Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
‘Sold From Under You’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
Not long ago, we let you know about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s project to map and quantify the scale of properties being sold by councils up and down the country as they try to manage with reduced budgets under austerity.
The investigation, which made use of our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send and manage hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, has now been shortlisted for a Data Journalism Award in the Open Data category.
We’re delighted that our platform for professional users of FOI could be of help; this is just the sort of broad data-driven investigation, requiring FOI requests to multiple authorities, that it was conceived for.
You can read BIJ’s interesting account of their methodology and the impact that the project has had here. We wish them the very best of luck for the award finals next month.
Over the last year, mySociety’s research team has been trying to build a picture of how Freedom of Information functions in local government. This research project became our report into FOI in Local Government (which can be read in full here).
One of the key questions for this research project is how many FOI requests are received by local government.
We believe that use of WhatDoTheyKnow has benefits beyond people who submit requests because requests made through the site are available publicly — increasing the sum of knowledge available to all. Given this, a good metric for us to understand is what percentage of all information being released through FOI is being stored on WhatDoTheyKnow. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data in this area that allows us to make a clear comparison.
The Cabinet Office release annual statistics about FOI requests made to central government, which can be used for comparison. In 2017, 16.8% of requests sent to central government were sent via WhatDoTheyKnow — but this represents a very small volume of all use of WhatDoTheyKnow. 88% of FOI requests were sent to public authorities outside central government, suggesting that the majority of FOI activity is elsewhere, but there is no official figure of the total number of FOI requests received by all public bodies.
In 2010, UCL’s Constitution Unit estimated a figure for all local authorities in England of 197,000 FOI requests received. We wanted to understand if this was still a good baseline for FOI requests to local government and gain new understanding of local authorities beyond England.
To do this, we sent an FOI request to every local authority (except those in Scotland, who publish these figures in a central repository) asking for a set of FOI statistics for the year 2017.
This presented an immediate set of problems. There was a split in how authorities understood ‘2017’, with internal statistics recorded in a split of financial and calendar year — a choice that has a demonstrable difference in the volume of FOIs recorded that year. A minority of councils did not respond to the FOI requests – which unaddressed would lead to an under-count in the total number of FOI requests.
To correct these problems, using the requests that were returned and other sources of public information, we constructed a model to address the issue of the split in recording year and predict a range of values for councils that didn’t return data.
The result of this is an estimate of 468,780 FOI requests received in the calendar year 2017. There is a 95% confidence this value falls between 467,587 and 469,975 (range of 2,387).
On average an individual council receives around 1,120 requests in a given year. But as the graph below shows, this has substantial variation:
And the type of council has substantial impact on the number of requests recorded — with London boroughs receiving over three times as many requests as authorities in Northern Ireland.
Authority type Average FOI requests Northern Ireland authorities 532.2 Non-metropolitan districts 799.4 Welsh authorities 1133.5 County councils 1331.0 Unitary authority 1346.9 Metropolitan districts 1417.2 City of London 1521.1 Scottish authorities 1536.2 London borough 1815.0
What does this mean for WhatDoTheyKnow? Comparing totals, the 28,282 requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow in 2017 represented 6% of all FOI requests made to local authorities. Similarly, there is a lot of variation across authorities some councils have around 2% of requests start on WhatDoTheyKnow, others have around 13%. This shows that the overwhelming majority of requests to local authorities are made through other means.
This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.
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Several municipalities had delayed on processing FOI requests sent through Transparencia.be — which runs on our Alaveteli software — concerned that a request sent via email does not contain a signature or proof of identity.
Now Belgium’s overseeing body CADA (the Commission of Access to Administrative Documents) has ruled, just as the ICO did in the UK, that requests sent through the site should be treated the same as those received via more conventional means.
The struggle echoes almost exactly the experiences we faced with WhatDoTheyKnow when it was first launched: as you can see in this FAQ, official MoJ guidance now explicitly states that an email address should be considered of equal status to a physical return address; and ICO advice is that a WhatDoTheyKnow.com email address is a valid contact address for the purposes of FOI.
A sharing community
Here at mySociety, we share our open source software so that other people can run services like ours — Freedom of Information sites, parliamentary monitoring projects or fault-reporting platforms — for their own countries.
But it’s not only about the software. Something that has become clear over the years, and especially when we get together for an event such as AlaveteliCon, is that we all face similar challenges. No matter how different our countries’ legislations, cultures or politics, you can be sure that our setbacks and triumphs will be familiar to others.
Because of that, we’re able to share something that’s just as useful as the software itself: the support of the community. In this case, that’s easily accessed via the Alaveteli mailing list, which we’d encourage you to join if you run, or are thinking of running, an FOI site.
Image: Jay Lee
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In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 councils in England.
Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.
The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.
In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.
Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.
One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:
I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.
We are glad that the service was of help.
If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.
Freedom of Information forms the basis of many a campaign that seeks to expose hidden facts, or stories which should be in the public eye.
We spoke to Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme, about that organisation’s tireless campaign to get to the truth on the collection, handling and re-use of schoolchildren’s personal data in England.
What emerged was a timeline of requests and responses — sometimes hard fought for — which when pieced together reveal secrecy, bad practice and some outright falsehoods from the authorities to whom we entrust our children’s data. Perhaps most striking of the findings was the sharing of data with the Home Office in support of their Hostile Environment policy.
As Jen describes defenddigitalme’s campaign, “It began with trying to understand how my daughter’s personal information is used by the Department for Education; it became a campaign to get the use of 23 million records made safe”.
It’s a long tale, but definitely worth the read.
December 2012: consultations and changes
The story begins here, although it would still be a couple of years before Jen became aware of the issues around children’s data, “despite — or perhaps because of — having three young children in school at the time”.
Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
As Jen explains, “During the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a consultation about changing data laws on how nationally stored school pupil records could be used, proposing that individual pupil-level records could be given away to third parties, including commercial companies, journalists, charities, and researchers. Campaigners raised alarm bells, pointing out that the personal data would be highly identifying, sensitive, and insecure — but the changes went through nonetheless.”
2014: discovering the power of FOI
Jen came across that change in law for herself when reading about a later, similar data issue in the press: there were plans to also make available medical records from GP practices. This prompted her first foray into FOI, “to answer some of the questions I had about the plans, which weren’t being published”.
I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.
And that first step got her thinking:
“At around the same time I asked the DfE a simple question, albeit through a Subject Access rather than FOI request: What personal data do you hold about my own child?
“My Subject Access request was refused. The Department for Education would not tell me what data they held about my children, and as importantly, could not tell me who they had given it to.
“There was nothing at all in the public domain about this database the DfE held, beyond what the campaigners in 2012 had exposed. It wasn’t even clear how big it was. How was it governed? Who decided where data could be sent out to and why? How was it audited and what were the accountability mechanisms? And why was the DfE refusing its lawful obligations to tell me what they held about my daughter, let me correct errors, and know where it had gone? Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?
“Prior to all this, I’d never even heard of Freedom of Information. But I knew that there was something wrong and unjust about commercial companies and journalists being able to access more personal data about our children than we could ourselves.
I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.
“I needed to understand how the database operated in order to challenge it. I needed to be able to offer an evidenced and alternative view of what could be better, and why. FOI was the only way to start to obtain information that was in the public interest.
“I believed it should be published in the public domain. WhatDoTheyKnow is brilliant at that. I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.”
“I tried to ask for information I knew existed or should exist, that would support the reasons for the changes we needed in data handling. I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.”
2015: sharing children’s personal data with newspapers
That was just the beginning: at the time of writing, Jen has made over 80 FOI requests in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com .
Through FOI, defenddigitalme has discovered who has had access to the data about millions of individuals, and under what precepts, finding such astonishing rationales as: “The Daily Telegraph requested pupil-level data and so suppression was not applicable.” The publication “wished to factor in the different types of pupil” attending different schools.
Jen explains: “This covered information on pupil characteristics related to prior attainment: gender, ethnic group, language group, free school meal eligibility (often used as a proxy for poverty indicators) and SEN (Special Educational Needs and disability) status, which were deemed by the Department to be appropriate as these are seen as important factors in levels of pupil attainment.”
But with such granular detail, anonymity would be lost and the DfE were relying only on “cast iron assurances” that the Telegraph would not use the data to identify individuals.
2016: sharing children’s nationality data with the Home Office
In a Written Question put by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in July 2016, the Minister for Education was asked whether the Home Office would access this newly collected nationality data. He stated: “the data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use […]. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.”
But on the contrary: defenddigitalme’s subsequent requests would disclose that there was already a data sharing agreement to hand over data on nationality to the Home Office, for the purposes of immigration enforcement and to support the Hostile Environment policy.
Jen says: “As part of our ongoing questions about the types of users of the school census data, we’d asked whether the Home Office or police were recipients of pupil data, because it wasn’t recorded in the public registry of data recipients.
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In August 2016, a FOI response did confirm that the Home Office was indeed accessing national pupil data; but to get to the full extent of the issue, we had to ask follow up questions. They had said that “since April 2012, the Home Office has submitted 20 requests for information to the National Pupil Database. Of these 18 were granted and 2 were refused as the NPD did not contain the information requested.”
