Tag Archive for Barmy FOI requests

FOI and First Contact

FOI Man brings you a tale of alien first contact from Scotland…

Last year Leicester City Council revealed their plans for responding to a zombie attack, and now Glasgow City Council has shown its preparedness for alien first contact. The council was asked:

“As mankind continues to advance and head out into the stars we are undoubtedly going to attract the attention of whatever lifeforms are out there. I’m curious to know what provisions have been put in place for our inevitable encounter.”

Glasgow’s Head of Information Governance, Dr Kenneth Meechan, could very easily have responded by answering that the information was not held, or claimed that the request was vexatious. But no. As he put it to me, he is “a science fiction fan [so] it’s nice to get a rare chance to mix work and pleasure”. I’m not sure whether or not the requester will be reassured that the council does not view alien contact as likely within the next five years. Aliens may be pleased to learn though that the council can assure them “a warm and peaceful welcome.” Overall, Dr Meechan concluded that contact was unlikely as “[t]he council does not own or control any radio telescopes” and because Glasgow only covers 0.00003% of the planet’s surface, making it statistically unlikely that aliens would choose to land there.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the request and its creative response attracted wide media coverage in Scotland. The Scotsman and The Herald each raised an amused eyebrow, whilst the Scottish Sun showed a picture of Mr Spock raising one whilst reporting on “wacky council number crunchers.” Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.

Last word goes to the Glasgow City Council spokesperson who told the Scottish Sun: “We like to go the extra mile to answer freedom of information requests — even if the truth isn’t out there.”

Thanks to Dr Meechan for sending me links to those articles, and for providing a bit of welcome FOI Friday fun.

Attack of the Zombie FOI Requesters

FOI Man suggests that for FOI to thrive, we need to start listening to its critics from within the public sector. And recognising that zombie requesters won’t help.

Last week’s Friday fun was an FOI request to Leicester City Council regarding their emergency planning. Specifically, their planning for the eventuality of an invasion of zombies. And we now know (though the formal response is yet to be sent out) that the council is not prepared for a sudden incursion of the braindead (insert witty comment here).

Reaction on Twitter was mixed. Most found it amusing (and I amongst them in truth). But some, and not just public officials, saw it as a misguided use of FOI. A subversion of an important right.

The journalist David Higgerson feared that the story had been planted by a public authority press officer to show how FOI was being abused. But he was encouraged by the response of the local authority’s Head of Information Governance, Lynn Wyeth, who had this to say of the request (according to BBC News):

“To you it might seem frivolous and a waste of time… but to different people it actually means something,” said Ms Wyeth.

“Everybody has their own interests and their own reasons for asking these questions.”

A sentiment worthy of applause. It’s absolutely at the heart of FOI that it doesn’t matter who is asking or what they are asking for, their request should be answered. It is a right. And FOI Officers should take Ms Wyeth’s approach at all times. If somebody asks the question, just answer it.

And yet…and yet. Whilst I share that view, and I know that many other FOI Officers will, I’m sure they will also share my experience that the majority of our colleagues are not yet there. They are cynical of the advantages that FOI brings. Some of those colleagues are at senior levels, and David mentions the councillors who grumble about the cost of FOI. It’s not just councillors. There are many who resent the time and apparent cost of FOI. I hear it all the time.

We who believe in FOI can always find an answer to their concerns. But however right we may be, there are many who will remain unconvinced. And unfortunately, as the public sector comes under more financial pressure in coming months and years, their voices will get louder. And they will point to requests about zombies, the paranormal and toilet rolls to support their case that FOI is costly and fails to deliver benefit. There will be many in Government who will sympathise.

It has happened before. In Ireland, following similar experiences, the Government introduced an inhibitive charging scheme. Requests dropped off rapidly. But so did the effectiveness of FOI in that country at opening up government and the public sector.

My fear is that a combination of zombie requests, public sector spending cuts and lack of support for FOI at all levels in public authorities could seriously damage our right to access information in this country.  As FOI Officers, we have a duty to promote FOI to our colleagues. But we can’t just keep repeating the same old answers in the hope that they will have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion.

