FOI Man explains why he feels uncomfortable with one police force’s (sort of) transparent approach to FOI.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary, like many other public authorities, have a page on their website for FOI. And it’s full of really useful features like a searchable disclosure log. Fantastic. What ruins it slightly is that the top of the page is taken up by a huge box advertising how much they say answering FOI requests has cost them over the last three years.
The subtext is clear. You naughty little taxpayers should stop bothering us with FOI requests. You’re stopping us from catching murderers and burglars and taking lunch with the Press.
Now some will argue that this is a good idea. People should be made aware of how much FOI costs so that they use it responsibly. There is something in that. But here’s why I think that what Avon & Somerset are doing, and what it represents in terms of the attitude of public bodies, is wrong.
Firstly, as with all these figures that are put out during debates on FOI, the figures themselves are questionable. To be fair to Avon & Somerset, they are open about the methodology they use. They say that they use the formula requests x £30 x 18 hours. What they don’t say is how they arrived at this formula. It’s true that £30 is consistent with the cost calculated by the Ministry of Justice’s research which was published this week. But Avon & Somerset have displayed these figures for months at least judging from FOI requests about the figures. And when someone asked them recently to provide any correspondence relating to how they decided this formula, they responded that they held no information. So it isn’t possible to judge whether their methodology in calculating these figures is sound.
What is clear is that the cost of employing FOI Officers makes up a fairly small proportion of the cost quoted on the main FOI page. FOI requests have elicited a total cost of £69,587 for the 2010/11 financial year for the three FOI Officers employed.
And perhaps the idea of advertising up front the cost of compliance with FOI requests wouldn’t be so bad if the constabulary advertised the cost of other services in similarly large unfriendly numerals. Will people ringing 999 be told how much emergency calls cost to deal with before reaching an operator? I wonder if staff ordering refreshments for meetings are instructed how much the constabulary spent on tea and biscuits the previous year? I’ve got a hunch they’re not. We do know through an FOI request that the Constabulary spent £677,200 in 2010/11 on employing staff on marketing, PR and communications activities (including internet content), because they provided this in answer to an FOI request. But I’m pretty sure it isn’t prominently displayed anywhere on their website (I wonder why?).
The post-legislative scrutiny appears to have unleashed a no-holds barred full-frontal offensive on the right of general access to information. Avon & Somerset are joining the ranks of those whose evidence to the Justice Select Committee paints FOI in the darkest light possible. It’s also in the same tradition as the news stories about “wasteful” and “trivial” FOI requests that turned up in the Press suspiciously close to the announcement of the start of the post-legislative scrutiny in December.
Even I’ve been surprised by the intensity of this. Surely there are other things which offend public authorities or add to their administrative burden? So why does FOI in particular attract such venom from right across the public sector? And shouldn’t we question the fact that public resources are to some extent being used to campaign against a legal requirement?
I’ve always been sceptical about conspiracy theories. I still am. I believe that most, if not all, of the annoyance with FOI is about resources and being able to provide an effective service. Most public officials, and indeed politicians, are not consciously being secretive for the sake of it. Their righteous indignation comes from a sincere belief that FOI is an expensive addition and an obstacle to their core purpose. But their inability to see the bigger picture and understand that there are good reasons for FOI that justify some inconvenience means that less flattering perceptions of them will remain.
Incidentally, another study has been published, this time looking at the cost of FOI in the higher education sector. As with the MoJ report last week, from an academic point of view, all of this data on FOI is very welcome. But it still raises the question in my mind, why are public authorities expending quite so much effort on establishing the costs of FOI in particular? Why not other areas of their work? It leaves me feeling rather uncomfortable.