Has a council confirmed the value of FOI – and how make the most of FOI interest from the public

An interesting statistic from Wirral Council: One fifth of FOI requests came from one person last year. That, un-named, person, submitted 245 requests last year – a mind-boggling number which would be a sure candidate for a listing under ‘vexatious’ if a simple test was available.

To Wirral Council’s credit, though, just three FOI requests were rejected for being  vexatious.

But that’s not the reason for mentioning this article from the Liverpool ECHO.

In a report prepared for Wirral Council’s cabinet, officers noted:

“FOI requests continue to rise, particularly when anything controversial appears in the local press; 340 requests were received in the first quarter of 2012. Assuming this remains constant, the estimated total for the year is 1,360.”

We hear a lot from councils complaining about the media using FOI to ‘go on fishing trips’ or ‘get us to do their research’. But I’ve never heard a council confirm that news stories – regardless of source – about councils often prompt FOI requests for more information.

Of course, some of these requests may well be from journalists, but there’s something really heartening about a council saying that news prompts people to submit FOI requests – it’s proof of the relationship between press and public working when people know the tools available to them to get information for themselves.

On one hand, you could argue this is bad news for journalists – access to public authority information was once a special privilege for the media, but governed by those who owned the information. FOI has turned that on its head. It’s still riddled with loopholes and hiding places for authorities which want to keep something a secret, but anyone can now, in theory, get the information they need.

The challenge for journalists is to remain relevant in this environment. One way of doing that is getting access to information which they know will appeal to their readers (and that can sometimes be very different to the information which appeals to our sense of news or desire to get on the front page).

Another way is to be an assistant to people seeking out information. To an extent, simply publishing news is a way of doing that – people can feel compelled to look for more information based on what they’ve read from a journalist. But the more journalists help people, the more loyal they are likely to be to a journalist – and that loyalty is what will keep us in employment in years to come.

Here are five ways to achieve that:

1. Spread the knowledge: Encouraging people to use FOI is something I believe all journalists should do. When I’m compiling FOI Friday I find an increasing number of stories where people are quoted that they intend to use FOI to find out information – if people are telling you that, ask if they need any help. If you were in their shoes, would you say no? Publishing a how-to guide on your website – with links to excellent sources such as FOIMan would be another good idea.

2. Make the most of Whatdotheyknow: Many journalists use Whatdotheyknow to get ideas or see what is being asked for from their local authorities and public organisations. Contacting the people putting in the requests to get their reasons for requesting is a way of showing your interest in what they are doing – and you’ll often find out more information. For example, I remember a story in Plymouth about parking permits based on a WDTK FOI. The person who submitted the FOI became a case study – he wanted information because he could never park near his house.

3. Quote the FOI source: If an FOI story comes from someone else’s FOI request, say so. That should go without saying, but often it’s not the case, still.

4. Make sure your stories mention FOI: If you’ve sought something out under FOI, and it makes a story, say how you got hold of the information – anything which increases awareness of FOI can only help us discover more stories.

5. Ask what people would like to know: Via social media or maybe via your publication, encourage people to help set the news agenda by inviting them to tell you what they’d like to know more about. Does recycling work? How did the hospital trust reach the decision to close a ward? How many drink drivers have been caught?

Do you have any ideas I’ve missed?

2 comments

  1. More news on Wirral ‘vexatious’ Council: They’re the only council in the land to be monitored by the ICO for timeliness, between January and March 2013. Incidentally, despite making requestors wait 100s of days if not well over a year for answers, they blame the press for reporting council controversies (abuse of disabled people, contract impropriety, abuse of power, bullying, huge bungs for dodgy departing officers, etc. etc.) and creating a bigger workload and blame the public for sending in too many requests. Read the pure spin, lack of self-awareness and a top-ten of rogue requestors in this so-called ‘analysis’ report:

    http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/documents/s50005983/FOI%20REPORT.pdf

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