With a due tip of the hat to Mr Steven Moffat, FOI Man tackles the trend for time distorting FOI requests.
The other day, one FOI Officer on Twitter reported that they had received an FOI request. Nothing unusual about that, but the requester had also asked for internal correspondence relating to the handling of the request itself. That’s right. They’d requested information that did not exist yet, and would only exist once their request had been dealt with.
Earlier this week, another FOI Officer who had answered a request about procurement arrangements for a particular service received a follow-up. The Officer’s response had provided details of the current contract but explained that a new contract was in the process of being agreed. So the requester asked if the details of the new contract could be sent through when negotiations were complete.
In both cases, the requests are for information that is not held. We can’t provide information that doesn’t exist at the time you make a request. The Act is quite clear:
“The information…is the information in question held at the time when the request is received, except that account may be taken of any amendment or deletion made between that time and the time when the information is to be communicated…being an amendment or deletion that would have been made regardless of the receipt of the request.” Freedom of Information Act 2000, s.1(4)
We may provide relevant information that is created or received between receipt and response of your request. But we’re certainly under no obligation to provide that information, and information that doesn’t exist yet is definitely out of scope.
In both examples above, of course, there is absolutely nothing preventing the requester making a follow-up request themselves at the appropriate stage. But instead they’re attempting to put all the responsibility onto someone else – ie us.
This is part of a wider, and apparently growing, impatience amongst requesters. I’ve referred previously to journalists and others quoting sections of the legislation and telling FOI Officers how to do their jobs. They appear determined to pre-empt any decision that they won’t like. But again, we haven’t made any decision yet.
Then there are the numerous requests that I’ve referred to recently that we’re refusing because, quite simply, people are trying to cram all the questions they can think of into one request. They try to cover every eventuality – tortuously attempting to second guess any potential arguments we may make against disclosure. And the result is that their request is either so complex that we find it hard to work out what they actually want, or it is refused because we estimate that complying with it will exceed the ‘acceptable limit’.
So let’s just make an assumption shall we? None of us have the power of time travel (damn it!) so let’s agree to work with good old fashioned linear time. You make a request. I research and answer it. You read my answer. If my answer provokes further questions, you submit another request. If you don’t like my answer, you submit a request for internal review. And so on. It’s a novel idea, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.