What do FOI Officers think about FOI?

FOI Man looks at what a recent survey of FOI Officers for the Ministry of Justice says about practitioners’ views of FOI.

This blog is all about FOI from the perspective of an FOI Officer, so an appendix to the Ministry of Justice’s recent memorandum to the Justice Select Committee caught my eye. Not least because MoJ’s conclusions in the memorandum appear to be so greatly influenced by the views of the practitioners quoted in it.

A survey was carried out by Ipsos Mori for MoJ by telephone between October and November last year. 22 FOI Officers (or similar) in 16 organisations were interviewed and asked their views about FOI. We are not told which organisations were involved, but a table in the report indicates that 4 respondents were in Central Government, 5 in local authorities, 6 in health organisations, 3 in the Police, 2 in “commercial organisations”, and 2 in “other public authorities”. Given the breadth of the public sector covered by FOI, some might question how representative this sample can be (especially given that some of these respondents worked for the same organisation).

The report is broken into 7 broad sections:

  • FOI requests: volumes, requesters and processes
  • Information management and publication schemes
  • FOI response times and resourcing
  • Exemptions and guidance
  • Benefits of FOI
  • Complaints and appeals
  • Suggested amendments.

There is nothing particularly surprising in the report, though if I’m honest, I’m disappointed at the negativity that leaps from the pages. The report quotes some of the respondents to illustrate its findings, so here for example, is a quote about why a particular respondent felt that request volumes were rising:

“It’s very easy for people to make requests to us, because all you have to do now is use WhatDoTheyKnow.com. At least [before] they’d have to type an email or write a letter to us. Now all they do is put their information in and it sends it directly to us. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I just think that it’s made it easier and made people lazier. For example, as soon as we refuse a request from WhatDoTheyKnow.com quite often we’ll receive a request for an internal review very quickly because all they need to do is push a button to say I want this to go to internal review”.

WDTK probably has contributed to rising request volumes – fair enough. It does make making requests easier. But let’s be clear – THAT’S A GOOD THING. And just because something is easier, I don’t quite see how that makes people lazier.

Requests from journalists and commercial companies are perceived to be a “drain on resources”. These kind of statements always frustrate me. It’s not unreasonable to note that volumes of FOI requests are rising. Or that this has had an impact on resources, especially during a time of economic difficulties. And, as unpopular as it may be with journalists, I also have no problem with public authority press officers being given advance warning of disclosures to the media. We have a right to defend ourselves and there is a public interest in public authorities doing so in my view. BUT it is not reasonable, in my opinion, for criticism to be levelled at broad categories of requesters. The whole point of FOI is that anyone can make a request. It doesn’t matter why they want the information, they have that right. If you believe in a democratic society, where everyone has rights, surely that makes sense and is to be welcomed.

Moreover, the specific groups mentioned seem to me the very groups that we should be welcoming requests from. It is an amazing thing – not to be sniffed at – that any individual can ask searching questions of the government or their local authority or police force. But arguably requests from individuals don’t make that much difference – responses satisfy their curiosity but have very little wider impact. Responses to the media, in contrast, regularly get reported – you can hardly pick up a paper these days or read a website without seeing a reference to FOI – reaching a far wider audience, and having a much greater impact. Answering these requests is far more “cost effective” if you want to look at FOI that way (which I personally don’t, but each to their own). Similarly, those commercial organisations that are complained about – the general complaint is that they pick the fruits of publicly-funded work to make money out of it themselves – well, frankly that’s government policy. We’re supposed to be doing all we can to support our economy. And if the disclosure would really affect commercial interests, there is an exemption for that.

There were a number of suggested amendments to the Act, but as previously indicated, the headline suggestion is to amend the cost regulations so that either or both of the following happen. One – that the cost threshold (of £600 for central government and £450 for other public bodies) be lowered. Two – that in estimating this cost, authorities should be able to consider more of the activities involved in answering FOI requests. Not unreasonably, some respondents pointed to cuts to staff and resources, saying that:

“It’s counterintuitive to impose a greater burden on a public body at the same time as you reduce its ability to deal with it”.

