18 January 2013

The foibles of the FOI system

The over exposure disclosure log

Two related blog posts to read this weekend with Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard ploughing the same furrow having both come across personal details of other residents that we shouldn't have whilst casually surfing the council website. So decide what you want to read first, serious and funny with Mrs Angry, or just plain serious with Mr Mustard, get yourself a cup of tea, ignore the snow and read. Enjoy your weekend. Barnet Council won't, they have work to do correcting their blunders.

Based on the above, council employees could be forgiven for thinking that the overall performance of the council is wonderful when to comes to FOI. Whilst pleased to see that more focus has been placed on this area, as Mr Mustard was, until what amounts to a ban came into force, the best customer of the FOI department and so he knows that the council didn't have a 100% record in September 2012.

How does he know? Well for a start he has 2 questions which were outstanding from September and are still not yet answered. His references are 1370 & 1371 and the council ones are 181337 and 180978. Mr Mustard has sent gentle reminders in that he would still like his questions to be answered. (Since the draft of this blog was written last week there has been some movement from the council but the further information provided doesn't make any sense and has been queried).

What is more, the council website tells you that they failed to answer one on time. Here it is.

You will have noticed an entire paragraph of apology showing that basically the FOI department lost control of the answering process and that it took 90 days to answer rather than the targeted 20.

These three omissions reduce the compliance rate down to 97% at best.

Mr Mustard has just noticed something else about this internal trumpeting. It was written on 17 October. The council is allowed up to 20 working days to respond to FOI. If a question is asked on, say, 28 September about traffic calming in front of Moss Hall school, as it was, then the council have until 26 October to answer. The council answered on that very day and yet the "aren't we wonderful" intranet message was issued on 17 October and is in the past tense. Tut tut, announcing results before they have come to pass. We don't just need salt to grit the roads with in Barnet, we need a hefty pinch of it to have to hand when we read council documents.

Two things helped September to be a good month.

The first is that the number of requests was historically low in that month at 93. Both July and August of that same financial quarter saw 117 requests so the lowest & easiest month was reported on by the internal communications wallah. Numbers are also lower than in early 2011 which saw the following numbers

Jan 11 - 119
Feb 11 - 122
March 11 - 145 (Mr Mustard was born!)
April 11 - 125

average - 128

so it was much easier to hit target in September 2012. It is interesting to note this fall from 2011 to 2012 as usually requests just keep rising with time. Come on people, you must be more inquisitive, it isn't as if loads of useful information is freely available on the council website.

The second reason is that it was in September 12 that FOI got the hump with Mr Mustard and starting deeming his requests to be vexatious. They didn't stop until they had made 23 requests vexatious and Mr Mustard stopped making requests in his own name because there wasn't any point any longer - that is effectively a ban. He has a battery of individuals who are happy to ask his questions and they can't be linked to Mr Mustard so miraculously the questions get answered and aren't deemed to be vexatious, funny that.

FOI rules are clear. It is the question and not the person that has to be vexatious. How does Mr Mustard know it is him who is being viewed as vexatious? Well because he took the first question that was deemed to be vexatious and asked a pillar of the local community to ask it again in the identical terms. Did the question then get deemed vexatious a second time? No, because it came from another person it miraculously became an acceptable question and was answered in the usual way. The complaint has just gone in to the Information Commissioner and the outcome will be known in 3 - 6 months time.

Just in case you were wondering what sort of questions Mr Mustard has been asking, here is a sample question that was deemed to be vexatious:

Please provide a list of all parking locations reported as defective by NSL CEOs during September 2012.

What on earth can be the problem with asking that?

Mr Mustard happens to know that there are other problems with FOI. There are problems with responses sent in RTF (Rich Text Format rather than in .doc or .docx) which open up as gobbledegook. The council could save us all the time of converting, or having to ask again for the answer in a readable format by not using their apparently non-standard version of rtf. When the question has been sent in by email and the answer is largely composed of text then the most effective way in which to answer is to reply within the body of an email and not to add an extra document that is not necessary and then the .rtf problem goes away. To add a spreadsheet is fine if the information is largely tabular in nature.

When you look at the answers which are published on-line there are other problems. There are answers which refer to attached documents but they are not available to download and that is where the meat of the answer lies so it is useless to publish an empty response.

There are other interesting problems. The published answers which are headed with the phrase "Do not publish" are always particularly interesting. The Tooting Twister is responsible for the website. Do you ever look at it Mr Palmer?

Sometimes the name, address and telephone number of the requester is visible in the question. That is a breach of Data Protection law.

The council managed to publish Mr Mustard's real name in one answer and then his address in another. The council were given the opportunity to investigate several months ago and if they did so they certainly didn't tell Mr Mustard the outcome. He has now complained to the Information Commissioner as he has found other much worse breaches of data protection in the disclosure log including the entire question from one person which discloses not only their name & home address but their email address and telephone numbers to boot.

There are other data breaches about someone in a care home and about toilets in a public park. Yet more about empty commercial properties and for all of these the published information contains the names, addresses, telephone numbers and/or email addresses of private individuals which should not have been put into the public domain by the council.

Mr Mustard wrote in June 12 about the need for more resource in FOI and none seems to have been added. The resulting mess is the outcome of a small number of staff doing their best with a new system and getting it wrong in an area where there just isn't room for error.

What needs to be done? The disclosure log needs to be taken off-line until every single one of the almost 700 published answers has been checked and shown to be compliant with the Data Protection Act. A review needs to be carried out of the staff resource in FOI to see if it is adequate.

There is a very useful website, Finchlinks, which brings together all of the Barnet related questions that have been asked through the Whatdotheyknow website for various public bodies. You can find it here.

The next paragraph was written before the date and then the blog post was held back and now we have even more snow so a good job that Mr Mustard didn't postpone just for one week.
Due to the anticipated snowfall on Monday it has been decided not to hold the usual second Monday FOI Club meeting in January. Please put the second Monday evening in February in your diary now. The 11 February at 7pm. A change of venue to be more central in the borough to the Bohemia public house, details here, and a slightly extended agenda to the Mr Mustard FOI, Social and Parking Ticket Club (yes, a catchy name, a Mr Mustard t-shirt to whoever comes up with the best alternative name)

bang opposite Cafe Buzz

near Tally Ho corner in North Finchley.

Still some room for improvement in FOI. You get 9/10 for improving the response time but 0/10 for your silliness in deeming 23 requests as vexatious.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

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