As usual, it’s been a joy to compile all the progress we’ve made during the past 12 months, and to sprinkle them through with some thoughts and memories from mySociety staff. We hope some of that joy comes to you, too.
This year, for the first time, SocietyWorks has its own standalone Review, and we’ve also spun off a Transparency report for WhatDoTheyKnow. The latter is something we hope to build upon for the future, as you’ll see.
As we head into the festive season, we wish you a very happy holiday and all the best for the new year. Now grab a mince pie, stick on that Santa hat, and settle in for a read!
In 2021 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 100,092 Freedom of Information requests.
Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see. But what’s not quite so visible is the work the WhatDoTheyKnow team do behind the scenes — answering users’ questions, removing inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.
Some of the team’s most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.
For this reason, the default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.
This year, for the first time, we’re extending our efforts towards transparency even further, with this report in which we’ll summarise the information removal requests and actions taken during the last twelve months.
To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2020 to 31 October 2021
Headline facts and figures
- 20,714,033 visitors to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year
- 22,847 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts this year, taking the total to 222,694
- 7,971 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2021
- 822 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2021
…in the context of 100,092 requests made in the year, and a total of 772,971 requests now published on the site
- 196 Total number of published requests where we redacted some material in 2021
…usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
- 126 The number of users who created accounts this year banned
…that’s just 0.06% of new users.
- WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.
And in more detail…
Requests flagged for our attention
The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported for admin attention this year. Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.
Reason for attention request Total number Contains personal information 143 Not a valid request 108 Vexatious 94 Request for personal information 85 Contains defamatory material 51 Other 287 Total 768
Material removed from the site
The following tables show where members of the support team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.
There is a range of options available to moderators, from ‘hidden’ (the most extreme) to ‘discoverable with link’. This is in addition to the censor rules that are used to hide certain information within a request or response.
Request visibility Total number Visible only to the request maker 805 Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 11 Hidden 8 Reason for removing from public view Total number Not a valid FOI request 701 Vexatious use of FOI 29 Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 124
*Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, but we are hoping to improve our systems so future transparency reports can include a more detailed breakdown.
Censor rules (programmatically hiding the problematic part/s of a request) Total number Number of censor rules applied 881 Number of requests with censor rules applied 196 Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 188
Data protection issues raised to the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox
The following data shows the number of email threads* received into the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox regarding the most common types of concern around information published on the site. Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.
GDPR = UK General Data Protection Regulations
DPA: Data Protection Act
Label Total number of threads GDPR Right to Erasure 317 Defamation 130 Data breach 96 GDPR & DPA concerns (type not specified) 42 GDPR Right to Rectification 33 GDPR Right of Access 21 Harassment 17 GDPR Right to Object 12 Data breach – internal** 2 Impersonation 1 Total 674
* Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.
** “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are reported even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss — which both of these cases were.
High risk concerns raised for review
Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive and the Chair of the Trustees. Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.
Case type* Total number Defamation 66 GDPR Right to Erasure 42 Data breach 40 Complaints 33 GDPR & DPA concerns 11 GDPR Right of Access 6 Harassment 5 Takedown 2 GDPR Right to Object 2 GDPR Right to Rectification 1 Other 78 Total 286
* Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.
User accounts Total WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 222,694 New user accounts activated in 2021 22,847 Reason for banning users in 2021 Total Spam 3,936 Other site misuse 166 Total number of users banned in 2021 4,102 Anonymisation* Total Accounts anonymised in 2021 170
* Where accounts have been anonymised this is at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.
Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.
Thank you for reading
This is the first time we’ve compiled a Transparency Report like this for WhatDoTheyKnow, but it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for some time. We demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practice it ourselves.
Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that moderating a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.
In future years, we hope to build on this initial report, ideally automating many of the stats so that they can be seen on a live dashboard. For now, we thought it was worthwhile making a manually-compiled proof of concept.
If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line. They’ll get back to you as soon as the urgent moderation work is done!
Image: Create & Bloom
The work is based on material released through Freedom of Information requests made to the Land Registry via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The headline findings include:
- Nearly 1% of properties registered in the UK are registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address; this number has more than doubled since 2010.
- The number of properties registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address is now more than double the number registered to overseas companies.
The work cites and links to the source data on WhatDoTheyKnow (and WhatDoTheyKnow in turn links back to the analysis and commentary).
