1. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  2. PACAC makes the positive case for FOI, but there is more work to do

    Today the House of Commons’  Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) released its report on the Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House

    We submitted evidence to the inquiry. It is also highly worth reading journalist Jenna Corderoy’s evidence, as her investigation and appeals are the big reason that the evidence we have exists, and that the inquiry happened in the first place. 

    A summary of the evidence given to the committee can be found in this twitter thread

    Reaction to report

    Many of the committee’s recommendations (such as better procedures and more regular data about the Clearing House) are non-controversial, and indeed would be very good to see implemented. However, a big area of concern is their recommendation around how the ICO should be funded. 

    There is an excellent line taken through the report that FOI is a good thing, that makes good things happen. It does not see the Cabinet Office’s coordination role as illegitimate, but does see it as pointing in the wrong direction. The report has a vision of the government embracing the positive benefits of FOI, and the Cabinet Office playing a leading role in setting the standard, and maintaining the direction across all government departments. Rather than a secretive role,  the Clearing House should be public and transparent about how it goes about its business. The Cabinet Office should not just ensure a compliant response across government, but advocate for the principles and benefits of Freedom of Information. 

    The report’s recommendations constrain themselves to actions for the government, and do not address the potential for legal change to address the problems. While we generally argue that legal change is needed to bring UK legislation up to the Scottish standard and set firm deadlines for internal review and public interest tests (to prevent the abuse described in PACAC’s report), it would obviously be a good outcome for the government to proactively meet those standards.

    But to be realistic, this would be a big shift in culture that seems unlikely to happen spontaneously. The report recommended that the Cabinet Office allow the ICO to conduct an external and independent audit of their FOI procedures. The day before this report was released, after months of delay, the Cabinet Office instead announced the details of their planned internal audit. This is not a good start, and legislative change is still likely to be required to meet the objectives the committee has set out. 

    The area where the report falls down is in addressing the urgent problem of ICO funding. While the report has a clear sense of the scale of the problem, their proposed fix is unlikely to improve the situation, and might make it worse. 

    At the moment, while government FOI policy is set by the Cabinet Office, the “sponsor department” which provides the ICO with its FOI funding is the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This existing arrangement is bad because there is a clear conflict of interest in the government having the power to underfund its own regulator. As is already the case with the Scottish Information Commissioner, the most suitable sponsor is Parliament itself

    However, PACAC has decided the problem is not government funding, but that policy and funding are split between two departments. They recommend that either the Cabinet Office takes over funding, or DCMS takes over policy. Given the general approach of the rest of the report (and the role of the Cabinet Office working across government), the effective recommendation is that the Cabinet Office should be the sponsor department of the ICO and responsible for managing its FOI funding. This seems like a bad idea without substantial changes at the Cabinet Office happening first. 

    In the happy future where the Cabinet Office is an FOI champion, it is possible to imagine this arrangement working, but this is not where we are now.  The Cabinet Office is currently one of the least suitable departments to be trusted to treat the ICO appropriately. Evidence from the previous Information Commissioner stressed that one reason they are not able to use their full legal powers to address issues is a lack of funding. The Cabinet Office has fairly directly benefited from an underfunded ICO, in that the system of regulation meant to prevent the problems described in PACAC’s report just doesn’t have enough resources to work correctly. It would be a bizarre outcome of this process to give them even more direct power to make this happen. 

    The positive understanding of FOI from this committee is very much welcome, as is the pushback against new bodies being excluded from Freedom of Information. But wider changes are needed to bring this vision of how FOI improves good governance into practice. As we have argued before (and will set out in more detail in the next few weeks), the most appropriate long term arrangement for funding the ICO is through a direct grant from Parliament. Legislative change to make key principles unambiguous, and to learn from best practice across the UK and further afield, are needed to take us further along the road into the positive future imagined. 

    Summary of PACAC Recommendations 

    For Cabinet Office

    Clearing House

    • Publish more data about the performance of the Clearing House.
      • Return to the previous standard of the number of referrals to the Clearing House split by department and month, quarterly.
        • Additionally, data on how casework volume is split by referral category and timeliness.
    • Accept ICO’s offer for an audit to “to reassure the public that the Government’s approach to Freedom of Information requests is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act and that they are handled with the utmost professionalism”. 
      • Publish an action plan in response to this. 

    FOI Procedure

    • Adopt procedures that guarantee the legal standard of applicant-blind processes for requests.
    • Guidance on limited circumstances Minister and Special Advisors can get involved in responding to FOI.
    • Establish timetable for completion of internal review. 

    Lead and model good FOI practice

    • Cabinet Office should “drive a cultural shift from mere baseline compliance with the [FOI Act] to to a greater advocacy for the core principles and tenets of the Act
    • Cabinet Office should model best practice, and intervene elsewhere in government that doesn’t meet this best practice. 
    • Issue guidance on the need to maintain public record given private messaging systems.

    Wider government

    Set the right tone and meet a higher standard

    • PACAC wants to see stronger tone on the benefits to good government from Freedom of Information, and greater demonstrable action on steps taken to improve outcomes for Freedom of Information applicants. 
    • Review decision to exclude ARIA from Freedom of Information Act, but only to ensure this is not a precedent. The report criticises the way FOI was discussed at the time, but does not directly say the decision should be reversed. 
    • Government as standard (with Cabinet Office driving change) should respond to internal review within the 20 days suggested by the ICO. 

    FOI Governance

    • Reconcile the split between FOI Policy responsibility (Cabinet Office) and sponsor department (Department for Culture Media and Sport) by either shifting policy from Cabinet Office to DCMS, or the funding responsibility from DCMS to Cabinet Office.

     

  3. New report: Improving oversight of Access to Information

    The right to access information requires high quality oversight. Studies of effectiveness of Access to Information (ATI) legislation tells a clear story: the benefits of greater transparency and access to information can only be realised when this system is actively enforced. To be effective, the whole system of ATI review and appeal has to be designed as a system of cultural change. The system has to use limited resources in a strategic way to reform cultures of unnecessary secrecy in government that protect corruption and inefficiency in public life. 

    Building on a comprehensive picture of appeal systems and processes across Europe, our new report argues for the value of specialised oversight bodies (Information Commissioners), who have independence from government and the power to compel compliance from authorities. In countries that use a system of internal review, better monitoring and interventions are necessary to ensure this system enhances rather than detracts from access to information.

    The report can be read online, or downloaded as a pdf

    Summary of recommendations:

    • Better investment in the resources, capacities and independence of Information Commissioners improves the quality of the ATI regime, attacks corruption, and strengthens good governance.
    • Specialist Information commissioners are preferable to general ombudsman, bringing more specific knowledge, and are a more suitable structure to shepherd the access to information regime. 
    • The power to enforce decisions is a required tool for driving culture change in public authorities. 
    • Systems of internal review should be replaced by commissioner-led systems of appeal, where information commissioners have understanding of appeals across the entire system, and can use internal review as a strategic choice, rather than a hurdle before an appeal can be considered. 
    • In general, oversight bodies and civil society rarely have high quality information about full workings of the ATI system. We argue that better quality statistics are a valuable tool in demonstrating the value of the system, and in allowing targeted focus on problems. 

    Fundamentally, good ATI regimes are important because of the effects they have in society, strengthening anti-corruption and good policy-making approaches. Better oversight is a cost-effective way of unlocking these wider benefits. This report explores how technical details of how the oversight system works are important in achieving these overall objectives.

    The report can be read online, or downloaded as a pdf

  4. Business Improvement Districts on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve recently added lots of Business Improvement District (BID) organisations to our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    BIDs are directly funded via business rates. They spend public money, and have a significant impact on important public spaces, but are generally not subject to Freedom of Information law. 

