Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Freedom of Information Act: not the only option, but sometimes the only known option

I'd guess a lot of people are in the dark about who to speak to when trying to obtain information about something other than bin deliveries or council surgeries.
They also have no real idea how to go about finding out, short of ringing the local council switchboard (IF they can find such a general number) and, consequently, a number of them turn to the Freedom of Information Act.

What Do They Know is a constant source of interesting information for me - sometimes it will throw up stories but a lot of the time I'm just monitoring it to see what sort of details people want from local organisations. Sometimes I can guess the motive (I'd say the person asking for information about a Section 60 from Merseyside Police is probably trying to challenge the legality of a stop-and-search) but a lot of the time it's just people who want to know stuff.

Wanting to know stuff is a fundamental part of being human. We question, and we like to get answers - uncovering information, being in-the-know, and passing it on feels good; it used to be primarily the realm of MSM journalists and it's easy for us to take for granted. If, for example I had these questions (sample below - there are a fair few more if you follow the link)...

(1) How many Environmental Enforcement Officers do you employ?

(2) What training have the Officers received?

(3) Please tell me what salary and grade these officers are on.

(4) What qualifications are required in order to be an
Environmental Enforcement Officer?

(5) Does the above officer have to possess a degree?

(6) What professional qualifications are required for this role?

(7) One assumes the above officers may have reason to attend court
in order to give evidence at some time. Do the above officers
receive Professional Witness training? If so, who delivers that

...I'd ring the press office of Liverpool council and ask someone to find out for me. But if I was a member of the public, what would I do? One can imagine Switchboard's perplexed response to such a question. Such a call would progress through labyrinthine ways and missed connections before the caller found anyone who could assist. In short, you'd have to be committed to getting an answer - and prepared to call back multiple times. No wonder it's on What Do They Know? as a FOI question. But does that always have to be the way?

And the Act comes in for serious misuse too, from firms trying to winkle commercially sensitive information out of organisations to give them an edge in tenders, councillors who don't seem to realise they can just ring up their staff and ask, and - absurd, this - confused authorities will submit requests to fellow authorities for information using FOI, simply because they think they have to follow an 'official process'.

Anyway, this What Do They Know? question about what foster carers are paid got me thinking...

Looking at questions on What Do They Know; many don't really need #FOI to get an answer - just clearer avenues of asking the question. less than a minute ago via HootSuite

Be interesting to know how much unnecessary #FOIs cost authorities a year. Suspect they'd find it cheaper to improve transparency and access less than a minute ago via HootSuite

and I had some interesting responses, not least from Liverpool Lib Dem Cllr Paula Keaveney (and thanks Paul Bradshaw, David Higgerson and Glyn Mottishead for input too)

@alisongow difficult to judge what an unnecessary foi is but the default should be to publish everything unless clear reason against less than a minute ago via UberTwitter

Now, the above FOI question had recently received a successful answer with a breakdown of the payments and add-ons a foster parent could expect; I wanted to know if I could find the answers without FOI. As a control, I ran a side test on Liverpool council of the same questions.

The short answer is, I couldn't do it. Liverpool council website, Wirral council website, various Foster Care organisations sites plus advance Google searches in urls, plus blog searches, failed to turn up the necessary figures in my self-imposed 20 minute time limit. (I'm not saying someone else would fail too - just that I, as a user, couldn't get that information).
Liverpool council's fostering information section states: "We recognise and value carers as professionals by paying a professional fee" ; Wirral Council didn't have such information (more of that later).

Next step, phoning switchboard. I was transferred to unknown departments where I got a voicemail and a ring out. However, I don't think it would be fair of me to suggest a random caller (particularly one asking for unusual information) should be a priority in a busy department charged with child welfare, or that anyone should make a habit of doing it.

So I then went down the press office route. I asked:
1. Rates for foster care
2. Was such information deemed publicly available
3. If not, why was that?
4. If so, was it available online?

Within the hour Wirral press officer Gill Gwatkin (whom I have never spoken to before) was back with the answers. Yes it was public information, there was no reason why it shouldn't be made public, and it would normally be included in the fostering section of the website. Said website had, however, been just been massively redesigned and some sections were incomplete - the fostering one among them.
And (this is where the more of that later applies) because only a few months ago I spent a week combing Merseyside council websites, including Wirral's old site, (as part of this research) I know how much better it is now and I'd bet that information will be available when the section is finished.
I had an email from Liverpool council's press office at 5.17pm to say there were rates, on a scale depending on experience; it didn't state what the public-availability of such information was.

So,I got the information that the FOI person wanted in less than 60 minutes BUT I did it by phoning the council press office. Such a tactic just isn't one your average questioning member of the public could or would use, and I'd imagine any press office would point out that's not what they are there for.
But...the definition of 'press' is what, exactly? According to WordNetWeb it is
The print media responsible for gathering and publishing news in the form of newspapers or magazines
So that's pretty unhelpful. Is it someone who works for mainstream (multi)media? or a freelancer? Or a card-carrying NUJ member? A blogger (something of a misnomer, given that it describes the platform rather than the activity), a photojournalist, a hyperlocal website co-ordinator, or a parish magazine?
What, in short, should your antecedents be if you want to contact a press office?

All in all, I ended up with more questions than answers, But here are some conclusions, for what it's worth:
1. A lot of information is classes as available to the public; that's not the same as it being publicly available
2. There are people who readily have the answers in every organisation - the chances of a member of the public gaining access to them are slim
3. Council help points tend to be staffed by people who are experts in sorting out your council tax,; they probably won't be able to tell you what your councillor's last annual expenses claim was
4. Processing a lot of FOI requests in accordance with the strictures laid down in the Act is expensive. Hiring someone(s) to job-share or part-time posts would, over time, work out a cheaper option.
5. Local authorities - police, council, nhs et al - need user advocates who can help the public negotiate the maze of so-called publicly-available information (hint: In private companies this is know as Customer Services - although many newspaper readers think it's actually the newsdesk)
6. This is not the same thing as having an Ombudsman

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