1. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: corruption in student unions

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Some journalists focus on very specific areas in their use of FOI.

    Dániel G. Szabó is an editor on Hungary’s Atlatszo Oktatas, a blog hosted on the major news outlet Atlatszo, and run largely by students. He revealed how FOI has been the key to exposing corruption in the country’s student unions.

    Dániel G. SzabóOur project Transparent Education was established on freedom of information.

    It’s a blog focusing on corruption in higher education in Hungary, with a very heavy reliance on freedom of information requests and the analysis of the data acquired through FOI.

    Hungarian student unions, where future political elites learn the basics of democracy, are infected with corruption and our blog works to reveal it.

    We established the national jurisprudence on the accountability of student unions: courts ruled in our cases for the first time that student unions are to respond freedom of information requests and their expenditures should be transparent.

    We sued many state-financed and also religious schools, and tracked the fate of several million euros spent by student union officials who are in their twenties. Without freedom of information laws and court rulings, the data on these funds would have never came to light.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Bicanski (CC-0)


  2. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: Hungary

    Today is International Right to Know Day! 2016 is also the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information and we’ve been marking these two facts all week with insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here’s Katalin Erdélyi, a journalist who works with Atlatszo.hu. That’s the news service that’s closely affiliated to Alaveteli site KiMitTud.

    We began by asking Katalin to tell us about a memorable story that had been written with the aid of FOI.

    Katalin ErdélyiThe Museum of the Fine Arts in Budapest lent 10 antique paintings to a company tied to the PM’s personal advisor Arpad Habony.

    The value of the paintings was HUF 400 million (~ GB £1.06 million) but the company paid only HUF 150,000 (~ GB £400) per month for them, and they hadn’t insured the paintings either.

    We filed a lawsuit because the museum refused my request to publish information on where the paintings were.

    After a year and a half in court we won the case, and the museum had to publish the information that during the whole lending period the paintings were in a private apartment where the PM’s advisor is a frequent visitor.

    After my article was published the Minister of Culture issued a written notice to the director of the museum because he hadn’t asked for his permission for the loan. The director of the museum later admitted he was on friendly terms with the PM’s advisor. He was the best man at Habony’s wedding which was held at the museum. Habony wasn’t charged any rental fees.

    What’s the significance of FOI in your opinion?

    Freedom of Information is important because citizens have the right to know what, why, how and at what costs are things happening in the country where they live and work.

    The state spends their taxes, therefore it is right to expect it to operate in a transparent way. And if someone knows they can be checked up on at any time, they will pay attention to what they do.

    The right to information is a foundation of democracy, a check on power, and it pays an important role in fighting illegal activities and corruption.

    What has Freedom of Information meant to you, as a journalist?

    FOI is very important for investigative journalism.

    If contracts of public spending weren’t open to public, many corruption cases would never be revealed. The Hungarian government has amended the FOI law several times in the past few years, and always in the negative direction.

    Each time they limit the data that falls under the scope of the FOI Act, so that they can keep dubious affairs secret. This causes the risk of corruption to rise even higher, and our work has become even more challenging.

    When the right to information is wide, and public spending is transparent, it’s much easier to notice suspicious cases.

    Do you consider FOI to be a vital tool for the future?

    It’s very important to apply FOI in as many places and as widely as possible. If there’s no FOI, there’s no democracy.

    If we let political interests become more important than FOI we will end up in a dictatorship. The task and interest of the non-governmental organisations is to check on power, and this is only possible with freedom of information.

    We have to stand up for it everywhere, every time.

    Read the next installment to learn how a journalist in Croatia has used FOI.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: KovacsDaniel CC BY-SA 3.0

  3. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK (part 2)

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.

    Martin Rosenbaum

    Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.

    Image by Ben Welsh Martin Rosenbaum discusses British open data laws on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011.This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.

    Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.

    Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.

    FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.

    Read the next post to learn how FOI has been used by journalists in Hungary.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.


    Image: Martin Rosenbaum by Ben Welsh CC BY-2.0

  4. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.

    Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.

    Heather Brooke

    I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.

    Paul Clarke [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses.  The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal

    I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.

    Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy.  By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.

    Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
    2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas [2008] EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)

    Images: Cameramen at the Hutton Inquiry by Ben Sutherland CC BY-2.0; Heather Brooke by Paul Clarke CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  5. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  6. Recruiting for diversity

    When Mark, mySociety’s CEO, put out our recent request for new board members, he mentioned a specific goal:

    There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.

    You’ll have seen from his follow-up blog post announcing the appointments exactly how well we did in this aim.

    But I wanted to explore this subject more deeply. When you explicitly state that you would welcome applications from women, what effect does it have on the gender split of those who come forward?

