No, I’m not about to do an Iain Dale and pack in the blog. Nor have I prepared my resignation letter in readiness for the launch of my new start-up. But, like many FOI Officers (and others in public authorities who answer requests), I spend a goodly quantity of my time preparing information for the commercial sector.
Now, in principle, I don’t have a problem with this. Everybody has a right to information under FOI, and unlike the Campaign for FOI, I’m not even particularly keen on the idea of making business pay for information. But, on that basis, I don’t think business should get a ‘better’ service than anyone else.
Today I’m working on one of my least favourite kinds of request. It’s not particularly difficult to answer, but then that’s part of the issue. The request asks for the names and contact details relating to a long list of job titles in our IT department. And insists that I specifically create a spreadsheet containing the information.
The point is that my organisation is actually pretty open compared to many public sector bodies (more open than I really feel comfortable with when I swap my FOI hat for my Data Protection hat). We have most, if not all, of this information on our website. There is an exemption at section 21 for information that is accessible to the applicant by other means, and if this isn’t the time to use it, then I can’t think when else it could ever be used.
But of course, it isn’t that easy. Section 11 obliges us to provide information in the format requested “as far as reasonably practicable”. And as the requester has helpfully pointed out through various links and quotes provided in their request, the Government has recently made clear that we should be bending over backwards to provide data to businesses.
In practice, I could (and probably will) do what is being asked. But I know it irritates colleagues, as it does me. It galls on at least two levels. Firstly, is it really appropriate for me as a public employee to spend time (and therefore money) doing the requester’s job for them, effectively doing the research (which they could easily do themselves) and the data entry? Secondly, when they get that data, presumably they will then use it either to (a) send unwanted marketing emails to the staff listed, or (b) sell the data to other companies who will send unwanted marketing emails. Sometimes there’s an even better (c) where they try to sell public authorities the database effectively created by their own employees.
Disclosing this data doesn’t make us any more open or accountable. Most departments in public authorities provide generic email addresses through which legitimate marketing emails (and other enquiries) can be sent and if the product or service is of interest, they will be followed up. Targeting individuals is likely to annoy potential customers more than win them over. Yet requests like this one keep pouring in to public authorities across the country.
Don’t get me wrong – as I said at the start of this piece, I accept that we have a duty to provide information that is requested. And as regular readers will know, I’m a supporter of FOI and the rights that it gives people (I wouldn’t have a job without it!). But this is an example of a common type of request that puts our backs up. If you’re working for a business, and you’re putting together a mailing list, a plea – please, please, if you value our sanity, at least do a little research first before asking a public authority to provide you with contact details under FOI. And carefully consider whether your request might ultimately lose you potential business.