1. Parents for Inclusive Education are on a mission — with the help of FOI

    How do you bring about systemic change within structures that are embedded into the national culture? That’s a big question, but it’s one that users of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow are often tussling with.

    One place to start is with data that helps you map the current state of affairs, and FOI can be the perfect medium for getting hold of that. When we spoke to Jack Russell from Parents for Inclusive Education (PfIE), a grassroots organisation of primary school parents in Northern Ireland, he explained the value of data very well: “it means you can start a conversation”.

    So, what are PfIE trying to achieve?

    “We came together because we want to see a more inclusive primary education for every child” – and they’re starting with religious education.

    “We realised that, for many parents, there was a lack of clarity around how RE is delivered in Northern Ireland, and what rights parents have in this area.”

    PfIE wanted to gather data on who comes into schools to deliver RE lessons, collective worship and assemblies. Their aim was to achieve an accurate, representative picture of practices across Northern Ireland, as opposed to their baseline assumptions which, as they admit, had up until then been based on anecdotal evidence.

    From small beginnings

    And so began a large-scale FOI project — although initially the team had much more modest plans: 

    “At first, we were only going to contact our own schools to ask them who was given access and how this was communicated. 

    “But then we realised that other parents might want to be informed about these practices at their schools — and they were entitled to answers too. So we decided to send a Freedom of Information request to every publicly funded primary school in Northern Ireland, apart from special schools: that was 772 in total.”

    The organisation had some tech expertise amongst its members, and, as they explained, at first it seemed that WhatDoTheyKnow wouldn’t quite be suitable for their needs:

    “One of our team — Laura — had successfully used WhatDoTheyKnow in the past to query hospitals about their waitlist times for outpatient appointments, so she suggested using it. But after some initial research, we decided not to, as we’d wanted to include attachments and links in our requests. 

    “I’d written a script to batch send them all, but it turned out that these were heavily spam filtered by the schools’ email server, so we fell back on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “I’m really glad we did, as the fact that all correspondence will be public is a huge plus for us.”

    Managing batch FOI requests

    So, how did PfIE manage their 772 FOI requests? They signed up for our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which is designed specifically to help keep track of large batches like this, and also allows users to keep their requests and responses private until they’re ready to release their findings.

    “We focused our questions around two areas: first, access: which churches and religious organisations were being given access to schools, and how that access was managed via processes and/or controls; and secondly communication: whether and how parents were made aware of religious visitors; and were informed about the options to withdraw their children from religious practices.

    “We asked 14 questions in total, some of which were yes/no or multiple choice, others which required free-form answers.”

    FOI allows the request-maker to specify the format they’d like to receive their responses in, which can save a lot of data-cleansing further down the line. As Jack acknowledges,”we received submissions back from schools in varied formats, including Word and PDF attachments, and also as plain or rich text email replies.”

    It was all useful, though. “The data we collected provides us with an objective, fully representative sample — we had a 99% reply rate — to gain an accurate understanding of RE practices in Northern Ireland primary schools. 

    “We understand this response level to be unprecedented, according to academics we’ve spoken to who have conducted similar research. Our project is primarily focused on making data transparently available to parents, so from this perspective the 99% number is hugely encouraging. It also means that any aggregate conclusions we draw are as close to being unbiased as possible — we actually have a response rate that is higher than the NI Census 2021 (97%) which people were legally required to complete.”

    Tenacious in the face of challenges

    Getting to this gratifying result wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Jack explained the issues they encountered along the way:

    “Some schools initially mistrusted the FOI request email that came through WhatDoTheyKnow, and didn’t know whether they had to reply. However, a couple of weeks after we sent the request out, the Northern Irish Education Authority issued guidance instructing schools to reply, providing an information document and template response.”

    In any large batch of FOI requests there will be a variety of levels of response, and PfIE came across this too. 

    “There were non-responses, partial responses and responses with an incorrect understanding of the question. Our first technique to remedy these was by following up via WhatDoTheyKnow, which provided alerts and tools which made this very easy to do — another reason I’m very glad we went with the platform!”

    Fortunately, the FOI Act has a provision for dealing with non-responders: referring them to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    “For persistent non-repliers, we contacted the ICO, who very diligently helped us further encourage schools to respond.

    “But several of the schools that responded late, following an ICO decision notice, sent their responses to our own email account, meaning that the responses didn’t appear on WhatDoTheyKnow. The team at WhatDoTheyKnow were very helpful in adding these: I sent through several batches of .eml files and they made sure they appeared within the conversation.”

    On a mission

    So how will PfIE be sharing their findings? They are launching a report today, On A Mission, with an event at Stormont. They’ve also created an online map to help people explore the data.

    But they’re not stopping there: “After releasing the findings of our report, we plan to create resources and a set of best practices for schools to achieve a more inclusive RE experience for all students. We also plan to engage and empower parents, hopefully promoting a sense of transparency and open dialogue between the school and parental community.

    “Beyond this, we have several other plans to empower parents, increase transparency and improve the education system in Northern Ireland”.

    And that’s how you start to make change

    PfIE have used the mechanism available to them to produce exactly the outcome they were after.

    “The tools provided by mySociety, together with help from the ICO in chasing up the late responders, and the cooperation of the NI Education Authority in doing the same have been invaluable in achieving this level of response,” says Jack.

