1. History repeats itself, but this time in Belgium

    Over in Brussels, Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be has just overcome a hurdle very similar to one faced by WhatDoTheyKnow in its earlier days.

    Several municipalities had delayed on processing FOI requests sent through Transparencia.be — which runs on our Alaveteli software — concerned that a request sent via email does not contain a signature or proof of identity.

    Now Belgium’s overseeing body CADA (the Commission of Access to Administrative Documents) has ruled, just as the ICO did in the UK, that requests sent through the site should be treated the same as those received via more conventional means.

    You can read about the matter on the website of the public broadcasting organisation RTBF in French, or via Google Translate in English.

    The struggle echoes almost exactly the experiences we faced with WhatDoTheyKnow when it was first launched: as you can see in this FAQ, official MoJ guidance now explicitly states that an email address should be considered of equal status to a physical return address; and ICO advice is that a WhatDoTheyKnow.com email address is a valid contact address for the purposes of FOI.

    A sharing community

    Here at mySociety, we share our open source software so that other people can run services like ours — Freedom of Information sites, parliamentary monitoring projects or fault-reporting platforms — for their own countries.

    But it’s not only about the software. Something that has become clear over the years, and especially when we get together for an event such as AlaveteliCon, is that we all face similar challenges. No matter how different our countries’ legislations, cultures or politics, you can be sure that our setbacks and triumphs will be familiar to others.

    Because of that, we’re able to share something that’s just as useful as the software itself: the support of the community. In this case, that’s easily accessed via the Alaveteli mailing list, which we’d encourage you to join if you run, or are thinking of running, an FOI site.

    Image: Jay Lee


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  2. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps TBIJ get the whole picture on council sales

    In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 UK councils.

    Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.

    The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.

    In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.

    Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.

    One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:

    I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.

    We are glad that the service was of help.

    If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.

    Image: © Mat Fascione via geograph.org.uk/p/4278237 (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  3. FOI requests can help authorities identify what they should be publishing proactively

    Many authorities keep a disclosure log, where they publish answers to previous Freedom Of Information requests. If requests are repeatedly made for the same type of information, it makes sense for the authority to publish the data regularly so that everyone can access it — because of course, the majority of FOI requests made in this country are sent directly rather than via WhatDoTheyKnow, and won’t otherwise be published online in any other form.

    But a disclosure log is only useful if people know it’s there. Our FOI For Councils service, which came out of work with Hackney council increases the likelihood that the information in the disclosure log is actually seen, and by those who need it most: it automatically checks whether the request resembles any information which is already available online, then points the requester to it. If the match is correct, the user doesn’t have to progress any further with their request, and can access the information immediately. This saves everyone time — requesters and staff alike.

    There’s another handy aspect to FOI for Councils, too: it can also provide staff with data on what type of requests are made the most often. As we explained in that introductory blog post:

    FOI for Councils analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.

    This analysis allows Information Officers to understand which information is being asked for, that existing resources aren’t providing.

    A sensible use of this is to analyse the most frequent requests and publish the data they’re asking for proactively.

    Authorities don’t necessarily need FOI for Councils to do this, though: a regular analysis of internal records, or even public requests on WhatDoTheyKnow (despite only making up a proportion of requests made by any means — people may also make requests by direct email, letter, phone or even a tweet in some cases — they still provide a good sample set) would allow any authority to manually generate a broad picture.

    Cost benefits

    Disclosure logs can get out of date quickly: a glance at the BBC’s, for example, seems to indicate an initial enthusiasm in 2014 which quickly dried up, perhaps because a keen employee moved on, or resources were channeled elsewhere. Yet many of the topics of information — annual transport costs for example — will quickly date and may be of interest again in subsequent years.

    It makes sense for authorities to plan a publication cycle for such data, because it’s common for requests to relate to ongoing or changing information such as annual statistics or contract renewals.

    It seems to be quite a widespread issue that an authority starts a disclosure log with the best of intentions, but then lets it go into disuse; additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team note that very few disclosure logs are comprehensive; it’s much more common for authorities to pick and choose what to release, which may not be in line with which data is most useful to the public.

    Publishing frequently requested information in a proactive fashion may well cost authorities less than having to retrieve the information each time it’s asked for — and to provide the information to a sole request-maker (assuming it’s not through WhatDoTheyKnow, where the response is published online) is less efficient than simply putting it out publicly where everyone who needs it can find it. This removes some of the burden on FOI officers.

    Early indicators from our work with Hackney Council show that pointing users towards material already published has prevented around 4% of the requests started by users. This should grow over time, as the council analyses popular requests and starts to add the information to their publication schedule, and more and more users will then experience this invitation to find the material elsewhere.

    A legal requirement

    There is one type of information which authorities are required to proactively publish, thanks to Section 19 subsection 2a of the Freedom of Information Act — datasets:

    A publication scheme must, in particular, include a requirement for the public authority concerned—

    (a) to publish—

    (i) any dataset held by the authority in relation to which a person makes a request for information to the authority, and

    (ii) any up-dated version held by the authority of such a dataset, unless the authority is satisfied that it is not appropriate for the dataset to be published

    The WhatDoTheyKnow team have called for this requirement to apply to all material requested under Freedom of Information, not just datasets: it seems desirable that if a certain piece of information is frequently requested, there is a requirement to publish, unless it’s not reasonable or practical to do so (which, as the team points out, may point to a problem with the way the material is being managed internally, for example adherence to paper records that would benefit from a switch to digital).

    We’re in favour

    We’ve often advocated for proactive publication, including in our response to a consultation on the FOI Code of Practice last year, and we’ve even said that we’d rather  people didn’t have to make FOI requests at all because all information was being published by default.

    Others have made the case that there is so much data being published in the world today that it’s hard to make sense of it or to find what’s useful — but proactive publication based on proven demand like this is a good approach to ensuring that authorities are releasing what is genuinely needed.

    Image: Roman Kraft

  4. When the public sector requests information from the public sector

    Here at mySociety, we talk a lot about how citizens can use Freedom of Information to hold public authorities to account. But it’s interesting to note that those same authorities, or members of them, sometimes also turn to FOI to solicit information from one another.

    At first, this might seem strange: it’s a common assumption that authorities, not to mention high level people within them, have the power to summon any information they require in order to go about their duties.

    But on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are several reasons why the public sector might turn to FOI rather than the more standard channels.

    Surveying multiple authorities

    Suppose you’d like to gather information from many different sources — say every hospital in the country — in order to compile a nationwide set of statistics.

    A large task like this can be more orderly if managed via a set of Freedom of Information requests. Additionally,  the obligation for authorities to respond may mean that your request goes into official channels — with built in timescales — helping to ensure that you get results.

    As a nice illustration of this kind of usage, the Royal College of Surgeons surveyed NHS trusts to see if they are still using outdated fax machine equipment, generating a story which made the headlines back in July.

    Members of Parliament may also use FOI to survey a large number of public authorities and gather statistics to support campaigns or an issue they’re working on.

    We don’t know if members of the Scottish Parliament have more of an appetite for this than the UK one, but a quick search showed several using FOI to good effect. Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale surveyed residential units to see stats on vulnerable children going missing; Murdo Fraser accessed delay repayments figures from Scotrail; Mark Griffin discovered that council tax exemptions weren’t being utilised; and Monica Lennon uncovered the lack of sanitary product strategies across Scotland’s health boards.

    That said, there are several UK MPs past and present who have made use of WhatDoTheyKnow, including the office of Diane Abbott and Dr Phillip Lee. There may well be others who prefer to use a pseudonym.

    Then, those working in bodies such as universities and hospitals very commonly use FOI to support their academic or medical research.

    We can’t neglect to mention that in all such cases, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro would be a great help to the process of sending out and organising multiple requests.

