Wikipedia is ‘the world’s largest and most-read reference work in history’.
Fundamental to keeping its articles accurate and trustworthy is its policy that all information must be supported by citations — links to independent, third party sources to verify that statements are factual.
Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, as an archive for information released by authorities, has been cited in countless Wikipedia articles, playing a part in combatting misinformation and allowing interested readers to discover more about the topic they’re perusing.
And unlike certain publications (including some UK national newspapers), it’s happily accepted as a reliable source (rightly so when you think about it, of course — all the information we publish is coming straight from the horse’s, or rather the authority’s, mouth, with no journalistic spin).
All that being so, we were curious to see what sort of responses were linked to, and why. Having spent some time clicking through some of those tiny footnotes, we’re pleased to present a selection of the more interesting Wikipedia articles that link to WhatDoTheyKnow as a citation.
What’s the going rate for this unique job?
The College of Arms is allied to the Royal Household; it’s an ancient institution that deals with the granting of new coats of arms, the official register of peers, the flying of flags and other such matters of pomp, circumstance and heraldry.
Try explaining to its founders, back in the 1480s, that they would one day be documented on Wikipedia — and that sums paid by HM Treasury to the current Garter King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock, would be available to everyone publicly, thanks to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow.
The Treasury provides a useful note: “It might be helpful if we explain that the Garter King provides a variety of work for the Government including, but not confined to, providing advice on the use/misuse and the protection of Royal Arms, reviewing evidence for Peerage claims, and designing new coats of arms. In addition, he has a key role at many ceremonial occasions including the State Opening of Parliament.”
We always applaud an authority going out of their way to give context to a response.
Are they watching us watching them?
TV licensing is a topic that brings a lot of visitors to browse responses on WhatDoTheyKnow, probably because it’s an area that by its very nature is shrouded in uncertainty.
Much of our understanding about the workings of the licensing system have come from, or been verified by, FOI responses.
The Wikipedia entry on TV licensing in the UK links to WhatDoTheyKnow in no fewer than 36 of its 232 citations. These include the following nuggets:
- Enforcement is outsourced to Capita, and includes tasks such as “visiting addresses, identifying people watching TV without a licence, taking statements, and achieving prosecutions of TV licence evaders”.
- It is legal to use a TV to listen to digital radio without a licence, if you do not watch or record live TV on it.
- Prisoners and the UK Parliamentary estate are exempt from TV licences — but MPs’ homes (and second homes!) are not.
- The BBC monitors anti-licence campaigns: or rather, at the time of the request it was monitoring all online mentions of licensing. A couple such campaigns were on their ‘do not engage’ list.
- More than 6,000 people issued a “withdrawal of implied right of access” to the BBC, indicating that TV licensing staff do not have the right to enter their home, in 2015. NB, legal consensus is that this doesn’t offer you more protection against such visitors than the law as it stands, but it appears the BBC did take such requests into account. This policy was later changed in Scotland to reflect that country’s trespass law.
…and many more.
Bordering on classified information
Border Five is an informal forum on customs and border management policy issues, made up of the Department of Home Affairs (Australia); the Canada Border Services Agency; The New Zealand Customs Service; The United Kingdom UK Border Force; and the US Department of Homeland Security.
How to verify that these are indeed the member bodies? With this FOI response from the Home Office.
Clearly, border security is a sensitive issue, and much of the other information requested here — such as the topics discussed and people present at meetings — was refused with a response that they could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether the information is held.
On the rails
Here is an example of an authority complying with the FOI Act despite the fact that at the time of the request they were not subject to it: as they state at the beginning of their response “Although we are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, we work to disclose information as if we were”.
Subsequently Network Rail was, in fact, deemed to be subject to FOI, as explored by our researcher Alex in this post.
Special constables are unpaid, volunteer members of the police force, and they have their own insignia, which vary from place to place.
