The blogosphere is full of well written and impressively articulated arguments in support – or perhaps more accurately in defence – of FOIA, but I’ve always found it surprising that those who have spent time at the coalface don’t feel greater frustration with the legislation and it’s wider cost. I write this as someone who spent 2 and a half years dealing with information requests, many of which were frivolous by any reasonable interpretation of the word. I’m a fan of FOI but feel that misuse of the Act weakens it’s reputation and subsequently it’s wider effectiveness – whilst also diverting valuable resources in tough times.
The current legislation makes no allowance for the use of frivolous requests, the bar is instead set considerably higher at ‘Vexatious’, meaning that sarcastic requests about Zombies, are afforded a level of respect and attention that most sensible observers would find a matter of regret. Ok, not all silly questions take long to deal with, but the fact remains that such requests have to be formerly responded to, can then be subject of an internal review, complaint to the ICO and referral to the Information Tribunal – all at no cost to individuals who often appear to use the Act as simply a continuation of a complaint.
On a similar basis, the cost of FOI is something that usually attracts huge criticism by those who defend it. Ironically, those who seek transparency of public spending recoil in horror when the costs of FOI are openly examined or discussed. Let me be clear, and let us all be honest, Freedom of Information does not come cheaply – so whilst it might be free at the point of sale, we are collectively still paying for it.
Those who make a disproportionate number of requests clearly have the most to lose from a proposed charging regime. So we should perhaps consider very carefully the motives of an individual who admits to making around 700 requests a year whilst aligning himself to the campaign to resist charging. He may well be a principled campaigner raising issues of great importance and identifying significant costs savings – but clearly self interest is also in engaged.
By way of example I was expected to do circa 180 requests a year, with my modest salary hovering around £25,000. Sure, I had some ad hoc Governance project work to carry out as well, but a crude starting calculation takes it to around £140 a request. The cost of employing me was probably morelike well over £40k+ when you factor in pension and NI contributions etc. My calculation also doesn’t consider the cost of colleagues time in providing input to a response (think how much time alone is spent on Section 36 considerations by senior/expensive staff?). I don’t know how one would ever arrive at an calculation, as the Justice Committee have just suggested, but the ballpark figures are interesting nonetheless. So Mr Benson’s 700 requests a year are costing probably costing considerably over £100,000 – thats before any costs of his Internal Reviews and other stages of complaint are factored in.
I was one of 6 dedicated request handlers in an organisation employing around 350 people. Some may argue that being transparent in times of recession saves money, but even if others believes that, I don’t. Let me put it this way, if you ran a private company with 350 employees, would you really shell out for 6 full time staff (plus managers) to allow people to scrutinise you in the belief it would save you money and identify cost savings? I wouldn’t. Loyalists argue that there is a cost limit (essentially implying a £450 limit on the cost of a request) but the time spent considering, redacting and preparing a response are not considered, hence a position where requests can take 5 months to process .
A Nottingham City Councillor claimed FOI was costing his Council £500,000 a year and came under strong attack for his statement. He may or may not have been overegging the pudding, but to suggest that the true figure was just £64,000 is equally wide of the mark, given it takes no account of printing costs, preparing and attending ICO Complaints and Tribunal hearings, the management of a disclosure log etc. For the record, my money is firmly on the £500,000 being alot more accurate than the £64,000, but in both cases it appears the authors are letting their respective opinions on FOI dictate the figures.
Meanwhile, Nottingham’s rivals down the Brian Clough way, Derby City Council, somehow managed to spend just £31,500 apparently responding to 939 requests, which suggests that either a) they were a damn sight more hardworking than me, b) that figure is bollocks or my own vote c) both of the above.
A more sensible argument would surely be that whilst it costs, FOI is a necessary cost of democracy. That’s certainly my take on it. But the point I have been clumsily fumbling around with here is that if you have confidence in your position, you shouldn’t be afraid of facts and nor should you avoid any criticism of the current legislation. Those with such an interest in FOI should be amongst the first to want to know what it costs and find ways to cut the crap. Nor should they attack those who wish to prioritse caring for the elderly (councils), dealing with more crime (the police) or rising pupil numbers over providing information about student wanking pranks.