FOI: Is there a good excuse for inaccurate FOI responses?

It’s a situation most reporters who deal with Freedom of Information requests on a regular basis will probably have encountered:

1. Receive information

2. Look through information

3. See information reveals something quite newsworthy

4. Ring press office for formal comment

5. Press office then says ‘oh, the details in the FOI are wrong.’

What do you do then?

The Chester Chronicle reports this week on an FOI submitted to the Countess of Chester NHS Trust by the TUC-backed False Economy group. It wanted to know how many job losses hospital trusts had planned. It has done something similar for councils across the country.

The Chronicle, as you would expect, asked the hospital to comment on the information which the hospital had supplied to False Economy.

The FOI reply to False Economy had said 461 jobs were expected to go.

The Chronicle reports:

“But the Countess now says the FOI response was an error because the figures, showing a 16% reduction in the workforce, were based on a predictive formula and there is no actual plan to cut 460 jobs.”

Then…

Hospital chief executive Peter Herring said in a quote:  “Firstly, the board have no plans to cut 461 posts in this trust. Like every NHS organisation, we do need to make substantial savings over the next few years.”

In other words, Mr Herring is saying the FOI response his trust issued was a red herring.

Looking at the numbers posted on the False Economy website here, it’s hard to imagine they have come from anything other than an FOI response.

So if the hospital trust has no plans to shed these jobs, why release figures which could indicate they would? Are they being clever with words – saying there is no *actual* plan to cut the jobs at present while in the future predicting they will have to lose 460 jobs?

Of course, the fact that False Economy has been set up to prove that job cuts are a false economy shouldn’t be forgotten.

But a press officer finding him or herself in the position of saying ‘the FOI information was wrong’ is surely faced with a thankless task. Sure, they can get the correct information out there, but they will be dealing with a suspicious journalist and will also have to explain just why their body is putting out inaccurate FOIs.

One comment

  1. My latest post at http://foiman.com addresses this issue in passing (and links to this post). It’s a real problem making sure that what goes out is accurate. Ultimately we have to trust colleagues to give us the right data, but sometimes they don’t. Often they’re just not used to the idea that the data will be seen outside the organisation, and don’t check that what they’re handing over to the FOI Officer is what’s been asked for. The most common problem I’ve noticed is that staff don’t read the question properly, so they answer the wrong question. As FOI Officers, we have to double check everything, which is not popular, but is the only way to avoid vast numbers of mistakes. And even then errors will sneak through.

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