1. Business Improvement Districts on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve recently added lots of Business Improvement District (BID) organisations to our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    BIDs are directly funded via business rates. They spend public money, and have a significant impact on important public spaces, but are generally not subject to Freedom of Information law. 

    We are listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow because we think they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. WhatDoTheyKnow is not only an FOI service: we also actively seek to expand the scope of access to information law, and will add bodies to the site if it is clear that they should be open to public scrutiny.

    Business Improvement Districts were introduced via Part 4 of the Local Government Act 2003

    Most BIDs are focused on shopping streets, but there are others which work around industrial estates, and a handful seek to boost the tourism sector in their areas. 

    BIDs’ activities vary from body to body. Examples include:

    The establishment of a BID requires the support of both: 

    1. the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
    2. those representing a majority of the rateable value relating to the votes cast.

    The local council responsible for collecting business rates may veto a proposal for a BID, but once it has been approved the council is required to collect the “BID levy” alongside business rates and pass it on to the BID organisation.

    While these ballots provide a democratic mandate for BIDs, the ability to scrutinise how a BID is run during its period of operation is important so that people can assess the performance of these organisations and assure themselves that the public money they are responsible for is spent appropriately.

    BIDs can increase the level of influence businesses have in their areas of operation. One argument in favour of BIDs is they correct for an “influence gap” arising due to the fact businesses don’t have a vote when it comes to electing local councillors. On the flip-side of that, BIDs can be argued to reduce the ability of local residents to influence projects relating to their local shopping streets, or other areas of BID activity. 

    A recent report from the lottery funded Power to Change Trust on the operation of BIDs stated: 

    Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have proven successful in involving businesses in the development of local economies, addressing a previous influence gap – but there is no parallel system for residents to participate, other than via indirect means with their local councillor or planning system. This leaves those who have ideas about how to shape their places without a strong voice.

    While listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow won’t directly give people a greater say in how BIDs which impact their local areas are run, greater transparency will hopefully enable informed lobbying, better quality media reporting, and enable those running the organisations to be held to account. WhatDoTheyKnow is open to all, anyone with an interest in the operation of a BID, be they a local resident, a levy paying business, or anyone else, is welcome to use our service to request information from a BID.  

    All public bodies which receive funding via council tax, such as parish councils, Police and Crime Commissioners and Fire Authorities are subject to FOI. It seems right that bodies funded via a levy collected as part of business rates should also be subject to the Act.

    Enabling people to request information from BIDs in public, and automatically publishing any responses, will hopefully improve the transparency of these organisations. If there are refusals to provide requested information, these may be cited by those who, like us, think that BIDs should be made subject to the Act. 

    A new approach to developing the public body database

    We are currently listing around 300 BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow

    At the time of writing we don’t hold an email address for around 120 of them. If anyone seeks to make a request to those we don’t have an address for, they will be prompted to look for an email address for us to use, and let us know if they find one. 

    To-date, we’ve generally avoided listing bodies without email addresses, although doing so would closely copy a model that’s worked well on mySociety’s WriteToThem site for many years — where someone wants to email their MP or councillor and we don’t have an address, we will ask users to see if they can find the required details. 

    For WhatDoTheyKnow, this is an experiment to see if listing bodies without an address encourages users to find them for us. We hope to experiment with more nudges like this, to see if they motivate users to help us keep our database updated — thus spreading the load of a task that would otherwise take up quite a bit of our time.

    Image: Artur Kraft

  2. Courts on WhatDoTheyKnow: what’s the verdict?

    We’ve recently been considering whether we should add individual courts to WhatDoTheyKnow.com, so that users could make FOI requests to them in public. Doing so would certainly align with our wider mission of making it easy to access information from public bodies; but there are also some clear reasons against their inclusion. 

    In this post we’ll examine both sides of the issue. But first, some context.

    At the moment, FOI requests for information held by courts can be made via the listing on WhatDoTheyKnow for the courts service, HMCTS. Individual courts are generally not considered to be authorities in their own right, so this would mean adding bodies that are not strictly subject to FOI themselves — which is not a new concept for us: we will often list parts of public bodies separately if we think this will help our users.

