One of Camden’s redeeming features is that it is completely open about how absurdly sh*t it is.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000, on paper, is one of the most empowering pieces of legislation for any member of the public interested in probing public bodies, like Camden Council.
It allows individuals to make requests for information, to which the public body must respond within set timescales. If they don’t respond within those timescales, they face investigation by an external agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Most people don’t realise how easy it is to make these requests and how wide-ranging they can be. In the case of Camden, you simply send any sort of question to email@example.com and wait a maximum of 20 working days for your response.
The request can be anything – you can even ask for all correspondence about yourself in some councillor’s inbox, if you so wish.
Freedom of Information, or FOI as it is known, is how I get all the strange and revealing information on Camden, for example on how few of Camden’s employees actually live in Camden, or how Veolia have never met their street cleanliness targets.
It’s fair to say this website wouldn’t exist without FOI. Or writing interesting articles would be far more difficult.
One would think that for Camden to be so compliant in matters of information the ICO must pack some punch in their investigations. But in fact this isn’t true.
The ICO is absolutely useless. A public body, if they so choose, can and will dither and delay in responding to an FOI request, kicking it into the long grass until the ICO finally conclude their investigation, typically a year after the request. The ICO then can face a free legal challenge on their decision by either the member of public or the public body. Because a member of the public is far less likely to bother going to court, the ICO almost always rule in favour of the public body.
In fact the ICO is so useless that if a member of the public does actually bother to challenge their decision they often don’t even bother turning up to court. I have seen this myself.
So why is it that Camden are so good on FOI when they are so bad at almost everything else? Who knows. Like almost everything with Camden, each department seems to be its own entity, with the sh*tness of one department not affecting another. In fact the FOI department even managed to extract huge amounts of information from the very powerful planning department, literally extracting their emails and sending them to me. Even I was surprised at this feat.
There are limits to the kind of requests you can make. For example, you obviously couldn’t ask for things like the home address of a councillor. Usually these ‘exemptions’, which are governed by statute, are abused by councils and applied to all sorts of ridiculous things. Where I used to live in Birmingham, I made an FOI for the results of a public consultation which had been hidden by a public body. They refused the request (and it was upheld by the ICO) arguing that the mere opinions expressed in the consultation would allow me to work out the identity of the respondent – who they were and where they lived. You can only scoff at such absurdity.
But Camden actually will work with you to refine your request so that if you do step over the line, they can still investigate your request to the extent that it is reasonable and legal. Quite incredible, really.
So if you ever have a question to ask of Camden and can’t find an answer, just send the question to firstname.lastname@example.org and you may get lucky. No need to be adversarial or formal, just send the question, and see.