1. Climate month notes #2: kind of tedious, kind of magical

    This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.

    As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.

    Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.

    First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.

    Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.

    He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Map showing the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.

    This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.

    Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth  to produce a checklist for the plans.

    We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.

    As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:

    “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”

    Image: Tim Rickhuss

  2. One month in: how the refusals tool is helping people appeal FOI requests

    A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we’d added new functionality to WhatDoTheyKnow to help people challenge FOI refusals. In fact, this tool had been quietly rolled out at the end of May, giving us a little time to ensure everything was working before we shared it. 

    It tries to detect which exemptions were applied where information was withheld, and provides advice on next steps. This might involve making a revised request or asking for clarification, and the tool can also provide text fragments to use in a request for an internal review of the decision. 

    It is early days, but just in the last month users have sent 158 requests for internal review after seeing this advice. Most of these are still waiting for a reply, but around a third (16) of complete internal reviews have led to an improvement in the amount of information released. This is above the monthly average for the last year, but we need to wait for more data to determine if this will represent a sustained increase in the success of appeals. 

    As time goes on, we will be able to examine whether specific bits of advice or challenges to particular kinds of refusals are more likely to be successful than others. The goal is to give requesters the knowledge required to successfully challenge incorrect use of exemptions, and increase the percentage of internal reviews made through WhatDoTheyKnow that successfully lead to more information being released, either through increasing the quality and substance of appeals, or reducing appeals where exemptions have been applied correctly. 

     

    Process Requests
    Total number of times refusal advice acted on 415
    Total number of times internal review submitted after acting on refusal advice 158
    Internal review requested and awaiting response 108
    Internal review completed, no improvement 34
    Internal review completed, improvement over last status 16

     

    Image: Waldemar Brandt

  3. Lost in Europe: a cross-border investigation into missing children

    It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.

    According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.

    Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.

    Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.

    We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.

    These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.

    Local knowledge

    There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.

    Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.

    This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:

    • Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
    • Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
    • Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership

    The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.

    In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.

    The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.

    The requests

    Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio

  4. Rewild road verges with FixMyStreet

    At this time of year, when plants run rampant, we see two common types of report on FixMyStreet: those asking their councils to mow the local verges, and those asking them why they have cut the wildflowers and grasses back.

    After talking to British wild plant conservation charity Plantlife, we find ourselves very much in favour of letting these small patches of wild flora thrive. Yes, mowed verges might look neater, but when those plants are left to grow as nature intended, great things happen.

    Not just a pretty place

    According to Plantlife, more than 700 of species of wildflower can be found alongside UK road verges. If they’ve been left unmown in your neighbourhood, you’ll know that in these summer months they really are beautiful, with poppies, convolvulus, meadowsweet, celandine, thrift, clover and harebells (to name but a few) scattering a variety of colour through the grasses.

    But there’s more than the visual appeal: these verges also improve air quality, buffer noise, and give a home to precious insect life.

    With the correct verge management, Plantlife estimates that the 313,000+ miles of rural road verges in this country could become a sanctuary for 400 billion more wild flowers, as well as providing a habitat to all the bees, birds, butterflies and many other creatures that count on such flowers to survive.

    A change of direction

    So given all these benefits, why aren’t councils already leaving their verges to grow?

    In some cases it’s the perceived expense of specialist equipment; in others it’s the fear that longer grass creates road safety issues (such as a lack of visibility at junctions) or attracts litter. Sometimes, it simply comes down to residents preferring closely mown grass.

    As Plantlife points out in their Managing Grassland Road Verges guide though, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. There are lots of ways that councils can easily, safely and cost-effectively manage road verges to encourage wildflower growth, without compromising on the ‘neat’ look of an area and still ensuring safety.

    Wild verges aren’t left entirely to their own devices: they just require a different regime of care, and still get cut back — just in a way that encourages biodiversity.

    The picture is changing. Freedom of Information data collected by The Press Association earlier this year revealed that 7 in 10 councils are already taking steps to encourage wildflowers on road verges.

