Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
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.
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
When we started building WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for professional users of FOI, we knew that there was one feature which would be a game-changer for such users: the ability to send a request to multiple authorities at once.
In this blog post, we examine what we wanted the tool to do, how we are guarding against abuse, and finally we’ll give a step by step walkthrough of the interface.
Investigative news stories or in-depth pieces of research often require information from a multitude of different sources. By gathering statistics or information from multiple authorities, journalists, activists and researchers can build up a previously-unseen picture, for example of how widespread a particular problem is, or where there are inequities in medical provision across the country.
It’s something that many professional users of FOI are doing already, usually with the aid of their own homemade spreadsheets on which they keep track of requests made, dates by which replies should be expected, which bodies have responded, which need chasing, and of course the information held in the responses themselves.
The standard WhatDoTheyKnow website already provides several helpful features that you just don’t get with a DIY system: it has all the right email addresses for authorities, for example; it guides you through the FOI process; and it will send you an email reminder when the deadline for response arrives — even taking bank holidays into account.
But we knew that in order for our batch request feature to woo people away from their spreadsheets, it needed to do more than those homebuilt systems, some of which have been refined over several years and work well, even if a bit clunkily, for their owners.
Power and responsibility
One important consideration was uppermost in our minds when it came to batch requests: it costs authorities time and money to respond to each request, and of course that multiplies with batch requests. We are keen to promote responsible use of FOI, so we want to fold appropriate safeguards and guidance into whatever system we build.
As mentioned, with WhatDoTheyKnow Pro we’re focusing on features that are genuinely useful for professional users of FOI, but we also want to help those users make better, more focused requests — ones that are more likely to get useful responses and see the light of day as news stories. So it was important that, in making it simple to send multiple requests, we also help users find the most suitable authorities to send their requests to.
With that in mind, here are some balances we’ve put in place:
- Users are limited in how many batch requests they can send within any one month — so there’s no chance to go too wild.
- There’s a limit to the number of authorities that can be added to a single batch: we set this to be the number of local authorities in the UK, which is a logical sector to survey in this way.
- Before users do a batch mailout, we encourage the sending of an initial request that goes to just a few authorities. This safeguard can reveal where a request is flawed, so for example, if the data you get back is not what you need or in the wrong format, you don’t have to send to the full list all over again.
- We provide advice on cost limits to encourage succinct batch requests.
- Authorities have the facility to report a request which is unsuitable for review by our administrators.
- We’re rolling out the batch request functionality gradually to vetted WhatDoTheyKnow Pro users so that we can gradually learn how people use it in practice, and course-correct as necessary..
Testing and improvements
So far, the batch feature is only available to a select group of test users, who are giving us feedback on how they’re finding it. There’s certainly nothing like having your code being used by real people to help you see where improvements might be made!
That said, it’s been a very gratifying process. With the help of our test users, we’ve seen that the batch request functionality has the potential to be immensely helpful to professional users of FOI; even genuinely game-changing. We are certain that with the sending tools, we’ve created a service that really adds value for this sector.
We’re now in the next phase, and turning our attention to improving the functionality that helps users deal with incoming responses when they come in. This already exists in a basic form, and thanks to our testers, we’ve identified which improvements we need to make. We’re already working on incorporating them. But that is definitely material for the next update — for now, let’s take a look at just how the batch request function works.
Using batch request
There are three parts to making any request, whether you’re doing it yourself or using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro:
- Creating the request
- Managing the responses
- Analysing the results
The batch request functionality builds on our super-simple FOI workflow tools for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, extending them to make larger investigations much easier.
Creating the Request
The first step is compiling a list of authorities to send the request to. From the compose screen, you might search on a keyword (for example, ‘hospital’, ‘Birmingham’, or ‘Birmingham hospitals’) and then add the authorities you’re interested in.
Each authority is added to a recipient list and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro creates a ‘mail merge’ setup. You’ll see how many authorities you’re writing to in the compose interface.
You can then draft your request. The special `Dear [Authority name]` salutation gets automatically replaced with each of the selected authorities when you send your batch.
Finally, before sending you can choose a privacy duration.
At this point you can either go straight ahead and send your request, or save the draft and come back to it later.
Once you’ve sent your batch request, you’re going to receive a lot of replies from authorities. This is where WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s functionality really comes into its own, keeping all that clutter out of your email inbox.
