1. A tool to help challenge FOI refusals — now on WhatDoTheyKnow

    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.

    An alert saying "Bristol City Council may have refused all or part of your request under Section 43, Section 41, and Section 42. Get help to challenge it."

    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.

    questions about the FOI request, including 'is the information that you requested commercial in nature?' and 'is the information yuo requested a contract?' from WhatDoTheyKnow

    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.

    Dear Bristol City Council, Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews. I am writing to request an internal review of Bristol City Council's handling of my FOI request 'property purchase - valuations, terms of sale and contracts'. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is commercially sensitive, disclosure would be, or would be likely to be, prejudicial to the commercial activities of a person (an individual, a company, the public authority itself or any other legal entity)". This response does not appear to have included such details, so I am requesting that you conduct an internal review, and, if the exemption is upheld, show how the release would be prejudicial to commercial activities, and of whom.

    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.

    Checkboxes on WHatDoTheyKnow asking the user to confirm which exemption their request has ben refused under

    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.

    Image saying 'you may have grounds for an internal review' followed by four sentences saying much the same, on WhatDoTheyKnow

    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.

    Selection of different types of challenge to an FOI refusal, on WhatDoTheyKnow, eg "The authority refused to disclose the requested information on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to business interests, but has not demonstrated the likelihood of this prejudice occuring. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is comme... Read more"

    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.

    Sharing knowledge

    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.

    Image: Andrew Fleming (CC by-nc/2.0)

  2. WhatDoTheyKnow: one for the admin-lovers

    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. 


    Ginormous database

    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.

    New authorities

    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?

    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!


    Image: Anastasia Zhenina

  3. FixMyStreet during London’s lockdown

    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

     

  4. A fulsome FOI response — from a body not subject to FOI

    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.

    Image: Martin Deutsch (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  5. What People Want To Know on 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.

    Subject matter

    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

    6,841

    Department for Education

    1,974

    Home Office

    5,381

    Wirral Borough Council

    1,953

    UK Borders Agency

    3,377

    Birmingham City Council

    1,582

    Brighton & Hove City Council

    3,367

    Liverpool City Council

    1,538

    Transport for London

    3,111

    Westminster City Council

    1,501

    Ministry of Defence

    2,859

    HMRC

    1,476

    Metropolitan Police Service

    2,515

    Bristol City Council

    1,301

    Ministry of Justice

    2,372

    Lambeth Borough Council

    1,296

    BBC

    2,310

    Camden Borough Council

    1,290

    Department of Health

    1,989

    Kent County Council

    1,235

     

    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:

    1. Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
    2. 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
    3. Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
    4. 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
    5. 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.

     

    Image: Allison McDonald (CC)

  6. Learnings from AlaveteliCon (2): the challenges are the same

    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.

    Bureaucracy

    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.

    Non-compliance

    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.

    For a great example of this, see this report from TuDerechoASaber in Spain. Need a quick way to get at your site’s statistics? Foie-Graphs will do just that for any Alaveteli instance.

    If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.

    Slippery authorities

    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!

     

     

    Image: Particlem (CC)

  7. Changes to public authorities today

    National Health Service changes in England

    Today (1st April 2013) marks a significant change in the way that the NHS in England is structured.  Strategic Health Authorities (SHA) & Primary Care Trusts (PCT) are abolished, and their responsibilities are being taken on by newly created Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG), the National Commissioning Board, Public Health England and local authorities.

    The split is roughly along these lines:

    • Clinical Commissioning Groups commission elective hospital care, urgent and emergency care, community healthcare and mental healthcare & learning disability services for the local areas they cover
    • The National Commissioning Board covers primary care contracting (GP Contracting, Dental, Pharmacy), specialised services, offender healthcare, secure mental health care and some armed forces healthcare
    • “Top-tier” and unitary Local Authorities take on responsibilities for these aspects of public health: sexual health services, drug and alcohol treatment, health checks, school nursing programmes, giving up smoking programmes and services to prevent childhood obesity
    • Public Health England is a national body which will work closely with local authorities’ public health teams, carrying out a range of activities to protect and improve the nation’s health, eg to co-ordinating work to combat infectious diseases such as flu or infections acquired in hospitals such as MRSA, or to carry out national publicity campaigns to prevent ill health

    This means quite a bit of change to the public authority listings on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    1) PCTs and SHAs are now marked as “defunct” to prevent new requests from being made (see below for more details).

    2) We’ve now listed all the new CCGs, but we’re missing email addresses for around 15% of them.  It’s clear that many CCGs are not quite ready to welcome FOI requests.  Even though they went live today, there are a fair number of websites still under construction (I’ve seen lots of “lorem ipsum” text today), with no contact details.  We aim to get these all up-to-date in the next few weeks as they get up to speed.

