A volunteer talks at WhatDotheyKnow’s anniversary event

mySociety celebrated the tenth birthday of its Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com at an event in London on the 3rd of July 2018.

I’m Richard Taylor, a member of the volunteer team which administers WhatDoTheyKnow.com on a day to day basis, and I spoke at the event highlighting the broad range of people who have collaborated to make WhatDoTheyKnow a success, and sharing some ideas for the future. Here’s what I said:

I’m someone who wants to see our representative democracy working; that’s why I support what mySociety does; I support giving tools to people to help people engage with our society, how we make decisions about running our society, how we run our public services, our health service, policing, how we organise our cities, how we plan development of new homes and design, or evolve, our transport systems.

I joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a user on the 22nd of July 2008, so almost exactly ten years ago. My first Freedom of Information requests were on policing, for the local Stop and Account policy – as you can see from those kinds of requests I’m keen on transparency and accountability of those we give powers over us. I looked up my early FOI requests and I was rapidly onto my local councillor allowances, details of which weren’t online, and as I’m from Cambridge and there were some very Cambridge requests in there too – on the running of the river – on the regulation of punting – a perennial local issue, and for the terms and charges for grazing on the city’s commons. One of the things I do is campaign for proportional police use of TASERs, I made requests on that subject too.

Within just a few days of joining the site I was sending in lists of public bodies to add to the system; and shortly after that I was invited on to the administration team so I didn’t have to bug developer Francis Irving, or the volunteers who’d already started to help running the site, including John Cross, Alex Skene, Tony Bowden to do things like add new bodies, but could make changes myself.

The volunteer team

Mine is the same route many of our volunteers took to joining the team running the site in the early years; those making lots of good proposals for bodies to add, or making other suggestions were invited to help out. The way we’ve found new volunteers has changed a little over time, and we have had to keep topping up the pool of volunteers as people have moved on. We started to approach users of the site who were making helpful annotations assisting other users, and who were making great use of the site themselves. We found Ganesh Sittampalam and Doug Paulley that way, both of whom have put huge amounts of time into developing the site, the service. Latterly we’ve moved to advertising for new team members and seeking applications from those who want to join us, and that’s brought us some of our current active volunteers, Michael Bimmler, and Kieran Casey-McEvoy for example.

Volunteers have put in an enormous amount of time into running the site. If you put a cash value on that time I’m sure the volunteers would by far be the biggest donor to the site. The site probably wouldn’t exist, and certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form without volunteer input; so many good ideas for websites get built, often with funding to kick them off, but they don’t do what WhatDoTheyKnow has done, and survive, grow, and thrive. Volunteer input has enabled that.

The site certainly has grown and thrived, we now have around seven million users viewing the site per year; according to Google analytics, and 162,000 signed up users. There are approaching half a million request threads on the site now. An interesting aspect of those statistics is the viewing is not focused on a small handful of requests, but rather visitors are spread broadly across the long-tail of requests and released information. In 2016 17% of requests to central government monitored bodies went via our service; but the vast majority of requests, 88%, go to bodies where central government don’t track FOI request statististics.

The volunteers I’ve mentioned already, plus Helen Cross and Alastair Sloan, have put substantial chunks of time into running the site. There are many others too including Rob McDowell, Ben Harris, Gavin Chait and Peter Williams. The volunteers supporting the service have not just come from the volunteer team, the trustees who’re ultimately responsible for the site are volunteers too, ten years ago mySociety was more of a volunteer based organisation than it is now, trustee Amandeep Rehlon was dealing with the finances on a volunteer basis, we’ve had great moral and policy guidance from Manar Hussain and Owen Blacker, and the chair of the trustees, another volunteer, James Cronin.

We have been amazingly lucky with the volunteers we’ve attracted to the administration team. Doug Paulley is an incredible activist and campaigner on disability rights, and so many of the others are legal and information rights experts, activists and campaigners in their own rights.

Volunteers are only part of the story, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, and what we want to do without the institutional support of mySociety, and the organisation’s brilliant staff. When the initial developer and project manager Francis Irving moved on he was succeeded by a series of great lead developers, Robin Houston, Seb Bacon, and now Louise Crow and other staff team members, currently Gareth Rees, Graeme Porteous, Liz Colnan …(See Github for the full list of contributors to the code!) the site is supported by the whole mySociety team, including designers Zarino Zappier and Martin Wright, Abi Broom, who runs the show, Gemma Moulder – events organiser from our perspective, who also works on spreading services based on WhatDoTheyKnow around the world, and mySociety’s communications person Myf Nixon. Thanks are also due to ten years’ of mySociety sysadmins including Sam Pearson,Ian Chard, and in the early days volunteers who’d keep things running, Adam McGreggor, and Alex Smith.

And of course our two leaders, founding director Tom Steinberg and latterly the current Chief Executive Mark Cridge.

A key WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer was Francis Davey who was our volunteer legal advisor for many years. Francis Davey’s top piece of advice which I recall was to avoid court. We’ve pretty much succeeded to date-with that. One of the key roles of the volunteer team is to run what is a relatively legally risky site without getting sued and consequently, probably, taking down not just WhatDoTheyKnow but the rest of mySociety too.

We deal with a lot of defamation claims, personal information takedown requests, and an array of more obscure legal challenges.

As well as trying to avoid getting annihilated via legal processes a key aspect of our approach to running the site is we try our utmost to run it responsibly. What those involved didn’t do is find a legally friendly jurisdiction and anonymously just let the system loose to run unmanaged and unchecked. We’re real accountable people who respond to concerns from all comers, individuals, public bodies, our own users, about what’s published on our site.

What are we doing by running our site?

We’re doing a lot more than just helping users make a request for information to a public body. We’re activists, we’re promoting running our society in a transparent, inclusive, accountable, way, not just by lobbying, making speeches, writing articles, but by doing something, by running our site.

Running our service promotes Freedom of Information and other access to information laws; people come across our site when searching for information they’re seeking; we show what can be obtained by publishing requests and responses; others might find the information they’re seeking directly, or see that they can make a similar request, perhaps adapting a request that’s been made elsewhere to their local public bodies..

Anyone can make a Freedom of Information request by private email to a public body. I’d find that potentially a bit of a selfish action, incurring cost to the public for a response only I might see, but making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow to obtain information which should be accessible to the public automatically makes that information accessible to anyone who searches for it, anyone who Googles for the information. Even if a requester doesn’t themselves do something with the information released by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com they’ve enabled others to do so. You’re often doing public good just by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com (though do see our advice on making responsible and effective requests).

WhatDoTheyKnow makes something which would otherwise be quite challenging for many people – getting a FOI request and response online – easy. I’m sure only a fraction of users of our site would have taken the time to write a blog about their request, and update it with the response, if they had to do that manually.

A big benefit of making a request on WhatDoTheyKnow.com is many people are already using our site and watching for responses; if you make a request to a local council on WhatDoTheyKnow.com the chances are your local journalists are tracking requests to the local council and they’ll be alerted to any response.

At WhatDoTheyKnow we’re an independent third party, we’re not the requestor and we’re not the public body. This can be useful when there’s a dispute about a response to a request, if a public body denies receiving it for example. We’d love to work more closely with the regulator, the Information Commissioner’s office, we’d love them to use our service more to help them in their role in enforcing the law. Often just having a request on our site can help people get a response, good public bodies really care about the impression those visiting their pages on our site get. Lots of public bodies will get in touch with us if they don’t like the way a request has been classified by one of our users for example.

A really big advantage having information released via our service is people can cite it when they take action based on it, be that action a blog post, an article in the media, an academic publication, or a letter to an MP. You can show, again using WhatDoTheyKnow.com as an independent third party, where the information you are relying on has come from, giving more weight, more credibility, to whatever it is you’re doing, your lobbying, your journalism, your research. WhatDoTheyKnow, and mySociety more broadly, has been in the business of enabling better informed debate and higher quality journalism well before “fake news” entered our lexicon.

We’re always looking for new bodies to add to our site, the database of public bodies which is behind the site keeps growing, we’re now at over 23,000 public bodies. That compares to about 450 public bodies listed on the Gov.uk website, and just 305 in the latest “Public Bodies” report by the Cabinet Office. The big difference is made up by schools, GP surgeries and NHS dentists, all of which are subject to FOI; we also list groups of organisations like companies owned by local government – public bodies in terms of the Freedom of Information Act but all but invisible to central government.

I said we were in the business of activism; changing society by doing things. One big part of or Freedom of Information law related activism is listing bodies on our site which are not, or not yet, subject to access to information laws. We’ve listed many bodies before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act, showing the demand for information, and showing the kind of information people want, but couldn’t access. One example was Network Rail which we listed before it became subject to FOI in March 2015, another was the Association of Chief Police Officers .. however that’s now become the National Police Chief’s Council and MPs failed to make that successor body subject to FOI – in that case it’s not a huge problem as they realise they need to be transparent and they voluntarily comply, but, significantly, the Information Commissioner can’t enforce a law which a body is not technically subject to.

There are always more public bodies to add, we list Housing Associations for example, they’re a another class of body which are not subject to FOI, even coroners aren’t subject to FOI which you might find surprising given their important public role in ensuring our society is safe, and more people don’t die in the future for the same, preventable, reasons people have died in the past. We list some coroners, and volunteer Kieran is working on making our coverage comprehensive. Local medical committees; committees of GPs are another set we’re hoping to add soon.

Maintaining the body database is a constant task. Government is constantly reorganising, we try to keep up with changes recently for example, recently, in research councils, and keeping track of NHS reorganisations is a challenge on its own. There have already been 17 requests to London North Eastern Railway Limited, the Government rail operator of last resort which we listed when it took over running trains on the East Coast mainline about ten days ago.

