Finding information on gov.uk and ico.org.uk

FOIMan reviews the Information Commissioner’s latest website revamp via a grumble about gov.uk.

Classifying information is not easy

Classifying information is not easy

The way people prefer to find information is subjective. On my Records Management training courses I illustrate this by giving delegates a pack of headings on strips of paper and asking them in groups to create a logical filing plan. There are two main results of this:

  • each group comes up with an entirely different structure
  • each group has perfectly rational explanations as to why they’ve chosen to structure their plan the way they have.

So anyone designing any information management system has a real challenge on their hands. Adding to this challenge is the fact that most people are wary of change. As a result, any new structure or mechanism to find information is going to meet resistance.

I say all this as a preamble to a comparison of the government website, gov.uk and the ICO’s new website, which you can also read about on their blog. I was initially concerned when the ICO stated that they wanted their site to be more like gov.uk for reasons which I’ll outline, but my impression at this stage is that those fears were misplaced.

The parts of gov.uk that work best for people are those which allow them to conduct specific transactions. So, for example, they can apply for a driving licence online. This works well for these kind of activities. It takes you through the process step-by-step. If you’re someone who isn’t used to computers, I’m guessing that it is quite reassuring, and I’m sure that is the aim. If government wants to get more people conducting transactions online, that’s what they need to do.

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

Gov.uk has replaced lots of government websites with one interface. And lots of people – myself included – are mostly interested in using government websites to find information about policy. Sometimes that information is readily located through a search – for example I had little trouble recently locating information about Eric Pickles’ reforms of local government transparency. But far too often it is simply impossible to locate information using either the structure of gov.uk or its search engine. As others have suggested, it is sometimes because the information simply hasn’t been transferred – it isn’t there. But very often it is because there is so much information now on gov.uk that the information I do want is just buried.

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

If government had said that they would develop a single site for delivery of services but maintain departmental sites so that people could get at the information ABOUT government, that would have kept us all happy. But no.

The revamped ICO website

The revamped ICO website

Which brings me to the new design for the ICO site. They appear to have gone for a similar transactional style to gov.uk though delivered more effectively (of course, there isn’t as much material so it should be an easier task). If you’re a novice FOI Officer or you are considering making a request, you will probably like it, as it will take you through how to deal with or make a request step-by-step.

One thing that initially worried me was that if you’re reasonably experienced, and you just want to double check something in a piece of ICO guidance – say, how to carry out a public interest test – you would have to wade through the process to get at the guidance you want. Lists of links might well be considered old-fashioned in web design circles, but they are easy to use. And usability should be near the top of requirements in any specification for a public website. So I was relieved to discover that the “Guidance Index” remains on the ICO website – albeit hidden away at the bottom of the page.

This is a relief as in my experience the ICO’s search function suffers in much the same way as the gov.uk one. A search for a particular subject brings up a range of minutes, presentations, decision notices and so on, rarely including the document you want. It has improved somewhat, with more ability to filter searches, but a search on “public interest test guidance”, even restricted to the “For Organisations” section of the site, delivers a long list of results which fails to include the specific guidance the ICO provides on the public interest test. The decision notices database works reasonably well if searching on a single keyword, but appears to struggle with phrases.

A few grumbles aside (I’d still like a separate list of the Data Protection Codes of Practice, for example), I think the ICO changes have improved their site. I’m pleased that by retaining features like the guidance index, they’ve found ways to cater for those of us old hands who were used to finding information in a particular way, whilst providing a helpful step-by-step approach for new users. The gov.uk site could certainly learn a thing or two from this – trying to make digital services accessible to new groups is a noble aim, but the needs of existing users of online resources should be taken into account as well.

FOI v Open Data?

FOIMan questions Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s suggestion that FOI requests will be made redundant by the government’s transparency and open data initiatives.

Francis Maude made a speech earlier today about government transparency and open data. It caught my attention partly because of a section in which he talks about the Freedom of Information Act:

Ten years ago the Freedom of Information Act came into force. Tony Blair called it his biggest mistake. But it was a historic piece of legislation, it wasn’t perfect. My aim if I’m honest with you is to make Freedom of Information redundant. My view is that we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate. You should make redundant the need for people to ask for access to information.