    That being the case, giving your support by requesting a wildflower road verge in your local area could help to move those steps along and sow the seeds of better wildflower road verge management in places where opinions are still divided.

    How to request a wildflower road verge via FixMyStreet

    1. Go to fixmystreet.com or open the FixMyStreet app.
    2. Enter the area or postcode of the road verge, or if you’re making the report on-the-go and you’re (safely!) standing right by the verge, you can select ‘use my current location’.
    3. Drag the pin across the map to the exact location of the road verge and hit ‘continue’.
    4. Select a category. It’s worth noting that categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. For this reason, you might be able to select a specific verge-related category, such as ‘verges’ ‘wildlife verges’ or ‘grass verges’, but if your council hasn’t supplied us with a designated category for verges, you might need to select one such as ‘roads’ or ‘other’.
    5. Add a photo of the verge if you want to. If not, click ‘continue’ again.
    6. In the ‘Summarise your problem’ box, type a title such as ‘Wildflower road verge request’.
    7. In the ‘Explain what’s wrong’ box, tell your council the reasons why you would like to encourage it to manage the road verge in a way that maximises flowering plant diversity. See Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign for advice – you could even link to it to help the council get the guidance they need.
    8. Once you’re ready, click ‘continue’, fill in your details (if you’re not already logged in) and then hit ‘Submit’ to complete your request.
    9. Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign also has posters you can print out and display in your window, if you’d like to get your neighbours on board.
    10. Experiencing pushback or (almost worse) no response from your council? Try getting your MP or local councillors to join your call, using WriteToThem.com.

    We hope that many of you will join this campaign for wilder verges — and that there will be a glorious surge in the numbers of flora and fauna across the UK as a result.

  5. A new home for KeepItInTheCommunity

    KeepItInTheCommunity, the site that maps Assets of Community Value and other community-owned spaces and places, is moving to a new home with the Plunkett Foundation.

    It was, in fact, Plunkett that first helped us conceive and scope KIITC (pronounced by mySociety staff, affectionately, as ‘Kitsy’); it was funded by Power to Change and launched in 2018.

    The vision was, and still is, to provide a UK-wide map of assets across England, bringing together fragmented information from the country’s many local councils, and underpinned by a consistent data standard. This allows for countrywide analysis, comparisons and research.

    On an individual level, it also allows citizens of England to search for local spaces and places in their area, check the status — do they have active ACV status or not? — and add photos, more detailed information, or missing assets to the map.

    A perfect match

    Now KIITC is moving across to Plunkett, who work closely with community organisations, in particular pubs and community shops, to help them with skills, training and general organisational support. As you can see, they’re a perfect match for the project.

    In this new home, KIITC’s data can be kept better updated and even expanded to be more useful to the organisations running and managing community spaces.

    Places and spaces

    KIITC wasn’t coded from scratch: the underlying codebase is the open source FixMyStreet platform, showing once again how this can be purposed for any project that allows users to place assets on a map, adding details and photographs.

    We’re glad to say that the site will continue to fulfil all the same purposes for which it was conceived. As we transfer the site to its new home, please direct any enquiries to the Plunkett Foundation.

    Image: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

  6. A tool to help challenge FOI refusals — now on WhatDoTheyKnow

    If you’ve recently received a refusal to a Freedom of Information request you sent through WhatDoTheyKnow, you might have noticed our latest feature.

    As mentioned in a previous blog post we’ve been working on functionality to help people challenge refusals, and the first iteration of this is up and running.

    You might now see an automated notice above a refusal, identifying which exemption may have been applied. These are visible only to the person who made the request, and do not appear in every case; see more about that below.

    An alert saying "Bristol City Council may have refused all or part of your request under Section 43, Section 41, and Section 42. Get help to challenge it."

    Click ‘get help to challenge it’ and you’ll be presented with a series of questions about your request and the reply you received from the authority, to see whether there is any scope for a challenge.

    questions about the FOI request, including 'is the information that you requested commercial in nature?' and 'is the information yuo requested a contract?' from WhatDoTheyKnow

    Your answers to these questions will generate tailored advice on what to do next, also presenting you with editable fragments of text that you can use to get started with any challenge or request for clarification.

