1. Two FOI requests seeking information about COVID

    Here at mySociety, before pressing ‘post’, we sometimes pass the wording of a tweet or blog entry past a couple of colleagues, just to make sure it strikes the right tone. 

    So when we saw emails from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Cabinet Office’s ‘Rapid Response unit’ going back and forth to get the wording of a tweet absolutely correct, we sympathised.

    “The quote would need to be shrunk down to fit, what should the main focus be?”

    “Have added some bits, not sure what the highlighted section was meant to be?”

    “[Redacted] wants us to delete the tweet for relationship management purposes and replace with the below.”

    “I’ll check at this end, but isn’t doing that just going to reignite?”

    “It could potentially reignite it, yes. But the Mail Online did not approach us for a comment and their headline is very misleading so feel we should rebut with less confrontational language.”

    “But you can’t replace a tweet? You can only delete and then go back on the original article with a new comment, so you’re rebutting twice, only the second time around admitting that you went too hard first time? Which just creates another story. Isn’t it better to just leave it?”

    Admittedly the DHSC’s predicament was higher stakes than ours generally is — they were responding to a piece in the Mail Online and tackling disinformation about coronavirus statistics. The email that kicks off all this discussion reads:

    “Flagging growing engagement with a Daily Mail article claiming that Covid-19 statistics around fatalities and hospitalisation have been twisted to create fear among the public (6.6k interactions).

    “Although not very high engagement, the article has now been picked up by several high profile lockdown sceptics such as Simon Dolan and Adam Books.

    “Given these damaging claims could affect compliance, we recommend that the press office contact the Daily Mail to make them aware of the public health impact, and if possible, include a government line in the article.”

    For those who work in communications, and perhaps everyone else too, it is quite interesting to see the authority’s rebuttal process roll into action, with each statement requiring sign-off by a named person, presumably for accountability purposes (these names have, though, been redacted before release).

    Available thanks to FOI

    How did we come to see these internal memos? Because a WhatDoTheyKnow user requested them under the Freedom of Information Act. 

    We can’t know this user’s intent*: were they hoping to reveal evidence that there is indeed a governmental coverup over lockdown, or perhaps to argue the case that there is none? Either way, it seems pretty clear from the released email threads that if there is a conspiracy at play, the staff frantically scrambling to get the right message out to the public don’t know about it.

    This request is also notable because the user, spotting that the authority had not provided everything they had asked for, requested an internal review, as is anyone’s right if they believe their FOI request has not been handled correctly.

    To DHSC’s credit, they did go on to provide the missing data, and also went out of their way to give some background information “outside of the scope of the FOI Act, and on a discretionary basis”.

    It’s worth noting that, for all the effort put in by DHSC’s communications team, however, Mail Online does not appear to have amended the article.

    FOI as fact-checker

    As we’re in the midst of a fast-changing pandemic situation, it’s perhaps inevitable that there’s lots of misinformation and confusion flying around at the moment — and thanks to social media, it spreads fast.

    Freedom of Information requests can play one small part in countering ‘fake news’, by bringing background information into the public domain, helping us understand the full picture a bit better.

    Is it always useful for such data to be public? That’s a matter for debate, and a question that is baked into the ICO’s FOI guidance for authorities.

    We’ve been doing some in-depth work around exemptions recently, so it is interesting to see COVID-related requests like this one about ill-effects of vaccines in the light of Section 22 exemptions, which cover ‘information intended for future publication and research information’. We suspect a Section 22 exemption may be applied here.

    That request is for Adverse Drug Reaction (ADR) data, and includes the instruction, ‘This information should be made available now as raw data, not held back to be accompanied by any analysis.’ 

    Would that be desirable, or is the release of raw data just opening the door wide for potential misinterpretation and the drawing of erroneous conclusions? 

    When applying a Section 22 exemption, the ICO says that the authority must perform a public interest test to assess whether there is more public good in releasing the requested information than there would be in withholding it. 

    Their guidance specifically notes that “In most instances public authorities will not be able to argue that information is too technical, complex or misleading to disclose, or that it may be misunderstood or is incomplete, because they can explain it or set it into context.”

    And so, the ideal scenario is that the data is released, with robust explanations and in a way that can be understood by all. That would be a great outcome made possible by FOI**.

    * UPDATE: The request-maker has now added an annotation which explains their intent.

    ** UPDATE: Vaccine adverse reaction data is available, with context, on the GOV.uk website.

    Image: Garry Butterfield

  2. Catch up with the first TICTeC Seminar

    Open Data: an essential, not just ‘nice to have’

    Would societies around the world be better able to respond to the pandemic, if more or better open data were freely available?

    That was the question put to our expert panel on Tuesday, in the first in our series of online TICTeC Seminars.

    Karabo Rajuili of Open Ownership, Olivier Thereaux from Open Data Institute and Fabrizio Scrollini of the Open Data Latin American Initiative (ILDA) were led in a discussion by our own Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard of the need for — and simultaneously the impossibility of — a rapidly-constructed open data standard; the benefits and dangers of releasing data about COVID to a potentially uninformed public; and the need for good ownership data to be freely available in a fast-moving procurement environment in which there may not be the tools to investigate where money is being spent.