Ranks are marked via the designs on their epaulettes, as depicted in this table which cites many FOI requests to the various forces — it’s possible that a contributor to this Wikipedia page submitted a series of requests specifically for the purpose of helping compile the collection. Here’s an example request, with a photograph of the insignia they provided viewable here.
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Under the Freedom of Information Act, you have the right to ask public authorities for information. If they hold the information you’ve requested, in most cases they must release it.
‘If they hold it’ is a key point: of course, if the body doesn’t have the data you’re asking for, they can’t provide it, and accordingly, as permitted by Section 1(1) of the Act, they may issue an ‘Information not held’ response.
For the person requesting the information, this can feel like a blow, but we suggest stopping and thinking… is it surprising, newsworthy even, that the public body didn’t hold the information expected? Sometimes, it’s as interesting to know that an authority doesn’t collect or store a certain category of information as it would be to obtain it.
Often, though, an ‘information not held’ response may simply be a sign that you should re-request the information from a different body. Given the complexity of government it’s not surprising requests are sometimes misdirected to bodies that don’t actually hold the information requested. Fortunately for request-makers, in such cases Section 16 of the Act requires public bodies to provide advice and assistance and point requesters in the right direction.
Let’s take a look at a few recent examples where the fact that information isn’t held is at best surprising and at worst a matter of potential concern.
An NHS Trust doesn’t have data on hospital ward deep cleans
This request to Wirral University Teaching Hospital asked how many times the wards in Arrowe Park Hospital (one of this NHS Trust’s locations) had been deep cleaned in the months March to May 2020.
The response states that the Trust does not hold this information:
“Wirral University Teaching Hospital (WUTH) does not electronically collate this data, ward cleanliness activity is not measured or audited in this specific manor [sic].”
We think this is interesting information in itself, but the Trust could also have gone into more detail about why such data isn’t collected: is it that deep cleaning doesn’t happen, or is it just not noted? Looking more closely at the wording of the response, perhaps it is recorded, but on paper rather than digitally.
The request-maker didn’t actually specify that they wanted electronic data, so it is a little surprising that this has been assumed.
A curious citizen could issue a follow-up request to find out more, or to ask for copies of paper records if they do exist. Equally, if they felt it worth further probing, they might draw this response to the attention to the local Healthwatch, or their local councillors who could look more deeply into the matter.
DEFRA doesn’t have data on badger cull zone boundaries
A citizen requested maps from DEFRA to show the boundaries of ‘badger cull zones’ from last year and the proposed ones for 2021. As this was a request for environmental information, it was handled under the EIR.
DEFRA’s response quotes the exception at regulation 12(4)(a) of the EIR “which relates to information which is not held at the time when an applicant’s request is received”.
As required by both the FOI and EIR Acts, DEFRA points the user toward the body that it believes will have such information, Natural England, giving them a good idea of what to do next in their pursuit of this data.
In cases like these, where a request is repeated to another authority, we recommend the addition of annotations, linking each WhatDoTheyKnow request page to the other. Anyone can add an annotation, and it helps people discovering the information through, say, a search engine, to follow the request.
The DWP doesn’t have data on frozen pensions
This request seeks information from the Department of Work and Pensions about frozen state pensions, the UK practice of not uprating pensions according to the ‘triple lock’ system if the recipient lives in certain countries abroad.
It would appear that the request-maker is wondering whether it would actually cost the authority less not to administer such freezes.
The DWP state that they don’t hold information on the number of staff working specifically in this area:
“As of March 2021, the DWP has over 90,000 employees spread across different professions (e.g. policy, legal, finance, and operational delivery).
Many employees deal with a range of issues and do not exclusively focus on one aspect of the DWP’s work. Accordingly, we have no recorded information on how many employees are ‘required to deal with Frozen British Pensions’.”
They did not provide similar detail on the other questions posed by the request-maker, who has now requested an internal review, a recourse when you believe your request has been handled wrongly.
“I cannot believe that the DWP does not know the answers to my questions”, says the user in this request for a review. They might have been more precise about where the response has fallen short, but we’ll see whether this avenue is successful, presumably within the 20 working day limit advised by the ICO for internal reviews.
