1. 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 Kieran and Richard 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)

  2. A volunteer talks at WhatDotheyKnow’s anniversary event

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

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

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

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

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

    The volunteer team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What are we doing by running our site?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Running the Site

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

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

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

    Ideas for the future

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

    • We could do even better at transparently running the site. We already try to run the site as transparently as we can; if we hide a message, or redact content from correspondence, we make clear where we’ve done so and explain why. We don’t though have a transparency report like Google and Reddit do, reporting on takedown requests, how many there have been, who they’ve come from – individuals, requesters, public bodies, public officials, regulated professionals, and how we responded. Requests for user data. One challenge is sometimes the moral thing to do is not shout about and draw attention to something we’ve taken down too quickly; don’t want to draw attention to taking down something that’s still in Google’s cache for example – if we really believe it shouldn’t be online any more.
    • We should do more to highlight excellent, interesting and influential, uses of the site. It would be great to have ways within the system to note when responses have been used by others, cited in Parliament, resulted in a news story, or if someone has analysed responses from a range of public bodies around the country for example.
    • We have volunteers, but there is no real community of users around the site, or around our lobbying activities, or, to the extent there has been in the past, a community – around mySociety any more. There’s an opportunity there..
    • I think we have a duty to be careful with the way the WhatDoTheyKnow pro-service is used. Anyone can sign up for a Gmail account and make requests; but we are doing more than Gmail to encourage and enable FOI requests, and not least the pro system is built on a largely volunteer built and maintained database. Use to-date has apparently been good, and we have a general principle of not spending time discussing hypothetical situations, but, in running the free site as volunteers we’ve always been mindful of the impact of our actions on our reputation, and the reputation of Freedom of Information law itself. For example we ask those considering bulk requests if they’ve carefully selected the set of bodies to make their request to, if the request could be made to a central body rather than lots of local bodies, if a sampling exercise would suffice instead of asking perhaps hundreds of bodies, and we advise on making clear requests in the first instance to reduce the need for clarifications – saving public bodies and requesters time and effort. [Update: following the event we agreed to update our House Rules to include a reference to our advice on making responsible and effective requests|]).
    • Lastly, on sustainable funding for the site, ideally I think this would be though a handful of media organisations, campaign groups, or other bodies paying for a pro-service; which would hopefully give them great value in terms of organising FOI requests, prompting them to chase up late requests, saving time finding contact details and easily making bulk requests. Perhaps as the number of individual users of the Pro service grows organisations will see the value of providing access to all their staff.
  3. 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

  4. 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)

  5. 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)

  6. Could you join the WhatDoTheyKnow team?

    About six million people a year visit mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com; there are well over 100,000 registered users, and over 385,000 requests have been made via the service.

    Of course, it’s fantastic that WhatDoTheyKnow is so well used, but the growth and popularity of the site brings its own challenges, not least the day-to-day admin that keeps the site running.

    Many aspects of the site’s operation are run by volunteers, supported by mySociety’s staff and trustees — and due to the site’s success we’re looking to expand the volunteer team.

    What does volunteering involve?

    The work is pretty varied, but there are some frequent and recurring tasks:

    Dealing appropriately with requests to remove material from the website

    This is one interesting challenge which arises fairly often. Sometimes these requests are from public bodies who’ve released information they didn’t mean to; and they can also come from individuals and companies who are named in correspondence on the site.

    These decisions are not always as black and white as you might expect. Some recent examples where we had to carefully consider the balance on both sides were:

    Responding promptly and accordingly to accidental releases

    Thankfully, the frequency with which public bodies accidentally release personal information in bulk via Freedom of Information responses is decreasing, but the WhatDoTheyKnow team still have to act promptly when this does occur.

    Supporting users

    We often help users on both sides of the FOI process. For requesters, we can answer questions about FOI and how to use it, and we also work with the staff of public bodies who are at the receiving end of requests.

    And all the rest

    There’s always more that can be done to promote the service, draw attention to interesting correspondence on the site, and lobby for improvements to our access to information laws.

