A few weeks ago, Ibrahim Hassan posed the question “Can a local authority refuse to deal with FOI requests made through the What do they know website?“. When the question was posted as a link on twitter, there was a veritable dawn chorus of negative responses. But why has the website What Do they Know become so unpopular with some public authorities?
I can think of a few reasons, and I’m going to set these out. Try not to get too incensed though if you’re a What Do They Know (WDTK) volunteer or user and read to the end of this post – you may be surprised by what I have to say.
Firstly – it’s my old hobby horse, the attitude towards public authorities. Maybe it’s justified, I’m not sure, but there’s an assumption in their guidance to users and in their templates that we’re going to use every means at our disposal to avoid answering requests. And therefore their users should be prepared for evasiveness. Subtle, and polite, but it’s there. And can their guidance to FOI Officers on timeliness of responses be any more patronising (see especially “How do you calculate the deadline shown on request pages?”)?
Then there’s the double standards. Whilst insisting that public authorities have a duty to comply with the legislation, they provide guidance on how to sidestep the requirement for requesters to provide their real name (which is, of course, a duty for requesters to comply with – quid pro quo). Meanwhile, whilst promoting openness, they haven’t exactly made it clear to those responding to requests submitted through the site that their names and contact details will be published on the website. OK, so most FOI Officers are well aware of that now (and probably wouldn’t mind), but often it is staff who are responsible for a subject area, who may well not know much about the wider FOI world, who are answering these requests.
There’s the ease with which requests can be made. It takes seconds for a requester to submit their request through the site, and not much longer to send it to several. They don’t have to consider what resources will be used in those public authorities to answer the product of their idle curiosity. The same can apply to the new facility to submit ‘one-click’ requests via Openly Local. Yes, people have a right to make requests. But these sites make it easy for individuals to ignore their responsibilities.
Perhaps as a result of this, WDTK can be utilised as a weapon against public authorities. WDTK recently tweeted about a response sent by one of their users to Salford University, who had refused their request under s.14, claiming it was vexatious. I took the opportunity to check the background on the site, and it is very clear that whatever the rights and wrongs of the University’s treatment of that particular individual, there is some sort of campaign under way for which WDTK was being used in support. I don’t know the background to the ongoing dispute, but it is now being waged through the pages of WDTK. It wasn’t just those individuals who started off using the site in this way that suffered, or the staff of the University. It was anyone who then made requests through the site, as it was becoming more and more difficult to identify who was part of the campaign and who was not.
Finally, copyright. This has proved to be the key battleground in the dispute between WDTK users and public authorities. The most high profile combatant has been the House of Commons, but they’re not the only one by far. The argument made by public authorities is that if they disclose information via WDTK, it will instantly be published in breach of their (and third parties’) copyright. Several have therefore found more and more convoluted ways to try to comply with their FOI obligations without sending the information to the WDTK site. The Information Commissioner issued a decision notice following the House of Commons case which should be the final chapter on this dispute but it hasn’t proved to be so far. Not least because the Information Commissioner’s Office doesn’t appear to have a great deal of knowledge about copyright law, so it makes it quite difficult for them to be authoritative. Take for example, this quote from page 3 of the minutes of their recent meeting with the HE sector:
“The ICO acknowledged that further work needed to be done around understanding IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] as it resides in research data, and SW [Steve Woods, former FOI blogger and in charge of policy at the ICO] confirmed that his team has already begun to explore this question.”
Could it be that the ICO is only beginning to look at IPR/copyright issues generally and not just specifically as it relates to research data? There certainly isn’t much to go on in the decision notice.
So for all these reasons, public authorities are, to say the least, suspicious of WDTK. And yet…and yet…
I rather like WDTK. It’s a nice bit of technology that appears to work well (contrast that with many systems developed by the public sector). I’ve used it to make FOI requests and found it easy to use. It keeps track of the process of making a request really well.
It was really easy for me to see the background to the Salford University situation. It would be easy for me to identify vexatious requests being made through the site (even if they soon became difficult to distinguish from the other requests). I can see readily how other authorities are responding to requests that come to my authority. It’s transparent, which is, well, the point of all this.
I’ve got an idea, which fellow FOI Officers may well disown me for. But why don’t we embrace it as a concept rather than fighting it? For example, couldn’t we adopt it as our Disclosure Log? Actually encourage requesters to use it so that our answers to them can help others and maybe prevent duplicate requests? It’s a thought, and on that thought I shall strap on my hard hat and leave it to you…