Member of the National Secular Society Robert Christian used mySociety’s Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow to ask all 227 English NHS “provider” Trusts about how much they spend on chaplaincy.
On the 28th of February 2011 the results of his research were published in an article on the National Secular Society website (full report [PDF]). He found that £29m of NHS funds were used to pay chaplains in 2009/10 and also observed a wide variation in the amount, as a fraction of total spend, that specific trusts were spending on chaplaincy.
The publication of the research prompted a number of articles in the UK media. eg. (Daily Mail, The Independent, The Mirror).
Mr Christian has commented:
“To have identified the right FOI contact for every provider NHS Trust in England would have been daunting if not impossible. I doubt that my study would ever have got off the ground without WDTK. I particularly valued the way that the site tracks which Trust has and has not yet responded. I liked the capability to thank each FOI lead after they had responded.”
The fact that making requests via WhatDoTheyKnow allowed Mr Christian to cite the source of his raw data was important to him. He added:
“The transparency of the raw data is, I think, one of the main strengths of the WDTK website for three reasons. First, I was able to hyperlink every piece of data back to its source – and that meant that it was easy for colleagues from the NSS to check the accuracy of the data (with so many Trusts a transcription error was always a possibility). Second, it ensured that if anyone had wanted to challenge the accuracy of the data they could be directed to see that the study was simply quoting the Trusts’ own information. Third, it means that the data is there for future reference to see if there are any changes over the coming years.”
mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. We take no view on issues such as how much, if anything, the NHS ought be paying for chaplaincy. However we welcome campaign groups making use of our services.
WhatDoTheyKnow currently has around 2-4 “bulk requests” per month made via its site. At the moment we don’t provide any mechanism to make bulk requests automatically. We are considering adding such a system, for requests which have been sanity checked by the WhatDoTheyKnow team. The provision of such a system would probably be associated with a mechanism for preventing other “bulk requests” from being made without the site administrators’ explicit approval.
Making the requests is only a small part of the work involved in a study such as that carried out by Mr Christian. Chasing public bodies for responses, as well as collating and analysing the information released is likely to be much more time consuming than submitting the requests themselves. This is something Mr Christian agrees with, stating:
“If enquirers are not prepared to individually contact each organisation to ask the question, I would doubt their commitment to retrieve and analyse the information (as that is actually a much bigger task)”.
Clearly any facility for enabling requests to be made in bulk will have to incorporate safeguards to ensure responsible use.
Whereas Mr Christian has been happy to conduct his research in public, and still been able to generate media coverage following publication, we are aware that many campaign groups, and others such as journalists, like to make Freedom of Information requests in private.
Mr Christian has commented on the issue of “scoops” and the effect of conducting his research in public:
“The question of ‘scoops’ is an issue for journalists and in fact this problem did happen in this case. Someone appears to have trawled the WDTK know site and noticed what I was doing. A short piece was run by the Daily Express before we completed and published the study. So clearly this might be an issue. But the risk of a spoiler being run will tend to be low when the number of organisations being contacted is large. This is because the amount of work needed to collate and analyse the data is enormous and so casual trawling will show only that a question is being asked – not what the conclusions are.”
In order to get as great a fraction of the total number of FOI responses available on WhatDoTheyKnow we have also been considering an option for making requests in private, for a fee. The idea would be that once the findings were published then the FOI response could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.
Any views on our ideas for the future and on the way WhatDoTheyKnow has been used for this, and similar, research would be welcome in the comments below.
In common with many FOI Officer colleagues, I am fully supportive of FOI and (perhaps less commonly) the fantastic tool that I think WDTK is. But it has to be highlighted that every public authority is facing increasing volumes of FOI requests. Even the simplest requests take hours of a public authority’s time. If the same request is made to multiple authorities, it is taking up hundreds of hours of time – which then impacts on other public services. Sometimes it can be argued that it will be worth it. But it is essential that any facility introduced to support bulk requests at the very least encourages users to seriously consider the necessity and value of their request against the huge cost of complying with it. The bigger the burden on colleagues from FOI, especially when the value is not apparent, the harder it is for us, as FOI Officers, to embed FOI and open values in our organisations.
Totally agree with FOI Man on every point – including his endorsement of WDTK!
I’d add that I think it’s only fair to try to get some assurance that potential bulk enquirers have done some homework first: is the information they require part of statutory reporting requirements, have they checked “obvious” and usually easy to find documentation like Annual Reports & Accounts, etc. Even the very few minutes it takes for each organisation to issue a Section 21 notice gets expensive in terms of total public resources used when multiplied by hundreds.
I would encourage the WDTK ‘sanity check’ team to try to consult – by telephone or e-mail – a real live FOI officer from a relevant organisation as part of the process. Even better, encourage the potential enquirer to do that before making the request. So, if a bulk request is made to local authorities, talk to an LA FOI officer, if NHS, an NHS person, etc. For a start, that should ensure that the request is being made to the right type of organisation (this seems particularly tricky in NHS owing to frequent restructures – even some MPs who sign FOI request letters apparently do not have any clue how the NHS is structured – and they got voted in to run the country?! – either that, or they don’t actually read the letters their researchers have written on their behalf, who knows.)
