In recent months, several councils have pushed for the right to charge people for FOI requests on the grounds that the process is starting to cost them too much.
It’s a typical local government tactic: if in doubt, charge the user. Fortunately, communities secretary Eric Pickles has said there’s no danger of the government authorising councils to charge for FOI requests, regardless of who they come from.
But that shouldn’t stop councils looking at reducing their FOI costs. Here are seven ways councils, and other bodies, could do just that. This post is just a collection of thoughts from the outside of local government. I don’t intend to cause offence, and I’m sure there are reasons why some of the below haven’t happened. But surely everything’s worth a revisit?:
1. Tell people how they can get hold of information: Most council websites do an OK job when it comes to telling people how they can pay their council tax or submit a planning application, but fall massively short when it comes to advising people how to get hold of information. Often, FOI sections are little more than a page on how to submit an email to make a request. Most FOI officers I speak to say many FOI requests could be dealt with through other means – but how are the public expected to know this if they aren’t told about it? A list of data available on the council website would be a start.
2. Publish a list of common FOI mistakes: Journalists often have the benefit of FOI training, or at the very least know to get hold of a copy of Your Right To Know. Publishing a list of commonly-made mistakes in FOI requests which slow the process down (and presumably take up more non-charge time as a result) would surely help improve efficiency.
3. Have a word with the press office: Why do journalists submit so many FOI requests? Surely part of the answer here lies with the role of the press office. There was a fair bit of discussion around the fact press offices not wishing to release information often tell reporters to submit FOI requests instead. Getting them to stop that would be a start.
4. Publish disclosure logs: Councils in particular have been slow at adopting the principle of making all FOI requests publicly available. Why? A quick glance through FOIs on What Do They Know reveals many duplicate or similar FOIs to authorities, and encouraging people to view an online record of already published responses should lead to a reduction in FOI requests. Fire and police authorities seem quite good at this, councils less so. Lancashire County Council, for example, told me four years ago a disclosure log was just around the corner. I can’t find it.
5. Do more with the open data you are publishing: Of the councils which have began publishing opendata, many are publishing in formats which are aimed at developers – RDF and XML for example. This is excellent for them, but what about members of the public who just want to look at information? For example, Sunderland City Council’s opendata page has a wealth of information but it’s all XML, so meaningless to a member of the public who might find it. Formats more familiar to non-developers – even the dreaded PDF – would be a useful addition to many, and reduce the risk of basic FOI requests.
6. Embrace WhatDoTheyKnow: FOI officer/blogger FOI Man recently made the point that many FOI officers are suspicious of Whatdotheyknow. WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is down to the fact it simplifies the FOI process, something many council websites don’t do. Encourage people, on a council website, to see what people have asked for via Whatdotheyknow, or to look at the advice the site gives before making an FOI request with the council.
7. Just be more open: This one is aimed more at councillors than council officers, but the bleating about costs from Cheshire and Hampshire, amongst others, were so deftly ignored by Government because councils aren’t doing enough to be open as it is. Publishing more information as standard online would be a start, as would including more information in council agendas, and making them easy to find online. Councillors on one hand like to moan about apathy towards local government among voters then complain when people begin to show an interest. Be more open and you might find a happy balance.