FOI Man suggests that for FOI to thrive, we need to start listening to its critics from within the public sector. And recognising that zombie requesters won’t help.
Last week’s Friday fun was an FOI request to Leicester City Council regarding their emergency planning. Specifically, their planning for the eventuality of an invasion of zombies. And we now know (though the formal response is yet to be sent out) that the council is not prepared for a sudden incursion of the braindead (insert witty comment here).
Reaction on Twitter was mixed. Most found it amusing (and I amongst them in truth). But some, and not just public officials, saw it as a misguided use of FOI. A subversion of an important right.
The journalist David Higgerson feared that the story had been planted by a public authority press officer to show how FOI was being abused. But he was encouraged by the response of the local authority’s Head of Information Governance, Lynn Wyeth, who had this to say of the request (according to BBC News):
“To you it might seem frivolous and a waste of time… but to different people it actually means something,” said Ms Wyeth.
“Everybody has their own interests and their own reasons for asking these questions.”
A sentiment worthy of applause. It’s absolutely at the heart of FOI that it doesn’t matter who is asking or what they are asking for, their request should be answered. It is a right. And FOI Officers should take Ms Wyeth’s approach at all times. If somebody asks the question, just answer it.
And yet…and yet. Whilst I share that view, and I know that many other FOI Officers will, I’m sure they will also share my experience that the majority of our colleagues are not yet there. They are cynical of the advantages that FOI brings. Some of those colleagues are at senior levels, and David mentions the councillors who grumble about the cost of FOI. It’s not just councillors. There are many who resent the time and apparent cost of FOI. I hear it all the time.
We who believe in FOI can always find an answer to their concerns. But however right we may be, there are many who will remain unconvinced. And unfortunately, as the public sector comes under more financial pressure in coming months and years, their voices will get louder. And they will point to requests about zombies, the paranormal and toilet rolls to support their case that FOI is costly and fails to deliver benefit. There will be many in Government who will sympathise.
It has happened before. In Ireland, following similar experiences, the Government introduced an inhibitive charging scheme. Requests dropped off rapidly. But so did the effectiveness of FOI in that country at opening up government and the public sector.
My fear is that a combination of zombie requests, public sector spending cuts and lack of support for FOI at all levels in public authorities could seriously damage our right to access information in this country. As FOI Officers, we have a duty to promote FOI to our colleagues. But we can’t just keep repeating the same old answers in the hope that they will have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion.
The only way we can progress in instilling FOI as a culture in our organisations and our country is to listen to colleagues’ concerns. Are there ways we can work with them to demonstrate that FOI doesn’t have to be a threat? Can we recognise that sometimes the results of FOI are unhelpful? These are questions that we need to seriously consider and find answers to.
We should acknowledge that some requests are a waste of resources (even if we can’t actually refuse them). We should use exemptions appropriately where colleagues have legitimate concerns. We should refuse requests that will be overly onerous on grounds of cost. And as long as we don’t compromise on ensuring that requests are responded to in compliance with the legislation, we should work with colleagues in other departments who are responsible for defending our organisation’s reputation.
There’s no shame in any of that. But it might, slowly but surely, start to win over some of those with concerns over FOI and dampen down demands for restrictive reform.
I would much rather receive requests like these (i.e. undead-related) than some of the others that find their way to my desk! Seriously though I don’t really see the issue here – if the request is sufficiently silly then it can surely be very easily answered.
I don’t know how long the FOI officer at LCC spent putting his/her response together but I can tell you how long I’d take – about 5 minutes. This is because my organisation also lacks a plan for an invasion of the undead (however I’ve spotted several fire axes on the way to my desk that might come in useful should the need arise.)
Well said F’Man.
5 minutes is 5 minutes too long.
Sure this is probably a joke yet it is, to me, a waste of time and resource that most authorities do not have to spare.
Government officials will rub its hands at being able to point to these examples whilst some may hope for a return to the days when expenses were less scrutinised.
This is a simple example of someone (presumably) having a joke at an authority’s expense. Multiply that joke across multiple authorities and the costs to the taxpayer spiral.
At a time where people are losing jobs, services are being cut the FOI does not benefit, moreover this type of frivolous request is harmful.
