If you were reading back in September, you might remember the work we did with Hackney Council to create a more effective interface for people making FOI requests — we blogged about it here.
We’re really pleased to be able to extend this work, thanks to a successful bid to the Local Digital Fund. Over four months, we’re working with Hackney and some other authorities (Suffolk, Stevenage, East Herts and Cornwall) to take a really good look at the workflows of council staff who manage and respond to FOI and Subject Access requests.
Around 475,000 FOI requests were received by UK local authorities in 2017 – which averages out at 1,100 per authority, although it’s unlikely to be weighted evenly across the board. Nonetheless, one thing’s for sure: a significant amount of every council’s time and resources are spent in triaging and responding to requests, and with this work we’re hoping we can bring efficiencies and improvements.
In this phase, we’re conducting user research and then using what we discover to prototype ideas for an end-to-end request-handling system — open source, of course. Once that’s complete and we’ve got a good picture of the challenges involved, the processes already available and feedback on our own prototypes, we’ll be able to advise on whether it makes sense to proceed further.
One commitment we made when applying for this project was that we’d be ‘working in the open’. We want to document what we’re up to at every stage along the way, so not only will any other authority be able to benefit from a finished product that could result from our work; but also, everyone will be able to learn from what works, and maybe even what doesn’t, as we go through this process of investigation and discovery.
To that end, we’ve been making weekly updates which anyone who’s interested can read. In summary, though, we kicked off the work in the first week of January, and so far we’ve drafted a research plan; spent some time re-reading our own research on FOI statistics and local government FOI admin; and had an intensive couple of days interviewing and observing council staff in Hackney as they go about their business dealing with FOI and Subject Access requests.
The user research continued over the weeks as we conducted remote interviews with staff from the other councils — Stevenage, Cornwall and Suffolk.
This has already been incredibly useful and, just as you’d expect, we’ve found out small details and wider themes this way that we would never have chanced upon without having the chance to observe governance staff in their own environment.
It’s an opportunity for councils as well: as far as we can tell, it is unusual for authorities (and in some cases, even, departments within the same authority!) to communicate with one another about their FOI processes and challenges. Our research will hopefully be a novel chance for them to compare methods and learn from one another.
We’ll be updating our weeknotes regularly, and we’ll also come back here to share our progress and findings, so depending on just how much depth you want, follow along at the LocalGovDigital Pipeline, or just wait for our next blog post here on our own site!
Image: Hackney Council offices by Martin Wright
We’ve just shared the schedule for our Impacts of Civic Technology conference, TICTeC, and in all honesty? We’re excited.
It’s almost complete, but we’ll be adding a few more details of additional sessions once they’re confirmed. We’re also expecting a number of side events to spring up, too. Yes, that’s right, TICTeC has grown a fringe!
TICTeC has been growing in momentum since its beginnings in 2014. This year, once again, thanks to a higher number of submissions than ever — and the increasing quality of those submissions — you’ll experience an unsurpassed line-up of speakers, each with deep insights into the field.
Tickets are going faster than ever before: more than half of them are sold already, and and we expect to sell out well before the event, so don’t delay if you’re hoping to join us in Paris: register now.
Each day will kick off with an inspiring presentation from a standout practitioner that has brought significant change through Civic Tech projects.
On day one Alessandra Orofino, founder of Nossas, will speak about her project to empower citizens throughout Latin America; day two begins with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ James Anderson explaining how a global network of mayors are sharing technologies to improve cities worldwide.
As always, TICTeC examines projects from across the Civic Tech field; but each year, certain themes emerge that reflect the current preoccupations of society more broadly.
The French experience
Thanks to generous support from the OECD, our venue is the beautiful OECD Headquarters & Conference Centre in Paris. It’s fitting that, during the two days, we’ll hear a lot from those making a difference in the French context.
Speakers include Pauline Véron, Deputy Mayor of Paris and member of the Socialiste party; Paula Forteza, MP with En Marche! and Tatiana de Feraudy from Décider ensemble.
They’ll be not only giving us a good overview of Civic Tech in France, but also looking at how digital democracy might be the key to the issues raised by the Gilets Jaunes uprising.
