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Friday
Jun292012

Giving FOI officers a break

Among my email correspondence relating to the Climategate affair, there are many expressions of sympathy for David Palmer, the UEA Freedom of Information officer. Although his involvement in the various false statements issued by the university cannot be determined with certainty, one did rather get the impression that he was struggling valiantly to comply with the legislation.

This cannot have been an easy task. A blog posting (here) by Paul Gibbons, an FOI officer in local government, reveals some of the pressures that senior officials in public bodies use to try to corrupt their FOI staff:

FOI Officers often find themselves in tricky situations. I’ve referred previously to a meeting on one occasion where the Mayor of London’s then Director of Communications once lightly suggested that if I couldn’t be more helpful, I and my team might find ourselves redundant. Wiser heads calmed the situation but I suspect I’m not the only FOI Officer to find themselves on the wrong side of an argument with the powers-that-be. Other FOI Officers I know have been persona non grata in parts of their organisation. And all for doing their jobs.

As Gibbons says, requesters should give FOI officers a break.

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Reader Comments (29)

I can see it could be a lonely job. We have Jones's email saying how he spent some time with Palmer, showing him the CA website - clearly putting him under pressure.

What part of an organisation does the FOI officer normally come under? In universities, I have the impression it is often the library, of all things. [I suppose there is a sort of logic there - after all, the library deals with information.]

I'd have thought more logically, the FOI officer would come under the umbrella of what, in a bank, would be the director responsible for the compliance officer role.

Jun 29, 2012 at 9:16 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

In a recent FOI request I made to a County Council, they replied within a couple of days to say that my request would be better made under the environment regulations, automatically transferred it and produced the necessary info within a couple of days afterwards. First class response.

Jun 29, 2012 at 9:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

From email 1473


Phil,

Ah, now we are getting somewhere.... (and I will turn you to the 'dark side' of FOIA/EIR
yet! lol)

(...snip...)

Cheers, Dave

http://di2.nu/foia/foia2011/mail/1473.txt

Jun 29, 2012 at 9:43 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

From: Phil Jones
To: santer, Tom Wigley
Cc: mann, Gavin Schmidt, Karl Taylor, peter gleckler

Ben,
When the FOI requests began here, the FOI person said we had to abide
by the requests. It took a couple of half hour sessions - one at a screen, to convince
them otherwise showing them what CA was all about...

Jun 29, 2012 at 9:44 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Jonathan Jones' post says it all.
And DANG! he beat me to it!

In general I have some sympathy with FOI officers.
I have no sympathy with UEA FOI Officers at all.

Here is an example of our poor, oppressed David Palmer in action (2655.txt).

From: Palmer Dave Mr (LIB) l212
Sent: 27 February 2007 14:40
To: Mcgarvie Michael Mr (ACAD) k364
Subject: FW: FW: Jones et al 1990 (FOI_07-09)

Michael,

Having looked at the site below (and found numerous other references to the requester
online), I can understand Phil's reluctance to respond. However, unless the request is
unclear, we have a valid request.

However, how we deal with it is another matter.

A number of issues present themselves

1. Do we 'hold' the data? - Is it UEA that actually holds this information? If it is on
disks in Phil's possession outside the UEA, there might be an argument - comes down to a
matter of control - if these were done as part of his work at UEA, the requester could
argue that UEA effectively is the 'holder' of the data...

2. EIR vs. FOI... this is technically, actually an EIR (Environmental Information
Regulations) request! There are some advantages to treating it as FOI as under EIR (eg.
there is no 'appropriate limit') BUT there are more advantages to treating it under EIR.
For example, we can extend response time to 40 working days, and, the only 'vexatious' test
is manifest unreasonableness and I think that this might be a possibility depending upon
the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the information (see DEFRA site for this
issue at: [1]http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/opengov/eir/pdf/guidance-7.pdf)

(General EIR guidance at:
[2]http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/opengov/eir/guidance/index.htm)

I would suggest that we treat as EIR and go from there.... we will either have to reject it
completely as vexatious or answer it... there is NO appropriate limit under EIR but our
chances of calling it vexatious are higher and we have longer to respond. We can also
charge but there will be some work to pull that off (ie. create fee structure that we can
send to the requester)

Am happy to meet to discuss this further.... this is a complex request....

Cheers, Dave

Jun 29, 2012 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

From Jonathan's link http://di2.nu/foia/foia2011/mail/1473.txt :


At 17:36 26/06/2009, Mcgarvie Michael Mr \(ACAD\) wrote:
(...)
So I would suggest that we decline this one
(at the very end of the time period)
(...)

I wonder whether this is misconduct. Wikipedia says:

Under English law, misconduct (or misfeasance) in public office is an offence at common law. The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on this offence say that the elements of the offence are when:
- A public officer acting as such.
- Wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself.
- To such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder.[2]
- Without reasonable excuse or justification.

Jun 29, 2012 at 10:45 AM | Registered CommenterAndré van Delft

Just to support the original post, I've had a bugger of a time with various FOI requests to the BBC (I know, journalistic exemptions are such fun), but would not say a word against their FOI officer, who has been extremely helpful each time I've had occasion to speak with her.