    What difference does it make to the range of backgrounds that applicants come from, when you say that you’re hoping for more diversity?

    And just what are mySociety actively doing about this aim, beyond sticking what could look very much like a token sentence into a job advert?

    Well, it started off as a short blog post crunching the numbers. And then it got long.

    When posts are too big for a quick skim, we put them on our Medium blog, so that’s where it ended up. Do go and have a look.

    We know we haven’t cracked this one yet — indeed, we know that we barely even have the right vocabulary to talk about it — so comments are welcome.

    Image: Dustin Oliver (cc-by-2.0)

  7. Teachers: Make sure your students know about their Right To Know

    28 September is International Right To Know Day, and this year it’s a particularly important milestone. 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information as a concept.

    If you’re a teacher of Citizenship or even subjects like Law, History, PSHE or English, you may be interested to know that we have free lesson plans available.

    These cover a wide variety of topics, including a half hour lesson on Freedom of Information, aimed at years 10-13 — there are also lessons on concepts such as democracy and having a voice in society. Developed last year in collaboration with the Citizenship Foundation, the lesson plans were created and tested by teachers and have been downloaded by hundreds of schools since their launch.

    You might also be interested to see this entertaining article from the US Freedom of Information website Muckrock, aimed directly at high school students. It is, of course, American oriented, but it’s a very good introduction to the opportunities FOI affords younger people.

    So, why not mark International Right To Know Day by introducing your students to the concept of FOI, and showing them what they can do with it in the areas they care about?

    Image: Hana Tichá (CC-2.0)

  8. Six new board members and one departure

    In May of this year we began our search for new Trustees and Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards at mySociety.

    I’m very glad to say that we’ve now completed our search and today we can announce the appointment of three new Trustees to the board of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) and three new independent non-executive Directors to mySociety Ltd.

    Our three Trustee appointments are Rachel Rank, Tony Burton and Nanjira Sambuli who join our Chair, James Cronin and fellow long-standing trustees Manar Hussain, Owen Blacker and Stephen King of the Omidyar Network on the UKCOD board.


    Rachel Rank mySociety TrusteeRachel Rank is Chief Executive of 360Giving where she is aiming to make grant funding in the UK much more transparent. Previously she was Deputy Director of Publish What You Fund, leading the organisation’s research and monitoring work, including the development of an annual transparency index.

    Rachel has previously held positions with the Commonwealth Secretariat, DFID, DAI, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute. She has researched and written several publications on transparency, good governance and accountability.


    Tony Burton mySociety TrusteeTony Burton founded Civic Voice – the national charity for the civic movement; he is Vice Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (chairing its Audit and Risk Committee), Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth, Executive Chair of Sustainable Homes, Vice Chair of HS2’s Independent Design Panel and a trustee of TCV (The Conservation Volunteers).

    With 25 years’ executive experience on the boards of national charities working with communities on environment, heritage and land use, he has a strong track record in strategy, campaigning, volunteer development and external affairs for conservation, community, regeneration, planning and the environment.


    Nanjira Sambuli mySociety TrusteeNanjira Sambuli was until recently Research Lead at iHub, in Nairobi Kenya, providing strategic guidance for the growth of technology research in East Africa and has just taken on a new role as Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the Web Foundation. She focuses on the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption to governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture in Kenya, and across Africa, with a particular passion for the gendered aspects to technology access and adoption.

    Nanjira is on the Advisory Board (Africa) for Sum of Us, board member at Kenya’s Media Policy Research Centre, and sits on the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment where she works with panel members to demonstrate high-level leadership and renewed commitment and action towards making women’s economic empowerment a reality in our lifetime.


    At the same time we are enlarging our commercial board with three new non-executive Directors joining mySociety Ltd. Tim Hunt, Jonathan Flowers and Anno Mitchell join our Chair James Cronin, trustee representative Owen Blacker and myself Mark Cridge, Chief Executive of mySociety.


    Tim Hunt mySociety Non-ExecutiveTim Hunt is Marketing Director of The Guardian, leading the expansion of the global audience into the US and Australia whilst driving increased newspaper revenue of £64m last year.

    Tim began his career in advertising – where he was Managing Partner of St. Lukes; he also founded his own successful consultancy practice and launched Sky Italia as Marketing Director.

    Over the past 15 years he has held senior digital and tech marketing roles including board roles at YouView, Freeview and launch Marketing Director of Project Kangaroo, the internet joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4.


    Jonathan Flowers mySociety Non-ExecutiveJonathan Flowers is a portfolio non-executive Director, strategic advisor for three companies and Coach, with deep experience in Local Government.