DCMS doesn’t have data on differing COVID rules for football spectators
A request-maker wonders why the rules around watching football differed depending on where the match is taking place — apparently grassroots football matches were being denied spectators because they were held on private grounds, while matches on public grounds could welcome a crowd:
“Please provide evidence / reasoning on what the difference to the threat of Covid there is between private and public football pitches.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responds that it:
“does not have information within scope of your request. This is because DCMS did not make the decisions on whether spectators may attend sporting events, but followed advice given by the Cabinet Office. This would have been a Cabinet Office decision based on evidence that they were privy to.”
The response then provides an email address for that authority — though we are surprised that the Cabinet Office would not have consulted DCMS or at least provided them with their rationale for this policy.
Have you had a notable ‘information not held’ refusal, or can you spot one in responses recently classified “not held” on WhatDoTheyKnow? If so, let us know, and we might cover it in a future post.
Image: Nicholas Bartos
We’re aware that our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, has recently been used by a number of people as part of a campaign initiated on the Legal Feminist website, encouraging people to submit FOI requests to authorities who have undertaken the Stonewall Diversity Champions process. This usage has provoked some commentary online, and complaints to our support team.
Straight off, we should state that mySociety positively and passionately supports the rights to equality and freedom from harassment for Trans people and their allies.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s site policies prohibit posting information that is unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane.
But the issues that this use of our service has raised about what should and should not remain on the site are not straightforward. They present a challenge to our moderation policies, as we’ll explain in more detail.
First, here are the facts.
The post linked to above encourages people to request information from authorities who are Stonewall Diversity Champions.
Stonewall, for those who don’t know, grew out of the campaign against Section 28 in the 80s, and now describes one of its missions as to ‘work with institutions to create inclusive and accepting cultures, to ensure institutions understand and value the huge benefits brought to them by LGBT people, and to empower institutions as advocates and agents of positive change’.
This Legal Feminist campaign claims that forcing public bodies “to reveal the detail of their dealings with Stonewall” will have the effect of “putting some pressure on public bodies to withdraw from these schemes”.
As a result, several hundred FOI requests have been submitted to a large range of authorities through WhatDoTheyKnow.
How we moderate
We operate a reactive moderation policy on WhatDoTheyKnow and only respond to issues when they are brought to our attention, or we discover them ourselves through the operation of the service.
It’s unusual for us to know the motivation of people who use WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FOI requests. The site is, like the FOI Act, open to everyone (so long as they abide by our house rules).
One of the core principles of the FOI Act is “Applicant Blindness”. The ICO’s guidance states:
In most cases, authorities should consider FOI and EIR requests without reference to the identity or motives of the requester. Their focus should be on whether the information is suitable for disclosure into the public domain, rather than the effects of providing the information to the individual requester.
We often see requests being made on our service which appear to be pursuing aims that we may agree or disagree with as an organisation, or as individuals; however, we want our service to be open to, and used by, as broad a range of people as possible. We don’t want to just provide a service to those who share our view of the world.
Should these requests be removed?
Our volunteer user support team has been asked to respond to complaints that the FOI requests made as part of Legal Feminist’s campaign are vexatious, hateful and should be removed — and our support team has been striving to approach these complaints in the same way that they approach other complaints about the usage of our service.
As a charity, one of our objectives is to help citizens find out the information that they are entitled to have under the law.
As per our house rules, where requests that are unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane are drawn to our attention, we will take action. We will also often remove or redact material that is extraneous to the FOI request itself, if it is vexatious or falls foul of our house rules.
In this case we reviewed two aspects of these requests to determine whether they contravened our house rules or contained vexatious or extraneous material – the body of the requests themselves and also the request titles, which each include a campaign hashtag.
On careful consideration, we determined that the requests themselves do not fall into any of those categories, being requests for information, sent to a number of relevant authorities.
We are satisfied that they are sufficiently focused as FOI requests, and appear to have a serious purpose, in that they have the aim of obtaining information from public bodies.
