How would the residents featured in the BBC’s The Street that Cut Everything have fared with FOI?
Wow, it was tough yesterday, returning to work after a few weeks’ holiday. So last night I remained sedentary watching telly. And up came the BBC’s political reality television programme, The Street that Cut Everything.
For those who aren’t in the UK, or missed it, the programme makers persuaded a street in Preston (northern England) to try an interesting social experiment. They were to do without local council services for 6 weeks. A fascinating idea given the massive cuts that all local authorities are having to make in the current climate.
Of course, it started off with most residents believing that the council cost too much, and it wouldn’t be too much of a hardship to do without it. They received rebates of their council tax which they decided to pool to pay for any services they required privately.
So up turned the bin men to take away the (empty) bins. The street lights were turned off. They couldn’t go to the local leisure centre or park. They started to receive fines for not disposing of dumped fridges and recycling appropriately. And it didn’t take long before the previously friendly neighbours were at each other’s throats over whether they should be paying for one family’s benefits or free meals-on-wheels for an elderly resident.
In short, it became patently clear to them that they couldn’t cope without the council, and that it was, in actual fact, excellent value.
Partially in jest, I asked on Twitter whether they would have to answer any FOI requests. I say partially because there’s a serious point here. The residents had to find ways to provide all the services and benefits that the council provided with limited funds. In other words, they were basically a council in microcosm. And they found it impossible to provide their own services effectively on even a very basic level. Imagine if Mrs Smith from No.9 had had to answer tens of questions a week about what they were doing on top of actually doing it.
I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here of course. Councils are in a better position to provide services than a group of unqualified, inexperienced and uninformed members of the public, and their budget was very limited and left little scope for redistribution. And I’m not (as I hope you’d realise by now) arguing that FOI should be further restricted.
But even if you believe in openness, accountability and transparency as most of us do, it must be remembered that answering FOI requests is a service. It has to be managed to ensure that resources aren’t overwhelmed and are used fairly. That’s worth bearing in mind if you think that a public authority is taking too long to answer your request, or if it has refused your request on cost grounds. It might not be being secretive or dragging its heels. It might just be very, very busy providing a range of services, many of which you probably take for granted or are simply unaware of. And it answers FOI requests on top of that, in the vast majority of cases in the time that it is supposed to.