Wacky FOI requests – with serious motives?

Not for the first time the Local Government Association (LGA), an almost entirely public-funded association of first- and second-tier local councils in England and Wales, has produced a press release bemoaning the fact that its members have to deal with “wacky FOI requests”. Peter Fleming, of the LGA’s Improvement Board, is quoted as saying

While the majority of requests to councils are for details of council policy and expenditure, some of the FoI requests received do not relate very closely to the services they are focused on providing every day of the year. Councils are working very hard to keep local communities running as efficiently as possible during these challenging financial times and anything which distracts from that can affect the value for money that taxpayers receive

Examples of “wacky requests” are given, and the implication is very much that the requesters were wasting public money by making them. So let’s have a look at them:

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.
How many times has the council paid for the services of an exorcist, psychic or religious healer? Were the services performed on an adult, child, pet or building?
How very wacky. However, at least one council has previously been identified as paying an exorcist to remove a poltergeist from a tenancy. If such extraordinary use of public money were repeated elsewhere this would be a scandal, and it doesn’t seem too wrong to make an FOI request to establish if that might be the case.
Please can you let me know how many roundabouts are located within your council boundaries?
How wacky. But, research suggests that optimal use and placement of roundabouts on a highway network reduces delays and accidents, with consequent potentially large savings to the public purse. It seems entirely legitimate to request information like this, perhaps in pursuance of an investigation into whether a council is apportioning its resources properly when it comes to highways management.
What precautions, preparations, planning and costings have been undertaken in the case an asteroid crashes into Worthing, a meteorite landing in Worthing or solar activity disrupting electromagnetic fields?
How wacky. In fact, yes it is, despite what former MPs say. And despite the fact that, yes, I know there is always a risk of asteroidal impact. Move along.
How many holes in privacy walls between cubicles have been found in public toilets and within council buildings in the last 10 years?
How wacky. Not at all: the Home Office itself identifies voyeurism as a form of harassment and anti-social behaviour. Councils have statutory duties to prevent anti-social behaviour. Why is a request about one aspect of this so wacky?
How many bodies are there in mortuaries that have been unclaimed for ten years? How long have these bodies been in the mortuary? How old were they when they died? Is it possible to have the names of these people?
How wacky. Well, bear in mind that local authorities have a statutory duty to pay for burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies in their area. Perhaps a request for this information is aimed at investigating whether the council was saving money by disregarding its duties?
How many people in the town have a licence to keep a tiger, lion, leopard, lynx or panther as a pet?
How wacky. Why? There might be any number of reasons to make this request – councils have statutory duties to ensure that licences to own dangerous animals are only issued subject to rigid and specific conditions. A large number of dangerous animals within one town might point to failings in those duties.
How many requests were made to council-run historic public-access buildings (e.g. museums) requesting to bring a team of ‘ghost investigators’ into the building?
Not wacky (see “exorcism” above).
How many children in the care of the council have been micro-chipped?
How wacky. Well, maybe a bit – I’m not aware of any serious suggestions that this will happen. But there are many concerned – if perhaps deluded – people who think this might already be happening. This request might be odd,but I suspect it was made with the utmost seriousness.

I’m not saying that my speculations about the reasons behind these requests are right. Maybe some of the requests were made for entirely frivolous purposes, or to waste councils’ time and money, but I’m far from convinced that is the case. And, of course, if the requests were entirely frivolous the Freedom of Information Act 2000 contains a provision which enables the authority to dismiss them forthwith. Truly frivolous requests should not cost a council more than a few minutes’ work, and, in my experience, they are rare.

Careful readers will note that I haven’t mentioned the first of the LGA’s examples:

What plans are in place to protect the town from a dragon attack?
How wacky. Yes, boringly, gloom-inducingly unfunnily “wacky”, and thoroughly demolished (while questioning the motives of the council who publicised it) by Tim Turner only a couple of months ago.

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, as the Justice Committee recognised in 2012 when it called it a “significant enhancement of our democracy”. Truly “wacky requests” can be deftly deflected by using the “vexatiousness exemption” of the FOI Act, but let’s not assume that all requests with apparently wacky themes have unserious motives. And – digressing somewhat – let us not forget the LGA is not subject to FOI.

7 Comments

Filed under Freedom of Information, transparency

7 responses to “Wacky FOI requests – with serious motives?

  1. Pingback: Used or Abused? 10 Serious Issues Revealed by FOI | opendatastudy

  2. Jon, OK if I reprint your reply to Wacky in FreedomInfo.org? Toby

  3. Pingback: A fairy story – 2040 information law blog

  4. Pingback: Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems | FOIMan

  5. Pingback: prout de jure | FOI at 10

  6. Pingback: prout de jure | The cost and burden of FOI…again

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