FOI: How expensive can it be to deal with clearly absurd FOI requests?

“I dunno what happened, the council just didn’t like my FOI request”

Another week, another grumble about the Freedom of Information Act from a council. In fairness to St Helens Council, they aren’t in the same league as FOI-haters such as Nottingham City Council, this councillor from Kirklees Council, and Hampshire, Pendle and Cheshire West and Chester Councils.

Their complaint about the public’s right to know, as reported in the St Helens Reporter this week, is that too often people are asking frankly ridiculous questions based on rumours they have heard.

Information on the number of exorcisms performed in the borough and inquiries on plans to micro-chip children were among the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests fielded by the local authority last year.

The number of FOIs received by the council has increased almost threefold in recent years and while officials have said they are more than happy to deal with genuine requests, the more unusual claims are clogging up the system.

A council spokesman said: “FOI can be a very useful tool for members of the public in understanding the workings of local government. It gives the public a right to access the information produced in the course of the council’s work – and when used properly that information improves public confidence and trust in government and public sector bodies.

“Yet a small minority occasionally use the system for less serious – or downright frivolous – purposes. Fact and fiction can often become blurred too – with some people inspired to follow up issues they may have heard about from less than reliable sources.”

Systems and Information Management Officer Andy Paton said: “We’re only too pleased to help those people with genuine queries, but the less serious issues can take up valuable time – and slow down our efforts to provide useful information.”

Maybe I’m being a little simple minded here, but surely the more ridiculous the request, the easier it is to answer?

If a council gets a request for the council’s emergency plan to deal with a zombie invasion, surely it’s a five-minute call to establish whether one exists. Likewise, how hard can it be to find out if a council does exorcisms?

I can see why they are a nuisance, but they also appear to be an easy-to-solve nuisance and a necessary price to pay for legislation which allows anyone to hold local government to account.

St Helen’s reports that FOI requests annually have risen from 500 to 1,300. While this is clearly a burden for a council, surely it’s also good news – especially as the council reports just 12% are coming from the media, with another 25% from ‘commercial’ organisations.

More people asking more questions – that’s surely democracy in action? And as for the nuisance FOIs, surely a decent, searchable FOI Disclosure log prominently linked to on the council’s website would help make these even quicker to solve?

One comment

  1. Disclosure logs are a red herring. They only tell you what other people asked for at a specific time. They don’t help the applicant who has a real, current and specific request, and the moron who wants to know about microchipped kids or zombie evacuation plan can still ask for what has happened since the previous request was made. The only answer to FOI requests is to answer them and not look for silver bullets or quick fixes; organisations should simply accept FOI as part of the normal running costs of a public sector body, like paying the electricity bill.

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