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.
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]
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:
- Croydon BID funds police officers and specific police operations (Team London Bridge BID has a similar programme)
- MyMiltonKeynes has street cleaning and pest control projects.
- Halton Chamber Enterprises Ltd, which runs the Halebank and Astmoor Business Improvement Districts, provides defibrillators
- Brilliant Brighton runs Christmas light displays, and provides hanging baskets and bunting.
The establishment of a BID requires the support of both:
- the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
- 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.
“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
The Freedom of information Act is a defence against corruption and incompetence in public life. Arguments to exclude ARIA from FOI do not make a convincing case for an exception, and are part of a broader attack on a pillar of good governance.
The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill passed through Parliament this week. This creates a new research investment agency (ARIA), with the unusual feature of the organisation being explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information (FOI).
This is unusual. Very few public organisations are explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information and the few other examples include the Queen and MI5 . How FOI law works is that certain kinds of information are excluded, and so this means different organisations have different amounts of their work open to the public. Existing exemptions around research interests and confidential information mean that similar research bodies can operate within a reasonable balance of preserving confidentiality, space for policy making, and protection of on-going research (see the CFOI briefing on ARIA and an editorial on the topic in Nature). There is no real reason to believe FOI compliance would damage ARIA’s mission… unless you believe that FOI is bad, full stop.
When ARIA was announced, the statement said:
“Noting that ARIA will be a small body with minimal administrative capacity, we will remove the burden of processing Freedom of Information requests.”
This is already fairly negative about FOI, but when it came to defending the policy in the House of Lords, the language got worse. Lord Callanan (a minister at BEIS, which will have oversight of ARIA) called Freedom of Information a “truly malign piece of legislation” that does not achieve “anything at all” and “not much is ever released under freedom of information that causes any problems for government”. Punchy stuff, that also makes you think decision-makers are not opposed to Freedom of Information just for this case. ARIA is the embodiment of a bigger idea that the government takes too few risks, and so should place some risky bets on what is going to succeed in the future. The exclusion from FOI is also part of a bigger idea, that accountability and open government is bad.
You could pick apart the specific arguments made about ARIA, but these aren’t the real arguments, and taking them seriously makes everyone involved sound silly. It’s not credible that even if a well-funded agency received “a disproportionate” number of FOI requests, having a person sit in the corner and process them would substantially impact the mission. If FOI would really trip up ARIA, it is not going to achieve its goals. If, on the other hand, ARIA is going to be staffed with professionals making reasonable decisions on long-bet investments, these professionals could handle a few FOI requests, as professionals do across the public sector.
These arguments are not really about ARIA, and it is not fair to the people tasked with delivering ARIA’s expansive vision that they are starting off under the implication that they have something to hide. The real argument being made is that Freedom of Information is annoying and it stops people doing things they shouldn’t. If FOI was as useless as Callanan says, he wouldn’t care enough to block it, and no one else would care if he did. Indeed, while he was speaking the government was separately dealing with the fallout from the Owen Patterson scandal which was sparked by an FOI request. FOI is an effective way to discover bad things that are happening.
Freedom of Information is swiss-army-knife legislation that stops the need for a thousand bespoke systems of disclosure for every new government agency. Most FOI requests do not discover big scandals, but more than none do, and these have a very big impact. Freedom of Information has a chilling effect on government incompetence and corruption, and those trying to hide from it should be seen as suspiciously as people carrying bin bags of money into a bank.
ARIA is going to be outside FOI, and that’s a shame. But they’re only small in the grand scheme of things. Last year, we outlined a series of straightforward reforms to make the whole system of FOI better and more effective. Over the next year we’ll expand more on how we can improve the power of Freedom of Information, to make sure it continues to expose bad government, and annoy the right people far into the future.
When created, ARIA will be subject to the environmental information regulations, and will be listed on WhatDoTheyKnow, in line with our policy on including authorities beyond the scope of FOI. We would hope that ARIA chooses to answer questions from the public, even in cases where they are not legally required to do so.