    “We would definitely recommend WhatDoTheyKnow. The tools have been really useful in managing a large scale request, and the fact that all correspondence will be publicly searchable and visible is invaluable: it adds a great deal of credibility to our research by effectively underwriting our findings with an auditable trail of evidence. 

    “And on top of this, the team have been super-helpful and a pleasure to work with! “

    We’re glad to have been of service. Thanks very much to Jack for talking us through the project. If you’d like to know more, visit the PfIE website, where you can also sign up to their newsletter to be kept informed.

     

    Image: Priscilla Du Preez

  2. WhatDoTheyKnow and the Post Office Horizon scandal

    “Freedom Of Information. Three harmless words.”

    The Post Office Horizon scandal serves as a prime example of how, when official channels have failed, determined investigators can eventually unpick the truth and ensure that justice is served.  

    Horizon, the computerised system on which sub-postmasters were required to balance their tills, was riddled with technical faults that led to inaccurate accounting. These faults could be exacerbated by technicians undertaking remote access without the knowledge of staff, overnight. But incompetence and denials from the top — even as far as government — meant that the blame fell on innocent sub-postmasters. 

    Justice has been a long time coming. Staff were subject to fines and even unfair imprisonment; families and friendships were destroyed. Years of diversions and cover-ups have now finally come to light, as you may have seen in the extensive media stories.

    One person who has been persistent in uncovering the details of the case over the years is Eleanor Shaikh, who has used WhatDoTheyKnow extensively in the pursuit of truth — you can see her requests here

    We asked Eleanor to tell us more about her ongoing work in this area, starting with why she got involved: in response, she pointed us towards a letter on Nick Wallis’ Post Office Scandal website.

    It begins: “I learned of the Post Office Horizon scandal through being a regular customer at my local post office in Farncombe, Surrey. My ex-Sub-Postmaster, Chirag Sidhpura, was hit by an alleged £57,000 shortfall in October 2017 and it did not take long to see that his case belonged to a more widespread and disturbing pattern.” 

    She goes on to explain, “I have seen first hand the silent devastation that this scandal has wrought upon three generations of this decent, hard-working family.” You can read the full letter here.

    Findings through FOI

    Freedom of Information has been a very effective mechanism for many of those involved in this investigation — a cover-up like this is a perfect demonstration of why we need the rights it confers. 

    As Eleanor explains, Over the years, a number of campaigners and journalists have turned to FOI as a tool for obtaining more information and joining the dots of this vast but well-concealed miscarriage of justice. Chipping away at the cover-up was one small way that outsiders could assist Sub-Postmasters on their long road to the truth, exoneration and redress.”

    Eleanor’s 150+ requests have led to some significant findings. She started off with a curiosity about how much had been known, but not publicly shared, by government.

    My initial focus was on what government knew of Horizon’s flaws”, she says; “how responsibly it monitored the unfolding scandal, and what was the extent of its involvement in the group litigation.

    “The FOI disclosures I received suggested that central government was not as oblivious to events as it would have us believe; the heavy redactions on these reports themselves bore witness to the fear of reputational damage to the department to which the documents alluded.”

    As time went on, Eleanor started uncovering more and more salient facts:

    “Probably the two most significant documents I’ve been able to unearth have been the 2016 Swift Review and an undated Post Office Security Team Compliance Document.

    “The review would seem to have suggested a moment of alignment when both government and the Post Office were committed to investigating Horizon issues beyond all doubt. 

    “It took seven months to receive a response, but disclosure was made by both parties along with requested email correspondence which showed that the PO’s CEO, Paula Vennells, was aware that the review was being undertaken in 2015 but that the PO Chair, Tim Parker, declined to share its findings with the Post Office Board even as the spectre of litigation loomed in 2016. 

    “This was despite the review’s strong warnings that miscarriages of justice might have taken place, its clear identification of Horizon’s fundamental operational problems and an acknowledgment of the possibility of remote access.” 

    These were all crucial details in understanding the full picture, and fed into news coverage of the scandal. There was also something Eleanor hadn’t been specifically looking for that recently made headline news.

    While requesting information on the way in which the Post Office monitored its investigations, Eleanor happened across something rather shocking:

    “What was disclosed was a document which used deeply offensive racial identification codes, so inflammatory that it attracted widespread media coverage.” You can see, for example, the BBC’s coverage of this revelation here.

    “Thanks to the WhatDoTheyKnow website, once it caught the attention of social media, any journalist could get instant access to the original document.”

    FOI was necessary 

    One thing that this investigation highlights is that the checks and balances built into our justice system are sometimes inadequate. The Horizon case was examined in High Court, and  has been the subject of two governmental inquiries, one of which is ongoing. But it is citizen reporters using their Right to Information that have filled some of the gaps.

    “Despite much crucial information having been released into the public domain during the 2018-19 High Court litigation, many details of the scandal remained hidden”, explains Eleanor. 

    “The BEIS Select Committee Inquiry, which heard evidence from early 2020, afforded a brief window of opportunity. But its independent work was abandoned soon after it began when the Department for BEIS (now DBT) put in place its own inquiry.

    “The Government was adamant that this inquiry would not have statutory powers, meaning it had no authority to command witnesses to give evidence, nor powers to demand the disclosure of documents. Moreover BEIS could keep its own failures of oversight beyond public scrutiny by restricting the scope of the inquiry. 

