When you send a Freedom of Information request through a site like WhatDoTheyKnow, do authorities respond in the same way as to a request sent via email? Our latest research would suggest that there is a small but crucial difference.
Just one channel
We provide Alaveteli, the software that underpins Freedom of Information sites all over the world — but of course, those sites are not the only means by which citizens can make FOI requests.
A Right to Know means that citizens can request information via whatever means are allowed in their country’s law: traditionally, that’s by post, but many authorities will accept requests via phone and email, and there are even examples of responses being obtained via Twitter.
So Alaveteli sites make a complicated and potentially intimidating process easier, and they also have the benefit that they publish requests and responses online for everyone to access, but they represent just one channel via which information can be accessed.
Something that we’ve often wondered is whether there is any difference in the way authorities respond via an Alaveteli site, or via the email system.
So mySociety’s research team got together with Informace Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site, to conduct an experiment.
The question under scrutiny: Are Freedom of Information requests sent via email treated the same as requests sent via an Alaveteli platform that allows citizens to make requests via an online portal, and publishes all responses publicly on its website?
We wanted to know:
- Would responses be the same?
- Would it take the same amount of time to get a response?
- Would you overall get a better or worse service via Informace Pro Všechny than via a personal email address?
These questions are especially pertinent to us because we want to make sure that our technology is working for people, rather than against them. At the very least, we want to ensure that using an Alaveteli platform such as Informace Pro Všechny will provide the same level of service that citizens can expect from using private email addresses. If using a site such as this does not result in the same level of service, then this would be an issue we as civic technologists should know about and try to address.
Our experiment was simple. We sampled 100 public authorities (town halls and ministries), and sent them two separate requests via a private email address, and two separate requests via Informace Pro Všechny.
The information requested was deliberately simple and uncontroversial, and clearly subject to Freedom of Information law, to avoid any deliberation by public authorities about whether to release it.
The good news is that using both channels of communication — individual email or Informace Pro Všechny — results in the same quality of response. Neither method of communication was found to be inferior to the other with regard to how substantive the response was.
The even better news is that use of Informace Pro Všechny resulted in faster responses to requests. Whereas private email requests were provided on average within 9.2 days, responses to requests sent via Informace Pro Všechny took only 7.2 days – two days quicker.
This is a positive outcome that was by no means certain, and at this point we are unable to fully explain it. It is possible that public authorities were quicker to respond to Informace Pro Všechny requests because these were known to be published online, and therefore, a slower response would be more noticeable.
Or the quicker response rate via the site could be attributed to the fact that its users are known to be politically active, politically interested or involved in journalism: a quicker response might reduce negative coverage or feedback. Or it could be that other external factors we were unaware of influenced the result.
More research would be required to determine the causes of these differences, however, at this point, we are simply delighted to say that Informace Pro Všechny is currently the quickest tool to use to request information from government in the Czech Republic.
Image: A pre-Czechoslovakia dissolution stamp, from 1966. Most FOI responses are much quicker than this, by post or other means. Karen Horton (CC)
This article purports to discuss the difference between making requests via the postal service and via an FOI website and the entire first half of the article is couched in those terms.
Then the second half discusses the actual research, which turns out to be comparing requests made by private email with those made via an FOI website, which is an entirely different thing.
Why not just say from the start what it is that you’re comparing?
Eek, thanks Tom! Internal mix-up 🙂 We’ve altered the post now – it does, as you noticed, refer to emails not post.
I think you’d also need to do some analysis of the questions. It wouldn’t surprise me if questions submitted via an FOI web site were of a general better quality than those submitted in private emails and were easier to answer.
That’s something we’d like to look at, but would require disclosure of requests by the authorities, so could be a little difficult. It’s something we may well look at in future!