FOI Man reflects on the difficulties of being an FOI Officer.
I don’t normally take requests (well, apart from those for information, of course). But one FOI Officer asked if I could write a post on the loneliness of being an FOI Officer, and it struck a chord.
Now don’t all cry at once, the tears might damage your phone or digital interface of choice. I enjoy doing what I do very much, and the opportunities that have come my way because of FOI make it all worthwhile. But there is a serious point here.
A few days ago I found myself talking to a group of colleagues. One of them joked that he had nothing to do because I’d not passed him any FOIs recently. He was, entirely good naturedly, having a slight dig at the pressure I put on his department to answer requests. But I couldn’t help dwelling on it a little – do people blame me personally for the extra work that an FOI request brings? Do they see me as disloyal because I fail to find a way to withhold information? Whose side am I on anyway?
FOI Officers often find themselves in tricky situations. I’ve referred previously to a meeting on one occasion where the Mayor of London’s then Director of Communications once lightly suggested that if I couldn’t be more helpful, I and my team might find ourselves redundant. Wiser heads calmed the situation but I suspect I’m not the only FOI Officer to find themselves on the wrong side of an argument with the powers-that-be. Other FOI Officers I know have been persona non grata in parts of their organisation. And all for doing their jobs.
But the reason it’s so difficult of course is because we’re also dealing with another unmoving force in the shape of requesters and the rights that the Act gives them. Requests have to be answered, and in a particular way, and that can be difficult to explain to colleagues.
And when people don’t get the information they want, they can be pretty unpleasant about it at times – and the FOI Officer, who may well not agree with the decision themselves, is first in the line of fire. We get “named and shamed” by journalists. Pilloried in Tribunal decisions. Attacked by community groups. And again – all for doing our jobs.
Many FOI Officers are at a very junior grade and are paid very little. It is often seen (wrongly) as a low-level administrative job.
It’s hardly surprising that many of them start to turn against FOI after a few months or years of being stuck in the middle. But of course it’s not the Act’s fault.
Research last year by UCL’s Constitution Unit found – not entirely surprisingly – that authorities where there is senior level support for FOI and transparency find it much easier to comply with the Act. Conversely, where politicians and senior officers are openly critical of it, compliance is very difficult.
Talking to Dr Ben Worthy of the Unit earlier this year, he told me that there was also a relationship between support for FOI and the feelings of FOI Officers for the legislation. Again, not surprising.
This is why I get so alarmed by the comments of current and former Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries. Every time a senior figure speaks out against FOI, the jobs of FOI Officers get that little bit harder. If they enthused about it, our jobs would be much easier, and we could feel pride in our role as promoters of transparency, rather than, as occasionally, a twinge of shame.
Many public bodies are very supportive of FOI Officers (and I include my own employer in that). But some aren’t. That needs to change.
So to requesters out there, and journalists in particular, I say, give FOI Officers a break – we’re usually trying our best and often in the most trying of circumstances.
And to FOI Officers – as I’ve been telling delegates on my Practical FOI course recently – remember that you’re not alone. There are a lot of us who have been through similar experiences. There are plenty of networks of FOI Officers online and in the physical world. Use them. Sometimes the answer, and a mind at ease, is just a conversation away.