I pondered this question recently when the Information Commissioner's office deployed a tactic which is more often used by the Local Government Ombudsman. It's a very simple tactic often used by the LGO to derail a complaint and works like this.
- A council does something which causes a member of the public to complain.
- The council defend their position and refuse to admit they are wrong.
- The complainant considers the councils defence to their complaint has no merit so they complain to the LGO a 'so called independent' watchdog.
- The LGO starts to investigate the complaint.
- After many many months of delay the LGO reports back to the complainant arguing that because the council has, at the 11th hour, substituted a completely different defence, one up to that point unknown to the complainant, but curiously acceptable to the LGO, they are considering terminating their investigation into the complaint.
- If the 11th hour change of defence was not enough to wrong foot the complainant the LGO adds even more pressure to the complainant by requesting a response to this unknown and new defence within days.
- The final straw comes when the complainant realises that the LGO has not only accepted a 'new' defence it's a defence to a completely different complaint to the one they submitted many months earlier.
This is the point at which complaints must choose to
- Accept the bullshit and either agree to withdraw their complaint or accept the LGO's decision to terminate the investigation.
- See through the charade and at least put up a fight.
- Expose this practice for what it is. [Partly what this blog was started for.]
Whilst I have experienced this tactic many times with the Local Government Ombudsman, I have until recently never experienced it with any of the other 'so called' independent watchdogs. However, now I have, it gives me an ideal example to demonstrate that other 'so called' independent watchdogs also use this tactic. Here is my story,
On the 9th October 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Brent Borough Council.
On the 12th October I received the following response to my FOI request.
'Further to our earlier correspondence I am writing to advise that the Council is in a position to provide information in response to your request on being provided with the alternative address for correspondence requested.'
On the 13th October I responded with the following
You have a return address for your response please comply with the FOI act and deliver the response to the address given.
And also submitted a request for an internal review.
On the 2nd February 2010 I received the outcome of the internal review.
Which in part states
Having reviewed your request and our request for you to supply us with an alternative address to send your information, I have concluded that your internal review has not been upheld.
The council has not and is not refusing to respond to your request which it accepts is valid and is ready to supply the information requested.
The first thing to note is that they took an excessive amount of time in which to carry out the internal review which in itself is a breach of the FOI Act. However, the key points at this time are
Brent accept my FOI request was valid and that it had the information I requested and was ready to send it.
It is quite clear at this point in time that the only reason Brent would not supply the information was because I had used the What Do They Know website to submit my request and they were concerned that their response would be published for all to read. Something many councils detest.
As a result on the 2nd February I submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner base on the fact that Brent would not send me the information unless I gave them a different email address to the one in which I used to submit my request.
On the 12th February 2010 I received acknowledgement that my complaint had been allocated to a case resolution team.
I received an update from the case resolution team on the 28th April 2010.
However, what shocked me to the core was the email I received from the case resolution team on the 21st May 2010 and it brought memories flooding back of what the LGO had done to me on numerous occasions over the last 13 years.
[Many others have also contacted me over the years and told me that they have also experienced this devious tactic used by the LGO.]
Yet again at the 11th hour, 7 months after Brent stated that the only reason for not sending the information was because it would be published on the What Do They Know website, over 3 months since the ICO started their investigation into my complaint, Brent introduced a different reason for not giving me the information. A reason they had never used before and one on which my complaint to the ICO was not, and could not have been based.
Brent now suggested that it would be too expensive to gather the information I requested and asked to be exempted on costs grounds.
However, Brent did give the case resolution team the information informally which the case resolution team included in their email to me. In which they also suggested that now had the information I should consider withdrawing my complaint.
Accordingly I was in the curious position of the case resolution team appearing to ignore my original complaint altogether, whist allowing Brent to introduce an altogether different defence to something I didn't even complain about.
On top of that we appear to have the case resolution team being used by Brent as a post boy to informally pass on the information to a different email address than that I had given Brent in an attempt to circumvent my actual complaint.
I refused to withdraw my complaint which was about Brent's refusal to send the information to the address given in the request. The fact that the case resolution team has now given me the information I wanted by the back door does not resolve my complaint against Brent. All it does it prove that they are not the 'so called' independent watchdog many people think they are. Which is a shame because up until now I wouldn't have put them in the same class as the LGO.
Read more on the What Do They Know website.
This article will be updated