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Posted by: John Brace | 20th June 2014

Cllr Ann McLachlan “the key problem here that we have a high volume of FOIs from a small number of people”

Wirral Council’s Cabinet discuss freedom of information (19th June 2014) starts at 2:29 in the video above


Wirral Council’s Cabinet discuss the Freedom of Information Scrutiny Review (19th June 2014) L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Bernie Mooney, Cllr Chris Jones, Shirley Hudspeth, Surjit Tour, Cllr Phil Davies, Graham Burgess

Cllr Ann McLachlan “the key problem here that we have a high volume of FOIs from a small number of people”

                         

Wirral Council’s Cabinet discussed the Freedom of Information Scrutiny report, the Cabinet report, report and final report of the scrutiny panel can be viewed on Wirral Council’s website. The reason for it being on Cabinet’s agenda is that it was referred to Cabinet by the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee on the 14th April. I wrote a transcript of what was said then back on the 17th April so I’ll be following the same format here.

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES (Chair)
Right, which takes us on to item 16 in the governance, commissioning and improvement. It’s the freedom of information scrutiny review. This was a piece of work done under the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee. I’m delighted that Councillor Sykes, you’ve come along tonight to Cabinet and it’s really good that we’re giving you kind of an opportunity just to make to talk to the recommendations. OK, thank you.

COUNCILLOR ADAM SYKES
Chair, I’ll keep things brief because everyone eager to get home.

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES
What’s happening tonight?

COUNCILLOR ADAM SYKES
Apparently there’s some football. During the last municipal year, the Transformation and Resources Committee carried out a scrutiny review to look into the FOI performance of the Council. As we began the review, the Council already began taking steps to improve FOI response times after the Information Commissioner had investigated and asked us to make some improvements and I’d like you to know obviously that you know that improvement came, response times to over 85% now within the guidelines which has improved since this report was done.

Eight recommendations came out of the report which are detailed in the report so I won’t go through each individually but I’ll take any questions should people ask them. They basically covered a couple of areas, firstly having designated people who are responsible for FOI throughout the Council rather than the current situation which is different across the Council depending on departments which answer your question.

Also to produce a more consistent and robust process throughout the Council as to how the FOI request is tracked and how it proceeds to make sure things run on track and things move forward in a quick fashion. Finally, to also improve the monitoring for carrying out both the scrutiny duty in the, in the… finally note the improvement in that and also by councillors as well, a strategic review that the Council’s put in place. That’s the Chief Executive’s Strategy Group. So I’m happy to take any questions.

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES
Thanks for that Adam, I’m going to ask our Cabinet Member who this item comes under Councillor Ann McLachlan just to respond to this report, Ann over to you.

COUNCILLOR ANN MCLACHLAN (Cabinet Member for Governance, Commissioning and Improvement)
Yes thank you, well, Chair I’d like to start by congratulating Adam and Councillor Whittingham I believe and it’s Councillor Muspratt who formed this scrutiny review for Council and undertook what is an excellent piece of task and finish work really helping us to refine and you know be more efficient in dealing with a particular problem area and certainly it’s an excellent piece of work and I’d really like to congratulate you but as you’ve pointed out Adam there are eight recommendations which flow from your, from your review and as a result of that now in conjunction with Surjit [Tour], Head of the Legal Service I’ve now worked on an action plan to address those eight recommendations.

Just briefly I’d like to talk about that Chair and what those actions will be, but suffice to say that those actions will be implemented between now and December and we will have further reports to Cabinet and certainly to Council on those and they will include the nomination of champions. So a single point of contact for FOIs within departments and I understand the strategic directors and heads of service will be identified in nominating champions and that action will be done fairly soon.

There are a number of actions that are going to relate to our CRM which is our customer relationship management software system and we’re going to look at that in particular in a number of areas. One is how can we do better recording and monitoring to shorten the timescales when we receive FOI requests and also a solution possibly to look at how we capture all the information about an FOI before it’s actually disseminated so we’ve got it all in one place and a further piece of work is going to be undertaken with our software also to look at whether it’s actually fit for purpose to deal with some of these issues and if it is identified that we actually need a new kind of piece of software then we’re going to ask for a business case to be brought forward to show that we demonstrate that that’s going to you know have some good outcomes for us.

