Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.
And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.
But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.
If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.
Image: Gaelle Marcel
Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).
These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.
DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.
We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.
What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?
Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.
LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.
How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?
Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.
We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.
The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.
We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.
We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.
Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.
In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.
We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.
We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.
This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.
Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.
What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.
We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?
Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.
Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.
There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:
- In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
- LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
- The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.
What’s next for the campaign?
Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.
We have been collaborating with the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:
Objections to LOBO loans across the UK
We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.
This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.
A citizen debt audit in Newham
Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of its LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.
How can people get involved?
Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.
If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.
The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.
To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.
NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.
Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.
Image: Raw Pixel
The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.
These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.
Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.
Spending on administration
It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.
While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.
In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.
That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.
But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.
Spending on infrastructure and services
Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.
In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.
And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.
Spending on staff… and disputes
Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today. When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.
The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.
In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.
Spending on compensation
We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.
Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.
In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.
Have we sparked ideas?
If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story — while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.
As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.
Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.
Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.
I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.
In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).
It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.
To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.
After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.
Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.
Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.
Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.
This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.
In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.
Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.
When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.
It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.
In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.
The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.
Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).
I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.
I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.
The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.
Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.
As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.
New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.
A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:
As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.
No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.
As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.
Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.
I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.
You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.
We’re seeking people to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team, dealing with the day-to-day administration of the site.
Over seven million people viewed our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow last year; it now hosts almost 500,000 requests for information and has around 150,000 registered users. The site, which is managed on a day-to-day basis by volunteers, is continuing to grow.
Last year we ran a successful call for volunteers which led to a new cohort of people joining the core volunteer team, and a number of others taking on associated roles.
We have decided to make the call for volunteers an annual event, as it’s always useful to have more people involved in running and improving the service. The site’s growth isn’t the only factor: people move on, circumstances change, and there’s always a need to keep the pool of volunteers topped up.
Volunteers, like mySociety staff, work remotely from home, and can pick the days or hours that suit them best. There is no set number of hours required.
Would you be interested in joining the team as an administrator? Currently that role involves:
- Considering, and acting on, requests to remove material from our site The material in question could be something big (like the accidentally released personal information of thousands of staff at a public body), something small (such as an individual’s phone number), or, to give a recent example, the address of a vice-chancellor’s official on-campus residence which the university doesn’t think should be published.
- Assisting users with using our site, providing advice on requesting information and helping resolve basic issues with their accounts.
- Managing the service by resending bounced emails, dealing with messages that public bodies have misdirected, and maintaining and extending the database of public bodies which the site relies upon.
Due to the requirements attached to their grant funding, the efforts of mySociety’s paid staff are currently focused on developing the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service and supporting deployments of our Alaveteli FOI software in other countries. To support the operation of WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK we’d also like to find volunteers could take on some additional roles. If your skills fit any of the descriptions below, you’d make a great addition to the team:
- Team administrator Could you help us keep track of legal deadlines, organise (and perhaps chair or minute) our regular team meetings and ensure we follow up on outstanding items?
- Volunteer developer It would be useful if we had volunteers able to make tweaks to the site’s software to support the growth of the site and the work of the other volunteers. Tasks could include improvements to the administration interface, and making updates to the static pages on the site. This role would provide an opportunity to get experience working with mySociety’s highly professional development team, or offer a chance for an experienced developer to help out a team working on an impactful civic project.
- Strategic fundraiser Could you help us obtain the funds we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow.com running and ensure that the operation is sustainable as it grows? This would be an opportunity to work with volunteers, and you’d also work in tandem with mySociety staff, including the professional fundraiser we’re currently also seeking to recruit.
- Documentation specialist The volunteer team, along with mySociety’s staff and trustees, have developed a substantial number of policies governing how the site is run. These are filed in the staff Wiki, and also, where possible, made public on the site. Tending to both these aspects of our documentation would be a great help to the team, and to users.
- Public body database administrator Behind WhatDoTheyKnow is perhaps the largest database of public bodies in the UK — would you like to help maintain and improve it? There may be opportunities to support new WhatDoTheyKnow Pro features which are in development, for example by curating lists/groups of public bodies.
- Regional, or sector, specialist Would you like to join us and help improve our service in a particular geographic or sector area? Perhaps you would like to help ensure we have full coverage of public bodies in, say, Manchester, and ensure they’re well described.