Once the requests had been made, the authorities began to respond and to release the information sought, if they hold it, as they are (broadly) required to do by law within 20 working days. As per WhatDoTheyKnow’s functions, these responses are also published on the site for all to access.
The requests have resulted in large amounts of information about how Stonewall works with public bodies being made easily available online. We believe that our site has a role to play in making that information available to everyone, enabling informed debate.
Considering the request titles, we determined that the inclusion of a campaign hashtag in the title is extraneous to the purpose of requesting information from public bodies and at odds with the sufficiently focused nature of the requests – seeking to bring pressure on public authorities rather than simply focusing on the requirements of a clear request for information.
For the reasons listed above, we have determined that these requests can remain on the site; however, we have removed the extraneous campaign hashtag from the title of each request.
Campaigning activity on our site
Whilst we very much support campaigners making use of their rights under FOI through our service, as per our current policies, WhatDoTheyKnow is not a platform for promoting those campaigns or a particular point of view. In other instances where our attention is drawn to extraneous material in correspondence we remove it, and we have taken the same approach here.
Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel
Thanks to everyone who attended the launch of our Research department’s policy paper this week.
Open Democracy’s Peter Geoghegan and Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock joined us at the event for a fast paced discussion of the problems with FOI we’re all seeing in the current climate, and to what extent the proposals in our paper would remedy them.
At times, the chat box was so lively and knowledgeable that it felt like we’d convened the entire UK FOI community, but we know that isn’t quite true, so here’s the video for those that couldn’t make it:
We’ve also answered the most relevant of the questions that were posed by our attendees, and you can see the responses here. Thanks, too, to Open Democracy for reviewing the paper in this thoughtful piece.
Alex Parsons, who led on the research, has a handful of side explorations that didn’t end up in the final paper:
- Network Rail: how accounting definitions of control can expand FOI/EIR coverage
- FOI and appeals to the regulator
- What are environmental information requests and how do they differ in Scotland?
And finally, if all this talk of FOI has awakened your desire to do more around the topic, well, we have just the job opportunity for you.
Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).
Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.
You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.
What we’ll need from you
Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.
Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.
If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
Image: Jessica Lee
People making FOI requests are sometimes accused of embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’ — looking for news stories without a clear idea of what they will dredge up — but a recent request on WhatDoTheyKnow asked for something very specific.
“Could you state”, it asked, “the number of passports issued to British fish since Brexit proper began on 1st Jan 2021?”.
This request was not as fishy as it might at first appear: it was based on a statement in Parliament. On 14 January, commenting on Brexit and its impact on the fishing industry, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said:
“The key is that we have our fish back: they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”
Ordinarily, we discourage what might be seen as frivolous use of FOI via our site, but as it happens this request was processed by the authority without complaint. They replied in a straightfaced manner:
“Her Majesty’s Passport Office does not hold the information which you have requested. Animal classification is not captured as part of the passport application process.”
While this might not have been exemplary use of our service, citizens have the right to make requests that clarify puzzling statements from our elected representatives, or to simply highlight that they are incomprehensible.
One of the team says, “It’s understandable that the public might ponder, ‘what did he really mean?’ It could be something of a floccinaucinihilipilification, but it might also relate to a ‘catch certificate’, or one of the many other new items of bureaucracy that have appeared in recent months.”
Another WhatDoTheyKnow team member added, “My reading of that response is that the Government aren’t sure that everyone with a British passport is actually human… and some proportion might well in fact be fish.”
We, however, think that’s something of a red herring, and we’d advise that anyone seriously wanting to surface information about piscine issues might have more luck sending a request to DEFRA, CEFAS, or the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
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Image: Fredrik Öhlander
One of the great joys of working on Alaveteli is that we also get to meet and collaborate with all kinds of organisations around the world who care about transparency, helping them set up their own Freedom of Information websites on our open source codebase.
