1. Why can’t I send an FOI request to WhatDoTheyKnow?

    It’s a question which periodically arises from our users: why aren’t mySociety (and our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow) subject to the FOI Act?

    We can see why this is an obvious question to ask. We run a site which makes it easier for people to uphold their right to information from governmental bodies. We are quick to criticise if we feel that those bodies are not adhering to the law. And if you don’t follow the standards you set for others, you’re a hypocrite, right?

    But it’s also a question which fundamentally misunderstands the scope of the law, and the purpose of WhatDoTheyKnow. Since it came up again recently, we thought we’d answer it in a public blog post, so we can link here whenever it gets asked again in the future.

    The recurring question

    Here’s the question as it was posed in the comments to our recent post on proposed governmental FOI restrictions:

    As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

    Well, what would you like to know?

    We invited the commenter to ask us anything he would like to know, and he did so:

    Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?

    Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?

    In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:

    1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;

    2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.

    3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).

    Here’s the answer

    We responded as follows:

    Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”

    The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.

    For example, the development of all our projects1 is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.

    We do receive frequent requests from the public for information about our projects, data, methodology, research, rationale and many other topics which would fall both within and without the scope of the FOI Act. In all cases, unless it contravenes our privacy policy to do so (ie unless our users’ private data would be at risk), we will respond to the best of our abilities.

    Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/our parent organisation UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?’.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.

    [Note that, as a charity, our accounts are audited and published in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.]

    Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.

    We can’t answer that bit, though

    We were just about to provide the financial details asked for, when we realised that a couple of our contracts specifically forbade us from doing so.

    Unlike us, the local authorities for whom we provide services are subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.

    Here’s how we answered the final two questions, then:

    a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.

    The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.

    At this juncture, we think it is worth mentioning that the costs for installing and maintaining FixMyStreet for Councils (which are laid out here) are very reasonable when compared to those charged by the giants in local government provision. Seven or eight times more reasonable in some cases.

    Additionally, we encourage the use of the Open311 standard, which means that councils aren’t locked in to FixMyStreet forever, or solely. Once the Open311 endpoint is installed, other systems can easily connect.

    Ah, but we can help you access that information

    b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).

    Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.

    Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:

    Newly purchased:

    Harrogate Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    Greenwich Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)

    Annual support fee charged for existing installation:

    Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
    Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)

    New work done on existing installation:

    Oxfordshire County Council
    Warwickshire County Council
    Zurich City Council

    Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:

    Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)

    So there you go: that’s how we answered this particular request for information. We hope that, in doing so, we’ve also cleared up a few points for others who have wondered the same thing.


    1In fact, this should have read ‘nearly all our projects’. Internal codebases (eg for our organisational sites) and some commercial codebases (eg Mapumental) are private.

    Image: Magnus Akselvoll (CC)

  2. What can you add to TICTeC?

    tictec16TICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technology — and if you’ve got something to say about that, we’d love to see you there.

    Last year’s TICTeC saw a huge range of subject matter, including:

    • Keynotes from leaders in the field, Shelley Boulianne and Ethan Zuckerman
    • Experimenting with Facebook ads in Kenya, to see whether users could be encouraged to take a political action
    • A look at the demographics of who uses online democracy tools across different countries
    • A donor’s perspective on what makes for successful civic technology
    • And even crowdsourcing a map of public toilets in the UK

    Session leaders included representatives from MIT, the Oxford Internet Institute, the World Bank and even the Royal College of Art.

    If your research is just as interesting, and touches on the impacts of civic technology anywhere in the world, we’d love to hear from you.

    Oh, and did we tell you it’s in Barcelona? In spring time?

    Speakers will have free entry to the conference, and there’s also the chance for all attendees to be considered for travel grants.

    Submit your paper, or find out more about attending.

    Still not sure? Check out videos, photos and slide decks from last year’s TICTeC.

