South Tyneside Council scoured its FOI systems to find out the number of requests it received from journalists and companies so that it could respond to concerns that FOI requests are too much of a “burden”.
In searching through its records the council figured out that 73% of its FOI requests, from a 10 month period in 2013, were sent by the media and commercial requesters.
The details were sent to the Local Government Association (LGA) as the council looked to provide them with lobbying information. It followed a request from a lawyers’ group, sent on behalf of the LGA, for councils to provide evidence of those “exploiting” the ability to ask questions. The LGA later said it is committed to FOI and transparency.
The council looked at at 796 requests from January to October 2013 and found that 57% came from a company or media email address.
But the council ‘suspected’ that the percentage was “considerably greater” as requests were sent from a company of “distinct media organisation email address”.
Unsurprisingly, for South Tyneside to collect the information about the number of requests it had received, and then send it back to the LGA, it would have taken staff time. Much like answering an FOI request.
To be able to send the details the council conducted a “sampling exercise” where it looked at the, almost, 800 requests. It further analysed them, presumably taking more time, to try and work out if the requester was a member of the media.
It said in its response to the LGA: “The council FOI system does not easily extract analysis for requests from media organisations or business email addresses, however for the purposes of your research we have conducted a sampling exercise on data from 2013.
So, to get the 73% total it then added a further 17% of requests from WhatDoTheyKnow and personal email addresses that they “believe to be set up for media research purposes” to those they were certain of.
The council also said it spends an “extreme minimum” of £60,100 on answering FOI requests for a single year.
It did not say how much it spent on answering questions about the “increased burden of Freedom of Information requests”.
The LGA have previously issued a press release about “wacky” and “unusual” FOI requests that councils have received.
As David Higgerson pointed out, the press release was issued after the LGA asked local authorities to provide them with the weirdest examples of requests that had been received. Higgerson said, at the time, that: “it’s hard to conclude anything other than the LGA actively wasting the time of hard-pressed councils”.
When asked, in the middle of last year, the vast majority of councils said that they did not hold any information relating to a response to the LGA’s request for FOI data. It’s possible this was due to the memo for evidence being buried deep within the lawyers’ briefing.
South Tyneside only gave details of their submission to the LGA at the end of January.
The full submission from South Tyneside to the LGA can be seen below: