Rethinking our approach to marginalised communities
Freedom of information is for everyone: that’s something we believe, and something we’re taking concrete steps to ensure.
As we celebrate the millionth public FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s important to consider how we can ensure the next million can benefit a broader range of people to do more towards social justice.
Historically our userbase has skewed towards those who already hold privilege, with white, well-educated, affluent males most represented across all our UK services. This demographic has fluctuated a little over time, but not as considerably as we would like.
Thanks to a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, we are taking proactive steps to address this imbalance, with the primary aim of supporting marginalised groups in using FOI as one of their tools for social change.
Jen Bramley, our Partnerships Manager, is leading on a programme to firstly research into such groups’ needs and their perception of FOI; and then identify and deliver the training that will be most effective in giving them the hands-on skills required to include FOI into their campaigning toolkits.
The first part of that activity is completed. The research confirmed some perhaps predictable points around making the very concept of FOI clearer to these communities who may not have come across the term before; and ensuring that the language and interfaces on WhatDoTheyKnow are made more accessible.
But there were other learnings that we would have come to without speaking directly to our subjects. For example, we heard that some communities’ longstanding mistrust of authority extends to the idea of having any interaction with them, even within the rights conferred by the FOI Act; and that people in more deprived demographics are more likely to access the internet via mobile phone, making it much harder to access and understand dense documents that might have been released — and all the more so when they are in bulk.
Finally, there is a desire to see more positive accounts of people using FOI without the subject having to jump over several barriers to get the information they required. While we may see such stories as an inspiring narrative encouraging us not to give up, it’s also understandable that to people approaching FOI for the first time, such stories could seem offputting and unattainable.
We’ll be using everything we learned to inform future development on WhatDoTheyKnow. These improvements will be possible thanks to the time and experience generously given by our interviewees.