The only way we can progress in instilling FOI as a culture in our organisations and our country is to listen to colleagues’ concerns. Are there ways we can work with them to demonstrate that FOI doesn’t have to be a threat? Can we recognise that sometimes the results of FOI are unhelpful? These are questions that we need to seriously consider and find answers to.

We should acknowledge that some requests are a waste of resources (even if we can’t actually refuse them). We should use exemptions appropriately where colleagues have legitimate concerns. We should refuse requests that will be overly onerous on grounds of cost. And as long as we don’t compromise on ensuring that requests are responded to in compliance with the legislation, we should work with colleagues in other departments who are responsible for defending our organisation’s reputation.

There’s no shame in any of that. But it might, slowly but surely, start to win over some of those with concerns over FOI and dampen down demands for restrictive reform.


If you don’t use it responsibly, you’ll lose it

Wow, the end of February already! I’m reminded that I started this year by posting my guide to making responsible FOI requests. Judging by some requests that we FOI Officers receive, a reminder is timely.

Here’s a perfect example of the sort of thing that drives us round the twist (and drags the reputation of FOI through the mud). The requester asked universities:

“I am really interested in the heights in feet and inches of the interviewees and the accepted undergraduate population.”

And there’s the requester who uses What Do They Know to bombard hospital trusts with questions such as:

“1) How long does a medical degree take to complete?

2)  How many specialities are there?

3)  Which specialities require surgical ability rather than just diagnostic ability?

4) a) How long does a doctor have to see a patient in any capacity?

b) How many gigabytes of information are on the website provided for doctors by the BMA?

c) How much did the BMA website cost to collate?

d) Is the BMA website open to the general public’s use?

e) If not why not?”

Of course, the person concerned may be honestly curious about these issues. And giving them the benefit of the doubt, they may think that a hospital is the best place to go to ask these questions (rather than say, checking the BMA website). But why they have to send the same questions to 18 NHS Trusts (which is an improvement on the last set that went to approximately 200) I’m not sure I understand.

It’s tempting I’m sure to think that these are just the whinges of public servants who should just get on with it. And to a point you’re right. But I have a sneaking suspicion that sooner or later this Government is going to find that FOI is as inconvenient for them as it was for some in the last government.

Remember the ‘toilet roll’ requests that were rolled out by the Labour Government when it wanted to adjust the fees regulations? I think we’ll someday soon hear a Coalition minister reeling off the most ridiculous requests they can find as justification for tightening up on FOI (there were some hints of this in Martin Rosenbaum’s interview with Lord McNally recently). And this time they’ve got the added argument of the need to make significant cuts to public services. This government likes openness (just like the last one to be fair) just as long as it has the choice over what it is being open about.

So, a reminder – if you or anyone you know is tempted to make an FOI request, ask them to take a look at my ten top tips. Don’t make it easy for politicians to portray FOI as an expensive luxury.

Barmy FOI requests

FOI Officers working in higher education have this week been bombarded by a series of FOI requests which looked remarkably similar but came from separate email addresses and were signed off with different names. The questions (three or four of which were in each email) were very long and rambling, but basically all related to the governance of Student Unions under the Education Act 1994.

It was clear that the requests were from one organisation, even if not the same person, and further research confirmed the likelihood of this.

In practice, whilst the requests are rather rambling, some of the information should be reasonably easy for universities to pull together. If it doesn’t prove that easy, there is enough evidence in the requests to support aggregation of the requests and refusal on grounds of cost should the cost of locating and retrieving the information requested in all four be more than £450 (requests can be aggregated if they’re from a campaign as well as if they’re from an individual).

But why send four or five requests when you can send one? Why pretend to be several people when it’s likely these were all written by one person (and why make such a rubbish pretence that you’re not the same person/organisation)? The questions could have been sent in one request (and made rather more succinct). My guess is that the requesters don’t understand the way the fees regulations work and are trying to bypass them.

In practice, all they’ve achieved is the irritation of every Higher Education FOI Officer in the country.  Perhaps they should be directed to my ten top tips for making responsible FOI requests!

Should I be working for private businesses?

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.