- Journalistic / communications volunteers We would like to do more to promote and encourage high quality use of our site, for example though a regular blog post pointing to notable responses received each month.
If you’d like to join us, and think you’ve got something to offer, then please do get in touch.
There are no formal requirements for our volunteer roles, although due to the way we work the ability to write clear, professional, emails is essential; and when corresponding with our users we need excellent communicators who are able to provide to support to people from a broad range of backgrounds.
A number of our current volunteers had not made significant of use of the service themselves before joining the team. You don’t need to be an avid Freedom of Information requestor, activist, campaigner or journalist to join us; but if you are, that’s great too.
While we do need people who can regularly share the workload associated with dealing with incoming user support, and takedown requests, there are also opportunities to carry out self-contained projects, or help out on an occasional basis.
What are the benefits?
While these are unpaid positions, you may enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting a service that is of help to the UK population, often empowering users to uncover information that would otherwise remain unknown.
All at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are immensely grateful for the work put in by volunteers: their contributions release mySociety staff and the rest of the team to focus on elements of the service where their skills are best used.
But there are some fringe benefits, too:
- You’ll gain experience in running a high traffic website processing a high level of user-generated content.
- You’ll work as part of the team on often complex cases involving data protection law, defamation law, and sometimes requiring tricky journalistic and moral judgments.
- You’ll take a vital role supporting a key part of the UK’s democratic and journalistic infrastructure, helping at the front line of tackling fake news, and helping inform public debate on a wide range of important matters from security and defence to benefits, health and care.
WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have gone on to careers in the law, and experience with the team may well be useful for those considering entering journalism, or roles in information management.
Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.
While our volunteer roles are unpaid there are funds available to cover travel and training costs.
Please write to us by the 23rd of April 2018, introducing yourself, letting us know about any relevant experience and skills you have, and telling us how you think you may be able to help out. If you’ve made use of our service, or FOI, do tell us about that: we’re always interested in hearing users’ stories.
Other ways to help
If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps you could:
Image: Clark Tibbs
This is part II in a series of blog posts about our work with Hackney Council to conduct a discovery and prototyping project to improve the public-facing parts of information request processes. Read the first part here.
With our experience of running WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli, we’re big believers in the importance of information transparency laws in our democratic system. But at the same time, we understand the operational challenges of meeting the statutory requirements of these laws for public bodies.
The challenges of dealing with information requests
While many local authorities have dedicated information governance staff whose job it is to manage requests, finding and compiling the information is often done by hard-pressed staff within services, fitting in information-related work around their core responsibilities.
Requesters sometimes have the expectation that information is all carefully organised in a few databases, ready to be aggregated and extracted at the click of a button. In reality, the degree to which information is well-organised varies a lot between services in a council and between different councils, often because of procurement decisions and departmental priorities stretching back many years.
Working with Hackney Council
We’re part way through our project with Hackney Council that Mark wrote about a few weeks ago, helping them redesign the public-facing parts of their FOI and Subject Access Request (SAR) services, so we’ve seen these challenges up close. We’ve also seen how they can be made even trickier by legacy IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.
— Rob Miller (@RobMiller31) February 28, 2018
At our ‘show and tell’ last week with Hackney, we shared findings from some of the research we’ve done, along with early prototypes of potential new FOI and SAR submission forms, both created collaboratively with Hackney Council staff.
Prototyping with the GDS toolkit
We decided to go straight from sketches to HTML-based prototypes for this project. We thought that moving in-browser with real interactive elements would make it easier to test out some of the more complicated interactions and conditional workflow of the SAR process in particular.
Prototyping is about quickly testing hypotheses, and not getting bogged down in implementation details. So it was a pleasure to use the GDS frontend toolkit to build our prototypes. Not only did the GOV.UK toolkit help us build something relatively rich in just a few days, but it also meant we benefited from GDS’s previous work on design patterns developed for exactly this kind of context.
Using public information to reduce FOI requests
When submitting a request via WhatDoTheyKnow, users are automatically shown previously submitted requests that might answer their question, and we know that almost 10% of requesters have a look at these suggestions in more detail.
As you can see here, we took this pattern from WhatDoTheyKnow, and enhanced it further in our FOI prototype.