    Transparency is particularly important when it comes to courts, as they exercise the power of the state and their decisions can have huge impacts on individuals, organisations, the environment and society. 

    In favour of listing individual courts

    Further to our general principle that it is good to give access to governmental bodies serving the public, there are some more nuanced reasons to include courts in our listings:

    • Requests often end up there anyway. On receipt of a request better answered by a local or individual court, HMCTS will often forward it to them, or advise the request-maker to contact the court directly themselves. The FOI process may be quicker and more efficient for all parties if requests are just sent directly to the court in question.
    • It would serve an educational purpose Listing courts individually would promote the fact that FOI requests can be made for information held by courts.
    • Information can be obtained from courts via FOI. Statistics, information on spending, details of room usage etc. could all be requested from courts, and we would expect such requests to be successful. Section 32 of the FOI Act exempts court records, meaning they’ll just refuse an FOI request for these, but you should be able to access other information that they hold.
    • Separate requests may not trigger the cost limit Under Section 12 of the Act, authorities can refuse FOI requests if it will take them more than a certain number of working hours to provide the information. Requests made to a series of individual courts may not be aggregated for the purposes of considering the cost limits, and more information may be obtained via a series of requests made to individual courts than would be obtained via a request made to the court service centrally.

    Against listing individual courts

    There is really just one substantial reason against listing courts, but it is important and we give significant weight to it:

    • Courts may release sensitive information When authorities respond to a request made through WhatDoTheyKnow, the information they release is published on the website. But there are rights other than FOI that give access to information from courts, eg section 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules and Part 5 of The Civil Procedure Rules 1998. Court officers may consider that, due to these provisions, they are required to release information which it would be irresponsible, and sometimes illegal, to publish in response to requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    In conclusion

    Having worked our way through these pros and cons, we conclude that listing individual courts on WhatDoTheyKnow is currently high risk, and probably not the best way to pursue greater transparency from the court system.

    As in other areas, rather than improving the way requests for information are handled, proactive publication of material such as information on cases before courts, and their outcomes, would be preferable. Information which it is not appropriate to publish should be separated from other material by the courts service.   

    Another approach is to make FOI requests to bodies such as the police, for material they have presented to courts, and such requests may well be successful. 

    It is worth noting that there are currently three courts listed on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    Due to the nature of the work that these courts undertake, we believe they are lower risk listings than others. In the case of the Supreme Court they do even have their own FOI contact point and publication scheme, so should be used to responding responsibly and appropriately to FOI requests.

    If you want to join the discussion of the question examined in this post, you can do so on the public “ticket” for this issue on GitHub, or you can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team.

    Image: Tingey law firm

  3. An exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow by the Centre for Public Data

    The Centre for Public Data has released significant new research on property in England and Wales that is owned by individuals based overseas.

    The work is based on material released through Freedom of Information requests made to the Land Registry via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    The headline findings include:

    • Nearly 1% of properties registered in the UK are registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address; this number has more than doubled since 2010.
    • The number of properties registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address is now more than double the number registered to overseas companies.

    The work cites and links to the source data on WhatDoTheyKnow (and WhatDoTheyKnow in turn links back to the analysis and commentary).

    One of the benefits of making FOI requests via WhatDoTheyKnow is the ability to easily link to the source when taking action based on released information. Citing sources gives work credibility, and it also makes it easy for others to verify what has been done, build on it, or conduct their own analysis based on their particular interests. We want to encourage this kind of exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow for well-referenced FOI based research.

    The data obtained, and presented, by the Centre for Public Data in this case may inform debate on a range of socially important issues including how overseas property owners, who may well be investors, affect the supply and affordability of housing.

    The Centre for Public Data have provided a tool enabling searching of the data – this means local journalists (or others with an interest in a particular area) can quickly obtain localised data.

