Take it Online

FOI Man explains that online discussion between FOI Officers is part of the job, not a nationwide conspiracy.

I’ve become aware of a new form of twisted corruption that FOI Officers are prey to. And been shocked to realise that I too am amongst the shadowy forces at work. Our crime? Subscription to an email discussion list.

Of course, most professions have such a resource. In my own organisation, I know that the Finance Officers follow lists for Finance Officers; the Facilities Officers follow lists for Facilities Officers; and the Chief Executive follows a list for Airline Pilots…no, sorry, Chief Executives. Most people would recognise that this is a cost effective way for professional people, geographically separated, and often isolated in their own organisations, to share best practice and find solutions to common problems.

So why is it that when FOI Officers do this, we are accused of collusion and conspiracy? I know of one requester who had seen the content of correspondence on the list (notably out of context) and complained that all the correspondence was about how to stop information being disclosed. This apparently demonstrated that not only those who posted messages, but also those who read them, were acting against the spirit of the legislation.  Oh right then, case closed.

Of course all the discussion is about how to stop information being disclosed!!! Our jobs are easy when information can unquestionably be sent out. We don’t need to discuss those cases because they are uncontroversial and can be easily resolved. Applying exemptions is the most difficult part of our jobs (which, by the way, means that we use them as sparingly as possible). That’s the stuff we need the help of our fellow professionals with.

It is helpful to know that if you are considering using an exemption, you are not straying far from the pack. But equally, if there are Officers posting to the list arguing that an exemption can’t be legitimately applied, that can lead others to look again and maybe reach a different conclusion. What’s more, there’s no imperative for FOI Officers subscribing to the list to go along with what others are proposing to do. It’s a matter of choice for each institution, quite rightly, how to respond to specific requests.

This ‘revelation’ (which as far as I know, no FOI Officers have ever sought to hide) has prompted some requesters to threaten ‘investigations’. They are speaking to the Information Commissioner. To the media. To Uncle Tom Cobley. To all.

I don’t blame requesters for being unhappy with our responses. I am happy to look again and ask more senior officers to review how I’ve handled requests. That’s the process. I don’t even blame them for asking questions when they receive similar responses from several organisations (but isn’t that pretty likely? If you’ve asked a question about an issue that is sensitive to one organisation, the chances are that it is sensitive to all).

But for goodness sake, can we please be allowed to do our jobs? In an informed way without every routine action that we take being seen to be a conspiracy? What next? Will FOI Officers be banned from reading my blog in case I corrupt them with my dark and cynical ways?

Believe me requesters when I say that if you think that the problems with FOI lie with FOI Officers talking to each other, you are barking up the wrong tree.

12 comments

  1. Great post. I can see why people think that FOI officers talking to each other is a way of finding a way to withold information – but once you understand that the FOI officer is there to do a job, not uphold the reputation/position of the council leader/senior management, then it’s obvious that talking among FOI officers shouldn’t be a problem.

  2. Anon says:

    A further complication is that requestors often don’t appreciate that we, the practitioners, are often quite uncomfortable with what our political masters are asking us to do.

    Often we can be seeking advice on ways to demonstrate that a particular response wanted by a (insert role of high level official here) cannot be supported by a particular exemption and that we should disclose but taken out of context it looks like we are trying to avoid disclosure.

    I, like most FOI practitioners I suspect, start from the premise that we are going to disclose everything requested unless others can provide me with a valid and justifiable argument as to why info should be withheld.

  3. The FOI Dude says:

    Who is Uncle Tom Cobley?

  4. Mike Kenner says:

    A relative of Ann Widdecombe.

  5. Paul Cardin says:

    I wonder if my FOI officer got a chance to help before I was unceremoniously banned from making FOI / DP requests back in October 2009. I hope so, but I don’t imagine he / she would have been consulted. Because he / she probably would have insisted that this was unlawful, and only an exemption within the Act can be used to withhold information. What do you think?

  6. Richard says:

    Paul, I would suggest that if you were “banned” from making requests, you were probably asleep and dreaming. You may have been deemed vexatious by one authority, but that does not mean you cannot make a request to other authorities or even to them at a later period. You sound to me like one of the many people with little knowledge of the act, who thinks FOI is there just for your pathetic crusades and then bleats on about it when you get told to stop abusing it!

  7. Paul Cardin says:

    Nice to meet you Richard. I suggest you put the kettle on, make a cuppa, then google my name along with “FOI”. Thanks.

  8. Paul Cardin says:

    Nice to meet you Richard. I suggest you put the kettle on, make a cuppa, then google my name along with “FOI”. Cheers.

  9. Paul Cardin says:

    …or go straight to this website:

    http://tinyurl.com/6gaf2ts

  10. John M says:

    Ouch – this thread went downhill fast. As an FOI officer myself I would only add that if we sometimes seem a little defensive it is often not without cause. As FOI man has noted on many occasions, we may not always agree with the FOI response we send out notwithstanding the fact that we sign our names to them. On a fair number of occasions I’ve been subjected to vague ad hominem attacks on various websites where there has been disagreement with the content of ‘my’ FOI response.

  11. foiman says:

    Yes, if you’re going to comment here, please try to keep comments measured and avoid personal attacks. Otherwise, thanks for the comments.
    Oh, and Uncle Tom Cobley was a character in an old English folk song – for more details see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom_Cobley .