    Image: Robert Pittman (CC)

  3. What happens when you restrict Freedom of Information? Experiences from around the world

    Alongside several UK organisations, we’re campaigning against the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

    Now, the changes are just that – proposed ones – so you might think that it’s hard to do more than speculate over what they might mean for Freedom of Information in this country.

    But wait! Here at mySociety, we are in touch with people and organisations who run Freedom of Information websites all over the world. Many of them have seen the introduction of such restrictions (and some have successfully challenged them).

    So in this post, we gather together their experiences along with existing research, to provide evidence and context to the changes currently being discussed.

    Perhaps you’d like to use some of the following examples when you write to your MP.

    Ireland

    Image by Brad Herman. A rainbow over a river in Dublin.

    For a government to desire such restrictions is nothing new: a 2011 report by Toby Mendel for the World Bank* examines several countries which have been through exactly that (and, more cheerfully, lists those where the law was changed to extend FOI rights). One statistic stands out from that report:

    Emily O’Reilly, the Irish information commissioner, noted that the impact of the amendments had been to reduce the rate of requests by 50 percent, to decrease requests (other than those for personal information) by 75 percent, and to cause a drop of 83 percent in requests by the media—all within one year.

    Ireland introduced fees for initial requests, and also for any subsequent internal and independent reviews. They also extended protection to some government records showing the workings of civil servants, and to documents referring to security, defence and international relations. The decision was later reversed in order to “restore the balance”.

    *Amending Access to  Information Legislation:  Legal and Political Issues by Toby Mendel, 2011

    Germany

    Image by Roger Matthewes: Hessenpark in Germany

    In Germany, we are told by Arne from the FOI website Frag den Staat, bodies may charge up to 500 € for the processing of information requests.

    Fair enough, you might think — but let’s look at a couple of examples.

    Like when the Ministry of Transport charged the maximum fee for the provision of data on railway infrastructure. They said that the fee covered the required inspections; they didn’t mention that the data could be found in PDFs that already existed internally.

    Similarly, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection charged 500 € for answering eight questions about their website, asking about costs, usage and data protection: it’s hard to comprehend how that could have required quite so much effort.

    Arne points out that the fee isn’t applied consistently, either: the same request made to a number of similar institutions (for example universities) will result in some information being provided for free, while others charge.

    Finally, he says it’s clear that some people are intimidated by the mere possibility of being charged. Auto-replies from the Foreign Office include details of possible costs, whether or not they apply, which can be very off-putting for inexperienced users.

    Hungary

    Image of Budapest by XaviHungary recently saw the introduction of very similar restrictions.

    In response, FOI-championing website Atlatszo.hu got together with other NGOs to put together this damning assessment:

    The new law gives state institutions the option to deny information requests [..] if they involve preparation for “future decision”, but most importantly, it introduces a requirement that those who approach various institutions for information may have to pay for their queries.

    The various state bureaus may charge a fee if they decide that the request for information places an unwarranted additional workload on the staff. Besides being highly arbitrary grounds for denial, the financial costs are a natural deterrent to even attempting to find out important information.

    The organisation also predicts that fees will lessen the will of average people to file requests. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Atlatszo.hu’s Editor-in-Chief :

    “They are charging fees so people won’t file so many requests,” says Bodoky, adding that while Atlatszo isn’t very happy with the situation, it won’t be deterred. “We will pay the small fee and continue to make requests, but citizens and activists who have started to use freedom of information quite a lot may not want or be able to.”

    Czech Republic

    Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic - panormaic image showing buildings and trees

    Richard Hunt, who runs the FOI site Informace Pro Všechny, as well as actively using FOI here in the UK, tells us that in the Czech Republic, there is no statutory charge for requests. However a clause states that costs can be recovered.

    There have been high profile cases reported by the press, because the press were the requesters.

