15 September 2011

Frustrate, Obfuscate, Inhibit = FOI at Barnet Council

Mr Mustard expects that you know dear reader that FOI is the usual acronym used for the Freedom of Information Act 2000

All bloggers are likely to make FOI requests in order to verify that the rumours they have heard are correct. Think of FOI as being like a Football Match. The home side are the bloggers, the away team are Barnet Council ( probably reduced to 9 men due to dirty play ) and the referee is the Information Commissioner who decides deadlocked games with a penalty shootout.

Barnet's bloggers are well acquainted with the Information Commissioner who tries to ensure a level playing field ( the local pitch is well known for its slope ).

The simple idea of FOI is that anyone e.g. a blogger, can ask any public body e.g. Barnet Council, a question and if they have the information they have to hand it over promptly, and certainly within 20 working days, or tell the requester which exemption is being replied upon. If you don't know much about FOI ( although Mr Mustard expects that many of his readers do know quite a lot ) there is a short guide here in the Guardian with links to more information. Whilst on the Guardian site do also take a look at Dave Hill's London blog here but don't forget to come back.

Barnet Council have quite a few practices in the shirt tugging department which you need to know about for your own requests. You might find some other examples in the other Barnet bloggers' blogs in the future.

So today Mr Mustard is going to give you an example of an answer which obfuscates.

The question, sent on 16 August 2011 was as follows:-

Dear Sirs

Please provide a copy of the One Barnet programme risk register as an attachment to an email.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Normally an acknowledgement is received from Barnet Council which Mr Mustard thinks is a waste of time for the very simple requests as the request could be answered in the time it takes to actually answer the question. Mr Mustard notes that the sending of an acknowledgment is however one of the Corporate Performance Indicators that Barnet Council fail to meet.

This request for information was a very simple one. The risk register is a document which must be kept up to date and can simply be selected from a list of files on a file store.

The response came on the 20th working day following receipt ( one day was a bank holiday ) on 12 September 2011.

This is stupid trick number 1 practised by Barnet Council. They misunderstand the law which states that information should be supplied promptly & also says that the information should be supplied within 20 working days. That means Barnet Council that if you have the information to hand and can reply in 1 day then you should do so. Mr Mustard might have to take a look at the last 100 FOI requests and prepare a table showing the number of days to reply but is sure that the mode will be 20 days. ( The average called the mode is the most common answer ).

Stupid trick number 2 is to answer a different question. Here it is in action.

Dear Mr Mustard

In response to your request, One Barnet's top risks are considered by the Budget & Performance Overview & Scrutiny and previously the One Barnet Overview & Scrutiny Panel. These can be found in the One Barnet highlight reports.

Please find the links below:

Yours sincerely

Mohsin Abbasi
One Barnet Programme Office

So let us look carefully at the question and then the answer. The question asks to see the risk register (which contains a record of all risks) and the answer tells me roughly where to look to find the top risks. If Mr Mustard had wanted to see only the most risky risks then that is what he would have asked for.

It is self evident in the question that it is the current risks which are being asked about and so the reference to old reports is obfuscation ( or helpful depending on your point of view. It would be helpful if the page number of the agenda item was given which of course it wasn't). It is now September so pointing me at a report prepared on 11 July will provide out of date information.

There is more stupidity in the long footer that came on the email from Mohsin Abbasi and it derives from laziness. The council's e-mail programme should allow for several different footers to be set and the sender should choose the one that best fits the reply; a bespoke system rather than this one footer fits all approach. Mr Mustard has raised this with Governance and is still waiting for them to consider and implement the necessary changes.

The Footer

The information in this e-mail is confidential and may also be the subject of legal privilege. The reply is a Freedom of Information response so by definition is can be seen by anyone so it is not confidential and not the subject of legal privilege.

It is intended solely for the addressee. If you are not the intended recipient please reply to the sender. If someone sends you an email in error you are not under any duty to reply. You can just delete.

Information contained in this e-mail may be subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. It certainly will be subject to disclosure as that is the whole point.

Unless the information is legally exempt from disclosure, the confidentiality of this e-mail and your reply cannot be guaranteed. The council cannot release personal details about you from your email so any publication scheme will only contain the text of the question and answer.

You are hereby placed on notice that any copying, publication or any other form of dissemination of this e-mail or its contents is prohibited. Complete codswallop. You are free to publish an FOI response however you like.

Whilst every endeavour is taken to ensure that e-mails are free from viruses, no liability can be accepted, the recipient must use their own virus checking software. This is the only part of the footer that has any point and even then this is overstatement. The word "must" is rather hectoring. Many Internet Services Providers perform this service for recipients so they do not need telling what to do.

So, back to the request. Mr Mustard can ask for a review or make a formal complaint or simply refer the file to the Information Commissioner but instead he just put Mohsin Abbasi straight as follows.

Dear Mr Abbasi

You have not answered the question.

I did not ask to see only the top risks. I asked to see the entire register. Please now answer the question that was asked.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

12 September
Telling the council exactly where they have gone wrong usually works and Mr Mustard always gives the council a chance to correct their mistakes although he is now at liberty to report Barnet Council for the 5th time to the Information Commissioner. Shall we say 5 more working days Mr Abbasi to deliver up a report that will take at most 5 minutes for you to find? After that you will be reported.

Mr Mustard will update the posting later with what happened next.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

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