    “At this moment there was a very real danger that the true depths and extent of the scandal might never reach public consciousness and that those who’d facilitated the miscarriage of justice may never be identified.

    “Ministers and Whitehall officials were attempting to shield themselves from scrutiny and to diffuse an information time-bomb by behaving as if it wasn’t there. But questions needed answers and if the government was refusing to launch a full public inquiry in 2020, then it had to be inquiry by FOI.

    WhatDoTheyKnow played a part

    We asked Eleanor how integral WhatDoTheyKnow was to her investigation. 

    “The WhatDoTheyKnow website proved itself to be an invaluable resource. Through its gateway, information and correspondence with authorities is released directly into the public domain in a way which is both transparent and accessible to all; that’s really important in the context of the Horizon scandal.

    “Disclosures are easily accessed by others and can be shared on social media. WhatDoTheyKnow has enabled intrepid journalists who follow the scandal — such as Nick Wallis, Karl Flinders and Tony Collins — to extend the reach of any new and significant information.” 

    A turning point

    “Thankfully”, continues Eleanor, “in June 2021 the inquiry was elevated to a statutory footing in response to ground-breaking rulings at the Court of Appeal. This was a turning point and teams of formidable lawyers set to work in supporting Sir Wyn Williams in his long-awaited public inquiry; the Chair now had the power to determine its scope of issues and assumed far greater powers to elicit the disclosure of evidence. 

    “But there was still a role for FOI research in areas which may lie beyond the inquiry’s remit or which haven’t yet come under its scrutiny.

    And FOI also had another significant, but unexpected outcome: 

    “One release prompted a review of the Post Office’s entire disclosure processes to the public inquiry. That a key document had never been passed to inquiry lawyers triggered a remedial disclosure exercise so significant that it resulted in the release of thousands more documents and a temporary suspension of the inquiry’s work. 

    “A single FOI disclosure triggered a wholly unforeseeable domino effect.”

    Three harmless words

    At the start of all this, Eleanor says, “FOI was an unfamiliar avenue for me.” Since then, she’s clearly become something of an expert, with FOI being a major part of her investigations.

    Reflecting on the rights that FOI confers, she says: “There is some irony that the Government which oversaw the launch of the doomed Horizon project in the late 1990s was at the same time drawing up legislation which granted our right to Freedom of Information. It’s poignant too that Tony Blair who decided that the flawed Horizon project must proceed at all costs, was at the same time doing all he could to delay the implementation of the FOI Act.

    “In his memoirs, Blair revealed his regret over the decision which gave the public the right to probe the Government’s shortcomings. He feared information would be weaponised by opponents:

    Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it…What I failed to realise is that we would also have our skeletons rattling around the cupboard…The Freedom of Information Act was then being debated in Cabinet Committee. It represented a quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny. Its consequences would be revolutionary; the power it handed to the tender mercy of the media was gigantic. We did it with care, but without foresight. Politicians are people and scandals will happen’.1

    “Thankfully, many individuals have been making full use of FOI to help prise the rattling skeletons of the Horizon scandal from their cupboard. Each disclosure adds to our understanding of how things went so deeply and disastrously wrong. And, as sub-postmasters continue to dig for information across their multiple battle fronts, long may FOI continue to make its small contribution to their uphill struggle for justice.”

    Many thanks to Eleanor for sharing this detailed account. You can read her findings on Horizon’s early years in her report Origins of a Disaster.

     —

    Image: Mark Percy (CC by-sa/2.0)

    1Quote from Blair’s memoirs Tony Blair The Journey Hutchinson, 2010, cited in an article The Blair Memoirs and FOI, also 2010 by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, accessed 10.10.23

  3. CE UK and mySociety are using people power and Freedom of Information to bring transparency to local climate action

    A story in this week’s Financial Times [paywalled] has brought the EPC ratings of council-owned properties into the public conversation. This story was based on data obtained through FOI requests as part of the Council Climate Action Scorecards project, which we’ve been working on in partnership with Climate Emergency UK (CE UK).

    What you can read in the FT is one story pulled from a wealth of data, but there’s more to come. Our WhatDoTheyKnow Projects tool allowed CE UK’s team of volunteers to conduct a nationwide survey of every council through well-placed FOI requests covering the use of renewable energy, plans for retrofitting, green skills training, road expansion and more. 

    The data they gathered has allowed for the understanding of councils’ action on a nationwide scale. This level of oversight has not previously been possible: as with so much about the Scorecards project, it is allowing councils to take more informed action on climate, and individuals to clearly understand what is being done.

    Why local action matters

    In the UK, it is estimated that around one third of carbon emissions are in some way under the influence of local authorities. 80% of UK councils have declared a ‘climate emergency’ to indicate they recognise the scale of the problem of climate change, and are in a position to take practical steps to be part of the solution. To help local authorities achieve the goals they set themselves (and to push them to go further), we need to engage with the plans that local authorities are making, and the actions they are starting to take. 

    In 2021, CE UK and mySociety worked together to produce the first Council Climate Plan Scorecards. CE UK’s upcoming launch is the second iteration of the Scorecards. It is much bigger and more ambitious in scope than the last: it scores not the plans, but the climate actions of every local authority in the UK. 

    FOI requests were just one part of the process. As well as giving CE UK access to WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, we developed a crowdsourcing tool for volunteers to use while marking across the 90+ datapoints collected for each council. 

