On Monday there was a piece in this section by Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance about all the Freedom of Information requests that Councils have to cope with these days. Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council has complained about the number of them.
A typical council does get hundreds of FIA requests a year and there is a cost involved. But costs could be reduced if there isn't a great effort made to come up for excuses for witholding the information but it is just handed over.
Councils can make rather heavy weather of this sort of thing – not necessarily out of secrecy of obstructiveness but also inefficiency. The same thing happens with "Member Enquiries" – where a councillor asks a question and gets a long, delayed and elaborately vetted response. To give an example, a year ago I organised a series of "Tree Walks" for residents interested in sponsoring street trees if suitable sites could be found. This involved a lot of emailing about dates to my Council's Chief Arboricultural Officer. At first he wasn't allowed to email me straight back as his response had to be vetted with an elaborate procedure (as it did when he wrote to any councillor who emailed him about a tree.) This has now been streamlined and the time he takes on correspondence with councillors greatly reduced and the speed of his replies greatly increased.
On Freedom of Information requests the subject cropped up at last night at the Value for Money Scrutiny Committee in Hammersmith and Fulham, which I chair. We were scrutinising the budget and among the efficiencies was an item proposed to save £42,000 a year. It is: "Cost containment. Freedom of Information improvements achioeved by implementing better workflows through using new systems and better information on the website to enable enquiriers to self serve." We also talked about presenting the budget with a more detailed, intelligible breakdown of each section. One of the arguments for transparency, for getting all the information available on the website, is that it would reduce the number of FOI requests and Member Enquries as well as the cost of those that do come in.