1. Fish passports? Any fin is possible

    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.

     —

    Image: Fredrik Öhlander

  2. From the horse’s mouth: chatting to MaDada

    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.

    MaDada logoOne 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.”

    Enter MaDada

    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.”

    Plusplus good

    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.


    Image: Amy Barr (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  3. UK government on OGP watch list for lack of transparency

    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

  4. New research agency exempt from scrutiny

    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:

    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

  5. A Million Moments for Democracy: using FOI to campaign against corruption

    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.

    This request is designed for state authorities, typically ministries, while this one is designed for state-owned companies, of which there are still quite a few”, explains the team.

    “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.”

    You can see the campaign page here (in Czech – here’s the same page on Google Translate).

    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

  6. We’re joining the call for urgent action on FOI

    Open Democracy’s recent Art of Darkness report highlighted the worsening state of Freedom of Information request-handling in central government, with concerns over a gravely dwindling response rate, stonewalled responses and a disregard for the ‘applicant blind’ principle.

    In combination, these deficiencies have served to erode government transparency at a time when scrutiny is vital. That’s we’ve signed Open Democracy’s open letter calling for an urgent investigation.

    In The Art of Darkness, report write Lucas Amin states, “Central government granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests in 2019 than ever before, according to official statistics collected by the Cabinet Office. The percentage of requests granted in full has declined every year since 2010 – from a high of 62% in 2010 to 44% in 2019. The percentage of requests withheld in full has steadily increased from 21% in 2010 to 35% in 2019.”

    The report also notes the the government’s increased use of a central ‘clearing house’ through which sensitive requests must be passed. Open Democracy have uncovered evidence that, contrary to the FOI Act’s principle of ‘applicant blindness’ (ie, information is accessible to all, with no consideration of who is making the request), this clearing house, which has been functioning since 2007, is in the practice of identifying which requests are made by journalists and exercising increased caution in their handling.

    With this report also picking up many fundamental procedural errors in the way in which requests are being handled, it seems particularly timely that at mySociety we’re working on a tool to help request-makers to understand the reasons for refused requests and guide them in seeking an internal review as part of wider updates within our own WhatDoTheyKnow service.

    But perhaps more importantly: as an organisation that campaigns for transparency from our authorities, and works closely with journalists, we recognise the danger of such practices going unquestioned.

    That’s why we’ve added our voice to those of the many editors, journalists, campaigners and citizens who call for an inquiry. You can do the same here.

    Image: Gianluca D’Intino

  7. Two FOI requests seeking information about COVID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Available thanks to FOI

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

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

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

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

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

    FOI as fact-checker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Image: Garry Butterfield

  8. Want to run an Alaveteli site? The time is now

    We have the opportunity to help one organisation in Europe set up and run their own Freedom of Information website. Could you be that organisation?

    The background

    Thanks to ongoing funding from Adessium, we’ve been working with a number of partners right across Europe to set up new Alaveteli websites, and upgrade existing ones with the Pro functionality. The ultimate aim is to increase the quality, quantity and simplicity of European and cross-border Freedom of Information based investigations.

    So far we’ve helped organisations in France and Netherlands to launch their own sites, and we’ve added Pro to AskTheEU, Belgium, Sweden and Czechia.

    Now we have space to provide technical help and support for one more organisation who would like to launch their own brand new Alaveteli site.

    What would that involve?

    Running an Alaveteli website is no light undertaking, we’ll be the first to admit it. While we can help you with all the technicalities of getting the site up and launched, there is an ongoing commitment for the recipient organisation, who will need to factor in significant time to administer it, moderate content and help users.

    On the plus side, we have masses of experience that will get you set off on the right footing; we’ll do most of the technical stuff for you; and there’s a global community of other people running Alaveteli sites who are always quick to offer friendly advice when you need it.

    OK, sounds good – can we apply?

    There’s just one important detail: we’re looking for organisations in European countries or jurisdictions where there isn’t already an existing Alaveteli site. Take a quick look at our deployments page to see whether your country is already on the list.

    That’s the main requirement — but there are also a few details that the ideal organisation would fulfil.

    • So that you understand the service you’d be offering to citizens, you’d already have transparency or freedom of information as a remit or strand of your work
    • You might include some people with at least some basic technical or coding skills amongst your workforce;
    • You’ll have a source of income (or plans for how to secure one) that will allow you to keep running the site after we’ve got you all set up.

    We’re looking to start work in April, with a probable build phase that would take us to December 2021. All work is conducted remotely, and we’d have regular check-ins with you via video call to keep you updated.

    We’d then give you all the support you needed in the first few months after your site’s launch, then from March 2022, you’d be all set to take the training wheels off — although, as we say, we and the rest of the Alaveteli community would be around to offer help and advice on an ongoing basis.

    Right, that’s everything — so it only remains to say that if you’re still interested, please get in touch to have an initial chat. Or, if you know any organisations that might be a good fit for this opportunity, please send them the link to this post.

    Alaveteli sites launched or upgraded in 2020

    Banner image: Gia Oris

  9. A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.

    But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.

    We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.

    A confusing state of affairs

    We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.

    “Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.

    “No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.

    “This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”

    So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?

    “Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.

    “With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.

    “Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”

    FOI for gathering hard evidence

    As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?

    “We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.

    These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.

    Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:

    “We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”

    You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.

    The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.

    This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.

    “I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    “It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”

    This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).

    Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.

    “On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”

    You can see some of the media coverage of this decision here.

    You should use it, too

    Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.

    “Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”

    We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.

    Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem

  10. No boundaries to Freedom of Information

    A forthcoming tribunal will examine the blocking of FOI requests that have been placed by people living outside the UK.

    To those at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow, the matter is quite simple: the UK’s Freedom of Information Act was written explicitly to allow “any person” to request information from a public body. There’s no restriction to say that the requester must be a UK citizen.

    A phrase often used is that the FOI process must be ‘applicant blind’. An authority doesn’t have the right to refuse information because of what it knows about the requester. That applies to nationality as much as to any other characteristic.

    We vehemently defend this principle, not least because we have seen first hand that important investigations can result from cross-border collaborations — right now, we’re working to support journalists across Europe working on several stories that cannot be confined to one territory.

    Associates across the international FOI network are proof positive that this kind of collaboration is invaluable in getting to the truth. Last year, Arne Semsrott of German FOI site FragDenStaat told us of a project they are running in tandem with Spain-based AccessInfo, to find out more about the treatment of migrants in many countries.

    “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe”, he said, “so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    If each country insisted that its information was only accessible to its own citizens, there would be significantly less opportunity to uncover such cross-border instances of mistreatment, not to mention stories of corruption, malpractice, misspending and cronyism. And as we know, such phenomena are unlikely to respect jurisdictional boundaries.

    For a view from closer to home, we can consult a member of the experienced WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team. Richard Taylor comments, “If UK FOI requests were restricted to British citizens or to those living in the UK, that could, depending on how it was implemented, seriously impact our ability to provide WhatDoTheyKnow’s service.

    “Providing proof of nationality or residence would be a significant additional hurdle for people making requests, and for us in managing them.”

    We question why there is a need for a tribunal to examine a point of the Act that is already quite clear — and, since there is to be one, call upon them to make a judgement that adheres to the letter, and spirit, of this country’s information law.

    Image: Max Böhme