Here be Dragons

I assume that somewhere, there is a rota. Once in a while, an organisation emerges to complain about the moronic FOI requests they receive, and the high cost of dealing with them. Inevitably, a small number of idiots will have obliged by making some eye-catchingly stupid requests, and so the public authority will be able to imply that the £100,000s required to deal with FOI is being squandered on requests about the supernatural and the ridiculous.

This week, it has been the turn of Wigan Council*, who report receiving requests about dragons and exorcisms, before seamlessly moving to a statement that FOIs “can take a long time to process and can be very labour intensive“. Here are two true statements: councils (and other organisations) receive some moronic requests, and some FOI requests swallow up large amount of resources to deal with. They are not the same requests. Any organisation that spends more than two minutes per moronic request is doing them wrong. You don’t have to be a paranoid, self-styled ‘FOI campaigner’ to wonder whether some senior people are more concerned about  unwelcome scrutiny elsewhere in FOI, but the daft requests are a perfect cover to take a swipe at the legislation. We already know that the coalition is minded to do something about FOI ‘abuse’, so what better excuse than a torrent of expensive requests about zombies and clowns, even if it’s an illusion?

So once again, I present some suggestions for dealing with silly FOI requests.

1) IGNORE THE REQUEST

What’s the worst that could happen? Dare the applicant to go to the Information Commissioner to demand an answer to their idiotic request. The ICO has a power to reject frivolous complaints – it’s time they used it. I’ve made this suggestion before and it was universally derided, but if you were to follow my advice and ignore only genuinely moronic requests, there would be no harm in it. NB, despite much evidence to the contrary, it would not be appropriate to ignore completely a request about lightning protection, as lightning does actually exist. See option 3 for more on requests about lightning protection.

2) ANSWER THE REQUEST TRUTHFULLY

Send a response that says ‘We do not hold any information’. Do no searches. Ask no one. Ghosts, dragons, demonic possession, zombies and UFOs are all imaginary, so you will not have any plans or programmes to deal with them. If your organisation cannot confidently say without checking that it has not carried out any exorcisms (and there is at least one council in that position), the FOI request is clearly necessary and in the public interest. If the applicant is asking you to look for incidents associated with clowns, hipsters, or ghosts, do the simplest, most basic search of whatever database or system you have, unless you have the common sense to go for option 3 which is….

3) REFUSE THE REQUEST UNDER SECTION 14

Tell the applicant that their request is vexatious. It is. You do not need to do any searches, and no public interest test is required. Unless / until Alan Dransfield wins his case at the Court of Appeal (contrary to some excited exaggeration on Twitter, he has merely won the chance to appeal, not won an appeal itself), the definition of ‘vexatious’ is sufficiently wide to encompass any stupid request they can think of. This may not even be an entirely good thing, but it’s true. FOI is for serious enquiries about matters of public interest, not time-wasters.

4) BE RELENTLESSLY BORING

Add no stylistic flourish to your response. Exhibit no style, no sense of humour, no panache. Give the idiot nothing to reward their efforts, nothing to elicit even a tiny giggle. Make it feel like a tedious waste of everyone’s time, and make the applicant wonder why they bothered.

5) DO NOT PUBLICISE STUPID REQUESTS

I am guilty of this, merely by mentioning the Wigan story. But I guarantee that one concrete result of Wigan’s complaint will be more requests about dragons and exorcisms. The more the stories get reported, the more idiots will be inspired. As a side issue, all of the journalists who breathlessly cover these stories should ask themselves why they want to feed the perception that FOI is a tool for morons, thus encouraging the government to constrain legislation that many journalists actually use for intelligent, public-interest stories.

6) IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT THE COST OF FOI, COUNT YOUR PR STAFF

Any organisation that is concerned about the cost of FOI should count how many people they have working on FOI, and how many people they have working on public relations. If there are more PR staff than FOI staff, the complaint is invalid. Stop talking. FOI is a legal obligation; PR is not. End of story.

 

* Yes, I did, for six years. Best 9-5 job I ever had.

CHOKE ON ‘EM!

On September 2nd, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust received an FOI request from ‘Arnold’, asking

“Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils and NHS Trusts throughout the kingdom must prepare for.”

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/preparation_for_zombie_invasions

Oh, my aching sides. Hey everyone, you have to see this! This guy.. sorry, I’m laughing so much I can barely type… he’s only gone and asked for, no really, it’s brilliant, he’s asked for.. provisions for a zombie invasion! BOOM! What a card. It’s like Oscar Wilde reincarnated for the twenty first century. One can only imagine Arnold pausing halfway through his missive to crack off a few armpit farts. Pull my finger. HONK!