    We are listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow because we think they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. WhatDoTheyKnow is not only an FOI service: we also actively seek to expand the scope of access to information law, and will add bodies to the site if it is clear that they should be open to public scrutiny.

    Business Improvement Districts were introduced via Part 4 of the Local Government Act 2003

    Most BIDs are focused on shopping streets, but there are others which work around industrial estates, and a handful seek to boost the tourism sector in their areas. 

    BIDs’ activities vary from body to body. Examples include:

    The establishment of a BID requires the support of both: 

    1. the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
    2. those representing a majority of the rateable value relating to the votes cast.

    The local council responsible for collecting business rates may veto a proposal for a BID, but once it has been approved the council is required to collect the “BID levy” alongside business rates and pass it on to the BID organisation.

    While these ballots provide a democratic mandate for BIDs, the ability to scrutinise how a BID is run during its period of operation is important so that people can assess the performance of these organisations and assure themselves that the public money they are responsible for is spent appropriately.

    BIDs can increase the level of influence businesses have in their areas of operation. One argument in favour of BIDs is they correct for an “influence gap” arising due to the fact businesses don’t have a vote when it comes to electing local councillors. On the flip-side of that, BIDs can be argued to reduce the ability of local residents to influence projects relating to their local shopping streets, or other areas of BID activity. 

    A recent report from the lottery funded Power to Change Trust on the operation of BIDs stated: 

    Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have proven successful in involving businesses in the development of local economies, addressing a previous influence gap – but there is no parallel system for residents to participate, other than via indirect means with their local councillor or planning system. This leaves those who have ideas about how to shape their places without a strong voice.

    While listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow won’t directly give people a greater say in how BIDs which impact their local areas are run, greater transparency will hopefully enable informed lobbying, better quality media reporting, and enable those running the organisations to be held to account. WhatDoTheyKnow is open to all, anyone with an interest in the operation of a BID, be they a local resident, a levy paying business, or anyone else, is welcome to use our service to request information from a BID.  

    All public bodies which receive funding via council tax, such as parish councils, Police and Crime Commissioners and Fire Authorities are subject to FOI. It seems right that bodies funded via a levy collected as part of business rates should also be subject to the Act.

    Enabling people to request information from BIDs in public, and automatically publishing any responses, will hopefully improve the transparency of these organisations. If there are refusals to provide requested information, these may be cited by those who, like us, think that BIDs should be made subject to the Act. 

    A new approach to developing the public body database

    We are currently listing around 300 BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow

    At the time of writing we don’t hold an email address for around 120 of them. If anyone seeks to make a request to those we don’t have an address for, they will be prompted to look for an email address for us to use, and let us know if they find one. 

    To-date, we’ve generally avoided listing bodies without email addresses, although doing so would closely copy a model that’s worked well on mySociety’s WriteToThem site for many years — where someone wants to email their MP or councillor and we don’t have an address, we will ask users to see if they can find the required details. 

    For WhatDoTheyKnow, this is an experiment to see if listing bodies without an address encourages users to find them for us. We hope to experiment with more nudges like this, to see if they motivate users to help us keep our database updated — thus spreading the load of a task that would otherwise take up quite a bit of our time.

    Image: Artur Kraft

  5. Courts on WhatDoTheyKnow: what’s the verdict?

    We’ve recently been considering whether we should add individual courts to WhatDoTheyKnow.com, so that users could make FOI requests to them in public. Doing so would certainly align with our wider mission of making it easy to access information from public bodies; but there are also some clear reasons against their inclusion. 

    In this post we’ll examine both sides of the issue. But first, some context.

    At the moment, FOI requests for information held by courts can be made via the listing on WhatDoTheyKnow for the courts service, HMCTS. Individual courts are generally not considered to be authorities in their own right, so this would mean adding bodies that are not strictly subject to FOI themselves — which is not a new concept for us: we will often list parts of public bodies separately if we think this will help our users.

