It’s a question which periodically arises from our users: why aren’t mySociety (and our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow) subject to the FOI Act?
We can see why this is an obvious question to ask. We run a site which makes it easier for people to uphold their right to information from governmental bodies. We are quick to criticise if we feel that those bodies are not adhering to the law. And if you don’t follow the standards you set for others, you’re a hypocrite, right?
But it’s also a question which fundamentally misunderstands the scope of the law, and the purpose of WhatDoTheyKnow. Since it came up again recently, we thought we’d answer it in a public blog post, so we can link here whenever it gets asked again in the future.
The recurring question
Here’s the question as it was posed in the comments to our recent post on proposed governmental FOI restrictions:
As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Well, what would you like to know?
We invited the commenter to ask us anything he would like to know, and he did so:
Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;
2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Here’s the answer
We responded as follows:
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”
The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.
For example, the development of all our projects1 is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.
Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/our parent organisation UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?’.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.
[Note that, as a charity, our accounts are audited and published in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.]
Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.
We can’t answer that bit, though
We were just about to provide the financial details asked for, when we realised that a couple of our contracts specifically forbade us from doing so.
Unlike us, the local authorities for whom we provide services are subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.
Here’s how we answered the final two questions, then:
a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.
At this juncture, we think it is worth mentioning that the costs for installing and maintaining FixMyStreet for Councils (which are laid out here) are very reasonable when compared to those charged by the giants in local government provision. Seven or eight times more reasonable in some cases.
Additionally, we encourage the use of the Open311 standard, which means that councils aren’t locked in to FixMyStreet forever, or solely. Once the Open311 endpoint is installed, other systems can easily connect.
Ah, but we can help you access that information
b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.
Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:
Annual support fee charged for existing installation:
Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
New work done on existing installation:
Oxfordshire County Council
Warwickshire County Council
Zurich City Council
Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:
Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
So there you go: that’s how we answered this particular request for information. We hope that, in doing so, we’ve also cleared up a few points for others who have wondered the same thing.
1In fact, this should have read ‘nearly all our projects’. Internal codebases (eg for our organisational sites) and some commercial codebases (eg Mapumental) are private.
When we built FixMyStreet in 2006, our primary focus was to create a tool for citizens. We wanted to make it easy, quick, and effective to report street problems, even if the user had no prior knowledge of where their reports should go. And while the tool obviously had to work for the councils who were receiving reports, it never crossed our minds to research, or try to key into, prevailing council strategies.
But over the last few years, and to the benefit of both sides, council strategy has become strongly aligned with several of the qualities that FixMyStreet was founded on. The development of our specialised software, FixMyStreet for Councils, cemented that further, based, as it is, on consultation with local authorities.
If your current strategy focuses on any or all of the following points, then FixMyStreet is extremely well-positioned to help you.
UK local authorities are fully aware of the channel shift theory by now: put reporting online, make it self-service, and see efficiency rise while costs fall.
It sounds simple, but it hinges on one important factor – you have to get the reporting interface right. Otherwise, all those hassle-free online transactions turn into irate residents on the phone, seeking help.
On first impressions, many assume that FixMyStreet is just a public platform for grumbling – so it can be quite a surprise to discover that it often has the opposite effect. By allowing everyone to see what the problems are in their own community, it provides a platform for engagement, debate – and, sometimes, solutions.
FixMyStreet is a superb tool for councils who are looking for ways to encourage residents to take a stake in their own communities.
Any council web team worth its salt will be anxious to maximise usability across the website. FixMyStreet was designed with the user at its heart: from minimising the number of clicks it takes to make a report, to making sure that every step is as easy and comprehensible as possible.
Modern society is demanding transparency across a vast array of organisations, not least government. By putting a record of every report online, FixMyStreet helps you fulfil those demands. And there are side benefits, too.
First, FixMyStreet brings previously ‘hidden’ work into the open, allowing your residents to understand the degree and quantity of work you do on their behalf.
And second, having reports online allows citizens to see at a glance whether their problem has already been reported, thus cutting down on duplicates – and saving you time.
