Local government gets a bad press. People have a tendency to think of councils as bureaucratic and full of jobsworths. While I'm sure the impression isn't entirely true, the response I received from a London Borough to a recent Freedom of Information request only served to perpetuate the perception.
I won't go into all the details. Essentially though, the information I want does exist, but it's in 183 different files. No one has ever bothered to collate it. And there's the rub. If a government body in the UK claims that it would cost more than £450 to provide an answer to a query, then they're entitled to refuse the request. And that's what this particular authority has done.
They base their decision on one council officer spending more than 18 hours in "determining whether the Council hold the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information..." That's 18 hours at £25 per hour.
A pretty good rate for someone working at the local council, wouldn't you think? Especially if their job is to open up old files and look inside for a piece of information and make a note of what it is. I reckon someone on work experience could probably do it. Or the most junior of admin staff. But it seems that for the purpose of rejecting the request, they're entitled to imagine that it's a job for an employee who earns between £40 and £50k a year.
How would they be spending their time? Here's where it gets truly ridiculous.
"Determining whether the information is held – 30 minutes." Hmm. They've already told me the information is held, so that's a little bit odd. Half an hour of whistling and tea-making, I guess.
"Locating the information – 30 hours (based on 10 mins per file)." This presupposes they archive their files in such a random fashion that even though they all serve an identical purpose, it would take 10 minutes to find the next one.
"Retrieving the information – 0 hours." I think they're possibly missing a trick here. There's the time it would take to reach up on a shelf, adjust the neighbouring files and bring the relevant one back to a table situated an average distance of, say, 2 metres away. (I would calculate an hour and half, based on 30 seconds per file.)
"Extracting the information – 9 hours (based on 3 min per file)." This is actually the only element of the response that seems remotely credible. I'm asking them to look in the file to find a specific piece of information, which should be pretty obvious.
Having waded through all this stuff, I can't help reaching the conclusion that by the time someone has constructed an email explaining why they can't locate the information, someone else could have nipped down the corridor, pulled out the files and started flicking through them.