Round Round… I Get Around

Both national and local media regularly use FOI in the UK. Some, particularly national, media outlets use so-called round robin requests – that is a request sent to many public bodies at the same time (e.g. all councils, NHS Primary Care Trusts etc). These allow journalists to compare, benchmark and obtain a ‘national overview’ of issues.

NGOs are one source of round robins, and their results are often used by the media. One such group are the high-profile Tax Payers’ Alliance. The TPA’s round robins have picked up on some interesting trends and spending habits, helping to show the public exactly how their taxes are being spent. For example, one round robin has revealed the extent of council spending on taxis to school and treatment programmes for juvenile offenders, whilst another has illuminated the levels of “Taxpayer funded environmentalism” at the local level of government.

Another NGO issuing round robins is Big Brother Watch, which is concerned with the surveillance state. In a round robin that was responded to by 336 local councils, Big Brother Watch was able to uncover for the first time that the UK government had spent a total of £314,835,170.39 on CCTV alone between 2007-2010.

The media itself is also a frequent issuer of round robins. For example, in 2009 the BBC was able to show the vast difference in price that local councils paid for rock-salt used to grit icy roads across the country, whilst Channel 4 and the newly established Bureau of Investigative Journalism conducted the largest ever FOI round robin project, taking over 9 months to use various FOI requests in order to assess council spending and waste.

Council spending and local authority inefficiency have now become the classic topics of NGO and media FOI requests, with today’s BBC article on ‘Councils Missed £530m in Taxes’ the result of 408 local FOI requests. (See also this Telegraph article from November 2010 for an example)

Yet, some journalists are moving away from the ‘classic’ stories of overspending and inefficiency to now focus on more unusual topics – such as how some councils have banned their employees from using Latin phrases, or how one particular Basildon council worker suffered a cracked rib as the result of a practical joke.

The issue of round robins has become controversial, with one source estimating that round robin FOI requests will have cost local councils around £27 million in 2010. The ICO has published notes on how certain requests can be refused, via section 14 of the FOIA, if it is considered “vexatious or repeated”. And as FOI Man and David Higgerson have revealed in their blogs, the NHS has even begun implementing a documented procedure for dealing with round robin requests that will alert the Strategic Health Authority FOI leads, and in turn the Department of Health, about such requests.  Journalists have taken up the challenge and David Higgerson has provided useful tips on how to avoid being seen as a round robin requester.

Whichever side you fall on, round robins look set to remain controversial. Only time will tell if investigative journalists and the round robins requests they issue will lead to increased efficiency, or if they unnecessarily add to the burden and cost of local government.

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