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.
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.
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)
Should you be able to request information from private companies who perform the public function of running prisons? How about independent schools which receive public funding?
Such questions were at the heart of a consultation from the Scottish Government last year, which asked whether the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 should be extended to cover more bodies. These were:
- Contractors who run privately-managed prisons
- Providers of secure accommodation for children
- Grant-aided schools
- Independent special schools
The WhatDoTheyKnow team responded to the consultation with arguments in favour of the extension of the Act to cover all such bodies: you can read the team’s full response here (including an explanation of why bodies which are not subject to the FOI Act have sometimes been added to the site).
We’re glad to say that the consultation committee were seemingly in accord with those views, and all the bodies consulted on will become subject to the Scottish FOI Act from 1 September 2016 (subject to Scottish parliamentary process). In their response, which can be viewed on the consultation page, WhatDoTheyKnow were mentioned in relation to private prison contractors:
We also note the response from WhatDoTheyKnow (…) who strongly supported extension to private prison contractors given their view that the detention of individuals in custody under order or sentence of the courts was undoubtedly a public function.
Meanwhile, we await developments on the UK Freedom of Information consultation, which we also submitted to. Apparently they are analysing feedback and will be hearing oral evidence from some parties next week, with an intention ‘to report as soon as possible after these sessions’. So, not long now.
If the idea of getting up and going to the same old job in 2016 is beginning to seem like an unappealing prospect, then you should know that we are looking for a Systems Administrator.
Working at mySociety is a bit different from your average job, as we tried to convey in this video. We work mainly from home (or the workspace of your choice), meeting up at regular intervals across the UK. Hours are very flexible. We’re a small, super-friendly bunch of people who like talking tech.
And then there’s the actual work. It does good in the world. That certainly gets us out of bed in the mornings.
You can see all the details of the position here. You’ll need experience of Linux server administration, scripting, Puppet and Nagios, and your main duties will be ensuring security and integrity of our servers, maintaining our infrastructure, and basically keeping all the plates spinning nicely.
If that sounds up your street, everything you need for your application is here.
And if not, do us a favour, and pass it on.
If you’re wondering what a year in Civic Tech looks like, well, here’s the answer:
plenty of coding, video calls with partners around the world, the occasional conference, and tea. Lots of tea.
Oh, and then there’s the annual treat of posing for the team photo on a windy winter’s day. That’s us, above. Damp. Cold. Still believing in the transformative power of digital technologies.
We bundled it all together, with plenty of stats, a couple of jokes, and tweets from some of our happy users.
Here’s the result. Sit back and enjoy the mySociety Year in Review, 2015.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
Note: Not only were these changes outruled, but WhatDoTheyKnow got a nice mention in the process. See more in our follow-up blog post.
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
1. 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.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
3. 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.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
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”.
We’re looking for stories for our annual report, and we want to hear about any changes—big or small—that you’ve seen from using one of our sites.
If we go ahead and use your story in our annual report, we’ll thank you with one of our lovely snuggly mySociety hoodies and no doubt we’ll throw in a few stickers, too.
Here (left) is what those hoodies look like, ably modeled by ace volunteer Andy.
So have a think:
Perhaps you’ve made an improvement to your community through FixMyStreet: it could be something as small as getting some litter cleared away, or as big as campaigning for a new road layout.
You might have used TheyWorkForYou to understand how your MP voted.
Maybe you used that information to help you decide how to vote this year.
Have you discovered information on WhatDoTheyKnow? Let us know what you did with that knowledge.
Maybe you used WriteToThem to ask for help from your elected representatives, or to encourage them to think about an issue that’s important to you.
Here’s what to do
Submit a video (45 seconds max) or a photo with text (150 words max) or just text (150 words max) explaining exactly how you got things changed with one of the mySociety sites.
Videos should be landscape format. We’re not looking for high production values: just you, talking into your camera phone is fine! Tell us which site you used, and what got changed. When you’re happy with your video, please upload it to YouTube or a similar video hosting site, and send the link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo with text
Send us a photo of yourself. It can be a simple portrait, or you might like to include a relevant feature, like a pothole you got filled in, or a community project one of our sites contributed to in some way.
Then add a few words to explain which site you used, and what got changed. Please send your text as an email along with your photo as a jpg attachment, to email@example.com.
Tell us which site you used, and what got changed, in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please have your submission with us by November 15th.
And this is the small print
Submission of a video, photo or text constitutes an agreement that we may use it, and your name, in mySociety’s annual report 2015. This report is sent to our friends, supporters, funders and partners, and also publicised through mySociety’s various social media channels. We reserve the right to edit your text, but where we do so it will be for accuracy or clarity and not to change the underlying meaning.
We may also upload your video to the mySociety YouTube channel.
We may not use every submission. Those chosen for inclusion will receive a mySociety hoodie and stickers.
— Ian Chard (@Flupsybunny) September 30, 2015
Sadly, we’ll be saying farewell to our current SysAdmin Ian shortly. We’d like our websites to keep running after his departure, ideally, so we’re recruiting for a replacement.
A replacement who can keep our servers secure, maintain our back-ups infrastructure, and resolve performance bottlenecks, among other daily challenges.
If that sounds like you, or someone you know, you can find the full details here.
What’s it like working for mySociety, you ask? Take a look at this page.