Header image: Michael Held on Unsplash
: Technically the ‘Royal household’ and it’s the wider range of security services such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
Recently the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and rivers has been in the news in the UK. This prompted us to update and expand our coverage of organisations responsible for such activities on our access to information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Since a ruling in 2015 all organisations which provide certain water and sewage related services have been considered public bodies for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations; this means everyone has a right to the environmental information they hold. Even private water and sewage companies can be considered public bodies under the regulations.
We often describe WhatDoTheyKnow.com as a Freedom of Information website, but it can be used to obtain public information under a range of access to information legislation, not just the UK and Scotland’s Freedom of Information Acts. So if you want environmental information about sewage we’d love to see you requesting it, in public, via WhatDoTheyKnow.
We’ve listed water companies on WhatDoTheyKnow for some time, and we have now specifically collected those responsible for sewers into their own category. This will hopefully assist people considering making a request for information and help ensure requests are directed to appropriate organisations.
We’re always keen to see requests made in a responsible manner. Anyone considering making a request for information should check relevant bodies’ websites for the information they are seeking before making a request. Some organisations publish some information about releases of untreated raw sewage, and information about their plans to monitor, and reduce, such occurrences. Where information is collated by a central body, requesting it once, from that body, is more efficient than requesting it from many bodies. The Environment Agency for example collates and publishes some data on storm overflows centrally.
We list the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Highways bodies (which are responsible for surface drainage from roads), and many other relevant bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Before making your own requests it’s a good idea to look at work which has already been done by others to collate, present and share information: for example the Rivers Trust have published a map of where the sewerage network discharges treated effluent and overflows of untreated effluent and storm water into rivers in England & Wales.
The current interest in this subject in the UK has focused on MPs’ consideration of the Environment Bill. Proposals for the Bill include provisions requiring the publication of information on the location of “storm overflows” and the frequency, duration and volume of discharges from such overflows. We’re keen to see timely proactive publication of information rather than having information only released on request; we’re more than happy to see the need for our service reduced by greater proactive transparency from public bodies.
We would like to see news articles, campaigners and academics citing, and linking to, the sources of the data on which their work is based. This improves the credibility of the work, and enables others to check, and build on, what has been done. Requesting information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes such citations and links easy to offer.
Image: Ivan Bandura
If you’ve recently received a refusal to a Freedom of Information request you sent through WhatDoTheyKnow, you might have noticed our latest feature.
As mentioned in a previous blog post we’ve been working on functionality to help people challenge refusals, and the first iteration of this is up and running.
You might now see an automated notice above a refusal, identifying which exemption may have been applied. These are visible only to the person who made the request, and do not appear in every case; see more about that below.
Click ‘get help to challenge it’ and you’ll be presented with a series of questions about your request and the reply you received from the authority, to see whether there is any scope for a challenge.
Your answers to these questions will generate tailored advice on what to do next, also presenting you with editable fragments of text that you can use to get started with any challenge or request for clarification.
What’s the thinking?
WhatDoTheyKnow has always existed to make it easier for anyone to make an FOI request, without having to be an expert in the law.
We think we’ve got the initial part of that down pretty well (with the obvious caveat that there are always improvements to be made) — but up until now we haven’t directed a lot of attention to what happens after the authority responds.
Even for seasoned users of FOI, but especially for those new to the whole area, it is daunting to receive a refusal from an authority. By their nature, FOI responses contain some legalese, and this can be enough to make the best of us think, ‘Ah well, they probably know more about it than I do’ — and give up.
But another way of looking at it is that this legalese is there to help you. A body can’t just turn down your request because it doesn’t want to answer it: it has to say which exemption it is using under FOI law. If you know your way around that law, it is the key to understanding what to do next, and in fact, it’s this legal bumph that our code will be using to check what questions to ask you.
Before we introduced this intervention, a good number of users just gave up when they received a refusal from an authority — and that’s fair enough. We’d been directing users to a generic help page with details of what options are broadly available for challenging a refusal, but only the very determined would take it further.
And as we mentioned in our previous post, 22% of internal reviews (where you ask the request to be examined again, by a different member of staff at the authority) result in the full or partial release of information. It’s clear that bodies can, and do make mistakes sometimes.
Our new functionality helps you discern where that might have happened, and put together a decent challenge.
