1. Inform yourself before the referendum

    If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.

    On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.

    We believe in an informed vote.

    That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.

    Check the facts

    Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.

    They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.

    Ask some questions

    Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.

    But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    Know where to vote

    Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.

    Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.

    Image: Eisenrah (CC)


  2. Does your council break the law?

    That’s the question that a WhatDoTheyKnow user recently asked on Reddit, after asking local authorities in the UK how they pay care and support workers on sleep-in shifts.

    Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.

    Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.

    It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    Image: Fiona Kwan (CC)


  3. West Ham stadium ruling: a win for transparency

    You may have seen the blanket press coverage last week: the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the publicly-funded authority which owns the Olympic Stadium, lost its recent tribunal and was ordered to publish its contract with West Ham football club.

    This is a story which goes back to last August, when we first blogged that WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt had submitted a request for the contract via the site, on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts.

    In September, we updated the story as LLDC pushed back from publishing the full contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. It seems the subsequent tribunal dismissed this as a valid reason to withhold the information — information which has now been pored over in detail by the nation’s media.

    Many concluded that the authority have struck a poor deal on behalf of the general public; we particularly enjoyed a statement from Barry Hearn, former chairman of Leyton Orient, who reportedly stated, “My dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.”

    Whatever your opinion on the deal itself, we think it’s right that the information should be firmly in the public domain, so that people can clearly see the financial affairs of the authorities they pay for.

    Richard Hunt, whose request kickstarted this whole affair, says that it represents a good result for football, too:

    The effort to get the contract released under FOI was started by a football fan and then, as the LLDC resisted disclosure, mushroomed into a full scale campaign run by a coalition of football club Supporters Trusts.

    It gained such wide support precisely because football fans are taxpayers too, and there was a widespread perception that one such club was receiving public funds to get a new stadium, whereas other clubs had funded new stadia themselves (or more accurately from the revenues earned from  their fans ).

    It was a rare example of football fans overcoming tribal divisions to work together, and is expected to be showcased at the Supporters Summit meeting organised by the Football Supporters Federation this coming July.

    Well done to all involved! You can see the original Freedom of Information request here.

    Image: Daniel Coomber (CC)

  4. Publishing responses to FOI requests ‘should be the norm’, says government commission on Freedom of Information

    Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.

    For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s reportpdf, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.

    You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.

    Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.

    That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.

    No fees for FOI

    mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.

    Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.

    Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.

    In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.

    The commission stated:

    We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.

    And in turn, the government response came:

    The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.

    Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style

    As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:

    We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.

    Universities remain accountable

    We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:

    It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.

    You can’t have everything

    All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.

    We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.

    The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.

    We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.


    We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.

    We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.


    Image: Tom Heinze (CC)

  5. 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)


  6. 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)

  7. 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)

  8. 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)

  9. 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)

  10. 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.


    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


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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)