Friday, 19 October 2012

Freedom of information

Back in August a mattress had been laid by the bin store outside where I live for weeks. Given that we live on the boundary of one of the five per cent most deprived datazones in Scotland, and with my colleague Annette Hastings’ work on disparities in environmental services in mind, I was sick and tired of calling the council to get fly-tipping like this cleared away. When I say a gigantic rat running down the street I figured this was the last straw and that it’d be good to know how often my local neighbourhood office:
  • Sent around environmental wardens to inspect the street for cleanliness and report fly-tipping (once in a blue moon, apparently.
  • Swept the streets.
This information was not publicly available, so I put in an FOI request. Actually, it was accepted as a request for Environmental Information under that EU Directive I need to learn about to teach next semester.
The information has arrived. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. They had to ask me to clarify my request and that reset the 20 day clock ticking. The information is actually ridiculously unhelpful and I sent an email asking for clarification, particularly why one but of information (the regularity of sweeps) was not included. Oh, and in the meantime another mattress has been dumped and has so far been there for a fortnight. The council seem to have a problematic attitude to “street furniture” in Leith.

I also popped in an FOI request to my local police force asking why cyclists riding on pavements had suddenly shot up their priorities to seemingly become the greatest criminal threat to all of Edinburgh (in ten years in Edinburgh one pedestrian has been recorded as being seriously injured by a cyclist, and from my experience I can’t imagine the cyclist was unscathed). I got an email the other day from them saying “Unfortunately due to a technical fault with our website your enquiry has only been received today.” This led to an interesting exchange on twitter as to whether the 20 day countdown starts when I hit submit or when they realise their website’s broken. The conclusion was the former.

But all this got me thinking about FOI. I’m not a serial FOI requester. These are in fact my second and third requests ever. I was working for the City of Edinburgh Council when FOI came into force on 1 January 2005. I didn’t have enough leave left so I had been in the office between Christmas and New Year and we had a bit of an information “clear out” of odd bits and pieces like old notebooks. And that’s the cynical side of FOI – public authorities deliberately thwarting the public getting access to information.
In the run up to the act coming in we had some fantastic training led by the Council Secretary at the time John Sturt – a man passionately committed to using local democratic processes to achieve positive ends. In this training two things particularly struck me:

Firstly, under the act, all requests for information given to anyone who works for a public authority, so long as it includes the name and address of the person requesting the information is a request under the FOI Act and has to be treated as such. You could give a sheet of paper to a passing street sweeper and the authority would have to respond within 20 working days. This could also be used within organisations.
Secondly, he asserted that, particularly in local government that had been subject to access to information legislation for quite a while, the Act should have little impact on day-to-day business as most information would be in the public domain anyway.

Both of these points suggest a complete change in organisational culture that would lead to a very transparent organisation. If we compare this to the reality as I have experienced it, something very different has happened indeed. The legislation has led to special units in organisations that treat each request very much by the letter of the law. They act as knowledge brokers within complex organisations that we outsiders can’t get easy access to. The general discourse is around FOI being a burden on organisations.

So how might it look different? Well for a start in the two cases I’m involved in the information could be publicly available. The Police could publish the briefing notes by which they make policing priority decisions. The Council could publish a schedule of local street sweeps. I could then ask “why didn’t the street sweeper who came by last blahday report this mattress to be collected?”

I presume we have not reached the level of transparency because of the political difficulty. A paper by Annette will shortly be being published based on her clean sweep work where she highlights those good local authorities that prioritise spending and change working patterns to ensure high levels of street cleanliness in non-affluent neighbourhoods have to do this by stealth. If affluent neighbourhoods found this was going on then they would vociferously complain and previous unequal distributions of resources would return. 

Similarly, if the police had to admit that they didn’t give a toss about cyclists on pavements because it’s not actually a problem, but people read about it in the paper and complain about it and they have to look like they’re doing something, it would be quite tricky to defend. But, as I mentioned before in my critique of the Community Empowerment agenda this can be done, it just takes bravery.

This also touches on something that is increasingly interesting me but I don’t know where to take it – the need for authoritative decision-making in democracies. My work on equalities brings this to the fore as to really drive an equalities agenda needs leadership. Similarly, leadership and authoritative decision-making is needed to counter middle-class NIMBYism. This very interesting article about the case of homeless hostel locations in Rotterdam (£) begins to unpick some of these ideas. In my PhD thesis I ended up relying on Richard Sennett’s concept of respect to argue that you could have authoritative decision-making while meeting some of the social justice outcomes of an inclusive democracy.

And if that sodding mattress is not cleared away soon then Edinburgh Council are going to get the full onslaught of my middle-class rage...

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