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

I don’t think anybody would question the laudable aim of making information available to the public proactively. The government has made lots of data available and, as I reported in my last post, has forced other parts of the public sector to be more transparent. There are practical challenges caused by these requirements, such as how to make the vast amount of data useful and accessible to the public, and how to avoid making public authority websites unnavigable and cumbersome. But in principle it is undoubtedly a welcome development for central government to be talking so positively about transparency.

However, I do question Mr Maude’s aim of making “Freedom of Information redundant”. The key here is his phrase “we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate.” Who decides what is “appropriate”? How do people challenge that decision? What if people have further questions about the information that has been disclosed?

Statistics also out today show that of the requests that were considered “resolvable” by the Cabinet Office between July and September this year, only 29% were granted in full. So nearly three-quarters of the time, the Cabinet Office considers that it is not appropriate to disclose the information people actually are interested in. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Cabinet Office is wrong to withhold that information in every case, or even most cases, but it does place a whopping big question mark over Mr Maude’s ambition to make FOI redundant. No matter how much information is published, people will want to know more than government is willing to put out there.

Mr Maude’s comment echoes the Prime Minister’s statement that FOI requests are “furring up the arteries” of government. Of course, if you want to run government efficiently, FOI is not the best way to be transparent. Answering requests can be time-consuming, and it is difficult to allocate and plan resources. This is the argument of many in the public sector who criticise it. But it is the main reason I think it is so valuable. If you were running a business, nobody in their right mind would choose to obligate themselves to answer requests for information in this way. That’s the point. Delivering public services is not about running a business. It involves spending people’s money to make the country and communities work in a way that benefits as many as possible, whilst giving them as much say as possible in the way that happens. That a government recognised that people should have a right to question public bodies about the way they are delivering services, despite the inconveniences that it may involve, is something that gives me a little faith in politics – and God knows, we need more of that.

Mr Maude and the government’s ongoing efforts to publish more public sector information should be welcomed. But they will never make FOI redundant – true transparency requires both.

Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems

FOIMan reviews the current regulatory state of Town Hall Transparency.

I declare this meeting open!

I declare this meeting open!

Freedom of Information (FOI) regularly receives a bad press from public authorities, and in particular from the Local Government Association, who like to highlight “wacky” FOI requests (which, as others have made clear, may not in actual fact be that wacky). The funny thing is though, a cursory glance at local authority transparency regulation makes it pretty clear that FOI is the least of town halls’ worries.

I was recently asked to provide training in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations  2014. Now, in all honesty it’s quite some time since I worked in a local authority, so whilst I was aware of the regulations in a very broad sense, I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time researching the current scope of local government transparency requirements. Once I had delved a little deeper I began to wonder why FOI attracted all the ire.

The Openness Regs are just the tip of a large and glassy iceberg. The bit that got most people’s attention when they were launched by DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles earlier this year was the requirement on councils to allow local people to film council meetings. In fact, the regulations also add to the growing list of information that DCLG expects local authorities to publish.

Just this year we’ve seen a new Transparency Code which for the most part is now mandatory in England. English councils have to publish details of staff members earning over £50,000; contracts over £5,000; time spent on trade union activities; all council property; grants to various organisations; how much they collect in parking fines; and much else besides. They’re encouraged to adopt the Open Government Licence for all this, so that people can download it and use it however they see fit.

Since the mid-1980s, councils have been expected to allow the public access to papers of their meetings – agenda, minutes, reports. Until recently this just meant allowing them to pick up copies from council offices. But more recent legislation means that papers relating to executive meetings must also be published on the local authority website (“if it has one” – cue councils up and down the country rushing to dismantle their internet connection). “Key” decisions must be advertised 28 days in advance, as must matters that are to be discussed in private. The decisions taken by members and officers under executive powers must be published, and now, through the Openness Regs, the same is true of many decisions taken by council officers under delegated powers. They must also publish “background papers” that were used in reaching the decision.