FixMyStreet is efficient when used on a desktop; it also works very easily on mobile devices, meaning that your residents help you crowd-source information. You’re effectively multiplying your inspection capabilities by a factor of hundreds, and your residents become your ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, as one of our client councils has said.
Find out more
Drop us a line now and we’ll get right back to you.
Image credit: Dennis Skley (cc)
At mySociety we like transparency – it’s baked into most of our projects.
TheyWorkForYou attempts to make it easier to find out what your MP has been doing in Parliament. WhatDoTheyKnow tries to make it easier to find out what’s going on inside other public bodies. FixMyStreet and the upcoming FixMyTransport also use transparency to help get problems resolved.
We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.
Transparency can be useful because it means people outside an organisation can make critical, constructive suggestions about how you can improve, and it lowers the odds that people in one part of your own organisation will be ignorant of the activities of people in other parts.
We were not highly prescriptive in our instructions, and we certainly didn’t ask Tobias to ‘discover’ pre-determined findings. All we did was ask Tobias to find out who was coming to the sites, what they were doing, and whether or not the sites could be considered to be succeeding. We didn’t do it for a PR stunt: we did it so we could learn from our mistakes, and so that we could share those learnings with others who might benefit.
His detailed, quantitative analysis holds the sites up to mySociety’s own stated aims, for the first time. And we’ve published both documents, in full, below.
Swings and Roundabouts
It was great to discover that we have, indeed, attained some of our goals by running these sites. For example, one of the reasons we set up TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem was to make representatives accessible to people who were newcomers to the democratic process. It was therefore heartening to read that 60% of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35. These figures and many more are available within these highly readable papers – Tobias did a terrific job in gathering and analysing a huge amount of data, and then making it easy to understand.
These reports are rich with data, from how visitor numbers boomed during the MPs’ expenses scandal to which MPs most people sign up to receive alerts about. You can also read how a budget airline almost brought a site to its knees in 2007; what part Joanna Lumley plays in our history; and how many visits to TheyWorkForYou actually come from within Parliament itself.
TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have inspired many people around the world to set up similar (and not so similar) sites inspired by the vision of using the Internet to lower barriers to democracy. However, until now we’ve never seen a really clear-eyed assessment of what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
If you’re at all interested in using the Internet to engage people with democratic systems, Tobias Escher’s excellent research papers will make a compelling read. Thank you Toby!
…and do come back and tell us what you found interesting.
We hope to publish two evaluation reports like this at the start of each new year from now on. Next year’s sites will probably be FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Do get in touch if you’d like to input!
[Warning – the following is an exceedingly dull blog post but important for accountability]
We’re writing this post today because we’ve made a mistake. It’s not a mistake that will matter to many people, but because (rightly) our accounts are public, anyone looking at those that we just filed this week will see that we’ve admitted we made some mistakes in previous accounts.
It’s not a very exciting mistake – no money has been lost or misused – but we made some previous declarations about how money was accounted for inside mySociety that were wrong. And in the interests of complete transparency, we’ve written this post to explain how.
First off, it is probably worth explaining that mySociety is a project run by the charity UKCOD. UKCOD runs all of the not for profit sites that you see and use under the mySociety umbrella.
In order to fund the development and support of these not for profit sites we carry out commercial work from which we make profit. This commercial work is carried out by mySociety Ltd – a commercial trading company that is wholly owned by UKCOD.
The latest accounts
Yesterday UKCOD and mySociety Ltd submitted their accounts to Companies House (and, for UKCOD, to the Charity Commission) for the financial year ending 31st March 2010.
Anyone reading our accounts would notice two important points:
1) Both sets of accounts were several months latePRIOR YEAR ADJUSTMENT
2) In both sets of accounts the figures for the previous financial year 2008/09 have been restated, and a note has been added to the accounts which states for UKCOD:
In previous years, amounts of £136,274 received from the subsidiary, mySociety Limited, a company, were classed as donations from them. However, these amounts were for paying the VAT creditor and repayments to the parent for services provided by them. This has resulted in donations received (and consequently the net income) being overstated by £136,274, hence the need for the prior year adjustment.
Which leads to these questions:
1) Is the financial health of UKCOD/mySociety worse than previously reported?
2) Why are the accounts so late?
