If you don’t use it responsibly, you’ll lose it

Wow, the end of February already! I’m reminded that I started this year by posting my guide to making responsible FOI requests. Judging by some requests that we FOI Officers receive, a reminder is timely.

Here’s a perfect example of the sort of thing that drives us round the twist (and drags the reputation of FOI through the mud). The requester asked universities:

“I am really interested in the heights in feet and inches of the interviewees and the accepted undergraduate population.”

And there’s the requester who uses What Do They Know to bombard hospital trusts with questions such as:

“1) How long does a medical degree take to complete?

2)  How many specialities are there?

3)  Which specialities require surgical ability rather than just diagnostic ability?

4) a) How long does a doctor have to see a patient in any capacity?

b) How many gigabytes of information are on the website provided for doctors by the BMA?

c) How much did the BMA website cost to collate?

d) Is the BMA website open to the general public’s use?

e) If not why not?”

Of course, the person concerned may be honestly curious about these issues. And giving them the benefit of the doubt, they may think that a hospital is the best place to go to ask these questions (rather than say, checking the BMA website). But why they have to send the same questions to 18 NHS Trusts (which is an improvement on the last set that went to approximately 200) I’m not sure I understand.

It’s tempting I’m sure to think that these are just the whinges of public servants who should just get on with it. And to a point you’re right. But I have a sneaking suspicion that sooner or later this Government is going to find that FOI is as inconvenient for them as it was for some in the last government.

Remember the ‘toilet roll’ requests that were rolled out by the Labour Government when it wanted to adjust the fees regulations? I think we’ll someday soon hear a Coalition minister reeling off the most ridiculous requests they can find as justification for tightening up on FOI (there were some hints of this in Martin Rosenbaum’s interview with Lord McNally recently). And this time they’ve got the added argument of the need to make significant cuts to public services. This government likes openness (just like the last one to be fair) just as long as it has the choice over what it is being open about.

So, a reminder – if you or anyone you know is tempted to make an FOI request, ask them to take a look at my ten top tips. Don’t make it easy for politicians to portray FOI as an expensive luxury.

No comments

  1. Rodney Breen says:

    Two points: first of all, there’s always a trade-off between openness and silliness. The greater the ease of making requests, the greater the chance of discovering genuinely useful information, but also the greater the chance of being asked to waste time on pointless enquiries. Any effective transparency regime is always going to generate some silly enquiries, and as long as the signal to noise ratio is high, that’s tolerable. It just means that opponents of openness can cherrypick the bad ones to create a negative impression: it’s vital, therefore, to emphasise the positive outcomes to counterbalance this.

    Secondly, it’s easy to imagine that the line between genuinely useful enquiries and plain silly ones is a clear one, but it’s not. Take the question about the height of University interviewees – there is plenty of evidence that taller people do better in their careers and earn more money, which suggests some sort of unconscious bias is in play. Do Universities unwittingly follow this bias? The request could potentially provide data which would show if this is true. In fact, it won’t: most courses are not interviewed for, and Universities have better things to do than record the heights of potential students. (Though even here, a long-running programme at Ivy League Universities in the US until the 1960s involved making biometric measurements of students) My entirely personal impression of UK FOI legislation is that the level of genuinely pointless questions is quite low, and by their nature they tend to be the ones that get a very quick and simple response. I would say that enquiries that are both pointless and require a lot of effort to answer are quite rare. Would others agree?