Now, as well as prompting with previous FOI responses from a disclosure log that we’re hoping to build, we also want to include relevant links to other topical or frequently requested information, drawn from other data sources within the council.
If we can get this to work well, we think it could have a number of benefits:
- Helping the person submitting the FOI get their answer more quickly
- Reducing the number of requests that would otherwise have been sent to the council
- Encouraging more proactive, structured publishing of data by the council.
It’s this last point which we’re really interested in, longer term. We think using a common sense technology approach to highlight possible answers to FOI requests before they are made will get people answers more quickly, reduce the burden on responders, and reinforce efforts to proactively release commonly requested data leading to real transparency benefits.
We’ve been doing usability testing of these prototypes over the last few days, and will be looking very closely at whether our assumptions here stand up to scrutiny.
Reducing back and forth around SARs
Given our background, we’re inevitably very interested in the FOI component of this project, but the Subject Access Request component is no less important. And while there’s none of the same opportunity for pre-emptively answering people’s requests, there’s plenty of scope for making the submission process a lot smoother.
A valid FOI is just a written request and some contact details, but the information needed for a SAR to be valid is much greater and more complicated. For example, along with the specifics of the request, a solicitor asking for personal information on behalf of a parent and their 16-year old child would have to provide proof of ID and address for both family members, a letter of consent from the child, and a letter of authority from the parent, confirming that the solicitor is acting for them. Even the most straightforward SAR calls for the handling of personal data and confirmation of the requestor’s identity and address.
Given all this complexity, it’s easy for there to be a lot of back and forth at the start of a SAR: clarifying a request, asking for documents, arranging receipt of documents, and so on.
We’re hoping to build something that makes it much clearer to the person making the request what they’ll need to do, thereby taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the team managing the requests.
The sketch above was our first crack at something that could handle (most of) this complexity, and we’ve made a number of changes since then as our understanding of it all has increased.
Recruiting representative users to test SAR submission has proved challenging and wasn’t helped by the Beast from the East rearing its snow-covered head. But we changed tack and successfully ran some guerilla testing in Hackney’s service centre last week, and we’re hoping to do further testing later in the project that has more chance of benefiting from contacts cultivated by individual services.
Changing the conversation
The conversation around information requests often focuses on the burden of responding. And although the number of information requests local authorities receive is unlikely to decrease any time soon, we’re hoping that through our collaboration with Hackney, we can make handling them a whole lot easier.
If we do it well, we think we could eliminate a lot of the process issues created by poorly-designed legacy systems, while baking in a fundamentally more open and transparent way of operating that has the potential to benefit both citizen and state alike.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail—or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work—then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards
When we started building WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for professional users of FOI, we knew that there was one feature which would be a game-changer for such users: the ability to send a request to multiple authorities at once.
In this blog post, we examine what we wanted the tool to do, how we are guarding against abuse, and finally we’ll give a step by step walkthrough of the interface.
Investigative news stories or in-depth pieces of research often require information from a multitude of different sources. By gathering statistics or information from multiple authorities, journalists, activists and researchers can build up a previously-unseen picture, for example of how widespread a particular problem is, or where there are inequities in medical provision across the country.
It’s something that many professional users of FOI are doing already, usually with the aid of their own homemade spreadsheets on which they keep track of requests made, dates by which replies should be expected, which bodies have responded, which need chasing, and of course the information held in the responses themselves.
The standard WhatDoTheyKnow website already provides several helpful features that you just don’t get with a DIY system: it has all the right email addresses for authorities, for example; it guides you through the FOI process; and it will send you an email reminder when the deadline for response arrives — even taking bank holidays into account.
But we knew that in order for our batch request feature to woo people away from their spreadsheets, it needed to do more than those homebuilt systems, some of which have been refined over several years and work well, even if a bit clunkily, for their owners.
Power and responsibility
One important consideration was uppermost in our minds when it came to batch requests: it costs authorities time and money to respond to each request, and of course that multiplies with batch requests. We are keen to promote responsible use of FOI, so we want to fold appropriate safeguards and guidance into whatever system we build.
As mentioned, with WhatDoTheyKnow Pro we’re focusing on features that are genuinely useful for professional users of FOI, but we also want to help those users make better, more focused requests — ones that are more likely to get useful responses and see the light of day as news stories. So it was important that, in making it simple to send multiple requests, we also help users find the most suitable authorities to send their requests to.