“But the reply did not indicate how many people each request was for. And sure enough, when we asked for the detail, we found the requests were for hundreds of people at a time. Only later again, did we get told that each request could be for a maximum agreed 1,500 individuals, a policy set out in an agreement between the Departments which had started in 2015, in secret.
“In the October afternoon of the very same day as the school census was collecting nationality data for the first time, this response confirmed that the Home Office had access to previously collected school census pupil data including name, home and school address: “The nature of all requests from the Police and the Home Office is to search for specific individuals in the National Pupil Database and to return the latest address and/or school information held where a match is found in the NPD.”
The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.
“In December 2016, after much intervention by MPs, including leaked letters, and FOI requests by both us and — we later learned — by journalists at Schools Week, the government published the data sharing agreement that they had in place and that was being used”.It had been amended in October 2016 to remove the line on nationality data, and allowed the data to be matched with Home Office information. It had also been planned to deprioritise the children of those without leave to remain when allocating school places, shocking opposition MPs who described the plan variously as “a grubby little idea” and, simply, “disgusting”.
Other campaigners joined the efforts as facts started to come into the public domain. A coalition of charities and child rights advocates formed under the umbrella organisation of Against Borders for Children, and Liberty would go on to support them in preparing a judicial review. ABC organised a successful public boycott, and parents and teachers supplied samples of forms that schools were using, some asking for only non-white British pupils to provide information.
Overall, nationality was not returned for more than a quarter of pupils.
2017: behind the policy making
Through further requests defenddigitalme learned that the highly controversial decision to collect nationality and country of birth from children in schools — which came into effect from the autumn of 2016 — had been made in 2015. Furthermore, it had been signed off by a little known board which, crucially, had been kept in the dark.
“I’d been told by attendees of the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board meeting that they had not been informed that the Home Office was already getting access to pupil data when they were asked to sign off the new nationality data collection, and they were not told that this new data would be passed on for Home Office purposes, either. That matters in my opinion, because law-making relies on accountability to ensure that decisions are just. It can’t be built on lies”, says Jen.
The process of getting hold of the minutes from that significant meeting took a year.
Jen says, “We went all the way through the appeals process, from the first Internal Review, then a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The ICO had issued a Decision Notice that meant the DfE should provide the information, but when they still refused the next step was the Information Rights First Tier Tribunal.
“Two weeks before the court hearing due, the DfE eventually withdrew its appeal and provided some of the information in November 2017. Volunteers helped us with preparation of the paperwork, including folk from the Campaign for Freedom for Information. It was important that the ICO’s decision was respected.”
2018: raised awareness
In April last year, the Department confirmed that Nationality and Country of Birth must no longer be collected for school census purposes.
However, Jen says, “Children’s data, collected for the purposes of education, are still being shared monthly for the purposes of the Hostile Environment. There’s a verbal promise that the nationality data won’t be passed over, but since the government’s recent introduction of the Immigration Bill 2018 and immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act, I have little trust in the department’s ability in the face of Home Office pressure, to be able to keep those promises.
“Disappointingly”, says Jen, “the government has decided instead of respecting human rights to data protection and privacy on this, to create new laws to work around them.
The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.
“It’s wrong to misuse data collected for one purpose and on one legal basis entrusted for children’s education, for something punitive. We need children in education, it’s in their best interests and those of our wider society. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system.
“That’s why we support Against Borders for Children’s call to delete the nationality data.
“A positive overall outcome, however”, she continues, “is that in May 2018, the Department for Education put the sharing of all pupil level data on hold while they moved towards a new Secure Access model, based on the so-called ‘5-Safes’. The intention is distribute access to data with third parties, not distribute the data itself. The Department resumed data sharing in September but with new policies on data governance, working hard to make pupil data safer and meet ‘user needs’. The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.”
2019: Defenddigitalme continues to campaign
Defenddigitalme has come a long way, but they won’t stop campaigning yet.
People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
Jen says, “Raw data is still distributed to third parties, and Subject Access, where I started, is still a real challenge.
“The Department is handing out sensitive data, but can’t easily let you see all of it, or make corrections, or tell you which bodies for sure it was given to. Still, that shouldn’t put people off asking about their own or their child’s record, or opting out of the use of their individual record for over 14s and adult learners, and demand respect for their rights, and better policy and practice. The biggest change needed is that people should be told where their data goes, who uses it for how long, and why.
“Access to how government functions and the freedom of the press to be able to reveal and report on that is vital to keep the checks and balances on systems we cannot see. We rely on a strong civil service to work in the best interests of the country and all its people and uphold human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the colour of government or their own beliefs. People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.
