Last week, we shared research into the state of Freedom of Information in local councils. The standout finding? That the volume of FOI requests to local authorities has more than doubled in the past decade.
The resulting increase in transparency of our councils, along with the work many have done to ensure that they are providing more and better services to citizens, can only be welcomed. But of course, such an increase also brings challenges, which will be best met with robust systems and tools to maximise efficiency.
Fortunately, while mySociety’s Research team were crunching those figures, the Transparency team have been working in parallel on a project to explore and prototype around better case management of FOI and Subject Access Requests in local authorities.
In partnership with four councils, and funded by the Local Digital Fund, this project looked at user journeys for council staff who handle information requests, to determine whether the development of a new digital tool was likely to foster efficiencies.
The resulting reports are now available to read on the mySociety research portal. One early discovery was that most existing digital case management solutions are not ideal for the very specific needs of FOI handling in local councils, for various reasons that are outlined in the reports.
But problems with request handling are not due only to a lack of suitable digital tools. By observing and speaking to people dealing with information requests across the four councils, the team was able to identify the offline systems and qualities that are likely to lead to better case management, and to pin down the issues that prevent such outcomes.
Another major finding came while assessing the viability of designing a digital tool that would better serve councils’ needs. The team were made aware of an existing piece of Open Source software developed by the Ministry of Justice, and ascertained that one practical way forward would be to build on this tool to supplement it with the features identified as lacking elsewhere.
Along the way, the team amassed much information on the variations in the way that different councils handle requests, and considered metrics which any council would be wise to monitor in order to understand the efficacy of their services and where weak points exist.
Every council will benefit from reading these reports, and of course if the recommendations are put in place, the improvements that should follow will also benefit all citizens who seek information.
Meanwhile, we would very much like to take our own findings further, and develop a digital offering based on the MoJ tool: we think it could be genuinely transformative for councils, and, being Open Source, the outcome would be available to all. If you’re from a local authority who might be interested in exploring this with us, do get in touch; we’re also planning to add the potential project to G-Cloud so that a wider audience of councils see it as a potential option if they’re searching for request handling software.
If you were reading back in September, you might remember the work we did with Hackney Council to create a more effective interface for people making FOI requests — we blogged about it here.
We’re really pleased to be able to extend this work, thanks to a successful bid to the Local Digital Fund. Over four months, we’re working with Hackney and some other authorities (Suffolk, Stevenage, East Herts and Cornwall) to take a really good look at the workflows of council staff who manage and respond to FOI and Subject Access requests.
Around 475,000 FOI requests were received by UK local authorities in 2017 – which averages out at 1,100 per authority, although it’s unlikely to be weighted evenly across the board. Nonetheless, one thing’s for sure: a significant amount of every council’s time and resources are spent in triaging and responding to requests, and with this work we’re hoping we can bring efficiencies and improvements.
In this phase, we’re conducting user research and then using what we discover to prototype ideas for an end-to-end request-handling system — open source, of course. Once that’s complete and we’ve got a good picture of the challenges involved, the processes already available and feedback on our own prototypes, we’ll be able to advise on whether it makes sense to proceed further.
One commitment we made when applying for this project was that we’d be ‘working in the open’. We want to document what we’re up to at every stage along the way, so not only will any other authority be able to benefit from a finished product that could result from our work; but also, everyone will be able to learn from what works, and maybe even what doesn’t, as we go through this process of investigation and discovery.
To that end, we’ve been making weekly updates which anyone who’s interested can read. In summary, though, we kicked off the work in the first week of January, and so far we’ve drafted a research plan; spent some time re-reading our own research on FOI statistics and local government FOI admin; and had an intensive couple of days interviewing and observing council staff in Hackney as they go about their business dealing with FOI and Subject Access requests.
The user research continued over the weeks as we conducted remote interviews with staff from the other councils — Stevenage, Cornwall and Suffolk.
This has already been incredibly useful and, just as you’d expect, we’ve found out small details and wider themes this way that we would never have chanced upon without having the chance to observe governance staff in their own environment.
It’s an opportunity for councils as well: as far as we can tell, it is unusual for authorities (and in some cases, even, departments within the same authority!) to communicate with one another about their FOI processes and challenges. Our research will hopefully be a novel chance for them to compare methods and learn from one another.
We’ll be updating our weeknotes regularly, and we’ll also come back here to share our progress and findings, so depending on just how much depth you want, follow along at the LocalGovDigital Pipeline, or just wait for our next blog post here on our own site!
Image: Hackney Council offices by Martin Wright
This is part II in a series of blog posts about our work with Hackney Council to conduct a discovery and prototyping project to improve the public-facing parts of information request processes. Read the first part here.
