The FOI request I was especially concerned about at that time related to the Medway Test debacle of September 2011. This is a subject on which I have written much elsewhere. In fact, as my article explains, the very day after I published the original item, Medway Council grudgingly responded 43 days after the original enquiry, a month after the required reply date and presumably only as a response to my article. As it happens, the response was to refuse me the information I had requested which eventually led to a complaint to the Information Commissioner. Medway Council have used every device possible to delay proceedings, probably on the basis that by the time I got the information it would be history. The Information Commissioner upheld part of my Complaint on 19th March 2013, just 17 months after my original enquiry, although I am still waiting for the required information to which I am entitled, which is readily available, the Council having another 35 calendar days to provide it. Promises to be good, especially as further documents I have received during this process reveal further major faults in the procedures at the time, not admitted by Medway Council.
However, this item is about delays in FOI requests. Another part of the Information Commissioner’s findings was that Medway Council is in breach of Section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act in failing to comply with my request within the statutory time for compliance and has recorded this fact.
Medway Council’s failings on this FOI request are sadly typical of their current practices. I make a number of FOI requests through the year, relating to important school issues, many of which I publish on this website, others relating to my professional activities. Back in December last year I was so frustrated by repeated Medway Council failures to comply with regulations regarding replies, that I placed an FOI asking for some details. Oddly, the reply came in time. Between 10th December 2012 and January 22nd 2013, 9 FOI requests had been made to the Council in total. None of the nine had been complied with within the statutory time limits all because of “staff shortages”. During that period there had been 29 absences by the staff responsible for FOI requests. And finally, due to changes in the computer software, automated responses to requests were no longer made. This last is a shocker, as some of my problems stem from not knowing what is happening with regard to applications (see below). However, it clearly did produce a brief change. The www.whatdotheyknow.com website is a way to easily file FOI requests which are then published on the website, and makes interesting reading for those like me who like to know what is going on. This shows that from the 17th of January the automated system that had been scrapped suddenly came into life again! I like to believe this was down to my Request. The Medway page of that website is littered with apologies for not replying, or reports of long overdue failures to reply. By contrast, in Kent all requests are answered in time.
The following may be a record, but I wouldn’t bet on it. On 19th December 2012, I filed a request asking for numbers of children in each Year Group in Medway schools, information that should be readily available (it is in Kent). This is important to me as parents regularly contact me asking about chances of transferring to another school and this data helps me advise them on likelihoods. Of course, at this time there was no automated response system in place. On 18th January, I politely asked what had happened to my request – no answer. Due to pressure of work, I didn’t get round to chasing it until 28th March when I asked again, mentioning the Information Commissioner decision in an effort to shame them. Silence. I have today (April 11th) sent the following email: “As you will know from my email of 28th March I am afraid I very reasonably have no faith in Medway Council’s FOI process. Your failure to have software that acknowledges receipt of emails (as confirmed by Medway Council in an FOI reply) followed by repeated failures to deliver information on time, would leave me astonished at Medway Council’s incompetence, were it not for my growing suspicion this is a deliberate policy not to implement Medway Council’s ‘Serving you’ slogan. Perhaps you could investigate why my, getting ever less politely, repeated request below has still not been acknowledged. Or even apologised for. Or even answered”. I await a response but am not holding my breath. Coming up to four months and counting. UPDATE - three hours after this appeared. Another amazing coincidence. I have two responses! The first is an apology. Apparently 'Customer First', the department that receives enquiries didn't pass it on to the 'Customer Relation Team'! It make son ewonder what the role is of 'Customer First' as this si not th efirst time this has happened. No explanation as to where my subsequent emails went. I can have the information in 20 working days. The second, 17 minutes later, was an automated response to my email telling me I could have an anwer to my FOI request within 20 days! Hopeless. UPDATE 15th April: Amazingy, and in another of those wonderful coincidences so beloved of Medway Council the information turned up today, just two working days after I fired my latest missive. But clearly, I was mistaken in believing there had been a problem, as this was stated to be a reply to a request of April 11th not, as I had foolishly thought, a request of 19th December.
In the meantime, on 25th March I filed another request asking for primary school transfer figures, important data which again I shall publish in brief and use in my work. Two days ago on 9th April I received a personalised email out of the blue, apologising for “the delay in contacting me” (whatever happened to the briefly working automated system). The email informed me that the response would follow within another 20 days, although it should have dated from the time of my original request. I challenged this and the date has now been rectified.
You may wonder why I have gone to these lengths, but this sequence of events and failure to comply with statutory requests is surely a statement that there is something very wrong in this department, and I am left wondering, as so often before, if Medway Council understands its own slogan “Serving You”! Certainly, my FOI discovery of only 9 requests over a six week period (even if it includes Christmas) belies one of the periodic excuses of “the delay is due to staff absences and the high number of requests”. Another of my discoveries on this theme was that four weeks previously the Medway Messenger had published another article on precisely this issue. What can one say! Is anyone in charge of Medway Council? Is there any accountability? Can someone explain to me what the slogan 'Serving You' actually means?