Also in terms of one of the recommendations that you made was you know at what level in an organisation are the FOIs dealt with. From the FOI reporting is now going to be escalated to the Chief Executive and his Strategy Group but also and I think quite importantly to go to the policy and performance committees into our new performance management framework now. So you can actually have much more oversight in terms of scrutiny of this area.

Another piece of work is going to be undertaken to identify all the new trends and themes really, so we can categorise FOIs. You know that the key problem here that we have a high volume of FOIs from a small number of people who request them but are some of those on particular trends and themes, when we could create something on our website which would be like frequently asked questions so that information is there it’s readily accessible.

What we want to do is make sure that we’re as open and transparent as we possibly can be in order that we can lessen the number of FOI requests that need to put through the Council. Another piece of work that we’ll be undertaking with our marketing team to look at how is information structured and accessed on our website in other words how accessible is information? If you come onto the Council’s website and you’re trying to find something out, how easy is it? So we’re going to ask the department to kind of market test queries and see whether we need to do some work there but I think all in all what this piece of, this exercise has demonstrated is that members [councillors] working together have come up with shared solutions that are going to help us to deal with this in a more effective way.

It is going to involve some of internal systems, some of our ICT but again I’d like to thank you and I’d also like to thank Surjit [Tour] and his team and those people that are going to undertake the workload going forward and I’ll be looking forward Chair to reporting to the Cabinet and Council on what I hope will be you know will be a more successful story going forward in terms of the numbers of requests that we’re receiving. OK, thank you.

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES
OK, thanks Ann, well can I suggest we agree kind of Ann’s sort of plan for taking this work forward and that means, I’d just like to reiterate I think it’s been a really excellent piece of work by the scrutiny team so well done Adam to you and your colleagues and thanks for coming along tonight to take us through it. OK, thanks very much. OK

COUNCILLOR ADAM SYKES
OK, I’d just thank the Cabinet Member and the officers for their response in a positive way in moving this forward and I’m grateful for the recommendations.

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES
OK, thanks very much. OK, so we’ll agree that as a way forward. Is that agreed Cabinet?

CABINET
Agreed

COUNCILLOR PHIL DAVIES
Thank you.

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Responses

  1. Hi John if thr coucillors & officers wern’t so secretive then FOI would not be needed, I wait the day when Wirral will become “Open & Transparent” but as I have said before I wont hold my breath in fear of death. Its all right spouting off but with the monitoring officers throwing up a 1000 & one reasons for not responding wirral council like a leopard will never change its spots.

    • Thanks for your comment. There is a disconnect between the politician’s rhethoric about being “open and transparent” and Wirral Council’s history in this area isn’t there?

      So far the only performance measure they’ve concentrated on is responding within 20 days. However you could refuse 100% of FOI requests and therefore easily meet this target (but in the process triggering lots of internal reviews and more work later).

      Like you point out, until the question moves from “How can we turn this request down?” to “How can we release the information and improve things?” improvements will just be tinkering around the edges and not addressing a thornier cultural issue.

  2. I must second Jonathan’s remarks.

    The thornier the problem that attracts the FOI, the more refusals and evasion, and the point of FOI’s is to throw a searchlight on the Council’s activities so that the number of dark corners are reduced.At present the main agent of this is Mr Brace himself!!

    • Considering that a few of my past FOI requests have made headlines in the local newspapers, I think the public interest behind them being made and answered isn’t in question.

      However I have a lot of experience of Wirral Council and if they are being as you put it evasive, there are other ways of getting the same information out of Wirral Council.

  3. My interests are to carry the ball over the line on the issues I whistleblew upon. That interest was stimulated because I suffered the impression that after having sacrificed my career (temporarily I hope) the reward was to be led on a long trip round the houses rather akin to the experience of a Soho stripclub.. The naked lady, yep just see the bloke in the next room…Mister here Mister its a twenty for me then see that bloke over there…

    anyhow the finale is supposed to be the Audit and Risk SPECIAL committee on 22 July 2014 and all that flows therefrom. I dont expect naked ladies but do expect civil if not criminal proceedings and some disciplinaries (tho not with a cane , steady). for the moment your expertise in getting to the naked lady is not needed but mayhap, if there is one more door to get through after 22 July, with a spiv standing behind it, your services may be requested

    • Well to be honest with you, if they’d recruited the independent members to the A&RM Committee that the Improvement Board suggested (and was agreed at the time) the A&RM Committee might be less bogged down in party politics.