You may be thinking that this is still very different from the obligations under FOI though. People can’t request that papers be sent to them. Except they can – as long as they’re prepared to pay for photocopying, printing and postage, the regulations of the last couple of years require the council to provide the copies. Bear in mind that public authorities can charge the same for information released under FOI. The similarities don’t end there. Just as it is a criminal offence to block access to information requested under FOI, council officers can find themselves facing a charge if they attempt to stop you accessing council meeting papers.

The good news is that if councils comply with these requirements, they won’t have to answer FOI requests – most of the time – for the same information. Section 21 of FOI provides an exemption where information is already reasonably accessible to the requester, and this applies in situations where an existing legal requirement provides access. Councils can even refuse to provide the information in a format specified by the requester unless the requester’s situation – for example, a disability – means that the information is not reasonably accessible to them in the published format.

So even if FOI was abolished tomorrow, town halls up and down the country would still find themselves having to publish significant volumes of information, and perhaps even having to answer requests. In the meantime, as the end of FOI does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment, town hall transparency can at least save them some work in answering FOI requests as well as keeping Mr Pickles at bay (not to mention avoiding some embarrassing judicial review outcomes).

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about my in-house training in Local Government Transparency.

Christmas 2014/15 UK FOI Deadlines

FOIMan’s early Christmas present to you. A ready reference chart of FOI deadlines over the festive season.

foiman-santaWith so many Bank Holidays over the Christmas and new year period, it is easy to lose track of when responses to requests are due. Here’s my early Christmas present to FOI Officers and requesters alike – a handy ready reckoner.

Note that due dates take account of ALL UK Bank Holidays – a loophole in the Act means that Scottish Bank Holidays for example are not technically working days even in other parts of the UK, even if the authority is open for business on that day. Requesters should also note that many public authorities close for longer periods over the festive season, so whilst this doesn’t affect due dates, it is likely to reduce the likelihood of an early response.

And as it’s Christmas, bear in mind that staff absences, Christmas dinners, etc can make it especially difficult for public authorities to meet deadlines, so maybe allow a few extra days before grumbling… it is the season of goodwill after all!

Request received Response due Note
November December
17 16
18 17
19 18
20 19
21 22
24 23
25 24 LAST DAY TO SUBMIT REQUEST AND AUTHORITY OBLIGED TO RESPOND BEFORE CHRISTMAS
26 29
27 30
28 31
December January
1 5 1 December is a bank holiday in Scotland – does not count as a working day
2 5
3 6
4 7
5 8
8 9
9 12
10 13
11 14
12 15
15 16
16 19
17 20
18 21
19 22
22 23
23 26
24 27
29 28
30 29
31 30
January February
2 2 2 January is a bank holiday in Scotland – does not count as a working day
5 2
6 3
7 4
8 5
9 6

Note: public authorities are responsible for ensuring that they meet statutory deadlines – this is just my calculation of when I think due dates fall and I accept no responsibility or liability for authorities’ failure to meet obligations under the Act. Please do let me know though if you notice any errors with this guide and if I agree I will amend it.

 

The politics of records management

FOIMan reflects on how his boring records management work has twice found its way into the national press and considers whether there are lessons for others who manage their organisation’s information.

MPs' expenses are in the news once again

MPs’ expenses claims – no longer a problem for the House of Commons?

The Telegraph reported earlier this week that MPs’ expenses claims prior to 2010 can no longer be investigated as they have all been destroyed. Defending its actions, the House of Commons authorities explained that they had been disposed of in line with a policy called an Authorised Records Disposal Practice (ARDP), and that to retain them longer would have breached the Data Protection Act (DPA).

The story attracted my attention because…I drafted the ARDP in 2003. I don’t recall why we gave it such a rubbish name, but I do remember why MPs’ expenses claims, receipts and other financial records were to be retained for only 3 years. It was because the House of Commons authorities went out of their way to obtain permission to retain them for this period rather than the usual 6 years. Three years was explicitly chosen because they wanted to limit both the scale of information that might potentially have to be searched, and the risk of “smoking guns”.

As it turned out, three years wasn’t enough to avoid the latter, at least not entirely.