    Image: Gary Stearman

  4. Sequences of Covid-19 vaccines released via WhatDoTheyKnow

    The nucleotide sequences of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines used in the UK have been released in response to a Freedom of Information request made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    As the sequences have been released via WhatDoTheyKnow they can now be accessed by anyone.

    The release, on 26th of October 2021, by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency follows an initial refusal under Section 41 (Information provided in confidence) and Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was overturned as a result of an internal review prompted by the requester.

    The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency published “Information for healthcare professionals and the public” when they approved each COVID-19 vaccine:

    However, the information proactively released at the time the vaccines were approved did not contain their nucleotide sequences, and prior to this FOI response they had not been officially released by the agency.

    While the vaccines had been described, details of the information they encoded had not been publicly released. Imagine the vaccine as data on a USB drive. Prior to this response, what the regulators proactively released when approving the vaccines was akin to information on the materials used to make, and package, the drive: plastic, and metal, along with a vague description of its contents, rather than a copy of the actual data contained on the drive.

    It could be argued that people were not able to make a fully informed decision on whether or not to have the vaccine given that their sequences were not initially available. This was the case made by the requester when they asked for the initial refusal to be reconsidered. Of course one wouldn’t expect many individuals to review sequence data personally, but  as the data wasn’t generally available to those outside of the manufacturers and regulators, independent analysis and commentary was chilled.

    The lack of transparency surrounding the detailed composition of the vaccines was not limited to the UK. The fact the sequences were not available prompted one group of scientists to seek to determine the sequences of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines themselves, analysing small portions of vaccine doses that remained in vials after immunisation. They carried out this work, with the permission of regulators in the USA, and published their results on GitHub.

    In its FOI response the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency stated that it had “obtained consent from the relevant companies to release the full nucleotide base sequences”. Not all the requested information has yet been released. The response states the Janssen Covid-19 nucleotide sequence has been released, however it is not contained in the attached documents (a protein sequence, rather than a nucleotide sequence has been provided). The response also says: “discussions are continuing with regard to the release of the sequence of the COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna.” This suggests two more sequences should hopefully be forthcoming on the correspondence thread soon.

    We are hopeful the released material, which in some cases goes beyond the sequences and includes further information about the vaccines, is of value. As always we encourage those who make use of the released data to cite the WhatDoTheyKnow thread, and to link to their work via annotations.

    Image: Spencer Davis

  5. Want to know more about sewage? Use WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    Recently the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and rivers has been in the news in the UK. This prompted us to update and expand our coverage of organisations responsible for such activities on our access to information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Since a ruling in 2015 all organisations which provide certain water and sewage related services have been considered public bodies for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations; this means everyone has a right to the environmental information they hold.  Even private water and sewage companies can be considered public bodies under the regulations.

    We often describe WhatDoTheyKnow.com as a Freedom of Information website, but it can be used to obtain public information under a range of access to information legislation, not just the UK and Scotland’s Freedom of Information Acts. So if you want environmental information about sewage we’d love to see you requesting it, in public, via WhatDoTheyKnow.

    We’ve listed water companies on WhatDoTheyKnow for some time, and we have now specifically collected those responsible for sewers into their own category. This will hopefully assist people considering making a request for information and help ensure requests are directed to appropriate organisations.

    We’ve also generally improved our categorisation of water companies and have made a specific list of general regional water suppliers available.

    We’re always keen to see requests made in a responsible manner. Anyone considering making a request for information should check relevant bodies’ websites for the information they are seeking  before making a request. Some organisations publish some information about releases of untreated raw sewage, and information about their plans to monitor, and reduce, such occurrences.  Where information is collated by a central body, requesting it once, from that body, is more efficient than requesting it from many bodies. The Environment Agency for example collates and publishes some data on storm overflows centrally.

    We list the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Highways bodies (which are responsible for surface drainage from roads), and many other relevant bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Before making your own requests it’s a good idea to look at work which has already been done by others to collate, present and share information: for example the Rivers Trust have published a map of where the sewerage network discharges treated effluent and overflows of untreated effluent and storm water into rivers in England & Wales.