      A whistleblower before you, Martin Morton also addressed an A&RM Committee meeting many years ago. The minutes of that meeting were generally held to be a whitewash and his submissions were given a very liberal use of the black marker by the previous Head of Law.

      However meetings are filmed now, which should help. I hope things have got better than the days I describe.

  4. If the stripclub analogy holds beware of men in macs with knuckledusters
    “No filming Mister ,GEDDIT, punters can.t film savvy?”

    • To which my reply would be (if this is the July meeting), see you in court and if I was feeling particularly annoyed, point out that the last time I sued a Wirral Council councillor that the councillor lost.

      As to men with knuckledusters, isn’t the fashion at A&RM meetings for suits?

  5. Upon reading this, my overriding impression is: “These clowns just love to congratulate each other don’t they?”

    Meanwhile, in the real world, the battle goes on – and I am yet to see any improvement in responses to the (particularly thorny) FOI requests I’ve been placing for some years now. They’re still moving with the speed of a glacier..

    Also in the real world, the last time I spoke to an ICO person, a couple of days ago, the subject of “information notices” (the next step up from decision notices) was raised by the ICO bod.

    So, no signs of any improvement at the regulatory end – and the first indication of a hardening stance and progress towards “enforcement” !

    • What slightly annoys me at times is that their “FOI Scrutiny Review” was conducted (well according to my reading of the report) without politicians talking to anyone (unless said politicians themselves are making FOI requests) who make FOI requests to Wirral Council! Of course officers are going to tell them they’re going to make improvements…. then politicians congratulate each other for persuading officers to make improvements (some of which said officers would have done without being asked).

      However the comments of Councillor Ann McLachlan did make me think of that infamous table in a previous report that showed the top ten requesters and how you only had to make about half a dozen requests a year to end up in it.

      As you know requests have to be “requester blind” but at Wirral Council obviously they’re not, otherwise how did they create the table? It leads to another worrying conclusion though, the Cabinet Member sees those who make lots of requests as a “key problem”. What happens to the people who make a lot of requests, well their requests get answered bang on the twenty day deadline (if at all) and invariably internal reviews come up with an exemption. When they get appealed to ICO, Wirral Council ignore multiple letters from ICO until they get threatened with an information notice. Basically Wirral (whether through sheer chaos or they’re being deliberate) is dragging its feet on requests.

      So is the “speed of a glacier” just applying to the ones who make more frequent requests or are there logjams for every requester?

      If you remember at the Improvement Board I asked Graham Burgess if the extra resources they’d put into improving their FOI responses were going to be permanent or just temporary. I don’t remember his exact words, but I think the answer was they were permanent.

      I’ll be blunt though, if they carry on as they are it seems like in some ways they are going backwards and could be heading for a further period of ICO monitoring at some point in the future.

      • Here’s an email I sent some time ago to Graham Hodkinson, Director of Social Services at Wirral Council. I had hoped, after visiting him in his office ages ago that we could strike up a productive relationship, however in the end it wasn’t to be. The following is the email which turned out to be the one which caused him to sever contact and to plough on regardless down the road to eventual self-destruction.

        Please, please bring that on before too many more vulnerable and disabled people are harmed by this council’s unfeeling callousness and cruelty……………

        Dear Mr Hodkinson,

        To quote from your email:

        “I did however share with you my personal opinion based on the facts, that a very small number of people were demanding what amounted to considerable amounts of information through FOI”.

        In my book, this again is ‘blaming the public’. Your organisation has immersed itself in scandal upon scandal for well over a decade, yet you persist in blaming members of the public for your freedom of information woes – all self-inflicted. This lack of self-awareness, presumably unhelpfully shared and propagated by your colleagues (and councillors) is becoming the stuff of legend.

        Cause and effect dictates that should a council’s governance descend into the “abnormal”, as confirmed by an independent investigation costing £250,000 **((Later confirmed as actually £377,000))**, there are consequences. In the case of Wirral Council, one of these was a welter of FoI requests going in, many to your own department, to try to find out what the hell was going on. The failure to address these correctly means they’ll continue or increase.