3) What does the adjustment note mean?
The answer to 1) is no, absolutely not – see below for more detail.
The answer to 2) is quite simply that discovering the errors that led to us writing the adjustment note resulted in a lot of extra work having to be carried out in order to ensure that the accounts are correct and the prior years are appropriately restated.
The answer to 3) is the next section.
Okay, so what does the adjustment note mean?
mySociety Ltd, our commercial arm, makes payments to the charity UKCOD to pay for the commercial development work carried out by UKCOD developers. In addition it makes payments to UKCOD to cover its share of the group VAT liability. Any surplus profit it makes is donated to UKCOD to support the not for profit work.
In previous years all of the payments made from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD had erroneously been reported as donations. So, for instance in a year when mySociety Ltd had paid £20,000 for VAT, £60,000 for development time and a £30,000 donation all £110,000 had been reported as a donation. The £80,000 for VAT and development had been noted, but treated as an unpaid debt owing from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD.
This had three results:
1) The surplus of UKCOD had been overstated.
2) The profit of mySociety Ltd had been under stated (or to be more precise, the loss it made was over stated).
3) A non-existent debt was reported as existing between mySociety Ltd and UKCOD.
This was, quite simply, a mistake that should have been picked up by both ourselves and our accountants. Sorry. It is embarrassing, but it does not alter the overall financial position of UKCOD/mySociety Ltd.
So what have we done about it?
1) We have reviewed our accounts and inter-company transactions for the last three years to ensure that we correctly apportion the payments between the two organizations.
2) For mySociety Ltd we have restated the profit and loss figures for the financial year 2008/09 and the creditor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
3) For UKCOD we have restated the surplus/deficit position for the financial year 2008/09 and the debtor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
4) We have sought independent legal advice and engaged a second firm of accountants with a charity specialism to review these changes. On the advice of accountants we haven’t resubmitted the accounts for any prior years as the above changes are sufficient to reflect the reporting correction. There is no increase in the tax liability of mySociety Ltd for prior years as result of these restatements.
5) We have already started work on the preparation of our 2010/11 accounts to ensure that they are delivered in a much more timely manner.
So to sum up
The net financial position of UKCOD and mySociety has not changed in any way. The accounts submitted yesterday have corrected the reporting errors of prior years so that both the starting and ending financial positions of the two organizations are correctly stated.
This is a fairly long and detailed post, but as an organization that champions transparency we felt that it was important to be as open and clear as possible about what has happened.
Paul Lenz, Head of Operations and Finance
Amandeep Rehlon, UKCOD Treasurer
Note [added 06.03.12]: We have modified this blog post to remove a single word, and replace it with one more appropriate to the topic.
Today’s Sunday Times carries an article on very high salaries paid to some of those working in the “publicly funded arts world”. The article reports Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera House’s Music Director, is paid more than £630,000 a year and is given four months a year off to carry out a second job as music director of a Rome orchestra.
While the Sunday Times’ paywall means we don’t have a direct link to their article; it appears to be based on much the same information as an article published a few days earlier by The Arts Desk.
The Sunday Times article states the Government has “expressed surprise at the sums paid” and Ed Vaizey the Culture Minister is quoted as saying:
“There really must be full transparency for all publicly funded arts bodies”.
There is also a statement from the Arts Council expressing a similar, though more limited, sentiment:
“Anybody in receipt of significant public money should be transparent about their core funding costs”.
The Arts Council, the main body which distributes public funding to the arts, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Arts Council is listed on mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com which enables people to easily make requests for information in public. While the Arts Council is responsible for handing out the money, it does not necessarily know the details of how the recipient organisations spend it. The bodies which receive funds are not themselves yet subject to freedom of information law, irrespective of how much public money they receive or how dependent they are on that subsidy.
While it may take the Minister some time to legislate to ensure “full transparency for all publicly funded arts bodies” we are happy to add such bodies to our site on request right now, so our users can ask them, in public, about their activities.
As of today the following organisations are now listed on our site:
- The Royal Opera House
- The National Theatre
- English National Opera
- The Southbank Centre
- Birmingham Royal Ballet
- City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
- London Symphony Orchestra
We use the WhatDoTheyKnow site to actively campaign for expansion of Freedom of Information to cover more public organisations. We list a number of bodies not formally subject to FOI some of which are present on the grounds they are substantially publicly funded.