The wisdom of crowds
As concepts such as Participatory Budgeting reach maturity, we can now stand back and assess what works well and what doesn’t, when you turn to the citizenry for decision-making.
Theo Bass from Nesta in the UK will examine online deliberation tools; Benjamin Snow from Germany’s Civocracy will give an honest look at what you can do when citizen consultation tools launch with a sizzle rather than a bang. Thanks to Reboot‘s Panthea Lee and Gil Pradeau from the University of Westminster, we’ll get a look at Participatory Budgeting in both the US and France.
Extremism, and its spread via digital means, are of course of huge concern across many different countries.
We’ll hear from the USA’s National Democratic Institute on how Civic Tech might tackle political polarisation; and from the UK’s Full Fact on how machine learning can simplify the factchecker’s job. Marko Skoric from Hong Kong will examine whether blocking, filtering and unfriending on social media actually adds to division.
This very current concern is sure to be in evidence right across many of the other sessions, too.
The urban experience
Taking a cue from James’ keynote, we’ll see many examinations of Civic Tech in the city, from Jose Alberto Gomez of Mexico on better mobile apps for fault reporting; to analyses of Civic Tech in diverse urban areas from the Centre for Conflict and Participation Studies in Italy. And our hosts OECD will be presenting the concept of an urban barometer.
Impactful Civic Tech projects
Luminate are one of several participants in a panel which examines Civic Tech in Latin America for a wider understanding of applicable insights. Jasmina Haynes from Integrity Action in the UK will present the Nepalse experience on how to check whether grants are doing everything the funders hoped they would. And several more sessions will have an emphasis on ensuring initiatives are impactful.
With three to four tracks running each day, there’s plenty to choose from — including a look at the issues that arise in long-running Civic Tech projects, by mySociety’s own developer Matthew Somerville — so make sure to have a browse through the schedule for a full picture of what to expect.
And then, we can’t stress this enough: book your ticket, or you might be too late.
When you realise that borrowing ideas is not a sign of weakness, but as Bloomberg Philanthropies‘ James Anderson puts it ‘a badge of honour’, you can really maximise the benefits for cities — and their citizens — around the world.
That’s the thinking behind the Government Innovation programs James heads up: despite the diversity of the world’s cities, it’s undeniable that they are facing many of the same problems, from climate change to low civic participation, from pollution to health issues.
If a scheme in one city is driving forward sustainability, growth or efficiency, why expect others to reinvent the wheel hundreds of times? It makes perfect sense to pass on the findings about what works and what doesn’t to other cities facing similar issues.
Among other initiatives, James is responsible for forging a global network of mayors in 290 cities across 25 countries, to share knowledge and technology around areas as diverse as bike-sharing schemes, measures against childhood obesity and urban sprawl, tackling corruption, encouraging recycling, and many many more.
You can tap into Bloomberg Philanthropies’ vision and James’ own hands-on experience by coming to our conference on the impacts of civic technology, TICTeC. James is the second of our keynote speakers (see Alessandro Orofino, our other keynote here), and we know that he’ll be offering inspirational and tangible takeaways from a perspective that’s highly relevant for our times.
Make sure you don’t miss out: book your ticket to TICTeC now.
Need a bit of inspiration in these turbulent political times? You’ll get it in spades from ‘urban activist’ Alessandra Orofino, the first of our confirmed keynote speakers for TICTeC 2019.
Founder of Meu Rio (My Rio), Alessandra hasn’t just brought about change herself; she first gave 160,000 residents in her native city of Rio de Janeiro the power to do it for themselves, with an array of digital tools that facilitate campaigns, civic engagement and participation, and then went on to found the even more ambitious Nossas to unroll similar initiatives across several other Brazilian cities.
Each calls itself a network of inclusion for a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable city, allowing people to organise around causes and places they care about. The vast majority of its members are in their twenties — as is Alessandra herself.
At mySociety, we talk a lot about giving people the tools they need to be active citizens, and Nossas is a shining example of what you can achieve on that front. Stacy Donahue of Luminate — the philanthropic organisation supporting technology that empowers people and institutions to build just and fair societies — thinks so too, calling Alessandra an inspiring role model amongst investees.
