In My Opinion: Peter Jones: FOI requests – A mixed blessing

LET us get one thing straight and out in the open first. I like Freedom of Information. That might sound odd coming from someone who works in local government, but there it is. I’ve used it as a journalist when it was first introduced and believe it’s one of the more effective pieces of legislation to emanate from central government. Moreover, I think it works better in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, due in large part to the efforts of our FOI Commissioner.

Dealing with the 500-plus FOI requests that arrive at this council’s door every year is part of my remit as PR and communications officer, and I like to think we do a good job of answering them. I know you all love hard facts, so here’s the proof: we regularly complete 97 per cent of all requests within the 20-day time limit proscribed by the Act.

This despite the apparent denigration from some in my former profession. One hack, I understand, used their Twitter to describe all FOI officers as ‘liars – simple as that, just liars’. Charming. I have sat in a FOI seminar addressed by Heather Brooke (of MPs’ expenses fame) who described me and my PR colleagues as ‘evil’. Dear me.

Aside from this misguided perception courted by some, a source of constant disappointment to me is the standard of the requests received from many of my erstwhile colleagues. Some are long lists of requests that are nothing more than fishing expeditions, but without the right bait. It often appears that the person requesting the info either has no real understanding of how local government works, or no clear idea of what they are looking for – but hopes to find it in the mountain of documents that lands on their doormat some three weeks later. Multiply this by the 32 councils in Scotland and the amount of information provided must be overwhelming.

One reporter ended her request list recently with the words ‘and anything else you think I might be interested in’. Another asked questions about the police officers we employ, and others display a staggering lack of knowledge about their subject and local government.

It’s my habit to phone requesters – particularly journalists – to discuss their FOI if it’s weird, too long or confusing. Not many councils do this as the process is tied up with legislation (and I think some are a teensy bit afraid of you lot for some reason), but doing this has quickly clarified the request or pared it down to a manageable size. Often I just ask what the story is, and endeavour then to source the info. It’s easy, really.

I know Mr Dunion – the FOI Commissioner – would not want to discuss this, but there’s a cost to all this openness. One of Scotland’s FOI officers has calculated that the minimum an FOI costs each council (they’re often sent to all 32 councils) is £50. So at the very least the story you produce from an FOI in Scotland has cost the taxpayer £1600. We recently costed a weedy one from the Times at £6500 across all councils. Unsurprisingly, it produced a nothing story that occupied a single column deep into the paper. Hardly good value.

The Act is not be driven by cost but, as Lord Falconer said, it’s not designed just for page leads either.

I think there’s some middle ground to be found, and agree profoundly with Rob Edwards when he says that FOI does not replace the investigative work required of journalists. Expecting local government to act as unpaid researchers will continue to cause antipathy, and perpetuate this prickly relationship between the press and city hall. Intelligent, focussed requests that will potentially expose malpractice and fraud creates the opposite effect amongst FOI officers. After all, we’re taxpayers too.

Peter Jones has been the PR and communications officer for the Moray Council since May 2006. Before then he was an award-winning freelance journalist for national press and broadcast media.