1. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker

    These past few weeks, one of the most-viewed pages on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has been this one, which asks the Department of Work and Pensions:

    A post has been circulating on Facebook, alleging that people are eligible to receive £26 a day/£182 a week in Tesco vouchers on the basis of being immigrants present in the UK. This is alleged to be in addition to the free housing and benefits for clothes, shoes, etc. Can you confirm whether the UK government does indeed provide vouchers of this amount to immigrants in the UK? 

    The DWP helpfully reply that, in fact, it’s the Home Office who deal with asylum support, while linking to the relevant page on their website which sets the true sum at a far more modest £36.95 per week.

    We all know how rumours like these can proliferate on social media such as Facebook, fueling indignation and spreading misinformation. We’re pretty sure that a large proportion of the visits to this page have come from people Googling to check the facts, before commenting on their friends’ Facebook posts, ‘Actually, no – here’s the truth’.

    That’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and another reason why the publication of FOI responses can be so useful. We won’t be taking over from Snopes any time soon, but we’re glad to have helped in this particular case.

     

    Image: __andrew (CC)

     

  2. Commission on Freedom of Information oral evidence: making a case for public disclosure

    As you may remember, the government recently set up an independent commission to examine whether this country’s Freedom of Information laws should be made more restrictive.

    Back in November, we explained the changes, showed how similar legislation had had undesirable effects in other countries, and urged you to tell the commission how you felt.

    It seems that almost 30,000 people and organisations responded to the consultation — a tremendous number, and testament to the strength of feeling around the matter. The commission announced that it would invite some of the respondents to provide oral evidence, in sessions that happened at the end of January.

    Transcripts and videos from those sessions are now available on the gov.uk website. They make for fascinating, if somewhat lengthy, perusal. Attendees are from a variety of organisations, including bodies who deal with incoming FOI requests, and those who campaign for our rights under the Act.

    If you don’t fancy trawling through all 286 pages, here are a few of our own highlights — the points which really vindicate a service like WhatDoTheyKnow, with its system of publishing responses in public.

    Requesting and responding in public saves money

    A number of different respondents made the case for the savings that can be made through transparency in FOI. First there was Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner:

    If you’ve actually concluded that, under the Freedom of Information Act, you ought to make something available, it makes common sense to make it generally available because then that gives you a reason for not having to publish it a second time, you just refer people to the lot.

    Peter Clifton from the Press Association:
    Some time that is spent answering these responses would be addressed if there was just a much more open approach to data that is often not particularly controversial, it just adds to people’s understanding about the organisations that help to run their lives and I think we should have a more consistent approach.

    Ian Redhead, from the National Police Chief’s Council did have a different opinion:

    I always try to convince my colleagues […] that the more we put on a publication scheme, the less questions we’d receive and that’s proved to be absolutely not correct. In year one, we had 15,000 requests. Last year, we had just under 50,000 and we put a huge amount of information into the public environment. So it doesn’t in any way reduce the level of applications we receive.
    But Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information had this to say in response:
    I suspect they are publishing the wrong information. I don’t think they are looking what the requests are. They are getting requests for what software they are using and when the contracts come up for renewal, that is what they should publish.

    Requesting and responding in public increases accountability

    The benefits of Freedom of Information can’t always be counted in pounds and pence. What price tag can you put on accountability? Lord McNally had a great example from last night’s paper:

    Last night in the Evening Standard it’s revealed that Westminster City Council have spent £90,000 on a new Rolls Royce for their Lord Mayor.

    It might be embarrassing for Westminster City Council but why shouldn’t the good burghers of Westminster know how much Westminster City Council is spending on their Rolls Royce.

    Well, when you talk about cost and benefit, it’s very difficult to get the full cost benefit, but I suspect, both at national level and at local government level, there’s many a pound being saved by people saying, well, if we do this, it will be FoIed and we’ll have hell to pay.

    There were some objections to commercial usage of the FOI Act, where a company, for example, requests information about existing contracts from every council in the country. But here was the counter-argument, put a couple of times by the Right Honourable Lord Howard:

    After all, if that information enables the service to be provided more economically or more effectively, isn’t that a public interest?
    That wasn’t disputed — and in fact, often the information is available online. Councils already publish all expenditure over £500: the problem arises when requesters want it given in a specific format, meaning it has to be gathered anew.