    When HN (a leading financial daily newspaper) asked the finance ministry to provide the details under the Freedom of Information Act of the Kč 6.2bn in tax payments and penalties that have been forgiven since 2006, the ministry asked for processing fees of more than Kč 250,000. (£6,500).

    Richard also tells us that the costs requirement both adds to the bureaucracy around requests, and acts as a disincentive for people making requests. In order to collect the money, public bodies require the name, address and date of birth of all requesters.

    In a post-communist society people remain wary of showing themselves, especially in causing potential trouble for the authorities.

    USA

    Times Square by Hien Nguyen

    In the USA, fees may be levied based on the amount of work required, as calculated by the public body receiving the FOI request.

    Our friends at Muckrock highlight two cases where the costs would have been at levels far beyond the reach of ordinary requesters: $270,000 for details of contracts between the FBI and a contractor, and $452,000 for summary information on a mail surveillance program.

    While we imagine that the cost structure would differ here in the UK, these cases serve as an extreme example of how, if bodies wish to, they can use restrictions to ensure that their information remains inaccessible.

    Australia

    Brisbane skyline by Andrea Ferrera

    A similar story comes from RightToKnow in Australia, who were stymied by this move when trying to investigate the treatment of immigrants in detention centres:

    While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.

    In Australia, the exact clause is “the work involved in processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency from its other operations”—and we’re told that this is one of the most-commonly used reasons for refusing access.

    Sometimes it’s used fairly but more often than not it’s used by agencies to interpret the request in such a way as to create the “practical refusal reason”.

    In the UK, we’re looking at a lowering of the threshold for requests to be refused because of cost, which equates to the effort, or manhours, involved.

    Fees are not applicable across all kinds of request in Australia, but where they are, they can be used in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the law:

    At the state level there are application fees across every state and territory (except the ACT). RightToKnow has a number of examples where it appears agencies are deliberately using application fees to frustrate requesters.

    Spain

    Alhambra on a hilltop surrounded by trees, by Javi Muro

    The Spanish site Tu Derecho A Saber tells us that costs and bureaucratic processes have a severely dampening effect on the number of citizens who are willing to make requests. They draw a parallel with WhatDoTheyKnow: in our first year of operation, we processed over 19,000 FOI requests. But in the same time period, Tu Derecho A Saber saw just 3,400 requests.

    Spain’s FOI law also protects internal discussions, along with drafts, communications and papers considered before writing up any regulation.

    They’re also fighting against a general lack of adherence to the FOI laws by public bodies. The result of all of these impediments? A drop in the number of requests processed, which have gone from 160 a week, to around 6.

    Inevitably such restrictions have an effect on how FOI is perceived:

    Frustration makes people see FOI laws as useless or too relaxed.

    Elsewhere

    Jerusalem panorama of rooftops by Ilya Grigorik
    • In Israel, requests are limited to whatever can be gathered within four hours’ work. This effectively limits responses to information which has already been prepared.
    • In Ukraine, the ability to mark information as ‘for internal use only’, and a highly bureaucratic system for making requests, led to a culture of concealed corruption.

    Why this matters

    London from the air by Anders Sandberg

    We’ve already written about what the proposed changes would mean for us here in the UK: see our blog posts here and here.

    But there are wider implications, too. At AlaveteliCon, we learned that other countries look to the UK (and WhatDoTheyKnow) as a shining example of how things could be. Any change in our laws will have an effect far beyond our own boundaries.

    If we’re to keep what, as became evident when we listened to the stories of others, for all its faults is a world-class FOI system, we need to take action now. See below for how you can do that.

    Successes

    View across the rocks at Punta Del Diablo in Uruguay by Joãokẽdal

    Changes to the UK Freedom of Information Act are not a foregone conclusion. We can win the fight against the proposed restrictions — and we have examples to prove it.

    At AlaveteliCon the Freedom of Information technologies conference, we heard of successful protests in:

    Australia and Uruguay, where bodies were obliged to accept requests via email

    Hungary, where the government’s attempts to label requests as ‘vexatious’ was overturned

    What next?

