Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to take part in a panel discussion at City University about the Justice Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of FOI. After each of us had said our piece, we got to my favourite part of these kind of events – questions from the audience. And one student journalist asked whether it was right that FOI Officers often shared details of requests from journalists with Press Officers in their organisations. Wasn’t it wrong that FOI Officers should feel an obligation to work with the spin doctors?
There is obviously a debate around how closely FOI Officers should work with Press Officers on FOI requests. But the thrust of my response was that FOI Officers DO have an obligation to their organisation. We do a job. Our organisations pay our wages. Whilst many FOI Officers do take a principled approach to their work, ultimately they have to do what their employer tells them.
One of the principal aims of my blog (http://www.foiman.com/) when I started it was to talk about FOI from the perspective of the practitioner. And FOI from the practitioner’s perspective is very much a practical exercise. Hopefully it is clear from the way I write that I am a supporter of FOI and increasing openness in the public sector and beyond. But fundamentally I have to make FOI work on a day-to-day basis. That isn’t always easy.
And recently I’ve been running a training course for Act Now Training where we’ve explored what it really means to be an FOI Officer. What are the practical skills that an FOI Officer needs?
The obvious thing is knowledge of the legislation, and that technical side of the role gets plenty of attention. What needs to go into a response? How do you refuse vexatious requests? Where do you go for help?
Before we can even begin to answer requests, we need to know how to arm our organisations with the right IT systems, get our websites FOI-friendly, and ensure that records are being well managed. On the course we discuss the pros and cons of disclosure logs. Can they help reduce the volume of FOI requests or do they provoke more?
But the part of the course that gets us most animated is when we look at dealing with scepticism from colleagues. Every FOI Officer has encountered resistance from time to time, and to me, knowing how to deal with that is probably the most important part of the job. Most of the time opposition to FOI within public bodies is not about any strong political opposition to the legislation. It’s about ordinary people who care as much about their job as we FOI Officers do about ours. Or journalists do about theirs. To persuade them to adjust their priorities is a matter of patience and diplomacy. When we’re at our best!
If you’re an FOI Officer and want to go back to basics, or just explore the different aspects of your role with fellow practitioners, I’ll be running Practical FOI once more this year in a couple of weeks’ time on 16 November in London. And there will be more next year if you can’t make that date.
Paul Gibbons runs the very popular FOI Man Blog and tweets as @FoIManUK.