Tag Archive for FOI Officers

Don’t Google your requesters

FOIMan explains that searching for FOI requesters is not a great idea – and is ethically (and legally) dubious.

This blog originally aimed to give the practitioner’s view of FOI. Far too often, the important role of FOI officers and public officials in making FOI work has been ignored. So an increasing interest in how FOI really works behind the scenes is to be celebrated.

We’ve seen it in two recent reports on FOI in local authorities. The first from MySociety looked at FOI in local government across the UK. The second, from the Campaign for FOI, focussed on how London boroughs managed their FOI obligations. Interestingly, the findings of the two reports on practices in local councils are broadly in line with my own research which you can read about in the free chapter from The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook that I wrote about in my last post.

The Campaign for FOI’s research commented on the London Borough of Lambeth’s practices, and I was reminded of this when my attention was drawn last week to a post by a local blogger who had obtained Lambeth’s internal staff guidance for handling FOI requests. The News from Crystal Palace blog published the guidance pretty much in full, highlighting a number of practices which they felt were of concern.

Having read through it, much of the guidance is pretty standard stuff, and in fact I would go as far as to suggest that there is some very good practice in Lambeth. For example, strict timelines and service standards are a good way to ensure that requests are answered within statutory deadlines.

One particular section is of concern, however. Staff allocated a request are told:

‘You may want to consider all or some of the following when you are assessing a request:

  • Google the requester to understand who is making the request, why and assess the likely impact to the council (e.g. political, media, legal, commercial, personal data).
  • Review previous requests from the requester in iCasework.’

No. I can, at a pinch, understand the human instinct of curiosity that might lead an uninformed member of staff to use a search engine to find out about a requester. But FOI officers should be discouraging this practice, and certainly not making it official policy.

I know all the excuses. Often it is linked to a policy whereby an authority’s Press Office is informed when a journalist makes a request. In principle I don’t have a problem with that, as long as public authorities are open about the fact that they do it. The problem is that some journalists, perhaps suspicious that they will be treated differently, don’t identify themselves as such. The Act doesn’t require them to do so. The argument goes that therefore every requester has to be googled in order to identify the very small percentage of requesters that are unidentified journalists.

I’m going to suggest that this is flawed logic. Firstly, since most public authorities, and certainly councils, are suffering the effects of cuts to their budgets, why are they encouraging staff to waste precious staff time on the off-chance that someone might be a journalist? Even if they are, it shouldn’t make any difference to the outcome of the request, so surely this is a complete waste of time?

Secondly, how does the council know that someone who isn’t a journalist in the formal sense won’t blog or Tweet about disclosed information? Or pass it to a journalist for that matter? Given this, the fact that one or two journalists might not be picked up doesn’t seem that important.

Thirdly, whilst I recognise that Press Officers have a job to do, I don’t see why they necessarily need to know who is making a request. The sensitivity of a request surely ought to be judged on the subject matter, irrespective of who has made it. Lambeth apparently circulate a list of requests to their Press Office and the Leader’s Office. If this just describes the subject matter of the request this should normally be enough for them to identify where they might need to be prepared for controversy (which really should be the limit of their involvement following an FOI request).

There will be a director of public relations somewhere barking “well, why shouldn’t we?”, so here are a few points in answer to that question.

  • what’s your lawful basis? An individual’s FOI request, their identity, biographical information about them is personal data. You need a lawful basis to justify the handling of personal data – including searching for information about someone online. I presume you’ve completed a legitimate interest assessment and successfully justified how your need to know whether or not someone is a journalist outweighs the rights and freedoms of requesters? Even if you decide that you do have such a basis, are you otherwise complying with the requirements of the GDPR? Are you telling requesters that if they make a request it will result in the council looking them up online?
  • they can find out that you’re doing it. If the requester has a website, the most commonly used analytics tools will provide enough information to them so that they will spot unusual spikes in interest from your general location just after they made a request to you. There’s an example of this happening described in my book if you don’t believe me.
  • it’s creepy. Most comment on Twitter in response to revelations about Lambeth’s practice was to the effect that Lambeth were ‘spying’ on their residents. If a public authority is so concerned about its reputation that it employs Press Officers, shouldn’t it be just a little uncomfortable about gaining a public image associated with the fiction of George Orwell?

FOI is a right. Full stop. If people choose to exercise it, that is their business. If a public authority has good reason to believe that someone is misusing this right – perhaps harassing a member of staff, for instance – there are mechanisms for dealing with that. It is not usually necessary for a public authority to snoop on people to identify this kind of misuse.

Don’t google requesters. There’s usually no good reason, and it has the potential to do a lot of harm.

 

Ten things practitioners hate…

FOIMan writes about the ten things FOI requesters do which most annoy practitioners.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallBack in March, the PDP Freedom of Information Journal published a piece by me listing the ten things that requesters hate most about the way their requests are handled. I provided access to a copy of the article here, and promised to bring you a further piece looking at this from the opposite perspective.

