Tag Archive for FOI requests

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 if the Requester became the Requested?

FOI Man imagines a world where journalists have to answer FOI requests…

In these hallowed pages, you’ve read on many an occasion of the concerns that some in the public sector have about FOI. Some of those concerns I sympathise with, some I don’t. One thing that is predictable, by and large, is that journalists won’t.

Now I love the ladies and gentlemen of the Press. Well, most of them, anyway. But I’ve often wondered if their views of FOI might be affected if they experienced working in an FOIable world. It’s very easy to criticise delays if you’ve never had to juggle the main work that you have to complete with one or more demanding FOI requests. And the use of exemptions to withhold information can readily be painted as a lack of commitment to openness if your emails have never been the subject of a statutory duty to disclose. (Although some media organisations are probably getting more used to that these days, come to think of it).

At the height of hackgate last month, one MP made the wild suggestion that media organisations should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I’ve been dying to write this ever since. And as it’s Friday…

A bead of perspiration ran down Bill’s forehead. A hot summer day, but he hadn’t the time to join his colleagues in the pub. Bill was writing up the scoop of his life. This was the kind of story that could make a journalist’s career. All he had to do was get it to his editor by 7.

The phone rings. Bill sees who it is and sighs. He picks up.

“Hi Bill?”

“Yes, Sarah, how can I help you? Not another FOI?”

“’fraid so. And I need the answers by tomorrow – it’s been with you for three weeks now.”

“You’re kidding? I’m dead busy Sarah – can’t do it now.”

“It’s got to be now. We’ve already been named and shamed by the Information Commissioner for not meeting deadlines. Unless this goes out on time, we will have trouble. The Editor signed an undertaking last month, and told us all to get our house in order.”

Bill knew she was right. The paper had had some bad press itself lately, and this would add to their troubles.

“OK, Sarah, let me look into it and I’ll come back to you.”

So Bill dropped his work on his scoop. The FOI, funnily enough, was asking for copies of all correspondence relating to the story he was working on. It was speculative, from a journalist on another paper, but it happened that all his key evidence was relevant. He’d put months of work into this story, but some hack who had got lucky with a fishing expedition was now going to get the fruits of his labour for free. His only hope was to get his story out first. But he’d already lost three or four hours pulling together the information for Sarah. He finished forwarding the relevant emails to her, and looked at his watch, yawning. He had to get home, and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to miss the last train. Oh well. Another day tomorrow not even touched.

The next day, Thursday, Bill completed his piece. He forwarded it to the Editor for approval. Nothing. He checked with the Editor’s PA. She was busy all afternoon with the Head of Law and Sarah, considering a request for internal review in a case where there were five boxes of papers. They’d have to read every sheet to work out if anything could be disclosed. When he did eventually hear from the Editor, it was to say that she’d need to consider the story carefully as there were legal issues. Bill sighed, pulled on his coat and headed off to meet his source and buy them dinner.

He watched with some consternation as the Source chose the most expensive item on the menu, before selecting a fine wine. That was a hundred quid he could wave goodbye to. In the old days, he might have claimed for dinner on expenses, but since an MP had made an FOI request for all journalists’ expense claims and receipts two years ago, he was afraid to claim for anything. He had just managed to escape with his job from the resulting furore, though his claim for a pigeon coop had caused much mirth in Parliament.

Friday morning. Heading to the station, Bill stopped off at the newsagent for a packet of paracetamol and the morning’s papers. He stopped aghast as he laid the papers on the counter. There, on the front page of the Daily Jupiter, is his story. It is illustrated with a huge image of one of the emails that he’d sent to Sarah two days before. He nearly forgot to pay in his rush to get to the office. It was time to go freelance.

Meanwhile, the Editor was sweating over an email she’d sent to a private investigator the year before, which had come up in a search for relevant information to answer an FOI request. She couldn’t believe that she’d put her instruction in writing…

It’s worth pointing out that if the media were subject to FOI, it is likely that they would benefit from the same derogation that the BBC and Channel 4 have for information related to their journalism (and which often attracts criticism from other media organisations). But hopefully this story illustrates the point that often dealing with FOI requests involves people central to delivering public services – senior nurses, doctors, lecturers, social workers, etc. And even with a derogation, FOI has implications for how an organisation is resourced.

I’m sure this sketch bears little relation to a real newsroom. I’ve never worked for a newspaper, so I’m basing this on too much TV and a fertile imagination. But perhaps it might illustrate to some why public sector bodies sometimes struggle with FOI.

Don’t worry, media friends, I’m not seriously proposing that you should be subject to FOI. But I bet there are a few out there who would like it…

You’re getting me vexed

FOI Man considers whether DCLG is right to refuse requests from anonymous critics of Eric Pickles

My old granny used to use that phrase whenever young FOI Boy misbehaved on her watch. And whenever I think about section 14 – the vexatious requests provision – of the FOI Act, that affectionate memory is summoned up.

Last week the Local Government Chronicle  (sorry – link is to a subscription site) highlighted the rising number of FOI requests being refused by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) using this provision. Not only that, but lately DCLG have apparently been insisting on proof of identity from a number of requesters, presumably because they doubt that they are using their real names. If they’re not using their real names, then DCLG can quite legitimately refuse to answer their requests, since the requests are not valid requests under section 8(1) of the Act.

The refusals may well be related to the activities of the entertainingly monickered individual known as Derek Tickles. Derek has admitted that his name is a pseudonym as he claims to work for DCLG. I have to admit that I’m unsure why DCLG have resorted to s.14 in his case, since s.8(1) would be sufficient to refuse his requests (and yes, I know there is some debate about whether or not the use of a pseudonym automatically makes a request invalid, but since neither the Information Commissioner nor the Tribunal would be likely to pursue a case brought by an anonymous individual, the argument is purely academic for the time being – and public bodies work in the realm of the practical).

