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.