One such project is MaDada, the French FOI site which launched in the autumn of 2019, helping citizens navigate the bureaucracy around submitting a request for information. The name is a pun: ‘dada’ being a kids’ word for horse — hence their equine logo.
Thanks to ongoing support from the Adessium fund, we’ve recently equipped MaDada with the ‘Pro’ add-on that allows journalists and other professional users of FOI to access specialised tools.
We took the opportunity to speak with Laurent Savaete and Eda Nano from the Ma Dada team, to learn more about how the site has been received by the French populace and what the hopes are for this new Pro functionality (or ‘Plus Plus‘ as they’re calling it over there).
FOI in France
But first, we wanted to know more about the background of FOI in France. The Alaveteli community consists of so many organisations pursuing the same types of aims, but always against different cultural backgrounds, and there’s always an opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. Eda and Laurent filled us in:
“The French FOI law is one of the oldest around — it dates back as far as 1978. It’s often referred to as the CADA law, based on the ‘Commission d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs’ which is the official institution in charge of overseeing how administrations comply with it. One good thing is that in both 2016 and 2018 the law was reinforced to require all documents to be released as open data, in open standards and easy-to-use formats.
“But unfortunately the right to information is not so strong here in France. For example, CADA doesn’t have a power of mandate. When an administration fails to respond to a request, CADA’s decisions are no more than advisory opinions, though they can be crucial if you want to take the administration to court for lack of response.
“Not everyone’s able or ready to take administrations to court, though. I mean, it’s not that the process is difficult, but it’s far more complex than filing an FOI request via MaDada.
“Also, while anyone can ask for documents, and the service is always free, we can only request documents that already exist and ‘do not require too much work from the authority’. There is of course no clear definition of ‘too much work’, but it’s often used as a reason to reject a request, along with the exemptions around matters of defence and official secrets which are too easily brandished in response to requests.”
Wait, ‘of course’ there’s no definition — did we hear that correctly? Apparently so:
“The exact wording of the French law is that a request must only be fulfilled if it ‘does not require so much work that it could impede the officer or the administration from doing their main work’.”
We were astonished to hear this — here in the UK, we have the same exemption, but it comes complete with an upper cost, which can also be expressed as hours of work, which must be undertaken before the authority can refuse the request due to ‘exceeding the appropriate limit’. We’ve also got a bunch of other exemptions! But at least they are all clearly defined.
Plan for an Open Government
When it comes to other problems with FOI, there’s a story that’s familiar to many in the Alaveteli network:
“The key problem in France is the gap between the law, and how the law is actually applied or enforced. Incentives for public officers tend to push against transparency: nobody will get in trouble for ignoring a request for documents, but they could if they disclose documents which shouldn’t have been published. So erring on the side of safety means less transparency.
“More and more, journalists and activists have been pointing out the complete lack of FOI responses or the overrun in delays from administrations in providing a legally required response.”
“Transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool!”
On the other hand, something’s in the air: “What we’ve seen in recent years and especially months, is that after the mid 2020 elections, municipalities started appointing deputies on transparency matters. For example in Marseilles, we now have a Representative for Transparency and Open Data for the town.
“France signed up for the Open Government Partnership initiative in 2014, but its first action plan in 2018-20? Frankly the results were not spectacular at all: it was more words than action.
“Last month, the Government launched a second two-year ‘Plan for an Open Government’: this one’s set to run until 2023. They said it will be better, with more money to serve it, more concrete actions, more collaborations with citizens. And they’ve asked MaDada to give feedback and tell them what we’d like to see realised in the next few years.
“So transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool. But at the moment it’s too young to be judged. The words are there and we need to see concrete actions. Let’s hope that things really will change drastically towards openness and transparency and that that we do not only have words to rely on.”
That’s all very interesting and helps us understand the background details. Now, into this mix a new FOI site for the general public appeared 18 months ago. So how has MaDada been received?
“When we launched in October 2019, the French FOI law was quite an unknown topic for the public at large, and the need for transparency and open data were still, somehow, something only discussed internally.
