Monday, 27 June 2011

Freedom of Information

The "mission statement" for the website Whatdotheyknow.com is "To help you find out inside information about what the UK government is doing" It achieves this by helping members of the public submit Freedom of Information requests to national and local government. Full details of the FoI requests and the responses are made available on the site.

The site currently contains details of a request made to Leeds City council under the heading Rationalisation of Library Services: e-mail from officials, which asks: "Please supply all emails by or to council officer Catherine Blanchard that relate to the current proposed Leeds Library Services changes and cuts."

The correspondence is of interest on many levels. It shows the local authority as being slow to respond to the request and defensive. Perhaps this is justified. There is such a thing as "vexatious" requests and from the Whatdotheyknow website you can see that this applicant has made over 600 FoI requests. Does this make him a champion of human rights fighting on behalf of his community or a serial complainer out to cause trouble?

At one stage in the correspondence the local authority objects to the fact that the request has come through Whatdotheyknow.com rather than from a private e-mail address. This raises an interesting question about the role of the library in helping users with the FoI legislation. The mission statement quoted above could be applied directly to the library service. It is clearly our professional role to "help you find information about what the UK government is doing". Libraries provide access to government publications, newspaper reports, websites, etc. Librarians would be expected to provide information about FoI legislation and material on how to use it. Providing signposting to Whatdotheyknow.com must be seen as part of this. But would library users be able to access it from the library or might they find it is blocked by the council's filtering? Would members and senior officers be happy with the library directing users to such a site? Would some librarians impose censorship by, for example, not listing this site under sources of government information? Our responsibilities as professionals are clear.

Another issue is that it serves to remind to library managers and leaders of the concept of freedom of information. At one point in the correspondence, the Information Commissioner's office is quoted as saying:

"It is the view of the Information Commissioner's office (ICO) that staff acting in a professional capacity must have a reasonable expectation that comments and opinions that they make in the course of their work may fall under a request made ... While the disclosure of comments... may result in embarrassment to the
staff concerned and to ... the organisation, the data cannot be withheld unless there is a valid exemption"

One would hope that information professionals are information savvy. One would also hope that they are technically savvy and would not accidentally copy e-mails to people they are not intended for, and that they are aware of the requirements of the FoI legislation and the principles of freedom of information in general. It is not a bad idea to think that any e-mail you send might enter the public domain and to ensure that what you are saying is professional at all times.

One effect of FoI legislation will probably be to ensure that when people want to make potentially embarrassing comments they won't do it in a recorded form such a e-mails. If you want to tell a colleague that the local library campaigners are a bunch of nutters who should be ignored then do it face-to-face! But the real lesson should be that the public do have a right to know what government is doing in their name and that libraries exist to help them achieve that.

2 comments:

King Queen said...

Thanks for your blog, some interesting thoughts!

I am the original requester. I want to make a comment about the 600 requests.

This figure is artificially inflated, as I have made two relatively straightforward requests to each council in the country as a form of survey on rights for people in residential care, which I am passionate about.

Though it is undoubtably true that I also have an element of awkward trouble-maker!

I'd also like to point out that it is undoubtably the case that some emails that should have been disclosed have not been. For example, the email that made its way into the Wetherby News (or at least parts of it) haven't been supplied in response to my request. It's clear (to me, anyway) that Leeds city council are still withholding at least one, potentially more, embarassing email.

Cheers

Carl said...

Interesting comment in piece from American Libraries http://dlvr.it/Y4RcD on Transparency and Ethics in the wake of Wikileaks

And ultimately, Blanton said, the current national security system has misplaced priorities, with “low fences around vast prairies, when what we need are high, electrified fences around tiny graveyards of information” that are truly critical to national security.

Same principle could apply to Local government information