With that in mind, here are some balances we’ve put in place:
- Users are limited in how many batch requests they can send within any one month — so there’s no chance to go too wild.
- There’s a limit to the number of authorities that can be added to a single batch: we set this to be the number of local authorities in the UK, which is a logical sector to survey in this way.
- Before users do a batch mailout, we encourage the sending of an initial request that goes to just a few authorities. This safeguard can reveal where a request is flawed, so for example, if the data you get back is not what you need or in the wrong format, you don’t have to send to the full list all over again.
- We provide advice on cost limits to encourage succinct batch requests.
- Authorities have the facility to report a request which is unsuitable for review by our administrators.
- We’re rolling out the batch request functionality gradually to vetted WhatDoTheyKnow Pro users so that we can gradually learn how people use it in practice, and course-correct as necessary..
Testing and improvements
So far, the batch feature is only available to a select group of test users, who are giving us feedback on how they’re finding it. There’s certainly nothing like having your code being used by real people to help you see where improvements might be made!
That said, it’s been a very gratifying process. With the help of our test users, we’ve seen that the batch request functionality has the potential to be immensely helpful to professional users of FOI; even genuinely game-changing. We are certain that with the sending tools, we’ve created a service that really adds value for this sector.
We’re now in the next phase, and turning our attention to improving the functionality that helps users deal with incoming responses when they come in. This already exists in a basic form, and thanks to our testers, we’ve identified which improvements we need to make. We’re already working on incorporating them. But that is definitely material for the next update — for now, let’s take a look at just how the batch request function works.
Using batch request
There are three parts to making any request, whether you’re doing it yourself or using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro:
- Creating the request
- Managing the responses
- Analysing the results
The batch request functionality builds on our super-simple FOI workflow tools for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, extending them to make larger investigations much easier.
Creating the Request
The first step is compiling a list of authorities to send the request to. From the compose screen, you might search on a keyword (for example, ‘hospital’, ‘Birmingham’, or ‘Birmingham hospitals’) and then add the authorities you’re interested in.
Each authority is added to a recipient list and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro creates a ‘mail merge’ setup. You’ll see how many authorities you’re writing to in the compose interface.
You can then draft your request. The special `Dear [Authority name]` salutation gets automatically replaced with each of the selected authorities when you send your batch.
Finally, before sending you can choose a privacy duration.
At this point you can either go straight ahead and send your request, or save the draft and come back to it later.
Once you’ve sent your batch request, you’re going to receive a lot of replies from authorities. This is where WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s functionality really comes into its own, keeping all that clutter out of your email inbox.
Here’s what it looks like: the first thing you’ll see is a high-level progress bar showing you the overall progress of your batch. There are three main states that help you manage the requests in the batch:
- In progress (yellow): This means that there’s no action needed by you – you’re waiting on the authority to respond with an acknowledgement or the information you’ve requested.
- Action needed (red): When a request in the batch receives a response from the authority, you’ll need to check it out. We mark the response as “action needed” for you to review and decide what to do next.
- Complete (green): Once there’s no further action needed – either you’ve got the information you asked for, the authority didn’t have the information, or they’ve refused and you don’t want to challenge them – the request moves to the ‘complete’ state, so you know you don’t need to think about it until you come to analyse the data.
Clicking the title of the batch reveals the individual requests and their progress status. From there, you can click through, read the response and update the status.
Now you’ve got all your data, it’s time to compare the results from different authorities.
Sometimes authorities will reply in the main correspondence.
Other authorities respond with one or more attachments. You can view these inline or download them to your computer.
If you’re dealing with a batch sent to lots of authorities, sometimes it’s easier to just download everything. You can download a Zip file containing all the correspondence and attachments for each request via the “Actions” menu. From there you can pull out the attachments that contain the raw data and plug the numbers or answers in to your spreadsheet so that you can compare across authorities.
You can sign up to WhatDoTheyKnow Pro today and receive 1 month free with the voucher code BLOGMARCH18. Make some requests to try out the FOI workflow tools for professionals, and get in touch to request to join the waiting list for batch access.