    How do you score action?

    CE UK moved from scoring plans to scoring actions. That required new approaches to gathering the information. 

    The questions CEUK used in the new Scorecards are the result of a long and thorough process of research and refinement. Building on their own research and expertise, they conducted one-on-one consultations with approximately 80 organisations and sector-specific experts. An advisory group of environmental and local government experts provided further discussion and refinement, to help build a list of questions that would practically be possible to answer, and that would reveal important information about the climate actions of councils. 

    The aim was to identify areas where information was publicly accessible; but also where gaps existed, especially in operational matters that aren’t often made public. Additionally, CE UK wanted to investigate whether councils are truly implementing the actions outlined in their climate action plans, including aspects like lobbying for additional powers.

    Making use of Freedom of Information

    Freedom of Information laws means that a huge range of information held by public authorities (including local councils) can be requested by any person who asks. This provides a legal tool to create greater transparency where information is not being published proactively.

    For CE UK, the potential of FOI for the Scorecards project was clear – but there were concerns. In consultations with council staff, there was pushback regarding the use of FOI requests due to the potential time and financial burden on council officers who work on climate – with some requests for a more informal survey approach to be used. But the drawback of that would be making good data dependent on goodwill everywhere. FOI requests provided a way to make sure the scorecards were not just effective for councils who engaged with the process and provide an approach that was fair across the country. 

    To balance a process where they want to encourage positive engagement from councils, with one that works without that, CE UK’s approach was to plan out the most efficient and least burdensome use of FOI requests. 

    Based on feedback from the advisory group, and trial runs to a small number of councils, they eliminated questions that were less important and useful, made more ‘yes/no’ or ‘single number’ responses, and learned where certain questions weren’t relevant to certain areas or groups of councils. 

    The subsequent FOI requests became more streamlined, and this resulted in quicker response times for the final requests than they had in the trial – as the information sought was more direct and concise.

    In the end, CE UK submitted a total of over 4,000 FOI requests to councils across the UK. The questions were divided into 11 categories, with some being specific to certain types of councils, such as district councils or combined authorities. The next stage was taking these 4,000 requests and getting them into a form that can be used for the scorecards. 

    Crowdsourcing and review process

    CE UK used WhatDoTheyKnow to manage their FOI request process. mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow acts as a public archive for requests – requests made through the site have the responses shown in public to bring more information into the open  – making it more discoverable by other people interested in the information, and reducing the need for duplicate requests being made. As of 2023, a million requests for information have been made through the site, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information being released. 

    A feature we are trialling with a range of organisations is WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, which integrates crowdsourcing tools into WhatDoTheyKnow, and allows the task of extracting information into a new dataset to be spread out. The goal is that this helps organisations be more ambitious in finding out information and helps people work together to create genuinely new and exciting datasets, that no single organisation has ever seen. 

    As CE UK’s approach already made heavy use of volunteers and crowdsourcing, this was a natural fit.  Alongside a wider group of 200 volunteers working on getting answers to the other questions, 15 volunteers specifically worked on the FOI requests. These volunteers were a mixture of people with prior experience or professional interest in FOI requests, campaigners well-versed in FOI processes, and individuals new to the concept but eager to engage in activism.

    After the crowdsourcing of FOI data was complete, it joined the rest of the data in the new tool mySociety had developed for helping volunteers crowdsource information for the Scorecards.  

    From here, councils were given access to the data collected about them and given a right of reply to correct any inaccuracies or point towards information not previously discovered or disclosed. The results of this process will then be reviewed to produce the final Scorecards data, which will be launched this month.

    But the Scorecards data will not be the only useful thing that will come out of this process. Because of how WhatDoTheyKnow was used, to see evidence supporting the final Scorecards, people will be able to click through and see the original responses, for instance, to see what councils have lobbied on support for their climate work. 

    Some of the FOIs are being used to construct datasets that have a broader impact, and here we come back to that FT story on the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings of council-owned houses. Building these new public datasets will be useful for councils to understand their own situation, and as we see with the news story, more broadly to understand the challenges ahead for local governments to meet net zero emissions goals. 

    Onwards

    The original Scorecards project has already been influential on how local governments understand their own plans, and how organisations like the UK’s Climate Change Committee understand the role and progress of local government in the challenges ahead. When the next generation of Scorecards is released, we hope that they continue to be useful in shaping and improving local government action around climate change.

    mySociety believes that digital technology can be used to help people participate more fully in democracy, make governments and societies more transparent, and bring communities together to address societal challenges.

    The Scorecards project showcases how the combination of digital tools, people power, and the right to information produces powerful results. We hope that the impact of this project can inspire and make possible similar approaches for other problems, or in other countries.

  4. FOI helps campaigns — sometimes in unexpected ways

    Several Olympics team members have trained and competed on the athletics track in Tooting Bec, London, and it’s a valued facility for local schools and athletics clubs alike. But by 2021, runners were finding that the surface had degraded so much that it was becoming dangerously hard to run on and training in spikes was no longer possible. After rainfall, the uneven surface would be covered in puddles: no longer was it fit for serious training or holding athletics competitions.

    In fact, as campaigners pointed out, the track hadn’t been resurfaced for 36 years. Mandy Brown was one of those who campaigned for its refurbishment, and told us how Freedom of Information requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow helped provide the evidence needed to persuade Wandsworth Council to make an upgrade.  

