The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.
These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.
Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.
Spending on administration
It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.
While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.
In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.
That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.
But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.
Spending on infrastructure and services
Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.
In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.
And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.
Spending on staff… and disputes
Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today. When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.
The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.
In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.
Spending on compensation
We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.
Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.
In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.
Have we sparked ideas?
If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story — while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.
As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.
We’ve talked a lot about our new service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information — but it’s not always the professionals who uncover the news stories.
This week, we mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary. As part of the celebrations, we thought we’d look back on the news stories that came about because of requests made through the site. Many of these began with an FOI request submitted by a user with no links to the press, and were picked up by news outlets because the response was of public interest.
From the restrictions on what names can be given to a baby in this country, to an accidental torpedo release, and via a geographically-accurate Tube map, it makes for fascinating reading. You can see them all here.
Our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, WhatDoTheyKnowPro, will have its official launch very soon — and we’re glad to see that it’s already beginning to help generate high-profile news stories based on FOI requests.
During development, several journalists have been putting it through its paces and offering us invaluable feedback which has helped us shape the service — and meanwhile their activity is also uncovering stories of genuine interest. These give a taste of exactly what kind of investigative stories can be supported by WhatDoTheyKnowPro, which makes requests to multiple bodies simpler, as well as organising the responses so that they’re easier to manage.
Here are the WhatDoTheyKnowPro-generated stories we’ve heard about so far:
Student Brexit campaign received ‘as much funding as necessary to win’
Open Democracy and the Ferret uncovered how Vote Leave used a loophole to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds through a student’s small-scale campaign. The story was subsequently run by multiple other news outlets and legal proceedings towards a judicial review have begun.
British police trained officers in repressive regimes
Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights. The story, by Lucas Amin, was run by the Guardian in September.
Public servants and Scottish ministers paid thousands of pounds to dine with Obama
Investigative journalism platform the Ferret uncovered this story in July, detailing how much public money was spent on senior staff attending a charity dinner with Barack Obama.
Links between Mark Hoban and Price Waterhouse Cooper
The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.
Infighting in UKIP over the name Patriotic Alliance
Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.
Where British holiday-makers get arrested most often
Back in June, this story by analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained and obtained consular support, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests, and how figures had changed over time. The story ran in the Birmingham Mail and was also picked up by other publications in the Trinity Mirror Group.James Rodger
We’re delighted to see such good use being made of WhatDoTheyKnowPro, and we anticipate many more stories emerging once it has fully launched.
Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.
Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.
The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.
We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).
We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.
But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.
In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.
We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.
While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.
mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.
We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.
It’s something we wanted to build, and something we believed there was a need for: but wanting and believing do not make a sound business case, and that’s why we spent the first few weeks of the project in a ‘discovery’ phase.
Our plan was to find out as much as we could about journalists, our prospective users — and particularly just how they go about using FOI in their work. Ultimately, though, we were seeking to understand whether journalists really would want, or need, the product as we were imagining it.
So we went and talked to people at both ends of the FOI process: on the one hand, journalists who make requests, and on the other, the information officers who respond to them.
Since we’re planning on making Alaveteli Professional available to partners around the world, it also made sense to conduct similar interviews outside the UK. Thanks to links with our Czech partner, running Informace Pro Všechny on Alaveteli, that was a simple matter. A recent event at the Times building in London also allowed us to present and discuss our findings, and listen to a couple of interesting expert presentations: Matt Burgess of Buzzfeed talked about some brilliant use of FOI to expose criminal landlords, and listed FOI officers’ biggest complaints about journalists. Josh Boswell of the Sunday Times was equally insightful as he ran through the ways that he uses FOI when developing stories.
These conversations have all helped.
The life of an investigative journalist is never simple
The insights our interviewees gave us were turned by Mike Thompson (formerly of mySociety, and brought back in for this phase) into a simple process model showing how journalists work when they’re pursuing an investigation using FOI.
After conceiving of a story that requires input from one or more FOI request, every journalist will go through three broad phases: research; request and response; and the final data analysis and writing. The more complicated cases can also involve refused requests and the appeals process.
For a busy working journalist, there are challenges at every step. Each of these adds time and complexity to the process of writing a story, which is an anathema to the normal daily news cycle. FOI-based stories can be slow, and timing unpredictable — editors do not particularly like being told that you’re working on a story, but can’t say when it will be ready, or how much value it will have.
During the research phase diligent journalists will make a time-consuming trawl through resources like authorities’ own disclosure logs and our own site WhatDoTheyKnow (or its equivalents in other countries), to see if the data they need has already been released.
Where a ‘round robin’ request is planned, asking for information from multiple authorities — sometimes hundreds — for information, further research is needed to ensure that only relevant bodies are included. In our two-tired council system, where different levels of authority deal with different responsibilities, and not always according to a consistent pattern, that can be a real challenge.
