1. How to find out the history of an ex-military Land Rover

    Suppose you’ve bought a Land Rover but you don’t know anything of its history. Might it have had an exciting past as a military vehicle? Has it had any major faults in its previous life? Freedom of Information is one way to find out.

    And indeed, a number of people have been using WhatDoTheyKnow to discover more about the history of their ex-military Land Rovers by making a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence.

    What information is available?

    We’ve seen requests both for the military service history of a vehicle (for example which military units it was assigned to) and the maintenance record (details of inspections, servicing, faults and repairs). 

    Any information held is generally provided free of charge to anyone who asks — there is no requirement to prove that you are the owner or keeper of the vehicle. Here are some examples:

    How to make a request

    Freedom of Information (FOI) requests can be made in public by using the WhatDoTheyKnow website to  ask for information from the MOD. We would obviously prefer that people use our site, but FOI requests can also be made by writing a letter or sending an email.

    Many of the requesters include both the chassis number and the registration number in the request, to help the MOD identify any relevant information held. 

    Will I get the information I ask for?

    In some cases, information may be withheld using exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. For example, the MOD tends to redact the time taken to carry out repairs, to protect the commercial interests of the businesses they contract for this purpose. 

    In rare cases, information may be withheld in order to safeguard national security or to protect the UK’s defensive capabilities. 

    The MOD has publicly released a copy of the MERLIN database, in which details of military vehicles are recorded, and it may be worth checking that first if you are interested in making a request.

    In the case of some previous FOI requests, where no information is held, the MOD has advised requesters that the Royal Logistic Corps Museum may be able to assist with their research (see for example this MOD letter of 25 September 2018).

    Reasons that public authorities keep records about assets they no longer hold

    The requests about ex-military Land Rovers highlight the fact that public authorities often hold records about assets they no longer own, and that in some cases this information will be of value to the new owners.  

    There are various reasons why records are kept after the asset is sold or otherwise disposed of. One is to help people who may have queries in the future. A great example of this practice is referenced in a response by Aberdeen Council to an FOI request made through WhatDoTheyKnow in June 2021.

    The electronic record held by Aberdeen City Council […] not only lists everything we have, but also everything that we once had as well. This is to ensure that we have a records trail for future research/provenance etc”.

    Usage of FOI law in the UK

    We think the requests about ex-military Land Rovers are interesting because they show the versatility of the UK’s FOI legislation. 

    Not every FOI request has to be about holding public authorities to account: requests can simply be made for information that people find useful for their businesses, their hobbies or their everyday lives. Making such requests in public helps other people who might be interested in making a similar request themselves. In addition,  if there is an important public interest story hidden in the response, making the request in public maximises the chances that someone will find it.

    Image: AlfvanBeem, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Help WhatDoTheyKnow find contact addresses for public authorities

    You can send Freedom of Information requests to more than 45,000 public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. For each of those authorities we need an email address to send those requests to, which means we often need to do some maintenance to keep everything up to date.

    For some authorities in our database we don’t have a working email address. We might have had one in the past but it’s now out of date, or the authority might have merged and taken on new contact details – there are many reasons for missing email addresses, but they all leave us in the same predicament: we don’t know where to send your FOI requests for those bodies.

    Can you help us find them?

    If you have a little time to spare, a small amount of Googling could be a really big help for our users. Just five minutes here and there is all that’s needed to do a little bit of research to find the correct address.  

    We’ve made a list of all authorities with a missing email address

    The best starting point is almost always the authority’s website. Look for a dedicated contact email address for Freedom of Information requests.

    Top tips for searching:

    • Check the contact page.
    • Check the footer on the homepage.
    • Try looking for Freedom of Information policies or Publication Schemes,  or sometimes an email address can appear in the privacy policy.
    • Remember some public authorities such as schools and parish councils have very similar names, so make sure you are looking at the right one.
    • If you can’t find a website for the authority itself, there are some other places that you can look: for example the NHS services site  or the Get Information about Schools site.

    Once you’ve found the right place, make a note of the contact email address. We prefer to use generic email addresses, for example that starting with foi@ or information@ as these tend not to change so often, so if there are multiple addresses given, these are the best ones to go for.

    Let us know

    If you find some of these missing email addresses please let us know.

    We need both the new email address and the source (website address) where you found it, so we can verify the information.

    You can send us this information by clicking on “Ask us to update FOI email” link on the public authority’s page. Just fill out the form with all the details that you’ve found.

