Tag Archives: freedom of information

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.

Questioning Staffordshire on why they hate FOI

After reading on Ampp3d that Staffordshire County Council were whinging about spending 0.00003% of their budget answering FOI requests, and checking out their whinge myself, I decided to write to my County Councillor (Terry Finn) to ask why SCC are attempting to demonise users of this critically important transparency law. I made a point of reminding him that it helps us (citizens) to hold power (him) to account, given that we are the ones that have given him that power, and temporarily at that.

The letter:

Dear Terence Finn,

I am writing to you to express my disappointment in the way that Staffordshire County Council is attempting to demonise the use of a fundamentally important transparency law. Namely, the Freedom of Information Act.

As a Staffordshire resident the FOIA is crucial in ensuring I, and my fellow citizens, can hold you and council staff to account for the decisions you take in our name using the power we have lent you via the ballot box.

“The Cost of FOI Requests” on the SCC website (http://www.staffordshire.gov.uk/yourcouncil/dataprotectionandfreedomofinformation/HowMuchFOIsCost/home.aspx) states that “Often the FOI process is used by some commercial organisations to save time and research costs. We think this is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly. The same applies to a growing number of FOI requests from the media. This can save companies and the press money by, for example, reducing research costs but only at a significant cost to the Authority which is unfair to Staffordshire tax payers.”

This statement is an inexcusable attempt to belittle the important work that the media do in holding power (that’s you) to account on our (citizens) behalf. Individual citizens mostly do not have the time, expertise or resources to carry out the kind of investigations that are necessary to effectively scrutinise local authority decision making. We rely on the media to do that for us. Attempting to accuse them of wasting our money is an attempt to tarnish their reputation at our expense, and your benefit.

Pressure groups and political groups are also singled out in the FOI Costs page of the SCC website. I am pleased to see that WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and independent website, has already been removed from that section as it should be. Still, the singling out of those groups also seeks to highlight those in a negative way given the preamble of the page. As fewer people join political parties and instead join issue-specific campaigning and pressure groups, such groups are becoming much more representative of citizens than the membership of political parties. Something you would be wise to remember as you claim a ‘mandate’ for the decisions you make using the power we have loaned to you.

Following from that point, I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties. Can you clarify whether this is an omission by releasing to me the number of FOI requests submitted by each registered political party, or party-affiliated group, in the last two years please? I trust that given SCC’s dislike of FOI you’ll get that information to me in a timely manner without my having to resort using the FOIA.

I also noticed the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?

Finally, the website states “the information requested is already freely available publicly”. 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 publicy available. Again, I trust that you will provide this in a timely manner to avoid the use of FOI. To be clear, I am requesting this information in order to verify whether the claim that many FOI requests are due to lazy researchers is actually true.

Yours sincerely,

Philip John

Hyperlocal: Give me your ideas, I’ll (try and) make it happen.

Some of you may be aware that I’ve begun writing a WordPress plugin using OpenlyLocal. It’s not the only thing I’m working on though, and I have lots of ideas. However, I know that there’s plenty of hyperlocals out there that probably have their own ideas of what would make their life easier, or just more interesting.

So I’m asking: what tools do you want for your hyperlocal? Try and think about the things that you don’t find it so easy doing as well as the ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ ideas. Here are some of mine;

  • OpenlyLocal
    • Upcoming meetings widget
    • Councillor information attached to posts
    • Meeting information attached to posts (e.g. links to minutes, those in attendance)
    • Councillor profiles
    • Contact the council widget
  • TheyWorkForYou widget (showing recent activity by your MP)
  • WriteToThem widget (i.e. a button for direct access to e-mail your MP/councillors)
  • FixMyStreet alerts widget
  • Weather widget (including flood warnings – and Andy Mabbett suggested tide times for coastal locations and pollen counts)
  • Recent investigations (powered by Help Me Investigate)
  • FoI requests widget (powered by WhatDoTheyKnow)
  • Upcoming blood donation sessions (thanks to John Cronin)
  • Schools (I don’t know what but something with schools)
  • Hospitals, doctors surgeries, dentists (actually, this is leading onto an Uber Map)
  • Police information (such as recent arrests, appeals, upcoming surgeries)
  • Travel news; including public transport (thanks Martin)
  • Planning applications (hat-tip to Martin again)
  • Food safety ratings (e.g. through the excellent RateMyPlace)
  • Eating out guide, including integration with RateMyPlace
  • Health services, such as comments from NHS Choices (thanks to Will Perrin for this one)
  • Early Day Motions signed by your MP, using EDMs.org.uk
  • Local sports club results & league tables (thanks Ed)
  • ‘Tell us what’s going on locally’ like on Berkamsted People (via Josh)
  • A Groups Near You widget
  • Petrol prices (cheers Ed!)
  • Yoosk! …I don’t know what, but something needs to be done with Yoosk.
  • Tweetminster widget showing councillors/MPs who tweet, maybe aggregate their tweets.
  • Schools closures (e.g. when there’s a tiny smattering of snow)
  • Bin collections (and warnings when the torrent of snowfall comes)
  • Bus routes/timetables/announcements
  • School holiday dates

I’m thinking all those will also be available in the WordPress admin for blog owners to use them to generate stories. I’ve probably missed something too, so suggest away!