Costs, Opportunity Costs and plain Hypocrisy

The cost of FOI, something which has previously caught my eye, has once again reared it’s head on account of SCC’s decision to publish what they hold to be the cost of requests. Let me try firstly to calm the sensitivities of the transparency lobby by repeating that I believe in FOI as a legitimate cost of democracy. But let ourselves be open, honest and transparent about that cost – it’s not an Act that needs rely on the crutch of capitalism, rather it is a legitimate price of a modern society. Equally, what a Council spends on FOI must be considered against what it spends on other services it provides.

I don’t doubt for a minute SCC’s release is an attempt to dissuade people from making requests, and nor do I doubt it will only provoke those outraged by a public authority trying to save money/reduce scrutiny (we’ll show you to question us).  However, I do absolutely dispute that their cost of handling FOI is 0.00003% of the council’s budget, based on the fact the cost of FOI is £31,700 of the £975 Million budget.

I also find a wider irony in the criticism  of the (admittedly loaded) transparency of SCC in this regard. For example, FOI commentator  Matthew Burgess notes that

 The council has also been widely criticised on social media today for publishing how much it costs to respond to the requests.

 

Why would a Council be widely criticised for publishing their costs? Who do we think has criticised this particular piece of transparency? Well, mainly those who argue most passionately about transparency.

I also note the following comment from Matthew that

Publishing the estimated costs of requests from certain groups/campaigners is, at very least, not in the spirit of the Act, which is intended to be motive and applicant blind. Aside of any data protection issues, publishing the names of organisations that are frequently asking for information may deter others from making requests. It also creates the inference the organisations are wasting public money by asking for information.

Firstly, I don’t think the motive and applicant blind principle needs to extend to not revealing how many local newspapers have made requests. There’s definitely a wider potential issue around the release of personal data, albeit with the caveat that nobody cared till the Council implied a problem with FOI, but that’s another blog altogether.

But what is truly astonishing is the comment that by providing the names of organisations that are frequently making requests, it

“also creates the inference the organisations are wasting public money by asking for information”.

 

Along with a further comment from another Tweeter that

spending money on just publishing that (FOI costs), to discourage and demonise FOI, isn’t a good use of funds

 

There is irony, but there is also hypocrisy, and I’m afraid the above statements wade into the latter. Is it really the case that if the public know which organisations are costing the most money by making FOI’s that they (the public) will infer that these organisations are wasting money in doing so? And demonise them for doing so?

Yes/no/maybe is my answer. But let the public decide for themselves, isn’t that the whole idea? Would/should the same information be released under FOI? I respectfully suggest Matthew et al would be arguing it should be.

I do absolutely accept that a public authority shouldn’t be able to provide skewed data to provide a point (or save money), but do the critics really believe that the cost of FOI for SCC was £32k over 2 years. I don’t necessarily expect pressure group activists to make an argument for their opponents, but there is a further irony in transparency campaigners, accepting (and using) figure that a Council manage to spend circa £16k a year handling FOI without question. Add a decimal point and I suspect sure you will be closer to the truth. If you disagree, then please consider they handled 1320 requests in a single year. Did one person do them all, without training, staff time, printing, postage etc? If you want to handle 1320 requests for £16k as an outsourcer I’m sure you get the gig – especially if you agree to cover internal review and information tribunal costs. As a guide I did circa 200 requests a year whilst being paid £25,000.

I recall the fuss about Nick Griffin being included on Question Time. I felt then, as I do now, that the facts should speak for themselves. If you can’t make Nick Griffin look like a clown then that’s on you. And if you can’t make FOI a worthy proposition then that’s also on you. I admire the impact and principle of one, and not the other, but strongly believe that one should be able to win, not suppress, the facts of a debate.

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4 Responses to Costs, Opportunity Costs and plain Hypocrisy

  1. Tim Turner says:

    Staffordshire chose to make these calculations and publish them, spending valuable resources in the process. Had anyone asked them to do so under FOI, they would probably have refused on cost grounds. It’s not hypocritical to criticise a council for spending money in order to complain that other people are making them spend money.

  2. walshipedia says:

    The hypocrisy isn’t in criticising the Council for wasting their time/money, it’s in implying the public musn’t see the information because they might form a view for themselves. That said, I do accept releasing figures, in conjunction with the hatchet rhetoric of SCC, might give the wrong impression about FOI requestors. Essentially, I see little wrong in releasing figures about the costs of FOI because those of us who support the legislation should be able to demonstrate it’s value.

  3. Tim Turner says:

    I honestly don’t think people were arguing that the information about costs should be secret (but if they were, I agree with you that they’re wrong). I think there’s an element of contrarianism in your blog (*innocent face*), because it’s impossible to separate the release of the data from the context. You know why they released this information. The motive is unlikely to be unswerving commitment to transparency. If someone had asked for the figures under FOI, there could be no objection to their publication, but that isn’t what happened, hence the reaction.

  4. walshipedia says:

    I do think there’s been a slight blurring of the lines about whether we are all discussing the hatchet comments or the raw data – and yes you’re right it’s impossible to separate them which I concede I didn’t address. I just found it odd that people who are first to ask for more information, object to disclosures about their own hobby horse.

    The quotes I took issue with the ones flagged, which do appear to suggest the release of raw data itself was a problem. Similarly there’s also the further linked debate (as in your initial comment) about whether they should spend the time/money collating this data.

    It was a very clumsy attempt by the Council, not one that was accurate, factual or even self serving – as spin goes it wasn’t exactly Alistair Campbell was it! I think my primary difference is I believe they are entitled to release the statement and the data.

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