I had a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in my life I put in an FOI request. It was sent to six local authorities, and asked them three or four questions about a topic which wasn’t available in the public domain already. I’d looked through committee papers and spoken with a few people I knew, but FOI was the quickest, most reliable way left to me so I took it.
I took my time crafting the request, remembering the countless frivolous, vague or overly complicated ones I received over the years and made it as succinct and easy to understand as possible. I chose six local authorities who I believed would be able to answer my query and hit the send button, waiting excitedly for first the acknowledgement replies to come in before the information itself.
It’s amazing what it feels like to go through such a process from the other side of the fence, and I've a new found understanding of just why so many people get so frustrated with some local councils.
I’ll break my request down in general terms in order to demonstrate my point. I asked whether they had done something in particular; if so, what were their reasons for, and if not what were their reasons against. I then asked if they were planning on doing it in the future; again, following up with reasons for or against. I also asked whether they expected it to result in any savings, and if so how much.
The acknowledgements trickled in over the next day or two, telling me that it would be dealt with within 20 days which was all as expected. When I in fact got in after the weekend and found not only an acknowledgement from Wigan Council but a response as well I was on a high! “Wow!” I thought, “these guys are really on the ball! I know it wasn’t a complicated request but I didn’t expect them to respond quite so quickly!”
Imagine my disappointment when the respons totalled up to five words and an acronym. Five words: “no”, “n/a” and “not at this time”. Were these responses factually correct? Yes, I suppose so, but the tone of them and the lack of any form of personalised response was very far from what I expected. It takes all of two minutes to type out a sentence to soften those edges, and has not left me with anything like a warm, positive feeling and an appreciation for them taking the time to share some information with me.
This was the first and to date only direct engagement I've had with Wigan Council, and it’s not given me a very positive impression of them. I know they must do some great work, and their website is referred to as an example of good practice, but they let themselves down with such a curt response to a request which should have been right up their alley.
Thankfully though, not everyone is like that. The very next day I received an email from Monmouthshire County Council. I’d not received an acknowledgement from them yet so I nearly dismissed it, before noticing that instead of putting me in the standard 20 day holding pattern they had in fact responded in full. They told me that they hadn’t done the thing I was asking about, and then gave me a few reasons why they might be looking at doing it in the future.
It wasn’t rambling, it didn't go around the houses and bamboozle me, it didn’t refer off to random committee reports which half answer a related topic: it clearly and succinctly answered my question and made me feel like they had appreciated what I wanted rather than simply working out the fewest number of words to respond in.
In short, I was happy to have received it.
FOIs can be a funny thing; advice to officers is usually to provide answers only to what is requested rather than to try to figure out what was intended. This means officers don’t get accused of misleading through their responses, but can also mean plenty of follow-up enquiries as the requestor refines their question and narrows down the scope of investigation. Each of these gets the mandatory 20 days, so it can be months before a simple answer is given. It also is misinterpreted by some to mean keep the information to a minimum, and style to zero. I can handle no style, but would prefer not to handle no courtesy.
Yes, technically officers can (and should) get in touch with the enquirer if they aren’t clear about things, but I rarely hear of this happening. If all of the answers I'd received had been like Wigan's then this post would have been a lot more ranty.
Thankfully Monmouthshire provided the ying to Wigan’s yang and came across as a help rather than a hindrance. Fingers crossed that the remaining responses are on the helpful end of the great FOI spectrum.
I have had similar issues, and it seems that, comparing notes with regular FOI-ers, expectations of anything more than a run-around are very low these days. FOIs are routinely regarded as a nuiscance, when they could be a great opportunity to demonstrate transparency. That tells its own story, of course.
My own pet beef is with those, like my own local councils, who openly refer to FOIs as "complaints" in their literature and their handling processes. By what magical process does the receiving authority know mine is an enquiry linked to an existing or potential future complaint? It might be, of course, and that might depend on the content of the reply I get.
Ah, there's the rub. The attitude most often encountered, I suspect, is "don't let 'em see anything they might use against us". There's transparency for you. I can recall a time in my own local gov career before FOI responses all had to be signed off by a senior politician before being sent out. That changed in the name of "accountability".
Draw some easy conclusions there, folks....
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The formality of the FOI process doesn't help. I've been told off in the past for just replying directly to the requestor with the information or with questions about what they want and not using a more formal template. It might be better just to approach the relevant team and ask the questions informally so that you cut out the FOI team. If they don't respond you still have the FOI as a back up. Of course that depends on you knowing who the relevant team is!
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