    As she explained, though, the battle wasn’t as simple as ‘one FOI request and done’. Putting in a request for what they’d thought of as a potential killer stat bore little fruit in the end — but as is so often the case, FOI supported the campaign in other, unforeseen ways.

    What was that killer stat?

    “Well, we wanted to know spend on the nearby Battersea Park track, which is in a more affluent ward, so we could compare it to spend on Tooting Bec track where the local population is less affluent and more diverse,” says Mandy, explaining the FOI request they submitted

    The thinking was that they might be able to use any disparity in funding to point out the lack of fairness in funding decisions — but the truth turned out to be more complex. There might not have been money for the Tooting track, but there had been funding for a gym in the borough; and England Athletics had been joint funders on the Battersea refurbishment, so it’s not as if the council had shelled out the full amount.

    It’s never a waste of time asking for information, though: bringing the facts into the open means that public debate can be based on truth and not assumptions. Plus, the mere fact that citizens have an eye on council expenditure can have an effect, as Mandy says:

    “I do think repeated requests for information on the basis of the rejection of the initial application for funding played their part,” says Mandy, who submitted requests such as this one for minutes of the meeting where funding was discussed.

    “Now, I believe that what really made the difference in the end was the PR campaign. This led to coverage in both local and national press. But in fact, that was boosted by information from someone else’s FOI request!

    “We spotted from another request on WhatDoTheyKnow that pre-covid, more than 80,000 people used the track every year. This turned out to be an incredibly useful statistic to include in our press releases and interviews, and was picked up in every piece of coverage including Wandsworth Council’s own announcement when they finally agreed to fund the resurfacing. 

    “So when all’s said and done, WhatDoTheyKnow played an important part in the overall campaign due to this publicly-available stat on track usage, and the general pressure applied by asking questions on the spend and decision-making process.” 

    Thanks to Mandy for sharing this story: we believe that Freedom of Information is always useful in campaigning, for the reasons she mentions, and because public debate always benefits from an injection of factual information. 

    And you never know: that FOI request you make today could be uncovering information that will inform someone else’s campaign in the future — a neat demonstration of why WhatDoTheyKnow publishes requests and responses in its permanent public archive.

     —

    Image: Wandsworth Council (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  5. Paul Bradshaw and WhatDoTheyKnow

    Paul Bradshaw’s name is well known to those working around data and journalism in the UK. He has authored and contributed to several books on the topic, leads an MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University, and acts as a consultant in BBC England’s data unit.

    In mySociety’s twentieth anniversary year, we’re looking to see where we’ve had impact, and in a recent conversation with Paul we were pleased when he noted that WhatDoTheyKnow was a something of a catalyst to his work around Freedom of Information for journalism.

    In 2009, Paul secured funding from Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands to set up Help Me Investigate, a platform for collaborative journalism. As it happens, that year the same source of funding supported our time-mapping service Mapumental, and Will Perrin’s hyperlocal blog project Talk About Local. The three projects were often covered in the press as harbingers of a new, digital way of doing things.

    The basic principle of Paul’s platform was that the internet permits collaboration between many people, each of whom can contribute a small piece towards the labour-intensive work of investigative journalism. It’s an approach we are all very familiar with these days: it is, of course, what we now call crowdsourcing — something mySociety has made use of in many of its own projects through the years, including our own WhatDoTheyKnow Projects.  

    A user, curious to get to the bottom of something, would share a central question and list out the tasks that needed to be completed in order to answer it. And of course, as often as not, some of these tasks would be the placing of FOI requests through our site, WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “When I launched Help Me Investigate”, says Paul, “WhatDoTheyKnow was a major tool in our toolkit, allowing us to easily share FOI requests that others could clone or learn from.” 

    Even more than that, he reckons WhatDoTheyKnow was “probably responsible both for me getting started with FOI, and for teaching others to use the FOI Act.”

    Since WhatDoTheyKnow’s beginnings, the aim has been to make FOI more accessible to everyone, so this was great to hear. We know that it’s a big leap to become ‘a person who submits FOI requests’, so what does that look like in practice?

    “Firstly”, says Paul, “the site reduced the barriers considerably when it came to making an FOI request: knowing where to send that request is a big mental barrier when you lack confidence navigating faceless organisations; and having examples to look at also makes a big difference in being able to imagine what one looks like.”

    Once someone has become adept with the Act, we can’t ask for much more than that they pass that knowledge onto others, creating a cascading effect of individuals who understand their rights and how to use them to uncover information. Paul is an example of exactly that:

    “It made it possible for me to share that knowledge with others. I’ve used it with hundreds of journalism students to introduce them to FOI: ‘copy this request, find your organisation, paste, and send’ helps get them started, and empowers students who might be otherwise feeling disempowered.”

    As proof of impact goes, ‘hundreds of journalism students learning how to use FOI’ certainly seems like a good one — it means that WhatDoTheyKnow has indirectly brought countless FOI-based stories to the public. 

    Paul listed some of the FOI-based investigations undertaken by users of his site — now no longer live, but visible through the Internet Archive. These include the uncovering of a £2.2 million overspend on Birmingham City Council’s website; police claims of sabotage against Climate Camp protesters; and the varying availability of hormonal contraceptives across different postcodes.

