FOIMan reflects on ten years of FOI in his latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal. Happy new year. Like many others I return to work today after an extended Christmas break, refreshed and ready for the year ahead (at least in theory). Ten
FOIMan reviews the Information Commissioner’s latest website revamp via a grumble about gov.uk. 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
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
FOIMan’s early Christmas present to you. A ready reference chart of FOI deadlines over the festive season. With 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
FOIMan reflects on ten years of FOI in his latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.
Happy new year. Like many others I return to work today after an extended Christmas break, refreshed and ready for the year ahead (at least in theory). Ten years ago it was much the same, but for the first time, I was fielding FOI requests.
As you’d expect, the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the right of access has seen a range of pieces celebrating this important milestone. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, highlighted five landmark decisions. The Campaign for Freedom of Information emphasised some of the achievements of FOI whilst warning that increasing use of private companies to deliver public services is undermining accountability. Even the Minister for FOI, Simon Hughes MP, has issued a press release to celebrate the first decade of the right to know. Journalists including the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum and David Higgerson have marked the occasion.
All good pieces and worth a read. But what was the experience of those on the inside over the last ten years? The FOI Officers and others who were responsible for making sure their organisations answered the requests that started to pour in from January 2005 onwards? Well, I can’t speak for others, but here are my reflections, recently published in PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.
FOIMan reviews the Information Commissioner’s latest website revamp via a grumble about gov.uk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FOIMan’s early Christmas present to you. A ready reference chart of FOI deadlines over the festive season.
With 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|
|25||24||LAST DAY TO SUBMIT REQUEST AND AUTHORITY OBLIGED TO RESPOND BEFORE CHRISTMAS|
|1||5||1 December is a bank holiday in Scotland – does not count as a working day|
|2||2||2 January is a bank holiday in Scotland – does not count as a working day|
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.