Jun 29, 2012 at 10:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteveW

FoI officials are indeed in an awkward position - in my experience though, and obviously this doesn't apply to all of them by a long chalk - if they can be selected on other criteria than ability and placed in a geographically remote part of the country for a national organisation (Hello! UK Environment Agency) this contributes effectively to the discharge of their duties. /sarc

I'm waiting for my first outsourced FoI official in Hyderabad. (Maybe I shouldn't be handing out ideas like that)

It is my strongly held opinion that where deliberate obstructiveness can be proven - that supervising officials, involved officials in the department concerned and finally, if appropriate - the FoI official themselves should be held criminally legally accountable for deliberate abuse of the process.

We had documents that for 18 months we were told had been "lost", deleted, "never existed" which were found within days of an "out of the loop" FoI official being appointed as a result of our second appeal... We also had senior lawyer meddling with and altering documents and the responses to our FoI - which rather ironically was exposed later by umm... unrelated FoI. A moral in there for elaborate lairs....

The Information Commissioner's report can be seen over here.

Jun 29, 2012 at 11:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterTomO

The role of David Palmer as 'Freedom of Information' officer reminds me of Yes Minister:
The Ministry of Defence deals with war
The Ministry of Employment deals with the unemployed
The Ministry of Health deals with the ill

Freedom of Information officers find ways to withold information...

Jun 29, 2012 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan Blanchard

For anyone interested here is the "Hints for Practitioners handling FOI/EIR/requests" issued by the Information Commissioners Office.

Jun 29, 2012 at 11:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Ian Blanchard @11:26 AM

Yep - in many cases that just about nails it.

For us though, it was about withholding information which was pivotal to a Judicial Review case at the High Court involving a hydro electric scheme - the Environment Agency official obstructiveness and lies withheld key *named* documents.

The EA are edging their way back to court - they've decided it seems, that the law doesn't apply to them....

I should add that EA FoI officials completely ignored some of the requested named documents in their responses - as if we'd never asked for them.

It left us wondering what would have happened if the matter was in a criminal court.

Jun 29, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Riiight!. I am the FOI officer. Yesterday, nothing bad happened. Today, seems OK. If tomorrow holds out, I will be able to collect my salary, retire and collect my very nice public sector pension.

Oh Noes! someone wants me to to what I am employed to do and my employer doesn't like me complying with the law. Threats, even. Tough luck sunshine, you should have taken the checkout job at Tesco instead.

This is utter bollox. Do the job you are paid for, or get out.

Jun 29, 2012 at 12:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterHector Pascal

"Hector. I don't seem to be getting through to you. We employed you as our FOI officer. I am sure you understood at the time of your appointment that your role - whatever the paperwork may say - is to keep these busybodies off our backs and let us get on with the job.

Essentially, that is what you are paid for, not to cause us embarrassment.

I believe your performance evaluation is coming up soon - am I right? I'm sure that you have not forgotten that attitude is one of the key points of the evaluation. Yes? Ah yes, I see you have caught my drift.

My goodness, is that the time? Off you go - and I have great confidence you can give the advice that our staff need to avoid their time being wasted - and the management from being embarrassed - by all this FOI nonsense."

Jun 29, 2012 at 1:41 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Thanks Martin. Now I understand why my modest career as a research scientist (UEA ENV graduate, CSIRO etc) ended in my early 50s. These days I'm a part-time baker, part-time carpenter, part-time factory maintainer. No meetings, and no performance evaluations (except for those from the good lady). It's a better and more honest life.

Jun 29, 2012 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterHector Pascal

It appears from Don Keiller's quote that Palmer had "gone native" and was in fact advising them how best to subvert the intent of the regulations for their own ends. That's not a difficult position deserving of sympathy, that's taking the easy way out. I wonder, when these characters look at themselves in the mirror of a morning, do they like what they see?

Jun 29, 2012 at 2:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

NW, ever noticed how many of them have beards? You may have stumbled on the explanation.

Jun 29, 2012 at 4:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

Rhoda.

Beards? Yes. Good. Carbon sequestration.

Jun 29, 2012 at 4:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

The role the FOI officer also involves making sure the perversions of the act are implemented within the organization. if they know someone is not following them they are required to chase them up and report the situation to senior management, In this case the 'tail wagged the dog' Jones controlled the FOI officer to his own ends. further in this case it seems they not only allowed people to ignore their legal obligations but they added them to do so .

Jun 29, 2012 at 5:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

Perhaps the only way to assure proper enforcement of FOIA laws is to assure that FOIA Officers are independent of the institutions where they reside. A similar need is often found in manufacturing where Quality Control activities are made independent from engineering and manufacturing operations. Enforcement of laws and rules cannot be accomplished as intended whenever those who occupy positions of power can benefit from corruption of the laws intent.

Jun 29, 2012 at 5:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Smith

Jun 29, 2012 at 5:11 PM KnR

Haha I'm sure that Jones would have regarded them as "perversions".