One of the benefits of making FOI requests via WhatDoTheyKnow is the ability to easily link to the source when taking action based on released information. Citing sources gives work credibility, and it also makes it easy for others to verify what has been done, build on it, or conduct their own analysis based on their particular interests. We want to encourage this kind of exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow for well-referenced FOI based research.
The data obtained, and presented, by the Centre for Public Data in this case may inform debate on a range of socially important issues including how overseas property owners, who may well be investors, affect the supply and affordability of housing.
The Centre for Public Data have provided a tool enabling searching of the data – this means local journalists (or others with an interest in a particular area) can quickly obtain localised data.
Image: Gary Stearman
The nucleotide sequences of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines used in the UK have been released in response to a Freedom of Information request made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
As the sequences have been released via WhatDoTheyKnow they can now be accessed by anyone.
The release, on 26th of October 2021, by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency follows an initial refusal under Section 41 (Information provided in confidence) and Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was overturned as a result of an internal review prompted by the requester.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency published “Information for healthcare professionals and the public” when they approved each COVID-19 vaccine:
- Regulatory approval of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 – 2 December 2020
- Regulatory approval of Vaxzevria (previously COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca) – 30 December 2020
- Regulatory approval of Spikevax (formerly COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna) – 8 January 2021
- Regulatory approval of COVID-19 Vaccine Janssen – 28 May 2021
However, the information proactively released at the time the vaccines were approved did not contain their nucleotide sequences, and prior to this FOI response they had not been officially released by the agency.
While the vaccines had been described, details of the information they encoded had not been publicly released. Imagine the vaccine as data on a USB drive. Prior to this response, what the regulators proactively released when approving the vaccines was akin to information on the materials used to make, and package, the drive: plastic, and metal, along with a vague description of its contents, rather than a copy of the actual data contained on the drive.
It could be argued that people were not able to make a fully informed decision on whether or not to have the vaccine given that their sequences were not initially available. This was the case made by the requester when they asked for the initial refusal to be reconsidered. Of course one wouldn’t expect many individuals to review sequence data personally, but as the data wasn’t generally available to those outside of the manufacturers and regulators, independent analysis and commentary was chilled.
The lack of transparency surrounding the detailed composition of the vaccines was not limited to the UK. The fact the sequences were not available prompted one group of scientists to seek to determine the sequences of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines themselves, analysing small portions of vaccine doses that remained in vials after immunisation. They carried out this work, with the permission of regulators in the USA, and published their results on GitHub.
In its FOI response the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency stated that it had “obtained consent from the relevant companies to release the full nucleotide base sequences”. Not all the requested information has yet been released. The response states the Janssen Covid-19 nucleotide sequence has been released, however it is not contained in the attached documents (a protein sequence, rather than a nucleotide sequence has been provided). The response also says: “discussions are continuing with regard to the release of the sequence of the COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna.” This suggests two more sequences should hopefully be forthcoming on the correspondence thread soon.
We are hopeful the released material, which in some cases goes beyond the sequences and includes further information about the vaccines, is of value. As always we encourage those who make use of the released data to cite the WhatDoTheyKnow thread, and to link to their work via annotations.
Image: Spencer Davis
Recently the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and rivers has been in the news in the UK. This prompted us to update and expand our coverage of organisations responsible for such activities on our access to information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Since a ruling in 2015 all organisations which provide certain water and sewage related services have been considered public bodies for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations; this means everyone has a right to the environmental information they hold. Even private water and sewage companies can be considered public bodies under the regulations.
We often describe WhatDoTheyKnow.com as a Freedom of Information website, but it can be used to obtain public information under a range of access to information legislation, not just the UK and Scotland’s Freedom of Information Acts. So if you want environmental information about sewage we’d love to see you requesting it, in public, via WhatDoTheyKnow.
We’ve listed water companies on WhatDoTheyKnow for some time, and we have now specifically collected those responsible for sewers into their own category. This will hopefully assist people considering making a request for information and help ensure requests are directed to appropriate organisations.
We’re always keen to see requests made in a responsible manner. Anyone considering making a request for information should check relevant bodies’ websites for the information they are seeking before making a request. Some organisations publish some information about releases of untreated raw sewage, and information about their plans to monitor, and reduce, such occurrences. Where information is collated by a central body, requesting it once, from that body, is more efficient than requesting it from many bodies. The Environment Agency for example collates and publishes some data on storm overflows centrally.
