It started with a simple question to a local council. A few paragraphs to the bureaucrats. It was a strange question, surely, but what happened next came straight out of a sci-fi movie.
Hundreds of zombies came to the streets. Their faces wan with foundation powder, dark circles hinging under their eyes, induced by eye-shadow. Red stage make-up dripping like blood from their cheek bones.
They were not there to eat people’s brains like regular zombies do. These living-dead had arrived to evaluate Leicester city’s contingency plans.
What brought them out on the streets was a Freedom of Information request sent to Leicester City Council by “a concerned citizen,” also known as Robert Ainsley, and identified by The Leicester Mercury as 26-year-old politics graduate James Dixon.
“Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion?” he wrote. “Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.”
It was a joke, not the delusions of a gadfly, according to The Leicester Mercury, and the media ruckus that ensued was enough to wake people from their eternal rest.
But it really fair for the civil servants – legally binded to respond to non-vexatious FOI requests – who are now scratching their brains, trying to respond to this strange question? They probably weren’t prepared for the event of an FOI request on a zombie attack.
And how does it affect the FOI Act itself?
One one hand, it could serve to get more people acquainted with its existence who may start asking responsible questions.
In 2008, 86% of the UK population knew they had the legal right to access government information, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office. This may be the reason why the number of FOI requests to local authorities rose from 60,000 to 80,000 between 2005 and 2007, according to the Constitution Unit’s research.
On the other hand, the zombie request may also start a trend in which citizens ask their council questions like whether they are planning to build an airport for flying saucers or a school for alien children, just because this one was so much fun.
According to FOI request tracker WhatDoTheyKnow.com, nine new requests have been submitted on the topic of zombies.
But even that isn’t really a bad thing, as it may help oil the FOI machine. The Constitution Unit found that if the Act is not being used, the act can enter into stagnation: a minority of requests are answered and there are more delays.
The Leicester council hasn’t responded to Ainsley’s request yet, but Leicester’s head of information governance, Lynn Wyeth spoke to local radio and the BBC about the question.
She could have complained about the amount of work created by someone who just wanted to have a good laugh. Instead, she responded gracefully.
“To you it might seem frivolous and a waste of time… but to different people it actually means something,”she said. “Everybody has their own interests and their own reasons for asking these questions.”
Bristol City Council took it one step further and responded to a copycat FOI request with an actual, “top secret” zombie contingency plan. You can look at it here if you don’t believe me.
But maybe we are having too much fun. The FOI Man offers a more sobering perspective from the point of view of an official dealing with the Act on a regular basis.
Though he found it amusing at first, he soon came to the conclusion that it is a misguided use of FOI, and may make public officials who are already skeptical of the act, even more so.
My fear is that a combination of zombie requests, public sector spending cuts and lack of support for FOI at all levels in public authorities could seriously damage our right to access information in this country. As FOI Officers, we have a duty to promote FOI to our colleagues. But we can’t just keep repeating the same old answers in the hope that they will have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. The only way we can progress in instilling FOI as a culture in our organisations and our country is to listen to colleagues’ concerns.
FOI requests also cost a lot of money too £30.6 million pounds in total for the UK, according to the Constitution Unit’s calculations.
“We should acknowledge that some requests are a waste of resources (even if we can’t actually refuse them),” he wrote.
Having said all that, this may just be a one-off situation in which a “concerned citizen” decides to bring the FOI act to the fore for some good fun.
The media will soon forget about it (they may already have), but for some FOI enthusiasts it will remain an event in which a simple request for government documents turned into a lighthearted invasion of the living dead.