        If you can point me to a piece of ICO correspondence confirming that yes, Wirral’s problems emanate from “a small number of people making a large number of requests” then I’ll listen, and I’ll start attaching more credence to your statements. But that correspondence doesn’t exist. The Information Commissioner himself has called this right going back years. The failings lie with the council. Your excuses (and Frank Field MP’s crazed, paranoid theories) originate from a tired, broken, basket case culture; the one that brought about:

         Monitoring by the ICO for poor timeliness

         Monitoring (again) by the ICO for poor timeliness because the council failed to learn any lessons the first time around

         The Information Commissioner himself mentioning before a parliamentary committee “I’d like to sort Wirral Council out”

         A 13 month wait before an answer came in to this request (the reply came in yesterday with absolutely NO apology, much less any vestige of humility) – this is just one example of many

         An undertaking being levelled by the ICO to make Wirral’s CEO comply with his FoI obligations in the future – the obligations that all other councils in the land are managing to fulfil.

        As you asked for my constructive suggestions. Here they are. (Please feel free to share with your fellow Directors and Heads of Department):

         When the ICO gives you good, professional advice, please take it

         When the public exercise their statutory querying rights via the Freedom of Information Act, they are not doing anything unlawful. Don’t treat them as an inconvenience. Take them seriously

         Stop habitually breaching UK law on what seems to be an almost weekly basis; and don’t rest on your laurels because the ICO is too weak to take any enforcement action

         Realise once and for all that the council’s historically scandalous conduct, and not being correctly resourced to meet the predictable backlash, are the root cause of its ongoing poor FoI performance

         Realise that members of the public engaging with you democratically should be engaged with by return, corresponded with, valued – and even applauded – not scurrilously branded as scapegoats

         Resource yourselves correctly, with enough staff to meet a raised, yet genuine and legitimate demand for public information

         Research your extremely chequered history and learn lessons from where you’ve previously gone wrong – quite straightforward, as your record is peppered with numerous failures and breaches

        I hope these comments have added some value for you,
        Many thanks,

        Paul Cardin

        • Our current Director of Adult Social Services, could (in a hypothetical world) make the following statements that would seem equally as absurd (but are true):

          “We spend a disproportionate amount of our Social Services budget on a small number of “troubled” families.”

          “We spend large amounts of our budget on residential and nursing home fees for the elderly, however very little is spent on children.”

          “We spend extremely large amounts of our budget on a small number of the population that are our staff to do work for us”

          “We spend large amounts of senior management time explaining what we do to and writing reports for a extremely small part of the population (sixty-six politicians)”

          etc etc, in fact look at every part of taxpayer funded services to the population and you’ll find one small part of the population uses a disproportionate amount of services. I mean (using an example from another part of Wirral Council) isn’t it absolutely shocking (sarcasm intended) how much Wirral Council spends on educating children?

          The above are just facts. However going back to some facts and FOI, it’s not the amount of information that is requested that is the problem. I will give an example, someone requests a Cabinet report that happens to total 283 pages. This is already published on Wirral Council’s website. Once a request comes in, it takes literally a few minutes to find it and email the requester a link (or even less time to say it’s already published on their website). A lot of information has been provided efficiently.

          Now there are legal limits on what you can request through FOI, if it’s over 18.5 hours of time, Wirral Council can quite legitimately refuse the request. So there’s the safeguard against the Director’s fear against a “considerable amount” being requested. Even in his scenario where a requester made say for example three similar requests to Social Services, similar requests from the same source can also fall collectively under one 18.5 hour limit (rather than each request).

          If requests are ignored (and Wirral Council admit they don’t answer 100% of them), some of those requesters will request internal reviews or ask why their request wasn’t answered (which causes more work). If their original request had had a response (which is a legal requirement) Wirral Council wouldn’t have made their own life difficult.

          The truth is (and Wirral Council knows this), if they ignore requests only a certain percentage will query this. If they ignore an internal review request also and it gets appealed to ICO, well Wirral Council quite happily ignore correspondence from ICO too. Meanwhile at this stage over a year can have gone by since the original request. Wirral Council knows that only a small fraction of requesters will go this far and most of the others will have just “given up”.

  6. […] blogger John Brace reports on a recent report to the Cabinet about how the Council manages such requests and he quotes the […]

  7. And there are a few that will not go away, some seeking to have the Council fess up publicly to facts already known in a small circle but which need to be publicised lest in future the Council rewrites its owen history

    • Getting information out of Wirral Council by making FOI requests is akin to getting blood out of a stone or pulling teeth!

  8. […] Labour administration was “open and transparent”? Only as recently as June of this year wasn’t the Cabinet Member Cllr Ann McLachlan stating “the key problem here that we have …? So do Wirral Council see the people making FOI requests as the problem rather than their own […]


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