Meu Rio saw early successes such as preventing a school from being replaced by a carpark for the World Cup; and the introduction of a new missing persons system for the police, to deal with a chronic lack of information around a major issue for the city. Now, similar breakthroughs are being made on a regular basis by its sister organisations under the Nossas banner.
If this can be done for cities as large and diverse as Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Porto Alegre and São Paulo, then why not everywhere? Book your ticket for TICTeC now, and learn what it will take to empower citizens in your own locality — directly from one who has done it herself.
Freedom of Information forms the basis of many a campaign that seeks to expose hidden facts, or stories which should be in the public eye.
We spoke to Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme, about that organisation’s tireless campaign to get to the truth on the collection, handling and re-use of schoolchildren’s personal data in England.
What emerged was a timeline of requests and responses — sometimes hard fought for — which when pieced together reveal secrecy, bad practice and some outright falsehoods from the authorities to whom we entrust our children’s data. Perhaps most striking of the findings was the sharing of data with the Home Office in support of their Hostile Environment policy.
As Jen describes defenddigitalme’s campaign, “It began with trying to understand how my daughter’s personal information is used by the Department for Education; it became a campaign to get the use of 23 million records made safe”.
It’s a long tale, but definitely worth the read.
December 2012: consultations and changes
The story begins here, although it would still be a couple of years before Jen became aware of the issues around children’s data, “despite — or perhaps because of — having three young children in school at the time”.
Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
As Jen explains, “During the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a consultation about changing data laws on how nationally stored school pupil records could be used, proposing that individual pupil-level records could be given away to third parties, including commercial companies, journalists, charities, and researchers. Campaigners raised alarm bells, pointing out that the personal data would be highly identifying, sensitive, and insecure — but the changes went through nonetheless.”
2014: discovering the power of FOI
Jen came across that change in law for herself when reading about a later, similar data issue in the press: there were plans to also make available medical records from GP practices. This prompted her first foray into FOI, “to answer some of the questions I had about the plans, which weren’t being published”.
I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.
And that first step got her thinking:
“At around the same time I asked the DfE a simple question, albeit through a Subject Access rather than FOI request: What personal data do you hold about my own child?
“My Subject Access request was refused. The Department for Education would not tell me what data they held about my children, and as importantly, could not tell me who they had given it to.
“There was nothing at all in the public domain about this database the DfE held, beyond what the campaigners in 2012 had exposed. It wasn’t even clear how big it was. How was it governed? Who decided where data could be sent out to and why? How was it audited and what were the accountability mechanisms? And why was the DfE refusing its lawful obligations to tell me what they held about my daughter, let me correct errors, and know where it had gone? Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
“Prior to all this, I’d never even heard of Freedom of Information. But I knew that there was something wrong and unjust about commercial companies and journalists being able to access more personal data about our children than we could ourselves.
I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.
“I needed to understand how the database operated in order to challenge it. I needed to be able to offer an evidenced and alternative view of what could be better, and why. FOI was the only way to start to obtain information that was in the public interest.
“I believed it should be published in the public domain. WhatDoTheyKnow is brilliant at that. I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.”
“I tried to ask for information I knew existed or should exist, that would support the reasons for the changes we needed in data handling. I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.”
2015: sharing children’s personal data with newspapers
That was just the beginning: at the time of writing, Jen has made over 80 FOI requests in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com .
Through FOI, defenddigitalme has discovered who has had access to the data about millions of individuals, and under what precepts, finding such astonishing rationales as: “The Daily Telegraph requested pupil-level data and so suppression was not applicable.” The publication “wished to factor in the different types of pupil” attending different schools.
Jen explains: “This covered information on pupil characteristics related to prior attainment: gender, ethnic group, language group, free school meal eligibility (often used as a proxy for poverty indicators) and SEN (Special Educational Needs and disability) status, which were deemed by the Department to be appropriate as these are seen as important factors in levels of pupil attainment.”
But with such granular detail, anonymity would be lost and the DfE were relying only on “cast iron assurances” that the Telegraph would not use the data to identify individuals.
