When it comes to making FOI requests, it should be quality over quantity

FOI Man observes that while the volume of FOI requests continues to rise, their quality is not.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my Tweet on Thursday saying that my organisation had received more FOI requests in 2011 so far than in the whole of 2010. This prompted a flurry of “Me Too”s from fellow FOI Officers. The general consensus seemed to suggest roughly a 25% rise in requests this year. As unscientific as this survey is, it does suggest that use of FOI is still on the rise.

One observer sensibly commented that more requests doesn’t mean more openness. We should consider quality over quantity.

This is absolutely right. Although we’ve had more requests this year, I’ve also refused far more than ever before. Not, in most cases, due to any of the ‘Part II’ exemptions (or EIR exceptions). But my use of the s.12 provision that allows us to refuse requests that exceed the ‘appropriate limit’ has rocketed. Similarly, many requests have been refused simply because they are just too vague or don’t make sense.

Now, contrary to popular belief, I don’t sit around trying to construct new and devious ways to keep my organisation’s ‘secrets’. It’s my job to try, where possible, to answer requests. But it’s also my job to manage requests so that they don’t become an unreasonable burden on the organisation. The Act has those provisions in place to allow us to do that, and the Information Commissioner has in recent years made clear that he is supportive of public bodies who do that legitimately. After all, all public bodies are there to do a particular job, and FOI shouldn’t be preventing them from doing that job.

I always offer advice and assistance to help those who make requests that are likely to cost more than the ‘acceptable limit’ to bring their request within the limit. But often they just give up, and in other cases they respond but make it quite clear that they think I’m just giving them the run around. I’m not.

So it really helps if people make realistic requests in the first place. It saves us all time, and it avoids that nasty taste you get in the mouth when I have to refuse your request (however politely – and of course, I’m always polite – I may explain the situation to you). The key thing is to do your research first so that you can focus your request, and then try not to be greedy. “Fishing trips” are tempting, but as well as being expensive to process even if they can be done within limits, they’re quite often disappointing.

If you want to make FOI requests, you could do much worse than to take a look at my handy guide to making responsible requests. I want FOI to work, but it’s not just down to me to make that happen. It’s in your hands too.

No comments

  1. S Jones says:

    Very disappointed to see a whole swathe recently of “copycat” requests about alien invasions etc on WDTK.

    It was only funny the first time.

    Re: fishing trips – over 10% of our requests come from ONE publication who circulate them round 100s of organisations at a time (and a lot of them are really “rubbish” requests as well – as in ‘vague’, or “I can’t be bothered to look at your website”. You would have thought that trained journalists would know how to do their homework and have a better idea of how to frame questions to get the information they want).

    The elephant in the room is still the volume of requests sent out by commercial organisations blatantly seeking marketing information.

  2. Tim says:

    Do you think that steps like introducing an optional moderation/community help queue to WDTK for new users would help improve quality?

  3. John M says:

    Interestingly I’ve not seen much of a spike in FOI numbers but I have seen a really big jump in requests for both internal reviews and appeals to the ICO. In fact this is the first year I’ve really wavered on the issue of whether or not there should be a charge for internal reviews/ICO appeals. I have a number of frequent requesters who ask for virtually every decision they receive to be reviewed. It costs them nothing but the resourcing costs are significant and really, what have they got to lose by asking for the review anyway?

  4. Paul Cardin says:

    Heather Brooke was told it would be “too expensive” to ask for all 646 MPs’ expenses, before reducing her request. Maybe an additional charge for internal reviews and ICO appeals would have seen her off. It would certainly deter me from asking for my information, being skint, having lost my livelihood in pretty foul circumstances.

    But as you’re all there to serve the public, to consider charging even more for the privilege of doing so seems a bit rich. I’m sure any existing crooked public servants (form an orderly queue) and the old Commons speaker (bless) would breathe a sigh of relief….

    “Openness and Transparency”, but only if you pay 🙂

  5. foiman says:

    If Heather was told that it was undoubtedly correct. Even allowing 5 minutes per MP (which in itself is a massive underestimate of how long it would have taken, I’m sure), that would take over 50 hours of someone’s time. So not unreasonable to refuse on cost grounds.

    She then, as I understand it, made a request for the same details for a handful of MPs. And that, more realistic, request started the ball rolling on publishing ALL MPs expenses. (as we all know, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but if she had been asking about 646 MPs, she would never have had Commissioner or Tribunal rulings in her favour). Reasonable, properly targeted requests, can result in major disclosures and show up problems.

    Personally I don’t think there should be a charge as such for the reasons you suggest. But there should be limits on what people can ask for – otherwise public bodies will collapse under the strain, which is in nobody’s interests.

  6. foiman says:

    Tim – sorry, should have answered your point. I’m sure that any steps to educate new requesters using WDTK would be welcomed by public bodies. It may well help in reducing the volume of requests sent through that medium that aren’t properly thought through before being sent.

  7. Paul Cardin says:

    I didn’t say the initial decision Heather received wasn’t correct – the refusal on cost grounds. But with delicious hindsight, I think we can appreciate that ‘a certain amount of reluctance was at the heart of it all… no?

    In an open and transparent and adequately funded world, public servants like Nottingham City Council; Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and other rogues would be fully resourced in order to dedicate the required time and people to this important public facing task.

    As I understand it, one person does the job at Wirral, works with a simple spreadsheet and the system creaks and crashes accordingly.

    Other local authorities have their hearts in it, and seem to perform better. These tend to be the ones who don’t constantly, publicly bleat about having their budgets slashed, and do the best with the meagre amount of money on offer.

    Having worked at two councils, I’m in a better position than most members of the public and have the inside knowledge to focus my requests. Maybe if councils gave us some handy guidance on their websites, or had open days at the Town Hall, it would show willing and give some much-needed reassurance to the average punter out there?

    Or would that cost too much?

  8. S Jones says:

    @Tim – I’d agree with FOIman’s response and seemed only fair to say so as I raised the issue! I’m a big fan of the principles of FOI, which is why I am disappointed in the aliens requests, which just provide ammunition for the nay-sayers.

    The only problem I can see with your suggestion is that those who would most need the advice/assistance would probably opt out of optional moderation (cynical? me?!) . Having said that, I’d be against making any form of pre-moderation mandatory, so optional is better than none!

    Reason for the delayed response is that I was doing my own homework … Please may I suggest that WDTK’s advice on how to make a “good” request/doing a bit of homework first is perhaps given a bit more prominence on the home page – just a link? – so people new to the site might be more likely to look at it. It would be nice if requesters’ responsibilities (as well as their rights) were given a bit more prominence: responding to FOI requests creates some of the bureaucracy (and associated expense) which everyone thinks is so evil.

    To anyone one who thinks “oh, well, that comes out of the admin budget” – I’d like to say that part of the reason we weren’t overspent last year is because the savings we made on the “admin” budget were applied to the overspend on provision of health services i.e. underspend on bureaucracy spent on provision of care. So it does matter.

    Thanks 🙂