With our experience of running WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli, we’re big believers in the importance of information transparency laws in our democratic system. But at the same time, we understand the operational challenges of meeting the statutory requirements of these laws for public bodies.
The challenges of dealing with information requests
While many local authorities have dedicated information governance staff whose job it is to manage requests, finding and compiling the information is often done by hard-pressed staff within services, fitting in information-related work around their core responsibilities.
Requesters sometimes have the expectation that information is all carefully organised in a few databases, ready to be aggregated and extracted at the click of a button. In reality, the degree to which information is well-organised varies a lot between services in a council and between different councils, often because of procurement decisions and departmental priorities stretching back many years.
Working with Hackney Council
We’re part way through our project with Hackney Council that Mark wrote about a few weeks ago, helping them redesign the public-facing parts of their FOI and Subject Access Request (SAR) services, so we’ve seen these challenges up close. We’ve also seen how they can be made even trickier by legacy IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.
— Rob Miller (@RobMiller31) February 28, 2018
At our ‘show and tell’ last week with Hackney, we shared findings from some of the research we’ve done, along with early prototypes of potential new FOI and SAR submission forms, both created collaboratively with Hackney Council staff.
Prototyping with the GDS toolkit
We decided to go straight from sketches to HTML-based prototypes for this project. We thought that moving in-browser with real interactive elements would make it easier to test out some of the more complicated interactions and conditional workflow of the SAR process in particular.
Prototyping is about quickly testing hypotheses, and not getting bogged down in implementation details. So it was a pleasure to use the GDS frontend toolkit to build our prototypes. Not only did the GOV.UK toolkit help us build something relatively rich in just a few days, but it also meant we benefited from GDS’s previous work on design patterns developed for exactly this kind of context.
Using public information to reduce FOI requests
When submitting a request via WhatDoTheyKnow, users are automatically shown previously submitted requests that might answer their question, and we know that almost 10% of requesters have a look at these suggestions in more detail.
As you can see here, we took this pattern from WhatDoTheyKnow, and enhanced it further in our FOI prototype.
Now, as well as prompting with previous FOI responses from a disclosure log that we’re hoping to build, we also want to include relevant links to other topical or frequently requested information, drawn from other data sources within the council.
If we can get this to work well, we think it could have a number of benefits:
- Helping the person submitting the FOI get their answer more quickly
- Reducing the number of requests that would otherwise have been sent to the council
- Encouraging more proactive, structured publishing of data by the council.
It’s this last point which we’re really interested in, longer term. We think using a common sense technology approach to highlight possible answers to FOI requests before they are made will get people answers more quickly, reduce the burden on responders, and reinforce efforts to proactively release commonly requested data leading to real transparency benefits.
We’ve been doing usability testing of these prototypes over the last few days, and will be looking very closely at whether our assumptions here stand up to scrutiny.
Reducing back and forth around SARs
Given our background, we’re inevitably very interested in the FOI component of this project, but the Subject Access Request component is no less important. And while there’s none of the same opportunity for pre-emptively answering people’s requests, there’s plenty of scope for making the submission process a lot smoother.
A valid FOI is just a written request and some contact details, but the information needed for a SAR to be valid is much greater and more complicated. For example, along with the specifics of the request, a solicitor asking for personal information on behalf of a parent and their 16-year old child would have to provide proof of ID and address for both family members, a letter of consent from the child, and a letter of authority from the parent, confirming that the solicitor is acting for them. Even the most straightforward SAR calls for the handling of personal data and confirmation of the requestor’s identity and address.
Given all this complexity, it’s easy for there to be a lot of back and forth at the start of a SAR: clarifying a request, asking for documents, arranging receipt of documents, and so on.
We’re hoping to build something that makes it much clearer to the person making the request what they’ll need to do, thereby taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the team managing the requests.
The sketch above was our first crack at something that could handle (most of) this complexity, and we’ve made a number of changes since then as our understanding of it all has increased.
Recruiting representative users to test SAR submission has proved challenging and wasn’t helped by the Beast from the East rearing its snow-covered head. But we changed tack and successfully ran some guerilla testing in Hackney’s service centre last week, and we’re hoping to do further testing later in the project that has more chance of benefiting from contacts cultivated by individual services.
Changing the conversation
The conversation around information requests often focuses on the burden of responding. And although the number of information requests local authorities receive is unlikely to decrease any time soon, we’re hoping that through our collaboration with Hackney, we can make handling them a whole lot easier.
If we do it well, we think we could eliminate a lot of the process issues created by poorly-designed legacy systems, while baking in a fundamentally more open and transparent way of operating that has the potential to benefit both citizen and state alike.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail—or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work—then please get in touch at email@example.com.
Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards