What to do when you’re told ‘put in an FOI for an answer to that.’

The ‘FOIs cost too much’ argument appears to have gained some new momentum as public bodies around the country await the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

I’ve always thought it’s quite a shallow argument because the logical conclusion it take you to is that only those with the money to pay public authorities to find information for them should have the right to know how taxpayers funding is spent.

It’s also an argument which, in truth, has more to do with the frustration councils and other public bodies sometimes feel about the volume of FOI requests they get from journalists. It would, after all, be much easier for public bodies not to have to be open and accountable – especially with journalists – and that’s why many councils jumped on the chance to reform their meetings structure with such zeal about a decade ago.

When councils opted to switch from a committees-for-everything approach – cumbersome, slow but crucial if we were to see decisions made in public – for a cabinet-style system, there was nothing which guaranteed the Press, or the public would have a right to attend. It soon became commonplace for these meetings to be little more than nodding through exercises, with all decisions taken in advance and information on the agenda kept to a minimum. Efficient it might well have been, but very damaging for local democracy too.

But back to FOI and the ‘it’s costing too much’ argument. For as long as we have public bodies which respond to a Press request with the response ‘put in an FOI if you want the answer’ then surely it will be impossible to argue that FOI is too expensive to continue administering.

When I compile FOI Friday I normally see one or two examples a week of newspapers reporting that when they asked for information, they were told to request it under FOI. It’s a clever tactic which can kick a tricky issue into the long grass for 20 days (or longer), by which time the public body involved will hope the media agenda has simply moved on.

But an FOI request by its nature will always be more expensive to administer than a press request – and public bodies know this.

The reason I bring all of this up is because I thought it was worth sharing a blog post by Judith Townend, ex of journalism.co.uk, who reports on how Ventnor Blog, based on the Isle of Wight, has been told a series of questions it had submitted through the usual channels concerning plans to spend £220k on repairing a lift.

The decision is due to be made under delegated powers – that means it won’t be discussed before a committee, as it would have been in the old days, but instead decided by one person.  Isle of Wight Council has instead decided to treat the questions as an FOI submission.

Hmmm – so what’s the best thing to do in such circumstances? I’ve posted my thoughts on Judith’s blog, and I think there’s probably a useful discussion to be had around dealing with such situations.

For me, making sure as many people as possible know the council is being secretive is probably the best opening salvo, something VB had already done…

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One comment

  1. I fully endorse what David said in this blog. I would also like to add that there are definitely some council officials that view the whole transparency agenda as a waste of their time, citing the amount of time (and cost) involved in answering FOI requests.

    My view is that there will always be a percentage of FOI requests that could be classified as ‘nuisance’ questions, asked simply to be difficult, but I believe that the majority of FOI questions are raised out of genuine concern by members of the public.

    The way to reduce these genuine questions is to be even more open and transparent so that the answer is self-evident. To put it differently – that the prospective questioner has the ‘aha, now I understand’ moment without having to submit an FOI request.

    On our Council Expenses Dashboard at – http://www.biolap.co.uk/index.php/councilexpenses.html we now have data from 70 Councils to a varying degree of quality. I believe that the councils publishing greater detail and providing better context for transactions will receive fewer FOI requests in the long run.

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