2016: sharing children’s nationality data with the Home Office
In a Written Question put by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in July 2016, the Minister for Education was asked whether the Home Office would access this newly collected nationality data. He stated: “the data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use […]. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.”
But on the contrary: defenddigitalme’s subsequent requests would disclose that there was already a data sharing agreement to hand over data on nationality to the Home Office, for the purposes of immigration enforcement and to support the Hostile Environment policy.
Jen says: “As part of our ongoing questions about the types of users of the school census data, we’d asked whether the Home Office or police were recipients of pupil data, because it wasn’t recorded in the public registry of data recipients.
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In August 2016, a FOI response did confirm that the Home Office was indeed accessing national pupil data; but to get to the full extent of the issue, we had to ask follow up questions. They had said that “since April 2012, the Home Office has submitted 20 requests for information to the National Pupil Database. Of these 18 were granted and 2 were refused as the NPD did not contain the information requested.”
“But the reply did not indicate how many people each request was for. And sure enough, when we asked for the detail, we found the requests were for hundreds of people at a time. Only later again, did we get told that each request could be for a maximum agreed 1,500 individuals, a policy set out in an agreement between the Departments which had started in 2015, in secret.
“In the October afternoon of the very same day as the school census was collecting nationality data for the first time, this response confirmed that the Home Office had access to previously collected school census pupil data including name, home and school address: “The nature of all requests from the Police and the Home Office is to search for specific individuals in the National Pupil Database and to return the latest address and/or school information held where a match is found in the NPD.”
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In December 2016, after much intervention by MPs, including leaked letters, and FOI requests by both us and — we later learned — by journalists at Schools Week, the government published the data sharing agreement that they had in place and that was being used”.It had been amended in October 2016 to remove the line on nationality data, and allowed the data to be matched with Home Office information. It had also been planned to deprioritise the children of those without leave to remain when allocating school places, shocking opposition MPs who described the plan variously as “a grubby little idea” and, simply, “disgusting”.
Other campaigners joined the efforts as facts started to come into the public domain. A coalition of charities and child rights advocates formed under the umbrella organisation of Against Borders for Children, and Liberty would go on to support them in preparing a judicial review. ABC organised a successful public boycott, and parents and teachers supplied samples of forms that schools were using, some asking for only non-white British pupils to provide information.
Overall, nationality was not returned for more than a quarter of pupils.
2017: behind the policy making
Through further requests defenddigitalme learned that the highly controversial decision to collect nationality and country of birth from children in schools — which came into effect from the autumn of 2016 — had been made in 2015. Furthermore, it had been signed off by a little known board which, crucially, had been kept in the dark.
“I’d been told by attendees of the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board meeting that they had not been informed that the Home Office was already getting access to pupil data when they were asked to sign off the new nationality data collection, and they were not told that this new data would be passed on for Home Office purposes, either. That matters in my opinion, because law-making relies on accountability to ensure that decisions are just. It can’t be built on lies”, says Jen.
The process of getting hold of the minutes from that significant meeting took a year.
Jen says, “We went all the way through the appeals process, from the first Internal Review, then a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The ICO had issued a Decision Notice that meant the DfE should provide the information, but when they still refused the next step was the Information Rights First Tier Tribunal.
“Two weeks before the court hearing due, the DfE eventually withdrew its appeal and provided some of the information in November 2017. Volunteers helped us with preparation of the paperwork, including folk from the Campaign for Freedom for Information. It was important that the ICO’s decision was respected.”
2018: raised awareness
In April last year, the Department confirmed that Nationality and Country of Birth must no longer be collected for school census purposes.
However, Jen says, “Children’s data, collected for the purposes of education, are still being shared monthly for the purposes of the Hostile Environment. There’s a verbal promise that the nationality data won’t be passed over, but since the government’s recent introduction of the Immigration Bill 2018 and immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act, I have little trust in the department’s ability in the face of Home Office pressure, to be able to keep those promises.
“Disappointingly”, says Jen, “the government has decided instead of respecting human rights to data protection and privacy on this, to create new laws to work around them.
The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.
“It’s wrong to misuse data collected for one purpose and on one legal basis entrusted for children’s education, for something punitive. We need children in education, it’s in their best interests and those of our wider society. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system.