    Putting information into the public domain

    FOI’s not just useful for large scale requests, though. Those from public sector bodies may be using the Act to bring information into the open because they feel it should be known — and of course, making the request through WhatDoTheyKnow will do this by default, since all requests and responses are published online.

    Researchers from Cardiff University used FOI as one tool when investigating how data is used by various public services to help in decision-making. They point out that, while fiddly and labour-intensive, FOI fills a gap in public knowledge:

    The use of FOIs to investigate the integration of changing data systems is problematic and resource intensive for all parties. However, in the absence of a public list, the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for systematic inquiry.

    Getting hold of information which has been hard to pin down

    Sometimes FOI is a last resort when other avenues have been exhausted. On TheyWorkForYou we see a councillor writing to her own council to find out their preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, with the remark “I have tried to get this via the members case work system but I am not confident I will get an adequate response”.

    Such frustration definitely motivates Members of Parliament into submitting FOI requests, too. There are other channels through which they can ask questions of course, for example by submitting Written Questions — a process by which both the question and answer are placed in the public domain, thanks to Hansard.

    But should those channels fail, FOI is another option.

    In 2010 the BBC wrote about how costs for redecoration of Parliament’s Head Office were only uncovered thanks to FOI, after a Written Answer was turned down on grounds of the information being too commercially sensitive.

    The parliamentary staff and civil servants who deal with Written Answers are likely to be different from those who deal with FOI requests. Their criteria for release of information may also differ, as they are guided by different protocols.

    Representatives at every level can use FOI as a channel for information which might have proven elusive via other means. We see on WhatDoTheyKnow that Parish Councils quite often send requests to higher tier authorities to get hold of information that will help them in their work, as is happening here for example.

    Keeping an eye open

    When it comes to authorities and representatives requesting information from other authorities, we can see the benefits. One of our team, Gareth, makes an analogy with the Open Source community, where because code is open to all, developers (sharing their expertise in their area of specialisation) can be quick to spot and repair any bugs: “It’s a really good thing for security. Many eyeballs make it easier to identify problems and suggest improvements”.

    Similarly, FOI acts as a kind of safety net, another layer of assurance that our authorities are working as they should be.

    If you’ve seen any other good examples of public sector to public sector FOI (for want of a better term), please do let us know.

    Image: Tirezoo (CC by/2.0)

  5. My FOI request’s been refused — so, what now?

    Our WhatDoTheyKnow.com service makes it really easy to request information from public bodies: all you need to do is describe the information you are seeking, send your request, and the authority provides it to you.

    At least, that’s what happens when everything goes smoothly.

    The default case

    When you request information, the authority generally has two duties under the FOI Act:

    • They must confirm or deny whether the information is held
    • If they do hold it, they must disclose it.

    But, there are circumstances – called exemptions – where the authority can withhold the information, or where they might not even state whether or not they have it at all.

    Understanding which exemptions have been applied will also help you to understand what to do next.

    The authority have confirmed they hold the information, but refused to release it

    Why have they refused?

    If your request is refused, the authority must say which exemption/s allow them to do so — have a good read of their response, and find out which one/s have been applied.

    You’re looking for a section number that refers to the part of the Act that explains why they can refuse. You can check on FOIwiki’s handy table for the full list of exemptions.

    Generally, when citing an exemption, the authority will also include the relevant text from the FOI Act, but if not, you can check it for yourself in the actual wording of the Act.

    Example of an authority explaining which exemption they have used

    They did not cite an exemption

    Authorities must say which exemption applies to your request — so, double-check that they haven’t done so (look in any attachments as well as in their main email), and once you are certain that they haven’t, write back and ask them to confirm which exemption they are using. Here’s an example of that in action.

    If you want to, you can quote the part of the FOI Act which says that they must do this: Section 17 (1)b:

    A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on […] a claim that information is exempt information must […] give the applicant a notice which—

    • states that fact,
    • specifies the exemption in question, and
    • states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.

