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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Those difficult Freedom of Information requests

Although I have some sympathy for Tory MP, Simon Hart's crusade to tighten up the use of the Freedom of Information Act so as to eradicate frivolous requests we have to remember that for the most part the categorisation of submissions in this way is largely subjective.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by introducing a restriction that will enable authorities to hide behind red tape even more than present so as to avoid releasing important information.

Having said that, it is difficult to argue with the eccentricity of the top ten most unusual FOI requests put forward to support his argument:

1. How does the council plan to help the brave soldiers of our infantry if and when Napoleon and his marauding hordes invade the district of West Devon?
2. What preparations has the council made for an emergency landing of Santa's sleigh this Christmas? Who would be responsible for rounding up the reindeer and who would have to tidy up the crash site?
3. How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board?
4. What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack?
5. What plans are in place to deal with an alien invasion?
6. How does the council manage to cope with the vagaries of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? How does it function given the inherent unpredictability?
7. How many holes in privacy walls between toilet cubicles have been found in public lavatories and within council buildings?
8. How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months?
9. Provide details of uniforms worn by Civil Enforcement Officers including descriptions of embroidered logos and markings, as well as any difference between summer/winter wear?
10. What is the total number of cheques issued by the council in the past year and how many did it receive?
(9) and (10) aren't all that eccentric so if that's his top 10 then it wouldn't suggest this is a huge problem.

And most of the really weird ones can be dealt with pretty quickly as no such information is held.
I think number 9 is quite eccentric actually, but that does not take away the right to ask the question. The first part of number 10 is really rather sensible as it can help to gauge the efficiency of the Council, in particular how well its is embracing new technology for procurement. It would make more sense though to get information for other years for comparison.
All this list does is demonstrate that there isn't really a problem - except for the problem that councils don't think they should have to justify anything to anyone.

There's nothing here that couldn't be answered in seconds - even if some of the answers are 'we don't know'.
Yes, I would agree with the general thrust of that comment.
I approached someone to make a FoI request regarding a serious case of child abuse that was widely commented on back in 2009; news (BBC) reports commented on a report being written by the Safegaurding Childrens board of NPTCBC, but when this report was asked for, the Council claimed that no report had been written!

Like Anon says at 1:07pm Councils don't think they should have to justify anything to anyone!!
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