    The current interest in this subject in the UK has focused on MPs’ consideration of the Environment Bill. Proposals for the Bill include provisions requiring the publication of information on the location of “storm overflows” and the frequency, duration and volume of discharges from such overflows.  We’re keen to see timely proactive publication of information rather than having information only released on request; we’re more than happy to see the need for our service reduced by greater proactive transparency from public bodies.

    We would like to see news articles, campaigners and academics citing, and linking to, the sources of the data on which their work is based. This improves the credibility of the work, and enables others to check, and build on, what has been done. Requesting information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes such citations and links easy to offer.

    Image: Ivan Bandura

  6. Now you can ask coroners to provide information, through WhatDoTheyKnow

    Coroners have a key role: they investigate deaths and make recommendations for making society safer, addressing issues which have led to potentially avoidable deaths.

    Despite this, coroners, and coroners’ offices, are surprisingly not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow.com we list many public bodies which don’t actually fall under Freedom of Information law as part of our advocacy for greater transparency.

    While, over time, we’ve listed a number of coroners following requests from our users, volunteers have recently significantly improved our coverage and we now believe we comprehensively cover all coroners in the United Kingdom (in Scotland the Procurator Fiscal performs a role analogous to that of a coroner). You can view the full list on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    What do coroners do?

    According to the Government, coroners investigate deaths that have been reported to them, if it appears that:

    • the death was violent or unnatural
    • the cause of death is unknown, or
    • the person died in prison, police custody, or another type of state detention

    Coroners investigate to find out who has died; how, when, and where. They also, rather excitingly, have duties relating to treasure and inquests are held to determine if material found should be defined as such, as well as establishing who found it, where and when.

    Coroners around the country have different systems and the degree to which they proactively publish their findings varies. So, as with requests to any public body, you should check their website — if they have one — to see if the information you are seeking has been published before making a request. Often a coroner’s website might be a page, or pages, within a local council site.

    Coroners’ Reports to Prevent Future Deaths, and responses to them, are sometimes published by the Chief Coroner on the Judiciary website. Statistical information on the work of coroners is published by the Ministry of Justice.

    What information might be requested from a coroner?

    • Information about upcoming inquests and hearings.
      • Even where a coroner publishes an online listing, you might want to seek more information so that cases of interest can be identified (asking for the “brief circumstances” of a death, for example).
      • You might want to ask for information about upcoming inquests relating to those who died in state custody, or those relating to deaths in, or following, collisions on roads — or any other category.
      • Or you could request the policies relating to publicising upcoming hearings, to determine if any online listing is comprehensive for example, or to find out if there are mechanisms in place to inform certain people about upcoming hearings. The content of recent notifications of upcoming hearings could be requested.
    • The formal “Record of Inquest” relating to a particular case
    • Reports to Prevent Future Deaths and responses to those reports Though note that, where a response is from a public body which is subject to Freedom of Information law, making a request to that body might be the best approach.
    • Documents relating to particular investigations Regulation 27 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 states: “The coroner may provide any document or copy of any document to any person who in the opinion of the coroner is a proper person to have possession of it”.
    • Information relating to reports of treasure received and the coroners’ findings in those cases.
    • Information about decisions made by a coroner These can include decisions to exhume a body, discontinue an investigation, or to hold all, or part, of an inquest in private.
    • Correspondence to/from the Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroners.
    • Information about the administration of the coroners’ service You might want to ask for information relating to a coroners’ pay, expenses, costs, fees charged, and for information on their performance. Some requests of this nature might be better directed to the relevant local council.

    Pracicalities of requesting

    While increased transparency surrounding the circumstances of deaths can lead to safety improvements throughout society —  for example in our industrial workplaces, hospitals and roads — the families of the deceased do of course deserve sensitivity and respect. We’d suggest that all those requesting, or acting on, information from coroners which relates to people’s deaths should be considerate of that.

    Coroners will not be used to receiving requests for information made in public via our service. If you are one of the first people to do so, there may be some initial difficulties. Please let us know how you get on: we would be interested in hearing about your experiences.


