Mr Smith’s FOI: Croydon Council’s oxymorons and obfuscation

Each Freedom of Information request dealt with by Croydon Council costs around £250 to process.

That’s almost £100 more than the national average cost for handling FOIs, according to recently published research. This despite Croydon’s claims to have “efficiency in our DNA” (copyright Nathan Elvery, 2011).

Yet complaints about Croydon Council’s responses to FOI requests increased by 300 per cent in the past year, according to official government agency sources.

The government tells us that: “The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public body for all the information they have on any subject you choose. Unless there’s a good reason, the organisation must provide the information within 20 working days”.

Our council has started whingeing about the increasing volume of FOIs it receives, without realising that this is only a reflection of its poor management of public information and general secrecy over important issues, the deep distrust that many Croydon public feel for the people running the Town Hall and in charge at Taberner House, and the tendency of the council’s press office to refer every other reasonable query to be dealt with as a FOI.

For Croydon, FOI is not about public scrutiny, but a means to delay and deter the public from finding how its money is being spent.

Under law, the council has a duty to respond to an FOI request within 20 working days. After weekends and bank holidays, that’s often more than a month, a generous time limit for public servants to complete what ought to be straightforward research and drafting of a response.

Croydon often fails to comply with that legal deadline. We’d put in an FOI to get the exact figure for how often they miss their target, but we know from bitter experience that the council would find an excuse to avoid providing a straight answer.

The Croydon Council department dealing with FOIs, called “Customer Services” – an oxymoron writ large if ever there was one – tends to go out of its way to obfuscate, deliver half-responses and generally be as unhelpful as possible. You’d think that they were trying to hide something.

To illustrate this point, take the example of an FOI submitted by a Mr Richard Smith on April 3 this year.

Mr Smith’s note was concise, and outlined clearly the details he required.

Dear Croydon Borough Council,

Would you please provide the following information relating to the Event Management and Event Marketing tender submitted by Croydon BID.

– A copy of all tender scoring sheets
– A copy of tender submissions
– A copy of any notes made and/or scoring sheets at final
presentation
– The name of the agency which won this tender.

Yours faithfully,

Yesterday, May 22, Mr Smith received a response. That is 36 working days after submitting his FOI, or 16 days longer than is required by law.

Someone called Lynda Fay, who is apparently an “Information Coordinator”, put her name to the response to Mr Smith. This was the answer that it took Croydon’s “Customer Services” department eight weeks to put together:

Thank you for your email of 3 April 2012 in which you have requested information regarding details of Event Management and Event Marketing tender submitted by Croydon BID. Your request has been considered under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Please note our response to your questions below.

Would you please provide the following information relating to the Event Management and Event Marketing tender submitted by Croydon BID.

– A copy of all tender scoring sheets
– A copy of tender submissions
– A copy of any notes made and/or scoring sheets at final
presentation
– The name of the agency which won this tender.

Having reviewed your request for information, we have identified that this could more appropriately be responded to by Croydon Town Centre BID which is a separate organisation to Croydon Council. I have pasted below a link to the Croydon Bid website.

http://www.croydonbid.com/

So, after eight whole weeks, Croydon Council emailed an answer that had cut and paste the original question (as is the form with FOI responses) to tell Mr Smith that it was all, in effect, “nuffink to do with us guv”.

That’s 250 quid – or more – of our money very badly spent, we are sure you’d agree.

If we were of a more cynical, and a more suspicious, disposition, we might conclude that Croydon Council was trying deliberately to be obstructive and delaying over passing over information which under the law it has a duty to provide.

After all, even if the council really does not have the information about BID that was requested (though note the use of weasel words “we have identified that this could more appropriately be responded to”, rather than an outright: we do not have this information) could that reply not have been completed within five minutes of its receipt?

In any case, we would suggest that the council should hold such information. Croydon Council has two representatives on the board of Croydon BID, one a council official, the other an elected councillor, and each year, the council collects around £1 million in levies from local businesses to fund Croydon BID. So you’d hope that the council would at least hold on file a few details about the manner the BID organisation is run.

Croydon Council’s FOI “yellow card”

As is customary, Mr Smith’s emailed reply from the council included details of what he could do if he was unhappy with the answer he wasn’t given. In effect, this requires the questioner to go through the whole, much-delayed process all over again, by asking for an “internal review”. So the oxymorons at “Customer Services” get to consider whether they did a good job or not.

Then, after Mr Smith receives a response to an internal review, if he is still not satisfied, he is allowed to file a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

Inside Croydon contacted the Information Commissioner to ask about Croydon Council’s FOI performance. They answered within minutes, rather than weeks.

The ICO received five FOI complaints against Croydon Council in 2010-2011 and 15 complaints – a 300 per cent increase – against them during the financial year 2011-2012.

Croydon Council was shown a yellow card in 2010, when its performance was monitored by the ICO: “While the ICO was satisfied that the council had improved its performance sufficiently to avoid further action, they were issued with a letter clarifying our areas of concern,” a spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office told Inside Croydon.

Our council has repeatedly been challenged over its secrecy in withholding of information about the £450 million “Hub”, and Croydon could face being put under ICO monitoring again if just six complaints are filed about its performance in a six-month period.

“Responding promptly to FOI requests is key to delivering citizens’ rights,” Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, has said. “Too many public authorities are taking too long to decide either way whether to release information or to refuse requests.”

  • Inside Croydon: A news source about Croydon that is not based in Redhill. Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Mr Smith’s FOI: Croydon Council’s oxymorons and obfuscation

  1. I’m confused. As I understand it Croydon BID is run by Croydon Business, which is and always has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Croydon Council. Hence, no doubt, the careful wording of the long-delayed reply.

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