What motive lies behind the ‘top 10 wacky FOI requests’ press release?

Newsrooms like nothing more than quirky lists during the long, often slow news, month of August, so a well-time press release from the Local Government Association revealing a ‘top 10’ of ‘wacky’ FOI requests got considerable space last week.

A PR success for the LGA then, but what will have prompted their press release? The Local Government Association is effectively a trade body for local government, and sets its self up to offer advice and support to councils and provide a voice for those authorities to Government.

Back in May, the Campaign for Freedom of Information revealed that local government FOI officers had been asked to supply example of FOI requests which took up too much time, and for data splitting up requesters into different categories – media, campaign groups and so on (so much for applicant blind, eh?)

The Campaign for FOI said that the LGA was behind the email to local councils, which the LGA disputed – saying it had been sent by a group called Lawyers in Local Government after a discussion with the LGA. The email suggested there were plans afoot to lobby for the tightening of FOI regulations on the grounds of cost, and the email in particular picked up on grumbles that the media made too much use of FOI. 

Maybe the sudden publication of a list of 10 ‘wacky’ FOI requests is just a coincidence, but it certainly feels as though the LGA is gearing itself up to push for restrictions on the use of FOI. As Ampp3d, the Mirror’s data journalism site, reported when Staffordshire County Council began grumbling about the cost of FOI the other month, the cost of FOI is often less than 0.00003% of its annual budget.

Using the standard figure of an FOI costing £25 an hour to deal with, lets assume the LGA (or another group) emailed every council in the country to ask for these ‘wacky’ FOI requests. That’s 353 councils.  The LGA has 415 member organisations. Lets assume each council had an officer open the email, and look at it, have a chat with a colleague about it, maybe ask a manager if they should respond, and then looked for some examples. Lets say that took an hour. That’s £10,375 spent in the pursuit of ‘wacky’ FOIs – triggered by the same people bemoaning the cost of FOI.

But why such a fuss about FOI? On one hand, the LGA boasts in its press release that ‘local authorities are the most transparent part of the public sector’ although given recent behaviour of other government departments, that’s a bit like the makers of Chomp bars being proud of the fact WeightWatchers consider it the least bad chocolate for dieters. Yet on the other hand, it seems as though the LGA is determined to do something about FOI which will undoubtedly make local councils less transparent.

If the LGA was proud of public sector transparency, it would  be actively working with local journalists to find ways that councils could become more accountable, or even producing a list of the 10 FOI requests which led to the biggest changes in local government. The fact they aren’t reveals an uncomfortable truth about local councils: Many don’t like transparency at all.

Despite being funded by local councils, and with elected councillors holding many noisy spokesman positions within the LGA, the LGA is not subject to FOI legislation. It could, of course, act in the spirit of FOI legislation given it is essentially a branch of local government, but chooses not to. Why?

In the press release, the LGA notes that a study in 2010 suggested FOI costs £31million a year to deliver. The Local Government Association, in comparison, costs £10million a year in subscriptions alone – and when government grants plus other income are thrown in, the LGA gets over £50m a year. Given the abject failure of the LGA to protect councils from the most devastating of Government cuts following the 2010 general election, it’s quite astonishing it is choosing to pick a fight over FOI on cost grounds.

After all, o ne is an essential service which helps people to know how local government is run on their behalf, and opens it up to scrutiny. The other is the LGA.

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Dave you are right to be sceptical of the LGA’s motives in compiling and releasing this list.
    But, as you note, journalists tend to lap up such compilations, and print/publish them without question.
    Even seemingly harmless or ‘well intentioned lists’, such as ‘most wasteful 999 calls’ can and should be questioned. While calls to emergency services complaining about football results are clearly a waste of time, some calls such as ‘run out of toilet roll’, while inappropriate, may be from a vulnerable or confused person in distress. Of course individuals aren’t identified by such lists but news outlets shouldn’t just mindlessly report information presented to them, usually by an organisation with an agenda.
    One of the worst example of this, and sadly gleefully received by newspapers is the ‘top 10 excuses for not having a TV licence’ – blatant propaganda for the telly tax.
    FOI should be seen as a useful tool for government. Compile a list of most frequent request and consider making that info available via the website. If companies are using FOI to find out who provides a particular contract, state it on the website. If already publicly available info is being regularly requested then consider why.
    As to the LGA’s list, while some of the questions appear ‘wacky’ that’s not to say they are without merit.
    To give just one example, the inquiry whether Rossendale council has paid for an exorcist. It may not be widely known but exorcisms are carried out by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in England in Wales (both can be fairly described as mainstream religious organisations, with the CoE even carrying the status of the ‘established’ church of the state in England). It is not unreasonable to believe a council could have engaged such services and people are entitled to know if they have (or haven’t)..
    It’s also worth asking on what basis was the ‘top 10’ was compiled? It obviously doesn’t represent the number of times the info was requested so its ‘wackyness’ is subjective.
    It’s basic journalism to consider who is presenting you with information and why and it should also be remembered ‘data’ without explanation or context is just that, not ‘data journalism’.

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