For some time we have listed the British Board of Film Classification, a key arts regulatory body which is not subject to freedom of information law, and the British Film Institute; the latter two bodies are funded by the DCMS directly so Minister Ed Vaizey may well be able to get them to voluntarily comply with FOI legislation first thing on Monday morning.
A particular set of arts funding bodies which some of our users have made us aware they would like to see subject to the act are the UK Screen Agencies (eg. Film Agency Wales) which distribute public funds to the film culture sector.
Please contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any suggestions for further bodies which you would like to see us list on our site.
As you may know, TheyWorkForYou are conducting a survey of candidates for Parliament.
Quite a few people have been asking how we worked out the questions. There are two parts to this, one local and one national.
We used the power of volunteers.
Thousands of DemocracyClub members were asked to suggest local issues in there area. These were then edited by other volunteers, to have consistent grammar, and be worded as statements to agree/disagree with, and filtered to remove national issues. The full criteria and examples are available.
You can view the issues for any constituency on the DemocracyClub site. They are in the “local questions” tab.
We’ve ended up with local issues for about 85% of constituencies. They’re really interesting and high quality, and quite unique for a national survey.
Thank you to all the volunteers who helped make this happen!
This was hard, because we felt that asking more than 15 questions would make the survey too long. We also wanted to be sure it was non-partisan.
We convened a panel of judges, either from mySociety/Democracy Club or with professional experience in policy, and from across the political spectrum. They were:
- James Crabtree, chair of judges, trustee of mySociety, journalist for Prospect magazine
- Tim Green, Democracy club developer, Physics student, Cambridge University.
- Michael Hallsworth, senior researcher, Institute for Government.
- Will Davies, sociologist at University of Oxford, has worked for left of centre policy think tanks such as IPPR and Demos.
- Andrew Tucker, researcher at Birkbeck, worked for Liberal Democrats from 1996-2000.
- Robert McIlveen, research fellow, Environment and Energy unit at Policy Exchange, did PhD on Conservative party election strategy.
They met at the offices of the Institute for Government, and had a 3 hour judging session on 29th March 2010. They were asked to think of 8-15 questions, with multiple choice answers, which could usefully be answered both by members of the public and prospective candidates for national office.
Details of the broad framework the judges operated under are given by the chair of judges, James Crabtree, a trustee of mySociety, in the opening to the recordings.
Please do ask any questions in the comments below.
In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.
Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.
This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:
- Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
- Working out how to contact them.
- Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
- Developing a balanced set of national issues.
- Sending the candidates surveys, and chasing them up.
The Volunteer Army
This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green, and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg. Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.
What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government) and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).
In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.
We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.
Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.
The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.
It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.
We know from our inboxes that there are people all over the world who would love to start sites like TheyWorkForYou.com, FixMyStreet.com, or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own countries. Building and running these sites is hard, though, and takes time, money, and love. Until now we haven’t been able to do much for these keen correspondents beyond sharing our ideas, sharing our code, and wishing people the very best of luck. We’re happy to say that for at least some of these people, things are about to change for the better.
If you live in Central or Eastern Europe, we’re now in a position to help you get effective democracy and transparency websites built. mySociety have teamed up with the Open Society Institute (OSI) and together we are now looking for determined people with great ideas for new digital transparency and accountability services in their countries.
Over the next few months we are running a Call for Proposals, similar to the one we recently ran in the UK. The big difference is that this time we’re not looking for projects that we will build. We’re looking for projects you want to build, but that for lack of funds or lack of the right skills, you can’t get started yourself.
Each month the Open Society Institute and mySociety will work closely together to select a series of projects to fund and mentor. Crucially, the call isn’t solely for existing NGOs: the process is absolutely open to submissions from individuals or groups with no prior direct experience of working in the transparency and accountability sector, but who have a good idea that addresses a problem they see in their country. We will, however, look more favourably on applicants with access to the advanced programming skills required to build sites like this.
