FOI is better than tea and biscuits!

The Cardiffian, Cardiff School of Journalism’s hyperlocal website, published a story earlier about Freedom of Information requests to Cardiff Council – nearly 4,000 in the past three years (most of those aren’t mine, honest).

There was whinging about the value of the act, I got irritated, there were tweets.

The negative comments are like a short re-hash of most of the complaints made about FOI – see the Save FOI campaign for more examples  – they are also rubbish arguments.

Cllr Robert Smith’s view is FOI is eating into budget, so we should ignore “trivial” requests – who gets to decide what a trivial request is?

From Cardiff Council’s budget in 2010/11, the FOI department cost £518,000 to run.

This to be fair doesn’t involve costs to other departments for searching for information for the FOI department, as the Cardiffian article points out this hasn’t been quantified.

Meanwhile from the same budget, here are some spending highlights (as mentioned in my last FOI post):

  • £113,000 on refreshments for meetings
  • £124,000 on trees and plants
  • £6.1m paying events promoters
  • £390,000 for hiring musicians
  • £500,000 on bank charges
  • £2.4m on consultants

Those are just the ones I could find in my notebook in a couple of minutes (there’s probably more).

I realise if you’re a councillor, tea and biscuits sounds much more appealing than transparency and being held accountable and actually having to answer to voters, but those things are what you signed up to when you stood for election.

Given all this, is it really any surprise that people might want to use the FOI act to see where their money is going?

Oddly enough I think the £518,000 on FOI, a whopping 0.6% of the total budget, is an excellent use of Cardiff council’s budget.

Personally as a Cardiff council taxpayer, I’m completely supportive of any move to spend the bickie fund on something a bit more useful…like transparency.

On Cllr Rob McKerlich’s point about FOI replies not being perfect, this is usually the point I stop worrying about FOI requests and start worrying about the ability of the council to do it’s job properly given it’s clearly terrible data management systems.

As a councillor, Cllr McKerlich may want to look into how that can be sorted out.

Apparently, one of the 2012 requests is about parking tickets – wouldn’t it be so much easier just to publish all the data once a month and let people go through it for whatever they wanted.

I tend to think ‘if someone keeps asking for the same thing, try proactively releasing it’, might be good words to live by.

Sarah Hartley makes a good point that open data is a good thing but not at the expense of FOI, which lets people ask for the information they want and need.

If people are making more requests, doesn’t it suggest more engaged citizens, media that’s doing it’s job, councillors who can’t get the information some other way…or generally democracy in action, something I’m sure all councillors would be happy to raise a mug of tea to.

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