FOI and the Olympics

FOI Man recalls how the successful Olympic and Paralympic Games bid affected the management of FOI requests at the Greater London Authority.

This coming Friday the London 2012 Olympic Games open. And it seems like only yesterday that my jaw dropped open as, surrounded by similarly dumbfounded GLA staff gathered in the London Assembly chamber of City Hall,  I heard Jacques Rogge utter the name of our capital city instead of the expected “Paris”.

City Hall staff applaud success of London bid for Games

City Hall staff applaud the naming of London as Host City for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games on 6 July 2005

The successful 2012 bid created a whole new challenge from an FOI perspective. Firstly, as with anything that attracts media coverage, it resulted in a significant volume of additional FOI requests which had to be handled within existing resources (both in my team and the team responsible for coordinating the GLA’s involvement in the Games’ planning). Secondly, the politics of FOI handling became more complex. It was always complicated negotiating the rather odd configuration of the GLA and its associated bodies. But the Olympics meant that several Government departments and agencies, on occasion local authorities, LOCOG and, as we’ll see, the IOC itself, could have a stake in the way that the GLA responded to a request.

To give credit to my former colleagues in the Olympic team, who were under immense pressure from various quarters all of the time, they were unfailingly polite and managed to look pleased to see me, even when we were discussing the most difficult FOI requests.

One request in particular sticks in my mind, especially in light of more recent controversy over the Games. It was a request for copies of the Olympic Technical Manuals. The manuals form part of the Host City Contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), setting out the requirements imposed by the IOC on the host city. They are updated after every Games to take into account lessons learnt. There’s a lot to them as they cover every aspect of Games management that you could possibly think of – one set filled two photocopying paper boxes. And I had to read them from cover to cover. They were largely very dull. They did give me the first hint of the level of commercialism involved – with significant detail on how much floor space should be given to McDonalds outlets in the Olympic Village, for example. And for those concerned about restrictions on branding imposed by LOCOG, one manual specifically covers Brand Protection.

My view at the time was that, save for a few details of concern from a security perspective, the manuals should all be disclosed. But the decision was taken to withhold them in their entirety.

The issue, as so often in circumstances where information subject to a request has been provided by a third party, was not so much that anyone at the GLA had any strong opinion, but that our Olympic partners – especially LOCOG – were strongly against disclosure. With a long way to go before the Games, there was concern over damaging the Mayor’s relationship with LOCOG in particular.

The requester asked for an internal review. Further discussions were had with LOCOG and we even consulted the IOC. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the IOC insisted – in strong terms – that the manuals should not be disclosed. As ever, their letter failed to provide useful details such as what harm would arise from disclosure aside from the fact that it would incur their displeasure. Following further debate, the internal reviewer upheld the decision to withhold the manuals.

Our determined requester pursued his request to the Information Commissioner. And when the Commissioner came knocking at my door, I spoke to LOCOG again. It was clear that the lawyers at LOCOG had no understanding of the obligations that public bodies – which they, of course, are not one of – are under in a country that has freedom of information laws. They appeared affronted to be even asked to explain what their concerns were, let alone to be asked to consider disclosure of the manuals themselves. My conversations with the Commissioner’s staff were difficult, not least because I entirely disagreed with the line my own organisation was taking. That’s a tricky situation for an FOI Officer to find themselves in. And the lack of cooperation from LOCOG didn’t help.

Sometime after my (entirely unrelated) departure from the GLA, I assume that the Commissioner gave the GLA an ultimatum, as despite the fact that there is no decision notice on the ICO website, the GLA eventually disclosed the manuals, save for, you guessed it, a few redactions to mitigate security concerns. Thanks to the Games Monitor website, you can now read the manuals for yourself.

I tell this story as firstly it is a topical but useful case study of the life cycle of a difficult FOI request within a public body, especially one where there are strong external interests involved. And secondly, it demonstrates that the Olympic movement has, at least at times, failed to grasp the implications of the fact that more and more nations who might host Olympic and Paralympic Games have laws that require those nations’ public bodies to operate transparently.

Of course, the last summer Games were held in Beijing, and I’m sure that inconvenient freedoms were not a problem in China. But surely the Games should reflect the best of the host nation – and in this country, freedom of speech and the right to hold public authorities to account are amongst our proudest attributes. Anybody seeking to do business in this country – whether it be putting on an event such as the Olympics, or running a bank – should accept that or be sent packing. And our politicians and leaders should be very clear about that in their dealings with multinational organisations of all kinds.

Despite these reservations, and other concerns that have been raised about the Olympic and Paralympic Games and their impact on London over the last few years, I remain excited about the next few weeks. A little disillusioned, yes, but maybe that’s a natural consequence of living in the host city. But I’m still proud of the fact that the city I make my home in has been chosen to host the Games, and convinced that we’ll do a great job of it, a few niggles aside.

And perhaps, just perhaps, one of the legacies of these Games might be a realisation that the reputation of the Olympic movement could actually be enhanced through greater openness and accountability. Maybe the Rio 2016 organisers will receive a manual entitled Transparency and Accountability? That would be worth a medal for someone.

3 comments

  1. anon says:

    Totally agree.with you about the.problems when public authority does.not.agree.with FOI officer. During recent.ICO.case I just wanted to apologise for bullshit reply and IR sent.out by my colleagues. After decision notice, we are about to waste $s on tribunal case. We will lose. Really hard to support my employer when I think it is wrong.

  2. Anon 2 says:

    I suspect that most if not all FOI officers have had issued a refusal and then undertaken an IR process that they disagree with at the behest of their managers.

    Ours is not to reason why…

  3. […] » FOI and the Olympics FOI Man – My view at the time was that, save for a few details of concern from a security perspective, the manuals should all be disclosed. But the decision was taken to withhold them in their entirety. The issue, as so often in circumstances where information subject to a request has been provided by a third party, was not so much that anyone at the GLA had any strong opinion, but that our Olympic partners – especially LOCOG – were strongly against disclosure. With a long way to go before the Games, there was concern over damaging the Mayor’s relationship with LOCOG in particular. […]