[UPDATE: Since this post was published, the 19 September has been declared an official bank holiday – our assumption in the final section of this post, that ‘no bank holiday will be formally declared’, and the conclusions we came to as a result, were incorrect. We’ve updated the section accordingly.]
On 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
mySociety runs the WhatDoTheyKnow website, which lists many authorities related to the monarchy, the Royal household and associated offices.
As a non-partisan UK registered charity, we recognise that some of our users will view the monarchy as being a political institution, while others will not. We ask all our users to be respectful in their communications and to continue to follow our House Rules.
The constitution of the United Kingdom
When a monarch dies in the UK, they are immediately succeeded by their heir, even before the coronation has taken place. The Demise of the Crown Act 1901 provides that the holding of any office under the Crown is not to be affected in any way by the death of the reigning monarch.
What this means in practice is that Government ministers, civil servants and military personnel continue to hold office and that public authorities will continue to exist without interruption. Where this becomes relevant to WhatDoTheyKnow is that FOI requests do not need to be resubmitted.
The names of public authorities
Where appropriate, our volunteers will update the names of public authorities and the notes on the site to reflect the fact that King Charles Ⅲ is now the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. For example, we will rename the Queen’s Printer for Scotland to the King’s Printer for Scotland when the authority publicly updates its name.
Not all bodies with “Queen” in the name need to be renamed. For example, The Queen’s College, Oxford was named in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault and does not require a change. A number of schools and other public bodies were named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and we’d expect that they will continue to use their current names.
We’ve also updated the site to take account of the fact that Prince William is now the Duke of Cornwall. Under a royal charter from 1337, the position of Duke of Cornwall is held by the eldest son to the reigning monarch provided he is heir to the throne.
We have never listed the monarch as a public authority on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we continue to list the Royal Household.
We expect the Accession Council to convene shortly at St James’s Palace. The Accession Council is a body that meets twice following the death of a monarch. The purpose of the first meeting is to formally announce the death of the monarch and proclaim the succession of the new sovereign. The second meeting will be the first Privy Council meeting of the new monarch.
The day of the state funeral will be a day of national mourning in the UK, and has now been formally declared as a bank holiday.
This means that WhatDoTheyKnow will automatically treat 19 September as a non-working day for the purposes of calculating the time limits for complying with Freedom of Information requests. Even before we understood that the day would officially be a bank holiday, we had made this adjustment. This would have meant that our position differed from the position set out in FOI law; however, we believed it to be the most reasonable approach in the circumstances.
Bank holiday matters aside, we encourage people making FOI requests to recognise that some employees of public authorities will have a higher than normal workload at present and to be patient and courteous when dealing with public officials.
Has our open source Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli had an impact on transparency around the world? We’ve got more than a million reasons to say that yes, it has!
From the makes and models of over 18,000 cars stolen in Argentina to statistics about apricot farming in Tunisia; information about food labelling laws in Uruguay to what was on the menu when visiting heads of state met with the Australian Prime Minister, Alaveteli has enabled people to ask for, and receive, a colossal amount of information that otherwise would most likely not have been openly available.
Our own FOI site, WhatDoTheyKnow, runs on Alaveteli. It’s also free as open source software to anyone around the world who wants to set up an Access to Information service for their own country or jurisdiction — and in the 11 years it’s been available, many have done just that.
Key to Alaveteli is that both FOI requests and responses are published, meaning that each site builds up its own archive of information over time. Even when information is not held by the authority, public knowledge increases, and when requests go unanswered, the very fact that a request was made shows that there is public appetite for the information.
We noticed that the ticker had passed a million at the end of July this year. The lion’s share — more than 840,000 requests — represents requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow. The others are from jurisdictions as wide-ranging as Rwanda, Australia, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Europe alone, 17 Alaveteli sites are operating; five of these have been launched since 2019, thanks to support from Adessium and Swedish Postcode foundations.
