Frag den Staat – experiences from Germany

I recently interviewed Daniel Dietrich and Stefan Wehrmeyer of Open Knowledge Foundation Germany.  Back in August 2011 they launched Frag den Staat, a website inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.  We talked about launching with media coverage and the challenges it brings, relationships with officials, and the challenges of implementing multiple jurisdictions within a single federated country.

Frag den Staat screenshotDaniel’s role is as activist and troublemaker, creating connections and ensuring the site launched with lots of support. Stefan wrote the software, acted as project manager, and continues to carry out all the maintenance and development.

Seb: How did the launch go?

Daniel:  I have to say we jumped into something that we didn’t entirely understand and were sailing blind a little bit.  In the first few days, we were surprised by the number of requests.

Stefan: We launched with a press conference that went really well: we got coverage on a couple of TV stations, and had a few journalists who are supporters of our work that wrote about it.  But the problem was that the TV coverage angle was “Here’s a website where you can ask anything of your government!”

Daniel: This meant we quickly got loads of requests like “what’s the quickest way to get to the library from the train station?”

Stefan: Then, when I was doing radio interviews about the website, the interviewer would quote some of these requests, and challenge me that they weren’t appropriate!

Daniel: We had to deal with this problem quite quickly.  We started using comments on requests to say to people “thanks for using the site, but this is probably the wrong place to ask that question”; and we introduced a new, obvious button that we showed users before they made a request: they have to click to confirm that they really mean to file a freedom of information request.  Finally, Stefan introduced a feature that allowed us to tag these non-FOI requests, and then hide them from the home page.

Stefan: Because of the way the legislation works in Germany, we have to be careful not to be seen to moderate or censor messages — if we do that, we may be deemed legally responsible for them.  So we just hide the less appropriate messages from the front page.

I think we might be able to remove the filters and the “are you sure” button soon, because the traffic is now stabilised after the initial launch.

Seb: So it sounds like you had a really impressive media campaign to back your launch?

Stefan: Thanks to Daniel, we have had lots of support from partners like Transparency International Germany and other important organisations who have big press mailing lists and newsletters.

We managed to tie the launch into some current affairs.  At the time there was a controversy about Germany selling tanks to Saudi Arabia, which had been agreed at some secret government meeting. So we made one of our first requests relating to this and used it as our “scoop”, saying that people should request more information like this.  The request was refused, of course!

Daniel: We also tried to get buy-in from the goverment and partners well before the platform was launched.  We have tried all along to keep close relations with the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the Open Government programme in Germany.

Stefan: Before the launch, we went to lots of meetings where FOI was discussed, and in fact we announced the platform when sitting right next to the Commissioner for Freedom of Information, which meant the media interviewed both us and the Commissioner at the same time!

Daniel: The Ministry of the Interior’s attitude when we launched was something like “it’s a nice idea, but it won’t work”.

Stefan: One of their concerns is that answering by email isn’t using the proper legal process.  We were also advised that people using our platform should supply their postal address along with their email address, because the Ministry don’t consider the request to be from a legal person otherwise.  The Commissioner for Freedom of Information, however, really likes the site and is really supporting us.  He loves the fact there is a single place recording all of the correspondence relating to a request.

Seb: In Alaveteli, our philosophy is “implement as if the law is how it should be, not how it currently is”.

Stefan: Yes, and the problem is that our legislation is quite old and rusty.  We might well hide this postal address feature, or at least talk again to our lawyers about it.

Seb: What would you differently if you were starting again?

Daniel: In the beginning, I think we wasted a lot of time talking about it.  Then when we started building the site, we hardly talked about it at all!  We should have got started with code much earlier, instead of talking, but then spent more time with the prototype thinking about how we would run it, and how we would build the community.  It’s Stefan’s baby and he has to do a lot of the work himself.

Stefan: At the beginning it was exhausting, with managing the website and doing lots of radio interviews, but it was also very rewarding.  Next time, I would spend more time on the presentation of the website.  For example, I’d like to add a small video with people explaining the site and how it works, to help people who absorb information better that way.  Writing the website from scratch went  well, but I wish Alaveteli had got funding earlier so we could have considered that platform too.

I would recommend to anyone else thinking of such a project that they should find supporting organisations.  Our partners did all the press stuff in the beginning; I have no idea how to organise a press conference!

Seb: What are your plans for the future?

Daniel: We have lots of individual Freedom of Information laws at a federal state level.  We want to cover all of these areas and laws as well.  We’ve also been talking with the City of Bremen (which is the smallest state in Germany and has the most advanced FOI legislation) about a pilot cooperation programme to incorporate the platform into their administrative backend.

Stefan: The task of integrating state-level bodies is really big.  Not only do we have to add all the local ministries, but we also have to support different laws.  For example, in Berlin you have to pay two Euros per attachment that they send you.

We have a meeting next week with our little  community to discus a “highlighted request” feature for the front page.  We need to write more blog posts and more editorial generally, because in the end, even if the requests are cool, we need to provide more context to explain what they’re about.  In particular, we want to help reveal interesting information to journalists, because most of the journalists we know aren’t investigative. They need to go from an idea to filing a story within a few hours.

Seb: So,  you feel the website has been successful overall?

Daniel: It started a little chaotically, but apart from that, I think it’s been a successful beginning.  But what really matters is what happens next.  If we see a lot of good requests, and can maintain a certain quality in them, then that would be a sign that the site fills a gap.