’s Staffordshire County Council. And they’ve decided to highlight spending on FOI, broken down by requester. Of course, they’ve provided no detail as to how these costs are calculated. (Incidentally, Conrad Quilty-Harper of the data journalism site ampp3d puts the figures that are provided in context by claiming that only 0.00003% of the council’s budget goes on FOI, whilst the Chief Executive earns the princely sum of £194,550 a year.)
Top of their league table of resource-grabbing rabble-rousers is WhatDoTheyKnow. Except that WhatDoTheyKnow (WDTK) hasn’t made a single FOI request to Staffordshire. They provide a portal through which individual requesters can make requests. In my experience this is one of the primary ways that ordinary citizens use FOI – ie the local taxpayers that Staffordshire are so concerned about. As one WDTK volunteer put it, it’s like saying that Google have made all the requests submitted using GMail. If you, as I think is a more realistic way of grouping these requests, combine the cost Staffordshire attribute to WDTK with the cost attributed to the public, these look to exceed the cost of dealing with requests from any other group (especially if you break up the bizarre grouping of “Press and Commercial” – which reflect completely different uses of FOI). Mind you, Staffordshire also appears to think that the House of Commons is a political group, so this is not exactly a scientific analysis.
Often the FOI process is used by some commercial organisations to save time and research costs…The same applies to a growing number of FOI requests from the media. This can save companies and the press money by, for example, reducing research costs but only at a significant cost to the Authority which is unfair to Staffordshire tax payers.
Let’s consider “commercial organisations” for a moment. Now, when I was an FOI Officer myself, I admit to occasionally having got frustrated with the number of businesses putting in requests for details of IT contracts. At least one over-enthusiastic such entrepreneur has been blocked from using WDTK as they recognised the resource implication of his methods. But most of the time, the requests were relatively simple to answer, and the Act doesn’t suggest that such a use is “wrongful” – the point of the legislation is that anyone can ask questions for whatever reason.
One of the reasons for that – as was set out when the Act became law – is that it is aimed at improving the accountability of public authorities. Staffordshire is right – it is important to protect the taxes paid by taxpayers and ensure that they are spent responsibly. That’s exactly what FOI is for. And what’s more, those taxpayers INCLUDE the owners and employees of businesses.
Furthermore, central government at least has taken the view that it is a good thing for businesses to use the information already created by public bodies. It boosts the economy. That’s why they amended FOI to ensure that public bodies would make information available in a re-usable form.
Now I come to the most bizarre part of the argument (from my point of view at least). The council statement that:
We think this is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly.
If the information is “freely available publicly”, what the heck are they doing spending their time answering the requests for? FOI doesn’t require them to spend time doing research beyond identifying information they hold and providing it (unless an exemption applies). And there is an exemption in the Act that specifically rules out public officials having to answer requests for information that is publicly available. If it is, they just have to refuse the request and advise the requester as to where the information can be found. Usually, this will be a matter of emailing them a link to the relevant part of the website. This doesn’t seem particularly onerous to me.
The truth is, I actually have some sympathy with local authorities and others dealing with an ever growing volume of FOI requests at the same time as budgets get progressively smaller. I think FOI is a valuable right that does much good, and I don’t want to see it restricted. Apart from advising authorities to make better use of the tools in the Act – refusing costly requests, using the vexatious provisions more, and publishing more information (then refusing to deal with requests for that publicly available information) – I don’t really know what the answer is long-term. But I’m certainly not going to be convinced that FOI needs to be neutered by a council lumping together various costs in a seemingly arbitrary way and labelling perfectly normal use of the legislation as “wrongful”.