    Transparency is particularly important when it comes to courts, as they exercise the power of the state and their decisions can have huge impacts on individuals, organisations, the environment and society. 

    In favour of listing individual courts

    Further to our general principle that it is good to give access to governmental bodies serving the public, there are some more nuanced reasons to include courts in our listings:

    • Requests often end up there anyway. On receipt of a request better answered by a local or individual court, HMCTS will often forward it to them, or advise the request-maker to contact the court directly themselves. The FOI process may be quicker and more efficient for all parties if requests are just sent directly to the court in question.
    • It would serve an educational purpose Listing courts individually would promote the fact that FOI requests can be made for information held by courts.
    • Information can be obtained from courts via FOI. Statistics, information on spending, details of room usage etc. could all be requested from courts, and we would expect such requests to be successful. Section 32 of the FOI Act exempts court records, meaning they’ll just refuse an FOI request for these, but you should be able to access other information that they hold.
    • Separate requests may not trigger the cost limit Under Section 12 of the Act, authorities can refuse FOI requests if it will take them more than a certain number of working hours to provide the information. Requests made to a series of individual courts may not be aggregated for the purposes of considering the cost limits, and more information may be obtained via a series of requests made to individual courts than would be obtained via a request made to the court service centrally.

    Against listing individual courts

    There is really just one substantial reason against listing courts, but it is important and we give significant weight to it:

    • Courts may release sensitive information When authorities respond to a request made through WhatDoTheyKnow, the information they release is published on the website. But there are rights other than FOI that give access to information from courts, eg section 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules and Part 5 of The Civil Procedure Rules 1998. Court officers may consider that, due to these provisions, they are required to release information which it would be irresponsible, and sometimes illegal, to publish in response to requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    In conclusion

    Having worked our way through these pros and cons, we conclude that listing individual courts on WhatDoTheyKnow is currently high risk, and probably not the best way to pursue greater transparency from the court system.

    As in other areas, rather than improving the way requests for information are handled, proactive publication of material such as information on cases before courts, and their outcomes, would be preferable. Information which it is not appropriate to publish should be separated from other material by the courts service.   

    Another approach is to make FOI requests to bodies such as the police, for material they have presented to courts, and such requests may well be successful. 

    It is worth noting that there are currently three courts listed on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    Due to the nature of the work that these courts undertake, we believe they are lower risk listings than others. In the case of the Supreme Court they do even have their own FOI contact point and publication scheme, so should be used to responding responsibly and appropriately to FOI requests.

    If you want to join the discussion of the question examined in this post, you can do so on the public “ticket” for this issue on GitHub, or you can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team.

    Image: Tingey law firm

  6. Freedom of Information requests around the academic status of Dr. Tsai Ing-wen

    We recently became aware of extensive misuse of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, in connection with the academic status of Taiwanese politician Dr Tsai Ing-wen.

    This activity became apparent through a very large quantity of correspondence being sent through the site, all focusing on the validity of Dr Ing-wen’s qualification from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). 

    The majority of this material was repeating the same or very similar FOI requests, and some were not valid requests at all. We also saw mass posting of annotations, some on completely unrelated requests, and new requests which copied the titles of unrelated existing requests in an apparent attempt to evade our attention.

    Running the service responsibly

    As an organisation, we positively and passionately support the citizens’ right to access information and to hold organisations accountable: this is the very foundation that WhatDoTheyKnow is built upon, and its reason for existing. 

    Over time, we’ve formulated and consolidated policies to ensure that information on the site is preserved, as far as possible, as a permanent archive. We robustly contest unjustified requests to remove material from our service, and will only remove any substantive Freedom of Information requests and responses if we absolutely have to. 

    We initially treated this misuse assuming good faith, putting significant effort into removing problematic material from correspondence while continuing to publish elements which could have amounted to a valid Freedom of Information request. 