    3) The National Commissioning Board and Public Health England have been added to the site

    4) We’ll be adding local Health and Wellbeing Boards, Healthwatch organisations & Local Education & Training Boards soon.

    Police Service changes in Scotland

    Under the banner of reducing duplication and cost-saving (BBC article), police services in Scotland are being completely re-organised with 2 new central bodies replacing all the regional police forces and boards:

    Fire Service changes in Scotland

    Similar changes are taking place with Scotland’s fire services:

    Other joiners & leavers…

    The following is a round-up of other changes taking place today…

    Say hello to:

    And goodbye to:

    And although they’re officially changing, it’s pretty much business as usual for:

    Defunct public authorities

    We flag old public bodies that no longer exist as “defunct” to prevent new requests from being made.  In most circumstances FOI officers transfer across in-flight requests to the relevant replacement authority.  If you need to follow-up a request to a defunct public body (e.g. if there’s no further contact from an authority), the website will let you, however the “old” authority is no longer under any obligation to reply.  You may need to re-send your request to a new public authority which will restart the 20-day clock…

    Please help us!

    Given the scale of change, if you find any incorrect information for these public authority listings, please let us know!  Also please get in touch if you find an email address for any of those we’re still on the hunt for…

     

  8. How flood warnings should look online

    If you live anywhere in Britain, it won’t have escaped your attention that it’s been raining a bit, recently.

    This has been causing quite a bit of flooding. And when flooding happens, people need to know if it is going to affect them.

    Unfortunately, the Environment Agency flood warning website leaves something to be desired. It is, quite frankly, a usability dogs’ breakfast, with problems including:

    • It doesn’t answer the main question: Most users arriving at this page simply want to know if they might be in danger. The page should be all about answering that question.
    • It is trying to serve national and local needs: Information about flooding across the whole country might be useful to journalists or civil servants, but it shouldn’t be the main element.
    • Clutter, clutter: A massive grid of numbers which don’t really mean anything, plus lots of sidebar links.
    • Confusing graphics: The page contains a national map which doesn’t actually make it clear that the colours relate to the seriousness of flooding, or that it provides links to further content.

    There are also some non-design problems with the postcode lookup, but today we want to stick to just the design issues.

    Not just moaning minnies

    View Mockup

    At mySociety we try to be constructive in our criticism, and so whilst the flood waters are still draining from many people’s homes, we thought that we could do something positive. We want to show that a flood warning page could be an exemplar of clear, user-centered information design. So we made a mockup.

    Some of the improvements we’d like to point out are:

    • A big page title that makes it obvious what this page is, and the fact that it is official information.
    • All the main elements on the page are now focussed on the most likely needs of potential flood victims – journalists can follow a link to a different page for their needs.
    • We’ve removed roughly 90% of the links on the page for clarity.
    • We’ve removed all numerical data because it wasn’t adding value. Nobody can know if ‘5 warnings’ is a lot or a little without some context. As a nod to the overall context we’ve put in a simple graph, similar to a sparkline.
    • It presents a clear button to click on if you’re actually endangered by a flood.
    • It gives you a way to find out if other people near you are talking about local flooding via social media.

    We hope you like this. It’s just the product of a couple of hours’ work, so if you have any suggestions on how it could be better, please let us know.

    And, of course, we’re always happy to do similar work for other people.

  9. Can you recognize the million pound chair?

    Governments, companies and large organisations of all kinds regularly spend astonishing amounts of money on computer systems that are either completely broken, or which are instances of  what I call Hateware – software that appears to have been designed by people who actually hate users.

    Why does this happen? Obviously there are multiple, terribly complicated factors. But I’m going to boil down one of the biggest problems to a little story.

    Story time

    [Dreamy fade sequence]

    Imagine you have been made responsible for replacing the desk chairs in your office. The old ones have gone all sweat coloured, and you’re worried one might collapse.

    So you put out a competitive tender for furniture companies. You wait, vet and score all their bids, and finally you invite the finalists in to make their pitch.

    In they come: smart, sober, dressed in a way that suggests success whilst avoiding ostentation. They set up their presentation, and start to tell you about the range of office furniture they have. The pitch is fantastic. They’ve already thought about all your concerns. They have an impressive array of happy clients who are just like you. Their slides are polished and focussed. They’ve brought fabric swatches to flick through. The chairs are handsome, with just the right number of pleasing gizmos. And they can ship next week.

    The presentation draws to a close – any questions?

    “Well, that was fantastic – I particularly like your X1 basic office chair. Just one question, what’s the cost?”

    A few minutes pass as they reflect on the wide range of maintenance contract options, chair customisations and bulk purchasing reductions. Eventually, with a little nudging, you get the price for one chair.

    “The base price of the X1 office chair is currently one millions pounds, with a £500,000 yearly licensing contract. Plus tax.”