We list the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Highways bodies (which are responsible for surface drainage from roads), and many other relevant bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Before making your own requests it’s a good idea to look at work which has already been done by others to collate, present and share information: for example the Rivers Trust have published a map of where the sewerage network discharges treated effluent and overflows of untreated effluent and storm water into rivers in England & Wales.
The current interest in this subject in the UK has focused on MPs’ consideration of the Environment Bill. Proposals for the Bill include provisions requiring the publication of information on the location of “storm overflows” and the frequency, duration and volume of discharges from such overflows. We’re keen to see timely proactive publication of information rather than having information only released on request; we’re more than happy to see the need for our service reduced by greater proactive transparency from public bodies.
We would like to see news articles, campaigners and academics citing, and linking to, the sources of the data on which their work is based. This improves the credibility of the work, and enables others to check, and build on, what has been done. Requesting information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes such citations and links easy to offer.
Image: Ivan Bandura
It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.
We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.
As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:
- All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
- Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
- We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.
The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government
Jenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)
openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.
openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.
Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation
Liset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands
Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.
Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign
Dražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)
In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.
The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.
Regulating Access to Information
Alex Parsons (mySociety)
The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.
Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.
Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories
Samuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)
Open data in France, says Samuel, looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.
Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.
A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI
Patricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)
Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.
Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.
If you enjoyed that little lot, do sign up to our Research newsletter and we’ll let you know what we’re planning next. It’ll also be the way to ensure you’re one of the first to know about the new TICTeC Labs we’ve got in the pipeline!
The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.
If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.
We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.
“I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”
The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.
It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.
These FOI requests have been inspired by a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:
We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.
“In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.
As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:
“The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.”
We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.
As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.
He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”
But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:
“Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.
“WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”
Image: York Cycle Campaign
It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.
According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.
Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.
We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.
These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.
There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.
Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.
This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:
- Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
- Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
- Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership
The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.
In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.
The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.
- On Transparencia for Belgium: request 1 to the General Directorate of the Administrative Police and request 2 to the Federal Police (‘Total number of arrests at or near the border’)
- On Ma Dada for France: Procès-verbaux de la Police Aux Frontières (‘Border Police reports’) to the Ministry of the Interior
- On WhatDoTheyKnow for the UK: Total number of and reason for charges, checks, requests and/or arrests at the border regarding non EU citizens to the Home Office
- On Imamo Pravo Znati for Croatia: Policijskih izvještaja, izjava, optužbi i/ili zapisnika u vezi s provjerama, pretragama i/ili uhićenjima na granici (‘Police reports, statements, charges and / or records related to border checks, searches and / or arrests’) to the Ministry of the Interior, Zagreb
- On Frag Den Staat for Germany: Festnahme an der Grenze (‘Arrests at the border’) to the Federal Police HQ
- On Handlingar for Sweden: Gränshandlingar mellan 1 januari 2014 och 31 december 2020 (‘Boundary documents between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020’) to the Police Authority
- On Arthro5A for Greece (the first four requests ever filed on the brand new Alaveteli site!) συλλήψεις και αρνήσεις στα εσωτερικά σύνορα της ΕΕ (‘Arrests and denials at the Eu’s internal borders’) to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Greek Police, the National Coordinating Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum and to the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
- Requests to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands had to be made by post, as they don’t accept FOI correspondence digitally.
Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio
If you’ve recently received a refusal to a Freedom of Information request you sent through WhatDoTheyKnow, you might have noticed our latest feature.
As mentioned in a previous blog post we’ve been working on functionality to help people challenge refusals, and the first iteration of this is up and running.
You might now see an automated notice above a refusal, identifying which exemption may have been applied. These are visible only to the person who made the request, and do not appear in every case; see more about that below.
Click ‘get help to challenge it’ and you’ll be presented with a series of questions about your request and the reply you received from the authority, to see whether there is any scope for a challenge.
Your answers to these questions will generate tailored advice on what to do next, also presenting you with editable fragments of text that you can use to get started with any challenge or request for clarification.
What’s the thinking?
WhatDoTheyKnow has always existed to make it easier for anyone to make an FOI request, without having to be an expert in the law.
We think we’ve got the initial part of that down pretty well (with the obvious caveat that there are always improvements to be made) — but up until now we haven’t directed a lot of attention to what happens after the authority responds.
Even for seasoned users of FOI, but especially for those new to the whole area, it is daunting to receive a refusal from an authority. By their nature, FOI responses contain some legalese, and this can be enough to make the best of us think, ‘Ah well, they probably know more about it than I do’ — and give up.