Seeking improvements to laws which impact our service, its users, and the accessibility of public information

As well as our activism we have a record of more traditional lobbying; sharing the experience running our service has given us experience of the operation of access to information law. We took part in the Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2012 for example, and just a few months ago we responded to a consultation by the Cabinet Office on the Code of Practice which bodies responding to FOI requests have take into account.

In terms of what we’re calling for, we’re not FOI fans specifically, we’d actually rather people didn’t have to make FOI requests, we’re in favour of proactively releasing information and running public services transparently, though that said FOI requests are requests for information people want to know; rather than information which public bodies want to publish so they will probably always have their place.

Why not make public bodies consider proactive publication of information of the sort requested, when dealing with a FOI request? That’s a provision which is in the specialised law on access to datasets but doesn’t apply to access to information requests more broadly.

Timeliness of responses, and timeliness of enforcement action from the Information Commissioner are other key things we campaign on. If you want a copy of a FOI response that’s been made to particular union, lobby group, or journalist and is the information behind the day’s news, surely you should be able to get a copy of it pretty much straight away, and there can be no excuse for a body dithering until the 20 working day deadline. The law requires a prompt response; that aspect of the law needs following and enforcing.

We also want to close loopholes in FOI; one terrible one, is if a public body can think of a class of information and list it on its website with a price for it, it becomes exempt from disclosure for free under FOI. This is clearly open to abuse, fortunately few bodies have misused it too-date, but there are examples – just look at your local council’s list of information they make available for a fee.

Running the Site

Some might be interested to know administration has changed as the site has grown. There’s been a constant improvement of the site’s software to make it easier to run, but that needs to continue so we can cope with it getting bigger without having to increase the volunteer effort exponentially in-line with the site’s growth. We’ve outgrown the team@ mailing list system the site started with; we now separate the support mail from discussions among volunteers, and on top of that there’s a separate discussion of legal matters; so people aren’t overwhelmed.

One challenge we have is the workload, and volunteer input, are both variable. Sometimes there’s a week where you really need someone full time running the site. Sometimes you could firefight the incoming issues in maybe an hour a day, or day a week.

Something we’d like to do is encourage past volunteers to join our monthly calls; join the legal discussion list, volunteers list, drop into the support mailbox and help out on occasion, every little helps, following what we’re doing for a week a couple of times a year might provide some outside, detached, input; help keep us on-track, challenge us, and assist us in spotting drifts in policy / practice.

Ideas for the future

We’re always keen to hear any ideas for what we could be doing better, or differently we welcome input from anyone and everyone who cares about the service in some way. Some of the things we could do improve:

  • We could do even better at transparently running the site. We already try to run the site as transparently as we can; if we hide a message, or redact content from correspondence, we make clear where we’ve done so and explain why. We don’t though have a transparency report like Google and Reddit do, reporting on takedown requests, how many there have been, who they’ve come from – individuals, requesters, public bodies, public officials, regulated professionals, and how we responded. Requests for user data. One challenge is sometimes the moral thing to do is not shout about and draw attention to something we’ve taken down too quickly; don’t want to draw attention to taking down something that’s still in Google’s cache for example – if we really believe it shouldn’t be online any more.
  • We should do more to highlight excellent, interesting and influential, uses of the site. It would be great to have ways within the system to note when responses have been used by others, cited in Parliament, resulted in a news story, or if someone has analysed responses from a range of public bodies around the country for example.
  • We have volunteers, but there is no real community of users around the site, or around our lobbying activities, or, to the extent there has been in the past, a community – around mySociety any more. There’s an opportunity there..
  • I think we have a duty to be careful with the way the WhatDoTheyKnow pro-service is used. Anyone can sign up for a Gmail account and make requests; but we are doing more than Gmail to encourage and enable FOI requests, and not least the pro system is built on a largely volunteer built and maintained database. Use to-date has apparently been good, and we have a general principle of not spending time discussing hypothetical situations, but, in running the free site as volunteers we’ve always been mindful of the impact of our actions on our reputation, and the reputation of Freedom of Information law itself. For example we ask those considering bulk requests if they’ve carefully selected the set of bodies to make their request to, if the request could be made to a central body rather than lots of local bodies, if a sampling exercise would suffice instead of asking perhaps hundreds of bodies, and we advise on making clear requests in the first instance to reduce the need for clarifications – saving public bodies and requesters time and effort. [Update: following the event we agreed to update our House Rules to include a reference to our advice on making responsible and effective requests|]).
  • Lastly, on sustainable funding for the site, ideally I think this would be though a handful of media organisations, campaign groups, or other bodies paying for a pro-service; which would hopefully give them great value in terms of organising FOI requests, prompting them to chase up late requests, saving time finding contact details and easily making bulk requests. Perhaps as the number of individual users of the Pro service grows organisations will see the value of providing access to all their staff.