When I do FOI training, I often find a sense of skepticism among journalists about the value of building up a good relationship with an FOI officer.
This is understandable because the thinking goes like this: I deal with council press officers whose first duty is to protect the council, and I often have FOI requests rejected, so presumably the FOI officer is the same. After all, the council is always complaining about the cost of dealing with FOIs.
There’s one big difference between a council press officer and an FOI officer: The press officer is employed to deliver a certain image of the council, while the FOI officer is employed to ensure the Freedom of Information Act is implemented properly. That’s why it’s essential that the function of press office and FOI office is kept separate – and I’m not entirely convinced giving press offices the heads up on FOI responses so they can prepare statements for the media is a good idea.
I know of cases where FOI officers come under considerable pressure from senior managers and councillors to find a reason not to release information, but most hold their ground – after all, if other authorities start releasing the same sort of information, it sends a certain message about the council.
And at the same time we have councils regularly piping up to complain about the cost of FOI requests, the most remarkable being Chester and Cheshire West’s bizarre attempt to introduce a charge for dealing with FOIs without even checking it it was ok to do so.
So when I saw an article on the BBC News website about a request regarding Zombies sent to Leicester City Council, I feared the worst. I suspected this was a planted story by the council to show how people were abusing FOI with silly requests. Plenty of councils have tried something similar.
The FOI request asked if Leicestershire City Council had an emergency response plan to deal with an invasion of Zombies. The answer, unsurprisingly, was no (although given how tedious overview and scrutiny committees at councils can be, is it possible there could be an outbreak from within?)
Anyway, the quote from the council’s FOI officer should serve as a reminder that FOI officers, generally, just want to get the information they’re allowed to release, out to you:
“We’ve had a few wacky ones before but this one did make us laugh,” said Lynn Wyeth, head of information governance.
“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.”
Those councillors who grumble about the cost of FOI – a grumble normally based on the fact FOI allows people to access stuff they’d rather was kept quiet – should read that quote and take note.