An annual study of compliance with the FOI Act and the Environmental Information Regulations by University College London found that the number of FOI requests made to local authorities in England in 2009 increased by 39%.
The total cost of dealing with an estimated 164,500 requests under both sets of legislation was £36.6m. The survey drew responses from 117 FOI officials. It found:
- unhappiness about requesters using FOI as a route to pursue unresolved grievances with councils
- abuse of the ‘spirit’ of the Act, with journalists using it for stories and businesses using it for commercial gain, rather than its being used to serve the local community
- too little money and too few staff to deal with an increasing number of FOI requests
- colleagues’ and senior managers’ reluctance to comply with FOI, which is seen as a nuisance rather than a duty
- too little guidance, advice or training provided on procedural aspects of the Act
- confusion between overlapping legislation.
- a desire to see the cost limit lowered or fees introduced to manage.
The top three problems with compliance were seen as:
- requesters and requests
- co-operation and support from service departments and management
The top three positive aspects were:
- better record management
- openness, transparency and accountability
- improvements to organisation (not related to record management)
The research showed that 65% of councils did not charge for requests under any circumstances, and councils that did charge did not usually receive payment.
The time spent on each request reduced from 11.6 hours in 2008 to 8.9 hours in 2009. The number of requests increased by 45,939.
Dealing with requests from journalists was reported to be more time consuming than those made by other requesters.
Councils can release their FOI burden by publishing on their websites nearly all of the information - uncut - about what they do, what they discuss and what they decide. The published information should not be warm-glowing sanitised summaries; and much more should be taken out of the secret "Part 2" agencies and put into the open Part 1 sections.
In which case a simple answer to many FOI requesters would be: the information is already published.
When it's not published council FOI officers have to go in search of it. More complex queries are not so easy to answer but still, if the information were published, the response could comprise the URLs where the requested information is available.
Many authorities profess openness while practising secrecy, which makes FOI requests a burden. The coalition is doing its best to change the culture but still central and local government take care to make their affairs a mystery. Openness lifts the curtain on what may be dodgy practices. Some of most questionable outsourcing deals were negotiated and signed in dark corners - in one case signed at the weekend.
While councils - with some exceptions - continue to make their most important decisions with the lights turned down they must expect journalists and others to get out their FOI torches, which is all to the good of local democracy and accountability - and propriety.
Thank you to Martin Rosenbaum - @rosenbaum6 - for his tweet which drew my attention to the FOI article in Local Government Lawyer.
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