    Dear Bristol City Council, Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews. I am writing to request an internal review of Bristol City Council's handling of my FOI request 'property purchase - valuations, terms of sale and contracts'. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is commercially sensitive, disclosure would be, or would be likely to be, prejudicial to the commercial activities of a person (an individual, a company, the public authority itself or any other legal entity)". This response does not appear to have included such details, so I am requesting that you conduct an internal review, and, if the exemption is upheld, show how the release would be prejudicial to commercial activities, and of whom.

    What’s the thinking?

    WhatDoTheyKnow has always existed to make it easier for anyone to make an FOI request, without having to be an expert in the law.

    We think we’ve got the initial part of that down pretty well (with the obvious caveat that there are always improvements to be made) — but up until now we haven’t directed a lot of attention to what happens after the authority responds.

    Even for seasoned users of FOI, but especially for those new to the whole area, it is daunting to receive a refusal from an authority. By their nature, FOI responses contain some legalese, and this can be enough to make the best of us think, ‘Ah well, they probably know more about it than I do’ — and give up.

    But another way of looking at it is that this legalese is there to help you. A body can’t just turn down your request because it doesn’t want to answer it: it has to say which exemption it is using under FOI law. If you know your way around that law, it is the key to understanding what to do next, and in fact, it’s this legal bumph that our code will be using to check what questions to ask you.

    Before we introduced this intervention, a good number of users just gave up when they received a refusal from an authority — and that’s fair enough. We’d been directing users to a generic help page with details of what options are broadly available for challenging a refusal, but only the very determined would take it further.

    And as we mentioned in our previous post, 22% of internal reviews (where you ask the request to be examined again, by a different member of staff at the authority) result in the full or partial release of information. It’s clear that bodies can, and do make mistakes sometimes.

    Our new functionality helps you discern where that might have happened, and put together a decent challenge.

    How it works

    When an FOI request is refused, the authority have to give the reason, and this has to be one of a set number of ‘exemptions’ — clauses in the FOI Act that list the circumstances under which an authority is not obliged to disclose information.

    Our code scans the response to identify which exemption/s have been applied. Remember, though, that this is just an automated best guess, so it’s still very much up to the user to check whether it’s correct!

    At the next stage the user will be asked: “Did the authority mention any of these exemptions when refusing your request?” and there is the chance to remove exemptions if they’re wrong, and add any that haven’t been picked up by the code.

    Checkboxes on WHatDoTheyKnow asking the user to confirm which exemption their request has ben refused under

    Then, informed by guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the identified exemption, we present a series of questions which should help you understand whether there are grounds for asking for an internal review.

    Depending on your answers, you’ll see some advice. This might simply tell you that the exemption seems to have been applied correctly; it might advise you to ask the authority to clarify areas where their response is unclear, or it could point out where it appears that there has been an error on the part of the authority.

    Image saying 'you may have grounds for an internal review' followed by four sentences saying much the same, on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Note the various variations on ‘you have/may have grounds for an internal review’ — this is because each conclusion has been generated by a different response to one of the questions. In this example, the user has four different potential challenges to the refusal:

    • The exemption seems to have been incorrectly applied
    • The authority hasn’t provided some evidence that they should have
    • The user has identified something about the contract that means the exemption shouldn’t have been applied to every part of it
    • The authority hasn’t demonstrated that disclosure would be prejudicial to business interests

    Whew! But if that’s a little overwhelming, there’s still some more support for the user.

    Click ‘request an internal review’ and you’ll be shown some fragments of text you can copy and paste into your reply to help you start composing it. These are just prompts: they can be edited or overwritten to reflect your specific situation, and to allow you to express yourself in the language you’d ordinarily use.

    Selection of different types of challenge to an FOI refusal, on WhatDoTheyKnow, eg "The authority refused to disclose the requested information on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to business interests, but has not demonstrated the likelihood of this prejudice occuring. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is comme... Read more"

    Know your exemptions

    Some exemptions are used far more commonly than others: for example we discovered when we began this work that the most often applied was the Section 12 exemption, ‘where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit’ — that is, responding in full would cost the authority too much in terms of expense or manhours.