Unfortunately the s14 provision does not lend itself to easily kicking these to touch.
Toilet rolls and window panes resulted in the Blair’s reviews of the FOI fees regulations. Too many jokes at a time when choices are tough may impact of openness unless FOI is used responsibly.
Seriously, would those 5 minutes be better spent dealing with this nonsense or perhaps a vulnerable adult, a child with learning difficulties, a victim of domestic violence…. using FOI is akin to accessing a service like any other with it comes a cost.
It should be valued, not taken for granted.
For those doubting Toms, that may suggest that this request was an exceptional one off, it may just be the case that the Zombies request has triggered people to follow suit and to send some more silly requests.
Agree with the sentiments expressed (yes it was funny, yes Ms Wyeth was right). But I do hope we don’t see too many copycat type requests – funny they might be, but jokes which create work for already pressured public sector organisations will get old quite fast, “4chan” types take note please.
However, I have to say it (and remember I post here in a personal capacity!):
Applicant-blindness or no, I think a greater concern than “bizarre” requests (few and far between enough to give us all a good laugh) is the number of requests asking for details which are quite evidently intended to be used for marketing or packaging into a database and sold. Some requests even explicitly say so! Not all can be answered with standard documentation or Section-21-exemption-with-handy-website-link and the information being asked for, or the phrasing can make the motive obvious, even if applicant details are ‘stripped’ before sending requests out to internal leads.
Of course, the right answer is to improve our publications scheme and documentation – but finding a balance is not always easy. Some information is not collated and published as a matter of course and it would be far too time-consuming to do so on a regular basis for *everything* that anyone could possibly ask for. Or, I’m sure we can all think of colleagues who would never do anything but answer sales calls all day if their direct dials were on our websites – and they need protecting to some extent so they can do their actual job. Even if they don’t answer the calls, someone has to – it all takes resource.
These are the requests that (in my experience) are most difficult to justify internally as the perception is that public funds are subsidising private sector profits and colleagues understandably get grumpy about providing information so they can increase the number of sales calls they get.
Thanks, as ever, for the link. I do agree with you that this probably wasn’t the best use of FOI, but I don’t understand this idea that people need convincing about FOI within the public sector. Regardless of what you do for a living, there is always a part of the job which is irritating or difficult to understand the value of – but that part of the job still gets done.
Public sector bodies subject to FOI, and the people who work for these organisations, just need to accept that FOI is part of their life. It really shouldn’t be the job of an FOI officer to convince senior officers or those around them of the value of FOI – it should just be an accepted fact of life.
Parking wardens not have to go around justifying why they do what they do, and likewise if a council officer gets a parking ticket, they don’t have the option to ignore it or make the life of the parking warden difficult.
A better scenario would be for councils etc to have easier-to-understand FOI starter pages on their websites, and for people to be educated on what a suitable FOI really was.
In short – council officers are entitled to an opinion like everyone else about the value of an FOI request, but it shouldn’t interfere with the way they do their job.
That’s not meant to sound as Daily Mail as it does – but I hope it makes sense.
David, thanks for comment. I’ve spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall in the last few years because I entirely agree with you. Senior officers (in particular in my view) shouldn’t need to be convinced. THEY should be leading from the front. And to be fair, they mostly DO get on with it, they just make it very clear that they’re unhappy about it.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, FOI isn’t entirely settled (a conclusion reached by a recent UCL Constitution Unit report as well), and that seems to be the case in other countries as well. People see it as something that is flexible and might just go away if they moan loud enough. And sometimes they succeed.
I agree about educating people as to what a suitable FOI should look like. That’s one reason I wrote my guide to making responsible requests at the start of the year, and I’d be really pleased if any authorities wanted to use it!
Er, it has often been reported in the past that the term ‘zombies’ was used by some EPO’s and Regional Government HQ staff during 1980’s Home Defence exercises. It was reference to attempts by wounded and irradiated survivors of a nuclear strike (literally the walking dead) from one area, trying to seek refuge in another area – hence the term ‘zombie invasion’. Just a thought.
Thanks for your kind comments FOI Man, and anyone else who has been complimentary!
It’s been an interesting few days in the life of this FOI Officer…!