    Moments later the presenters, laptops, suits and fabric swatches bump to earth on the pavement outside the office door. Security is instructed never to let anyone from the company in, ever again.

    The Moral

    How does this little story explain anything about ICT?

    Well, re-read the story above, but replace ‘chair’ with ‘payroll system’. And replace ‘fabric swatch’ with ‘lovingly photoshopped mockups, customised for your company branding’. Go on – I’ll wait.

    The pitch no longer seems so crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t kick someone out when they announce the price. Why? Because you don’t know what is a sane price for a payroll system, and what’s an absurd, insulting price.

    The moral here is quite simple: you can’t make good decisions if you are lacking even the most basic frame of reference about what something should cost, or how it works.

    The problem is that when it comes to identifying technology needs, and procuring successfully to fill them, you can’t simply rely on general life experience to save you.  It’s  a specialist skill, and one that requires knowledge to be constantly relearned and unlearned as technologies change.

    Too few large organisations understand this. They see buying a new computer system as very much like buying new furniture – it’s just ‘all stuff the office needs’, along with car parks, printer paper or tea bags. This attitude fails to see that many modern organisations don’t have IT systems and websites, they are IT systems and websites. They can no more delegate this to some junior staffer than they can delegate the strategy of the whole business.

    Almost all large organisations today need at least one person right up at the top level of the company who can spot the million pound chairs without the help of subordinates.

    Now what?

    Once organisations understand that they are regularly buying million pound chairs, their CEOs and boards face another problem: how do they know which of their staff can actually spot the million pound chair, if any?

    Unfortunately, the solution isn’t obvious.

    As of right now there are no professional qualifications that would guarantee the right skills set. Worse, there’s even an unfortunate association in my mind between people with lots of qualifications like ‘MSCE’ and ‘SAP Certified Associate’ and projects that are triply gold plated, entirely missing user-centered design, and inevitably compromised by a tribal loyalty to one vendor.

    So what’s a CEO to do? The answer, for now, unfortunately has to be to hire through trust and reputation networks. Find people who appear to have delivered nimble, popular user-centred projects on limited budgets, and get them to help you hire and restructure.

    Trust networks, of course, can backfire: trust the wrong person and you can be in trouble. But the Enterprise computing world has backfired into the laps of leaders and managers enough times in the last two decades.

    It is time for leaders to bring some people who have got their hands dirty in the guts of digital projects into the decision making rooms, and onto the decision making boards.

    ————

    Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety, a social enterprise which provides consultation services and software development to a range of clients in the public and private sectors.

    Tom will be talking more on this theme at the Local Government Association Conference next week.

  10. Network Rail

    Today we’ve re-added Network Rail to the list of public bodies one can make requests for information from via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Network Rail owns, runs, maintains and develops most of the UK’s rail infrastructure including tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, viaducts. It owns almost all of the UK’s stations and manages the biggest and busiest.

    Network Rail is not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations however we use our site for activism by listing many bodies which are not formally subject to FOI or EIR. Some of these voluntarily comply with FOI, others don’t but we add them because we think they ought be subject to the Act on grounds such as:

    The degree to which Network Rail is a public body is a subject of controversy however a number of the criteria listed above clearly apply to the company.

    The Information Commissioner once ruled that Network Rail is a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations however this was overturned by a Information Tribunal Decision in 2007 .

    The tribunal decision noted:

    [Network Rail] is a major landowner whose estate … in the words of its website, includes “many sites of great environmental, geological, historical and architectural importance” as well as much contaminated land.

    The tribunal expressed a view the position of Network Rail in relation to access to information legislation is “clearly unsatisfactory”.

    Network Rail

    We originally added Network Rail to our site back in 2008 before we had developed the above policies and we closed it to new requests after the first request sent didn’t get a response.

    Recently there have been positive indications in relation to access to information held by Network Rail. On the 2nd of February 2012, transport minister Norman Baker speaking in Parliament said:

    Network Rail has promised that it is in the process of developing a voluntary information rights code, which will mirror many of the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. We welcome that initiative and believe that, if properly implemented, it will provide an alternative to legislation. We expect the company to introduce the code alongside a broader package of Government reforms later this year.

    This followed an earlier statement, from the 18th of January 2012, by Earl Attlee, answering a written question on behalf of the government:

    Network Rail is a private sector company. The Government have no current plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act to the company. However, we welcome the fact that Network Rail is taking steps to enhance its own transparency and is developing a voluntary publication scheme with which it will comply.

    The approved model publication scheme used by public bodies which have to have one states:

    Information held by a public authority that is not published under this scheme can be requested in writing…

    Hopefully our re-listing of Network Rail will help push Network Rail’s openness and transparency agenda along and enable our users to benefit from the new era of openness being promised within the company. Making correspondence related to requests for information publicly available via our site will enable everyone to see how it goes.