Sunday, October 25, 2009

(Magherafelt) Council accountability, transparency, FOIs and internal reviews

I’ve posted about local council websites a couple of times recently. Some offer their ratepayers a lot of visibility of council business, publishing an online calendar of meetings (some of which the public can even attend) and following these up with links to the approved minutes. But some councils seem to live in a world of obfuscation - either deliberate or by inaction - and give very little information to the ratepayers who they serve.

If politicians want members of the public to take an interest in what they do and come out in greater numbers to vote at elections, perhaps they would need to up their game on accountability and transparency.

ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) logo

The Information Commissioner’s Office is the UK’s independent public body set up to promote access to official information and protect personal information. They enforce and oversee the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. They offer best practice advice to public authorities, as well as mandating a Model Publication Scheme that had to be adopted by 1 January 2009.

In general, public authorities are encouraged to regularly publish a core set of information that would be useful or frequently requested by the public. The ICO’s scheme states:

Where it is within the capability of a public authority, information will be provided on a website. Where it is impracticable to make information available on a website or when an individual does not wish to access the information by the website, a public authority will indicate how information can be obtained by other means and provide it by those means.

Magherafelt District Council logo

Having mentioned Belfast and Lisburn City Councils in the post, someone suggested looking at Magherafelt District Council.

The ICO even give specific examples of the kinds of information that they expect district councils in Northern Ireland to provide in order to meet their commitments under the model publication scheme. This includes information (online or offline) about recent election results, timetable of council meetings, register of councillors interests etc.

Magherafelt District Council mention none of this information in their current publication scheme which is still dated January 2003 ... missing the ICO’s 1 January 2009 deadline by a country mile. And fundamentally, no council minutes online.

So I asked them about it.

And exactly twenty days later I got a response (at half six in the evening). Odd how it takes exactly twenty days to answer questions! Even worse the text of the emailed reply suggested that they hadn’t started processing my request until day twenty and then seemed to be answered in a rush.

Despite the ICO explaining:

A public authority must inform the applicant in writing whether it holds the information requested and if so, communicate that information to the applicant, promptly, but not later than 20 working days after receipt of the request; section 10(1). [text bolded in the ICO original]

Can I have a copy of your minutes?

Given that there’s no online accountability of what the council debate and decide, I asked:

Can you supply electronic copies (or point to an online version) of the full council minutes that have been signed off/approved for 2009 so far ...

Their reply:

Council minutes are not presently available in an electronic format. Paper copies may be obtained on payment of the requisite photocopying charge as detailed in the Councils Publication Scheme. Please advise if you are willing to pay the relevant charges and arrangements will be made to invoice you for the requisite amounts. Council minutes are not presently published online.

Their publication scheme outlines the photocopying charges that were set back in 2003 and presumably have not been reviewed since.

Current charges are as follows:

Photocopies (per page):

1-10 copies 25p per copy (inc. VAT)
11-25 copies 20p per copy (inc. VAT)
26 copies plus 15p per copy (inc. VAT)

Certified copy charges (per page or part thereof):
£2.50 per copy

Administrative/retrieval time £20 per hour

Postage and packing at cost

A minimum charge of £10 will apply.

Didn’t seem very reasonable to me. Unless council minutes are being written out by hand or formatted on a typewriter, a reasonable person might expect that the council use modern word processing and already internally hold electronic copies of their minutes, perhaps as Microsoft Word documents or PDF files! The very helpful ICO website pointed me towards Section 11(1) of the Freedom of Information Act that states:

Where, on making his request for information, the applicant expresses a preference for communication the authority shall so far as is reasonably practicable give effect to that preference.

Many public authorities offer an Internal Review “appeal” process that allows someone independent of the original respondent to reassess the decision to withhold information - and avoids objections reaching the official ICO complaint process too quickly!

So in the strong likelihood of electronic copies being internally available, I asked them to consider whether it would be reasonably practical for the Council to forward them to me by email as requested.

The full response to the internal review of the issue stated

Copies of the minutes from January to May/June 2009 are attached to this email.

It should be noted that the attached PDFs were scans of the printed minutes, not searchable without OCR!

Remarkably, it took exactly twenty days for their response to the internal review - once again missing the spirit of the ICO’s expectation that “internal reviews should also be completed promptly”.

Do you have an offline policy?

Intrigued that there didn’t seem to be any increase in the information published online in the six and a half years since their Publication Scheme was issued in January 2003, I also asked whether it was their policy to not make this information online.

Can you provide documentation (not limited to council or committee minutes) that explain the council's strategy and policy on access to council services through online/web by rate payers within the Magherafelt Council area.

The reply:

The Council does not hold the information requested.

This didn’t feel quite right.

  • Given the very rapid and last minute response to my request, I feels likely that little effort was able to be put into discovering the evidence to answer question five.

  • Magherafelt District Councils Publication Scheme is dated January 2003 and specifically rules that some information is available online on the council website and some is not.

  • The Council’s website was revamped in the six and a half years subsequent to the Publication Scheme being issued. The 2007 copyright notice at the bottom of each website is one such clue. Difficult to believe that decisions were not made and documented about what council services would be made available online as part of the process of tendering or specifying the requirements for the revised Council website.

  • And it is difficult to believe that the Publication Scheme has not been formally reviewed (even if left unchanged) in the six and half years subsequent to its publication, resulting in discussion and note of whether to extend the material or services made available online.

To still have so little information and so few services available online perhaps points to a deliberate and continued strategy that is likely to have been reviewed and renewed at intervals. So I asked whether they would reconsider their response to question five in case a less cursory search would show that they did hold discoverable information that explained the council’s strategy and policy on access to council services through online/web. Alternatively, they might want to confirm the kind of assets did not hold this information.

All council policies and strategies are approved by council and as such would be recorded in council minutes. A search of the council minutes indicates that council does not hold the information requested. However extracts from the council minutes, as listed below, indicates what might be considered aspects of a policy:

  • Meeting 08/03/2005 – It was resolved that arrangements be made for the Minutes of Council meetings to be put on the Council’s website as soon as possible.

  • Meeting 13/11/2007 - It was resolved that the council would only allow external links to official Government websites.

  • Meeting 17/01/2006 – It was noted that Mr Johnston advised that they were acutely aware that a number of the members had expressed concerns regarding the standard and level of presentation on the council’s website. He reported that following internal discussions regarding this matter the Chief Executive had instructed each department to visit their section of the website on a monthly basis and provide updates as appropriate.

So there was more information not provided in the response to the original FOI request. And although the council resolved in March 2005 to publish Council minutes on their website as soon as possible, four and a half years later, they still haven’t managed it.

Picking on Magherafelt District Council might seem a bit unfair. It’s a reasonable case-study into what happens when you apply FOI, and then request an internal review. Magherafelt are not the only web-averse Council. Castlereagh Borough Council - due to merge with Lisburn City Council - doesn’t publish a calendar of meetings or any minutes online.

Lisburn City Council

Firstly, hats off to Lisburn City Council for being quite open and publishing a fair amount of information already.

And despite asking Lisburn City Council back at the beginning of September (and chasing a couple of weeks ago) whether they would consider publishing details of the Lisburn/Castlereagh transition meetings (visited last week by Lisburn councillor Edwin Poots in his guise as Environment Minister, but normally doesn’t publish its timetable of meetings, location or minutes) - as they promised to do in a public press release - they have still to formally respond.

Update - Magherafelt have now started to publish their monthly minutes online. The earliest minutes are from their August 2009 meeting. Perhaps they'll now work backwards towards March 2005 when they agreed to publish them online!

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