    Screenshot of pubic authority page on WhatDoTheyKnow showing where you can find the “Ask us to update FOI email" link
    Then our team of volunteers will use your input  to update the database, and you’ll have ensured that people can make requests to the authority. That’s a really useful result.

    Time poor but rich in other ways?

    We know that your time is very precious and not everyone has the opportunity to help us out with tasks. If you are able to make a donation instead, that is also very helpful toward keeping our FOI service up and running.

    Your contributions, however small, really help. Donate here.

     

    Image: Marten Newhall 

  3. A change in the monarchy: how it does (and doesn’t) affect FOI

    [UPDATE: Since this post was published, the 19 September has been declared an official bank holiday – our assumption in the final section of this post, that ‘no bank holiday will be formally declared’, and the conclusions we came to as a result, were incorrect. We’ve updated the section accordingly.]


    On 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 

    mySociety runs the WhatDoTheyKnow website, which lists many authorities related to the monarchy, the Royal household and associated offices. 

    As a non-partisan UK registered charity, we recognise that some of our users will view the monarchy as being a political institution, while others will not. We ask all our users to be respectful in their communications and to continue to follow our House Rules.

    The constitution of the United Kingdom

    When a monarch dies in the UK, they are immediately succeeded by their heir, even before the coronation has taken place. The Demise of the Crown Act 1901 provides that the holding of any office under the Crown is not to be affected in any way by the death of the reigning monarch. 

    What this means in practice is that Government ministers, civil servants and military personnel continue to hold office and that public authorities will continue to exist without interruption. Where this becomes relevant to WhatDoTheyKnow is that FOI requests do not need to be resubmitted.

    The names of public authorities

    Where appropriate, our volunteers will update the names of public authorities and the notes on the site to reflect the fact that King Charles Ⅲ is now the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. For example, we will rename the Queen’s Printer for Scotland to the King’s Printer for Scotland when the authority publicly updates its name.

    Not all bodies with “Queen” in the name need to be renamed. For example, The Queen’s College, Oxford was named in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault and does not require a change. A number of schools and other public bodies were named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and we’d expect that they will continue to use their current names.

    We’ve also updated the site to take account of the fact that Prince William is now the Duke of Cornwall. Under a royal charter from 1337, the position of Duke of Cornwall is held by the eldest son to the reigning monarch provided he is heir to the throne.

    We have never listed the monarch as a public authority on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we continue to list the Royal Household.

    Accession Council

    We expect the Accession Council to convene shortly at St James’s Palace. The Accession Council is a body that meets twice following the death of a monarch. The purpose of the first meeting is to formally announce the death of the monarch and proclaim the succession of the new sovereign. The second meeting will be the first Privy Council meeting of the new monarch.

    National mourning

    The day of the state funeral will be a day of national mourning in the UK, and has now been formally declared as a bank holiday.

    This means that WhatDoTheyKnow will automatically treat 19 September as a non-working day for the purposes of calculating the time limits for complying with Freedom of Information requests. Even before we understood that the day would officially be a bank holiday, we had made this adjustment. This would have meant that our position differed from the position set out in FOI law; however, we believed it to be the most reasonable approach in the circumstances.

    Bank holiday matters aside, we encourage people making FOI requests to recognise that some employees of public authorities will have a higher than normal workload at present and to be patient and courteous when dealing with public officials.

    Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  4. More than a million public FOI requests have been made through Alaveteli sites

    Has our open source Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli had an impact on transparency around the world? We’ve got more than a million reasons to say that yes, it has!

    From the makes and models of over 18,000 cars stolen in Argentina to statistics about apricot farming in Tunisia; information about food labelling laws in Uruguay to what was on the menu when visiting heads of state met with the Australian Prime Minister,  Alaveteli has enabled people to ask for, and receive, a colossal amount of information that otherwise would most likely not have been openly available.

    Our own FOI site, WhatDoTheyKnow, runs on Alaveteli. It’s also free as open source software  to anyone around the world who wants to set up an Access to Information service for their own country or jurisdiction — and in the 11 years it’s been available, many have done just that.

    Key to Alaveteli is that both FOI requests and responses are published, meaning that each site builds up its own archive of information over time. Even when information is not held by the authority, public knowledge increases, and when requests go unanswered, the very fact that a request was made shows that there is public appetite for the information.

