Matt Burgess, the man behind FOI Directory (and the former editor of Help Me Investigate Education) has launched a new weekly email newsletter providing regular updates on developments in Freedom of Information and transparency. Continue reading
St Albans Council are one of an increasing number of public bodies to complain about Freedom of Information requests. In calculating the cost to the body of a quarter of a million pounds every year, they said that over one in ten requests come from the Metropolitan Police.
But Tim Turner was skeptical. So he asked how many of the police requests actually mentioned FOI. They avoided the question:
“St Albans drew my attention to a section on the Information Commissioner’s website which says that any request for information that is plainly not an EIR or a subject access request should be treated as an FOI.”
The implication being that routine requests for information from other public bodies may be being classified as ‘FOI’ as a way of inflating costs and supporting the case against it – even where they would previously just be routine.
Turner then asked specifically how many of those police requests were made under the Data Protection Act:
“They admitted that all of them were“.
The police force is just one of many public bodies recently to moan about “bizarre and comical” FOI requests*. They claim that Freedom Of Information cost the body over half a million pounds last year. But can we trust their calculations?
Here’s how they say they arrived at their figure of £514,620:
That’s an average cost of £540.
Now, here’s the guidance on costs from the Information Commissioner:
“The cost limit for complying with a request or a linked series of requests from the same person or group is set at £450 for [non central] public authorities.”
So somehow Avon and Somerset have arrived at an average cost per request which is higher than the maximum cost for FOI requests.
How? Well, firstly the 18 hours “average” they mention is actually the maximum time that can be spent on an FOI request. So either every requester is somehow managing to hit that magical maximum, or they cannot calculate an average.
Worse, the £30 cost per hour is higher than they are supposed to charge.
“£25 is the standard hourly rate that all authorities must use to calculate the staff costs of answering requests.”
Perhaps we need an FOI request to find out why Avon and Somerset Police are charging so much to answer FOI requests, and the calculations they used to arrive at an ‘average’?
UPDATE: It seems someone did exactly that:
*Apparently it’s “bizarre and comical” to ask how many police officers failed a physical. The answer is one in ten.
Every so often public officials who wish to curtail Freedom of Information rights will argue that money spent on fulfilling FOI requests might be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads, or catching criminals.
This argument is superficially persuasive, but there are two significant counter-arguments:
- Firstly, that as taxpayers we have already ‘paid’ for the collection of information held by public authorities and have the right to access that;
- And secondly that FOI allows citizens to scrutinise how our money is being spent and highlight inefficiencies and abuse.
In other words, even if your argument is purely economic (rather than, say, about democratic accountability), Freedom of Information may save at least as much money as it costs: money which, well, might also be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads or catching criminals.
A system in which public officials can spend money without scrutiny is a system more open to abuse and overspending. So curtailing Freedom of Information to ‘save money’ may be a false economy.
The latest weapon to be used in attacking FOI is to list how many requests are being made by businesses. St Albans Council‘s media offensive against the FOI Act, for example, mentions that:
“57 percent of the requests were from businesses, 15 percent from the national media and 13 percent from the Metropolitan Police.”
After a short summer break, our Hyperlocal Voices series returns. In this issue we visit the tiny island South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Perhaps best known for being the home of an exiled Napoleon, it is frequently described as one of the world’s most isolated islands. At just 10 x 5 miles, and with a population of 4,255 people, Simon Pipe’s St Helena Online, offered Damian Radcliffe an insight into a very different type of hyperlocal site. Continue reading
I’ve written a couple of guest posts for Nieman Journalism Lab and the tech news site Memeburn. The Nieman post is part of a series looking forward to 2012. I’m never a fan of futurology so I’ve cheated a little and talked about developments already in progress: new interface conventions in news websites; the rise of collaboration; and the skilling up of journalists in data.
Memeburn asked me a few months ago to write about social media’s impact on journalism’s role as the Fourth Estate, and it took me until this month to find the time to do so. Here’s the salient passage:
“But the power of the former audience is a power that needs to be held to account too, and the rise of liveblogging is teaching reporters how to do that: reacting not just to events on the ground, but the reporting of those events by the people taking part: demonstrators and police, parents and politicians all publishing their own version of events — leaving journalists to go beyond documenting what is happening, and instead confirming or debunking the rumours surrounding that.
“So the role of journalist is moving away from that of gatekeeper and — as Axel Bruns argues — towards that of gatewatcher: amplifying the voices that need to be heard, factchecking the MPs whose blogs are 70% fiction or the Facebook users scaremongering about paedophiles.
“But while we are still adapting to this power shift, we should also recognise that that power is still being fiercely fought-over. Old laws are being used in new ways; new laws are being proposed to reaffirm previous relationships. Some of these may benefit journalists — but ultimately not journalism, nor its fourth estate role. The journalists most keenly aware of this — Heather Brooke in her pursuit of freedom of information; Charles Arthur in his campaign to ‘Free Our Data’ — recognise that journalists’ biggest role as part of the fourth estate may well be to ensure that everyone has access to information that is of public interest, that we are free to discuss it and what it means, and that — in the words of Eric S. Raymond — “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“.”
Comments, as always, very welcome.