It might sound odd, but sometimes FOI Officers have to, let’s say, bend the Act in order to get information out there. I’ll explain that statement later…
People probably don’t give this much thought, but finding information requested under FOI is not as easy as it sounds. My suspicion is that many requesters assume that the FOI Officer just has to enter their question into something akin to Google, and up the information comes. Then we twiddle our thumbs for 19 days before disclosing or refusing, unless we’re feeling particularly difficult, in which case we might decide to extend the deadline.
It’s true that back before January 2005, the Labour Government did tie FOI implementation into plans for e-Government, and there was a lot of pressure initially for all public authorities to adopt electronic document and records management systems (EDRMS). But the association was then quietly forgotten as rumours circulated about the limited success and high cost of the few implementations that did progress.
I’m a sceptic when it comes to IT solutions and their ability to find information. Even if you have a system that allows all electronic data to be searched:
a) it won’t pick up paper records or the contents of people’s notebooks (either physical ones or off-line electronic ones)
b) it will only pick up information containing the terms you search for – which is fine if the request is very specific, but this is rarely the case
c) if it is searching every electronic system in the organisation (what is technically called an “enterprise search”), it may not be clear to the searcher what the context of the information is – is it a draft? is it sensitive information? who should I ask for clearance to disclose?
Of course, it’s possible to overcome all of those shortcomings, but in my experience, they rarely are. There are also all sorts of privacy concerns connected with enterprise searches. I’ve never been given the ability to search all emails for a request, the key reason being that it would allow me to see private emails sent and received by colleagues (which arguably would constitute a breach of several Data Protection principles). So FOI Officers rarely, if at all, are in a position to conduct searches of all the electronic information in their organisation. Let alone the physical records.
We therefore have to rely on our knowledge of the organisation, and on the cooperation of colleagues. When I receive an FOI request, I forward the request on to contacts in the relevant departments. I always remove the details of the requester (that’s a debate for another day) and ask the relevant department(s) to provide the information or let me know if they have any concerns with the information being disclosed. They are asked to let me know if I should be contacting someone else. I am entirely reliant on them in collating the relevant information and providing it to me. With slight variations, I suspect this is the process in every public authority in the land.
It is a very human process. It is therefore, of course, entirely feasible that we will fail to locate all of the information. It might be that the FOI Officer is new to the organisation and doesn’t know where the information is likely to be. It might also be that the departmental contact doesn’t know about the scrawled note in a colleague’s notebook. It might be that someone is on sick leave and unable to answer pleas for information on the issue they are responsible for. I’m sure that nobody in my organisation would ever deliberately deceive me, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that happened in some organisations from time to time. But I suspect that the vast majority of the time, such omissions are entirely accidental.
Here’s an illustration (and this is condensed). On one occasion, I received a request for all emails from a particular senior official relating to a specific subject. I forwarded it to their PA. I was sent about half a dozen emails. I sent a response. The requester complained that they knew there were more. I went back to the PA. I was assured with some irritation that no, they had provided all of the emails. I responded to the requester in like terms (but more politely). The requester calmly pointed out that they had emailed the official and their email wasn’t amongst the emails we had disclosed. Oops. Back to the PA. Silence for a few days. Then “…erm, I’ve found about 70 other emails”.
The point is that much as FOI requires public authorities to disclose ALL of the requested information, there are all sorts of reasons why that might well not happen. Some might scream at their screen at this stage that this is further evidence of the incompetence and possibly corruption of the public sector. But I wonder how easy businesses or journalists would find it if they had to locate all information on a particular subject in their organisation? We make all reasonable efforts, but we’re not perfect.
To come back to the point at the start of this piece. Bearing all this in mind, what happens when we get one of those requests for “all correspondence held by the organisation on xxx”? Strictly, we should probably send out a global email to the whole authority asking every member of staff to search their email and paper files to locate correspondence on the subject. We should unleash an army of staff to read every file, every document, every inbox (and sent folder). But of course, we don’t. We work out who is most likely to hold such correspondence and we email them. If we didn’t, we would have to refuse every single request phrased in that way as it would breach the cost limit immediately.