What Staffordshire County Council’s breakdown of FOI applicants tells us about the authority

The Staffordshire Hoard was a huge find in a field near Lichfield. Staffordshire County Council is less keen on the information treasure hunters daring to use FOI to hold it to account

Staffordshire County Council’s decision to ‘name and shame’ organisations costing it money through Freedom of Information requests has prompted a lot of criticism.

My main bugbear is that, in the scheme of council spending, the cost of handling FOI requests remains tiny, as illustrated brilliantly by the Daily Mirror’s Ampp3d data journalism website here.

Staffordshire County Council’s actions have also concerned the Information Commissioner, with fears that the ‘name and shame’ approach is designed to put people off applying for information this way in the future. Well, that’s one way to reduce council service costs – how long until children receiving free school meals can expect their picture pinned up outside the canteen? An outrageous suggestion of course, but the principle is the same.

Paul Bradshaw makes a very good point that the roll of dishonour published by Staffordshire prompts many questions, and also fails to reveal what people were asking for. In other words, why they were having to use FOI.

Staffordshire argues the list – which appears to be based on the assumption that the minimum FOI cost is £50, which is a flaky position to start from – is designed to show ‘wrongful’ use of FOI. That’s a very subjective position for a publicly-funded authority to take.

But in publishing the list, it appears to be revealing that it’s not doing all it can itself to keep FOI costs down. For example, three parish and town councils within Staffordshire appear on the list of ‘offenders.’ If councils it is meant to support can’t get information, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Five councils from elsewhere in the country appear on the list too – it would be fascinating to know what sort of query one council must make of another council that it has to go through FOI. And then there’s Tamworth Borough Council, a borough council within Staffordshire, seemingly having to use FOI to get information from a council which it should be working with freely anyway. Type the phrases “Tamworth Borough Council”, “Staffordshire County Council” and “partnerships” into Google and you get dozens of results about working together. Why not for FOI too?

There’s also a councillor on there too. We don’t know – or rather, aren’t told – who Cllr Jones represents or which council he sits on. Lets hope it’s not the Cllr Jones who is a Tory serving part of Stafford on the county council. A councillor having to use FOI for his own authority? That would be a poor show. To be honest, any councillor having to use FOI for any council suggests something isn’t right.

And Unison, probably the largest public sector union in Staffordshire, also having to use it? That hardly screams open staff relations, does it?

The Express and Star, based in Wolverhampton but covering most of the county, tops the list for FOI costs, with £1,950 being spent. Based on the £50 an FOI rule created by Staffordshire, that’s 39 requests. It’s a no-brainer comment to say that the E and S will spend more than that covering the council’s affairs every year.

Like many other newsrooms, I imagine the E and S has found it has become increasingly expensive to cover local councils in recent years as councils have put more effort into keeping news management and, most obviously, made the most of the changes to the Local Government Act in 2000 which meant fewer decision are debated in public, and less information made available as standard.

The question Staffordshire County Council should be asking is this: Why are so many people feeling that they have to use FOI? The council argues FOI is a no-cost (to the applicant) way for doing detailed research. If they really believe that, they are very niave. At best, FOI merely replaces many of the rights to information which journalists used to take for granted but which have slowly been eroded in recent years.

It isn’t a magic bullet solution to newsgathering. You can’t guarantee a result from an FOI request, and the determination by many authorities to adopt a ‘how can we say no’ approach as opposed to the assumption that the requester has the right to know naturally leads to more requests coming in.

As Ampp3d point out, the cost of FOI in Staffordshire is a fraction of one per cent. Like many other councils which complain bitterly about FOI, I think their angst is more to do with the fact they don’t like a law which lets people choose what they’d like to know about, rather than just being told the stuff a public authority wants to share.

Staffordshire’s handling of this FOI shoutdown is proof of that approach. It has chosen to carefully select the information it has presented for its case against FOI. Details of the requests themselves aren’t there, and no information is provided on alternative routes to that information. Even Staffordshire’s disclosure log appears to have died a death.

The cost of FOI could be much cheaper, of course. But only if public authorities become more open with information and data. That’s a huge change in approach but presumably the right one for public bodies which are, at the end of the day, here to provide a service we pay for.

 

 

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