    He was formerly a member of the independent service transformation challenge panel appointed by Treasury and DCLG, Managing Director of a consulting business, Commercial Development Director for a major Financial Services company, Deputy Chief Executive of a County Council, Local Government Executive headhunter and advisor, and local government sector strategist for a FTSE-50 company.

    Jonathan is an alumnus of the Cabinet Office Top Management Programme, Fellow of the OR Society, Chartered Management Institute, Institute of Directors and the RSA.


    Anno Mitchell mySociety Non-ExecutiveAnno Mitchell is a specialist in digital organisational change. Over the past twenty years she has helped a diverse range of organisations to clarify their vision and purpose; helping them understand how this drives product and capability development and marketing. She was recently Chief Strategy Officer at the agency We Are Friday, where she created new digital strategies and services for international clients such as HSBC and Barnardo’s.

    Previously she has worked with government and third sector organisations, as Strategic Lead for Digital Engagement in the Department of Health, Product Strategist for iCan / Action Network at the BBC, and Innovation Consultant to Horsesmouth, a peer to peer mentoring platform for younger people funded by the Edge Foundation.


    Together these new Trustees and Directors bring a formidable range of important experience to our boards; drawn from fundraising, communications, marketing, product development, local government, finance, governance and international development. They also bring much needed balance in gender and our first non-UK board member.

    We all look forward to working with each of them over the next few years and we’re excited about the new connections, critique and possibilities these appointments bring.


    And to the single departure

    We are also saying thank you and goodbye to James Crabtree, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, who is stepping down from the UKCOD board after 13 years.

    James pretty much coined the idea for mySociety in his 2003 Open Democracy article which called for the UK Government to establish a civic hacking fund. This in turn prompted original founder Tom Steinberg and others to start mySociety.

    For that we are incredibly grateful and extend many thanks to James for his long and distinguished service.

    Image courtesy of Bart Heird

  9. In memory of Peter

    We were shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Williams, one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers passed away earlier this week.

    Peter only joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a volunteer in March of this year, however in that short time he had become a valued member of the team.

    No stranger to Freedom of Information, he had been using the rights provided for in the FOI Act since shortly after it came into force here in the UK, and had been a user of WhatDoTheyKnow since 2012.

    Education and senior executive pay and benefits were some of his particular areas of interest, and Peter was researching the reasons why some public bodies sometimes fail to respond to requests.

    As a consequence, Peter had helpfully been collecting information on specialist colleges and schools, and proposing additions and edits to the site. Following the same route that has led to several of our keenest users becoming volunteer administrators, he was invited to join the team so that he could make the changes he was proposing himself.

    By all accounts he made a strong impression during his short time on the team, both with his fellow volunteers and across the mySociety team.

    “Many aspects of the site’s operation, including dealing with correspondence from users, considering requests to remove material from the site, and discussing our policies and the future development of the service, benefited from Peter’s input”, says one.

    Others say: “He was a valued volunteer and a great person”; and “he was a funny, thoughtful and committed guy”.

    We were saddened to learn of death of someone who shared our beliefs in the value of making information held by public bodies accessible, and who shared our passion for activism.

    All are feeling the loss of a colleague who approached his role with such enthusiasm and diligence, and our team will be the poorer for his absence. On behalf of mySociety, our Trustees and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers our thoughts are with Peter’s family and friends.


    Image: Sodanie Chea (CC)

  10. Become a mySociety board member

    Whilst election fever grips the UK, we’re seeking some new representatives of our own, to join our two company boards.

    We are inviting candidates to put themselves forward to become a Trustee of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy or as an independent Non-Executive Director of our commercial business mySociety Ltd.

    This is a unique opportunity to join a very smart group of board members in helping guide the development of the UK’s original civic tech agitator, as we plot out a course over the next few years.

    As our work has become increasingly global we would like to expand our charitable board with at least two additional trustees who can bring a combination of experience of international development, campaigning and research. If you’ve helped grow an organisation and have a good head for figures and legal matters, that would be of great benefit as well.

    On the commercial side we’re especially looking to expand our service provision to the public sector in the UK, and wish to appoint up to three new directors, who will ideally bring in some mix of experience from government, public sector, digital product development and importantly marketing and commercial skills. Again finance and legal expertise is appreciated, along with an entrepreneurial streak.

    There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.

    You can apply for the charitable Trustee role here, and the commercial Non-Exec Director role here.

    We’ll be accepting applications until 10am on Monday 6th June – but don’t leave it until the last minute to apply!

    Image courtesy of Shell Vacations Hospitality (please note this is not our real boardroom)