We hope to be able to work with the network of Access to Information platforms in Europe (including some that are not running on Alaveteli) to strengthen their individual and collective impact. We’re looking to help build and connect the ‘community of interest’ around FOI; and to undertake more coordinated and strategic advocacy efforts to improve Access to Information at national and regional levels – all of which will help ensure continued access to information over the long-term.
Thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Helen Cross for finding the examples cited at the beginning of this post, and many more, during a multilingual trawl through the collective Alaveteli sites.
While running mySociety’s Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com we’ve noticed that some public authorities are refusing to process valid FOI requests made via email, including some sent via our website. A few public authorities have gone so far as to switch off their dedicated FOI email addresses, and have been telling our users that they need to fill in a webform, or make a request by post.
This practice is against the law. For a Freedom of Information request to be valid, all that’s required is that a) it’s made in writing; b) it includes the requester’s name and an address for correspondence; and c) it describes the information being requested.
Requests made via email are valid and should be processed promptly, however they are received. We contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, who confirmed that:
“Whilst a public authority can request a form is filled in, you are not obliged to do this” and “this should not be made a compulsory requirement.”
We believe that citizens shouldn’t need to have a detailed understanding of FOI law in order to have valid requests for information logged and answered. Public authority staff should be trained to recognise valid requests, however they are received. The refusal by some authorities to recognise and process requests for information has led to unnecessary delays in requests being answered, and to some requests not being answered at all.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to public authorities from using case management systems, these should be capable of dealing with email and handling requests that are made via other means.
Where web-forms are an authority’s preferred form of contact, these should be simple to complete and not require requesters to hand over more personal information than they are required to by law. We’ve seen web-forms which ask requesters for information such as their date of birth, whether they are a journalist and the purpose of their request, for example, none of which the authority needs to know, and some of which might prejudice their response. Sometimes these additional fields are marked as compulsory.
We’ve also noticed that some authorities have started to reply to FOI requests using a “noreply” email address. This is poor practice because it makes it harder for requesters to ask for clarification or to request an internal review. Ideally, responses to requests should be sent from an address that accepts incoming mail.
How we’re responding
If a public body turns off its FOI contact email address and directs requests to a web-form, we try to find an alternative address to send requests to. We do all we can to get our users’ requests delivered, and we invariably succeed.
In a handful of cases we’ve resorted to sending our users’ requests to public bodies’ Chief Executives as part of our efforts to both get our users’ requests delivered and to encourage authorities to abide by Access to Information law.
Have you seen this practice?
While we have only seen this behaviour at a relatively small number of public bodies so far, some of those adopting this approach have included significant authorities such as local councils. It is important to identify and challenge this practice before it spreads more widely, so please let us know if you spot any examples. If you receive a message suggesting you have to make your request again via a web-form, do challenge that, citing the ICO guidance on valid requests.
We are keen to see the Information Commissioner step in and tackle systemic problems with the way public bodies deal with requests for information. We are encouraged by the recent commitment from the Information Commissioner’s Office to deliver “more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations”. The fact we publish FOI requests and their responses provides evidence which can support the Commissioner in this work.
Here are some examples:
“All FOI requests have to be put in writing to the Freedom of Information Officer, […] or by completing our online form.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“Can I ask that you please submit your enquiry via our website. The FOI process has recently changed and we have a form that will ask for all the information we need to process this.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“This Freedom of Information request has been received via a mailbox that does not record new requests. Please make your request using the online form under How to make Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations Requests on the Council’s website” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“All freedom of Information requests now have to be applied for using our online form (see link sent in my colleagues previous email to you). Once we have your request it will be responded to within 20 days of receipt.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is the paid-for, premium, version of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com, designed for journalists, academics, campaigners and others whose needs exceed what our free service provides.
Features available to Pro users include the ability to delay publication of requests and responses; and to make requests to multiple authorities at the same time via the batch request tool.
We’ve just made it much easier for Pro users to add relevant bodies to a batch request via a list of authorities within specific categories.
Our database contains FOI contact addresses for more than 42,000 authorities. Using our service saves you from having to source appropriate contact details yourself, and we’ve now made it even quicker and easier to make batch FOI requests.