    Image: Thomas Hawk (CC by-nc/2.0)

  7. 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 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 Conlan …(See Github for the full list of contributors to the code!) the site is supported by the whole mySociety team, including designers Zarino Zappia 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.
  8. A new call to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team

    We’re seeking people to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team, dealing with the day-to-day administration of the site.

    Over seven million people viewed our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow last year; it now hosts almost 500,000 requests for information and has around 150,000 registered users. The site, which is managed on a day-to-day basis by volunteers, is continuing to grow.

    Last year we ran a successful call for volunteers which led to a new cohort of people joining the core volunteer team, and a number of others taking on associated roles.

    We have decided to make the call for volunteers an annual event, as it’s always useful to have more people involved in running and improving the service. The site’s growth isn’t the only factor: people move on, circumstances change, and there’s always a need to keep the pool of volunteers topped up.

    Volunteers, like mySociety staff, work remotely from home, and can pick the days or hours that suit them best. There is no set number of hours required.

    Administrator roles

    Would you be interested in joining the team as an administrator? Currently that role involves:

    • Considering, and acting on, requests to remove material from our site The material in question could be something big (like the accidentally released personal information of thousands of staff at a public body), something small (such as an individual’s phone number), or, to give a recent example, the address of a vice-chancellor’s official on-campus residence which the university doesn’t think should be published.
    • Assisting users with using our site, providing advice on requesting information and helping resolve basic issues with their accounts.
    • Managing the service by resending bounced emails, dealing with messages that public bodies have misdirected, and maintaining and extending the database of public bodies which the site relies upon.

    Other roles

    Due to the requirements attached to their grant funding, the efforts of mySociety’s paid staff are currently focused on developing the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service and supporting deployments of our Alaveteli FOI software in other countries. To support the operation of WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK we’d also like to find volunteers could take on some additional roles. If your skills fit any of the descriptions below, you’d make a great addition to the team:

    • Team administrator  Could you help us keep track of legal deadlines, organise (and perhaps chair or minute) our regular team meetings and ensure we follow up on outstanding items?
    • Volunteer developer It would be useful if we had volunteers able to make tweaks to the site’s software to support the growth of the site and the work of the other volunteers. Tasks could include improvements to the administration interface, and making updates to the static pages on the site.  This role would provide an opportunity to get experience working with mySociety’s highly professional development team, or offer a chance for an experienced developer to help out a team working on an impactful civic project.
    • Strategic fundraiser Could you help us obtain the funds we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow.com running and ensure that the operation is sustainable as it grows? This would be an opportunity to work with volunteers, and you’d also work in tandem with mySociety staff, including the professional fundraiser we’re currently also seeking to recruit.
    • Documentation specialist The volunteer team, along with mySociety’s staff and trustees, have developed a substantial number of policies governing how the site is run. These are filed in the staff Wiki, and also, where possible, made public on the site. Tending to both these aspects of our documentation would be a great help to the team, and to users.
    • Public body database administrator Behind WhatDoTheyKnow is perhaps the largest database of public bodies in the UK — would you like to help maintain and improve it? There may be opportunities to support new WhatDoTheyKnow Pro features which are in development, for example by curating lists/groups of public bodies.
    • Regional, or sector, specialist Would you like to join us and help improve our service in a particular geographic or sector area? Perhaps you would like to help ensure we have full coverage of public bodies in, say, Manchester, and ensure they’re well described.
    • Journalistic / communications volunteers We would like to do more to promote and encourage high quality use of our site, for example though a regular blog post pointing to notable responses received each month.

    Requirements

    If you’d like to join us, and think you’ve got something to offer, then please do get in touch.

    There are no formal requirements for our volunteer roles, although due to the way we work the ability to write clear, professional, emails is essential; and when corresponding with our users we need excellent communicators who are able to provide to support to people from a broad range of backgrounds.

    A number of our current volunteers had not made significant of use of the service themselves before joining the team. You don’t need to be an avid Freedom of Information requestor, activist, campaigner or journalist to join us; but if you are, that’s great too.

