Author: Phil Rodgers
What NEED does this meet?
UK Freedom of Information legislation allows individuals to make requests for information to various public organisations and receive responses. However, there is a bewildering array of different organisations that you can make requests to, and there is no straightforward way of finding out what requests others have made, and what response they received. This proposal is to apply social networking to freedom of information.
What is the APPROACH?
Build a website that allows users to:
– send an FoI request to a particular organisation, along the lines of WriteToThem
– record the request they’ve sent
– record the response they receive
– search/browse, comment on and tag other requests and responses
– contact others interested in particular issues
One way to populate this might be to send FoI requests to various organisations asking them what FoI requests they’ve received and what the responses were. If it achieved critical mass, then FoI requestors might ask the organisations to post their responses directly to the system.
There might be some copyright issues, but that hasn’t stopped you building TheyWorkForYou.
What are the BENEFITS to people?
This would apply the benefits of social networking to freedom of information, promote greater transparency, and generally allow people to find out interesting things more easily. FoI is an important part of democracy, and something like this could make it much more effective.
What is the COMPETITION?
There doesn’t appear to be anything similar at the moment. If there were multiple such systems, they would probably tend to merge. This seems a good fit for MySociety because it’s all about enabling engagement with government and public organisations.
What BUDGETS & LOGISTICS are required?
Many of the issues involved are already reasonably well understood. It probably wouldn’t be more than an order of magnitude more complex than WriteToThem. A major challenge would be posting the responses, but users could help with this, and in the longer term organisations might be trained to do it directly.
Seems to be a popular suggestion. See Francis’ earlier proposal for a Freedom of Information Archive.
Hah, I hadn’t spotted that – count this one as another vote in favour of that, then!
As well as being a route for submitting FoI requests it could also be a repository for FoI reqests that have been submitted and answered (or not) through other routes such as direct email.
Neat, and probably workable (which I don’t believe is the case for some other proposals).
which has the more added value in this proposal for the user – the publishing of requests or the publishing of replies ?
i suspect that officials in government depts would welcome something that prevents people asking for the same information repeatedly. so that might work for them
but they woudl find the standardised (as opposed to on request) publishing of the responses to citizens more uncomfortable. however it is more or less standard practice to publish responses to journalists. journalists don’t always like this as it dilutes their ‘scoops’
central govt Depts woudl look to DCA for guidance. the rest of the public sector would probably do their own thing. the information commissioner’s view would be important too
a technical point – almost all public records prior to the past couple of years are on paper (for good reasons). so you would need mighty storage to cope with lots of .tiff files that public sector scanners tend to produce if peoepl can be persuaded to scan things in. one route i have used before is to inists on fax – which mysociety is well versed in – so requesting a fax response from the public sector and having a big fax receive bucket is an easy work around
I stumbled on this site today after struggling to find my complaint under the FoI in the latest list published by Steve Wood at foia.blogspot.com. Perhaps, a good starting point would be to prime the web site with the latest ICO caseload.
The thing that I would value most from such a site is being able to contact others with similar interests. There would be privacy issues which could be addressed by replying through the website rather than publishing emails.
I think that this is an excellent idea. I’ve been thinking of something similar for a while – one that would involve these components but also one small additional feature (one that – I think – would add very little to the complexity). It would work as follows:
1. Information requester uses the site to send the request – the exact form of words – because FOI requests have to be very carefully worded in order to get valuable information in the response.
2. Information requester also (on a field in the site) says what it is they are actually trying to find out – what the information is, and why it’s being requested in the form that it is being requested.
3. The request is sent from the site by e-mail will a hyperlink and a short message. This reads as follows:
“I’m sending this request for information through the foirequests website. I have posted the request where the public can see it. I have also explained what I am trying to acheive with this request – what information that I want and why I am requesting it – on the FOI Requests website. You can read it here”
The respondant will be asked to reply using a page on the site that will forward the response to the requester and publish it on the site at the same time. If they don’t and chose to reply by e-mail or letter, then the requester will be able to type / paste their reply into the site and mark the response as ‘Would not provide reply in the requested format’
Visitors to the site would then be able to comment on how far the response reflected official legalistic mendacity and give it marks out of ten. And an award ceremony could be held each year for the most obtuse institution.
I think that this would encourage officialdom to provide fuller and more candid responses rather than blandly sending meaningless documents in response to requests.
I’m very much in favour of this.
Excellent idea and would indeed promote greater Public Sector transparency which is notable for its absence.
A further point about copyright, particularly in the light of Chris Lightfoot’s posting here: http://www.ex-parrot.com/~chris/wwwitter/20060712-information_wants_to_be_free_but_the_foreign_office_doesnt.html
It seems to me to be entirely mad for a respondant to use copyright law to prevent the publication of an FoI response (though this is just what’s happened in the case that Chris cites) since anyone can ask for the same documents by submitting a new FoI request. In such cases, perhaps a YouAskThem system should provide a one-click mechanism to fire off such a request, of the form “What was the response you provided to X’s FoI request of dd/mm/yyyy?” With luck, the respondant organisation would soon come to its senses and allow publication of the response. Even if it didn’t, the system would still provide some benefit by allowing social networking of those who asked for the response.
I had a similar idea which could be incorporated into this: An email gateway which archives FOI requests.
For users they send a normal FOI request by email but add foiarchive.org.uk to the end.
So instead of sending a FOI request to firstname.lastname@example.org you send it to email@example.com. The gateway stores the email and forwards it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The forwarded email would have the from modified so that responses would be sent to the gatway too. message-ids would be used to keep the emails linked.
As described above the record of the requests and responses would be searchable using a web interface.
I like this because for a tiny amount of extra effort (adding foiarchive.org.uk to an email address) people can make their FOI request s public.
However, it may be that knowing who to send the email to in the first place is the bigger issue.
Could you not publish central government responses under Crown copyright?
Neat and probably workable which I don’t believe is the case for some other proposals.
Just to say, this site is now live and you can find it at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com