Here’s what it looks like: the first thing you’ll see is a high-level progress bar showing you the overall progress of your batch. There are three main states that help you manage the requests in the batch:
- In progress (yellow): This means that there’s no action needed by you – you’re waiting on the authority to respond with an acknowledgement or the information you’ve requested.
- Action needed (red): When a request in the batch receives a response from the authority, you’ll need to check it out. We mark the response as “action needed” for you to review and decide what to do next.
- Complete (green): Once there’s no further action needed – either you’ve got the information you asked for, the authority didn’t have the information, or they’ve refused and you don’t want to challenge them – the request moves to the ‘complete’ state, so you know you don’t need to think about it until you come to analyse the data.
Clicking the title of the batch reveals the individual requests and their progress status. From there, you can click through, read the response and update the status.
Now you’ve got all your data, it’s time to compare the results from different authorities.
Sometimes authorities will reply in the main correspondence.
Other authorities respond with one or more attachments. You can view these inline or download them to your computer.
If you’re dealing with a batch sent to lots of authorities, sometimes it’s easier to just download everything. You can download a Zip file containing all the correspondence and attachments for each request via the “Actions” menu. From there you can pull out the attachments that contain the raw data and plug the numbers or answers in to your spreadsheet so that you can compare across authorities.
You can sign up to WhatDoTheyKnow Pro today and receive 1 month free with the voucher code BLOGMARCH18. Make some requests to try out the FOI workflow tools for professionals, and get in touch to request to join the waiting list for batch access.
If your FOI requests have made the news, let us know! Send us links to your published stories and we’ll throw in an extra month of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro for free. Your stories help us improve WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
To help us mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary, we asked volunteers, supporters and users to tell us which Freedom of Information requests from the site’s first ten years particularly stuck in their minds.
The result was an eclectic mix of stories that really show the breadth of how WhatDoTheyKnow has been used. They have very little in common — unless you count the imagination and tenacity of those using FOI to try to uncover significant information.
Doug Paulley, WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer
A exposé that helped bring in the living wage for carers
Doug is one of the team of volunteers who give up their time to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, using their experience and knowledge of FOI to moderate the site, give users guidance, and help set policy. Doug is also an extremely active user of FOI, having used the act to uncover many examples of discrimination and malpractice over the years.
He highlights the story of a care home talking the talk, but very much failing to walk the walk when it came to paying its staff the living wage.
“The exposure brought about by FOI played a significant part in the campaign for Leonard Cheshire, care home operator with 2,100 residents, to significantly increase carers’ wages to (just short of) the voluntary living wage. Journalist Heather Mills covered the story in Private Eye.” Read the whole story here.
Owen Blacker, mySociety trustee
Missing historic information on Cold War targets
Owen co-founded FaxYourMP, the earliest version of mySociety’s WriteToThem, and has been an important part of the organisation ever since — he’s now one of our trustees and a non-executive director. He recalls the building and launch of WhatDoTheyKnow and indeed was one of its earliest registered users.
Owen particularly remembers a pass-the-parcel like series of FOI requests in which he was handed from one organisation to another:
“I went round in circles trying to find out some Cold War information that nobody claims to know any more. In 1980, the entire Civil Service, nationwide, ran a dry run of a Cold War nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, called Operation Square Leg. I’m slightly concerned that we spent a lot of money planning the civil contingencies of a Cold War attack — a sensible things to do, arguably — but no longer know where we were expecting to be hit or at what megatonnage.” Owen links to the requests from this blog post.
Will Perrin, Indigo Trust
Safer streets and better data handling
Will is not only a trustee at Indigo, supporting mySociety’s work with parliamentary monitoring organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, but he’s also a trustee of London’s King’s Cross Community Projects. Indeed Kings Cross — a locality in which Will has a personal stake, with a long record of community action — is the subject of two of the three FOI requests he singled out:
First was the Kings Cross Walkability audit which revealed just how hostile to pedestrians the area was back in 2008. At the time, Will wrote in his blog: “Crossing the road in Kings Cross is a nightmare and now we have an official report commissioned by TfL that sets it out in black and white.”
Today he recalls its impact: “This document underpinned the police taking a corporate manslaughter case against TfL to the Criminal Prosecution Service with regard to a cyclist’s death in 2011. The case did not proceed but was instrumental in changing TfL’s attitude to cyclists’ rights.