    It’s been fascinating to explore Help Me Investigate‘s archived pages, and a real reminder of what people can do when they come together. We are glad that WhatDoTheyKnow has played such a key part in that, and in the training of so many future journalists.

     

    Image: Ashkan Forouzani

  6. How many rubber bands the Royal Mail uses, and other amazing facts revealed through FOI

    We recently ran a survey, asking the public to tell us how they’ve used our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow. 

    To get people thinking, we put a number of prompts on social media: we asked journalists to tell us what stories they’ve uncovered through the site; and campaigners and activists to tell us how they’ve used FOI to underpin their efforts.

    But WhatDoTheyKnow isn’t just useful for grand causes. Our final prompts (example below) asked: Did you use WhatDoTheyKnow just because you wanted to know something?

    Have you used WhatDoTheyKnow just because you wanted to know something? Image of an older woman looking skywards and touching her chin.

    For all that FOI can be used to uncover vitally important information — information that changes hearts and minds, that even potentially brings down governments — there’s no doubt that it is also a useful tool for the person who simply starts wondering about something, and knows that the answer is held by our public authorities.

    Such a person is Bristolian Steve Woods, who has been using WhatDoTheyKnow since its launch in 2008 — and continues to lodge a request whenever something piques his interest. From the cost of the Mayor of Bristol’s trip to a sustainable cities and towns conference in Geneva, to more details about an art piece named the Black Cloud Pavilion, and noble enquiries about the local council’s commitment to open standards, Steve has made 60 requests through WhatDoTheyKnow at the time of writing. 

    We asked him to explain more about some of the more unusual ones.

    The rubber bands request

    “How many elastic bands – in terms of either numbers or weight – does the Royal Mail procure and/or consume per year?” was the main information that Steve asked for in this request.

    He explains, “As a child in the 1950s and ’60s, I was taught not to litter, so I got really frustrated at seeing the large number of rubber bands dropped in the street by posties as they undid the bundles of letters on their rounds.”

    Royal Mail obliged with a full response, and the answer may astound you: you can see the exact figures here.

    Turned out that Steve wasn’t the only one interested in this figure. “The FoI request is cited on Wikipedia“, says Steve, “and resulted in a piece in the Daily Telegraph. My late brother-in-law used to take the paper and my nieces were delighted to see their uncle’s name in it.”

    The Benin Bronze request

    Earlier this year, Steve asked the council for updates on progress with repatriating an artefact acquired by dubious means and added to the city museum’s collection in 1935. 

    “Some years ago, the local media reported that this object was to be repatriated to Nigeria”, begins Steve’s request, adding: “There have been no subsequent reports of its repatriation, so I am assuming this has still to happen.”

    We asked Steve to tell us more. “Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery has a single bronze as looted from the Oba’s palace in 1897”, he says. “I learned that discussions about repatriation are still continuing.”

    This request is a great example of how FOI can be used to obtain fuller background detail than is discoverable from newspaper coverage, especially once the media has moved on from a story. The response from the council provides these insights:

    “Representatives from NCMM [National Commission for Museums and Monuments] were due to come to Bristol in April 2022 but in the end their busy itineraries couldn’t allow for that. They have become even busier in recent months due to the increased amount of global returns, and pledges to return, that have taken up their time. They have concentrated their efforts with larger institutions but we await direction from them on what they would like to happen next in the Bristol case.”

    Meanwhile, Steve points out, “The museum has contributed to the Digital Benin project“.

    The city services requests

    Steve has also found FOI to be a useful tool for bringing improvements to his local area. “I have made various requests over the years about litter, fly-tipping and enforcement around environmental crimes. 

    “In conjunction with working with local ward councillors and council officers, these have yielded positive results in the form of more enforcement officers – despite overall council job cuts – plus regular meetings at both ward and citywide level involving council officers, its waste management company, councillors, voluntary sector organisations and other interested parties.”

    In 2009, Steve asked what proportion of his council tax was accounted for by weekly food waste collections, explaining his motivation thus: “My brown food waste recycling box was not emptied for one month while [waste management firm] SITA’s workforce was recently on strike. Via my council tax, I paid Bristol City Council for this service, which was not provided.”

    The obliging response broke the figures down and came to the conclusion that each payer of council tax contributed 5p per week towards food waste collection.

    The Colston request

    The toppling of the Edward Colston statue and subsequent re-examination of Colston’s legacy in the city is something that is of interest to many Bristolians, and at the time of writing Steve has just received a response to his request asking what progress has been made by the council in renaming streets named after the slave trader.

    “We require that all property owners on a given street provide their consent for its name to be changed, as such a move incurs administrative costs for those individuals/businesses to change legal documents etc. We have no plans to change this position,” says the council.

    “We would therefore need to see overwhelming support from property owners on a given road in order to consider contacting all of them to confirm their unanimous consent to begin the process of changing their street’s name. This has not happened for any of the roads that your request mentioned.”

     —

    Thanks to Steve for letting us know about his long and interesting use of FOI over the last decade and a half – we hope that he will continue to be curious about the events that unfolds around him, and will continue to use WhatDoTheyKnow to satisfy that curiosity.


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  7. Freedom of Information uncovers inequalities in our schooling system

    When Joanne Bartley saw a bus go by with an advert for a local private primary school on its side, she knew there was something amiss. 