Since WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s launch, creating a batch request has involved searching for bodies and adding them individually to the batch. WhatDoTheyKnow’s fantastic volunteers curate over 200 categories to help users on the main site to explore and navigate the UK authorities subject to FOI, and we’ve now incorporated these listings into WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch tool.
As a result, requests are more likely to be sent to the bodies that hold the information being requested, and the number of requests sent to inappropriate bodies is minimised.
We’ve been trialling this feature in a limited beta period for a while, and thanks to our funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation we were able to work with handlingar.se to iron out some bugs and performance issues before making it available to all Pro users.
We hope the new feature will aid some great cross-authority research, while helping to ensure that requests are targeted to appropriate bodies.
Let us know if there are additional categories you’d like us to add!
Image: Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0)
On 31 May 2022, Northern Trains Limited (Northern) wrote to us to demand that we stop publishing the salaries and job titles of the ten highest paid managers at the company. The Department for Transport had released this data in response to a request made via our Freedom of Information service, WhatDoTheyKnow. The request for removal was not only made on behalf of the company, but was also represented as being a request on behalf of the “director group”, which we have interpreted to mean those senior staff at the company whose salary data has been disclosed.
Having carefully considered our position we are continuing to publish this information.
Table: Salaries of the highest paid managers at Northern Rail Limited in £5k bands.
Job title Salary Banding (£) Managing Director 245,001 – 250,000 Chief Operating Officer 210,001 – 215,000 Finance Director 165,001 – 170,000 Commercial and Customer director 150,001 – 155,000 Strategic Development director 145,001 – 150,000 Engineering Director 140,001 – 145,000 People Director 120,001 – 125,000 Regional Director 115,001 – 120,000 Programme Director 110,001 – 115,000
Source: DfT Freedom of Information release – released on at 30/05/2022
There is a strong public interest in favour of the release of information that helps people to understand how resources are apportioned within an organisation. As we understand it, the Department for Transport has dealt with the FOI request in line with current best practice for transparency surrounding senior officials and high earners in the public sector, and has acted in accordance with current guidance from the Information Commissioner.
Northern Trains Limited, which operates under the ‘Northern’ brand, is wholly owned by the Department for Transport. The Government proactively publishes the exact salaries of the highest paid public sector employees as part of their regular proactive transparency releases. It would seem reasonable that Northern would also be expected to make similar information available about the salaries of its most senior staff, particularly when the salaries of senior officials at similar and related companies are already public. This includes those working for Northern’s parent company, DfT OLR Holdings Limited, Network Rail, and High Speed 2 Limited. Northern’s sister company LNER publishes information on the salaries of its directors in £5k bands on p46 of its latest annual accounts. In respect of DfT OLR Holdings Limited, the Government proactively publishes the salaries of their Chief Executive (£235,000-239,999), Group Finance Director (£220,000-£224,999) and Chair (£150,000-£154,999).
Northern routinely publishes exact salary information for junior roles on their careers website, and the material released by the Department for Transport is very similar to this. Recently, Northern has advertised that they will pay a full-time train cleaner based at Wigan £18,500 and a grade B maintenance worker based at Newton Heath £33,035 a year. We believe that Northern should have no objections to us publishing that their Managing Director receives a salary of between £245,001 and £250,000 a year.
We don’t know why the Northern Managing Director’s salary has been omitted from the data proactively published by the Cabinet Office. Perhaps they’ve been confused by the complexity of corporate structures involved, and have not looked beyond companies directly wholly owned by the Government when seeking to identify highly paid and senior public servants who should be included. We asked the Cabinet Office to comment and they shirked responsibility for the data they publish saying:
“Although Cabinet Office compile and publish the £150k list on GOV.UK, other departments provide us with the list of salaries to be included. DfT will have sent us their senior salaries list covering its departments, agencies and non departmental public bodies. You would be best to direct your query to them, and they should be able to advise why this salary fell out of scope.”
We contacted the Department for Transport for comment but as of the time of writing we had not received a substantive response.