The FOI ‘consultant’ should also be able to advise whether information is already published or is likely to be available publically as a ‘matter of course’ and what the enquirer needs to look for – e.g. whether information is likely to be contained in papers published from organisations’ meetings held in public, likely search terms for policies, etc.
Whilst there is no requirement (nor in my opinion should there ever be) for an enquirer to give a motive for their request, I can’t help thinking that there is a public interest argument for an enquirer to give some reasoning to demonstrate the public interest value of a potentially time-consuming bulk request (i.e. not “why they want the information” but “why the information should be made public” – there’s a difference). As a taxpayer, I would like to be convinced that an FOI request that costs thousands – potentially hundreds of thousands – of pounds of public money actually has a serious purpose or value (whether I am personally interested is irrelevant).
(FYI, I’m a former FOI admin, now working in information management generally but posting here in a personal capacity.)
FOI Man, S. Jones,
From your posts I notice that you are or were government employees working in FOI area. I notice that your posts entertain limiting use of access rights. This got me mulling over several thoughts. Ultimately though, my question is: in your government work experience are there employees the exposure to whom would make it easy to ask how government handling of FOIs could be made much more efficient?
“Public records should be organized such that they may be produced within at most a few days of your request. Period.”
Your point, if I understand it correctly, is a valid, and well-rehearsed argument, but you have not addressed the issue raised above. Even if the request is answered within two hours (let alone a few days), by each of, say 300 of the local authorities in England, and say officers time is calculated at £25 per hour, this request will cost the UK tax-payer £15,000. Surely this requires a little thought on the part of the requestor prior to submission, if they have some respect for the spirit of the legislation?
I think WDTK is a fantastic site, and agree that public bodies still have a long way to go to improve their records management, but I think we should all be playing fairly and professionally.
tl;dr – It’s not about limiting rights of access. It’s about reasonable use of public resources and the limits of those resources.
For a start, there are some things that we are not obliged by law to record – or collate – but which are theoretically subject to FOI, because they are not specifically *ex*cluded by FOI.
If a service (for example, buildings maintenance) is part of a contract for £X,000 or even £X,000,000+, it may quite simply be impossible to break down costs of individual items within that service. Clearly, there is a public interest in knowing how much was spent on buildings maintenance as an overhead – and the contract – and its cost and what that cost include, together with as much breakdown as is held – should be supplied in response to an FOI request. But asking specifically how much was spent on lightbulbs as a part of that contract? Highly likely to be information not held. I’ll buy that there’s a public interest value in knowing how many light bulbs are used/replaced in a given time period and how much they cost. BUT – how much resource would it take to collect and record that information and wouldn’t that money be better spent on, oh, actual services perhaps?
This is where the “sanity check” would come in: simply asking one organisation’s FOI officer – or other expert, e.g. someone in the finance team – what level of detail is available/how the system works will give a good insight into what kind of request is reasonable to make to other similar organisations.
There are already well-publicised, loud and frequent complaints about bureaucracy within public sector organisations. Much of this bureaucracy is created by the demands for information from the very media and politicians who complain about it most. Sure, we need to be accountable and transparent, but trying to keep *everything* that anyone could possibly ask for in any format/arrangement is simply not possible. A reader who has a quick look at some of the authorities who publish all their FOI requests/responses online – many NHS organisations do – will see what I mean. Records management systems, however efficient, also have limitations – database field restrictions in accounting systems, categorisation (e.g. we can give you stationery spend, no problem – spend on paperclips only? – not possible), etc.
Having said that, agree that records management in public sector organisations could improve (as could consistency of public sector websites – they’re all different) – but little thought was given to the limitations of existing systems or statutory requirements when FOI was introduced. We’re still playing ‘catch up’ and constant reorganisations of the NHS? – not helping!
“Public records should be organized such that they may be produced within at most a few days of your request. Period.”
Public *records*, yes, absolutely. I note that Ms Wolcott is American. I don’t know about the US, but the definition of public records in the UK is records that we are legally obliged to produce and submit to the Public Records Office – like annual accounts, board papers, etc. These days, most organisations publish those documents on their websites so they would be accessible in the few minutes it takes to google for them.
Records, however, != information. The Information Commissioner Office guidance is quite clear in that the Act refers to information, not records (which by definition are recorded, and therefore can be classed as ‘documentation’ which is what I think the ICO actually says, although ‘records’ could be other formats – audio, etc).
If *information* requested does not exist as a “record” as such, but has to be extracted from a database and/or re-ordered as the enquirer wants it and/or collated from multiple/different records/systems/people – then ‘a few days’ may not be enough. It could well take ‘several’.
As far as people to talk to about “how government handling of FOIs could be made much more efficient?” – ask 10 FOI officers and you’d probably get 11 different answers. FOI man’s blog has some good analysis of some of the issues, both above and below the line.
Public bodies can cut out some of their own work here. If the information is held in a database, and an FOI request for the information would succeed—maybe the whole database could be made public.
This is more easy to do for lightbulbs than, say, medical records. But there are going to be millions of boring, public data entries and files which could be made public from the outset. There will be many more of these than will be condensed into an annual report.
…and, of course, once the data are public then FOI isn’t needed.