Jun 29, 2012 at 6:02 PM | Unregistered Commentersplitpin

Rhoda, yes, the beards thing did occur to me at that point, but I didn't want to upset BH readers who may be of the hirstute persuasion.

Jun 29, 2012 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

One thing that surprised me on re-looking at the emails: how few FOI requests CRU received:

McIntyre (+ the bunch of CA requests for agreements)
Jonathan Jones
Don Keiller
David Holland
?
?
The amount of effort they expended on finding ways of not complying with requests was huge in comparison .
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Without excusing anything, I can see that an FOI officer is subject to more than just explicit pressures. There is also the shared mindset of the organisation. It's very hard to stay aloof from it.

Jones says he showed Holland the CA website. So Holland had a senior professor explaining to him that it was a right wing website of non-scientists, lavishly funded by sinister organisations, and whose aim is to discredit the research they had devoted their lives to, with the purpose of casting doubt on climate change. The consequences of that, if it happened, would be diseases, displaced populations, sea level rises, polar bear extinction, etc etc etc. And UEA is not the place where you go around saying "come on, everyone knows climate change is bollocks".

Thus Holland was dealing with pressures a bit more subtle than the mayor saying - "look we forgot to terminate the contract by the specified date, now we have a £2M penalty - I've asked the finance officer to loose it somewhere".


However, Phil's nasty willingness to attempt to cause trouble for FOI requesters should have given Palmer a clue (maybe it did) :

Dear Phil,
Do you know the heads of department at Oxford and Anglia Ruskin? Are you sure that they would dissociate themselves from their colleagues who have written? I know how frustrating you must find all of this so can understand why you feel you want to do something. But if you do decide to write, I would be cautious about how such a message is phrased - along lines of written more in sorrow than in anger... We want to avoid any accusation that you are trying to get people fired because they disagree with you.
Best, Annie
-------------------------------
Annie Ogden, Head of Communications,
University of East Anglia,
(...)

From: Phil Jones [[2]mailto:p.jones@uea.ac.uk]
Sent: Thursday, October 29, 2009 12:26 PM
To: Colam-French Jonathan Mr (ISD); Palmer Dave Mr (LIB)
Cc: Ogden Annie Ms (MAC); Mcgarvie Michael Mr (ACAD)
(...)
Dave,
(...)
I have had a thought about Keiller and the Oxford Professor. I may have mentioned to you a malicious email that was sent somewhere in the UK pointing to all these awful right wing web sites. The email was passed on to me and it came from an Emeritus Reader at Hull (first name Sonja). I was incensed by this and sent a response to the head of department of Geography at Hull. I did this on Wednesday after Keith's web page went up. I have had a couple of exchanges with the Head Of Geography. I just got this back
I know, I feel for you being in that position. If its any consolation we've had it here for years, very pointed commentary at all external seminars and elsewhere, always coming back to the same theme. Since Sonja retired I am a lot more free to push my environmental interests without ongoing critique of my motives and supposed misguidedness - I've signed my department up to 10:10 campaign and have a taskforce of staff and students involved in it(...)
The thought is whether we should follow the same course with these two at Anglia Ruskin and Oxford?(...)
Cheers
Phil

http://di2.nu/foia/foia2011/mail/1625.txt
(My emphasis)

Jun 29, 2012 at 6:56 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

MartinA
Jones said he showed Holland.....
Don't you mean Palmer, CRU's FOI chap?

Jun 29, 2012 at 7:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

Messenger. Yes, thanks, Palmer. Holland was a requester.

I did manage to get it right earlier:

...We have Jones's email saying how he spent some time with Palmer, showing him the CA website ...
Jun 29, 2012 at 9:16 AM Martin A

Thanks again.

Jun 29, 2012 at 8:06 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

If an organisation is large enough to have a legal department the FOI officer should be there.

I worked for the Oz DOD many years ago and felt that my entitlements on an operation were incorrect. The bean counters were less than helpful, in fact as far as I could see, slothful and incompetent. I FOI'd the DOD for all correspondence involving myself in the matter. The FOI officer was an Army legal LTCOL in the legal department and he was very helpful and totally professional. He got the lot and as a consequence I got ~ $15K and some bean counters got their arses kicked.

Jun 30, 2012 at 3:33 AM | Registered CommenterGrantB

Next big banking scandal.

Carbon Futures

In fact avnything to do with carbon.

Jun 30, 2012 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Maybe Palmer ultimately tired of the deceit and let slip the now famous zip file. Anyone with an ounce of decency to their name couldn't fail to side with reasonable FOI requests in the long run.

Jun 30, 2012 at 9:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterpaging phil jones

The climate of corruption is such today that such a job is near impossible.

Jul 2, 2012 at 8:28 AM | Unregistered Commenterjames higham

Don, a great outcome, congratulations. If you do receive data as described, would it be possible to obtain any relating to Australia and Pacific Islands to our East? There is a storm blowing here that is possibly related. Many thanks Geoff
sherro1 at optusnet dot com dot au

Oct 30, 2012 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

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