    Understanding the problem 

    Several users took the time to report the misuse of our service to us, for which we are thankful. As a matter of course, we review all material reported to us and assess it before making a decision on what to do. It took our small team of staff and volunteers a significant amount of  time to respond to the number of reports made in this case.

    Researching the topic more deeply, we discovered a statement from the Information Commissioner on requests they’ve also received on this subject, in which they say:

    The intent of these requests is clearly to try to add weight to theories around the falsification of President Tsai’s PHD, which have already been considered at length by the Commissioner and the Tribunal and found to be entirely lacking in substance.

    Further, both the LSE and the University of London have published their own statements, and a copy of the PhD thesis in question is now available online via LSE’s website

    While rejecting one FOI request on this subject as vexatious, LSE raised the possibility that people in China could be making requests to benefit from the country’s citizen evaluation system, stating:

    “We have been made aware that there is the possibility that the LSE has been added to a list of targets to gain social credits in China. As such we believe that your request and the others we received in this time period have not been made for just the purpose of receiving information but for personal gain.” 

    With this information in hand, we were confident to treat the issue as mass misuse, more akin to spam or even a disinformation attack than to people making misguided requests.

    Taking action

    During the course of this situation, we have banned 108 user accounts, most of which have been created to circumnavigate previous bans and to post inappropriate material to our site. We removed more than 300 requests from the site and 1,640 comments from pages. 

    To put this in context, we only banned 126 newly created user accounts in the whole of 2021, mainly for spamming (see more details in our 2021 Transparency Report). 

    Current approach to the misuse of service

    As a result of this misuse we are taking the following actions. 

    While we will continue to adhere to our reactive moderation policy in most instances, we may occasionally review activity by new users while this incident is ongoing. When we are alerted to correspondence on the subject in question, we will not be taking our usual approach of trying to preserve any valid FOI request contained within broader correspondence. We will instead make a very quick assessment of whether it appears to be a genuine request for information or part of the concerted misuse campaign, in which case the request will be hidden.

    The users making these requests will then be banned without warning or notification. The same will apply to any comments being made on existing requests. It will be up to any users that are banned in this process to make a case to us that they are making genuine FOI requests.

    This approach is in line with that we have taken in other instances of misuse of our service.

    We have also enabled enhanced anti-spam measures on the site, which will help us deal with other instances of misuse more efficiently.

    We may never fully understand what exact circumstances instigated this wave of misuse, but it has been instructive, and has helped us formulate new ways to tackle the always surprising means by which our work – to help citizens make valid requests for information in public – can be temporarily derailed.


    Image: Olga Safronova

  7. Standing with Ukraine

    Alongside many others, we are appalled to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting bloodshed, destruction and assaults on democracy and freedom. We unequivocally condemn this unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

    Since 2014, we have worked with partners in Ukraine who use our Alaveteli software for the country’s Access to Truth website, where tens of thousands of people have requested information from public bodies. The site was originally started by the Ukrainian NGO Centre of United Actions, in collaboration with the Pravda online news site. In 2017, Centre of United Actions passed the site over to their partner NGO “Human Rights Platform”. 

    These organisations’ work on transparency and helping citizens to access vital information has been an inspiration to us and many others around the world. Most recently, the Access to Truth site has been used by citizens to find out locations of bomb shelters, a sobering example of transparency laws in practice now being made use of in people’s day to day experience. 

    We are deeply concerned for the welfare of those we have worked with in Ukraine, as well as users of the Access to Truth platform. We stand in solidarity with them, and stand ready to help wherever we can. 

    We hope Ukraine’s fight for its own country will be successful and they’ll rise again as a prosperous democratic nation.

  8. Freedom of Information is good, and stops bad things happening

    The Freedom of information Act is a defence against corruption and incompetence in public life. Arguments to exclude ARIA from FOI do not make a convincing case for an exception, and are part of a broader attack on a pillar of good governance. 

    The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill passed through Parliament this week. This creates a new research investment agency (ARIA), with the unusual feature of the organisation being explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information (FOI). 

