Wacky FOI Requests? Really? Sinister Motive? Possibly

21 August 2014

Media outlets worldwide recently ran a story about the “top 10” wacky FOI requests in the United Kingdom – including requests about dragon attacks and preparations for astroid attacks.

Subsequently, however, the motives of the list-maker have been critically examined and the seeming oddness of the requests has been called into question.

The motive?

The list was circulated by group representing local governments to imply that FOI is burdensome, wrote blogger David Higgerson.

The requests?

Not at all as ridiculous as the headlines implied, wrote blogger Jon Baines.

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The top 10 list was promulgated in a press release by the Local Government Association, “effectively a trade body for local government,” reported Higgerson. He explained the history of the list; plans for which the LGA in May denied association

“Maybe the sudden publication of a list of 10 ‘wacky’ FOI requests is just a coincidence, but it certainly feels as though the LGA is gearing itself up to push for restrictions on the use of FOI,” he wrote.

The cost of FOI compliance is a tiny fraction of local budgets, Higgerson stressed.

The LGA boasts about local transparency, Higgerson said, “Yet on the other hand, it seems as though the LGA is determined to do something about FOI which will undoubtedly make local councils less transparent.”

Serious motives?

Baines, in his Information Rights and Wrongs posting, disputes “the implication” that the requesters were wasting public money, looking at plausible rationales for some of the requests.

He doesn’t defend all the requests on the list, but he does delve into possible reasons for some of them. For example:

Please list all the types of animals you have frozen since March 2012, including the type and quantity of each animal?

How very wacky. Or is it? Some councils freeze dead dogs and cats found by the roadside so that concerned or distressed owners of lost animals can try to locate them. Maybe that practice is beyond what councils need to do, and it certainly involves public expenditure.

What is so wrong with someone wanting to look into the practice by making a relevant FOI request? Indeed, at least one council makes the information available as a dataset.

Hiring an exorcist? It’s happened.

How many roundabouts? Optimal use and placement of roundabouts reduces delays and accidents.

Holes in toilet walls? Councils have statutory duties to prevent anti-social behavior.

And so on, without defending the dragon or asteroid requests.

“There are many serious threats to councils’ revenues, but I don’t accept that FOI is one of them. FOI costs, but it costs relatively little and it has big societal benefits,” according to Baines.

“Truly frivolous requests should not cost a council more than a few minutes’ work, and, in my experience, they are rare,” he said.

Both bloggers point out that the LGA, while publicly funded, is not subject to FOI.

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