Tag Archive for academic research

How to be an FOI Officer

FOIMan brings you his latest article for PDP – and news of a new training course for FOI Officers.

When I first worked as an FOI Officer back in 2003, setting up procedures and systems in the Greater London Authority, the biggest problem was that nobody  (in the UK at least) had done this before. There was some guidance available but broadly speaking every organisation had to make up its approach to FOI from scratch. Things have improved a bit since then, but a lot of FOI Officers are still making it up as they go along to a great extent.

One of the ways that can improve is through academic research. This year we’ve been blessed with not one, but two studies of FOI practices. One is focussed on London’s local authorities, and the other on councils throughout the UK. In my latest piece for the Freedom of Information Journal, I’ve summarised the findings of these important pieces of research.

Once again, I’ll be answering your questions about FOI in a future issue of the Freedom of Information Journal, so do drop me a line if there’s a subject you’d like me to address.

I’m also pleased to announce that my working relationship with PDP is expanding. Earlier this year I was honoured to accept an invitation to head up the exam board for PDP’s Freedom of Information Practitioner Certificate. And even more exciting than that…this Autumn we will be launching a new one-day course for FOI Officers, based on my recently published The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. The first dates for ‘The Role of The FOI Officer’ have been announced, beginning in London on 31 October, with subsequent courses running in Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast over the next year. If you’d like to discuss the best ways to manage and improve FOI performance, or want to more readily decipher decision notices, do please consider booking to join me on one of the days. Details of the course can be found on PDP’s website.

Don’t forget as well the other events I’ll be speaking at this Autumn, most of which are still taking bookings. I hope to see you there!

FOI in English Local Authorities in 2016

FOIMan summarises the results of research into the numbers of FOI requests that local authorities in England received in 2016.

The new s.45 code of practice requires all public authorities to publish data on their FOI performance, but that hasn’t always been required. Outside of central government, the availability of reliable data on FOI request volumes is patchy to say the least.

Local government is reputed to receive the most FOI requests of all public authorities. Between 2005 and 2011, the Constitution Unit at UCL carried out valuable research into FOI in local government, including request volumes. The reports on their research can be found on the UCL website.

Since the 2011 report (on 2010), there hasn’t been any comprehensive data available on FOI volumes in local government in England (to my knowledge). As regular readers will know, I conducted some research into FOI in local government as part of the preparation for my book The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. In Autumn 2017, I wrote to a sample of councils across the country and asked them a number of questions. Amongst those questions I asked for the number of requests received in 2016 and the number of those requests answered in 20 working days.

In my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal I have reported on the results of these questions, and compared them to UCL’s research to examine the trends in council request volumes. It will come as no surprise to learn that request volumes appear to have continued to rise over that period.

If you want to read more about the outcomes of my research, other aspects (including how requests are managed and how performance is monitored) are explored in detail in The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook which will be published at the beginning of January 2019 by Facet Publishing. Details of how to order a copy at a discount can be found at the top of the sidebar opposite.

Parish Councils and FOI

FOIMan writes about recent research on FOI and parish councils in England and Wales and considers what lessons it provides about FOI in general.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallWe all have our own preconceptions about FOI, but when it comes to convincing the decision makers, having good solid evidence from academic research has proved invaluable. Both the recent FOI Commission and the post-legislative scrutiny conducted in 2012 were swayed by this kind of evidence – in many ways it could be said to have saved FOI. Thankfully, neither the Commission nor the Justice Select Committee had had enough of experts.

Probably the most prolific of academic researchers into the UK’s FOI legislation and its impact has been Dr. Ben Worthy, formerly of UCL’s Constitution Unit, and now lecturing at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. Previously he has turned his attention to central government, local government, the Houses of Parliament and universities. Together with academic colleagues he recently turned to parish councils.

