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A plea for restraint

Martin Rosenbaum | 12:03 UK time, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

People like me should be more restrained.

That apparently anyway is the view of Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, who says journalists should show more restraint in their use of freedom of information.

He argues that journalists are the group of requesters who most disgruntle public officials. One of the causes, in his view, is when 'they get the information, decide there’s no story and make no use of it whatsoever - so the official thinks that a lot of public expense has gone into finding the information'.

It's a fair point. I can't pretend I've never had that pang of guilt, when helpful officials have assiduously provided me with lots of material, but I've not managed to do anything with it. So if one of you is reading this, sorry. The problem as a requester is that you never know in advance whether you are going to find yourself in such a situation.

But on the other hand I suspect there are plenty of cases where officials are delighted to discover that they've managed to redact out of the information they supplied anything which a journalist might find of interest. And possibly their relief at this is much greater than their concern about the time spent in answering the request.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 12:15 PM on 13 Mar 2008,
  • Michael wrote:

As an FOI officer at a large public authority, I have to agree that spurious requests made by journalists - both local and nationl - can be, how shall I put it, 'frustrating'.

It is clear from the wording of some requests that the journalist behind them doesn't really know what they want, and is simply making a request because it's a quiet a day in the office, and is fishing for story where there isn't one (and he or she probably knows that). Ironically, it is often these requests that are most time-consuming for us. We even had 4 different journalists from the same newspaper submit substantially similar (but very slightly different) requests within a 3 month period. There was no story in any of them, and nothing about it appeared in their rag.

My team will never redact anything simply because we'd rather the press didn't get it. We will, of course, redact information where any of the statutory exemptions apply, and we think it is right and proper to apply the exemption.

The vast majority of FOI requests we received in 2007 were from journalists. I dread to think how much 'public money' has been spent servicing such requests. It is especially ironic when we receive 'pointless' requests from journalists in which they criticise the authority for wasting tax-payer's hard-earned... If I ever get a spare 10 minutes, I might try and estimate how much we spent servicing FOI requests from journalists in 2007, and append this information to responses we send out to them.

  • 2.
  • At 02:11 PM on 17 Mar 2008,
  • Marko wrote:

To Michael,

Why is the information so difficult and expensive to produce?

Presumably if it exists in some tangible electronic form the job should be easy?

Should the public be concerned that a public authority's access to data is so mired in treacle and so expensive to recover? which can't then be used to continuously improve efficiency in operations and management?

  • 3.
  • At 12:26 PM on 19 Mar 2008,
  • nobby wrote:

I'm afraid Marko's comment is incomprehensible.

  • 4.
  • At 05:29 PM on 19 Mar 2008,
  • Michael wrote:

If I have understood Marko's comment correctly, my response is as follows:

The information is 'difficult' to collate because it is very rarely held in a 'set' that the applicant requires.

Information/data is (sensibly) stored in a manner that best suits the businesses of the authority; it is held and used efficiently for all the our purposes (except, it would seem, 'difficult' FOI requests!).

However, as stated above, requests are very rarely for information that is held in one 'set'. We often have to interrogate multiple databases across many different departments in order to locate and collate the information that has been requested. We then have to spend time correlating this into a response that is not totally illegible or incomprehensible.

We are a large authority, with approx. 45,000 employees.

It is impossible to predict what somebody will ask for, and we cannot have an infinite number of information sets just ready and waiting to be packaged up and disclosed.

Furthermore, a lot of what we are asked for is not electronic.

However, all that aside, when we do receive 'straightforward' requests, our responses (which in the vast majority of cases are full disclosures) are sent out within a day or two - frequently on the same day as we receive the request. Unfortunately, these straightforward requests are uncommon, and hardly ever generated by journalists!

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