Using FOI as a journalist

I make a lot of FOI requests (I counted about 80 in a year), and yes, some of them are just fishing expeditions to get stories (look, it has to be better than press releases, and I get stories out of 90% of them, so the public is better informed in the majority of cases). I am probably the bane of Welsh FOI officers’ lives.

But being a believer in open data, I kind of feel you should have published the information in the first place.

There have been some excellent posts today on newspapers’ responses to the Government consultation ahead of its review into the Freedom of Information Act. and the Press Gazette both have comprehensive round-ups of submissions from journalists.

Most of the complaints ring true – slow, inefficient, exemptions applied wrongly requiring lengthy appeals, not-applicant blind, all a problem.

Only today I rang up in search of the UCAS FOI officer (very overdue request, officers have all gone AWOL despite repeated calls and emails) and ended up speaking to a press officer (I don’t hide the fact I’m a journalist, though I understand why others do, it’s just at this point, I figure, they all know who I am anyway).

In defence of FOI officers, many in Wales are excellent, helpful, give good advice about what data they can supply and what is likely to be difficult to extract, and I tend to let slow responses slide a bit.

However, poor attitudes to FOI and political interference are common.

With the recent school banding exercise, I and several others FOI’d the Welsh Government for the data used to construct it (because heaven forbid you should show your working…I do).

Just before the response was due back, Education Minister Leighton Andrews apparently wrote to most of the Welsh education sector complaining he was effectively being forced to release this data and whinging about how he couldn’t uninvent the FOI Act.

(This is a government I’m hoping to persuade to embrace open data, I am not confident).

The data was released on the Welsh Government website with no warning…I got an email from the FOI officer the next day (when the story was on our front page) saying if I hadn’t already noticed the data was now on the website.

Charging for FOIs would be the worst possible outcome, media groups just couldn’t afford it (we can barely afford reporters).

Most newspapers would have to ration the requests they made, and those covering lots of councils (there are 22 in Wales) just wouldn’t stand a chance.

FOI is not that expensive in the grand scheme of public body spending – a point Paul Francis from the KM Group makes.

I don’t have the figures to hand but when I went through Cardiff Council’s budget last year, I could definitely find more questionable spending on hotels for events, biscuits for meetings and consultants than on the FOI department (all the information on such spending is available from your local council through FOI).

David Higgerson has a couple of excellent suggestions for improvements, I love the idea that if most bodies can find the information, the stragglers should also find the information.

I believe the problem of poor data management is widespread (and a further argument for embracing the open data idea of searching and releasing data held).

Interestingly Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies put out a report at the end of January on data recording by forces, which criticised both Gwent and South Wales police for poor crime recording procedures, in some cases leading to no crimes being recorded wrongly.

South Wales is the worst force for releasing data, citing cost exemptions far more often than the other three.

So poor data management doesn’t just make retrieving information for FOI requests harder and more expensive, it actually makes public bodies worse at their jobs (and lets criminals get away with crimes).

Which suggests we have this backwards, public bodies need to organise their data better, so they can use it more efficiently and are able to release it to the public more easily, thus saving money.

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