DTI update - FOI shenanigans

I've been on my hols this week, and on my return I discovered, as predicted, that the DTI had replied to the follow-up Freedom of Information (FOI) enquiry Bruce Lawson and I submitted to them on 26th June. Unfortunately the DTI has rather neatly, but not necessarily fairly, side-stepped the entire issue, and used a technicality to avoid fulfilling our enquiry.

Here's the email from the DTI in full, I'll leave you to have a quick read and draw your own conclusions before reading mine:

Dear Mr Champion

Thank you for your request for information on the accessibility of the Department of Trade and Industry's website which we received on 26/06/06. I regret that we cannot provide this information, as the cost of administering your request would exceed the limit prescribed under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act. This is £600, which represents the estimated cost of spending 24 hours in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information. Where the cost of compliance with a request would exceed the appropriate limit, we are not obliged to comply with that request.

We have received nine separate FOI requests regarding the accessibility of the DTI website. All nine requests appear to have been generated by contributors to the blether.com website and discussion forum:

http://www.blether.com/archives/2006/06/the_dti_respond.php
http://www.brucelawson.co.uk/index.php/2006/stupid-government-websites/

Regulation 5(1) of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004 provides that, where two or more requests for the same or similar information are made to a public authority by different persons who appear to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign, those requests may be aggregated for the purposes of estimating whether compliance with the requests would exceed the appropriate limit.

We have aggregated the nine requests received on this subject, and estimate that the cost of compliance with them would exceed the appropriate limit. We are therefore not obliged to provide the information requested.

However, the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.

If you have any queries about this letter, please contact the DTI Response Centre quoting the FOI reference number above.

Appeals procedure

If you are unhappy with the way the Department of Trade and Industry has handled your request you may ask for an internal review. If you wish to complain, you should contact us at:

Department of Trade and Industry
Response Centre
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H 0ET
dti.enquiries@dti.gsi.gov.uk

If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:

Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Wilmslow
Cheshire SK9 5AF

Regards

DTI Response Centre
Tel: 020 7215 5000

For those of you not familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), public authorities subject to its provisions are not obliged to respond to requests where the estimated cost of determining what information the authority holds, locating the information, retrieving it, and, if necessary, editing or redacting it exceeds £600, calculated at a notional rate of £25 per hour.

In addition, under section 12(4)(b) of the Act, authorities can aggregate multiple enquiries for information from different individuals where it appears to the authority that the requests have been made in concert or as part of a campaign.

In short, the DTI is refusing to answer legitimate questions about the processes it followed in procuring certain services, and about processes it may or may not have in place for future procurement.

The FOIA is regulated by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The ICO issues guidance to public authorities about their responsibilities under the legislation, and to the public about their rights. The ICO offers this guidance (PDF) to authorities refusing requests due to excessive costs:

In this case the DTI has chosen to ignore the first four of these guidelines, merely providing information about appeals procedures. (Ignoring guidelines is clearly something of a habit for the DTI.) They also seem to have missed the point entirely by stating that:

...the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.

It would be a tad distressing if they weren't aware of the issues by now, but of course what we're trying to discover is how they missed the issues in the first place, and what they are doing to prevent it happening again.

The upshot is that I will be requesting an internal review from the DTI, and if I find that unsatisfactory I'll be perfectly happy to appeal to the ICO.

If anyone reading this made an FOI enquiry about the DTI site please get in touch, since we might as well make it a real campaign if the DTI are going to treat it as one. And if you didn't, and you feel strongly about this, please take Bruce's advice and write to your MP.

Comments

So, let me get this straight. The more popular the request for information is, the more expensive it is to release and thus a big issue gets buried. That is crazy.

Posted by: Karl at July 22, 2006 2:48 PM

I've also had a similar reply, and received it on the 19th working day after my request. (One has to wonder when they made the refusal decision, and if they deliberately waited as long as possible before informing requesters -- I'd be interested to hear from others who submited requests).

I'll probably make a formal complaint too, with the key issues for me being:

- That I'm not convinced of the accuracy of their cost/time estimate without seeing the other requests and details of their calculations (neither of which they provided in the reply).

- That they have failed to fulfil their duty to help requesters under FOIA, as detailed in the ICO guidelines. With multiple overlapping requests, I'd expect them to perhaps look at providing the most commonly requested details to everyone. With Bruce and Dan's specific list, I'd expect them to ask which were most important and work from there.

Finally, it strikes me that there the DTI really should have carried out some sort of internal review / report asking the same sorts of questions as we have here. If such a report exists, they could easily provide a copy of it at minimal cost/effort, and it would probably answer a lot of our questions...

Posted by: Robert Whittaker at July 22, 2006 6:44 PM

Would it help if the 8 others withdrew their requests and allowed one formal aggregated request to be put forward? What are the key questions that you would want to ask?

Posted by: Grant Broome at July 31, 2006 10:10 AM

Unfortunately I don't think it works that way Grant. But even so under the guidance provided by the ICO they should have offered to help myself and the other enquirers, by indicating which parts of the aggregated request could be satisfied within the limit. That complaint formed part of my response to them, so we'll see what the internal review brings.

Posted by: Dan at July 31, 2006 1:58 PM

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