How it works
When an FOI request is refused, the authority have to give the reason, and this has to be one of a set number of ‘exemptions’ — clauses in the FOI Act that list the circumstances under which an authority is not obliged to disclose information.
Our code scans the response to identify which exemption/s have been applied. Remember, though, that this is just an automated best guess, so it’s still very much up to the user to check whether it’s correct!
At the next stage the user will be asked: “Did the authority mention any of these exemptions when refusing your request?” and there is the chance to remove exemptions if they’re wrong, and add any that haven’t been picked up by the code.
Then, informed by guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the identified exemption, we present a series of questions which should help you understand whether there are grounds for asking for an internal review.
Depending on your answers, you’ll see some advice. This might simply tell you that the exemption seems to have been applied correctly; it might advise you to ask the authority to clarify areas where their response is unclear, or it could point out where it appears that there has been an error on the part of the authority.
Note the various variations on ‘you have/may have grounds for an internal review’ — this is because each conclusion has been generated by a different response to one of the questions. In this example, the user has four different potential challenges to the refusal:
- The exemption seems to have been incorrectly applied
- The authority hasn’t provided some evidence that they should have
- The user has identified something about the contract that means the exemption shouldn’t have been applied to every part of it
- The authority hasn’t demonstrated that disclosure would be prejudicial to business interests
Whew! But if that’s a little overwhelming, there’s still some more support for the user.
Click ‘request an internal review’ and you’ll be shown some fragments of text you can copy and paste into your reply to help you start composing it. These are just prompts: they can be edited or overwritten to reflect your specific situation, and to allow you to express yourself in the language you’d ordinarily use.
Know your exemptions
Some exemptions are used far more commonly than others: for example we discovered when we began this work that the most often applied was the Section 12 exemption, ‘where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit’ — that is, responding in full would cost the authority too much in terms of expense or manhours.
Other common exemptions are Section 14 (turning down ‘vexatious’ or repeated requests for the same information); Section 40 (where the release would contain someone’s personal information); and Section 21 (where the information is already available elsewhere).
It’s worth knowing basic facts around exemptions: for example, if some of the information you’ve requested is covered by an exemption (say, a portion of it would contain personal information) the authority should still be releasing the rest. And if they tell you it’s available elsewhere, they should also do all they can to point you to the relevant place.
Some exemptions require a public interest test, where the authority must weigh up whether it is more beneficial for society as a whole to release the information than it is beneficial under the conditions of the exemption to refuse it. An example may be where the information relates to the UK’s defence capability, but would reveal something so important for the public to be aware of that any potential threat to national security is outweighed.
For this first stage of the new functionality, we covered the 13 most commonly used exemptions out of the full 27. Also, our tool might miss some exemptions. If that’s the case, or the exemption can’t be identified, you simply won’t see anything on the request.
The ICO provides detailed guidance for authorities about each exemption, and this has also proved invaluable for us as we strive to point out where there may be room for requesting a review. As we’ve learned while creating this functionality, law is not precise: in many cases it is open to interpretation, and legal challenges at tribunal act as precedents, helping to consolidate its exact meaning. The ICO guidance is basically an attempt to unify such interpretation.
But the average person may not have the time to read up on the ins and outs of how this exemption or that should be applied, so we hope our sets of questions will give you a short cut towards understanding whether there’s a valid challenge to be made. Eventually, we hope it’s not too bold to suggest, the functionality may even increase the public’s understanding of FOI.
We are, of course, keen that this initiative doesn’t place an extra burden on authorities. The mechanism should work just as well in pointing out where the authority has acted correctly, and so discourage pointless challenges.
Where requests for internal reviews are made, the result should be that they are better informed, clearly structured and based on valid challenges. In time, this feature may even have the knock-on effect that authorities are incentivised to improve their initial responses, taking more care that exemptions are correctly applied.
We know this isn’t perfect yet, so if you’re from an authority and you want to share feedback, please do let us know. And if you’re a member of the public and you see anomalies in the wording or interface, please do also get in touch. You can contact us here.