    We noticed that the ticker had passed a million at the end of July this year. The lion’s share — more than 840,000 requests — represents requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow. The others are from jurisdictions as wide-ranging as Rwanda, Australia, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Europe alone, 17 Alaveteli sites are operating; five of these have been launched since 2019, thanks to support from Adessium and Swedish Postcode foundations.

    We hope to be able to work with the network of Access to Information platforms in Europe (including some that are not running on Alaveteli) to strengthen their individual and collective impact. We’re looking to help build and connect the ‘community of interest’ around FOI; and to undertake more coordinated and strategic advocacy efforts to improve Access to Information at national and regional levels – all of which will help ensure continued access to information over the long-term.

    Thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Helen Cross for finding the examples cited at the beginning of this post, and many more, during a multilingual trawl through the collective Alaveteli sites.

  5. Challenging public bodies who refuse to accept FOI requests by email

    While running mySociety’s Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com we’ve noticed that some public authorities are refusing to process valid FOI requests made via email, including some sent via our website. A few public authorities have gone so far as to switch off their dedicated FOI email addresses, and have been telling our users that they need to fill in a webform, or make a request by post.

    This practice is against the law. For a Freedom of Information request to be valid, all that’s required is that a) it’s made in writing; b) it includes the requester’s name and an address for correspondence; and c) it describes the information being requested.

    Requests made via email are valid and should be processed promptly, however they are received. We contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, who confirmed that:

    “Whilst a public authority can request a form is filled in, you are not obliged to do this” and “this should not be made a compulsory requirement.”

    We believe that citizens shouldn’t need to have a detailed understanding of FOI law in order to have valid requests for information logged and answered. Public authority staff should be trained to recognise valid requests, however they are received. The refusal by some authorities to recognise and process requests for information has led to unnecessary delays in requests being answered, and to some requests not being answered at all.

    User-centred FOI

    Whilst there are obvious benefits to public authorities from using case management systems, these should be capable of dealing with email and handling requests that are made via other means.

    Where web-forms are an authority’s preferred form of contact, these should be simple to complete and not require requesters to hand over more personal information than they are required to by law. We’ve seen web-forms which ask requesters for information such as their date of birth, whether they are a journalist and the purpose of their request, for example, none of which the authority needs to know, and some of which might prejudice their response. Sometimes these additional fields are marked as compulsory.

    We’ve also noticed that some authorities have started to reply to FOI requests using a “noreply” email address. This is poor practice because it makes it harder for requesters to ask for clarification or to request an internal review. Ideally, responses to requests should be sent from an address that accepts incoming mail.

    How we’re responding

    If a public body turns off its FOI contact email address and directs requests to a web-form, we try to find an alternative address to send requests to. We do all we can to get our users’ requests delivered, and we invariably succeed.

    In a handful of cases we’ve resorted to sending our users’ requests to public bodies’ Chief Executives as part of our efforts to both get our users’ requests delivered and to encourage authorities to abide by Access to Information law.

    Have you seen this practice?

    While we have only seen this behaviour at a relatively small number of public bodies so far, some of those adopting this approach have included significant authorities such as local councils. It is important to identify and challenge this practice before it spreads more widely, so please let us know if you spot any examples. If you receive a message suggesting you have to make your request again via a web-form, do challenge that, citing the ICO guidance on valid requests.

    We are keen to see the Information Commissioner step in and tackle systemic problems with the way public bodies deal with requests for information. We are encouraged by the recent commitment from the Information Commissioner’s Office to deliver “more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations”. The fact we publish FOI requests and their responses provides evidence which can support the Commissioner in this work.

    Here are some examples:

    • “All FOI requests have to be put in writing to the Freedom of Information Officer, […] or by completing our online form.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “Can I ask that you please submit your enquiry via our website. The FOI process has recently changed and we have a form that will ask for all the information we need to process this.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “This Freedom of Information request has been received via a mailbox that does not record new requests. Please make your request using the online form under How to make Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations Requests on the Council’s website” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “All freedom of Information requests now have to be applied for using our online form (see link sent in my colleagues previous email to you). Once we have your request it will be responded to within 20 days of receipt.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    Image by Ben Wicks (Unsplash Licence)

  6. Faster and better targeting of requests to multiple bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is the paid-for, premium, version of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com, designed for journalists, academics, campaigners and others whose needs exceed what our free service provides.

    Features available to Pro users include the ability to delay publication of requests and responses; and to make requests to multiple authorities at the same time via the batch request tool. 