Wording a request also takes some expertise: get that wrong and the authorities will be coming back for clarification, which adds even more time to the process.
Once the request has been made it’s hard to keep on top of correspondence, especially for a large round robin request. Imagine sending a request to every council in the country, as might well be done for a UK-wide story, and then dealing with each body’s acknowledgements, requests for clarifications and refusals.
When the responses are in journalists often find that interpretation is a challenge. Different authorities might store data or measure metrics differently from one another; and pulling out a meaningful story means having the insight to, for example, adjust figures to account for the fact that different authorities are different sizes and cater for differently-dispersed populations.
Sadly, it’s often at this stage that journalists realise that they’ve asked the wrong question to start with, or wish that they’d included an additional dimension to the data they’ve requested.
What journalists need
As we talked through all these difficulties with journalists, we gained a pretty good understanding of their needs. Some of these had been on our list from the start, and others were a surprise, showing the value of this kind of exploration before you sit down to write a single line of code.
Here’s what our final list of the most desirable features looks like:
An embargo We already knew, anecdotally, that journalists tend not to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make requests, because of its public nature. It was slightly sobering to have this confirmed via first person accounts from journalists who had had their stories ‘stolen’… and those who admitted to having appropriated stories themselves! Every journalist we spoke to agreed that any FOI tool for their profession would need to include a way of keeping requests hidden until after publication of their story.
However, this adds a slight dilemma. Using Alaveteli Professional and going through the embargo-setting process introduces an extra hurdle into the journalist’s process, when our aim is, of course, to make the FOI procedure quicker and smoother. Can we ensure that everything else is so beneficial that this one additional task is worthwhile for the user?
Talking to journalists, we discovered that almost all are keen to share their data once their story has gone live. Not only does it give concrete corroboration of the piece, but it was felt that an active profile on an Alaveteli site, bursting with successful investigations, could add to a journalist’s reputation — a very important consideration in the industry.
Request management tools Any service that could put order into the myriad responses that can quickly descend into chaos would be welcome for journalists who typically have several FOI requests on the go at any one time.
Alaveteli Professional’s dashboard interface would allow for a snapshot view of request statuses. Related requests could be bundled together, and there would be the ability to quickly tag and classify new correspondence.
Round-robin tools Rather than send a notification every time a body responds (often with no more than an acknowledgement), the system could hold back, alerting you only when a request appears to need attention, or send you status updates for the entire project at predefined intervals.
Refusal advice Many journalists abandon a request once it’s been refused, whether from a lack of time or a lack of knowledge about the appeals process. WhatDoTheyKnow Professional would be able to offer in-context advice on refusals, helping journalists take the next step.
Insight tools Can we save journalists’ time in the research phase, by giving an easy representation of what sort of information is already available on Alaveteli sites, and by breaking down what kind of information each authority holds? That could help with terminology, too: if a request refers to data in the same language that is used internally within the council, then their understanding of the request and their response is likely to be quicker and easier.
Onwards to Alpha
We’re currently working on the next part of the build — the alpha phase.
In this, we’re building quick, minimally-functional prototypes that will clearly show how Alaveteli Professional will work, but without investing time into a fully-refined product. After all, what we discover may mean that we change our plans, and it’s better not to have gone too far down the line at that point.
If you are a journalist and you would like to get involved with testing during this stage and the next — beta — then please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, we hear from Danela Žagar, a journalist by profession and currently working at the Croatian NGO the Centre for Peace Studies. Danela says:
In Croatia unfortunately, there still remains a culture of secrecy, left over from the previous regime when everything connected with the state, public authorities, local governments and public companies was enveloped in a thick veil of secrecy. To a great extent, it still is.
But the paradigm is changing and the public are beginning to demand and expect the important principles of transparency and openness, for data to be available to the public and in an accessible format.
That said, the government still has a fear of citizens as the people who vote them in. It’s clear that many facts are still hidden despite the existence of the Information Commissioner. We still have not reached the level of openness that many other countries enjoy as standard, or at least are on their way towards.
The FOI Act is a valuable tool for journalists, and in Croatia its true potential is just being discovered. We have the right to access accurate information in a timely fashion thanks to the Media Act, but unfortunately it often happens that spokesmen for the public authorities hijack access to information.
FOI allows journalists to obtain this information — and by using the Alaveteli website imamopravoznati.org journalists can follow their own requests, and also track other interesting questions and answers from public authorities.
Since transparency is key to democracy and a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring public confidence in the work of institutions and politicians, the right of access to information is an important tool in all fields of social engagement in Croatia.
Journalists and civil society organisations often expose the bad work of politicians through this tool.
Check the next installment to learn how a journalist in Hungary uncovered a mire of corruption… in Student Unions.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.
Why are we doing this project?
Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?
Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.
Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.
That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.
What we’re doing
The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.
We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.
The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.
There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.
At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.