The criteria are simple, though demanding:
- The projects have to generate some kind of meaningful transparency, accountability, or democratic empowerment of another kind.
- The projects must seize the unique benefits that the Internet brings with it, such as scalability, two way communication, easy data analysis and so on.
More details are available over at our new CEE site, but even if you don’t live in one of the eligible countries please help us spread the word about this exciting new opportunity!
On Saturday John Cross and Richard Taylor, two volunteers who work on mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com, gave a workshop on FOI to a meeting of activists from Republic, an organisation which campaigns for an elected head of state in the UK.
mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. That said, members of the WhatDoTheyKnow team are be happy to consider invitations from any groups wishing to hold a workshop discussing freedom of information.
Many of those present at Saturday’s event were active campaigners on a wide range of subjects ranging from human rights to fair trade as well as having an interest in constitutional reform. The FOI workshop was oversubscribed with the majority of those present at the event deciding to attend the session. Unlike a previous workshop held at OpenTech where most attendees had made an FOI request themselves prior to the event, at this workshop all but one had not done so.
The Royals and FOI
Given the audience, the status of the royals with respect to FOI was particularly pertinent. The FOI act exempts information if it relates to: “communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or with the Royal Household, or the conferring by the Crown of any honour or dignity”. This exemption does not apply though if it is determined that it is in the public interest for the information to be released. The requirement for this public interest test is under threat as the Prime Minister has been moving to strengthen the restrictions on releasing information related to the Royal family. On the 10th of June 2009 in a speech to Parliament on Constitutional Renewal Gordon Brown said:
…we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions.
Following that speech BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum obtained a statement from the Ministry of Justice clarifying that in practice what Gordon Brown’s words meant was:
… the relevant exemption in the Freedom of Information Act will be made absolute for information relating to communications with the Royal Household that is less than 20 years’ old.
In FOI jargon an “absolute exemption” is one not subject to a public interest test.
Even with the law as it stands it is not easy to obtain information on how the royals are, or are attempting to, influence government. For example John Cross has asked the Ministry of Justice to supply him with copies of correspondence they had received from the Queen and Prince of Wales. They rejected his request on the grounds that the public interest in non-disclosure exceeded the public interested in disclosure; as well as suggesting exemptions relating to “information provided in confidence” and “personal information” also applied.
The Royal Household’s position on FOI
The Royal Household is not subject to the freedom of information act; though it has made a statement on the subject saying:
Despite its exemption from the FOI Acts, the Royal Household’s policy is to provide information as freely as possible in other areas, and to account openly for its use of public money.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy is to include such organisations which have indicated they are willing to voluntarily comply with the act to the site. While we list The Royal Household, at the time of writing no-one has yet used the facility to request information.
Using WhatDoTheyKnow for Campaigning
While we stress the importance of keeping freedom of information requests focused, FOI is a powerful tool for campaigners. We were asked if it would be possible for a group like Republic to set up an account on WhatDoTheyKnow for their campaign? The answer to this is: “Yes! – WhatDoTheyKnow wants to encourage groups to use the site”. The information commissioner has confirmed that it is acceptable to use the name of a “corporate body” when making a FOI request, that’s a broad term which encompasses many organisations, groups and charities.
Republic themselves use FOI extensively and often generate major national news stories as a result of responses to their requests. They want to be able to either offer journalists exclusive stories or write a press release based on information released. They can’t do this if the story gets out first via WhatDoTheyKnow so would be interested in an ability to make requests initially in private. mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow have been considering an option for journalists to be able to make hidden requests via the site. Such a feature could potentially generate an income stream for the site as well as encourage a greater proportion of FOI requests to be made via it. Once the article had been published then the FOI correspondence could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.
As well as meeting those who use, or might want to use, the site to make requests WhatDoTheyKnow also wants to engage positively with public authorities; we see them as important users of our service too. Developer Francis Irving represented the site at the FOI Live conference for information professionals in June and will be speaking at the Freedom of Information Scotland conference in December.
Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites
I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.
Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful. First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.
Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.
1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.
2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou in NZ, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch, Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.
3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.
4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.
6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.
7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.
8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places, the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others. mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.
9. Political document archives – This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.
10. Bulk data – Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.
Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.