    We’ve just made it much easier for Pro users to add relevant bodies to a batch request via a list of authorities within specific categories.

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro batch: browse by category

    Our database contains FOI contact addresses for more than 42,000 authorities. Using our service saves you from having to source appropriate contact details yourself, and we’ve now made it even quicker and easier to make batch FOI requests. 

    Since WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s launch, creating a batch request has involved searching for bodies and adding them individually to the batch. WhatDoTheyKnow’s fantastic volunteers curate over 200 categories to help users on the main site to explore and navigate the UK authorities subject to FOI, and we’ve now incorporated these listings into WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch tool.

    As a result, requests are more likely to be sent to the bodies that hold the information being requested, and the number of requests sent to inappropriate bodies is minimised.

    We’ve been trialling this feature in a limited beta period for a while, and thanks to our funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation we were able to work with handlingar.se to iron out some bugs and performance issues before making it available to all Pro users.

    We hope the new feature will aid some great cross-authority research, while helping to ensure that requests are targeted to appropriate bodies. 

    Let us know if there are additional categories you’d like us to add!

    Image: Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  7. How ForSet are spreading the word about Freedom of Information in Georgia

    We’re big on open source: much of the software we create at mySociety is freely available for anyone to use, and there are sites all over the world underpinned by our code. 

    While we try to ensure that our codebases are as easy as possible to self-serve, in practice installation can be complex enough that those wanting to use them often get in touch with questions. 

    Not so much with AskGov.ge, the Alaveteli-based Freedom of Information site for the republic of Georgia. Yes, there had been an email in the Alaveteli Developers Google Group seeking a developer, but the first we knew that a brand new fully-formed service had successfully launched was when Teona Tomashvili, from NGO ForSet, emailed to say she was planning a trip to the UK and would love to meet up for a chat.

    And so it was that we spent a happy couple of hours in London, finding out more about AskGov and the context in which it is providing an FOI service for the citizens of Georgia, as well as offering as much advice and experience from running the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow as we could cram in without overwhelming our visitor.

    A fragile democracy

    Talking FOI may not be the obvious way of learning more about a country’s history, culture and politics, but it’s a surprisingly effective one. Teona explained that Georgia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012, and the country is keen to do all it can to improve transparency.

    They’ve actually had an operational FOI Act since 2000, five years earlier than ours came into force in the UK. But as an ex-member of the Soviet Union, she says, the country is not used to democracy and open government.

    “Georgia had never been a fully democratic state”, she explained. “It’s only 30 years since we were part of the Soviet Union and our democracy is still very fragile. There’s a new impetus towards teaching people that open government and open data are important, but citizens are not used to these things. They have never felt like that, ever!”

    With the site relatively newly launched, ForSet have seen their main task as increasing public understanding of FOI and normalising its use. This is something we were interested to talk about: over time we’ve come to the conclusion that while some people here in the UK are ‘super FOI users’ who might put in several requests a month, the majority of the population are unlikely to feel the need to use it more than a couple of times a year, if that. 

    Even so, there’s always room for awareness-raising and we agree that everyone should know they have a right to information, for the times when they do need it. 

    Bureaucracy woes

    Whenever we’ve been able to gather together an international group of people who run FOI sites, we often find that the core challenges they face are very similar — though they may come embellished with some unique local colour.

    When Teona told us of their woes with bureaucracy, it was definitely a story we’d heard before: authorities required not just a name, but personal details such as the address and phone number of the person making a request before they would process an FOI request.

    For an Alaveteli site, the problem with that is, of course, that both the request and the response are made publicly available online, and this information would publish out too.

    While the issue might be familiar, we don’t think we’ve previously come across the particular solution that ForSet put in place: when someone makes a request, they can fill in all their personal details in a form on the website. This is used to create a PDF which is attached to the email that the authority receives; meanwhile the personal data is automatically destroyed at ForSet’s end — desirable both for users’ privacy and to avoid any worries about data retention.

    Teona said that they’d only had this system in place for a couple of weeks, so it’s too early to know if it’s really working. As Gareth pointed out, in Alaveteli we always try to model the law as we believe it should work — for example, when WhatDoTheyKnow started out, some authorities didn’t accept FOI requests by email; eventually, things changed enough that official ICO guidance now states:

    “Requests made through the whatdotheyknow.com website will be valid” 

    and 

    “we consider the @whatdotheyknow.com email address provided to authorities when requests are made through the site to be a valid contact address for the purposes of Section 8(1)(b).”.