WhatDoTheyKnow is kept up and running by a dedicated team of volunteers. Do you have the time or skills required to help? If you think you might like to lend a hand, read on to see what they do on a daily basis, as well as some examples of desired site improvements.
One of the volunteers’ many tasks is to maintain what we believe to be the largest existing database of public bodies in the UK (38,362 of them…and counting).
This requires quite a bit of time and effort to keep up to date: email addresses change; bodies merge, get new names or just cease to exist.
The turnover of the financial year always brings an extra slew of required changes; presumably many bodies like to use this date for a nice neat cut-off in their records. So, to give a snapshot of the sort of admin work the volunteers undertake, let’s take a look at every task April 1 brought the team this year.
Thirteen new authorities were added. Some of them are so new that they haven’t yet had any FOI requests made through the site. Perhaps you’ll be the first?
- The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service was formed through the merger of two existing services.
- 39 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups became defunct, and nine new bodies were added:
- NHS North West London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Kirklees Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Coventry and Warwickshire Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Black Country and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS North East London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Frimley Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Hampshire, Southampton and Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group
- We also marked 2 NHS Trusts as defunct and added one successor: the University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust.
- We’ve added the new UK Health Security Agency, which has been set up to work on public health threats, combining elements of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
- All district, borough and county councils in Northamptonshire (eight in total) were abolished on 1 April to be replaced by two new unitary authorities:
When we add a new body that replaces an existing one, we also make sure that no-one can make requests to the now-defunct authority — while at the same time, requests made to it in the past, along with any responses, are still available to view, and requests in progress can still be followed up.
We also set up page redirects to the new body, and replicate all of the metadata that helps WhatDoTheyKnow’s system work behind the scenes. It might be a bit of a faff but it’s worth the effort to keep things running smoothly.
Many thanks to volunteer Martyn for completing the lion’s share of the work listed above.
How you can help
If you know of any other changes that haven’t been reflected on the site, please do let us know.
If this post has reminded you how much you enjoy admin, consider joining the team! We always need more volunteers to help us run the site, keep the database up to date, deal with requests to remove material, and support our users. Find out more here.
There are some specific tasks that are top of our wish-list, too:
- We’d love to do some intensive work on our list of parish level councils to make it comprehensive — this could mean a few people working systematically through a list, or several checking how well their local area is represented on WhatDoTheyKnow. Local democracy matters, more so than ever, and transparency is important for bringing happenings to light (as events in Handforth have recently reminded us!).
- We have ambitions to organise our bodies geographically, showing bodies which operate in particular areas, or showing maps of the areas covered by bodies. See this ticket for a discussion of some of the possibilities which we haven’t had the resource to completely finesse.
mySociety has experience in mapping UK governmental areas, but we’re yet to integrate that expertise into WhatDoTheyKnow — do you have the required coding skills to make it happen?
- We’d like to do more organising of the bodies by their function too, helping guide users to the appropriate body fo their request.
If you have skills in web-scraping, spreadsheet wrangling, database maintenance or other relevant areas and think you can help us — please let us know!
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Image: Anastasia Zhenina
We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.
We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.
Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.
We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.
At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.
Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted.
It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.
Image: Ben Garratt
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.
That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.
Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.
We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.
We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.
The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.
To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.
Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Education
Wirral Borough Council
UK Borders Agency
Birmingham City Council
Brighton & Hove City Council
Liverpool City Council
Transport for London
Westminster City Council
Ministry of Defence
Metropolitan Police Service
Bristol City Council
Ministry of Justice
Lambeth Borough Council
Camden Borough Council
Department of Health
Kent County Council
Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.
With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.
Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.
Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:
- Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
- Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
- Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
- Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
- Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.
These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.
Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK, coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.
Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.
In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.
If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.
Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.
In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.
The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.
We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.
Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.
Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.
If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.
Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:
- A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
- Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
- Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
- Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
- Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
- The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.
Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:
- Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
- Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
- Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
- Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
- In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
- In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
- Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
- …Other ideas? Let the Alaveteli mailing list know.
And some solutions we don’t recommend:
While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.
Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.
It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.
In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.
In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.
Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.
This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:
In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.
In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.
If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.
Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.
If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.
Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.
Official government sites
We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.
One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.
For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.
But! Together we’re stronger
Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.
If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!