Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.
This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:
- You’d be charged for making a request
- Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
- You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
- The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
- The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.
You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.
Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.
What you can do
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
Why these restrictions matter
Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it
If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.
It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).
It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.
We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries
Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.
In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.
In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.
Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.
The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.
Government ministers could pick and choose what they release
Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.
If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.
The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.
We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.
Public authorities are funded by us, the public
If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.
We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.
If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.
How will you help?
These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.
*A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.
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.
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.
According to a postscript on that story, TfL have since commented:
This map was produced for engineering works planning and wasn’t designed for customer use, however we are happy to make any maps available which help our customers to travel in London. This map will therefore be added to our website.
Great result. We hope that thanks to Buzzfeed’s viral spread, from today, plenty more people understand the potential of FOI to change things for the benefit of many.
Last month we wrote about a Freedom of Information request, submitted through WhatDoTheyKnow, on West Ham’s lease of the former Olympic Stadium. The resulting information was interesting enough that it became the subject of a BBC TV programme.
The request, submitted by WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts, received some but not all of the information required. The rest was held back on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’, a decision which Richard asked the ICO to review.
On 3rd September the ICO found in his favour: the stadium owners, London Legacy Development Corporation, must now provide the full contract, including details of the rent being paid. Read more in this BBC story, which states:
The commissioner said neither West Ham nor LLDC had been able to show how revealing the details of the tenancy agreement would place them at a commercial disadvantage or how this information could be exploited by a competitor.
This is an important point, Richard says:
The commercial confidentiality excuse is a huge problem. I think that if a private company is involved, and the requester doesn’t have a business background, they just assume that it must be reasonable. So they don’t challenge it.
Fortunately we had plenty of business brains, and in particular an understanding of the football business. We challenged the excuse in detail… The overall lesson is, if you get this excuse, try to gain knowledge of the business in question, and ask yourself how exactly a competitor could take advantage of the company if the information was disclosed, and whether the damage outweighs the public interest.
Richard says he is happy to share their submissions to the ICO with anyone facing similar difficulties in obtaining information. You can contact him via WhatDoTheyKnow.
The London Legacy Development Corporation now has until 8th October to disclose the full details of the tenancy agreement.
If you want a copper-bottomed example of how Freedom of Information can benefit us all, you might do worse than to watch How the Hammers Struck Gold (broadcast last week, and available via iPlayer until Friday).
This BBC programme examines, in the space of half an hour, the fine detail of the rental agreement which grants West Ham United the use of the Olympic Stadium.
The stadium’s owners, the London Legacy Development Corporation, are a public authority, so they are bound by the Freedom of Information Act. That means that anyone has the right to ask them for information, and if they hold it, they must release it.
WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt requested the terms of the rental agreement, and—well, you can see the rest for yourself. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in football, but there’s plenty for the rest of us too.
The investigation speaks more widely of transparency around the use of tax-payers’ money, as well as the multiple revenue streams—some only loosely related to the actual game—which are up for grabs when a team reaches the Premier League.
If you happen to see this post after the programme has been removed from iPlayer, you can also find a good written summary of the findings on the BBC website.
In 2005, UK citizens obtained rights under the Freedom of Information Act. In a nutshell, we have the right to ask publicly-funded bodies for information, and, if they hold the information, in most cases they are obliged to provide it.
While these rights are highly beneficial to the populace, they do, of course, prove worrisome, inconvenient and irritating to some of those in public office. They were scrutinised once in 2013, by a Justice Committee at which WhatDoTheyKnow were invited to give evidence, and now there looks to be another potential attack.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office announced the establishment of a cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information, in a statement which on the one hand asserts their commitment to transparency, and on the other suggests a desire to move away from it under certain circumstances.
Pivotal to the announcement is the stated aim to ensure that “a private space is protected for frank advice” within government policy-making, which we interpret to mean that the law would be modified to ring-fence certain information, preventing its access via the FOI Act. As has already been suggested elsewhere (for example, on the BBC website), the commission’s review panel might have been pre-selected specifically to include known opponents to the Act.
The WhatDoTheyKnow team, supported by mySociety and its overseeing body UKCOD, agree with the Cabinet Office’s statement that the advances made in government transparency since the introduction of the Act are to be broadly welcomed.