Is the Commons’ spokesperson’s statement that to retain the records longer would have breached the DPA true? The DPA requires organisations using personal data to comply with 8 principles. One of those principles requires personal information not to be kept for any longer than necessary. The Act doesn’t specify how long such records should be kept – in practice it depends on a range of things from other legal requirements to business need. It does require, of course, that organisations develop clear policies on how long personal information will be retained and put in place procedures to implement those policies consistently. To this extent, the House of Commons was following good practice in adopting the ARDP, and indeed in disposing of information in line with it.

This doesn’t entirely justify the Commons statement though. As I stated above, it was their deliberate decision to retain financial information for a shorter period than most organisations, albeit with relevant authority. They could have decided to keep records for 6 years. At any point – especially once the public interest in MPs’ expenses was aroused – they could have amended the policy. Given the historical significance of these records, it is even arguable that they should have been retained permanently. An exemption within the DPA would have provided legitimacy for this action.

So whilst the argument made by the Commons authorities was factually correct at least in part, it was perhaps a little…disingenuous.

This isn’t the first time that my records management work has aroused controversy. In preparation for FOI in late 2004, the Greater London Authority (GLA) held a number of “Records Management Days”. Staff were encouraged to dress down and spend part or all of their working day throwing away files that were no longer required. The aim was to reduce the amount of space taken up by storage for records (City Hall never having been designed with physical records storage in mind), and to reduce the volume of information that would need to be searched through when we started to have to answer FOI requests. (This is arguably of benefit to potential requesters as well. The more information that remains to be searched through, the more likely that a public authority will be able to claim that complying with the request will exceed the “appropriate” or cost limit.)

Records management is seen as an activity that busy people can put off. Put that together with the “just in case” mentality and the challenge for records managers like myself is not generally to persuade colleagues to keep information, but to get them to throw it away. FOI presented a fabulous opportunity to make this happen. If I milked the “smoking gun” message it was a means to an end – though perhaps it suited others for different reasons.

The GLA’s records management project, of which this activity was a part, was approved by both the Mayor and the London Assembly. So it was with some surprise that I learnt that London Assembly Members were asking questions about what were now termed “shredding days” in early 2005. And with even more surprise to find them reported in the Sunday Times in March 2005:

“KEN LIVINGSTONE, the London mayor, has admitted that his office had a “shredding week” to destroy documents ahead of new disclosure rules under the Freedom of Information Act.”

Back in 2005, and again this week when reading about my ARDP’s role in the latest MPs’ expenses story, my initial reaction was defensive. As a records manager I was doing my job. It isn’t possible for organisations to keep everything – just imagine what your own house (or even computer, though that’s perhaps less obvious at first sight) would look like if you never threw anything away. If you must dispose of records, good governance requires that it be done in line with an agreed policy grounded in established best practice. For many years that is the argument that records managers have expounded and stood by. I’m sure that like me, they have seen themselves as slightly removed from the fray, an almost neutral observer. So news articles suggesting that our work is “political” in some sense provoke an indignant response. That’s exactly what our work is there to demonstrate – that the management of information is simply a process. Records are destroyed according to our rules not to the whim of a politician or a nervous official.

But is that true? When I reflect on this latest story, and once again on my earlier brush with politics, I begin to realise that what I thought of as apolitical policies were never really anything of the sort. All policies – and retention policies are no different – have to go through some sort of approval process. They have to take on board the needs of the organisation – political as much as financial and practical. In drafting retention policies for both the Houses of Parliament and the GLA (and for that matter, any of my other employers) I documented established and desired practice. If the Commons’ authorities wanted to keep information for 3 rather than 6 years, then that was what was written into my policy. I don’t remember if I challenged it at the time, but even if I had, it is unlikely that my view would have prevailed. It is most likely that at the time I accepted the view of those authorities unquestioningly. It didn’t seem unreasonable at the time, whatever hindsight suggests.

So those managing their employer’s information should remember that whilst it may be tempting to see themselves as objective rule-makers, they are probably nothing of the sort. In truth, records managers are as much a part of the culture of their organisation as anyone else, and it is perhaps more dangerous to continue to deceive ourselves to the contrary.