    “It just happens that I’d recently made a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow, to check 11-plus pass rates at various primary schools,” she explained. “I was researching whether wealthier schools had more success than schools in poorer communities.”

    Joanne lives in Kent, which unlike many counties, still assesses children with the 11-plus test. The bus advert claimed that 94% of the school’s pupils passed it, giving them access to grammar school.

    “I had never seen a pass rate as high as 94%, not even in prep schools which can be mostly about 11-plus tuition,” says Joanne. 

    “So I found the school’s true pass rate, which was much lower, and reported the school advert to the Advertising Standards agency. They upheld the complaint and the advert had to be withdrawn.”

    What do small victories like this achieve? Joanne puts is succinctly:

    “My FOI request meant that no more parents were conned into paying expensive school fees because of some dodgy statistic! Because most of the country got rid of grammar schools decades ago, the government doesn’t scrutinise the 11-plus test processes very much, and there’s little analysis of entry to grammar schools either.”

    Joanne now works for a group called Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair school admission and an end to the 11-plus. FOI is a tool they frequently turn to.

    “We use WhatDoTheyKnow an awful lot to look at social inequality in access to grammar schools. I use FOI to check how many disadvantaged pupils access the schools, to find out about appeals to these schools and more.”

    The campaign’s findings frequently inform media in the education sector, national news stories, and even debates in Parliament. 

    “FOI requests helped us see the numbers of disadvantaged pupils in the schools that were given £64 million by the government to expand to admit more children from poorer backgrounds. 

    “We found that the policy had not worked as planned – perhaps this is one reason this fund has now been withdrawn. The story was covered in Schools Week and Comprehensive Future.

    “And we had a story in the I newspaper, on the large percentages of privately educated pupils who attend grammar schools, based on this FOI request.

    “We also looked at how few looked after children (children in care) attend grammar schools compared to other secondary schools and this was highlighted by a Conservative peer in a Lords debate.  

    “Baroness Berridge said: At the census date last year, 68 of our grammar schools had no looked-after children at key stages 3 or 4. That is a product of not giving priority admissions and selecting on the basis of the entrance test only. If I think back to my school and remove all those children, it would have been a poorer education.

    “She must have come across the figure about looked-after children on your website as we hadn’t given it to anyone at the time. So you see WhatDoTheyKnow is a useful resource for everyone!

    “The FOI Act means that there’s transparency around school entry, and this is a very healthy thing. WhatDoTheyKnow is also super useful to see what other people are asking about schools and see their results.”

    We were glad to hear this: Joanne’s examples make it clear that WhatDoTheyKnow helps campaigns get their causes into the national conversation. It’s free, and available to everyone, and as you can see from the examples given, it can be a very powerful tool.

    Joanne agrees: “I just wanted to show the power of your site to make a difference to campaigns like ours. Freedom of Information creates openness around a problem in education that is not much talked about.

    “I love WhatDoTheyKnow – it’s made a real difference to our campaign.” 

     


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  8. Revealing vital environmental information with WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    Journalist Lucas Amin was one of the first to try out our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    Back in 2017, when Lucas put an early version through its paces, his feedback – together with that of his associate Jenna Corderoy – helped us shape the service to be as useful as possible for investigative journalists.

    His comments were positive, but how do we know Lucas really found WhatDoTheyKnow Pro useful? Six years on, he’s still using the tool to help discover and inform his wide-ranging FOI-based scoops.

    Lucas says, “I have made FOI requests for more than ten years. During that time I’ve made a few cool spreadsheets to help me track requests. But none of them provided anything like the convenience and power of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro – it has been a total gamechanger.”  

    Lucas, working for OpenDemocracy, has recently been uncovering information around river pollution and how airlines’ lobbying has impeded the UK’s progress in cutting carbon emissions. These requests were made under the Environmental Information Regulations (a similar regime to FOI, but specifically for access to information about the environment – and also handled by WhatDoTheyKnow).

    The exposés broken on the platform are frequently picked up by mainstream media. “Requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro have made it into the Times, Guardian, Observer and Mirror this year alone”, says Lucas, sharing a selection of stories to underline this point.

    In April, requests revealed how water companies lobbied against their responsibilities to clean up rivers. The story broke on OpenDemocracy and was picked up by the Times

    In this Guardian story from March, we learn that airlines’ submissions to government contested whether vapour trails contribute to the climate impact of flights – in contravention to the views of experts in the field.  

    A second Guardian story that month also reveals how airlines lobbied for the cut in Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, as brought in by Sunak in the spring budget. This story was also picked up by the Mirror.

    It’s easy to see the link between the requests Lucas has made, and facts that must be exposed in order for us to have a fully-informed public debate. Without the right to request such documentation, the public would be entirely unaware of the type of lobbying going on behind Whitehall doors.

    We’re very glad that WhatDoTheyKnow Pro has made it easier for this to happen, and very pleased that Lucas is such a strong advocate!

    “If you use FOI, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is the only way to go,” he says, before making us blush with more praise: “I have nothing but respect, gratitude and admiration for the smart, hardworking team at mySociety! Congrats on 20 years; here’s to 200 more.”

    Thanks Lucas, the admiration goes both ways. Long may you continue to bring vital facts into the public arena.