    If you feel strongly that your right to information should not be impeded, check these simple actions you can take right now.

    SaveFOI: sign a petition1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

    If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.

    #SaveFOI: write to your MP2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP

    Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole.

    submit an FOI story #SaveFOI3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story

    SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.

    Banner image: Andy Arthur (CC)

    Ireland: Brad Herman; Germany: Roger Matthewes; Hungary: Xavi; Czech Republic: Abejorro34; USA Hien Nguyen; Australia: Andrea Ferrera; Spain: Javi Muro; Elsewhere: Ilya Grigorik; Why this matters: Anders Sandberg; Successes: Joãokẽdal (all CC)

  4. Four Simple Goals

    In my last post I described how we’re taking stock of where and how we’re delivering against our theory of change to give greater influence to citizens over those with power.

    Since starting at mySociety I’ve spent my time meeting lots of lovely people, getting to know the team, our funders, partners and peers and finding out how mySociety does what it does.

    One thing I have learned is that despite our British roots, the majority of our work is now international, and we work with wonderful partners in over 35 countries around the world, from Ukraine to South Africa, Liberia to Norway. In each case they tend to be activists, journalists and NGOs who are passionate about better government, citizen empowerment, and fighting corruption.

    Our success is defined by our partners’ success – so in order to best support our partners I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the practical steps we’re taking to consolidate what we already have and scale up what works.

     

    Four Simple Goals

    The core mission of mySociety remains the same: to invent and popularise websites and apps that enable citizens around the world to exert power over institutions and decision makers.

    We see the need to both ‘invent’ and ‘popularise’ digital tools as equally important – digital tools can be useful in developing new approaches to difficult problems, but we must ensure they are both widely used and actually enable citizens to be capable of demanding better.

    In order to best help our partners and to better understand the impact of our work we have four really simple goals that will direct our efforts over the next few years:

    1. Encourage more people
    to use our websites and apps
    in more countries

    2. Work with more partners
    to help them get better at
    using digital tools

    3. Prove what works and
    feed those learnings back into
    the wider community

    4. Take a lead role in
    making technology more useful
    to civil society

     

    Planning For Success

    In addition to running our successful UK sites TheyWorkForYou.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, WriteToThem.com and FixMyStreet.com, we’ll continue to work with our partners to improve our existing services, making them easier to deploy and better integrated together.

    We’ve recently established a quarterly call for new proposals for potential new partners who wish to set up new sites of their own from our roster of services (FOI, Parliaments and Elections, FixMyStreet). This helps inform potential partners of what’s involved before getting started, and helps us better target our resources and plan for success upfront.

    We’re also putting more effort into increasing the impact and usage of our existing sites and services, by providing targeted development support, training, direct funding and additional technical development. Helping to sustain each site through the difficult first year or two should be a major marker of success.

     

    Proving What Works

    One major thing that will change is putting our research much more front and centre to our work, in order to create a greater evidence base for the impacts of civic technology and ensuring we are able to talk about this widely and publicly.

    You’ll see us carry out much more inclusive and comparative impact research on the use of civic technology encompassing individual, socio-political and sector-specific factors.

    If you haven’t already read our latest research paper ‘Who Benefits From Civic Technology?’ then please do have a look. This is an important first step in laying down the case for impact, being honest about where more work is required and focusing our efforts to create a greater evidence base for civic technology as a whole.

    Our long-term aim is to establish a global hub for impact research, and assist more civic tech organisations to assess and improve the impact of their own work. To this end we’ll be hosting our next TICTeC – The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, in Barcelona on the 27th and 28th of April next year.

    This will be an important opportunity to share and discuss research findings and key challenges from across the sector and we hope to see many of you there in person.

     

    Where We Go Next

    Over the past decade, through a process of experimentation, consultation and measurement, mySociety have created a portfolio of popular, proven online services, used by over 10 million people each year.

