Column: Ed Greenwood


The FOIbles of Transparency…

Like many postgrad courses, mine is not fully funded, and in order to ensure a constant supply of all my accustomed luxuries (wine, tickets to see Morrissey, not being homeless) I’ve had to get a job. Well, I’ve technically got three, but at two of them I am nowhere near pulling my weight. That’s what you get for giving me a zero-hours contract, fools – thanks for bulking up my CV! And please don’t fire me if you read this.

The job where I actually have to turn up early, strap myself to the desk and clock off to get home in time for The Simpsons like an obedient beast of burden involves me processing complaints for the neighbouring local authority. Crucially, I also have to help process Freedom of Information requests. The variety and weirdness of these requests more than compensates for the number of complaints about bins we receive.  “Are there any helipads in the authority?” “Please list all the empty and disused buildings in your area.” “How many people in you authority have a license to handle venomous spiders?” Who are these people – and why do they want to know? What are they planning? But we have to answer, and it’s beautiful. Only people of “Head of Service” or higher level are meant to send the responses to these FOIs, so on a daily basis some of the highest-paid and respected servants of local government have to spend hours every week dutifully researching and replying to FOI requests within the 20 working day limit enshrined in law. If we have the information recorded we have to give it – all of it – unless some specific exemptions apply. Even if we don’t have the information we’d still need to give a response to say as much, which is particularly entertaining in requests such as the classic, “In your local authority, how many unrecorded and unknown immigrants are there?” I wanted our response to just be a print-out of an Easter Island statue staring out of the page in stoic disappointment.

Of course, this has given some of the more lazy and cunning individuals of world a new tool: research done for you in just a few weeks with nothing more required on your part than sending an email. We’ve had students asking us questions under FOI which are unashamedly asking us to give them statistics for use in their academic work. Companies use FOI to ask how recruitment, procurement and finance are run (and when the contracts expire) and how to win contracts. A journalist asked us “How many times has 50 Shades of Grey been lent from libraries in your local authority?” This raised a few eyebrows in the office, but the truly sad thing was that this was far from a purely whimsical or lovably cheeky request. It was clearly just a journalist who was going to write some fluff on a trending topic who needed some stats for content. Even the newspaper you’re reading now has done this. In the past, York Vision and other campus newspapers have asked the University questions such as, “Does the university have a plan in case of a zombie apocalypse?” The answer was obviously no. That didn’t stop the paper in question publishing this non-story: it was content all the same.

I heard – from someone who probably isn’t best placed to know for sure, but anyway – that campus newspapers were discouraged from using this technique anymore. The reason wasn’t because the truths they would uncover by doing so would be so shocking as to shake the institution to its very core. It’s because it is very often a complete waste of time and money. If you ask, we must answer, fully and correctly and to a definite deadline. This is a time when central government funding has been almost completely cut for both the university and the local authority (which soon needs to become “self-sufficient,” meaning from what I understand that child and adult social care, road maintenance, waste collection and dozens of other essential services need to be paid for by just NNDR and Council Tax, which is absolutely mental). Jobs are being cut left right and centre, but we still have to answer these fatuous requests. I’m not complaining. I think that’s the way it should be. Information should be free, public bodies should be transparent, and above all I really need that job because I’ve probably lost the other two now.


Nibs have so little space that you don’t have room to argue a position through. Therefore, here’s the traditional list of unsubstantiated and completely true assertions.

The American version of The Office is more like a traditional sitcom than the British original because the characters and plots are more cartoonish, more empathetic and less real. Dwight does not exist; Gareth does.  The British one is too real and therefore uncomfortable, and that’s why it’s brilliant.

It was harsh that Nouse was penalised the way it was.

This guy is certainly handling some kind of spider.
This guy is certainly handling some kind of spider.

As it happens, no one in the local authority referred to in the article above does have a license to hold venomous spiders, but somehow this information doesn’t comfort me as much as I’d like.

Valentine’s Day is a ridiculous cynical non-tradition and if you’re in a relationship you absolutely have to celebrate it.

If you were actually offered a fish caught from the campus lake for dinner no one on earth would eat it.

I can’t believe you’re not fired yet.

A recent York alumnus who is making a name for himself at the local comedy circuit in York, Leeds and Manchester with a parody motivational speaker character has applied to appear on the next series of the BBC’s The Apprentice, using in the application, among others, the phrase: “If Alan Sugar hired me, people would think he was so wise they would think he was an owl.” He got invited to interview. And got through the first stage of interviews. And the second stage of interviews. This may or may not be the best thing that has ever happened, but I would certainly advise anyone who is graduating this year with no definite career prospects to apply for The Apprentice because you apparently have as good a chance of getting that gig as you have of getting any other job.