    The wider team at mySociety help people around the world to establish and run their own online Freedom of Information services; and new features are being added to the UK site to make it more attractive to professional users such as journalists and campaign groups. Volunteers have the opportunity to get involved in these activities, helping steer the direction of new projects, based on their frontline experience of being a site administrator.

    Keeping the database of thousands of public bodies up to date is another challenge, especially given the frequency of reorganisations in the UK’s public sector.

    Commitments

    We work primarily by email, with regular video conferencing meetings, and occasionally meet up in person.

    As a volunteer, you can decide how much time you put in, and what aspects of running the service you decide to take part in — but ideally we’re looking for people who can spare at least an hour or two, a couple of days a week.

    We understand that people’s external commitments vary over time, and of course, there’s a flexible approach if a team member needs to step away for a stretch now and then.

    What makes a good WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer?

    There’s one characteristic that all the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have in common: a belief in the value of Freedom of Information, or, more widely, the expectation of transparency and accountability from the bodies which citizens fund.

    As for practical skills: perhaps you’ve been involved in moderating discussions on the web, or have experience with access to information, defamation, or data protection law. Or perhaps you have, or would like to gain, experience dealing with “customers” by email.

    Primarily we’re looking for people capable of making good judgements, and who can communicate clearly online.

    Before joining the team, new volunteers will have to agree to follow our policies covering subjects such as security and data protection. That said, part of the role may be, if desired, taking a part in developing and refining these, and other, policies as the service grows and changes.

    How to apply

    If helping us run WhatDoTheyKnow sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in doing, then please do apply to join us.

    We only have the capacity to bring on and train a few volunteers at a time, and it is important that those chosen to help administer the service are trustworthy and committed to its policies, direction and non-partisan stance. For these reasons, we are recruiting volunteers via a formal application process.

    To apply please write to us before the 20th of March 2017, introducing yourself, and letting us know about any relevant interests or experience you have.

    What do we offer in return?

    As a volunteer, the main reward comes from the satisfaction of assisting users, making good decisions, and helping run what is fast becoming a key part of the country’s journalistic and democratic infrastructure.

    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.

    Other ways to help out

    If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps there’s something on mySociety’s Get Involved page that is — or you could:

    Image: MarkBuckawicki [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

  7. Highlights from our Cambridge meet-up


    mySociety regularly holds events to discuss digital democracy, open data, civic coding and more. Earlier in November we were in Cambridge, UK.

    Here, in both video and quotes, are a few selected highlights from our speakers; including some of their lovely remarks about the work mySociety does.

    Peter Murry-Rust

    Speaking about The Content Mine

    mySociety is one of the most wonderful things to have come out of the bottom-up democratic movement in the UK and the UK is a shining light for the rest of the world. I’ve used WriteToThem on many occasions…. It just makes the whole business of contacting your representative so much easier. And I’ve also used a lot of WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests and again it’s absolutely brilliant. It makes the difference between doing it and not doing it.

    We’re going to liberate one hundred million facts per year from the scientific literature and we’re going to put them in Wikipedia or rather WikiData and we’re working closely with WikiData.

    What’s happened this year is the UK Government has pushed through copyright reform and it has given exemptions to copyright … We’ve got the law. The law hasn’t been tested. I am allowed to do it according to the law for non-commercial purposes. Elsevier says I can’t because they can stop me doing it under the law and we had a big public fight in London.

    Richard Taylor

    Speaking about TheyWorkForYou.com

    The thing I work on particularly on TheyWorkForYou is the statements we write on each MP’s page on how they voted. … This will be the first time we’re going into a general election in this country where the sitting MPs’ voting records are comprehensively easily accessible to the electorate.

    It’s really important to us that we’re impartial and non-partisan. So one of the things we had to think about when we were doing this was how do we even decide what topics to cover because we could be accused of being partisan just by what we decide to draw attention to. … Not all MPs attend all votes by any-means so we can use MPs’ own attendance at votes to give them some kind of ranking of importance.

    Everything that I do is available under an open licence so as long as you attribute where it has come from you can use it and do what you like with it. And hopefully people will do stuff with it as we run into the election.

