It’s often said that the freedom of information system should be ‘applicant-blind’. The identity of the person asking is irrelevant and should make no difference to how the FOI request is treated.
There are actually some exceptions to this (for example, if someone is just repeating the same request they submitted the day before), but as a legal principle it’s broadly correct.
In practice however public authorities often seem very keen to find out details about the people sending them FOIs.
I’ve just obtained from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) some internal emails referring to an FOI request of mine in 2019. That was when I was still at the BBC, and it concerned UK reaction to past EU plans to reform the accountancy industry.
An official in BEIS’s Business Framework Directorate dealing with the request emailed colleagues asking them “to provide any information about this Martin Rosenbaum, previous contact with BEIS etc”.
The FOI team replied: “He is a BBC journalist with interest in politics & current affairs and is a specialist in freedom of information & data. He has been sending in requests from 2010, so he is quite a regular requestor.”
The information about me seems to have been intended for inclusion in the submission to the Deputy Director who had to sign off the FOI response. The eventual submission stated: “Martin Rosenbaum seems to be one of the main representatives of the BBC responsible for obtaining information from BEIS via FOI requests. There is no particular pattern in the subject matter of his requests.” And then it listed the topics of several of my previous requests.
Since BEIS had failed to respond to my request on time, I had sent a chasing email. An FOI unit official then emailed the Business Frameworks team to say:
“I know that we are in the process of opening up these files etc, but I just want to make you aware that the requestor has now written in to complain as he is still waiting for his response and we haven’t even completed a first draft let alone taken this up to be cleared by press office and SPAD … I would like to remind you that Martin Rosenbaum is a journalist – also a frequent FOI requestor, and is aware of the process and complaints procedure, so we really need to try and pull our socks up with this.”
The moral of this story for FOI requesters? If in practice FOI doesn’t operate in an applicant-blind manner, it’s good to have a reputation for knowing when and how to complain and being willing to do so.