“That’s why we support Against Borders for Children’s call to delete the nationality data.
“A positive overall outcome, however”, she continues, “is that in May 2018, the Department for Education put the sharing of all pupil level data on hold while they moved towards a new Secure Access model, based on the so-called ‘5-Safes’. The intention is distribute access to data with third parties, not distribute the data itself. The Department resumed data sharing in September but with new policies on data governance, working hard to make pupil data safer and meet ‘user needs’. The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.”
2019: Defenddigitalme continues to campaign
Defenddigitalme has come a long way, but they won’t stop campaigning yet.
People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
Jen says, “Raw data is still distributed to third parties, and Subject Access, where I started, is still a real challenge.
“The Department is handing out sensitive data, but can’t easily let you see all of it, or make corrections, or tell you which bodies for sure it was given to. Still, that shouldn’t put people off asking about their own or their child’s record, or opting out of the use of their individual record for over 14s and adult learners, and demand respect for their rights, and better policy and practice. The biggest change needed is that people should be told where their data goes, who uses it for how long, and why.
“Access to how government functions and the freedom of the press to be able to reveal and report on that is vital to keep the checks and balances on systems we cannot see. We rely on a strong civil service to work in the best interests of the country and all its people and uphold human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the colour of government or their own beliefs. People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
“FOI can bring about greater transparency and accountability of policy and decision making. It’s then up to all of us to decide how to use that information, and act on it if the public are being misled, if decisions are unjust, or policy and practice that are hidden will be harmful to the public, not only those deciding what the public interest is.
“WhatDoTheyKnow is a really useful tool in that. Long may it flourish.”
Friday was the final date for submitting a paper or workshop submission to TICTeC, our conference on the impacts of civic technology — and it’s official: you’ve blown us away.
In this, our fifth year, we’ve received so many high-quality submissions that we’re already wondering if there’s any way to cram more sessions into the agenda. If not, we’re well aware that we’ll be turning down some presentations that, in previous years, would easily have made the grade.
Right now, we’re assessing all the proposals and finding the emerging themes that will allow us to shape the agenda. With over 50 more submissions than last year, Head of Research Rebecca says, “I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s going to be a massive struggle to decide what goes into the programme” — so please bear with us if there’s a slight delay in notifying you of our decisions.
We want to thank everyone who’s taken the time to submit a proposal, especially given the high quality that runs right through them this year. We’re taking this as a sign of TICTeC’s growing recognition as the must-attend conference for all involved in our field… and we’re very grateful for all those who come together each year and help to make it just that.
We’re starting the new year in the best way possible — with a new project that we’re really excited to get our teeth into.
Just before we all went off for the Christmas holidays, we learned that mySociety had won the contract to work on the Discovery and Alpha phases of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s Central Register of Planning Permissions. To put it simply, this is the first couple of steps towards an eventual plan to aggregate and share, as Open Data, information on residential planning applications from councils across England.
Those who have followed mySociety for some time may remember that we have some experience in this area: we’ve previously worked around planning permissions with authorities in Barnet and Hampshire. More widely, many of our projects involve taking data from a range of different sources, tidying it up and putting it out into the world as consistent, structured Open Data that anyone can use. The most ambitious of these is EveryPolitician; the most recent is Keep It In The Community, and in both cases we suspect the issues — data in a variety of different formats and of widely differing qualities, being stored in many different places — will be broadly the same when it comes to planning permissions.
But we don’t know exactly that for sure, and neither does MHCLG, which is why they’re very sensibly getting us to kick off with this period of research, testing and trying out proofs of concept. With work that will involve our developers, design team, consultation with experts in the field and collaboration with MHCLG, we’re right in our happy place.
Best of all, the project ticks a lot of mySociety boxes. The eventual Open Data set that should come out of all this will:
- Help central government utilise digital to best effect: once this dataset exists, they’ll be able to develop tools that support the planning system and housing markets
- Aid local authorities in keeping consistent and useful data on their own planning applications, allowing them to analyse trends and plan wisely for the future
- Benefit the building industry as well as local residents as they have access to information on which applications have previously succeeded or failed in their own areas
- Be open to developers, who — as history tends to show — may use it create useful third party tools beyond the imagination of government itself.