    Requesting and responding in public exposes vexatious requests

    There were many mentions of ‘vexatious’ requests — that is, requests which have been submitted with ill intent, whether that be malicious or mischievous.

    When requests and responses are published online, one person’s activities become very easy to see, and vexatious behaviour is much more easily proven.

    We were interested to see the Police Chief’s Council put a rough figure on the proportion of this kind of request:

    IAN READHEAD: Oh, I would think vexatious requests are easily less [than] 3 percent of all requests.
    LORD CARLILE: So it’s a very smart [sic] proportion?
    MARK WISE: It’s very small.

    Several witnesses mentioned the types of vexatious requests they receive, and the ways in which a requester may make requests within the letter, but not spirit of the law.

    Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Authority:
    It is the vexatious questioner who sends in a request saying: how many members of staff do you have whose first name begins with A, how many whose first name begins with B?, and when challenged says “I am entitled to ask this information under the Act”.
    As I understand it, it refers to the individual request and not to requests, so the authority would not be entitled to refuse the request on the basis that the person had submitted many hundreds of like requests for no obvious purpose in recent times.
    Cllr Simmonds did say that he wasn’t absolutely sure about that last point and would follow up with some research.

    A final word

    When this commission was first announced, the government emphasised their commitment to open data, with the implication that there’s less need for FOI when information is proactively published. But Lord McNally had a different take on it:

    Just always remember that data, open data, is what government wants to tell you, Freedom of Information is what we want to know.

     

    There’s no word yet as to when the commission’s findings will be released, but we’ll be sure to let you know when they are.

    Image: Scott McLeod (CC)

  3. Extension of the Freedom of Information Act in Scotland

    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.


    Image: Angela Mudge (CC)

  4. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.

    Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.

    That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.

    If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.

    Donate now


    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

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

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

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

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

    The recurring question

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

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

    Well, what would you like to know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here’s the answer

    We responded as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We can’t answer that bit, though

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ah, but we can help you access that information

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

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

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

    Newly purchased:

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

    Annual support fee charged for existing installation:

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

    New work done on existing installation:

    Oxfordshire County Council
    Warwickshire County Council
    Zurich City Council

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

    Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)

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


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

    Image: Magnus Akselvoll (CC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

    Germany

    Image by Roger Matthewes: Hessenpark in Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

    USA

    Times Square by Hien Nguyen

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

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

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

    Australia

    Brisbane skyline by Andrea Ferrera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Spain

    Alhambra on a hilltop surrounded by trees, by Javi Muro

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

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

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

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

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

    Elsewhere

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

    Why this matters

    London from the air by Anders Sandberg

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

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

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

    Successes

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

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

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

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

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

    What next?

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

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

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

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

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

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

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

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

    Banner image: Andy Arthur (CC)

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

  7. A response to the Freedom of Information consultation

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

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

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

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

    Image: Isaac Bowen (CC)

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

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

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

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

    Contact your MP

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

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

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

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

    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

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

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Why these restrictions matter

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

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

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

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

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

    We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries

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

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

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

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

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

    Government ministers could pick and choose what they release

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

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

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

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

    Public authorities are funded by us, the public

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

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

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

    How will you help?

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


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

    Image: Kimberly Kauer (CC)

     

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow informed half a million people last month

    In September, it was just over 491,000.

    In August, nearly 495,000.

    July, more like 480,000 and June, 470,000.

    In May, we were just ELEVEN blinkin’ visitors off half a million.

    But in October, finally, we saw half a million unique users accessing WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Talk about edge-of-the-seat stuff.

    half a mil

    It’s one of the figures that isn’t greatly talked about when it comes to WhatDoTheyKnow: people tend to focus on the number of requests being made, or answered.

    But just as significant, in our view, is the number of people who access the information that comes from those requests. In fact, it’s the main reason that WhatDoTheyKnow publishes Freedom of Information requests, and their responses, online. It maximises the benefit, for everyone.

    We reckon that, on average, 20 people view every request (some have many more viewers, others have fewer). That’s 20 people being informed for the price of one – a pretty good deal, we hope you’ll agree.