    Image: Paul Berry


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  9. FOI and Chinese CCTV cameras

    Big Brother Watch is a UK organisation that campaigns to defend civil liberties and privacy. As such, they keep a close eye on the ‘surveillance state’: the degree to which authorities are monitoring citizens, and the ever-more sophisticated technology that enables them to do so.  

    They have recently been investigating the use of Chinese-manufactured CCTV cameras in the UK, submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro as one part of their research.

    In doing so they’ve uncovered the full extent to which this technology has permeated our schools and colleges, local and central government and beyond. Linked with information about both the capabilities of the tech, and the ways in which these companies support the human rights violations of the Chinese state, Big Brother Watch’s recent report makes for disturbing reading.

    The campaign has caught the attention of government, and driven a change in policy over their internal usage of cameras. Hearing of this positive outcome, we were keen to talk to Big Brother Watch and find out more about their use of FOI, and their Head of Research & Investigations Jake Hurfurt filled us in.

    What can they see?

    Big Brother Watch opposes the rise of surveillance in this country, pointing out that the UK is one of the most surveilled countries in the world with an estimated 6 million CCTV cameras across the nation. 

    As a society we may have become more accustomed to CCTV in public areas, but most people aren’t aware of recent rapid advances in surveillance functionality — such as facial, gender and even race recognition. And until there is widespread understanding of exactly what these cameras can do, there can’t be informed consent. 

    Because of its affordability, Hikvision is the most common provider of CCTV equipment in this country, with Dahua in second place. Both companies are known to supply surveillance equipment that has been used to target ethnic Uyghur minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

    Finally, Hikvision software has known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers — and in countries like the US and Italy, breaches have been noted where cameras were found to be ‘communicating with China’.

    That’s the background: so what prompted Big Brother Watch’s investigation?

    Taking a closer look

    Jake says, “We’d become aware of Hikvision’s dominance of the UK market. We had also seen the US and Australia move to restrict Hikvision and Dahua, given their links to the atrocities in Xinjiang and their cybersecurity flaws, and were concerned of the risks this posed to privacy and civil liberties in the UK, so decided to dig deeper.”

    And, given the methods by which other countries had brought about change in this area, they knew they’d need to be looking at public authorities. That meant that FOI, which gives everyone the right to ask public bodies for the information they hold, was an obvious choice: 

    “From the start the project was designed as a public-sector focused investigation. We could see that successful restrictions on state-owned firms in other countries had originated in the public sector. It was clear from the beginning that we would ask questions using FOI.”

    As Big Brother Watch’s report states, “Over 5 months, [we] submitted more than 4,500 Freedom of Information requests to a range of public bodies to establish where Hikvision and Dahua equipment is in use and what advanced capabilities this equipment has. Some subsequent focused requests were submitted to public bodies who confirmed they do use Hikvision cameras.

    “The public bodies included all secondary schools and FE colleges in England, all UK universities, police forces, NHS Trusts, all Oxbridge Colleges, all central government departments, the House of Commons, the three devolved administrations and the Greater London Assembly.”

    A survey of surveillance

    Our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service is designed for people making large scale investigative FOI requests: it makes it simpler to send FOI requests to specific types of authority in a single batch, and keeps all correspondence private until you are ready to go public.

    Jake says, “We used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to send an initial wave of requests to police forces, government departments and the largest local authorities in the country, which acted as a scoping exercise to see how widespread Hikvision & Dahua are from a selection of public bodies. 

    “Batch requesting and WhatDoTheyKnow’s built-in reminders of when it’s time to chase up a response have been useful. It was also useful in sending requests to public bodies who are hard to contact, as the contact address database is amazing. 

    “The other helpful feature was the ability to look across requests others have made in the past, to compare responses and see what kind of wording worked and which did not – it’s something I always do when conducting large FOI projects as I can learn from other’s experience in the kind of questions that are successful, or start by knowing more than I would have done otherwise.”

    Getting results

    You can read Big Brother Watch’s full report for all the details, but their investigation revealed that three out of five schools, 60% of hospitals, 31% of police forces, 53% of universities, and 73% of councils use Hikvision and Dahua CCTV cameras, representing, in total, 60.8% of our public bodies.

    Once the full extent of their usage had been quantified, it was time to get the word out to the people capable of bringing about change — the UK’s elected representatives.

    Jake says, “We sent the report to MPs and held an event in Parliament to complement the launch of the report, and we had a good reception.

    “Around publication we also got dozens of Parliamentarians to back a pledge to ban Hikvision, and working alongside other NGOs we have been heavily involved in advocacy around a number of bills to push for this. Big Brother Watch does a lot of advocacy in Parliament and the report has supported these efforts.”

    Subsequently, with Oliver Dowden describing them as “current and future possible security risks”, the Chinese cameras were banned from being installed in or on government buildings.

    Still campaigning

    The government may have cracked down on their own use of these cameras, but that still leaves thousands of institutions and private companies who may not even be aware of the capabilities or implications of the cameras they’ve installed.

    Big Brother Watch are pressing for further action and you can find their campaign page here. If you are concerned, you can add your name to a petition to request that Parliament pass a law to ban this type of CCTV; and you can add sightings of the distinctive cameras to a collaborative Google map.

    Thanks very much to Jake for filling us in on the details of how WhatDoTheyKnow played a part in Big Brother Watch’s wider investigation.

    You might also be interested to read our 2019 post on Privacy International’s investigation into police use of facial recognition.


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  10. 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)