    Other common exemptions are Section 14 (turning down ‘vexatious’ or repeated requests for the same information); Section 40 (where the release would contain someone’s personal information); and Section 21 (where the information is already available elsewhere).

    It’s worth knowing basic facts around exemptions: for example, if some of the information you’ve requested is covered by an exemption (say, a portion of it would contain personal information) the authority should still be releasing the rest. And if they tell you it’s available elsewhere, they should also do all they can to point you to the relevant place.

    Some exemptions require a public interest test, where the authority must weigh up whether it is more beneficial for society as a whole to release the information than it is beneficial under the conditions of the exemption to refuse it. An example may be where the information relates to the UK’s defence capability, but would reveal something so important for the public to be aware of that any potential threat to national security is outweighed.

    For this first stage of the new functionality, we covered the 13 most commonly used exemptions out of the full 27. Also, our tool might miss some exemptions. If that’s the case, or the exemption can’t be identified, you simply won’t see anything on the request.

    Sharing knowledge

    The ICO provides detailed guidance for authorities about each exemption, and this has also proved invaluable for us as we strive to point out where there may be room for requesting a review. As we’ve learned while creating this functionality, law is not precise: in many cases it is open to interpretation, and legal challenges at tribunal act as precedents, helping to consolidate its exact meaning. The ICO guidance is basically an attempt to unify such interpretation.

    But the average person may not have the time to read up on the ins and outs of how this exemption or that should be applied, so we hope our sets of questions will give you a short cut towards understanding whether there’s a valid challenge to be made. Eventually, we hope it’s not too bold to suggest, the functionality may even increase the public’s understanding of FOI.

    We are, of course, keen that this initiative doesn’t place an extra burden on authorities. The mechanism should work just as well in pointing out where the authority has acted correctly, and so discourage pointless challenges.

    Where requests for internal reviews are made, the result should be that they are better informed, clearly structured and based on valid challenges. In time, this feature may even have the knock-on effect that authorities are incentivised to improve their initial responses, taking more care that exemptions are correctly applied.

    We know this isn’t perfect yet, so if you’re from an authority and you want to share feedback, please do let us know. And if you’re a member of the public and you see anomalies in the wording or interface, please do also get in touch. You can contact us here.

    Image: Andrew Fleming (CC by-nc/2.0)

  7. WhatDoTheyKnow and the Wikipedia citation

    Wikipedia is ‘the world’s largest and most-read reference work in history’.

    Fundamental to keeping its articles accurate and trustworthy is its policy that all information must be supported by citations — links to independent, third party sources to verify that statements are factual.

    Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, as an archive for information released by authorities, has been cited in countless Wikipedia articles, playing a part in combatting misinformation and allowing interested readers to discover more about the topic they’re perusing.

    And unlike certain publications (including some UK national newspapers), it’s happily accepted as a reliable source (rightly so when you think about it, of course — all the information we publish is coming straight from the horse’s, or rather the authority’s, mouth, with no journalistic spin).

    All that being so, we were curious to see what sort of responses were linked to, and why. Having spent some time clicking through some of those tiny footnotes, we’re pleased to present a selection of the more interesting Wikipedia articles that link to WhatDoTheyKnow as a citation.

    What’s the going rate for this unique job?

    The College of Arms is allied to the Royal Household; it’s an ancient institution that deals with the granting of new coats of arms, the official register of peers, the flying of flags and other such matters of pomp, circumstance and heraldry.

    Coat of ArmsTry explaining to its founders, back in the 1480s, that they would one day be documented on Wikipedia — and that sums paid by HM Treasury to the current Garter King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock, would be available to everyone publicly, thanks to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The Treasury provides a useful note: “It might be helpful if we explain that the Garter King provides a variety of work for the Government including, but not confined to, providing advice  on  the use/misuse and the protection of Royal Arms, reviewing evidence for Peerage claims, and designing new coats of arms. In addition, he has a key role at many ceremonial occasions including the State Opening of Parliament.”