“FOI can bring about greater transparency and accountability of policy and decision making. It’s then up to all of us to decide how to use that information, and act on it if the public are being misled, if decisions are unjust, or policy and practice that are hidden will be harmful to the public, not only those deciding what the public interest is.
“WhatDoTheyKnow is a really useful tool in that. Long may it flourish.”
Many authorities keep a disclosure log, where they publish answers to previous Freedom Of Information requests. If requests are repeatedly made for the same type of information, it makes sense for the authority to publish the data regularly so that everyone can access it — because of course, the majority of FOI requests made in this country are sent directly rather than via WhatDoTheyKnow, and won’t otherwise be published online in any other form.
But a disclosure log is only useful if people know it’s there. Our FOI For Councils service, which came out of work with Hackney council increases the likelihood that the information in the disclosure log is actually seen, and by those who need it most: it automatically checks whether the request resembles any information which is already available online, then points the requester to it. If the match is correct, the user doesn’t have to progress any further with their request, and can access the information immediately. This saves everyone time — requesters and staff alike.
There’s another handy aspect to FOI for Councils, too: it can also provide staff with data on what type of requests are made the most often. As we explained in that introductory blog post:
FOI for Councils analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.
This analysis allows Information Officers to understand which information is being asked for, that existing resources aren’t providing.
A sensible use of this is to analyse the most frequent requests and publish the data they’re asking for proactively.
Authorities don’t necessarily need FOI for Councils to do this, though: a regular analysis of internal records, or even public requests on WhatDoTheyKnow (despite only making up a proportion of requests made by any means — people may also make requests by direct email, letter, phone or even a tweet in some cases — they still provide a good sample set) would allow any authority to manually generate a broad picture.
Disclosure logs can get out of date quickly: a glance at the BBC’s, for example, seems to indicate an initial enthusiasm in 2014 which quickly dried up, perhaps because a keen employee moved on, or resources were channeled elsewhere. Yet many of the topics of information — annual transport costs for example — will quickly date and may be of interest again in subsequent years.
It makes sense for authorities to plan a publication cycle for such data, because it’s common for requests to relate to ongoing or changing information such as annual statistics or contract renewals.
It seems to be quite a widespread issue that an authority starts a disclosure log with the best of intentions, but then lets it go into disuse; additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team note that very few disclosure logs are comprehensive; it’s much more common for authorities to pick and choose what to release, which may not be in line with which data is most useful to the public.
Publishing frequently requested information in a proactive fashion may well cost authorities less than having to retrieve the information each time it’s asked for — and to provide the information to a sole request-maker (assuming it’s not through WhatDoTheyKnow, where the response is published online) is less efficient than simply putting it out publicly where everyone who needs it can find it. This removes some of the burden on FOI officers.
Early indicators from our work with Hackney Council show that pointing users towards material already published has prevented around 4% of the requests started by users. This should grow over time, as the council analyses popular requests and starts to add the information to their publication schedule, and more and more users will then experience this invitation to find the material elsewhere.
A legal requirement
There is one type of information which authorities are required to proactively publish, thanks to Section 19 subsection 2a of the Freedom of Information Act — datasets:
A publication scheme must, in particular, include a requirement for the public authority concerned—
(a) to publish—
(i) any dataset held by the authority in relation to which a person makes a request for information to the authority, and
(ii) any up-dated version held by the authority of such a dataset, unless the authority is satisfied that it is not appropriate for the dataset to be published
The WhatDoTheyKnow team have called for this requirement to apply to all material requested under Freedom of Information, not just datasets: it seems desirable that if a certain piece of information is frequently requested, there is a requirement to publish, unless it’s not reasonable or practical to do so (which, as the team points out, may point to a problem with the way the material is being managed internally, for example adherence to paper records that would benefit from a switch to digital).
We’re in favour
We’ve often advocated for proactive publication, including in our response to a consultation on the FOI Code of Practice last year, and we’ve even said that we’d rather people didn’t have to make FOI requests at all because all information was being published by default.
Others have made the case that there is so much data being published in the world today that it’s hard to make sense of it or to find what’s useful — but proactive publication based on proven demand like this is a good approach to ensuring that authorities are releasing what is genuinely needed.
Image: Roman Kraft
Here at mySociety, we talk a lot about how citizens can use Freedom of Information to hold public authorities to account. But it’s interesting to note that those same authorities, or members of them, sometimes also turn to FOI to solicit information from one another.