But another way of looking at it is that this legalese is there to help you. A body can’t just turn down your request because it doesn’t want to answer it: it has to say which exemption it is using under FOI law. If you know your way around that law, it is the key to understanding what to do next, and in fact, it’s this legal bumph that our code will be using to check what questions to ask you.
Before we introduced this intervention, a good number of users just gave up when they received a refusal from an authority — and that’s fair enough. We’d been directing users to a generic help page with details of what options are broadly available for challenging a refusal, but only the very determined would take it further.
And as we mentioned in our previous post, 22% of internal reviews (where you ask the request to be examined again, by a different member of staff at the authority) result in the full or partial release of information. It’s clear that bodies can, and do make mistakes sometimes.
Our new functionality helps you discern where that might have happened, and put together a decent challenge.
How it works
When an FOI request is refused, the authority have to give the reason, and this has to be one of a set number of ‘exemptions’ — clauses in the FOI Act that list the circumstances under which an authority is not obliged to disclose information.
Our code scans the response to identify which exemption/s have been applied. Remember, though, that this is just an automated best guess, so it’s still very much up to the user to check whether it’s correct!
At the next stage the user will be asked: “Did the authority mention any of these exemptions when refusing your request?” and there is the chance to remove exemptions if they’re wrong, and add any that haven’t been picked up by the code.
Then, informed by guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the identified exemption, we present a series of questions which should help you understand whether there are grounds for asking for an internal review.
Depending on your answers, you’ll see some advice. This might simply tell you that the exemption seems to have been applied correctly; it might advise you to ask the authority to clarify areas where their response is unclear, or it could point out where it appears that there has been an error on the part of the authority.
Note the various variations on ‘you have/may have grounds for an internal review’ — this is because each conclusion has been generated by a different response to one of the questions. In this example, the user has four different potential challenges to the refusal:
- The exemption seems to have been incorrectly applied
- The authority hasn’t provided some evidence that they should have
- The user has identified something about the contract that means the exemption shouldn’t have been applied to every part of it
- The authority hasn’t demonstrated that disclosure would be prejudicial to business interests
Whew! But if that’s a little overwhelming, there’s still some more support for the user.
Click ‘request an internal review’ and you’ll be shown some fragments of text you can copy and paste into your reply to help you start composing it. These are just prompts: they can be edited or overwritten to reflect your specific situation, and to allow you to express yourself in the language you’d ordinarily use.
Know your exemptions
Some exemptions are used far more commonly than others: for example we discovered when we began this work that the most often applied was the Section 12 exemption, ‘where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit’ — that is, responding in full would cost the authority too much in terms of expense or manhours.
Other common exemptions are Section 14 (turning down ‘vexatious’ or repeated requests for the same information); Section 40 (where the release would contain someone’s personal information); and Section 21 (where the information is already available elsewhere).
It’s worth knowing basic facts around exemptions: for example, if some of the information you’ve requested is covered by an exemption (say, a portion of it would contain personal information) the authority should still be releasing the rest. And if they tell you it’s available elsewhere, they should also do all they can to point you to the relevant place.
Some exemptions require a public interest test, where the authority must weigh up whether it is more beneficial for society as a whole to release the information than it is beneficial under the conditions of the exemption to refuse it. An example may be where the information relates to the UK’s defence capability, but would reveal something so important for the public to be aware of that any potential threat to national security is outweighed.
For this first stage of the new functionality, we covered the 13 most commonly used exemptions out of the full 27. Also, our tool might miss some exemptions. If that’s the case, or the exemption can’t be identified, you simply won’t see anything on the request.
The ICO provides detailed guidance for authorities about each exemption, and this has also proved invaluable for us as we strive to point out where there may be room for requesting a review. As we’ve learned while creating this functionality, law is not precise: in many cases it is open to interpretation, and legal challenges at tribunal act as precedents, helping to consolidate its exact meaning. The ICO guidance is basically an attempt to unify such interpretation.
But the average person may not have the time to read up on the ins and outs of how this exemption or that should be applied, so we hope our sets of questions will give you a short cut towards understanding whether there’s a valid challenge to be made. Eventually, we hope it’s not too bold to suggest, the functionality may even increase the public’s understanding of FOI.
We are, of course, keen that this initiative doesn’t place an extra burden on authorities. The mechanism should work just as well in pointing out where the authority has acted correctly, and so discourage pointless challenges.
Where requests for internal reviews are made, the result should be that they are better informed, clearly structured and based on valid challenges. In time, this feature may even have the knock-on effect that authorities are incentivised to improve their initial responses, taking more care that exemptions are correctly applied.