    This is unusual. Very few public organisations are explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information and the few other examples include the Queen and MI5 [1]. How FOI law works is that certain kinds of information are excluded, and so this means different organisations have different amounts of their work open to the public. Existing exemptions around research interests and confidential information mean that similar research bodies can operate within a reasonable balance of preserving confidentiality, space for policy making, and protection of on-going research (see the CFOI briefing on ARIA and an editorial on the topic in Nature). There is no real reason to believe FOI compliance would damage ARIA’s mission… unless you believe that FOI is bad, full stop.

    When ARIA was announced, the statement said:

    “Noting that ARIA will be a small body with minimal administrative capacity, we will remove the burden of processing Freedom of Information requests.”

    This is already fairly negative about FOI, but when it came to defending the policy in the House of Lords, the language got worse. Lord Callanan (a minister at BEIS, which will have oversight of ARIA) called Freedom of Information a “truly malign piece of legislation” that does not achieve “anything at all” and “not much is ever released under freedom of information that causes any problems for government”. Punchy stuff, that also makes you think decision-makers are not opposed to Freedom of Information just for this case. ARIA is the embodiment of a bigger idea that the government takes too few risks, and so should place some risky bets on what is going to succeed in the future. The exclusion from FOI is also part of a bigger idea, that accountability and open government is bad.

    You could pick apart the specific arguments made about ARIA, but these aren’t the real arguments, and taking them seriously makes everyone involved sound silly. It’s not credible that even if a well-funded agency received “a disproportionate” number of FOI requests, having a person sit in the corner and process them would substantially impact the mission. If FOI would really trip up ARIA, it is not going to achieve its goals. If, on the other hand, ARIA is going to be staffed with professionals making reasonable decisions on long-bet investments, these professionals could handle a few FOI requests, as professionals do across the public sector.

    These arguments are not really about ARIA, and it is not fair to the people tasked with delivering ARIA’s expansive vision that they are starting off under the implication that they have something to hide. The real argument being made is that Freedom of Information is annoying and it stops people doing things they shouldn’t. If FOI was as useless as Callanan says, he wouldn’t care enough to block it, and no one else would care if he did. Indeed, while he was speaking the government was separately dealing with the fallout from the Owen Patterson scandal which was sparked by an FOI request. FOI is an effective way to discover bad things that are happening.

    Freedom of Information is swiss-army-knife legislation that stops the need for a thousand bespoke systems of disclosure for every new government agency.  Most FOI requests do not discover big scandals, but more than none do, and these have a very big impact. Freedom of Information has a chilling effect on government incompetence and corruption, and those trying to hide from it should be seen as suspiciously as people carrying bin bags of money into a bank. 

    ARIA is going to be outside FOI, and that’s a shame. But they’re only small in the grand scheme of things. Last year, we outlined a series of straightforward reforms to make the whole system of FOI better and more effective. Over the next year we’ll expand more on how we can improve the power of Freedom of Information, to make sure it continues to expose bad government, and annoy the right people far into the future. 

    When created, ARIA will be subject to the environmental information regulations, and will be listed on WhatDoTheyKnow, in line with our policy on including authorities beyond the scope of FOI. We would hope that ARIA chooses to answer questions from the public, even in cases where they are not legally required to do so.

    __

    Header image: Michael Held on Unsplash

    [1]: Technically the ‘Royal household’ and it’s the wider range of security services such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. 

  9. Look back on the year, with mySociety

    Our Annual Review is now ready for your perusal!

    As usual, it’s been a joy to compile all the progress we’ve made during the past 12 months, and to sprinkle them through with some thoughts and memories from mySociety staff. We hope some of that joy comes to you, too.

    This year, for the first time, SocietyWorks has its own standalone Review, and we’ve also spun off a Transparency report for WhatDoTheyKnow. The latter is something we hope to build upon for the future, as you’ll see.

