Sunday, 26 June 2011

Shedding Light on NCC's Hiding, sorry FREEDOM, of Information

More good leaks obtained by the Post last week which gives a fairly illuminating insight into the way that NCC deals with Freedom of Information requests that it finds a bit inconvenient to deal with. Some of these details may explain some of the delays that I've been experiencing.

Firstly, the Post reports on Councillor Jon Collins acting in an uncharacteristically high-handed manner by refusing to let Information Governance staff search his emails in order to reply to an enquiry by former Cllr Tony Sutton concerning communications prior to the 2007 election.

Funnily enough, one of my FoI requests which has been outstanding for 8 months (and 3 months beyond a time limit set by the Information Commissioner's Office for a reply) is likely to involve some of JoCo's emails. I wonder if that's what's holding things up?

The second interesting thing that the Post has uncovered concerns the same request for info from Tony Sutton. It is alleged that NCC's Director of Communications, Stephen 'Pugwash' Barker pretended that certain documents requested were not held by the authority. Then, after Information Governance staff involved Monitoring Officer Glen O'Connell, who isn't exactly renowned for his anti-establishment views, Pugwash "...volunteered to the Council's Monitoring Officer" that he probably could find the documents after all.

Pugwash told the Post that the Info Governance officer, who had expressed concern that a criminal offence could have occurred, had "...a very partial understanding of these matters at the time..." and had "...hold of completely the wrong end of the stick." Yet it's clear from Barker's own quote that he only offered to find the documents to the Monitoring Officer. If Information Governance had 'got the wrong end of the stick', whay was it necessary for the Monitoring Officer to become involved?

We've noted before that Information Governance have to get responses signed off by the Communications Team i.e. Pugwash himself and we wondered allowed what would happen if the truth didn't reflect the required spin. Well, we might have a bit more of a clue to what the answer to that question is now. It certainly looks like Info Governance officers find themselves in a difficult position from time to time.

The upshot of this is that Barker has abused his position as Head of Communications to defend himself personally against a perfectly reasonable concern by an Info Governance officer doing his/her job, somewhat belittling that officer and undermining NCC's handling of FoI in the process. Barker's job is to present information on the council's behalf and is paid quite a lot of public money to do so.

The Council's code of conduct for employees (see p15 onwards of this document) requires officers to advise each other impartially. It also says that officers have the right to be treated with respect. I'm not sure how wrongly informing an Info Governance officer that documents are not held, then slagging off that officer in the press complies with these requirements.

Addendum; NCC is currently being monitored by the ICO. The monitoring period started beginning April and is due to end at the end of June. Whether anything comes out of that remains to be seen.

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