“In our first year of existence we had something like 200 requests (see MaDada’s blog posts about their first year online – in French).
“We are now at 800 public requests. So numbers picked up pace: something’s happened recently.
“It’s not just that the platform recently improved — with better user support and the addition of the Pro feature: we can also see that the topics of open data and transparency are becoming more and more popular. Several activists and organisations have been campaigning around these matters, sometimes via MaDada. The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.
“We list 50,509 public authorities (I think France has the world record here). A lot of our support time is used up trying to keep the email addresses for these authorities up to date. And that’s tricky: there’s not much proactive updating from the authorities themselves, we’re constantly having to ask them for new addresses. We hope that the Project for an Open Government will make this easier for us.
“As of today we’ve reached 955 requests, of which 794 are public — the rest are still embargoed. Out of those, just 126 have been successful so far. That’s very low: many authorities in France just ignore the law, and sit on incoming requests until the one month time limit to reply is over. We’re at around a 15% success rate, which is probably not too bad in the average French context. We’re obviously hoping to work to improve this!
“We’ve just seen an incredible growth in the number of users and requests in the past five months: more or less an exponential growth, which is pretty exciting! We hope this trend continues.”
And as for the addition of Pro, allowing for the MaDada++ service? We were interested to hear the organisation’s experiences and hopes around this add-on.
“The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.”
“The Madada++ feature is working so well: it’s been attracting journalists mostly, as well as data scientists and activists. The biggest appeal is the batch requests, and also the temporarily embargoed requests, allowing them to keep their news stories exclusive, or giving them time to analyse data before publishing.
“We’re happy to see that despite this ability, they still follow our advice to publish data as soon as they can.
“Since the MaDada++ feature went live, we’ve clearly seen more in-depth analysis and journals publishing reports on data obtained through it. We hope to see more coming in the next months.”
What’s France asking for?
Finally, we were curious about the type of information that’s been released on MaDada. Anything of interest here?
“Well, recently, as you might expect, there have been a lot of requests related to COVID-19: data around the analysis of COVID in sewage water; about the circulation of COVID variants in France; metrics showing the usage of our national COVID app.
“Let us also mention the publication of a report on poverty and conditions in accessing minimum social aid in France by the Secours Catholique and Aequitaz organisations: this report used responses to batch requests made via MaDada++.
“And another journalist, who uses MaDada extensively, just published a report on the fees of deputies, pointing out the lack of and need for transparency — that the French law already requires!
“Also, we’re very proud to begin our collaboration with La Quadrature Du Net, the French organisation defending digital fundamental liberties, who are intensively using MaDada for their legal analysis and for their Technopolice campaign that reveals the encroaching police surveillance powers.”
And on that last note, there’s the proof of the assertion we made at the top of this post: that the international community of Alaveteli users have so much in common. Privacy International have been looking into exactly this same issue, as we covered in a blog post.
We want to thank MaDada so much for sharing their experiences in deploying and running the Alaveteli codebase and offering the people of France an easier route to accessing information. While we’re all unable to travel, we can still have these useful and interesting discussions. May their project go from strength to strength.
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Along with several other transparency organisations, we’ve cosigned a letter from Open Government Network, adding our voice to the message of concern at the UK government’s failure to meet its own targets as laid out in the National Action Plan for Open Government — and calling for it to get back on track before the next Action Plan is released in September.
The UK was one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition launched in 2011 with a commitment for participating governments to work with civil society groups and the public towards ‘ambitious and radical’ improvements in transparency, accountability and democracy. Yet the organisation has now placed the UK under review for poor outcomes in open government.
The National Action Plans (NAPs) are the mechanism by which targets are set — supposedly in consultation with participating NGOs — on a cyclical basis; these are then assessed independently through mid- and end-term reports.
Clearly the aims and vision underpinning the OGP are very much in line with mySociety’s own missions and values, and we were commissioned last year to author the end-term design report to check how effective, and inclusive, the 2019-2021 NAP has been.