The findings of his research are not particularly surprising, but are helpful nonetheless in understanding the peculiar challenges that FOI presents within the lowest tier of government. In my view it also provides some important lessons about FOI and government in general. In particular:

  • lack of resources inevitably leads to poor FOI compliance
  • awareness of FOI and other legal obligations is low in small, poorly resourced public bodies
  • stating that your request is an FOI request will improve your chances of getting a response
  • devolution doesn’t always help improve public services, at least if FOI is anything to go by.

You can read the research paper yourself if you want, or if you prefer a shorter summary, my latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal provides just that and also adds some colour with some decisions of the Commissioner and Tribunals that provide anecdotal support for its findings. In addition, Ben himself wrote a blogpost summarising the research earlier in the year.

Incidentally, if you enjoy my piece on parish councils, I’ve added a new page to the resources section of the FOIMan site where you can access all my articles for the FOI Journal and for other publications besides. Keep checking back as there will be further articles to come later this year.

Are journalists paranoid about FOI?

In a couple of recent posts, I’ve written about how FOI Officers treat requesters’ details, and specifically about the handling of ‘round-robin’ requests. Although my intent was to indicate that, in the main, requesters’ details are handled sensitively and professionally, that wasn’t the message picked up by many of you.

David Higgerson, a journalist who blogs about, well, journalism, wrote about ways to avoid being identified as a ‘round-robin’ requester. The rather wonderfully named Fleet Street Blues blog featured a post on how to ensure that your FOI request isn’t singled out for special treatment. And a post on the Help Me Investigate blog explained “why who is requesting (shouldn’t but) can matter”.

It seemed to me that I’d hit a raw nerve. I asked around on Twitter, and the response was interesting. One journalist with a broadsheet reported that whenever he made an FOI request, his website instantly registers multiple hits from Government domains. Some suspected that the unease was due to bad experiences with Press Officers who get involved. One commented that his main concern was that if there were different procedures for journalists then the information would be disclosed later, just because of the number of desks that the request/response has to pass over.

Rather more worryingly, an FOI Officer suggested that some authorities are inclined to delay responses to journalists, calculating that when the information does eventually go out, the story will be old news. I want to say that that’s a terribly cynical view, but I can’t in all honesty. Of course that sort of thing happens on occasion, mostly in very political environments. I can’t speak for others, but when I’ve found myself in this situation, I’ve spoken out, and I do think that that’s an important part of the FOI Officer’s role. I’m not sure my bosses have always agreed.

On the journalists’ plus column, one civil servant pointed out to me that they have a hot line to the organisation, through the Press Office, that most people don’t. They only have to use FOI at all for the information that the Press Office are unwilling or unable to provide. Most people don’t have that, so have to use FOI as their only route to information.

And it’s not necessarily because they’re journalists that information goes out late. Just this week I sent out two FOI responses on the twentieth working day to a journalist and I pictured him sat there cursing me for deliberately scuppering his story. It was nothing of the sort of course – we’d had problems pulling the information together, coupled with technical issues, and just scraped the deadline. I alerted the Press Office to the responses that were going out, but it didn’t slow things down (in fact, by the time they responded to my email, the responses had already gone out).

So are journalists being paranoid? Like most of us, probably some of the time they are. Often they get a better service if anything, because we’re more concerned about how they’ll report the story.

But perhaps they’ve got a point. Academic Professor Alasdair Roberts wrote about the experience of Canadian journalists using FOI ten years ago. Government departments in Canada had a systematic approach for dealing with requests from journalists and other types of requester. If a request was from a journalist and/or related to certain sensitive subjects, it would be referred to the Minister. To cut a long story short, Professor Roberts’ research found that the result was that journalists tended to get responses later, and also that their requests were (significantly) more likely to be refused.

I don’t know if anyone has conducted similar research here in the UK (UCL Constitution Unit? University of Northumbria?), but it would be fascinating to hear from them if they have. Maybe those of us who are responsible for overseeing FOI in our respective institutions need to keep an eye out and ensure that we’re doing all we can to provide a fair service to our requesters from the media.