Inside Croydon thoroughly approves of and admires the online Freedom of Information tool, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and we would encourage anyone to make use of it if they have a serious question about some aspect of a public body that, for some reason, is not being properly addressed through conventional channels.
WhatDoTheyKnow takes a lot of the potentially intimidating organisational work out of dealing with the bureaucracy of government bodies, at local and national levels, guiding you through the FOI process of making “The People In Charge” accountable to the public.
It is also a handy tool for keeping an eye on what is being asked of the often secretive Croydon Council. Although the answers provided by our council are rarely illuminating.
When dealing with Croydon Council, it was clear long ago that the people whose wages we pay at Taberner House abandoned even the pretence of providing a straight answer to any questions about their conduct and policies. Even for FOIs. But you live in hope… The price of freedom, eternal vigilance, etc and so forth.
But imagine the surprise at Inside Croydon Towers this week, with much local attention focused on Thursday’s elections, when a link to this FOI came through in the daily email alert.
From: C Edwards
2 May 2012
Dear Croydon Borough Council,
I would like copies of all communication (emails, letters etc)
between council officers, and members and the editor of the Inside Croydon blog, Steven Downes.
This should include copies of all communication (emails or
otherwise) between Steven and the council’s press office, other
officers and councillors, including the chief executive and leader
and deputy leaders.
Mr C Edwards
How flattering! Little old us the subject of an official-ish enquiry. The executive editor’s office at Inside Croydon Towers was like the scene from Sweet Charity when Shirley MacLaine finally makes the big time. If they could see us now…
Then reality kicked in.
Because that’s another £250 of Council Tax-payers money to be spent. According to Councillor Sara Bashford, who is responsible for this piece of council work, £250 is the average cost of answering every FOI submitted to Tory-run Croydon Council last year.
Notice in the official press release this phrase: “The BBC has made 31 requests to Croydon Council during the past financial year, while a single freelance journalist” [who that? Ed] “made 15”, as if there is some sort of rationing of the process, that the media really ought not be questioning our council’s work.
The reality is that the press office at our Conservative-controlled council, seemingly as a matter of routine policy, automatically treats many questions it receives as FOIs, apparently as a means of delaying, diverting, deterring and altogether being as unhelpful as possible to legitimate enquiries into matters of public interest.
Croydon’s FOIs – 36 per cent more expensive than national average
What Bashford failed to mention is that the cost of answering FOIs in Croydon is £90 more per FOI – or 36 per cent – than the national average (according to 2010 figures from University College London). Ahhh, Croydon Council, where one of its executive directors once claimed “efficiency is in our DNA”.
But back to Mr Edwards.
He could have asked us.
As a public service and in the interests of openness and transparency, we might have forwarded to him all of the very legitimate emails we have sent in the past year or so to Jon Rouse, Croydon Council’s £248,000 per year chief executive. None have had the basic courtesy of a proper reply. But you’d be able to make up your own mind whether the questions need answering.
We could have shown him our complaints filed to the borough solicitor, Julie Belvir, over the frequently obstructive and belligerent conduct of the council’s press office.
We could show him the apology we received as a consequence from Matt Burrows, the council’s former press office chief. Not that it altered the way the press office conducted itself thereafter.
And we could have shown Mr Edwards the bullying, insulting and unprofessional emails we have received from Burrows’ successor, Danny Brierley.
Our email address, Mr Edwards, is firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s posted around this website in various places (such as “contact Inside Croydon”). And you wouldn’t have to wait until the end of May to get a decent answer, either.
And in the meantime, we would also suggest to our moles at the Town Hall to make sure that they don’t use their official council email accounts when sending us sensitive material or documents.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Jon Rouse, Croydon riots, and the crucial missing hours (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon Council paid £20m for interim staff in 2011 (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s Budget (Part 1): We’re all in this together (insidecroydon.com)