People in Kent get plenty of mileage out of WhatDoTheyKnow.com. So much so, in fact, that Kent County Council smells a rat.
Let’s take user S Smith. At first glance, Smith looks like a regular, legitimate FoI requester. Thanks to their campaign to find out which Kentish councilors belong to Masonic lodges, we now know that three of Maidstone’s councilors are indeed trouser-rollers.
But in Kent County Councils eyes at least, Smith is just one of many WDTK users exploiting the service to ruin their day. In May 2009, when Smith asked KCC to provide details of the last time council members’ declarations of interest were audited, it replied thusly:
The Council is of the opinion that this latest request for information, when considered in conjunction with all the other requests you have submitted, is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the Council’s operations and is therefore manifestly unreasonable.
A number of S Smith’s requests have been deemed ‘vexatious’ and some users have taken note. “Having studied these boards recently, it seems that anything councils want to hide they simply reject as vexatious,” user Wilson, A opined on 18th June 2009.
But lets not pass Kent County Council off as needlessly obstructive just yet.
In an FoI request dated 3rd March 2009, WDTK user R Soles asked the following question: “Can you please confirm if Kent County Council has a policy of being open, honest, transparent and accountable.”
The council dutifully responded with links to its constitution, communcations policy and ‘Customer Care Charter’, but this did not satisfy Mr / Mrs Soles.
“It appears clear from Kent County Council’s lack of direct answers to many FOI requests including this one,” Soles wrote back, “that they are not in the business of providing transparent, open, honest, accountable Public Services ; more concerned with avoidance tactics.” (sics all over the place).
At this point, KCC’s senior solicitor Mark Radford observes that public sector organisations are not required to respond to FoI requests made using pseudonyms. “There is reason to doubt that R Soles is your true name and that you may in fact be using a ‘humorous pseudonym’,” Radford wrote.
Ever diligent, however, Radford included this laudable nugget of local government diplomacy:
“If your name really is R Soles I apologise for this inconvenience in advance.”
“One could also say the same about your name,” replied Soles, bizarrely, before accusing him of having attended a training course by Common Purpose, a nauseating set of management jargon peddlers seen by some YouTube users as the harbingers of the apocalypse.
Serious conclusion: Genuinely vexatious FoI requests like those provided by R Soles put public bodies on the defensive, so that when difficult questions are to arise they will immediately retreat behind Section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act
Comedy conclusion: KCC had the last laugh in this particular exchange, when Soles’ last missive demanding that it “state under whose authority kent county council has the right to decide what evidence they will except in order to comply by law with a FOI request?” was met with an out of office reply directing them to Radford’s secretary Kim Ogle.
Are “humorous pseudonyms” at play in Kent County Council iteslf, or can Mark Radford confirm Ogle’s his secretary?