It’s a question which periodically arises from our users: why aren’t mySociety (and our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow) subject to the FOI Act?
We can see why this is an obvious question to ask. We run a site which makes it easier for people to uphold their right to information from governmental bodies. We are quick to criticise if we feel that those bodies are not adhering to the law. And if you don’t follow the standards you set for others, you’re a hypocrite, right?
But it’s also a question which fundamentally misunderstands the scope of the law, and the purpose of WhatDoTheyKnow. Since it came up again recently, we thought we’d answer it in a public blog post, so we can link here whenever it gets asked again in the future.
The recurring question
Here’s the question as it was posed in the comments to our recent post on proposed governmental FOI restrictions:
As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Well, what would you like to know?
We invited the commenter to ask us anything he would like to know, and he did so:
Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;
2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Here’s the answer
We responded as follows:
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”
The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.
For example, the development of all our projects1 is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.
Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/our parent organisation UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?’.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.
[Note that, as a charity, our accounts are audited and published in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.]
Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.
We can’t answer that bit, though
We were just about to provide the financial details asked for, when we realised that a couple of our contracts specifically forbade us from doing so.
Unlike us, the local authorities for whom we provide services are subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.
Here’s how we answered the final two questions, then:
a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.
At this juncture, we think it is worth mentioning that the costs for installing and maintaining FixMyStreet for Councils (which are laid out here) are very reasonable when compared to those charged by the giants in local government provision. Seven or eight times more reasonable in some cases.
Additionally, we encourage the use of the Open311 standard, which means that councils aren’t locked in to FixMyStreet forever, or solely. Once the Open311 endpoint is installed, other systems can easily connect.
Ah, but we can help you access that information
b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.
Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:
Annual support fee charged for existing installation:
Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
New work done on existing installation:
Oxfordshire County Council
Warwickshire County Council
Zurich City Council
Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:
Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
So there you go: that’s how we answered this particular request for information. We hope that, in doing so, we’ve also cleared up a few points for others who have wondered the same thing.
1In fact, this should have read ‘nearly all our projects’. Internal codebases (eg for our organisational sites) and some commercial codebases (eg Mapumental) are private.