FOI Hate: Response from Staffordshire County Council

Following my letter to my Staffordshire county councillor, Terry Finn, I received the response below. I’ve some comments below.

Councillor Finn has asked me to respond to your recent communication. Thank you for your comments which have been noted.

Shame my councillor couldn’t be bothered to respond himself. He could have at least responded with his own thoughts and included the response from the officer (the author of this letter).

Staffordshire County Council believe It’s absolutely right that all local authorities are open and transparent about how they use taxpayers’ money to provide the services that residents, communities and businesses need.

Staffordshire County Council answered almost 2,700 Freedom of Information and the similar Environmental Information Regulation requests last year. While we fully support people’s right to have access to information, we do have concerns about the bureaucracy involved since the Freedom of Information Act came into force, and the way that some organisations use it.

For instance we receive numerous requests from businesses looking to sell us their goods or services, and using FOI legislation to save them time and money on research, at a cost to local taxpayers.

This is a good time to point out that as the Information Commissioner has said more than enough times, any information that could be released under FOI should be released pre-emptively. Were Staffs CC to do this as a default they would immediately reduce the very costs they are complaining about.

We therefore think our taxpayers equally have a right to know the time and costs involved in dealing with these enquiries and for the last two years have published this information on our website, including where those enquiries are coming from. We also publish all of our responses to ensure this information is freely available.

Do they really publish all those responses? Well, I started my stopwatch and took myself off to their site.

Could I find the published responses? No. I spent six minutes looking.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the recording I took as I did so:

You’ll notice I find a page that has the line “Freedom of Information – What have we been asked?” that looks like it should be a link but is not a link at all. A search turned up nothing either.

Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies
Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies

The closest I got was a page of disclosures but they relate only to requests made subject to the ‘public interest test’ and don’t actually include the substance of the request at all so are useless in helping others find information.

This further emphasises my last point. If they want to reduce the cost of FOIs asking for ‘already publicy-available information’, maybe they should go and dust the cobwebs off their web team.

Within your communication there were some specific pieces of information you requested:

You asked ‘…I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties’

We only record costs in relation to actual requests. In this instance a request would have been received that could be associated with this category. We would not include any groups that could be associated with a category per se unless they made a request.

You asked ‘…the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?’

We do not seek explicit permission from individuals, although the links to the disclosure logs are included on the request page. Many individuals make requests through sites such as ‘What do they know’ and their names would already be in the public domain. We are currently reviewing our approach in line with new ICO guidance.

Slightly worrying. They’ve released names but don’t confirm if they have sought permission from those who submitted an FOI request privately. There may be very good reasons why someone is asking for information but would have serious issues with their name being disclosed and it sounds like Staffs CC may have made a mistake here.

You asked ‘ Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicly available’.

In the last 12 months we have received 350 requests where the information was available elsewhere either on our own internet pages or with another organisation this equates to approximately 12 per cent.

The main reason SCC give for scare mongering about the ‘cost of FOI’ is based on a measely 12% of all requests. Even if that represented 12% of the cost, that’s only £8,196 – 0.0000008% of their budget rather than the 0.00003% Ampp3d calculated.

Additional: It just occurred to me (post-publication) that the 12% will not even cost £8,196. Given the responses will likely be short and relatively quick (i.e. either stating information is already available and/or pointing the requester to the where the information is held) they should cost much less than the average response (which requires an information gathering exercise).

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that they have failed to lower this cost on two fronts themselves; a) by pre-empting FOI requests and releasing information before it’s requested and b) by disclosing their responses to previous FOI requests (aka knowing their arse from their elbow).

If you have any queries or require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me.

In the first instance if you have any comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please write to Lian Stibbs, Access Manager, Information Governance Unit, Staffordshire County Council, Wedgwood Building, Block A, Tipping Street, Stafford, ST16 2DH.

If you have any further comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please contact the Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

I’ll make just one more point that I failed to adequately make in my original letter. The subtitle of the page on the SCC website is “The cost of “Freedom of Information” to local people.” (my emphasis). No, the cost is to Staffordshire County Council, not ‘the people’ and it’s SCC that has the power to reduce those costs, as I’ve made clear.

2 thoughts on “FOI Hate: Response from Staffordshire County Council”

  1. We love FOIs at Staffordshire County Council. Its an important part of democracy and scrutiny. But we think it is right to publish how much it costs and which organisations are making requests. That is fair and open.

    1. And yet, Ian, you still fail to actually do what you say you do – provide responses to past FoI requests on your website.

      I notice that the “Freedom of Information – What have we been asked?” text I found that didn’t link anywhere has now been removed completely.

      When are you going to allow access to previously answered FoI requests?

      Do you deny that doing so will save costs because it will negate the need for the same questions to be asked over and over?

      Do you also deny that the actual cost of responding to requests where information is already available is, at worst, only £8,196 – 0.0000008% of your budget – based on your own average cost figures?

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