However, we are also gravely concerned by the proposal for restricting the FOI Act’s reach within government. We hope that the commission will consider that, while there is a cost to Freedom of Information, there is also a huge benefit to the nation.
Freedom of Information allows citizens to access information from public bodies, the authorities that we fund ourselves. When those bodies operate in secrecy, they are hiding truth from not only the people they are supposed to serve, but the people who finance their very existence.
It’s the sign of a thriving democracy when the actions of our governing bodies are functionally transparent. FOI helps uncover and discourage corruption, and provides checks and balances to the actions of the authorities working on our behalf.
But for FOI to really work it has to be applied across all departments, in all public bodies, with as few loopholes or exceptions as possible. If Government itself is shown to be sidestepping its responsibilities in transparency, then what is to stop other authorities from taking their cue from them? As we learned at our recent Alaveteli conference, during which we heard from practitioners running FOI sites in many countries, when bodies stop responding to requests, public accountability suffers.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we know there’s a massive public demand for information, because we process more than 5,000 FOI requests per month. The information that we then publish online is accessed on average by a further 20 readers per request. We strongly wish to be able to go on providing this service to our users, and for it to apply across all public authorities.
We await concrete proposals being made available for a full public consultation, whereupon we would be keen to participate from our unique position of running WhatDoTheyKnow, the UK’s only public freedom of information website. We will be doing all we can to defend your right to information—from every authority.
Image: Redvers (CC-BY-ND)
Private data, containing personal details of the general public, is accidentally released by public authorities at least once a fortnight, say mySociety.
The volunteer team behind WhatDoTheyKnow, mySociety’s freedom of information website, have dealt with 154 accidental data leaks made by bodies such as councils, government departments and other public authorities since 2009, and these are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg.
On the basis of this evidence, we are again issuing an urgent call for public authorities everywhere to tighten up their procedures.
How WhatDoTheyKnow works
Under the Freedom of Information act, anyone in the UK may request information from a public body.
WhatDoTheyKnow makes the process of filing an FOI request very easy: users can do so online. The site publishes the requests and their responses, creating a public archive of information.
Public authorities operate under a code of conduct that requires personal information is removed or anonymised before data is released: for example, while a request for the number of people on a council housing waiting list may be calculated from a list including names, addresses and the reason for housing need, the information provided should not include those details.
Accidental data releases become particularly problematic when the data requested concerns the details of potentially vulnerable people.
Hidden data is not always hidden
When users request information through WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s often provided in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. But unfortunately, private data is sometimes included on those spreadsheets, usually because the staff member who provides it doesn’t understand how to anonymise it effectively.
For example, data which is in hidden tabs, or pivot tables, can be revealed by anyone who has basic spreadsheet knowledge, with just a couple of clicks.
By its very nature, data held by our public authorities can be extremely sensitive: imagine, for example, lists of people on a child protection register, lists of people who receive benefits, or as happened back in 2012, a list of all council housing applicants, including each person’s name and sexuality.
Our latest warning is triggered by an incident earlier this month, in which Northamptonshire County Council accidentally published data on over 1,400 children, including their names, addresses, religion and SEN status. Thanks to the exceptionally fast work of both the requester and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, it was removed within just a few hours of publication, and the incident has been reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Concerned residents should contact the ICO or the council itself.
Advice for FOI officers
Back in June 2013, we set out the advice that we think every FOI officer should know. That advice still stands:
- Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
- Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
- Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
- Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
Part of a larger picture
Not every FOI request is made through WhatDoTheyKnow—many people will send their requests directly to the public authority. Moreover, we can only react to the breaches that we are aware of: there are, in all probability, far more which remain undiscovered.
But because of WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy of making information accessible to all, by publishing it on the site, it’s now possible to see what an endemic problem this kind of treatment of personal data is.
When we come across incidents like these, we act very rapidly to remove the personal information. We then inform the public authority who provided the response. We encourage them to self-report to the Information Commissioner’s Office, and where the data loss is very serious, we may make an additional report ourselves.
Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.
Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.
As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.
Not just a pretty face
It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.
They’ll be checking that we’ve:
- Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
- Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
- Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.
That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.
Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.
Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:
It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.
Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:
It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”
How it works
The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:
Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.
For those who prefer to browse
Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:
They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.
Sharing the benefits
Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.
Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.
WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information website, through which you can send an FOI request to UK publicly-funded bodies. It is used in many different ways, by many different users.
Here’s a recent blog post by Doug Paulley which we think is worth highlighting. It uses a series of FOI requests across every council with social services responsibilities in England, Wales and Scotland, and every health and social care trust in Northern Ireland, to get to the truth of a simple question: whether or not a particular disability organisation, Leonard Cheshire, was honest when stating that they wanted to pay their carers a living wage.
We wanted to draw your attention to it because, as well as being a good read, it really highlights the innovative uses that can be made of the rights we enjoy under the FOI Act. It also shows that you don’t have to be a journalist to dig into a story like this. Perhaps it gives you ideas for something you’d like to investigate?
How many people visit mySociety’s websites?
That’s a question we don’t ask ourselves as much as many other organisations. Much of our current funding is dependent on transactions (that is, the number of people using the site to complete an action such as making an FOI request, writing to a politician, or signing up to receive emails when their MP speaks), and rightly so, since that is a better measure of the sites’ actual effectiveness.
All the same, visitor numbers* do tell us about things like how much public awareness there is of what we do, and which of our sites is more visible than the others, so it’s good to take a proper look now and again.
Which of our UK sites is most visited?
By far our most popular site in terms of visitor numbers is our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. With over 4.5 million visitors 2014-15, it’s had three times more users than its closest competitor, TheyWorkForYou.
As well as allowing users to submit FOI requests, WhatDoTheyKnow also puts the responses into the public domain, so that the information becomes openly available. Every request receives, on average, twenty readers, meaning that transactions do not show the whole picture for this site.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s user numbers are also rising steadily. It’s up 8% on last year, and March 2015 was its highest month for unique users since its launch in 2008, at 470,509.
Which is least visited?
This dubious honour goes to WriteToThem, which nonetheless welcomed 457,209 visitors during the year, either helping them to write to their representatives, or simply showing them who those representatives were.
This was still a decent 11% rise on the previous year, despite a real rollercoaster where some months dipped substantially from the previous year.
Which made the most gains in the last year?
FixMyStreet saw the biggest percentage change, with a 21% rise in visitor numbers compared to the previous year; we talked a bit more about that in a recent blog post. WhatDoTheyKnow had the highest rise in actual visitor numbers: over 360,000 up on 2013-14.
Which fell by the most in the last year?
TheyWorkForYou saw a 12% drop in visitor numbers year on year (and also the biggest drop in real terms)—disappointing, but something we hope to rectify with the new voting pages, an ongoing process of rolling redesign, and some grassroots outreach.
How much effect do external events have on visitor numbers?
We already know that, as you’d expect, when Parliament is on holiday, MPs, debates and legislation aren’t in the news, and TheyWorkForYou visitor numbers fall. There’s also a weekly pattern for all our sites, where far fewer people use them at the weekends, presumably indicating that lots of our users access them from work.
It’s too early to say exactly what effect the election has had on our sites: as I write, people are eagerly checking out the voting records of newly-appointed cabinet ministers on TheyWorkForYou.
One thing we know for sure is that fewer people will have been using WriteToThem, because there have been no MPs to write to for the last few weeks. We’ve removed the “write to your MP” links from TheyWorkForYou, which always drove a good deal of WriteToThem’s traffic.
FixMyStreet enjoyed a boost back in June, when it was featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘The Complainers’—and the nice thing is, user numbers never receded back to their previous levels after the programme was over. Maybe people just need to use FixMyStreet to see how useful it is.
How many people visit mySociety’s UK websites in total?
This is a difficult figure for us to produce with accuracy, because we don’t trace whether you’re the same person visiting a number of our different sites.
However, the aggregate total of visitors to all our UK sites (WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow) for 2014-15 is 6,983,028. Thanks very much if you were one of them
How can I help?
Glad you asked! If you find mySociety sites useful, you can help us spread the word by telling friends, sharing the URLs with any groups you are a member of, posting on Facebook or Twitter, or writing to your local paper.
We have a number of materials for FixMyStreet which can be found here; we hope to create similar materials for our other sites too, and we’ll make sure we announce it on here when we do.
* Note: all references to ‘users’ refer to unique users within the period discussed. So, users in a year means individual people who may have visited any number of times over that year, but are only counted once; same with monthly users.