    After the speakers had laid out their positions, the floor was opened for questions, each of which ignited still more informed debate. Finally, attendees were invited to a quick (and optional!) networking session in which they could speak to other attendees more directly.

    If that all sounds interesting, you can catch up on the main session for yourself by watching the video or reading the collaborative notes that were taken by attendees.

    There are still two more TICTeC Seminars in this series to go, so do join us to take part in the conversation.

    On 20 October, panelists will discuss why it’s taken a pandemic for more parliaments to digitise; while in November (date TBC) the topic will be the climate crisis. Find full details for both sessions here, and don’t forget you can sign up for TICTeC updates.

    Also: if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

     

  3. FOI and COVID-19: an update

    While the UK begins the process of trying to return to some kind of normality after lockdown, full access to information must also be restored.

    Back in April, we put out a blog post examining the state of Freedom of Information during the covid-19 crisis, looking at the UK and more broadly across the world. State-sanctioned delays were seen almost universally.

    While we understood the difficulties faced by authorities redeploying staff members to the frontline, we said then that the right to information was perhaps more vital than ever. In times of national crisis, transparency is crucial both for retaining trust in our leaders and for keeping check on their activities.

    WhatDoTheyKnow users have been asking pertinent questions about the pandemic, from requests for data on the number of cases in prisons and care homes, to the basis on which decisions about the national response strategy have been made. Potential students want to know about universities’ plans for the coming year; citizens are asking about measures put in place by their councils to encourage social distancing. And meanwhile, of course, requests for non-coronavirus-related topics are equally pressing: who’s keeping an eye on Brexit, or making sure the climate crisis doesn’t slip off the agenda for example?

    The state of play

    We’ve been linking to that initial post from the top of WhatDoTheyKnow, so that people making requests could get some background to the delays they might be experiencing.

    But since then the global situation has moved on, and so have some aspects of FOI provision. At the time of writing:

    • The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is still stating that they “will not be penalising public authorities for prioritising other areas or adapting their usual approach during this extraordinary period.” Therefore, UK public authorities may still delay their requests without penalty. Read more on the ICO website.
    • The Scottish Information Commissioner had previously introduced overseen a change that permitted [see below for clarification] a longer period in which authorities might respond to requests, but on 27 May a reversal came into effect and the period returned to its standard 20-day deadline. However, there is still an acknowledgement that the pandemic, and indeed their own previous relaxation of the required timescales, may have a knock on effect to requests made before that date. See full details here.

    This does raise the question as to when the ICO foresees a return to business as usual. Of course, each authority will have its own experiences and challenges, with varying reasons for maintaining or removing an expectation of delayed responses. But they are guided by the regulator, and while the ICO continues to excuse lengthened response times, authorities may not hurry to do any different.

    UPDATE: A representative from the Scottish Commissioner’s Office contacted us with the following clarification:

    The changes in timescales under the FOI (Scotland) Act came about because the Scottish Parliament passed emergency legislation to change the timescales – they were not introduced by the Commissioner. Our position prior to the change in the law was set out in a statement we issued, and our comments, including concerns raised, on the legislation when it was introduced can be read here.

    We’ve also sought to emphasise the importance of the duty to respond promptly, even during the period when the deadlines were extended, as set out in our guidance for requesting information during the pandemic. We think it’s important that requesters know their rights, and the right to a prompt response (not just one within 20/60 working days) is something that has remained consistent for FOI users throughout the pandemic.

    Time to restore oversight

    It’s unquestionably a time of great uncertainty for us all, with many returning to some semblance of normality while still unsure whether the much anticipated second peak is on the horizon. But given a national policy of this staged return, should the ICO not, like its Scottish counterpart, be encouraging authorities to do the same?

    One compelling reason is hinted at by the Scottish Commissioner’s own caveat: that the longer the deadlines are allowed to extend, the more of a backlog will build up, causing further delays down the line.

    We’d encourage authorities everywhere to re-examine any laxity they may have introduced at the start of lockdown, and to continue to do so regularly: is it still genuinely necessary now that staff may have been moved back from the covid-19 frontline?

    And we’d urge them to treat the need for a timely, efficient FOI service as one of the top priorities during this uncertain period.

    Image: Andrea Piacquadio

  4. FixMyStreet during London’s lockdown

    We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.

    We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.

    Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.

    We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.

    At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.

    Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted. 

    It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.

    Image: Ben Garratt

     

  5. Freedom of Information during the pandemic

    The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.

    Note: There is now an update to this post, which can be found here.


    At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.

    Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.

    Keeping our rights intact

    At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.

    Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.

    We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:

    • A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
    • In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
    • Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.

    Information is vital

    More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?

    Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?

    In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.

    And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.

    These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.

    Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.

    Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]

    Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.

    A global lapse

    Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.

    Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.

    Image: Dimitri Karastelev