We don’t know if there is an issue with the criteria for proactive publication of salaries by the Cabinet Office or if the Department for Transport have not followed the existing criteria.
We strongly believe in preserving and promoting transparency and openness, and the accountability of those in positions of power and in maintaining a public archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses. We carefully consider all requests to remove material from our website. We balance the interests of individuals and organisations asking us to take material down with the interests in favour of continued publication.
Northern’s attempt to keep the salaries of its senior executives secret came while the threat of strike action on the railways over pay was growing. On 7 June 2022, the RMT announced 3 days of national strike action in what it called “the biggest dispute on the network since 1989.” Northern is expected to be one of the companies whose services are affected. When assessing whether to keep publishing the information, we considered the journalistic value of the data released. We expect the senior staff salaries, and the attempt to keep those salaries hidden from the public, may well be considered especially newsworthy during this period. The material that was released will help to inform the ongoing debate around pay levels in this sector.
We list DfT OLR Holdings Limited, and the three rail companies it owns on behalf of the British public, on WhatDoTheyKnow so anyone can make FOI requests to them in public. All the bodies are subject to Freedom of Information law:
We thank Northern Rail for drawing our attention to this release of their senior management salary data, which might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed.
For more information on how we deal with takedown requests like this, and our legal basis for processing personal information see: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/help/privacy#legal_basis
Image: Ben Garratt (Unsplash licence)
Our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow has just seen what we think is its largest ever release of information. National Highways has released 1.25 TB of bat survey data, made up of over 115,000 files, including:
- 786 videos – that’s over 250 hours of footage
- 54,570 audio files
- 354 spreadsheets
- 2,532 images
Requester Emma Tristram has been using data released via WhatDoTheyKnow to campaign against the proposed construction of the A27 Arundel Bypass. Commenting on the release, she told us:
“It’s fantastic that through WhatDoTheyKnow this recent bat survey data by National Highways is now available to the public. With these up to date bat surveys those fighting the devastating Arundel bypass scheme hope to strengthen their case that the scheme should be cancelled. The scheme would ruin four villages as well as a huge, very biodiverse wildlife area, which Natural England say is of international importance for bats.”
In response to a consultation about the proposed road building scheme, Natural England confirms the exceptional importance of the environment in and around the South Downs National Park and the need for its protection. They describe the area as containing irreplaceable and rare habitats and priority habitats (Habitats of Principal Importance) which “support an outstanding assemblage of species”. These include numerous maternity roosts of rare bats including Barbastelle, Bechstein’s and the Alcathoe bat.
The request was dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). EIR, like Freedom of Information requests, can be used to access more than just documents, correspondence and paperwork. As the climate crisis brings urgent challenges for our public institutions to address, access to environmental information will be increasingly valuable to businesses, campaign groups and the general public. Requests about how limited and in some cases irreplaceable environmental resources are being managed are just as important as requests around how public money is being used. By gaining access to raw data such as this, environmental campaigners are able to independently examine and verify the results of any studies that have been carried out.
Due to the size of the release, the authority has made the information available using a file sharing service. When authorities reply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow in this way, we will do our best to host their responses by uploading the data to our own servers. Hosting a release of this size poses some logistical challenges, but we are looking at ways of making the data available. If you have any suggestions about how we can best achieve this, please get in touch.
Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC by/2.0)
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:
- Croydon BID funds police officers and specific police operations (Team London Bridge BID has a similar programme)
- MyMiltonKeynes has street cleaning and pest control projects.
- Halton Chamber Enterprises Ltd, which runs the Halebank and Astmoor Business Improvement Districts, provides defibrillators
- Brilliant Brighton runs Christmas light displays, and provides hanging baskets and bunting.
The establishment of a BID requires the support of both:
- the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
- 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
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.
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:
- Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
- The High Court of the Justiciary, which is the supreme criminal court of Scotland.
- The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
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
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.
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
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 . 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
: Technically the ‘Royal household’ and it’s the wider range of security services such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.