Thursday, 16 August 2012

Why Barnet Hides Behind FOI Act in the Battle for Transparency

Barnet Council have produced a chart, commonly known as the “Graph of Doom”, which purports to show how, over the next 20 years, children services and adult social care will eat up every single penny of Council Tax revenue. I don’t like the title of this chart as it is hugely pejorative and demeaning to those in receipt of care. However, this chart has been widely publicised and reproduced in the national press. It appears to underpin some of the key decisions Barnet are taking to change how the most vulnerable receive care in our borough so I thought it was only reasonable to ask a little more detail about the actual figures and assumptions used.

My first port of call was Person One at Barnet Council who prepared the chart. “Could I get a quick briefing on the figures in the chart and what assumptions were used?” Person One quickly sidestepped this request suggesting I contact Person Two at the Council. A polite email to Person Two; 

“I would like to understand the figures that were used to compile this graph. Please could you provide me with the raw data and the assumptions which underpin this graph. I am more than happy to come to NLBP if it is easier for you to explain the assumptions in person. Thanks for your assistance and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Person Two then sent a polite response saying I would have to submit my request as an FOI enquiry but that it should not take long as much of the information was ready to hand. Ok, so I submit an FOI request. Knowing how literally these requests are taken I was very clear to spell out exactly what I wanted which included the data for each year shown in the graph. I thought that it would be more accurate rather than trying to measure off the scale on the chart especially when the numbers involve hundreds of millions of pounds.

Ten days later Person Three at Barnet Council sends me a response with quite a few of the questions answered but only the data for the first year of the chart and not the other 19 years. I sent a polite response back to Person Three saying they may have simply overlooked the figures in error as they had only sent me one year of data. I helpfully pointed out that if the chart was created using Excel that simply right clicking ‘add data labels’ would give me all the information I needed.

A few days later I received an email from Person Four at Barnet Council noting that I had asked for an “Internal Review” and that this would take place in the next 20 working days. I swiftly replied to Person Four stating that all I wanted was the data I had originally asked for which I was told was at everyone’s fingertips.  One week later Person Four replied again stating that as I was not satisfied with the response it had to be treated as an internal review.

I am still waiting for the information I originally requested. Not difficult information, not time consuming to gather; data that is sat on someone’s laptop. This could have easily been resolved with a ten minute meeting at the Council offices but it has now involved four officers and a month later I still don’t have the data.

Barnet Council talks about efficiency and about saving money. It talks about transparency. However the reality is Barnet does its best to be obstructive and unhelpful.  Key policy decisions are being made on the basis of the conclusion from this chart yet we aren’t even allowed to know the figures. I will be writing further about this chart which I believe is both misleading and divisive but what I find most puzzling is why so many local and national politicians have accepted this chart without every asking to see the basis of the figures and assumptions. I am the only person who checks what they are told before making key decisions?

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