    While we do need people who can regularly share the workload associated with dealing with incoming user support, and takedown requests, there are also opportunities to carry out self-contained projects, or help out on an occasional basis.

    What are the benefits?

    While these are unpaid positions, you may enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting a service that is of help to the UK population, often empowering users to uncover information that would otherwise remain unknown.

    All at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are immensely grateful for the work put in by volunteers: their contributions release mySociety staff and the rest of the team to focus on elements of the service where their skills are best used.

    But there are some fringe benefits, too:

    • You’ll gain experience in running a high traffic website processing a high level of user-generated content.
    • You’ll work as part of the team on often complex cases involving data protection law, defamation law, and sometimes requiring tricky journalistic and moral judgments.
    • You’ll take a vital role supporting a key part of the UK’s democratic and journalistic infrastructure, helping at the front line of tackling fake news, and helping inform public debate on a wide range of important matters from security and defence to benefits, health and care.

    WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have gone on to careers in the law, and experience with the team may well be useful for those considering entering journalism, or roles in information management.

    Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.

    While our volunteer roles are unpaid there are funds available to cover travel and training costs.

    Applying

    Please write to us by the 23rd of April 2018, introducing yourself, letting us know about any relevant experience and skills you have, and telling us how you think you may be able to help out. If you’ve made use of our service, or FOI, do tell us about that: we’re always interested in hearing users’ stories.

    Other ways to help

    If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps you could:


    Image: Clark Tibbs

  9. ATOS, Capita, PIP… and some persistent FOI requests

    An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.

    Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.

    In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.

    The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.

    The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.

    This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

    A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.

    That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

    Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.

    On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.

    The committee are currently in correspondence with the Government over redaction, and arrangements for access to the material.

    The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:

    A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.

    – so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.

    Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.

    He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.


    Image: John-Mark Kuznietsov (Unsplash)

  10. NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve just listed Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on our UK Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com. These new bodies bring together NHS organisations and local councils with the aim of better co-ordinating health and care services in England (see NHS England’s webpage introducing them).

    In most parts of the country Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships are unimaginatively named. In a few places though the bodies have been more adventurous: we have the bold and strident sounding Success Regime Essex, as well as Together We’re Better in Staffordshire, Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway, Joined Up Care Derbyshire and one called BOB.

    Some of these bodies appear to be just coming into being, with almost nothing about them online at all and others are more established with staff, websites, boards and published meeting minutes. When researching these organisations we found a handful offered Freedom of Information contact addresses, and commendably Kent and Medway’s even has a log of responses it has already made to FOI requests.

    Most Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships will be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) law as all their members are public bodies. Some may not be subject to FOI though, for example Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership appears to have private company Virgin Care as a member, exempting it from the relevant definition; we list the body on WhatDoTheyKnow anyway as part of our activism seeking to expand the scope of the law.

    What information will a Sustainability and Transformation Partnership hold?

    A few partnerships publish their key governance documents (constitutions, terms of reference, memoranda of understanding), and minutes and papers from their boards; these can give an insight into the organisation’s activities and reading them may suggest information which could be made public via a Freedom of Information request. If the basics of board minutes, and governance documents aren’t published you can use WhatDoTheyKnow to get them online and easily for everyone to access.

    FOI responses from Kent and Medway show large sums of money being paid to “consultants/external advisory firms” to develop a Sustainability and Transformation Plan and hint at bodies elsewhere doing similar. Freedom of Information requests could be made to partnerships elsewhere to ask for information on their budgets and spending.

    The future

    It is anticipated that Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships may “evolve” into “Accountable Care Organisations” ACOs, responsible for all public healthcare in a region; this would make them immensely important public bodies.

    We’ll keep an eye on the organisational changes and try to keep our service up-to-date.
    Maintaining the database of public bodies is a key part of running WhatDoTheyKnow; we have to react to reorganisations in the public sector, and bodies forming, merging, changing their names or ceasing to exist.

    NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

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    Image: LydiaShiningBrightly (CC-by/2.0)