“Then this request revealed a massive overspend by Network Rail in refurbishing its own offices at Kings Cross”.
Finally, Will’s third choice of request had wider implications for the country as a whole:
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealing that there was no governance system in place for the Automatic Numberplate Recognition System (ANPR) and the existence of Met’s ‘Olympic Data Feed‘ led to a new governance system being instilled; some 2 billion records were deleted along with the introduction of a vastly reduced retention period.” Annotations at the foot of this request give a little more background.
Matthew Somerville, mySociety developer
A long-standing pillar of mySociety’s development team, Matthew wrote the core code behind many of mySociety’s most notable websites and tools, including FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou. He spends his working days coding for mySociety’s useful tools, and much of his free time coding his own useful tools, if his website is anything to go by. What was his most memorable FOI request?
“It was a request asking Royal Mail for information about all their postboxes, made by Tom Taylor. I had to write a crowd-sourcing tool to locate them, as the information provided included street name but no actual location; they then (from another FOI request a few years later) released the co-ordinates as well.”
The data is mapped here. Why is this request significant?
“I’m not sure it’s really significant, but I do get plenty of people telling me they’ve used the site, and it’s something Royal Mail never got around to providing (even though that was their reasoning for refusing to release it)…”
So there we are: a handful of the 458,219 requests that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed to date. There are so many stories around FOI requests: each of them represents someone’s burning question; many of them result in a response that’s important, or fascinating, or historic. And that’s what makes WhatDoTheyKnow so rewarding to work on.
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 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.
The Freedom of Information Code of Practice is a set of guidelines for the public authorities that are liable to respond to requests for information under the FOI Act. It advises these bodies on how to adhere to the law and what counts as best practice.
The Cabinet Office recently ran a consultation on proposed revisions to the Code of Practice. Since this Code directly relates to the activities of the website WhatDoTheyKnow, and the services it provides for our users, we put in a response, which you can view here.
The response was submitted under the joint names of WhatDoTheyKnow, our FOI codebase project Alaveteli, and mySociety itself, having been worked on by the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team, those working on the Alaveteli project, and mySociety’s researchers. Between them there is a substantial amount of experience and knowledge on FOI in the UK: much of our response is based on our experience in helping users to obtain information from public bodies.
Indeed, our response commented on points which we felt particularly affect our users; among other issues, we responded on:
- Timeliness of responses, including the introduction of time limits for internal review and public interest test extensions, and the importance of prompt responses to requests which inform current public debate.
- The use of pseudonyms by those making requests: what counts as a pseudonym; whether this should be one of the indications that can be used to label a request as vexatious, and whether authorities might, at their own discretion, process a request even if pseudonymous.
- Proactive publication, including the point that routine publishing of data may be more efficient and cheaper than responding to individual repeated requests. One suggestion is that every Freedom of Information request should prompt a consideration by the public body of whether the kind of information requested could practically be routinely published.
- The application of fees to a request: the desirability of pointing out that most FOI requests do not incur a charge and that the requester will never be charged without notice. People can be deterred by the prospect of fees, and bodies’ responses often contain worrying notices about them in their emails and on Freedom of Information web-pages, when in reality they are rarely applied.
- The means of communication: that requests made by email, unless the requester specifies otherwise, should be taken as a preference for a response by email; the ease of making FOI requests; and the ease of using data in the format provided in any response.
We replied on several other points too, including the status of the Code of Practice itself. It was issued in 2004, and has not been updated since, and in fact it’s not a document that we use regularly when we’re advising users or corresponding with public bodies about the application of Freedom of Information law.
The high quality guidance which we, and our users, do use on a day-to-day basis comes from the Information Commissioner, so we suggested the Government consider whether, and if so how, the Code of Practice could incorporate, or endorse that documentation.
One other important point is that the Code of Practice constitutes guidance rather than law, so any welcome shifts in policy that it endorses should ideally be reflected in the law too.
As a case in point, while the Freedom of Information Act has always covered information “held on behalf” of a public body, the proposed Code of Practice sought to make information held by contractors working for public bodies more accessible in practice: we welcome this but we do caution that issuing a new Code of Practice is not a substitute for amending the law, if that’s what’s required.
If you are interested, do read our submitted document in full.You may also like to see responses from the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Open Government Network: as we three organisations’ submissions share several common themes (without our having consulted one another), we hope that there’s a good chance of the Government taking them into account.