Swings and roundabouts: FOI and the applicant blind approach

FOI requests are applicant blind: It should make no difference who is asking, everyone should be able to get access to the same information. This is how the FOIA sets out the right of access, but is this true in practice? To what use is the identity of a requester being put, and does it undermine the proper functioning of FOI?

Among the areas of greatest concern, are the worries of some journalists that their requests are held up, presumably, to make the information old news by the time it is made available. In a blog post on the topic, anonymous blogger and FOI handler, FOIman, suggested that while this isn’t a big problem, he couldn’t say it didn’t happen. There is certainly evidence from Canada that journalists suffered longer delays, and greater interest in their requests from politicians: it may well be the case that this happens in some departments here. There is not necessarily anything wrong with politicians being aware of the information that their department is releasing, though. A heads up that information is being released might well just help government to be in possession of the relevant facts when contacted by the press at a later date.

More controversially, there are instances in which there is intentional political interference with the response to a request. Though these instances seem to be few and far between, they do occur. The actions of the leader of Kirklees Council altering responses that had been drafted may be such an example. Though Council Leader Mehboob Khan denies any wrongdoing, he admitted to amended one per cent of FOI requests, including insisting that prepared responses be rewritten and information is withheld [1].

But not all instances in which the identity of a requester is used will be malign. With vexatious requests, there is clearly a proper use of the requester’s identity. If a requester is bombarding a public authority with repeat requests, or using FOI to harass someone, then there can be no problem with refusing to help them with their enquiries. Misuse of this provision might be harmful, but with less than 100 requests being refused as vexatious in 2009, out of more than 30,000 requests in that year, this use of identity to refuse access does not seem to have much of an impact.

There are situations where it might even be advantageous for a requester’s identity to be known. At a recent event on FOI and higher education, a number of researchers spoke of building relationships with request handlers to help get access to the information they are seeking. Speaking to those who handle information in a less formal way (perhaps by just picking up the phone) helps to clarify what the requester wants, and knowing how they want to use the information can help with getting the information in the manner it is desired. Some MPs too have reported that their responses are dealt with quicker if they identify themselves. Being identifiable need not leave a requester prone to some Orwellian machination.

So, with FOI, does it matter who you are? Maybe, but the consequences of being known need not be wholly negative. Very few people are refused information on the grounds that their request is vexatious, and very few instances of political intervention have come to light. On the other hand, not being just a name at the bottom of an email might help you to get what you want.

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[1] The Huddersfield Examiner interviewed Mr Khan about the story: http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/local-west-yorkshire-news/2011/03/28/how-kirklees-council-leader-mehboob-khan-meddles-in-your-information-requests-a-report-everyone-in-kirklees-should-read-86081-28413970/

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