    Mike Soper and Hendrik Grothuis

    Speaking about Cambridgeshire Insight

    If you think about something like FixMyStreet you can see where that application has had a very positive impact on local government, on councils.

    The idea is that pressure will come from the great British public at a local level to hold public sector organisations to account. In order to hold people to account you need information.

    Professor Shepherd several years ago realised, because he was a medical professor, that he was looking at facial injuries of people who had been injured by having beer glasses shoved in their faces during fights and recording meticulously the detail of these physical and working out that if you change the composition of the beer glass you can drastically reduce the severity of the injury.

    We’re getting support at a national level for the sort of work we are doing and the sort of line about trying to encourage openness and promote open data here in Cambridgeshire. We’re getting national support for that.

    More!

    Videos of full talks, including Q&A:

    Our next meet-up will be on 3rd December in Brighton. We’ll be joined by speakers Jason Kitcat, Eric Drass and our very own Dave Whiteland. Sign up to come along here.

  8. Parliament without Scottish MPs: how would it have looked different since 1997?

     

    An analysis, with code and data, of which Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted since 1997.

    By Richard Taylor and Anna Powell-Smith.

    Humble address in the House of CommonsPublicWhip is a wonderful thing. Founded and still run by independent volunteers, it contains the results of every House of Commons vote since 1997, scraped from the official web pages and presented as simple structured data. Here at mySociety, we’ve used it to power TheyWorkForYou for many years.

    Most recently, it helped our staffer Richard create the new voting analyses on TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages. Want a quick, simple summary of your MP’s voting history on same-sex marriage or climate change, or on any of 62 other major issues? You’ll now find the answer on your MP’s TheyWorkForYou page, all based on PublicWhip data.

    But here’s the most exciting thing about PublicWhip. If you know how to get around its slightly forbidding exterior, it contains a treasure-trove of data on MPs’ voting patterns, all structured, openly-licensed and ready for anyone to analyse.

    A data challenge

    Recently, while discussing the upcoming Scottish referendum, Richard posed a question to Anna: could PublicWhip data tell us which House of Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted?

    This is interesting because if the Scottish people vote “yes” to independence on September 18th, we may see (probably not as soon as 2015, but perhaps soon thereafter) a House of Commons without Scottish MPs. No-one really knows how such a Parliament would be different.

    While it was widely reported that that Scottish MPs’ votes carried the decision to introduce student tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England, those were just two high-profile votes. To our knowledge, no-one has published a comprehensive analysis of all votes that were carried by the Scottish MPs.

    The results

    Anna chose to accept Richard’s challenge, and to use PublicWhip data to carry out this analysis. You can see all their code, and the data they produced, on GitHub.

    The headline finding is that only 21 votes (out of nearly 5000 since 1997) would have gone differently if Scottish MP’s votes hadn’t been counted. This surprised Anna, who expected more.

    Secondly, if there’s any visible pattern, it’s that English MPs seem to have a stronger civil-libertarian bent than their Scottish counterparts. High-profile votes on 42-day detention, “glorifying terrorism”, allowing the Lord Chancellor to suspend inquests, and on control orders: according to Anna’s analysis, all would have gone differently if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber.

    Other than that – Anna comments – the key finding is perhaps the absence of any other strong trend.

    Here is the full list of votes that would have gone differently – click on the date to see the full vote details on PublicWhip. If Scottish MPs hadn’t been in the chamber:

    2010-date

    • 5 Sep 2014 The majority of MPs would have voted to send the Affordable Homes Bill to a Select Committee rather than a Public Bill Committee.
    • 29 August 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted to agree that a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was required from the international community, and that it may, if necessary, require military action. (You may remember that David Cameron called MPs back from their summer break to vote on this, and MPs rejected the motion.)
    • 29 Jan 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted against postponing a review of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies until 2018 and against delaying a review of the effect of reducing the number of MPs.
    • 31 Oct 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted against calling on the UK Government to seek a real-terms cut in the European Union budget.
    • 24 Apr 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted to require products containing halal and kosher meat to be labelled as such.
    • 24 Feb 2010 The majority of MPs would have voted for restrictions on the amount of carbon dioxide electricity generation plants are permitted to emit.

