Don’t ask, don’t tell

As a secretive committee of slightly unappetising characters attempts to cut the FOI Act down to size, the voices ranged in favour of the legislation is bewilderingly wide, from The Sun to Reprieve. Relatively few people have put their head above the parapet to put the case for less FOI, but one brave example is Paul Greatrix, the Registrar of the University of Nottingham. Admittedly, Mr Greatrix doesn’t have much to say beyond a list of requests that he feels were inappropriate, along with the inevitable reference to Tony Blair’s regrets about introducing FOI in the first place, but nevertheless, it’s a rare and so notable experience to see someone properly giving FOI a kicking.

I feel some sympathy for the secrecy brigade, as Blair is one of the few well-known names willing to repudiate FOI in public. When the only people you can pray in aid are Jack Straw, David ‘furring the arteries’ Cameron and the nameless Foreign Office civil servant who thought that FOI was ‘sand in the machinery’, it’s not easy to find an acceptable champion to rally behind. For myself, if the best you’ve got is a shop-soiled ex-PM who earns his living advising various unpleasant dictatorships, you might be better looking for some hard evidence instead of celebrity endorsements.

It gets worse. Greatrix invites the reader to sympathise with his frustration at a list of requests which “makes you question the benefits of this particular piece of legislation”. There are a few niche ones: I can’t imagine that the answer to ‘Number of ice cleats bought over 3 years and number of accidents due to icy/snowy conditions’ echoed resoundingly through the East Midlands. The number of registered library users is equally unlikely to rival to MPs’ expenses or the NHS Risk Register in terms of its significance.

However, every other request on his list is a matter of some legitimate interest, and many of them would be of genuine concern to students, staff and the wider public. Greatrix cites a litany of spending choices that he does not want people to ask about: electrical work, art for university buildings, Christmas parties, garments (who for and why?), and buffets and “banquets”. There is a debate about whether Universities should be subject to FOI given that they are not wholly funded by the public sector, but as successive governments have increased the amount paid by students for their university education, the idea that what that money is spent on should be off limits is ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that universities shouldn’t buy art or have Christmas parties – but why would it be inappropriate to ask how much was spent on them, or on gowns for senior staff?

The role of a university registrar normally involves the management of student records, so the list of shame also includes an applicant who had the temerity to ask about the University’s compliance with Data Protection subject access timescales. Needless to say, Mr Greatrix also objects to people asking about the number of FOI requests received, and whether they were dealt with on time as well.

Universities are supposed to be places of study and research where ideas are explored and tested, so there is a double irony in the fact that people apparently shouldn’t ask which websites have been blocked by the University – ‘don’t ask us about the things we don’t want you to look at’ doesn’t  sound like a way of encouraging the kind of debate for which universities are supposedly famous, but maybe I’m just old fashioned. He also seems to against revealing the costs of catering to religious groups of several different kinds through the provision of prayer rooms and chaplaincy. As an atheist, I am amazed that legitimate questions about how religious groups are treated are supposedly off limits.

Perhaps most surprising of all, essential information about the relationship between the university and students is – according to Mr Greatrix – not fit for disclosure: examples include drug testing of students before exams, legal action taken against student protestors and astonishingly, the number of examination scripts lost over 5 years plus resolutions and compensation. It is here that I can wholeheartedly agree with one aspect of the piece: I do not think that people should be using FOI to get access to this information because I think the University should be obliged to publish it.

Remarkably, Greatrix even wants to keep the number of deaths on University property a secret. I’m not suggesting that there should be deaths league table for universities, but then again, I’m not going into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to attend one.

Many FOI officers will look enviously at the final flourish of Greatrix’s piece – the hilariously low numbers of requests that his university receives and which have prompted his complaint (a positively satirical 52 in 2005, rising to the adorable less-than-one-per-day that was received in 2014). The other remarkable feature of the article is that most of the cited requests are for hard facts that will either exist (and so could be found and disclosed) or which will be spread across the institution in bits, and so a competent FOI officer would probably be entitled to refuse as breaching the cost limit. I don’t believe that a single request would be subject to an exemption. None of them represent the real difficulty of FOI – the trawl for emails, notes and frank internal discussions that (although I think should be released) are clearly more of a challenge.

Of course, I will probably be dismissed as being part of the “vested interest” or FOI ‘salariat’ for being rude enough to earn about 10% of my living (and falling) from FOI courses. I’m happy to be pushed to the sidelines when every national and local newspaper is united in FOI’s support. In the meantime, and not for the first time, I would like to draw Mr Greatrix’s attention to the famous Streisand Effect, whereby trying to keep something secret makes it better known. FOI has an equivalent phenomenon, in that those who complain most loudly about answering FOI requests tend to get nothing but more FOI requests. I will not be troubling the University with any questions, but I would be surprised if others do not pick up the gauntlet.

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