It was this report which brought to light just where, and to what degree, the government has fallen short of the required standards for public involvement, failing to liaise and take on board recommendations from civil society — and which has led to the OGP adding the UK to its watch list, putting us alongside eight other countries including Greece, Israel and Malawi.
Consultation and co-design of the UK Action Plan with civil society, a prerequisite of the mechanism, has been lacking: for example well-evidenced suggestions for improvements to Freedom of Information have been unacknowledged and unadopted. As the government heads towards the next Action Plan, due for September, there are no signs of improved engagement.
The letter asks the UK government to commit to four points to put it back on track as a leading partner in the network, including a review of previous unmet commitments to see why they were not met and whether they can be included in the new NAP. The letter also appeals for a timely publication of the next NAP, before which urgent meetings with civil society stakeholders need to be held, and the actions that arise from them implemented.
The current NAP expires in September 2021, and we, along with our civil society colleagues, implore the UK government to commit to speedy and meaningful engagement on developing high quality and effective open governance. This is especially vital for civil society and the public as a whole to be sufficiently informed to hold our government to account, now more than ever, as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and development as an isolated trading entity outside of the EU.
Image: Timo Wielink
Artificial Intelligence, innovative use of data and the arms industry – now there’s a bunch of areas you’d want oversight on. And yet, a high-profile new government research agency appears to have been absolved from the obligations of public scrutiny before it even begins work.
News broke this week that the treasury has authorised £800 million of funding over the next four years for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). This research agency was originally conceived by Dominic Cummings, and, according to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, will be producing “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”.
More explicitly, The Guardian sees the agency very much working in the area of defence, while also noting that many technologies developed in this area have gone on to benefit society more widely. The BBC says ARIA has been inspired by US agency DARPA, which is “credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS”.
All well and good, perhaps, until you see the government’s assertion that “the new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy.”
Judging by multiple press reports and a comment from Ed Milliband, although the agency is to be funded by taxpayers’ money it will be exempt from Freedom of Information law. While we very much hope this is not the case, this aspect has been reported by several sources.
FOI is explicitly for the purpose of allowing citizens to demand transparency from the institutions which we fund. The Times, reporting this story, also takes a moment to remind readers that it, along with other major news outlets — not to mention organisations including mySociety — is calling for urgent action on declining levels of governmental transparency, and we can see from the ICO’s many notices to Whitehall departments that the current administration are not complying with their obligations.
Our friends at the Campaign for FOI point out that DARPA, the blueprint for ARIA, is in fact subject to the US FOI Act, so removing those obligations would be something that has been built in as part of ARIA’s conception:
This new taxpayer funded body must not be exempt from #FOI. The Act has an exemption to protect commercial interests. The US agency, DARPA, on which it is modelled is subject to FOIA. So ministers have no basis for claiming FOI would give rivals an unfair competitive advantage. https://t.co/Ch4Spnp91S
— Campaign for Freedom of Information (@CampaignFoI) February 17, 2021
Additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team point out that any authority wholly owned by the public sector is subject to FOI unless specific provision is made to exclude it — and so, dodging the obligations of the Act would require either setting up an opaque operating structure for that purpose, or a new exemption to be passed into law under the FoIA.
Meanwhile, our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow does list authorities that are not subject to FOI if there is a good argument that they should be. If indeed it is officially exempted from the Act, we will also take this route with ARIA, just as soon as it formally comes into being.
EDIT: The official government press release is now here, and includes the statement: “Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.”
Image: Kevin Ku
Info Pro Vsechny (IPV) is the Freedom of Information site for the Czech Republic, run on our Alaveteli software.
Czech civil movement Million Moments for Democracy (Milion Chvilek Pro Demokracii) is currently using the platform to run a campaign, making for an interesting example of how such groups can leverage FOI sites to mobilise support, and to encourage citizens to engage in the democratic process.
Million Moments approached IPV, who were able to advise on the best way to allow their supporters to get involved, as the FOI site’s team explained when we chatted to them recently.
