Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zombie attack!

I have every belief that the people who drafted the Freedom of Information Act in the UK had the best interests of the British public uppermost in their minds, and were seized of a genuine desire to make government more transparent, accountable and democratic. The Freedom of Information Act — the FOI for short — sounds noble and simple enough: anybody can submit to a government body a request for information and can expect a reply in twenty days. And some important information has come to light, such as the revelation that 74 Metropolitan Police officers have criminal records.

But things don’t always work out in a country like Britain, where a favourite pastime is making civil servants run around in circles. They’re civil servants, you see, and servants are people you give nonsensical orders to in order to watch them break into a sweat. Finished painting that room yellow, have you? Well, I’ve changed my mind — I’d like it green. Nothing pleases a British citizen more than watching fussy little men in old-fashioned suits and round glasses metaphorically jumping through hoops, and that’s what’s been happening. The latest one to hit the headlines was a certain Robert Ainsley, who asked Leicester City Council what preparations they had in the event of a zombie invasion. The Council has been forced to admit that they don’t have any specific plans, prompting a crowd of people with nothing better to do at the weekend to mount a full-scale zombie attach on the city. Other requests included somebody with a taste for men in uniform wanting to know how many male police officers in Hampshire were bachelors, a question about the number of sexual acts performed on Welsh sheep, and a retired sailor looking for an old Navy recipe for sautéed kidneys and curried meatballs.

Commenting on this, stand-up comedian John Holmes said that one of the worst offenders was The Daily Express newspaper, and went on to calculate how many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been spent by councils and government departments answering frivolous FOI requests. The inference was clear: our money being wasted to provide a tabloid newspaper with non-stories designed to enrage the kind of people who would be lost without the little ritual of choking on their breakfast cereal every morning (the average Daily Express ready, in fact).

Actually, there are two reasons to take Holmes’s comments with a truckload of salt. The first is that having got his audience worked up about a paper that exists to get people worked up, he cheerfully went on to say that he had put in his own requests and was waiting to hear, for example, what the combined lengths of all his local council workers laid end to end would be. Even if that was a joke, it doesn’t work because it asks the audience to believe that he is a hypocrite and will waste taxpayers’ money in order to get self-righteous about the waste of taxpayers’ money.

The second reason is that Holmes’s calculations assumed that each request would be given a single person’s undivided and active attention for the whole twenty days, which of course isn’t what happens: for most of that time, it’s sitting in various in-trays and out-trays. Besides, an FOI request can be refused if it would cost more than £600 to comply with. That’s designed specifically to allow requests that just require a bit of sniffing around in the archives, while relieving agencies of the legal requirement to take exact measurements of hundreds of staff.

And when you look at these frivolous requests, they’re not so bad after all. Given a properly-designed database, it’s the work of a few minutes to find out how many police officers within a certain age range are currently single and how many arrests were made for bestiality in a given area. A zombie attack might be a remote possibility (well, pretty much impossible, actually), but actually the wider question of how well local governments are prepared for a completely unexpected threat — scientists did recently use a hypothetical zombie attack as a model for an outbreak of a highly virulent disease — is a good one. If, eleven years ago, you’d asked the government of New York City how they’d respond if a jet airliner crashed into a skyscraper, you might have been laughed at, too.

Besides, it gave some people the excuse for a bit of good-natured fun, not to mention some fresh air.

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