    They did cite an exemption

    Once you know which exemption has been used, you are in a good position to examine whether it has been correctly applied .

    FOIwiki’s table lists all the exemptions that an authority can use, and includes some technical details about how they can be applied.

    Some exemptions have very little room for appeal and the decision to apply them is obvious: for example, the Ministry of Defence won’t release plans for an upcoming battle in a time of war, making a request for this type of information pretty futile.

    Others rely much more on the judgement of the authority who’s dealing with your request. Under Section 38, for example, a request can be turned down because it might ‘endanger the physical or mental health of any individual’– but in many cases, assessing how someone’s mental health might be affected by the release of information must require a certain amount of prediction.

    Some exemptions allow an authority to use additional tools for assessing whether or not to release information:

    • A public interest test
    • A prejudice test

    They said they’d applied a Public Interest Test

    Some exemptions, known as ‘qualified exemptions’, require the authority to apply a Public Interest Test. This may give you more opportunity to ask for a review.

    You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s qualified, in FOIwiki’s table.

    In short, a public interest test sees the authority  trying to weigh up the benefit to the general public of the information being released against the safeguards that the exemption is trying to provide, and decide which has more weight. The ICO provide good information about Public Interest Tests, with several examples of how they have been applied in the past.

    If you think you can demonstrate that the Public Interest Test has come down on the wrong side of this weighing up exercise, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the end of this article for next steps.

    They said they’d applied a Prejudice Test

    Some exemptions, called ‘prejudice based’ exemptions, require a prejudice test. Again, this might also give you more opportunity to ask for a review.

    You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s prejudice-based, on FOIwiki’s table.

    Generally speaking, it’s applied to exemptions which seek to protect certain interests — for example, Section 29 of the Act allows exemption where release might do harm to the economy.

    The prejudice test is a way for the person dealing with the request to check that the perceived threat is ‘real, actual or of substance’, and that there’s a reasonable risk that the release would cause the harm that the exemption is trying to protect against. There is a good explanation in the ICO guidelines.

    As with Public Interest Tests, if you can demonstrate that the Prejudice Test has come up with a decision that is arguably misapplied, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the foot of this article for next steps.

    They didn’t apply a Public Interest test

    This probably means that the exemption is “absolute”, which makes it hard to challenge.

    First, check on FOIwiki’s table that the Section the authority is using is an absolute exemption.

    If it is:

    • You might like to consider how cut-and-dried it is that the information falls within the class that the exemption protects. If it is clearly covered by the exemption (for example you have asked for information that is self-evidently provided to the authority by Special Forces) then there isn’t much point in going any further. But suppose you have been told that, under Section 21, the information is accessible via other means. Section 21 is an Absolute exemption but may be open to a challenge if, for example, there are circumstances which prevent you from accessing the information.

    If it’s not:

    • Ask the authority what public interest test they applied (or more details of how they applied it).

    The authority won’t confirm or deny whether they hold the information

    Why won’t they confirm or deny?

    If confirming or denying whether the information is held would actually reveal exempted information in itself, then the authority may refuse to do so.

    You can read more about this in the ICO’s guidance.

    Can I do anything if they ‘neither confirm nor deny’?

    Yes — you can challenge this stance if you have reason to believe that confirming or denying that they hold the information would not reveal exempted information in itself. However, it can be a time-consuming and potentially difficult route to take, and even if you are successful in getting the authority to confirm that they have the information, you may then find that an exemption is then applied, taking you practically back to square one.

    Next steps

    If you still want the information you’ve requested, there are some general tactics you can use when faced with an exemption:

    • Reduce the scope of your request: Check the exemption cited and, if possible, modify your request to circumvent it.
    • Ask for an internal review: if you think the exemption, public interest test or prejudice test has been wrongly applied, you can ask for another member of staff to assess your request and whether you should have received a full, or partial, response.
    • Appeal to the ICO: If you’ve had an internal review and still think the decision was wrong, you may make an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    Read more about all of these routes on our guidance page.