But first, to make sure we understood the context, we had a quick read of the Wikipedia page on the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. It’s fair to say that Babiš is a contentious figure, as demonstrated by no fewer than eight entries in the ‘controversies’ section of that page.
Conflict of interest
Top of the agenda today, though, is a scandal currently under investigation by the European Commission. Babiš was instrumental in decisions to award EU grants to the massive Agrofert conglomerate, a holding company with over 250 subsidiaries across forestry, farming, food, construction and logistics industries, among others.
In doing so, he breached EU legislation. Why? Because he just happens to be the previous CEO of Agrofert.
While Babiš’ shares were subsequently transferred to a trust fund, as IPV told us, the European Commission has ruled that there is still a case to be answered: “They stated that the main fund beneficiary is still Babiš and the conflict of interest has not been resolved. And while they’ve asked the Czech government to act upon their recommendation, things are moving very slowly.”
This was the impetus behind Million Moments FOI campaign, which is currently encouraging their followers to use IPV to ask pertinent questions about this conflict of interest, and to potentially dig up others.
“They want to ensure that the Czech authorities are asking the right questions on behalf of the country’s citizens, rather than sweeping it under the carpet,” explain IPV. “So they’re encouraging people to ask all the institutions and semi-owned-state companies to what extent they deal with companies in the Agrofert holding.
“More questions, more people engaged, more institutions involved — it all puts greater pressure on the Prime Minister and owner of Agrofert.
“And one never knows, we might learn further things about how the state institutions co-operate with Agrofert companies.”
Providing a platform for a campaign
Million Moments provide example texts of the kind of requests their followers could make, pre-written on Google Docs, together with instructions on how to use IPV.
“For example the state still owns a majority share in the globally famous Budvar brewery (brewers of Czech Budweiser, the real original according to many patent law victories around the world!)”
A site for everyone
At mySociety, our charitable status means that we must remain resolutely non-partisan, providing tools for anyone and everyone to use. This doesn’t mean that our partner organisations abroad have to stick to the same principles, though — they will be led by their country’s laws and their own funding structures.
Nonetheless we were interested to ask IPV whether it was a concern for them to be working with a campaign that has a clear political agenda.
They say, “We discussed at some length with Million Moments that the platform should only be seen as a technical facilitator of the campaign. As individuals we might or might not support their goals — but that is irrelevant, really. As an organisation, we’re only interested in providing a clear path for anyone who wants to use FOI to uncover information.
“That comes with some responsibilities. In particular we were concerned that the same few authorities would not be flooded with requests with exactly the same wording, which could incite the dangerous criticism that the platform facilitates spamming or politically motivated harassment.
“We initially suggested the possibility that one “master question” could be put to each authority, and all the other followers could just sign up to follow the requests. However, Million Moments wanted to let people feel they were actively participating, so the compromise is that some examples are offered as suggestions for questions, but in the end individuals decide for themselves.”
A swell in users
The campaign started with a mailout to Million Moments’ 400,000 followers, and this alone has brought a great result for IPV, a site which was operating with a fairly small userbase. When we spoke to them, it had been live for six days.
“We’ve already got over 400 new users”, they say, “which means we’ve increased our total userbase by nearly 25%, and many of these will likely use the site in the future as they are obviously active citizens. Between them, they look to have placed around 200 questions already.
“We’ll be looking to use this campaign as a platform to build up interest from journalists, who are one of the categories of people who can really benefit from using FOI.
“The Million Moments campaign has definitely given us some momentum! The next burst of interest will probably come when we see how the questions are answered…or not.
“But we have to be pleased with such an increase in our userbase in the space of a single week, especially as we’d expect many of these people to return.
“They are the type of citizens we believe the site is made for.”
We share IPV’s interest in this campaign, and will watch with interest to find out how it develops, and what it might uncover. Thanks to the team for keeping us informed — we always love to hear stories from our many Alaveteli partners about how their sites are making change.
Image: Anthony Delanoix