A rather confusing paragraph in the report suggests that all respondents disagreed with the idea of the public paying for information, before adding that some felt that a nominal charge should be introduced to deter vexatious requesters. I’ll be coming back to this issue of cost in a later post.

Most respondents were able to see that FOI had benefitted both the public and their own organisation to some extent or another. For the public, this was seen in increased transparency and engagement (though the report authors point to UCL Constitution Unit research questioning this latter). For the organisations, there were seen to be benefits of improved standards and professionalism and raised awareness of responsibilities to the public (which do seem to me to be very valuable benefits, though difficult to quantify). Few respondents were able to point to examples of FOI saving money in their organisations, but how about this one for starters).

It’s no great surprise that many FOI Officers are concerned about falling resources and rising request volumes. A few months ago I hosted a guest post here which vividly illustrated how difficult it can be to manage FOI requests in the current environment. But it really does concern me that so many of my colleagues – if this survey is to be believed – have such negative views of the legislation that they are responsible for implementing. If we’re to be effective in our jobs, surely we have to be able to champion FOI – to believe in its value to our organisations, to the public and to society as a whole. FOI can be hard work – and we all grumble at times (some of us publicly) – but we have to keep in mind the bigger picture.

 

 

2 comments

  1. Tracy Phillips says:

    I believe FOI officers champion FOI daily if not hourly, they may however become a little despondent every now and then 🙂

  2. S Jones says:

    I read the report more as being negative about the limits of the resources, rather than the legislation itself. I think most of us are champions of the principles – I certainly am.

    In an environment where the message from the top is that doing paperwork is EVIL (any and all of it apparently), poor FOI officers are very unpopular: often they are trying to get information internally from people who are delivering front line services (and often have to wave the big stick of “it’s the law” to get it in on time, because quite naturally, to those frontline teams, provision of care comes first, and their resources are just as limited). Secondly, media and the government want accountability, transparency and lots and lots of information (over 600 NHS targets to report on this year) but don’t apparently want any money to be spent on it, because bureaucracy is EVIL and anyone who only does “paperwork” is a pen-pushing waste of space. Most of the daily messages being delivered via politicians and the media to the general public about the value of what we do (no specifically FOI, bu we, as administrators/managers who do not provide direct care) are extra-ordinarily negative and de-valuing.

    It’s like a dripping tap or a mosquito in the room – after a while, it gets to you!

    Re: bulk requests – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I find the lack of consistency between websites of different organisations fundamentally doing the same thing utterly bizarre. Search functions are often worse than useless as well. I work in the public sector, “information is my job” – but I mostly can’t find what I want on my local county council’s website without swearing at it at least once. It’s no wonder that requesters wanting the same information from a number of organisations lose the will to live and bung in FOI requests rather than spending hours checking websites that call the same thing by different names, publish in different formats, or whose search engines can’t handle *.pdf files …

    The centralised publication of contracts is a great step forward in making it easier for requesters to get their information in ‘one stop’. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing – to address time/resources on another frequently-asked-FOI, how about one national website for names, job titles, work e-mails, pay bands, expenses details and general organisational contact details (not direct dials or they’d never get any work done for answering sales calls) of everyone whose details would be disclosable under an FOI request made separately to the organisations they work for?

    Finally, to any requester: I do understand why you make bulk requests rather than looking at websites. I really do, see para 4. However, before you make a bulk request, please just take two minutes to check you’re asking the appropriate type of organisation at least. If you don’t know, pick up the phone to an FOI officer – no-one likes us (see para 2), we’d probably be very happy if someone wants to make friends with us. (OK, that wasn’t entirely serious, but this is: we may treat your request in an ‘applicant-blind’ manner, but don’t forget FOI officers are people. People have opinions, privately if nothing else. Oh, FOI officers are also taxpaying, voting, reading-of-media, consuming-of-things evil bureaucrats. Requests made to the incorrect type of organisation by MPs, political party researchers, journalists or any commercial organisation who obviously wants to do business with us/our sector – and we can usually tell, even if you use g-mail/similar: remember we see hundreds of requests a year – these things, frankly, make you look like you’re not very good at your jobs, whose descriptions presumably include a fairly large element of needing to know how to research, or know a little bit about the sector whose policy your party wants to dictate, or that you want to write about or work with.)