Personally I find Derek’s posts and some of his requests amusing, and it is possible to see a serious purpose behind his campaign. But the fact remains that his avowed anonymity and public profile make it very easy for DCLG to make the case that his requests are either invalid or vexatious. And this is the case for anybody who uses obvious pseudonyms or makes requests that can be easily linked to such individuals.

Public bodies have to manage FOI as with any other service – they have limited resources. So I find it difficult to criticise DCLG for refusing to answer the requests of Derek and his merry band. Their staff who answer requests will be stretched answering valid requests, no doubt. If there are requests that can be easily filtered out legitimately, of course they are going to do that. As I’ve said before, the best way to find out information about an organisation anonymously (and I appreciate that there are situations that warrant this) is to be subtle. Use a pseudonym by all means but keep it discreet. Rhyming your name with the Secretary of State is likely to get you noticed.

Of course, there’s a wider question. Why do people feel that they can’t use their real names? Even public servants should have the right to express themselves. Maybe DCLG should be giving that question a bit more thought. And maybe there needs to be a – manageable – mechanism inserted into the FOI Act that allows anonymous requests to be valid in certain circumstances.

What’s wrong with FOI?

FOI Man makes the case for and against FOI and more transparency – what do you think?

It’s very easy for an FOI Officer to find fault with FOI. But hopefully regular readers will have picked up by now that I support FOI and moves towards openness in the public sector.

Unlike some, I don’t have any beef with particular groups who use FOI. Let’s look at the usual suspects.

Of course businesses use it to draw up contact lists for marketing, or to build databases which they will then sell at profit. It’s their right, and those who promote FOI in Government think this is a “good thing”. It is a mechanism that allows information collected or created at public expense to stimulate the economy. It is a strong justification of FOI in a largely market-based economy. It is why Conservative, as much as Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters, feel able to support openness initiatives.

Students use it to research their degree projects. So what? It’s good that they have the nous to use a facility such as FOI. We only have to provide what we have and if the cost is excessive we have an answer to that. It’s frankly not true that, as some would have it, we have to do their work for them – if information is publicly available to them, we just have to point them in the right direction and if necessary cite the exemption for information that is otherwise accessible.

It’s a good thing that journalists use FOI. I’d rather see stories based on evidence that I’ve helped provide than see badly researched sensationalism in the papers. Surely I’m not the only FOI Officer that gets a buzz when I see something I’ve provided mentioned in the Press? I sympathise with those who have become jaded because of the attitude of some (not all, or even most) journalists, and the way that some disclosures have been presented, but the answer is to remain positive and open, not to become defensive. Otherwise we just reinforce negative attitudes to the public sector in the media.

Users of WhatDoTheyKnow are using a service to make requests. It’s marginally easier to make a request using it than sending an email. Some will abuse that ease, but that’s going to happen with any route made available. And by engaging with those who work for and with WDTK, we have an opportunity to encourage responsible behaviour amongst requesters.

My point is that we can’t have a right and then quibble about who’s “allowed” to use it. And FOI is an important right. Whether we like it or not, it has become an internationally recognised badge of a free and democratic society. It’s as much about demonstrating our aspirations as a modern and progressive country as it is about accountability and transparency. This is one reason that I was disappointed by Tony Blair’s admittance in his autobiography that he considered FOI a mistake. If that’s true, that’s not only hindsight, but also short sight.

That said, of course, it’s very easy for supporters and users of FOI to become blinkered. One of the vaguely articulated aims of this blog is to demonstrate the impact that the legislation, and people’s use of it, has on public authorities and the services that they provide. It is neither perfect nor pain-free. And maintaining it, somewhere down the line, means choosing between FOI and provision of other services.

I’ve said previously that I am irritated by statements such as “it’s our information”. Aside from the fact that it is legally inaccurate, it is hopelessly impractical. Information is collected by public bodies so that they can provide the services that some or all of us rely on. Often, the provision of those services will be compatible with, and may even be served by, disclosure of the collected information to the public. But on occasion, it just isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be in our interests (as a society) to do so. It’s not that I view Government as always benevolent and paternal, or take a view that we should accept what we’re given without question. But I do accept that at least some of the time, things work better without me or others knowing every last detail. If only because the physical means of disseminating that level of information will get in the way of the provision of essential services.

If FOI and other transparency initiatives are going to work, they have to be managed as a process. That means, I’m afraid, refusing requests that will cost too much. Recognising that some people do abuse the privilege and turning them away. And using exemptions where we have concerns over the impact of disclosure of certain information. It means thinking carefully about the resource implications (I know, dirty words in the public sector at the moment) of more transparency. I think it also means looking at how transparency and FOI can contribute to the wider aims of the public sector. It has to be more obvious to public servants what the point of openness is, beyond satisfying curiosity. Can it help us make the savings expected of us? Are there ways that it can be built into our processes to make them more (and not less) effective? What are the wider benefits to our society?

So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about the future of FOI and how it can be made to work better? I’m particularly interested in hearing your constructive comments on FOI and transparency (rather than the knee-jerk reactions that we’re all prone to when we feel very strongly about something). Let me know by commenting here, or via Twitter (@foimanuk).

Vexatious requests – new Tribunal decision

Just a quick post from me today to flag up an interesting Tribunal decision on vexatious requests (s.14 of the Act). The case is particularly interesting as both the Tribunal and the Commissioner are seen to support the use of the provision to defend against the FOI equivalent of ‘Denial of Service’ attacks.

The decision is also entertaining in its descriptions of the lengths that the University concerned and the Information Commissioner went to to establish that a number of individuals were acting in concert.