Thursday, 5 June 2014

I was helping someone make an FOI

request yesterday. The information he wants is not unreasonable and it would not be in the least bit time consuming to give it to him but I doubt his request will succeed.
Why? Government departments do not like giving out information, any sort of information. This information relates to someone else, his father. His father now has Alzheimer's and cannot request the information himself. If the government can go on denying the request then they will also save money - which would then be used to care for this man's father.
I suspect there is absolutely nothing new in this story. It is the sort of thing which happens all the time. It is not the first time I have tried to help someone in a similar situation and it probably won't be the last.
I once tried accessing some information about myself - and I couldn't get it. There was absolutely nothing difficult about it and I would not have thought there was anything secret about it but I could not obtain it. What did I want? The exact dates of my employment with a government department. What was so secret about that? I was told that the request would be "too time consuming" and that it could not be justified. It was a matter of looking up my file - still there - and sending me the information in an e-mail. I needed the information to prove I had been employed by them for a certain length of time. No, nothing doing - even if I paid for it. (You can pay to obtain information under some circumstances.)
It was the sort of response which made me think that most "freedom of information" requests are routinely turned down. If you go back a second or third time then you might get a response. And then, curiously, there is an article in this morning's paper about an inquiry into FOI requests which suggests just that. Requests are routinely turned down.
I am sure there are people who have abused the FOI request system. They ask for all sorts of information which would be time consuming to access and pass on. They don't need that information or they intend to abuse it when they get it. They are litigious and make a nuisance of themselves in a myriad of ways. That sort of behaviour makes it much more difficult for everyone.
But I also think there are public servants who find pleasure in the power they have to deny information. There are also governments who are paranoid about the public having information, any information - even the most innocuous information. What might someone do with the knowledge that the government employed me between certain dates? Is it just possible I might get a job somewhere else if that information is supplied? Are they afraid I might take state secrets with me? (Yes, I know a few but I am not in the least bit interested in divulging them to anyone. The information is actually pretty dull.)
I went to the doctor on the day before yesterday. She cheerfully showed me the computer screen with all my information on it. I know she would not do that to everyone but she knows my father, she knows my sister and she knows me. Her attitude is, "You're an intelligent person. You should be informed." My medical issues are my concern and she knows it. Much the same could be said for other information, especially if it relates to the ability to be responsible for oneself.
I am wondering what the point of our FOI legislation is if you can't actually get the information. The man I was helping knows it may take more than the FOI request. We actually discussed how he might proceed when the request is turned down.
The problem is that we know that, by the time he gets the information he needs, it may be too late. And that is of course precisely what the government is hoping.

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