    We always applaud an authority going out of their way to give context to a response.

    Are they watching us watching them?

    TV licensing is a topic that brings a lot of visitors to browse responses on WhatDoTheyKnow, probably because it’s an area that by its very nature is shrouded in uncertainty.

    Photo of a TV detector van by EagleashCan detector vans really tell if you are watching television without a licence — and if so, how? How many prosecutions have there been for non-payment? Does the BBC monitor anti-licence campaigns?

    Much of our understanding about the workings of the licensing system have come from, or been verified by, FOI responses.

    The Wikipedia entry on TV licensing in the UK links to WhatDoTheyKnow in no fewer than 36 of its 232 citations. These include the following nuggets:

    …and many more.

    Bordering on classified information

    Border Five is an informal forum on customs and border management policy issues, made up of the Department of Home Affairs (Australia); the Canada Border Services Agency; The New Zealand Customs Service; The United Kingdom UK Border Force; and the US Department of Homeland Security.

    Southern edge (customs border) of Captain Cook wharf, Ports of Auckland, New Zealand. An electric fence is faintly visible behind the historical fence - image by IngolfsonHow to verify that these are indeed the member bodies? With this FOI response from the Home Office.

    Clearly, border security is a sensitive issue, and much of the other information requested here — such as the topics discussed and people present at meetings — was refused with a response that they could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether the information is held.

    On the rails

    Image by Andy Brass. The Victoria Viaduct, part of the Leamside Line discontinued railwayDisused railway track the Leamside Line is safeguarded from future building developments, Network Rail confirmed.

    Here is an example of an authority complying with the FOI Act despite the fact that at the time of the request they were not subject to it: as they state at the beginning of their response “Although we are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, we work to disclose information as if we were”.

    Subsequently Network Rail was, in fact, deemed to be subject to FOI, as explored by our researcher Alex in this post.

    Something special

    Special Constable insignia - chart from the Wikipedia pageSpecial constables are unpaid, volunteer members of the police force, and they have their own insignia, which vary from place to place.

    Ranks are marked via the designs on their epaulettes, as depicted in this table which cites many FOI requests to the various forces — it’s possible that a contributor to this Wikipedia page submitted a series of requests specifically for the purpose of helping compile the collection.  Here’s an example request, with a photograph of the insignia they provided viewable here.

    Banner image: Futureatlas (CC- by/2.0). Coat of Arms: Sodacan (CC by-sa/3.0); Detector van: Eagleash (CC by-sa/4.0); Border fence Ingolfson; Leamside Line: Andy Brass (CC by-sa.2.0); Special Constable insignia chart taken from the Wikipedia page

  8. What they don’t know: “information not held” responses

    Under the Freedom of Information Act, you have the right to ask public authorities for information. If they hold the information you’ve requested, in most cases they must release it.

    ‘If they hold it’ is a key point: of course, if the body doesn’t have the data you’re asking for, they can’t provide it, and accordingly, as permitted by Section 1(1) of the Act, they may issue an ‘Information not held’ response.

    For the person requesting the information, this can feel like a blow, but we suggest stopping and thinking… is it surprising, newsworthy even, that the public body didn’t hold the information expected?  Sometimes, it’s as interesting to know that an authority doesn’t collect or store a certain category of information as it would be to obtain it.

    Often, though, an ‘information not held’ response may simply be a sign that you should re-request the information from a different body. Given the complexity of government it’s not surprising requests are sometimes misdirected to bodies that don’t actually hold the information requested. Fortunately for request-makers, in such cases Section 16 of the Act requires public bodies to provide advice and assistance and point requesters in the right direction.

    Let’s take a look at a few recent examples where the fact that information isn’t held is at best surprising and at worst a matter of potential concern.

    An NHS Trust doesn’t have data on hospital ward deep cleans

    This request to Wirral University Teaching Hospital asked how many times the wards in Arrowe Park Hospital (one of this NHS Trust’s locations) had been deep cleaned in the months March to May 2020.