    As we head into the festive season, we wish you a very happy holiday and all the best for the new year. Now grab a mince pie, stick on that Santa hat, and settle in for a read!

     

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow Transparency report

    In 2021 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 100,092 Freedom of Information requests.

    Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see. But what’s not quite so visible is the work the WhatDoTheyKnow team do behind the scenes — answering users’ questions, removing inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.

    Some of the team’s most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.

    For this reason, the default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.

    This year, for the first time, we’re extending our efforts towards transparency even further, with this report in which we’ll summarise the information removal requests and actions taken during the last twelve months.

    To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2020 to 31 October 2021

    Headline facts and figures

    • 20,714,033 visitors to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year
    • 22,847 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts this year, taking the total to 222,694
    • 7,971 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2021
    • 822 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2021
      …in the context of 100,092 requests made in the year, and a total of 772,971 requests now published on the site
    • 196 Total number of published requests where we redacted some material in 2021
      …usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
    • 126 The number of users who created accounts this year banned
      …that’s just 0.06% of new users.
    • WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.

    And in more detail…

    Requests flagged for our attention

    The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported for admin attention this year. Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.

    Reason for attention request Total number
    Contains personal information 143
    Not a valid request 108
    Vexatious 94
    Request for personal information 85
    Contains defamatory material 51
    Other 287
    Total 768

    Material removed from the site

    The following tables show where members of the support team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.

    There is a range of options available to moderators, from ‘hidden’ (the most extreme) to ‘discoverable with link’. This is in addition to the censor rules that are used to hide certain information within a request or response.

    Request visibility Total number
    Visible only to the request maker 805
    Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 11
    Hidden 8
    Reason for removing from public view Total number
    Not a valid FOI request 701
    Vexatious use of FOI 29
    Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 124

    *Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, but we are hoping to improve our systems so future transparency reports can include a more detailed breakdown.

    Censor rules (programmatically hiding the problematic part/s of a request) Total number
    Number of censor rules applied 881
    Number of requests with censor rules applied 196 
    Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 188

    Data protection issues raised to the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox 

    The following data shows the number of email threads* received into the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox regarding the most common types of concern around information published on the site. Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.

    GDPR = UK General Data Protection Regulations
    DPA: Data Protection Act

    Label Total number of threads
    GDPR Right to Erasure 317
    Defamation  130
    Data breach 96
    GDPR & DPA concerns (type not specified) 42
    GDPR Right to Rectification 33
    GDPR Right of Access 21
    Harassment 17
    GDPR Right to Object 12
    Data breach – internal** 2
    Impersonation 1
    Total 674

    * Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.

    ** “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are reported even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss — which both of these cases were.

    High risk concerns raised for review 

    Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive and the Chair of the Trustees.  Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.

    Case type* Total number
    Defamation 66
    GDPR Right to Erasure 42
    Data breach 40
    Complaints 33
    GDPR & DPA concerns 11
    GDPR Right of Access 6
    Harassment 5
    Takedown 2
    GDPR Right to Object 2
    GDPR Right to Rectification 1
    Other 78
    Total 286

    * Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.

    Users

    User accounts Total 
    WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 222,694
    New user accounts activated in 2021 22,847
    Reason for banning users in 2021 Total 
    Spam 3,936
    Other site misuse 166
    Total number of users banned in 2021 4,102
    Anonymisation* Total 
    Accounts anonymised in 2021 170

    * Where accounts have been anonymised this is at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.

    Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.

    Thank you for reading

    This is the first time we’ve compiled a Transparency Report like this for WhatDoTheyKnow, but it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for some time. We demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practice it ourselves. 

    Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that moderating a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.

    In future years, we hope to build on this initial report, ideally automating many of the stats so that they can be seen on a live dashboard. For now, we thought it was worthwhile making a manually-compiled proof of concept. 

    If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line. They’ll get back to you as soon as the urgent moderation work is done!

    See mySociety’s 2021 annual review

    Image: Create & Bloom