    And here are some other useful links from the Information Commissioner’s Office:

    Finally, for now

    The ideal is, of course, to submit a request which does not trigger an exemption, as clearly this saves everyone’s time. You can see our advice on writing responsible and effective requests here.

    That said, full or partial refusals are not an uncommon occurrence — it’s totally routine for FOI responses to have some material removed (usually personal information such as names and roles of junior officials, or material identifying members of the public), or to turn the request down completely.

    There are just over 25 exemptions listed in the Act (the exact number depends on how you count subsections and variants), removing the obligation for bodies to provide information in categories as diverse as any and all communications with members of the Royal Family, to commercial interests and trade secrets — and all sorts of things in between.

    We’ll be examining the various exemptions available to authorities and suggesting ways in which you can avoid them.  Keep an eye on our blog — and we’ll also link to posts from this post as we publish them.


    Image: Scott Warman

  6. We know half a million things

    In the year of its tenth anniversary, and by complete serendipity on International Right To Know Day, our site WhatDoTheyKnow has processed its half a millionth Freedom of Information request.

    The mySociety team have found it increasingly hard to concentrate on work this afternoon, as the numerical counter on WhatDoTheyKnow’s homepage crept ever closer to the 500,000 mark… and at 4:56pm today, the milestone request was sent off. It was to Mid Devon District Council asking for the costs of implementing and maintaining flood defences.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has long been mySociety’s most successful site, if you count success by the number of users. Every month, between 500,000 and 600,000 people pay a visit. Some of them submit a request, contributing to the total of ~2,700 made monthly; others come to access the information released by authorities and published in WhatDoTheyKnow’s ever-growing archive of public knowledge.

    The site’s success can be ascribed to its simple formula of making it very easy to send an FOI request, which is published online along with the response it receives. The idea of putting the whole FOI process in public was resisted in some quarters during the site’s infancy — indeed, even the concept of responding by email rather than by post was fought against.

    But the site,  launched soon after the FOI Act came into force in the UK, has gone on to become an accepted part of the country’s landscape, and we’d like to think we’ve played a part in shaping attitudes —  and how the Act is implemented.

    The requirement for authorities to respond via email has now been enshrined in Ministry of Justice guidance.  WhatDoTheyKnow itself is explicitly mentioned as a valid vehicle for FOI requests in the ICO’s documentation, and in 2017 an independent commission even recommended that publishing responses should be ‘the norm’.

    The site clearly meets a need. And that need isn’t specific to the UK, as proven by the fact that the open source software on which WhatDoTheyKnow runs, Alaveteli, has also been picked up and is being used to run more than 25 other Freedom of Information sites around the world.

    Finally, never let us miss the chance to praise the volunteer team who keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, helping users with their requests, setting site policies and dealing with issues such as accidental data releases from authorities. Without these knowledgeable and dedicated people, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide this service.

    And now – onwards to the next 500K!


    WhatDoTheyKnow currently has no dedicated funding, and is run by volunteers. If you’d like to see it reach the million-request milestone then why not make a donation?
    Donate now

    Image: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)

  7. Why having the Right To Know matters

    Today is International Right To Know Day.

    Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.

    To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.

    So, here goes:

    The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings

    Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.

    Some relevant examples  of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.

    The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account

    Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.

    Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.

    Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them

    Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.

    People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!

    The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities

    It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.

    These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better

    There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.

    For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.

    The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent

    Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.

    For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.

    Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.

    For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.

    There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.

    So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.

    Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.

    Image: Scott McLeod (CC BY 2.0)

  8. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps set the news agenda

    Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.

    As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.

    What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.

    Stories in the news

    A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.

    Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.

    One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.

    Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.

    No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.

    From FOI request to the national news

    As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:

    • As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
    • Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
    • If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.

    If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.