Sadly, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust didn’t see the funny side, responding tersely, and with a soupçon of derision:

Thank you for your email. This is not an appropriate FOI request and I would suggest takes valuable resource away from dealing with genuine requests for information.

The Trust will not therefore be responding further.

So that’s Arnold told. As several people on Twitter have already pointed out, the Trust’s response is not legally correct. They did not state that the information was not held, and they did not cite an exemption, which would have been Section 14(1), on the basis that the request is vexatious. What I want to know is, why should they bother? Why even acknowledge Arnold’s moronic request? Why not delete it and get on with what the Trust rightly calls ‘genuine requests for information’?

Nobody can pretend that Arnold expects the Trust to hold the information he asks for. This is the latest in a long line of tedious requests, traditionally made on What Do They Know. Arnold joins a roll-call of unoriginal japesters including Tarquin Farquar-Brown (HONK!), Mr Craddock, Peter Goodman, Adam Field (who claims to be a ‘mature student’ but I think the cat is out of the bag on that one), Alex Chambers, Peter KeastAgata Tina Campanella AKA Mr S Wood, the list goes on. There is something fitting about the uniform shambling progress of these morons, dragging their lifeless requests across WDTK for no purpose. The applicants don’t even care enough to spell ‘Apocalypse‘ correctly or to note that zombies don’t invade (it’s an outbreak, fact fans).

Of course, what I’m supposed to say is that FOI is a legal obligation, that every request should be properly and legally dealt with, blah blah blah. Even as I type it, those big important words sound flatulent and meaningless. Of course public authorities shouldn’t respond to these requests. The fact that sometimes applicants ask apparently daft questions with a sound basis, the fact that this once happened doesn’t justify the relentless tide of zombie requests. If you want to know how many red pens an organisation is using, how many supernatural callouts have been dealt with, or whatever today’s nonsense happens to be, why should anyone bother with you? If any of these jokers feels sufficiently strongly about being shunned, they should complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office. At which point, I invite them (and you, gentle reader) to consider Section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act, which states that the Information Commissioner must make a decision about any application for an FOI decision unless ‘the application is frivolous or vexatious‘.

So ignore the request. Don’t acknowledge it. Bin it. And then I dare Arnold, Tarquin and all the other halfwits to complain to the Information Commissioner that their mindless request was ignored. And I dare the Information Commissioner to come to any conclusion other than the fact that the application for an FOI Decision is anything other than frivolous.

If you want to be pure, then my approach is no doubt unacceptable. But if you want to be pure, I have two things for you to consider. Although some of the zombie applicants use their real names, I am certain that ‘Arnold’ is a fake one. Section 8 of the FOI Act states that a valid request must include ‘the name’ of the applicant, and both the UK (i.e. England Wales and Northern Ireland) and Scottish Information Commissioners interpret that as being the real name of the applicant. So to say that the Trust’s response to Arnold was invalid is to ignore that Arnold’s request was almost certainly invalid in the first place.

More importantly, there only seem to be two legally correct options for a response. If the Trust want to argue that the information is not held, if we’re being pure, it is not sufficient to assert that the information is not held. The Trust would have to carry out a reasonable and proportionate search in order to establish that the information is not held. As the ICO’s own Guide to Freedom of Information states: “Before you decide that you don’t hold any recorded information, you should make sure that you have carried out adequate and properly directed searches, and that you have convincing reasons for concluding that no recorded information is held.” If we’re asking public authorities to be legally correct no matter how stupid the request might be, then just firing back ‘not held’ won’t do, will it? A search of some meaningful kind for the non-existent information is what you’re demanding.

So that leaves us with vexatious. Section 14(1) is remarkably terse: “Section 1(1) does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious”. So that’s OK, isn’t it? The Trust can simply fire back that the request is vexatious. But once again, the people who want this process to be followed are all about the legal correctness. Even the ICO’s revised guidance on vexatiousness (once again, I salute Alan Dransfield for all his hard work in making the guidance possible) says that the process of labelling a request as vexatious will “usually be a matter of objectively judging the evidence of the impact on the authority and weighing this against any evidence about the purpose and value of the request“. Does this sound like a quick process to you? Especially if we’re being legally correct, surely the process has to be carried out diligently and thoroughly? Precious public sector time is thus poured down the drain because Arnold is taking a break from internet porn and cat videos.

Why waste the time? What sacred principle is being protected here, other than the right to be a dickhead, and not even an original dickhead? I’m not advocating a change in the law, a change in the process. FOI was clearly framed to allow the ICO to bat away stupid complaints, so I’m simply asking why idiots have to be indulged because on a purely technical basis, we can’t quite work out why not? Just don’t answer. Call the zombies’ bluff: unlike their cinematic counterparts, I am absolutely certain they have no teeth and no guts, inside or out.