Stretching FoI beyond a reasonable use case? 8


Freedom“The Freedom of Information Act is a good thing” – sounds like a reasonable statement that would attract a lot of support from many who read this blog or who live in the open data, open source, open whatever communities.

In line with my position on the cost/benefit of Open Data, I have occasionally wondered whether some people/organisations are ‘taking the mick’ with their FoI requests. The act applies to all and any requests regardless of the motive, status of the requestor (individual, company etc) or content. Grounds for refusal are detailed within the guidance notes to the act

You can refuse an entire request under the following circumstances:

  • It would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with the request.
  • The request is vexatious.
  • The request repeats a previous request from the same person.

cost too much” is defined as £600 for Central Government and Parliament and £450 for all other public bodies. Cost should be calculated at £25/hr so that equates to 18 hours of staff time for a request to Local Government (almost half a week or 1% of a year’s availability) which sounds like a lot of time to me. 100 FoI requests could need a full time person (or equivalent) to respond.

I use the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow site to submit the odd FoI request and to watch out for requests that might interest me. I use it because it makes it so simple to submit a request but therein lies a problem, it also makes it incredibly simple to fire off a large number of requests in next to no time. This week I have received several mails from WhatDoTheyKnow triggered by an alert/search that I have set up on the site. Each one had the identical request format:

Please could you provide me with the following information with regards to your ICT structure;

1. What is your annual IT Infrastructure Budget for 2016 & 2017?

 

2. What storage vendor(s) and model do you currently use?
a. When was the installation date of above storage vendor(s)?
b. When is your planned (or estimated) storage refresh date? (Month/year)
c. What is your estimated budget for the refresh?
d. What date does your storage support contract end? (Month/year)
e. What is the value of your storage support contract?
f. What is the capacity of the storage data in TB?

 

3. What backup software do you use?
a. How much data do you backup in TB?
b. When is your planned (or estimated) backup software refresh date? (Month/year)
c. What is the estimated budget for your backup software refresh?
d. When does your backup support contract end? (Month/year)
e. What is the value of your backup support contract?

 

4. What compute vendor(s) and model do you currently use?
a. Number of servers?
b. What operating system(s) do you use?
c. What percentage is virtualised?
d. Virtualisation platform?
e. When is your planned (or estimated) compute refresh date? (Month/year)
f. When does your compute support contract end? (Month/year)
g. What is the value of the compute support contract?

 

5. If you outsource your IT works, please provide who it is with and when the contract started and ends.

 

In addition, please provide a copy of your current IT Strategy and an organisation chart depicting the IT department with contact names and telephone numbers.

 

Yours faithfully,

Terry Williams

That’s long and very detailed, 24 questions plus requests for a copy of the ICT Strategy which can usually be found on the organisations web site with a bit of a search and an org chart with contact details (something that is unlikely to be included in most org charts). As of the time of writing Terry Williams has submitted 90 identical requests to Local and Central Government bodies over the past week! You can view them here.

This looks like an exercise in market research or business development, quite smart and probably very useful to the company employing Mr Williams as it will help them to accurately target their sales activity. But is it a fair and sensible use of public funds for all of these bodies to have to respond to Mr Williams’ requests? I’d love to know how much taxpayers are paying for Mr Williams FoI requests but it would be a further waste of money to submit 90 requests to ask the question!

Is this really within the spirit of the FoI Act even if it is within the letter? I expect purists would argue that it is better to allow all FoI requests subject to the limited grounds for refusal rather than have someone or a panel determining what is reasonable or not. I on the other hand would argue for a greater focus on cost/benefit, FoI should not be a means to get public employees to provide unpaid market research to an ICT vendor.

I wonder whether this is ‘vexatious’? The guidance notes to the Act say:

As a general rule, you should not take into account the identity or intentions of a requester when considering whether to comply with a request for information. You cannot refuse a request simply because it does not seem to be of much value. However, a minority of requesters may sometimes abuse their rights under the Freedom of Information Act, which can threaten to undermine the credibility of the freedom of information system and divert resources away from more deserving requests and other public business.

You can refuse to comply with a request that is vexatious. If so, you do not have to comply with any part of it, or even confirm or deny whether you hold information. When assessing whether a request is vexatious, the Act permits you to take into account the context and history of a request, including the identity of the requester and your previous contact with them. The decision to refuse a request often follows a long series of requests and correspondence.

The key question to ask yourself is whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation.

The bold is mine. Maybe it is vexatious, I’d love to see what would happen if all of the recipients rejected the request as vexatious. That won’t happen because it’s probably easier to shrug and provide the information rather than push back.

I am going to send a link to this article to Terry Williams via the WhatDoTheyKnow site to give him the opportunity to say why he thinks his 90 requests are a fair use of the FoI system if he wishes.

