21 June 2012

Happy First Birthday to FOI request #1031A

Dear Councillors

An open letter

It appears to Mr Mustard that insufficient resource and importance is being allocated to responding to Freedom of Information requests. Mr Mustard knows that he is not the only person waiting a long time for them. It is no good the council complaining that residents ask too many questions as the law is there to promote openness and transparency and you are supposedly all in favour of that. When you truly are open with the public then the number of requests could fall but generally the trend is upwards.

Where is the proof that Mr Mustard's questions are not being answered on time? Here:

Dear Mr. Mustard,

Our records indicate that the information requests below which were allocated to the Corporate Governance Directorate are still outstanding,

#1031A - Corporate Governance (Deleted Posts)
#1169 - Council Directors Group
#1223 - Procurement consultants
#1170 PWC Report Names (Internal Review)

We are aware that there may also be a few requests outstanding with other services within the council.

While we do aim to respond to requests within 20 working days we may on this occasion have missed the deadline. The council is committed to improving its ability to comply with its statutory duties under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and, to this end, has implemented a new Freedom of Information case management system along with a continuing programme of raising awareness of officers’ duties under the FOIA.

In order to ensure that we respond to all outstanding requests and close off cases on the old system, we are writing to you to ask that you confirm that you are still interested in receiving a response or in the alternative to confirm your willingness to withdraw the request.

I would be grateful if you could respond to this email before June 29 2012; if we do not receive your response; we will assume that you have withdrawn your request and we will close the case on our system.

I look forward to your response.

Governance Officer
Corporate Governance Directorate
London Borough of Barnet, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP
Tel: 020 8359 7757

Mr Mustard has redacted the officer's name as it is not relevant to the matter. 

The 3 officers whose duties are first and foremost dealing with FOI requests must be run off their feet and Mr Mustard has no complaints with the individuals who always write in a perfectly proper manner.

It is true that the 4 requests are outstanding.

#1031A was submitted on 21 June 2011
#1169 was submitted on 3 December 2011
#1223 was submitted on 17 February 2012 (only 3 months overdue, a cute little baby FOI!)
#1170 was submitted on 6 December 2011 and the review was requested on 3 February 2012.

Note that these 4 requests are only for the Governance Directorate and there will be dozens more in other Directorates especially EPR. 

Here is a priceless comment. The Governance Officer knows when the requests were submitted and so to say "may on this occasion have missed the deadline" is masterful understatement, amusing and annoying all at the same time (and it should have said "on these occasions").

Mr Mustard knows about the new software and probably needs to buy some himself to keep track of his requests and so that he can prompt the council more quickly when they are late.

These words are telling "a continuing programme of raising awareness of officers' duties under the FOIA" means, in Mr Mustard's estimation "we do our best but other departments don't give a toss about FOI and don't give us much help no matter how many times we tell them"  and it might also mean "no-one ever gets in trouble from top level management for answering FOI questions late so why bother".

Mr Mustard is then invited to withdraw his requests. He has not done so. He wanted the information months ago and is not easily put off by delay.

Is this not astonishing nerve?; that if someone has waited 365 days for an answer, some 300+ days longer than the time allowed for a response, that you can therefore assume that the enquirer is no longer interested if they don't reply within 8 days. Well Mr Mustard didn't need long to think about it, he restrained himself from sending a robust answer to the Governance Officer and merely said that yes he still did want answers. This took him 9 minutes.

It is completely unacceptable to strike requests out of the book just because the council is miles behind on answering them. The Freedom of Information Act does not allow for this sort of behaviour. 

Councillors, what do I want you to do?

Well I suppose we had better leave it the leader Richard Cornelius to decide who is going to tackle the officers and get some performance and sort out the resource required.

Any councillor who trumpets that the council is open and transparent really ought to think about keeping quiet until the number of questions answered on time has passed the 90% mark.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

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