This project is one of a number of pieces of work we’ll be doing with central and local government this year. With all of these, we’re committing to working in the open, so expect plenty of updates along the way.
Many authorities keep a disclosure log, where they publish answers to previous Freedom Of Information requests. If requests are repeatedly made for the same type of information, it makes sense for the authority to publish the data regularly so that everyone can access it — because of course, the majority of FOI requests made in this country are sent directly rather than via WhatDoTheyKnow, and won’t otherwise be published online in any other form.
But a disclosure log is only useful if people know it’s there. Our FOI For Councils service, which came out of work with Hackney council increases the likelihood that the information in the disclosure log is actually seen, and by those who need it most: it automatically checks whether the request resembles any information which is already available online, then points the requester to it. If the match is correct, the user doesn’t have to progress any further with their request, and can access the information immediately. This saves everyone time — requesters and staff alike.
There’s another handy aspect to FOI for Councils, too: it can also provide staff with data on what type of requests are made the most often. As we explained in that introductory blog post:
FOI for Councils analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.
This analysis allows Information Officers to understand which information is being asked for, that existing resources aren’t providing.
A sensible use of this is to analyse the most frequent requests and publish the data they’re asking for proactively.
Authorities don’t necessarily need FOI for Councils to do this, though: a regular analysis of internal records, or even public requests on WhatDoTheyKnow (despite only making up a proportion of requests made by any means — people may also make requests by direct email, letter, phone or even a tweet in some cases — they still provide a good sample set) would allow any authority to manually generate a broad picture.
Disclosure logs can get out of date quickly: a glance at the BBC’s, for example, seems to indicate an initial enthusiasm in 2014 which quickly dried up, perhaps because a keen employee moved on, or resources were channeled elsewhere. Yet many of the topics of information — annual transport costs for example — will quickly date and may be of interest again in subsequent years.
It makes sense for authorities to plan a publication cycle for such data, because it’s common for requests to relate to ongoing or changing information such as annual statistics or contract renewals.
It seems to be quite a widespread issue that an authority starts a disclosure log with the best of intentions, but then lets it go into disuse; additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team note that very few disclosure logs are comprehensive; it’s much more common for authorities to pick and choose what to release, which may not be in line with which data is most useful to the public.
Publishing frequently requested information in a proactive fashion may well cost authorities less than having to retrieve the information each time it’s asked for — and to provide the information to a sole request-maker (assuming it’s not through WhatDoTheyKnow, where the response is published online) is less efficient than simply putting it out publicly where everyone who needs it can find it. This removes some of the burden on FOI officers.
Early indicators from our work with Hackney Council show that pointing users towards material already published has prevented around 4% of the requests started by users. This should grow over time, as the council analyses popular requests and starts to add the information to their publication schedule, and more and more users will then experience this invitation to find the material elsewhere.
A legal requirement
There is one type of information which authorities are required to proactively publish, thanks to Section 19 subsection 2a of the Freedom of Information Act — datasets:
A publication scheme must, in particular, include a requirement for the public authority concerned—
(a) to publish—
(i) any dataset held by the authority in relation to which a person makes a request for information to the authority, and
(ii) any up-dated version held by the authority of such a dataset, unless the authority is satisfied that it is not appropriate for the dataset to be published
The WhatDoTheyKnow team have called for this requirement to apply to all material requested under Freedom of Information, not just datasets: it seems desirable that if a certain piece of information is frequently requested, there is a requirement to publish, unless it’s not reasonable or practical to do so (which, as the team points out, may point to a problem with the way the material is being managed internally, for example adherence to paper records that would benefit from a switch to digital).
We’re in favour
We’ve often advocated for proactive publication, including in our response to a consultation on the FOI Code of Practice last year, and we’ve even said that we’d rather people didn’t have to make FOI requests at all because all information was being published by default.
Others have made the case that there is so much data being published in the world today that it’s hard to make sense of it or to find what’s useful — but proactive publication based on proven demand like this is a good approach to ensuring that authorities are releasing what is genuinely needed.