Update 21-08-2016

I picked up on a couple of clues in Terry Williams’ comments below. He said “I’m a little baffled as to why you felt the need to focus on my requests, as the site has many similar requests and higher volumes by individual users” so I went back to have another look and he is quite correct. There are another 8 people making requests using an almost identical set of questions to those above! The complete list is:

That’s just over 400 almost identical requests to different public sector bodies, all made within the last 3 or 4 weeks! Terry said that “My requests are to form part of a university assignment I will be completing this year” I am going to make a guess that the other 8 people making near identical requests are fellow students. So a class assignment has resulted in at least 400 FoI requests (possibly more, I stopped searching after a while). The respondents are mainly local authorities and NHS trusts and boards who are struggling to deliver front line services under the current budgetary constraints without having to devote resources to helping students complete their “university assignment“. Let’s guess that the time taken by each body to respond to this enquiry is between 1 and 2 hours (I can’t believe that many organisations could respond in the 30 minutes that Terry Williams suggest), that equates to between 400 and 800 hours of time (at £25/hr) or £10,000 to £20,000! Surely this can’t make sense? I asked Terry for the details of the university assignment and whether the results would be published but to date he has not responded, I am going to mail the other requesters.

If you search for “IT Infrastructure” on WhatDoTheyKnow you will find over a 1000 requests. In 2016 another 13 people (apart from the 9 above) have made over 1000 IT related FoI requests. I can understand why some of my friends in Local Government are not 100% enthusiastic about FoI.


8 thoughts on “Stretching FoI beyond a reasonable use case?

  • Terry Williams

    Hello Steven,

    Thank you for the opportunity to reply to your article directly.

    I’m a little baffled as to why you felt the need to focus on my requests, as the site has many similar requests and higher volumes by individual users (which I’m sure you must have seen as they would have been triggered by your alert/search which you have set up on the whatdotheyknow site).

    Next, the request is not long and very detailed. Any respectable Head of ICT would be able to answer those questions, or find the information, within 30 minutes. It is split into 4 sections to make the response easier.

    Despite you highlighting sections that do not apply to my requests. they all fall within the rules and regulations set out by the site and the FoI Act. My requests are to form part of a university assignment I will be completing this year and under no circumstances would be labelled as ‘vexatious’.

    Is there anything else you would like to discuss/raise?

    Kind regards,

    Terry

    • steven Post author

      Hi Terry

      I focussed on your requests because several were notified to me by WDTK this week, strangely no other high volume requests have been returned by me search criteria. Perhaps the nature of the search criteria or a vagary of WDTK. Don’t take it personally, if there are many more large scale requests consider your requests as an ‘example’ for my post.

      We will agree to differ on length and detail of your request or the time taken to complete it.

      I highlighted possible grounds for refusal of your requests, maybe they could be considered to apply and maybe not. You didn’t choose to respond to the principal point of the post, namely whether this kind of mass requesting is in the spirit of the FoI Act (and I accept that law is law and spirit does not really have any legal standing)?

      What is the topic of your ‘university assignment’? Will the work be published? If so, I look forward to reading it.

      Good luck with your studies

      Steven

      • Terry Williams

        OK Steven, that is a bit creepy now. First you contact numerous people online with which you have very little in common with, write a blog about their usage within the rules of a legal act and now you want to read the follow up work to all this?

        FYI to one of your points about time taken to complete these, one of my responses came back with all the info and more than I actually required and labelled this as 0-4 hrs work. I think that puts to bed your issues with this.

        I would rather you did not contact me again please.

        Kind regards,

        Terry

  • archaeogeek

    There was recently a consultation that asked if it would be fair to charge a small amount for FOI requests. Personally I don’t think it would be a bad thing to do, though it may not be enough to deter market researchers. It would, however, usher in all sorts of questions as to how such a charge would be administered, and how the money raised would be distributed…

  • Mark

    Requests of this nature could not be seen as vexatious as a single organisation would not be allowed to take into account similar requests to other local authorities – they must be dealt with in context of your own organisation only!

    Hope that helps.

    • steven Post author

      Mark

      I think your view applies to refusal on the grounds of ‘repeated’ requests.

      See the bold bit in the passage above on ‘vexatious’ requests. I think that commercial trawling might be considered to “undermine the credibility of the freedom of information system and divert resources away from more deserving requests and other public business”

      Hey if all the 90 bodies refused the request on that ground it would push the issue to the ICO and perhaps get a ruling that could set a precedent.

  • Tom Chadwin

    The IT sales fishing ones are irritating. A Mr Rod Baulk (from memory) submits a similar request to us annually, or used to. Couple of weeks ago I had to break down our entire IT spend for the past two years.

    I guess the argument in favour of these ones is the capitalist one that this gives more information to the market, and hence makes the market more efficient. If it’s more efficient, less public money should be spent.

    You might have read that Blair has recently come out against FoI, though it came in under him.

    I heard of one Council which never replied to any request unless the requester subsequently appealed.

    For us, the volume of FoIs sends to be increasing. I also conclude that they are being sent to all local authorities. As a National Park, it is therefore a tad tiring to have to reply individually again and again to requests about public services we do not undertake, such as schools and social care.

    On balance, though, even though I have the job of dealing with all of these requests, the good vastly outweighs the bad.

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