    This is an amazing legacy to take on.

    Over the next decade I hope that we’ll continue this work, and seek to further establish mySociety as one of the leading international civic technology institutions, providing much-needed global leadership and inspiration in our sector – if we could come to be seen as having a similar impact to that of an Article 19 or Human Rights Watch in our own field, then I think that will be a pretty good measure of success.

    For the moment we’ll continue to focus on the practical steps we need to take in order to improve and build upon what we already have, but I’m excited about the plans we have for the future and I’ll share more details on what we have in store in the weeks to come.

     

    Image: Rachel Pasch (CC)

  5. A response to the Freedom of Information consultation

    A cross-party commission is currently considering changes to the Freedom of Information Act in this country. Their call for evidence invites individuals and organisations to submit a response to the proposed restrictions.

    mySociety, together with the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer administration team, and with evidence from our associates and partners around the world, will be submitting a response. As you might expect, we argue against the proposed restrictions, and in favour of extending rights to information. If you would like to read it, you can do so herepdf.

    And if you would like to submit your own evidence, you have only until Friday to do so.

    There are also a number of smaller, but still useful actions you can take – see our earlier blog post.

    Image: Isaac Bowen (CC)

  6. Why We Do What We Do

    Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.

    Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.

    What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:

    Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.

    Simply put, this is our cause.

     

    Our Theory Of Change

    Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.

    Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.

    Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.

    Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.

     

    Freedom of Information

    FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.

    Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.

    Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.

     

    Parliaments and Elections

    The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.

    We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.

    Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.

    In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.

     

    Local Issue Reporting

    FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.

    The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.

    We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.

    Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.

     

    Scaling Up

    For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.

    There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.

    What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.

    I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.


    Image: Morgan Schmorgan (CC)

  7. Write to your MP and oppose restrictions to the FOI Act

    If you’ve read our recent blog posts, you’ll know that Freedom of Information is under threat in the UK, and we have until just 20 November to oppose restrictions to our rights under the Act.

    One easy way to help fight these restrictions is to write to your MP, which of course you can do via WriteToThem.com.

    Why not do it right now? It will only take a few minutes.

    Contact your MP

    We always recommend using your own words when you contact an MP (and here’s why), but if you need a little inspiration, here are some themes you could use as a starting point:

    • FOI does incur a cost but it also brings great benefits. Have you used the Freedom of Information act, personally or at work? How has it benefited you or others?
    • Freedom of Information should be available to everyone, not just those who have the wherewithal (and technical ability) to make a paid request.
    • Measures which make it harder to obtain information would allow public authorities to avoid scrutiny.
    • The commission is predisposed to find in favour of restrictions: it is partly made up of people who have stated their opposition to FOI, and has only been asked to examine restrictions.
    • There are other possible solutions, like the proactive disclosure of information, which would ease the burden on authorities and lower costs—and still keep the right to information intact.
    • When restrictions such as these have been introduced abroad, dramatic falls in the number of people requesting information have been seen. This is a loss for all of society: holding our public bodies to account is one of the foundations of a functioning democracy.
    • Information held by public authorities is information which already belongs to us, and for the creation of which we have paid through our taxes.
    • Journalists use the FOI Act as it stands to bring to light stories of corruption, malpractice, cover-ups and incompetence—most of which would never have become public knowledge without the powers the FOI Act affords them.

    Still lost for words? You’ll find more points in our last blog post.

  8. mySociety at MozFest 2015

    mySociety was at MozFest again this year — we had a table at Friday evening’s “Science Fair”, showcasing our EveryPolitician project.

    As ever with Mozilla’s annual, hands-on festival, there was a lot going on in London’s Ravensbourne, a venue that’s especially conducive to mixing and meeting.

