FOI: Go to your councillor before using FOI? One council’s alternative plan…

Here’s an interesting way to cut down on the number of Freedom of Information requests a council gets: Urging people to ask their councillors instead.

Yes, the rather tiresome argue of ‘it costs so much to answer FOIs’ has raised its stubborn head in Richmond, London. But unlike other councils which think the solution is to try and be as awkward as possible with FOIs (hello Chester and Cheshire West, Kirklees and Nottingham), Richmond Council has a different solution.

According to the Richmond Times:

An influx of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests has prompted a council request for people to call their councillors first.

Councillor Geoffrey Samuel, deputy leader of Richmond Council, asked people to try other avenues when they had questions for the local authority.

The council currently spends up to £120,000 a year answering FoI requests.

In the first three months of this year Richmond Council received 250 requests, with questions on a number of topics, including What is the council’s policy on building snowmen?

Of course, Richmond Council doesn’t just receive ‘silly’ FOI requests about snowmen. According to Whatdotheyknow, people have also asked about the use of CCTV cars, reports into consultations at the local train station, accidents at a local car park, information on tenders and supply teacher spend.

The question the council should be asking itself is: Why are so many people using FOI to get information? Part of the answer is surely that it’s the only way to guarantee, or as near as you can guarantee, that the information you ask for won’t be subject to political interference or a ‘Do we want to release this’ mindset.

According to the Government’s last ‘Place’ survey, which asks people whether they’d like to be involved in decision making, and then how empowered they feel to influence decisions, far more people say they’d like to be involved in decision making than actually feel they can influence decisions already.

That, I would suggest, is partly down to how remote people feel to their councillors. In that respect, it’s no surprise that people are turning to FOI to get information.

If the majority of FOI requests are from journalists, they question then becomes one of whether a journalist can trust a journalist to release all the information they want. And more importantly, why should they have to go through a councillor.

Having seen many councils in actions, I’d argue an FOI officer was much better placed to navigate the corridors of power finding information than a perhaps well-meaning councillor is.

In short, FOI legislation is there for a reason: The public has a right to know, and councils should embrace that, not try to find alternatives, regardless of how well-meaning those alternatives might be.


One thought on “FOI: Go to your councillor before using FOI? One council’s alternative plan…

  1. I’d say this has the potential to bite the council. Councillors have their ‘right to know’ which allows them access to all information on subject X, at least in theory anyway.

    As such asking a Q via a councillor could potentially lead to far more information entering the public domain than would be the case had the request been considered under FOI.

    I know I have oversimplified it but a councillor could make an honest (or not so honest) mistake and divulge information they shouldn’t have to their constituent.

    Routing enquiries via the FOI Officer/process may seem time consuming and a tad ‘jobsworth’ as an approach but it should ensure the council considers all of the factors around disclosure/non-disclosure, including the public interest and the use of applicable exemptions, properly.

    While the use of exemptions by an FOI officer may seem like an exercise in obstruction there are often valid reasons not to disclose and by encouraging enquiries via councillors you are circumventing the process, the FOI Officer and their knowledge and expertise.

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