    On the other hand, not all countries have an overseer, and even if they do, change may not be quick to come, so we are keeping an eye on Georgia’s method to see if it’s one we might recommend to other sites. 

    Data visualisations

    ForSet is a social enterprise like mySociety: their commercial activities support their charitable ones. They started life as a data visualisation organisation, and that provenance informs much of their activity. This gives them a different angle to come at FOI from: it’s a data collection mechanism, the results of which can feed into infographics and visualisations that inform the public, often with an ‘expert’ in the middle to transform the raw data into something the public can follow at a glance.

    Knowing all this, it’s understandable that when they started thinking about how best to promote their new site, ForSet landed on the idea of competitions, asking entrants to create a data visualisation from one or more FOI responses.

    The regular contests have had an enthusiastic take-up. Topics vary, but, Teona says, “Of course, thanks to current events, there have been lots of stories regarding Russia in the last couple of months: how dependent the market is on Russia; what authorities’ electricity consumption is; lots about defence. 

    “Before the war broke out the topics were more varied: there were visualisations on domestic violence, economics, socially important issues. One nice one that we hadn’t foreseen was on the grape and wine history of Georgia!

    “We found that out of all the authorities, the National Statistics Bureau and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are the most responsive — they always send lots of data.” 

    Because ForSet have such relevant experience, once a contestant has decided which data they’re going to use, they can tap into advice from the organisation’s designers and analysts. So these contests are creating a new generation of data visualisers and journalists who can use FOI in this way – win/win!

    Some examples of the data visualisations: click to see each one at a larger size.
    You can also find an interactive visualisation here.

    And ForSet are not stopping there: they’ve also been thinking of running focus groups for FOI officers and citizens — again not something we’ve done very much of at WhatDoTheyKnow, but further proof that there’s always plenty for FOI site runners to learn from one another.

    Making connections

    And one final thing: why did we hear nary a peep about AskGov until Teona made contact? 

    We would love to have believed her first explanation, that the site documentation is so clear that there was no need to enquire about anything — but there was another factor at play, too, as Teona explained:

    “The first challenge for us in installing the site was that it’s written in Ruby. There aren’t a lot of Ruby developers in Georgia and they are in high demand — they tend to work for private US companies, and we couldn’t afford to hire them.

    “But as an NGO, you never have enough money anyway, so we can always think of ways to get around things. We looked around our neighbouring countries Moldova and Ukraine, and saw that there was an existing Alaveteli site in Ukraine.

    “We sent them an email and introduced ourselves. It turned out that the organisation Internews was giving them tech support, paying for a web developer – and they offered to share that resource with us! They said they’re always looking for partners.

    “We never got stuck at any point because the developer knew what she was doing, and actually we benefitted from the fact that she’d learned from prior mistakes setting up the dostup.pravda site for Ukraine. And Ukraine and Georgia are very similar countries in terms of the legislation etc, so it was simple.”

    So in other words, ForSet had done what we would have encouraged them to be doing if they had got in touch – networking and learning from others in the Alaveteli community!

    Talking of community, we weren’t the only organisation that Teona would chat with while she was in London. We introduced her to several other civic tech and transparency organisations in the UK, so she had a busy few days ahead of her, and no doubt plenty to discuss, all of which, we hope, will feed into the success of AskGov.ge.

  8. Release the bats

    Our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow has just seen what we think is its largest ever release of information. National Highways has released 1.25 TB of bat survey data, made up of over 115,000 files, including:

    • 786 videos – that’s over 250 hours of footage 
    • 54,570 audio files
    • 354 spreadsheets
    • 2,532 images

    Requester Emma Tristram has been using data released via WhatDoTheyKnow to campaign against the proposed construction of the A27 Arundel Bypass. Commenting on the release, she told us: 

    “It’s fantastic that through WhatDoTheyKnow this recent bat survey data by National Highways is now available to the public. With these up to date bat surveys those fighting the devastating Arundel bypass scheme hope to strengthen their case that the scheme should be cancelled. The scheme would ruin four villages as well as a huge, very biodiverse wildlife area, which Natural England say is of international importance for bats.”

    In response to a consultation about the proposed road building scheme, Natural England confirms the exceptional importance of the environment in and around the South Downs National Park and the need for its protection. They describe the area as containing irreplaceable and rare habitats and priority habitats (Habitats of Principal Importance) which “support an outstanding assemblage of species”. These include numerous maternity roosts of rare bats including Barbastelle, Bechstein’s and the Alcathoe bat.

    The request was dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). EIR, like Freedom of Information requests, can be used to access more than just documents, correspondence and paperwork. As the climate crisis brings urgent challenges for our public institutions to address, access to environmental information will be increasingly valuable to businesses, campaign groups and the general public. Requests about how limited and in some cases irreplaceable environmental resources are being managed are just as important as requests around how public money is being used. By gaining access to raw data such as this, environmental campaigners are able to independently examine and verify the results of any studies that have been carried out. 

    Due to the size of the release, the authority has made the information available using a file sharing service. When authorities reply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow in this way, we will do our best to host their responses by uploading the data to our own servers. Hosting a release of this size poses some logistical challenges, but we are looking at ways of making the data available. If you have any suggestions about how we can best achieve this, please get in touch.

     

    Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC by/2.0)

  9. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  10. Business Improvement Districts on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve recently added lots of Business Improvement District (BID) organisations to our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    BIDs are directly funded via business rates. They spend public money, and have a significant impact on important public spaces, but are generally not subject to Freedom of Information law. 

    We are listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow because we think they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. WhatDoTheyKnow is not only an FOI service: we also actively seek to expand the scope of access to information law, and will add bodies to the site if it is clear that they should be open to public scrutiny.

    Business Improvement Districts were introduced via Part 4 of the Local Government Act 2003

    Most BIDs are focused on shopping streets, but there are others which work around industrial estates, and a handful seek to boost the tourism sector in their areas. 

    BIDs’ activities vary from body to body. Examples include:

    The establishment of a BID requires the support of both: 

    1. the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
    2. those representing a majority of the rateable value relating to the votes cast.

    The local council responsible for collecting business rates may veto a proposal for a BID, but once it has been approved the council is required to collect the “BID levy” alongside business rates and pass it on to the BID organisation.

    While these ballots provide a democratic mandate for BIDs, the ability to scrutinise how a BID is run during its period of operation is important so that people can assess the performance of these organisations and assure themselves that the public money they are responsible for is spent appropriately.

    BIDs can increase the level of influence businesses have in their areas of operation. One argument in favour of BIDs is they correct for an “influence gap” arising due to the fact businesses don’t have a vote when it comes to electing local councillors. On the flip-side of that, BIDs can be argued to reduce the ability of local residents to influence projects relating to their local shopping streets, or other areas of BID activity. 

    A recent report from the lottery funded Power to Change Trust on the operation of BIDs stated: 

    Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have proven successful in involving businesses in the development of local economies, addressing a previous influence gap – but there is no parallel system for residents to participate, other than via indirect means with their local councillor or planning system. This leaves those who have ideas about how to shape their places without a strong voice.

    While listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow won’t directly give people a greater say in how BIDs which impact their local areas are run, greater transparency will hopefully enable informed lobbying, better quality media reporting, and enable those running the organisations to be held to account. WhatDoTheyKnow is open to all, anyone with an interest in the operation of a BID, be they a local resident, a levy paying business, or anyone else, is welcome to use our service to request information from a BID.  

    All public bodies which receive funding via council tax, such as parish councils, Police and Crime Commissioners and Fire Authorities are subject to FOI. It seems right that bodies funded via a levy collected as part of business rates should also be subject to the Act.

    Enabling people to request information from BIDs in public, and automatically publishing any responses, will hopefully improve the transparency of these organisations. If there are refusals to provide requested information, these may be cited by those who, like us, think that BIDs should be made subject to the Act. 

    A new approach to developing the public body database

    We are currently listing around 300 BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow

    At the time of writing we don’t hold an email address for around 120 of them. If anyone seeks to make a request to those we don’t have an address for, they will be prompted to look for an email address for us to use, and let us know if they find one. 

    To-date, we’ve generally avoided listing bodies without email addresses, although doing so would closely copy a model that’s worked well on mySociety’s WriteToThem site for many years — where someone wants to email their MP or councillor and we don’t have an address, we will ask users to see if they can find the required details. 

    For WhatDoTheyKnow, this is an experiment to see if listing bodies without an address encourages users to find them for us. We hope to experiment with more nudges like this, to see if they motivate users to help us keep our database updated — thus spreading the load of a task that would otherwise take up quite a bit of our time.

    Image: Artur Kraft