So here’s my latest piece for the Journal on Ten Things FOI Practitioners Hate Most. How do FOI requesters cause frustration for FOI Officers? Feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with these!

The ten things FOI requesters hate most

FOIMan writes for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal on the “ten things FOI requesters hate most” about the way public authorities handle their requests.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallThose of you working for public authorities – FOI Officers and others – work hard, I’m sure, to get FOI responses out as soon as possible. And no doubt you do your best to keep the customers satisfied. But we can always do more, and a bit of constructive feedback can help us to improve.

But how do you get that feedback? Sometimes requesters ask for an internal review, but often they don’t. So we have to find other ways to get inside the minds of those who want to know more about our organisations. How? Well, what do most of us do these days when we’re annoyed with somebody? We Tweet about it, of course!

I’ve saved you some time by trawling Twitter, WhatDoTheyKnow and other sources to identify the behaviours that cause our requesters the most annoyance. It’s completely unscientific, but you can read what I came up with in my latest piece for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal. If you’re a subscriber, your copy of the journal should be landing on your doormat (or in your inbox) right about now.

What makes FOI effective? FOI Officers do

FOIMan tells civil servants that FOI practitioners deserve credit for FOI’s success over the last ten years.

The National Archives in Kew, south-west London

The National Archives in Kew, south-west London

Earlier today I was pleased to speak at an event organised by the UK National Archives in Kew, south-west London, for central government information managers. The topic of my talk was “Ten years of FOI: what makes FOI effective?”.

The pedantic amongst you may point out that FOI is actually almost 14 years old, but of course the 10 years refers to the commencement date of the right of access to information which was 1 January 2005.

I decided not to give a potted history of FOI (partly because I knew that the following speakers, Dr Ben Worthy and Maurice Frankel, would do a much better job), but instead chose a number of anecdotes from my time as an FOI Officer. Some of them I’ve referred to here before. They included requests for information about the Olympics which caused angst for LOCOG and the IOC; a surprising request for correspondence about pandas; and perhaps the most surreal experience of my career – sitting in a room in Buckingham Palace discussing an FOI request whilst bear-skinned guards marched past performing popular tunes for crowds of tourists.

A key theme of my address was the difficulties that FOI officers have encountered over the last decade – and how they have successfully risen to them. The ever increasing volume of requests has been well documented, but those coordinating FOI activities in public bodies have also had to champion the legislation’s requirements often in the face of opposition from colleagues and those in high places. One audience member was keen to point out that senior officials’ views are often helpful in identifying sensitive information, and of course this is true. But nonetheless it often falls to relatively junior FOI officers to explain that it will not be possible to deny access to that  material. And the reaction to unwanted advice has on occasions been to shoot the messenger.

But despite these difficulties, FOI has changed the culture of government departments and public bodies. Although we hear many examples of responses being delayed and documents being withheld unreasonably, vast amounts of information have reached daylight. In some cases surprisingly so, especially given attitudes back in late 2004. There are lots of reasons that can be put forward for this, but I believe that a really significant one has been the growing professionalism, experience and knowledge of those who are answering the requests. They display integrity in their management of FOI requirements. They haven’t just accepted the status quo; they’ve helped push the transparency agenda, even when it made their jobs difficult. Even the relentless rise of requests is a positive sign – people recognise that FOI can and does work, otherwise they wouldn’t bother. FOI officers have helped FOI to make a difference.

They have made FOI effective.

Thanks to the National Archives team for organising a really interesting and successful event, and for asking me to speak.

 

Keep the politics out of FOI

The Leader of Kirklees Council has been accused of vetting and altering FOI responses from his council. FOI Man thinks that politicians should keep out of answering FOI requests for their own good.

Just a brief post because I wanted to draw attention to David Higgerson’s post on the Council Leader at Kirklees Council. The Council Leader in question allegedly insists on reading FOI responses before they go out and seemingly forcing the FOI Officer to change responses that don’t quite fit with his political message.

First thing to be clear about. Most FOI Officers don’t have all the information in their organisation to hand. They have to ask other people about it. And it’s absolutely right that people in a position to know the information are able to correct errors before the information goes out.

And there are reasons why an elected politician may need to see details of a request and proposed response – for example if they are the “qualified person” ruling if disclosure of information would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs (under s.36 of the Act). If the information relates to them, there may be good reason to consult them to check the accuracy of the information.

But by and large, I’ve always felt that politicians, and for that matter, political advisors,  should be kept out of preparing FOI responses unless they happen to have the relevant information. Even if their motives are purer than pure, it just doesn’t look good. And as David points out, if an FOI Officer is able to collate information to answer a request, why should a politician stop it, just because they don’t like the way it portrays them? At the best it looks like control-freakery; at the worst it politicises and undermines what should be an effective administrative process.

It does happen unfortunately, but hopefully articles like this one in the Hudderfield Examiner will demonstrate to politicians and their advisors that their best bet is to stay as far away as possible from answering FOI requests.