Staffordshire Council just made a very persuasive case for the value of Freedom of Information

Yesterday Staffordshire County Council controversially published details of “The cost of “Freedom of Information” to local people. The titling of that page gives some clue to its intent: FOI is a ‘cost’, and it’s you, local people, who pay.

But I think the list – despite its obvious agenda and related weaknesses – is actually rather brilliant.

Why? Because it shows just how flexible a tool FOI is, how widely it is used, and perhaps raises questions to be answered about why it has to be used in the first place.

staffordshire FOI requesters

Staffordshire’s top 10 list of FOI requesters includes a parish council, elected MP and local and national media

The top ten requesters, for example, throws up not just news organisations but a politician, a parish council, and the right wing campaign group TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In other words, without FOI democratic representatives of a village within the council’s patch (Rolleston on Dove) and a democratic representative of Leicester voters, could not get hold of information they needed*.

The biggest cost to ‘local people’ is a local newspaper: the Express and Star. That newspaper might want to publish their own breakdown of the information requested, and how many of those FOI requests were generated because the council’s own press office would not respond to simple queries. Or because key information was not available on the council’s website.

*(Staffordshire disingenuously say “We think [some FOI] is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly” then mislead outright in saying “FOI legislation makes it difficult to avoid these requests”. In fact, the Act contains an explicit exemption to be used for those situations).

We don’t know whether BBC requests were for local or national reports. But both are important to local people: blanket FOI requests to every local authority help ‘local people’ position themselves in relation to the rest of the country.

The sheer variety of requesters is a great illustration to journalism students of how widely FOI is used – not just local and national newspapers but television and radio, online, newswires (Press Association) specialist media (Inside Housing) and magazines (RBI, Haymarket and Emap – all wrongly classified as ‘commercial’).

It also shows how FOI skills are used outside of the media – by local government itself (Cumbria Council is also classified as ‘commercial’), central government, unions, academia (York University and Keeler University are just two of many universities listed under – you guessed it – ‘commercial’), science (the charitable trust Institution of Environmental Sciences is ‘commercial’ too), nonprofit sector (MENCAP is classified as a ‘pressure group’), law, PR, market research, museums, recruitment, medicine…

There’s even an author listed.

So: learn FOI – it’s a transferrable skill!

If the intent was to demonstrate some sort of ‘waste of money’ (this is 0.00003% of their budget by the way) they might have equally published information about “The cost of ‘democratic elections’ to local people”.

We acknowledge that some people might use their vote frivolously, or out of pure commercial self-interest, but we also acknowledge that letting that happen is a price to pay for the principle of access to the democratic system. Or: holding power to account.

FOI is no different. We have a right to access information gathered in our name and with our taxes (remember: commercial organisations pay tax too). We have a right to hold to account those elected in our name and how those taxes are spent (for example, on checking up on FOI requesters). These rights should be universal – and they are.

The Act is ‘applicant blind’ for that reason, so we should be suspicious when organisations seek to identify and (mis)classify those making them.

It’s only a matter of time before someone asks how much that cost ‘local people’…

5 thoughts on “Staffordshire Council just made a very persuasive case for the value of Freedom of Information

  1. Pingback: What Staffordshire County Council’s breakdown of FOI applicants tells us about the authority | David Higgerson

  2. Pingback: Too many FOI requests are “commercial”? You know that businesses pay tax too? | Online Journalism Blog

  3. Pingback: Did St Albans Council give misleading figures on FOI requests from police – and could other authorities be doing the same? | Online Journalism Blog

  4. Pingback: FOI: The council which tried to keep spending cuts hitting vulnerable people a secret | David Higgerson

  5. Pingback: Now a police force is using Buzzfeed to publicise odd FOI requests | Online Journalism Blog

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