    2005-2010

    • 9 Nov 2009 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing the Lord Chancellor (a minister) to suspend an inquest and replace it with an inquiry and against allowing the use of intercepted communications evidence in inquests.
    • 8 Dec 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to immediately starting the proceedings of a committee of MPs to investigate the House of Commons procedures in light of the seizure by the police of material belonging to Damian Green MP.
    • 12 Nov 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require membership of new regional select committees to be determined taking account of the proportion of members of each party representing constituencies in the relevant region and for at least one member from each of the three largest parties to be on each committee.
    • 11 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted against extending the period of police detention without making any criminal charges of terrorist suspects from 28 days to 42 days.
    • 2 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require the National Policy Statement to contain policies which contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
    • 15 Mar 2006 The majority of MPs would have voted against a proposed timetable for the Parliamentary consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill.
    • 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted against making glorifying the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism an offence.
    • 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to make the offence of Encouragement of Terrorism only apply to cases where an individual intended their actions to encourage terrorism.

    2001-2005

    • 28 Feb 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to give a greater role to the courts in relation to the imposition of control orders.
    • 22 Apr 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against installing a security screen separating the public gallery from the House of Commons Chamber.
    • 31 Mar 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against the introduction of variable university tuition fees (top-up fees) of up to £3,000 per year in place of the previous fixed fee of £1,250 per year.
    • 27 Jan 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing university tuition fees to increase from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year, and against making other changes to higher education funding and regulation arrangements.
    • 19 Nov 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted against introducing NHS foundation trusts, bodies with a degree of financial and managerial independence from the Department of Health.
    • 4 Feb 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted for an 80% elected House of Lords.
    • 29 Oct 2002 The majority of MPs would have voted against starting sittings of the House of Commons on Tuesdays at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm.

    In the 1997-2001 Parliament, Anna’s code found no votes that would have had different results.

    IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER! We can’t conclude that all of the above would necessarily have become law if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber. Bills don’t become law until they have passed through the House of Lords – not to mention the many other forces of history that would have acted differently.

    Get the code and the data

    You can see the code used for this analysis, and the full datasets, on GitHub. You can adapt it yourself if you want to do your own analyses.

    This analysis is the work of one volunteer: we welcome any corrections. Like PublicWhip itself, the whole point is that it is out in open for anyone to analyse and improve.

    Image by Catherine Bebbington. Parliamentary copyright image reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

  9. Network Rail

    Today we’ve re-added Network Rail to the list of public bodies one can make requests for information from via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Network Rail owns, runs, maintains and develops most of the UK’s rail infrastructure including tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, viaducts. It owns almost all of the UK’s stations and manages the biggest and busiest.

    Network Rail is not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations however we use our site for activism by listing many bodies which are not formally subject to FOI or EIR. Some of these voluntarily comply with FOI, others don’t but we add them because we think they ought be subject to the Act on grounds such as:

    The degree to which Network Rail is a public body is a subject of controversy however a number of the criteria listed above clearly apply to the company.

    The Information Commissioner once ruled that Network Rail is a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations however this was overturned by a Information Tribunal Decision in 2007 .

    The tribunal decision noted:

    [Network Rail] is a major landowner whose estate … in the words of its website, includes “many sites of great environmental, geological, historical and architectural importance” as well as much contaminated land.

    The tribunal expressed a view the position of Network Rail in relation to access to information legislation is “clearly unsatisfactory”.

    Network Rail

    We originally added Network Rail to our site back in 2008 before we had developed the above policies and we closed it to new requests after the first request sent didn’t get a response.

    Recently there have been positive indications in relation to access to information held by Network Rail. On the 2nd of February 2012, transport minister Norman Baker speaking in Parliament said:

    Network Rail has promised that it is in the process of developing a voluntary information rights code, which will mirror many of the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. We welcome that initiative and believe that, if properly implemented, it will provide an alternative to legislation. We expect the company to introduce the code alongside a broader package of Government reforms later this year.