    Image: Roman Kraft

  9. Now you can ask coroners to provide information, through WhatDoTheyKnow

    Coroners have a key role: they investigate deaths and make recommendations for making society safer, addressing issues which have led to potentially avoidable deaths.

    Despite this, coroners, and coroners’ offices, are surprisingly not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow.com we list many public bodies which don’t actually fall under Freedom of Information law as part of our advocacy for greater transparency.

    While, over time, we’ve listed a number of coroners following requests from our users, volunteers Kieran and Richard have recently significantly improved our coverage and we now believe we comprehensively cover all coroners in the United Kingdom (in Scotland the Procurator Fiscal performs a role analogous to that of a coroner). You can view the full list on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    What do coroners do?

    According to the Government, coroners investigate deaths that have been reported to them, if it appears that:

    • the death was violent or unnatural
    • the cause of death is unknown, or
    • the person died in prison, police custody, or another type of state detention

    Coroners investigate to find out who has died; how, when, and where. They also, rather excitingly, have duties relating to treasure and inquests are held to determine if material found should be defined as such, as well as establishing who found it, where and when.

    Coroners around the country have different systems and the degree to which they proactively publish their findings varies. So, as with requests to any public body, you should check their website — if they have one — to see if the information you are seeking has been published before making a request. Often a coroner’s website might be a page, or pages, within a local council site.

    Coroners’ Reports to Prevent Future Deaths, and responses to them, are sometimes published by the Chief Coroner on the Judiciary website. Statistical information on the work of coroners is published by the Ministry of Justice.

    What information might be requested from a coroner?

    • Information about upcoming inquests and hearings.
      • Even where a coroner publishes an online listing, you might want to seek more information so that cases of interest can be identified (asking for the “brief circumstances” of a death, for example).
      • You might want to ask for information about upcoming inquests relating to those who died in state custody, or those relating to deaths in, or following, collisions on roads — or any other category.
      • Or you could request the policies relating to publicising upcoming hearings, to determine if any online listing is comprehensive for example, or to find out if there are mechanisms in place to inform certain people about upcoming hearings. The content of recent notifications of upcoming hearings could be requested.
    • The formal “Record of Inquest” relating to a particular case
    • Reports to Prevent Future Deaths and responses to those reports Though note that, where a response is from a public body which is subject to Freedom of Information law, making a request to that body might be the best approach.
    • Documents relating to particular investigations Regulation 27 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 states: “The coroner may provide any document or copy of any document to any person who in the opinion of the coroner is a proper person to have possession of it”.
    • Information relating to reports of treasure received and the coroners’ findings in those cases.
    • Information about decisions made by a coroner These can include decisions to exhume a body, discontinue an investigation, or to hold all, or part, of an inquest in private.
    • Correspondence to/from the Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroners.
    • Information about the administration of the coroners’ service You might want to ask for information relating to a coroners’ pay, expenses, costs, fees charged, and for information on their performance. Some requests of this nature might be better directed to the relevant local council.

    Pracicalities of requesting

    While increased transparency surrounding the circumstances of deaths can lead to safety improvements throughout society —  for example in our industrial workplaces, hospitals and roads — the families of the deceased do of course deserve sensitivity and respect. We’d suggest that all those requesting, or acting on, information from coroners which relates to people’s deaths should be considerate of that.

    Coroners will not be used to receiving requests for information made in public via our service. If you are one of the first people to do so, there may be some initial difficulties. Please let us know how you get on: we would be interested in hearing about your experiences.


    Image: Thomas Hawk (CC by-nc/2.0)

  10. FOI for Councils: Hackney Goes Live

    Over the last few months, we’ve been working with Hackney Council to design and make a Freedom of Information management system, imaginatively named FOI For Councils — and last time we left you with our pre-development thoughts. Well, now it’s up and running.

    With this project, we had two main aims:

    • first, to make the process really slick and easy to use for citizens;
    • second, to reduce the quantity of FOI requests submitted, relieving some pressure on the Information Officers at the receiving end.