We know this isn’t perfect yet, so if you’re from an authority and you want to share feedback, please do let us know. And if you’re a member of the public and you see anomalies in the wording or interface, please do also get in touch. You can contact us here.
Wikipedia is ‘the world’s largest and most-read reference work in history’.
Fundamental to keeping its articles accurate and trustworthy is its policy that all information must be supported by citations — links to independent, third party sources to verify that statements are factual.
Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, as an archive for information released by authorities, has been cited in countless Wikipedia articles, playing a part in combatting misinformation and allowing interested readers to discover more about the topic they’re perusing.
And unlike certain publications (including some UK national newspapers), it’s happily accepted as a reliable source (rightly so when you think about it, of course — all the information we publish is coming straight from the horse’s, or rather the authority’s, mouth, with no journalistic spin).
All that being so, we were curious to see what sort of responses were linked to, and why. Having spent some time clicking through some of those tiny footnotes, we’re pleased to present a selection of the more interesting Wikipedia articles that link to WhatDoTheyKnow as a citation.
What’s the going rate for this unique job?
The College of Arms is allied to the Royal Household; it’s an ancient institution that deals with the granting of new coats of arms, the official register of peers, the flying of flags and other such matters of pomp, circumstance and heraldry.
Try explaining to its founders, back in the 1480s, that they would one day be documented on Wikipedia — and that sums paid by HM Treasury to the current Garter King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock, would be available to everyone publicly, thanks to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow.
The Treasury provides a useful note: “It might be helpful if we explain that the Garter King provides a variety of work for the Government including, but not confined to, providing advice on the use/misuse and the protection of Royal Arms, reviewing evidence for Peerage claims, and designing new coats of arms. In addition, he has a key role at many ceremonial occasions including the State Opening of Parliament.”
We always applaud an authority going out of their way to give context to a response.
Are they watching us watching them?
TV licensing is a topic that brings a lot of visitors to browse responses on WhatDoTheyKnow, probably because it’s an area that by its very nature is shrouded in uncertainty.
Much of our understanding about the workings of the licensing system have come from, or been verified by, FOI responses.
The Wikipedia entry on TV licensing in the UK links to WhatDoTheyKnow in no fewer than 36 of its 232 citations. These include the following nuggets:
- Enforcement is outsourced to Capita, and includes tasks such as “visiting addresses, identifying people watching TV without a licence, taking statements, and achieving prosecutions of TV licence evaders”.
- It is legal to use a TV to listen to digital radio without a licence, if you do not watch or record live TV on it.
- Prisoners and the UK Parliamentary estate are exempt from TV licences — but MPs’ homes (and second homes!) are not.
- The BBC monitors anti-licence campaigns: or rather, at the time of the request it was monitoring all online mentions of licensing. A couple such campaigns were on their ‘do not engage’ list.
- More than 6,000 people issued a “withdrawal of implied right of access” to the BBC, indicating that TV licensing staff do not have the right to enter their home, in 2015. NB, legal consensus is that this doesn’t offer you more protection against such visitors than the law as it stands, but it appears the BBC did take such requests into account. This policy was later changed in Scotland to reflect that country’s trespass law.
…and many more.
Bordering on classified information
Border Five is an informal forum on customs and border management policy issues, made up of the Department of Home Affairs (Australia); the Canada Border Services Agency; The New Zealand Customs Service; The United Kingdom UK Border Force; and the US Department of Homeland Security.
How to verify that these are indeed the member bodies? With this FOI response from the Home Office.
Clearly, border security is a sensitive issue, and much of the other information requested here — such as the topics discussed and people present at meetings — was refused with a response that they could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether the information is held.
On the rails
Here is an example of an authority complying with the FOI Act despite the fact that at the time of the request they were not subject to it: as they state at the beginning of their response “Although we are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, we work to disclose information as if we were”.
Subsequently Network Rail was, in fact, deemed to be subject to FOI, as explored by our researcher Alex in this post.
Special constables are unpaid, volunteer members of the police force, and they have their own insignia, which vary from place to place.
Ranks are marked via the designs on their epaulettes, as depicted in this table which cites many FOI requests to the various forces — it’s possible that a contributor to this Wikipedia page submitted a series of requests specifically for the purpose of helping compile the collection. Here’s an example request, with a photograph of the insignia they provided viewable here.
Subscribe to our newsletter.