    This followed an earlier statement, from the 18th of January 2012, by Earl Attlee, answering a written question on behalf of the government:

    Network Rail is a private sector company. The Government have no current plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act to the company. However, we welcome the fact that Network Rail is taking steps to enhance its own transparency and is developing a voluntary publication scheme with which it will comply.

    The approved model publication scheme used by public bodies which have to have one states:

    Information held by a public authority that is not published under this scheme can be requested in writing…

    Hopefully our re-listing of Network Rail will help push Network Rail’s openness and transparency agenda along and enable our users to benefit from the new era of openness being promised within the company. Making correspondence related to requests for information publicly available via our site will enable everyone to see how it goes.

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow – Oral Evidence to MPs on First Five Years of FOI in the UK

    Alex Skene, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at the Justice Select Committee
    On the 21st of February 2012 Alex Skene, representing mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow, appeared in front of the UK Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. The MPs on the committee were holding an evidence session as part of their post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.

    Video of the session can be viewed online via ParliamentLive.TV and the BBC’s Democracy Live. A transcript of the session will become available via TheyWorkForYou, typically these take a week or two to be produced.

    Prior to the session WhatDoTheyKnow had submitted written evidence to the review making three main points:

    • The scope of the act should be extended to cover a wider range of public bodies.
    • Time limits should be introduced for public interest tests and internal reviews.
    • There is a need for more proactive publication of information, and a culture of openness and transparency needs to continue to be nurtured and extended within the UK’s public sector

    The committee appeared genuinely interested in finding out how FOI has performed to-date and how it can be improved.

    Supercharging FOI

    Alex told the committee that FOI enables evidence based policy making and empowers citizens; he said the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website supercharges the provisions of the FOI Act making it easier for people to take advantage of the right to access information which it gives them.

    Ghosts

    Elfyn Llwyd MP raised the question of vexatious and frivolous requests through the medium of ghosts. Asked if requests about ghosts could ever be justified Alex told MPs that it was hard to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable requests. He noted that one council had spent public money on an exorcism, so in that case there would be information held and an FOI request justified. He questioned if requests on ghosts were to be deemed unacceptable, what other areas might be excluded. UFOs? The MoD for a long period did have an office collating UFO reports, again there was public spending, and recorded information held, in this area. Homeopathy was also highlighted, that’s about as real as ghosts or UFOs, but again FOI requests about it must surely be permitted as significant amounts of taxpayers money are spent on it.

    Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was giving evidence alongside WhatDoTheyKnow took a stronger line. He described those who made FOI requests about ghosts as “idiots”; but also accepted it was hard, and undesirable, to try and outlaw requests on certain subjects. He added that such requests did not generally cost large amounts of money to deal with.

    Time Limits

    MPs on the committee appeared sympathetic to calls from the representatives of WhatDoTheyKnow and the Campaign for Freedom of Information to introduce stricter time limits. The need for time limits was brought into focus during the discussion of the time limits for prosecutions under S.77 of the Act (Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure), very few requests have gone through a response, and internal review, and the Information Commissioner within the time limit for launching a prosecution. An MP suggested making offences under S.77 triable in either a magistrates or a crown court so as to extend the time period while retaining consistency with the rest of the justice system.

    Fees

    When asked to comment on the idea of introducing fees for all FOI requests Alex said such proposals would be “devastating” and would deter many from making requests. Alex noted that the public had paid for the information in question already, via general taxation, and ought be able to access it.

    Exempting Universities

    When asked to comment on lobbying from universities to be exempted from FOI, Alex robustly defended their inclusion in the act, pointing to their role in controlling access to professions and awarding degrees. Maurice Frankel and Alex noted the universities’ argument that they were being funded by a decreasing fraction of public money wasn’t really relevant, as that is not the basis on which bodies are deemed to be covered by the Act.

    Extending Coverage of FOI

    The reach of FOI into commercial organisations carrying out work on behalf of public bodies was briefly discussed however notably there was little further discussion of extending the coverage of FOI, perhaps suggesting this may be a dedicated subject for future evidence session. This session was been described as the committee’s first, suggesting there will be more. At least one of these will presumably hear from the Information Commissioner.

    The written evidence we submitted can be read on page 81 of the compendium of submitted evidence (PDF).