Over recent months, there has been a growing chorus from certain parts of the public sector about the cost of dealing with Freedom of Information requests.
Strangely, these organisations don’t complain about the cost of dealing with other growing demands such as caring for the elderly (councils), dealing with more crime (the police) or rising pupil numbers (Department for Education). A cynic might suggest the problem complaining organisations have with FOI isn’t so much to do with cost as it is to do with more people using it – and accountability can be an uncomfortable experience.
And, in the case of councils, you don’t often hear of councillors complaining about the cost of FOI also offering up savings around, say, their allowances or the number of councillors an authority has.
One such council is Nottingham City Council, which has been publicly flogged by communities secretary Eric Pickles for not publishing spending data over £500. (Rather like Pickles’ crusade against council newspapers, it appears harsh words and threats of action aren’t backed up with real action when it comes to ignoring data orders from the Department of Communities).
Nottingham also appears to have a problem with FOI – or rather the councillors do. Council leader Jon Collins has repeatedly claimed FOI costs £500,000 a year to deal with in Nottingham . It was, he has said, money that could be spent on saving services elsewhere. Deputy leader Graham Chapman says it could be as much as £600,000.
Council leaders, thanks to their job titles, carry a certain status in the community. The facts they shout should be just that – facts. However, in this case, we now know the cost is much less than suggested: It’s £64,000 a year.
How do we know? Freedom of Information.
Despite the best efforts of the senior political leadership to decry the importance of FOI – and indeed, your right to know anything – Nottingham does appear to be quite forward thinking on FOI. Its disclosure log is one of the best I’ve seen. That’s where this FOI was found, and subsequently reported.
If ever there was proof of the value of FOI holding those in power to account, then this surely is it.