FOI requests turned into delaying tactics by councils

12 Oct

A recent list compiled by the Information Commissioner’s Office revealed that 33 institutions, including 11 local authorities, are delaying responding to FOI requests. The named organisations will be monitored for three months, “to demonstrate that they take freedom of information seriously”, according to the ICO’s Deputy Commissioner.

The list has been put together based on the number of complaints received by the ICO, data showing where less than 85 percent of requests had received a response in an appropriate time, and where authorities had significantly exceeded time limits.

But this week, stories have emerged of local councils using FOI requests as tactical delays. Isle of Wight council executive Steve Beynon told a hyperlocal news site to put in a FOI request instead of answering direct questions over an expensive new lift in the island’s botanic gardens, on which a delegated decision will be reached next week. With the 20-day response period, it is very possible that the FOI will be answered after the decision has been made. Blogs by journalists Judith Townend and Roy Greenslade have picked up the story, and Trinity Mirror’s multimedia chief David Higgerson has added to the debate, saying:

I normally see one or two examples a week of newspapers reporting that when they asked for information, they were told to request it under FOI. It’s a clever tactic which can kick a tricky issue into the long grass for 20 days (or longer), by which time the public body involved will hope the media agenda has simply moved on.

The concept of councils providing open data was also discussed at a Tory Conference fringe event last week, with Philip Colligan of NESTA claiming that local authorities have become “cautious” towards FOI requests and a digital overhaul was needed to help deal with information and data requests.

If councils continue to use the constraints of money and time as excuses, or even delaying tactics, for not providing journalists and members of the public with information, then surely an attitude overhaul would be more useful?

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