At first, this might seem strange: it’s a common assumption that authorities, not to mention high level people within them, have the power to summon any information they require in order to go about their duties.
But on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are several reasons why the public sector might turn to FOI rather than the more standard channels.
Surveying multiple authorities
Suppose you’d like to gather information from many different sources — say every hospital in the country — in order to compile a nationwide set of statistics.
A large task like this can be more orderly if managed via a set of Freedom of Information requests. Additionally, the obligation for authorities to respond may mean that your request goes into official channels — with built in timescales — helping to ensure that you get results.
As a nice illustration of this kind of usage, the Royal College of Surgeons surveyed NHS trusts to see if they are still using outdated fax machine equipment, generating a story which made the headlines back in July.
Members of Parliament may also use FOI to survey a large number of public authorities and gather statistics to support campaigns or an issue they’re working on.
We don’t know if members of the Scottish Parliament have more of an appetite for this than the UK one, but a quick search showed several using FOI to good effect. Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale surveyed residential units to see stats on vulnerable children going missing; Murdo Fraser accessed delay repayments figures from Scotrail; Mark Griffin discovered that council tax exemptions weren’t being utilised; and Monica Lennon uncovered the lack of sanitary product strategies across Scotland’s health boards.
That said, there are several UK MPs past and present who have made use of WhatDoTheyKnow, including the office of Diane Abbott and Dr Phillip Lee. There may well be others who prefer to use a pseudonym.
Then, those working in bodies such as universities and hospitals very commonly use FOI to support their academic or medical research.
We can’t neglect to mention that in all such cases, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro would be a great help to the process of sending out and organising multiple requests.
Putting information into the public domain
FOI’s not just useful for large scale requests, though. Those from public sector bodies may be using the Act to bring information into the open because they feel it should be known — and of course, making the request through WhatDoTheyKnow will do this by default, since all requests and responses are published online.
Researchers from Cardiff University used FOI as one tool when investigating how data is used by various public services to help in decision-making. They point out that, while fiddly and labour-intensive, FOI fills a gap in public knowledge:
The use of FOIs to investigate the integration of changing data systems is problematic and resource intensive for all parties. However, in the absence of a public list, the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for systematic inquiry.
Getting hold of information which has been hard to pin down
Sometimes FOI is a last resort when other avenues have been exhausted. On TheyWorkForYou we see a councillor writing to her own council to find out their preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, with the remark “I have tried to get this via the members case work system but I am not confident I will get an adequate response”.
Such frustration definitely motivates Members of Parliament into submitting FOI requests, too. There are other channels through which they can ask questions of course, for example by submitting Written Questions — a process by which both the question and answer are placed in the public domain, thanks to Hansard.
But should those channels fail, FOI is another option.
In 2010 the BBC wrote about how costs for redecoration of Parliament’s Head Office were only uncovered thanks to FOI, after a Written Answer was turned down on grounds of the information being too commercially sensitive.
The parliamentary staff and civil servants who deal with Written Answers are likely to be different from those who deal with FOI requests. Their criteria for release of information may also differ, as they are guided by different protocols.
Representatives at every level can use FOI as a channel for information which might have proven elusive via other means. We see on WhatDoTheyKnow that Parish Councils quite often send requests to higher tier authorities to get hold of information that will help them in their work, as is happening here for example.
Keeping an eye open
When it comes to authorities and representatives requesting information from other authorities, we can see the benefits. One of our team, Gareth, makes an analogy with the Open Source community, where because code is open to all, developers (sharing their expertise in their area of specialisation) can be quick to spot and repair any bugs: “It’s a really good thing for security. Many eyeballs make it easier to identify problems and suggest improvements”.
Similarly, FOI acts as a kind of safety net, another layer of assurance that our authorities are working as they should be.
If you’ve seen any other good examples of public sector to public sector FOI (for want of a better term), please do let us know.
In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.
But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.
At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.
We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.
- interested in FOI and transparency
- happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
- able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site
Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.
Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.
If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.
If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.
- a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
- a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis
Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.
They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.
The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.
We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.
As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.
Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.
The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.
Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.
- a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week
In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.
While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.
Lots to help with
So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!
Alternatively, you can help out with a donation large or small — every little helps.Donate now
Image: CC0 Public Domain
If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.
That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.
We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:
- Legal support
- Admin support
- Additional volunteers
In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.
We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.
One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.
Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?
It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.
A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.
Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.
We need funding for admin
It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.
They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.
We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.
We need funding for development
Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.
The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.
Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.
We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.
Funding to date
We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.
We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.
Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.
Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.
Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.
Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.
You can help out, with a donation large or small — every little helps.Donate now
Image: CC0 Public Domain