    The solution we came up with achieves both those aims, and there’s one feature in particular that we’re super-excited about.

    Case Management Integration

    One of the development decisions taken early on was for the system to be a very lightweight layer, largely powered by the new Infreemation case management system that Hackney were in the process of commissioning.

    Infreemation is targeted primarily at Information Officers, so there was no use in reinventing the wheel and building a heavy backend for our own FOI for Councils software.

    Instead we built the FOI request process, using our experience in designing for citizens, and submitted the data directly to Infreemation using their API. This means that every request goes straight in to the case management system used by Information Officers, with no need for double entry; a set-up we’re very familiar with from our work integrating council systems with FixMyStreet.

    Information Officers respond to the FOI request through Infreemation, and when they publish the response to Infreemation’s disclosure log, FOI for Councils can pull that response into its innovative suggestions engine, which we’ll discuss shortly.

    All this means that Information Officers get to use the tools that are designed directly with them in mind, but citizens get the best experience possible for the process at hand, rather than trying to battle the typical generic forms offered by one-size-fits-all solutions.

    Citizens

    On the user side of things we managed to reduce the process to a maximum of 6 screens for the entire process.

    FOI for Councils Citizen Process

    Simple, short citizen workflow

    Throughout the whole user journey we ask for only three details: name; email address and then the actual request for information.

    Each screen provides contextual help along the way, maximising the chances that the FOI request will be well-formed by the time it gets submitted.

    Making the process intuitive for the people using it is a key factor in building citizens’ trust in an authority. Too often we see complex forms with terrible usability that almost seem designed to put people off exercising their rights.

    Information Officers

    So far, so good. But for us, the most interesting piece of the process is the suggestions step.

    Before the citizen submits their request to the authority, we scan the text for keywords to see if anything matches the pool of already-published information.

    If we find any matches, we show the top three to the citizen to hopefully answer their question before they submit it to the authority. This helps the citizen avoid a 20-day wait for information that they might be able to access immediately. If the suggestions don’t answer their question, the citizen can easily continue with their request.

    Suggestions also benefit the authority, by reducing workload when requests can be answered by existing public information.

    FOI for Councils Your Request Form

    Simple forms with helpful advice

    FOI for Councils Suggestions

    Suggestions injected in to citizen-side flow

    We’ve tried to make this suggestions step as unobtrusive as possible, while still adding value for the citizen and the authority.

    The suggestions system is driven by two sources:

    • Manually curated links to existing information
    • The published answers to previous FOI requests

    The curated links can be added to the suggestions pool by Information Officers where they spot patterns in the information most commonly requested, or perhaps in response to current events.

    FOI for Councils Curated Links Admin

    Ability to add targeted suggestions in addition to the automated feed from the Disclosure Log

    The intelligent part of the system though, is the automated suggestions.

    As FOI for Councils integrates with the Infreemation case management system, we can feed the suggestion pool with the anonymised responses to previous requests where the authority has published them to the disclosure log.

    By doing this the authority is making each FOI response work a little harder for them. Over time this automatic suggestion pool should help to reduce duplicate FOI requests.

    FOI for Councils FOI Officer Process

    Suggestions are built up as FOI Officers answer requests and publish them to the Disclosure Log

    FOI for Councils also analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.

    This allows Information Officers to see which information is being asked for, but where existing resources aren’t providing the information necessary to the citizen.

    Future Plans

    We’ll be keeping a keen eye on how this works out for Hackney, and we’ll be sure to report back with any insights.

    As you’ll know if you read our first blog post from this project, we did originally envision a platform that would process Subject Access Requests as well as FOI. In the end this proved beyond the resources we had available for this phase of work.

    For us, this has been a really instructive piece of work in showing how authorities can commission process-specific services that connect together to give everyone a better user experience.

    As with most mySociety projects, FOI for Councils is open source which improves its transparency, flexibility and accountability.

    If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to talk about project in more detail, please get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.