    The response states that the Trust does not hold this information:

    “Wirral University Teaching Hospital (WUTH) does not electronically collate this data, ward cleanliness activity is not measured or audited in this specific manor [sic].”

    We think this is interesting information in itself, but the Trust could also have gone into more detail about why such data isn’t collected: is it that deep cleaning doesn’t happen, or is it just not noted? Looking more closely at the wording of the response, perhaps it is recorded, but on paper rather than digitally.

    The request-maker didn’t actually specify that they wanted electronic data, so it is a little surprising that this has been assumed.

    A curious citizen could issue a follow-up request to find out more, or to ask for copies of paper records if they do exist. Equally, if they felt it worth further probing, they might draw this response to the attention to the local Healthwatch, or their local councillors who could look more deeply into the matter.

    DEFRA doesn’t have data on badger cull zone boundaries

    A citizen requested maps from DEFRA to show the boundaries of ‘badger cull zones’ from last year and the proposed ones for 2021. As this was a request for environmental information, it was handled under the EIR.

    DEFRA’s response quotes the exception at regulation 12(4)(a) of the EIR “which relates to information which is not held at the time when an applicant’s request is received”.

    As required by both the FOI and EIR Acts, DEFRA points the user toward the body that it believes will have such information, Natural England, giving them a good idea of what to do next in their pursuit of this data.

    In cases like these, where a request is repeated to another authority, we recommend the addition of annotations, linking each WhatDoTheyKnow request page to the other. Anyone can add an annotation, and it helps people discovering the information through, say, a search engine, to follow the request.

    The DWP doesn’t have data on frozen pensions

    This request seeks information from the Department of Work and Pensions about frozen state pensions, the UK practice of not uprating pensions according to the ‘triple lock’ system if the recipient lives in certain countries abroad.

    It would appear that the request-maker is wondering whether it would actually cost the authority less not to administer such freezes.

    The DWP state that they don’t hold information on the number of staff working specifically in this area:

    “As of March 2021, the DWP has over 90,000 employees spread across different professions (e.g. policy, legal, finance, and operational delivery).

    Many employees deal with a range of issues and do not exclusively focus on one aspect of the DWP’s work. Accordingly, we have no recorded information on how many employees are ‘required to deal with Frozen British Pensions’.”

    They did not provide similar detail on the other questions posed by the request-maker, who has now requested an internal review, a recourse when you believe your request has been handled wrongly.

    “I cannot believe that the DWP does not know the answers to my questions”, says the user in this request for a review. They might have been more precise about where the response has fallen short, but we’ll see whether this avenue is successful, presumably within the 20 working day limit advised by the ICO for internal reviews.

    DCMS doesn’t have data on differing COVID rules for football spectators

    A request-maker wonders why the rules around watching football differed depending on where the match is taking place — apparently grassroots football matches were being denied spectators because they were held on private grounds, while matches on public grounds could welcome a crowd:

    “Please provide evidence / reasoning on what the difference to the threat of Covid there is between private and public football pitches.”

    The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responds that it:

    “does not have information within scope of your request. This is because DCMS did not make the decisions on whether spectators may attend sporting events, but followed advice given by the Cabinet Office. This would have been a Cabinet Office decision based on evidence that they were privy to.”

    The response then provides an email address for that authority — though we are surprised that the Cabinet Office would not have consulted DCMS or at least provided them with their rationale for this policy.

    Have you had a notable ‘information not held’ refusal, or can you spot one in responses recently classified “not held” on WhatDoTheyKnow? If so, let us know, and we might cover it in a future post.

     

    Image: Nicholas Bartos

  9. Climate month notes: May 2021

    It’s been a busy couple of months for our climate work. We’ve been setting up our programme in earnest, recruiting for some exciting new roles, and getting new team members up to speed with the work we’ve done so far.

    One of the things we always try to do across all our projects is work in the open. That feels particularly important here, where we know there are so many other organisations doing work to support communities in local climate action that we can learn from, and that we want to support. So one of the things we’re going to try as a way of letting people know what we’re doing is writing a blog post like this each month, on what we’ve been doing, and what we’re thinking and talking about.

    Two weeks, three months, a year

    For an organisation that has a lot of well-known and long running services, it’s scary and exciting to be at the beginning of a big piece of work that’s new and relatively undefined. We know what we want to achieve, and at a high level, how we want to do that, but there’s lots to figure out in terms of how we get there, and who we should be working with.

    One question, when you’re starting a piece of work, is how much to plan. As Gareth, our Transparency Lead, has written about in more detail, we want to build to learn at this point, and that means being open to changing our ideas of what to do next, based on what we find out. We’re also working closely across different areas: service development, data, research, events planning, and communications, so we need to be able to map out some options for what we could do in each area, in order to knit together work across those different disciplines as we go along.  To that end, it feels useful to have a set of time horizons in mind, with the details of what you want to accomplish looser as the horizon gets further away. At the moment we’re actively thinking and talking about plans for the next two weeks, six weeks, three months, and a year at different levels of resolution.

    At the beginning of April, we finished writing up the initial discovery and prototyping work around climate action plans we did last autumn, and Zarino’s been picking up the early service development work and thinking about what we can do over the next three months to smooth out some of the rough edges to make it clear what the service is and to learn more about who’s using it so far, and what they’re using it for. Myf’s been thinking about how we’ll share it with people who could find it useful.

    Meanwhile, at Climate Emergency UK, our partners on the climate action plans service, Chloe Lawson has been meticulously going through the database behind the service, updating it with new climate action plans and excitingly, adding some progress reports from councils who are moving forward!

     

    Image: Nik Shuliahin

  10. Exploring information about Freedom of Information in the UK

    To understand the effectiveness of Freedom of Information laws requires good quality information about the volume of requests and how they are being processed.  Picking up on previous work investigating FOI statistics for central and local government, we have built a new minisite that covers Cabinet Office statistics on Freedom of Information in UK central government and OSIC statistics on Freedom of Information in Scotland. This site is up-to-date with 2020 statistics, and can be viewed at: https://research.mysociety.org/sites/foi-monitor

    We can do this because there are already sets of statistics gathered and publicly released for several groups of public authorities in the UK. But in most jurisdictions there is not good information about the overall working of the system, with data often limited to issues that are brought to the attention of the local equivalent of an Information Commissioner. In our recent report we made the case for more information gathering in the UK

    In the UK, there are two good partial sources of statistics about Freedom of Information requests. The Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner (OSIC) has a quarterly process where Scottish authorities deposit statistics about the SAR, FOI and EIR requests they have received, how they have been processed, and how exemptions and exceptions were applied.  For the rest of the UK, there is far less data on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. The Cabinet Office publishes a similar quarterly series covering FOI statistics covering requests made to a selection of central government ministries, departments and agencies.  

    In principle, FOI in the UK applies to far more public authorities than FOI in Scotland, but in terms of available information, the OSIC collects more information from more agencies. The Cabinet Office collects 76 sets of statistics from 40 agencies, while the OSIC collects 110 from 507. This means that the available picture of information on FOI is far more complete in Scotland. In both cases information is published and accessible as spreadsheets, making it possible to analyse differences between authorities and change over time. 

    However, this information is not always easy to understand or use. To generalise our previous analysis of Cabinet Office statistics, we have built a new minisite that also applies to information about Scottish authorities and in principle could be generalised for other jurisdictions. 

    This allows examination of trends in individual statistics (overall request volumes, how those requests were processed, or how individual exemptions were used) across sectors or individual authorities. These statistics are up to date with 2020 information. 

    We hope this will be a useful resource for all those interested in UK FOI statistics, and as a potential model for how FOI statistics collected can be made easier to access and understand.

    This site can be viewed at https://research.mysociety.org/sites/foi-monitor, and the source code is available on GitHub

    The creation of this mini-site was partially supported by a Adesssium grant.

    Header image: Photo by Tobias Messer on Unsplash