Image: Roman Kraft
Here at mySociety, we talk a lot about how citizens can use Freedom of Information to hold public authorities to account. But it’s interesting to note that those same authorities, or members of them, sometimes also turn to FOI to solicit information from one another.
At first, this might seem strange: it’s a common assumption that authorities, not to mention high level people within them, have the power to summon any information they require in order to go about their duties.
But on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are several reasons why the public sector might turn to FOI rather than the more standard channels.
Surveying multiple authorities
Suppose you’d like to gather information from many different sources — say every hospital in the country — in order to compile a nationwide set of statistics.
A large task like this can be more orderly if managed via a set of Freedom of Information requests. Additionally, the obligation for authorities to respond may mean that your request goes into official channels — with built in timescales — helping to ensure that you get results.
As a nice illustration of this kind of usage, the Royal College of Surgeons surveyed NHS trusts to see if they are still using outdated fax machine equipment, generating a story which made the headlines back in July.
Members of Parliament may also use FOI to survey a large number of public authorities and gather statistics to support campaigns or an issue they’re working on.
We don’t know if members of the Scottish Parliament have more of an appetite for this than the UK one, but a quick search showed several using FOI to good effect. Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale surveyed residential units to see stats on vulnerable children going missing; Murdo Fraser accessed delay repayments figures from Scotrail; Mark Griffin discovered that council tax exemptions weren’t being utilised; and Monica Lennon uncovered the lack of sanitary product strategies across Scotland’s health boards.
That said, there are several UK MPs past and present who have made use of WhatDoTheyKnow, including the office of Diane Abbott and Dr Phillip Lee. There may well be others who prefer to use a pseudonym.
Then, those working in bodies such as universities and hospitals very commonly use FOI to support their academic or medical research.
We can’t neglect to mention that in all such cases, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro would be a great help to the process of sending out and organising multiple requests.
Putting information into the public domain
FOI’s not just useful for large scale requests, though. Those from public sector bodies may be using the Act to bring information into the open because they feel it should be known — and of course, making the request through WhatDoTheyKnow will do this by default, since all requests and responses are published online.
Researchers from Cardiff University used FOI as one tool when investigating how data is used by various public services to help in decision-making. They point out that, while fiddly and labour-intensive, FOI fills a gap in public knowledge:
The use of FOIs to investigate the integration of changing data systems is problematic and resource intensive for all parties. However, in the absence of a public list, the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for systematic inquiry.
Getting hold of information which has been hard to pin down
Sometimes FOI is a last resort when other avenues have been exhausted. On TheyWorkForYou we see a councillor writing to her own council to find out their preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, with the remark “I have tried to get this via the members case work system but I am not confident I will get an adequate response”.
Such frustration definitely motivates Members of Parliament into submitting FOI requests, too. There are other channels through which they can ask questions of course, for example by submitting Written Questions — a process by which both the question and answer are placed in the public domain, thanks to Hansard.
But should those channels fail, FOI is another option.
In 2010 the BBC wrote about how costs for redecoration of Parliament’s Head Office were only uncovered thanks to FOI, after a Written Answer was turned down on grounds of the information being too commercially sensitive.
The parliamentary staff and civil servants who deal with Written Answers are likely to be different from those who deal with FOI requests. Their criteria for release of information may also differ, as they are guided by different protocols.
Representatives at every level can use FOI as a channel for information which might have proven elusive via other means. We see on WhatDoTheyKnow that Parish Councils quite often send requests to higher tier authorities to get hold of information that will help them in their work, as is happening here for example.
Keeping an eye open
When it comes to authorities and representatives requesting information from other authorities, we can see the benefits. One of our team, Gareth, makes an analogy with the Open Source community, where because code is open to all, developers (sharing their expertise in their area of specialisation) can be quick to spot and repair any bugs: “It’s a really good thing for security. Many eyeballs make it easier to identify problems and suggest improvements”.
Similarly, FOI acts as a kind of safety net, another layer of assurance that our authorities are working as they should be.
If you’ve seen any other good examples of public sector to public sector FOI (for want of a better term), please do let us know.
Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.
For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.
Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.
Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:
- All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
- The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
- As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.
If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.
We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.
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Image: Katie McNabb