What is a teabag?

ONE of the most irritating things which often infect discussions about how reporters use the Freedom of Information Act is the idea that all journalists do is make endless requests about how much public institutions spend every year on bog roll, bottled water and tiramisu. Actually, to my knowledge, nobody has surveyed every local authority in the country so far to see how much they spend on tiramisu, but no doubt the Tax-Payers Alliance will be onto it soon – and I bet they all spend millions on it.

These daft, sometimes irrelevant, requests for information under the Act are held up as reasons for limiting the scope of our options under the legislation in the future, when they actually need to be expanded. Vast amounts of public money, we are often told at this point, are being spent on answering frivolous enquiries from the press.

What you don’t hear so much of, however, are all the requests for genuine, serious information which appear to be rebuffed for the slightest reason. The rejection letters have not just piled up in our offices, it’s a problem in newsrooms across the United Kingdom.

In the first years of FoI, officials at institutions both local and national often seemed to embrace the spirit and good intentions of the Act. But it didn’t take long for a feeling to grow that many public bodies had started looking for ways to withhold information rather than looking for reasons to release it. I’m not the only journalist who has daydreamed about how internal discussions to find legal defences to keep quite simple information locked away might just be where the manpower bills mount up.

And those institutions which do say ‘no’, do so knowing that the reporter – or even just a member of the public who wants to know something about a publicly-funded department – will have a long haul battle through the appeals process to get any closer to the information.

Against that backdrop, maybe it’s a little more understandable why people (journalists) make requests for things that might seem mundane. They do so because they at least know they will get answers to their questions, like when they ask how much is spent on tea-bags. The recent request (not made by me) to the British Transport Police’s offices in Camden Town, with its super meticulous description of what a tea-bag actually is (see above) highlights this rutting, suspicious relationship between those making the requests and those dealing with them.

(The BTP, by the way, spent £2,500 on tea-bags over a year)

5 Comments on What is a teabag?

  1. I have worked in a number of Local Authorities and can perhaps add some insight here. The vast majority do want to be transparent and do want to share but there are two problems. One is the volume of requests and the time they take to fulfill. Its common to have one individual send in a request nearly everyday, usually looking for some confirmation of wrong doing and corruption that typically isnt there. (Incompetence is but thats a different story…)

    I have yet to see any organisation purposely look for ways to not answer for the reason on hiding data or stemming bad news.

    The other issue is that the information thats being requested isnt held on one single database or recorded in such a way to be accessible. Why would they waste officers time in counting how many teabags? Surely the time and money should be spent better elsewhere?

    FOI is still in its infancy and so the public sector is still getting to grips to understand what information it needs to collate and how to collate it. The bigger and better organisations have purchasing systems (usually 90% of requests are about what it buys or spends money on), the smarter organisations use those systems effectively and so can answer questions much more efficiently.

    FOI can be an excellent tool with commendable expectations but I fear is abused and may be killed becuase of it

    • con. sidekick // March 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm //

      The main reason local authority ‘servants’ do not like FOI requests,
      is ’cause, information requested can be used as evidence to prove wrong-doing by one of their own colleagues.
      Be assured, if there were to be a Judicial Enquiry into the questionable practices of Council dept.s, a bucket load of top officers would be forced to resign !

  2. My experience with Camden is that where there is something they are embarrassed by, they will go to any lengths to avoid responding. They declared my questions on Dalby St, Talacre “vexatious” on the grounds that I had asked too many – a sort of de facto rationing. The decision was made without my being allowed to appeal to the Central Complaints Unit and without the head of the legal department even being consulted. I cannot even now get replies using FoI and my correspondence through my MP has been cut short by him saying “I do not believe it would be right for me to be vexatious on your behalf.” My refused requests and on the “FoI requests refused as vexatious” page of http://www.talacrefacts.org.uk. Requests from me and others that were previously answered are on a separate page of that site. Let anyone judge. Nick

  3. ‘Daydreaming’ about the conversations taking place over FoI requests is not the same as understanding or having knowledge of those discussions. I work for a public body, and have worked as a journalist, and I can assure you that the conversations I’ve been involved in over FoI requests do not revolve around creating ways to withhold the information. Quite the opposite in fact.

    I agree with your point, however, and would argue that things like spend on teabags should be published anyway. That way, you or your colleagues wouldn’t need to put in FoI requests for such information – you could access the information online yourselves.

    Going back to the facts of the matter, if you want details on how many requests have been met/rebuffed, look here http://www.justice.gov.uk/statistics/foi/implementation

  4. Kim Janssen // March 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm //

    As long as officials have a greater fear of releasing embarrassing information than they do of violating the FOIA, they have no incentive to help. As it stands, the consequences for improperly withholding information are basically nil.

    Also: my understanding of FOIA in the U.K. is that local authorities cannot be compelled to create records that do not already exist, so Paul’s argument about officers “counting teabags” is moot.

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