Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Freedom of Information

As a journalist I like find original news stories I can work on. I often submit a Freedom of Information request to get the ball rolling. It's nothing fancy, it's not particularly hard to submit a request, as long as you are very clear about the information you want it's actually quite straight forward. Well it should be.

I've been working on a story for a few months now which has required numerous FOI requests to several different organisations in the South West. In about 3 days I sent about 15 in total, hoping that I would receive the responses at a fairly similar time. How wrong I was.

The Information Commissioners Office states "public authorities should aim to respond fully to all requests within 20 working days" I wish that was the case.

Only about half of the organisations I contacted were able to give me the correct information within the 20 working day time limit. Some places did contact me to rearrange another deadline as they couldn't gather all the information they needed within the time frame. That I don't mind. They consulted me, we discussed the issue and an extension was agreed.

The other places that hadn't answered my request I started to chase about one week after the 20 working days had passed. Much to my horror some organisations had simply 'forgot' about my request. They had acknowledged my request, given me a date when I should expect a response but neglected to actually to do anything. Bravo. Other excuses I heard were 'the email must not have been passed on' or 'I'm not sure who's dealing with it'.

The best outcome was this... One organisation puts all its Freedom of Information requests and responses online so the public can look at them. I could see mine. There was the request date and there was the response date. To my surprise the response was actually there. I click on the response icon and I can see a letter that's for me and I can see the Excel Document that I need. Unfortunately I can't access it as no one has actually bothered to send the response to me. It was only after several emails and phone calls that I actually got the information sent to me so I could look at it properly, days after it went up online. I'm frustrated to say the least.

I don't make up stories, I don't exaggerate the facts, all I want to be is fair and accurate in my reporting. Yet I find this increasingly difficult when I struggle to extract the most basic information from people. Even if they have got nothing to hide, it makes you think they have because it really is (sorry for the cliche) like drawing blood from a stone.

Isn't this the era of transparency for public organisations and indeed for journalists? I'm working on it, believe you me, I'm working on it.

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