    MozFest attracts an active and positive crowd of digital people, ranging from junior-school coder kids right through to hoary old digital campaigners. So we were delighted to meet up with old friends and make new ones, especially as some of them had travelled for afar to be there. London was fortunate once again to be hosting the event, since Mozilla is of course an international organisation. And as our main focus at this year’s event was EveryPolitician — “data about every national legislature in the world, freely available for you to use” — that international aspect was especially welcome.

    As a result of our being there, we hope that lots more people know about EveryPolitician’s data, and that some of them are going to build or do amazing things with it. We’re still adding to our data, so we’d love your help: we have data on at least the current term of the top-level legislatures of most of the countries in the world. But we’d still love your help with finding good sources for the remaining few, as well as our ongoing task of going wider (adding more details about the politicians we do have) and deeper (adding historic data from previous terms).

    If, in the spirit of digital do-ism that infuses MozFest, you do make something useful or funky with EveryPolitician’s data, do please let us know. We make sure all this lovely data is available to you in a consistent way (that not only means the delivery formats of CSV or JSON Popolo, but also that we adopt reliable conventions about the way we use them). This maximises the likelihood that, when you share that thing you’ve built using the data for your country, people in other places will be able to easily adopt it to work with the data for theirs. And that’s why, if you’ve made something amazing, we’d like to know — so we can shout about it.

    Finally: thanks to the people who made MozFest run so smoothly this year, and the spirit of the open web. See you next year!

    Image: Mozilla Festival CC BY 2.0

  9. Voices from WhatDoTheyKnow: why we oppose FOI Act restrictions

    mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is run by a team of highly dedicated, unpaid volunteers. Between them, they have a great understanding of the FOI law in this country, as well as a unique insight into the type of information that it has brought into the public domain.

    In the light of the current threat to FOI, the WhatDoTheyKnow team will be submitting a formal response to the cross-party commission on Freedom of Information. Below are some of the reasons why they oppose the proposed restrictions to the UK’s FOI Act.

    If you agree with them (or perhaps you are a WhatDoTheyKnow user and you feel that these statements ring true in your own case), see our previous blog post which outlines four easy ways in which you can help protest against these restrictions.
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    On the need to cut costs: “Information released via Freedom of Information responses is used to inform debate and scrutiny at all levels from local community meetings, through local council chambers, to the House of Commons. Our democratic system does cost money: elections, councils, Parliament are all expensive. Freedom of Information helps ensure we get value for that money, and helps our democracy function, by enabling deliberations and decisions to be well informed.”

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    “Money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests needs to be considered in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests. The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented: From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget.”

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    On reducing the burden for public authorities: “We would be happy to see public bodies engaging with requestors, proactively offering advice and assistance, and suggesting ways a requestor can be satisfied while minimising effort required by a public body. Public bodies assisting requesters by explaining how they hold information and how a request could best be formulated in the interests of both requester and public body is all too rare. There appears to be a significant opportunity to improve the functioning of our access to information regime though a change in culture and mindset in this area.”

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    Image: Niooru (CC)

  10. Your access to Freedom of Information is under threat – here’s what to do

    Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.

    This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:

    • You’d be charged for making a request
    • Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
    • You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
    • The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
    • The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.

    You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.

    Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.

    What you can do

    SaveFOI: sign a petition1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

    If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.

    #SaveFOI: write to your MP2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP

    Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole. Stuck for words? Here are some ideas.

     submit an FOI story #SaveFOI3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story

    SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.

    #SaveFOI respond to the consultaition4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation

    The call for evidence is here and there is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also put together this super-easy Plain English version.

    Why these restrictions matter

    Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it

    If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.

    It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).

    It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.

    We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries

    Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.

    In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.

    In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.

    Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.

    The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.

    Government ministers could pick and choose what they release

    Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.

    If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.

    The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.

    We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.

    Public authorities are funded by us, the public

    If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.

    We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.

    If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.

    How will you help?

    These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.


    *A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.

    Image: Kimberly Kauer (CC)