If your FOI requests have made the news, let us know! Send us links to your published stories and we’ll throw in an extra month of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro for free. Your stories help us improve WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
To help us mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary, we asked volunteers, supporters and users to tell us which Freedom of Information requests from the site’s first ten years particularly stuck in their minds.
The result was an eclectic mix of stories that really show the breadth of how WhatDoTheyKnow has been used. They have very little in common — unless you count the imagination and tenacity of those using FOI to try to uncover significant information.
Doug Paulley, WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer
A exposé that helped bring in the living wage for carers
Doug is one of the team of volunteers who give up their time to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, using their experience and knowledge of FOI to moderate the site, give users guidance, and help set policy. Doug is also an extremely active user of FOI, having used the act to uncover many examples of discrimination and malpractice over the years.
He highlights the story of a care home talking the talk, but very much failing to walk the walk when it came to paying its staff the living wage.
“The exposure brought about by FOI played a significant part in the campaign for Leonard Cheshire, care home operator with 2,100 residents, to significantly increase carers’ wages to (just short of) the voluntary living wage. Journalist Heather Mills covered the story in Private Eye.” Read the whole story here.
Owen Blacker, mySociety trustee
Missing historic information on Cold War targets
Owen co-founded FaxYourMP, the earliest version of mySociety’s WriteToThem, and has been an important part of the organisation ever since — he’s now one of our trustees and a non-executive director. He recalls the building and launch of WhatDoTheyKnow and indeed was one of its earliest registered users.
Owen particularly remembers a pass-the-parcel like series of FOI requests in which he was handed from one organisation to another:
“I went round in circles trying to find out some Cold War information that nobody claims to know any more. In 1980, the entire Civil Service, nationwide, ran a dry run of a Cold War nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, called Operation Square Leg. I’m slightly concerned that we spent a lot of money planning the civil contingencies of a Cold War attack — a sensible things to do, arguably — but no longer know where we were expecting to be hit or at what megatonnage.” Owen links to the requests from this blog post.
Will Perrin, Indigo Trust
Safer streets and better data handling
Will is not only a trustee at Indigo, supporting mySociety’s work with parliamentary monitoring organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, but he’s also a trustee of London’s King’s Cross Community Projects. Indeed Kings Cross — a locality in which Will has a personal stake, with a long record of community action — is the subject of two of the three FOI requests he singled out:
First was the Kings Cross Walkability audit which revealed just how hostile to pedestrians the area was back in 2008. At the time, Will wrote in his blog: “Crossing the road in Kings Cross is a nightmare and now we have an official report commissioned by TfL that sets it out in black and white.”
Today he recalls its impact: “This document underpinned the police taking a corporate manslaughter case against TfL to the Criminal Prosecution Service with regard to a cyclist’s death in 2011. The case did not proceed but was instrumental in changing TfL’s attitude to cyclists’ rights.
“Then this request revealed a massive overspend by Network Rail in refurbishing its own offices at Kings Cross”.
Finally, Will’s third choice of request had wider implications for the country as a whole:
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealing that there was no governance system in place for the Automatic Numberplate Recognition System (ANPR) and the existence of Met’s ‘Olympic Data Feed‘ led to a new governance system being instilled; some 2 billion records were deleted along with the introduction of a vastly reduced retention period.” Annotations at the foot of this request give a little more background.
Matthew Somerville, mySociety developer
A long-standing pillar of mySociety’s development team, Matthew wrote the core code behind many of mySociety’s most notable websites and tools, including FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou. He spends his working days coding for mySociety’s useful tools, and much of his free time coding his own useful tools, if his website is anything to go by. What was his most memorable FOI request?
“It was a request asking Royal Mail for information about all their postboxes, made by Tom Taylor. I had to write a crowd-sourcing tool to locate them, as the information provided included street name but no actual location; they then (from another FOI request a few years later) released the co-ordinates as well.”
The data is mapped here. Why is this request significant?
“I’m not sure it’s really significant, but I do get plenty of people telling me they’ve used the site, and it’s something Royal Mail never got around to providing (even though that was their reasoning for refusing to release it)…”
So there we are: a handful of the 458,219 requests that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed to date. There are so many stories around FOI requests: each of them represents someone’s burning question; many of them result in a response that’s important, or fascinating, or historic. And that’s what makes WhatDoTheyKnow so rewarding to work on.