What don’t we like about What Do They Know?

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…

12 comments

  1. Maire says:

    I think that would be an excellent idea, my experience of public authorities is that they often do not know themselves so are defensive and reluctant to comply, this might help them up their game. But the best thing imho would be to remove the word authority from their name, they are public servants and it confuses them!

  2. joe says:

    Mmm, well, I disagree on several levels. First, requests are of information that is public property, hence the name of the requester is irrelevant. The responsibilities are all onto the public authority to release the information and in that respect the requester has none.

    Personally, I think the term ‘vexatious’ is pretty redundant and subjective – almost any request could be seen as being vexatious – I’m not going to die if I do not get the information, it isn’t a life-and-death issue, and I’m asking out of simple curiosity.

    As to the issue about copyright, I am not a lawyer, but we’re talking about public information held by public bodies. Again, the responsibility is for the public body to release information when asked by a member of the public. There may be issues about publicising personal details of staff of the public authority handling the request, but if you know how to use the footnote feature on your email service, it isn’t too difficult to work out how to only release general rather than personal information.

    I’d say that the public authorities often make the process more difficult than it needs be – by responding late, by forcing requesters to go to review by suggesting that they do not have the information and so forth. Not always, obviously, but a significant amount of the time.

  3. Zain says:

    From the few FOI requests I’ve made, I can see the pros and cons to using WhatDoTheyKnow.
    I mean, sometimes you actually want the see the contact details provided within a document or email, or an FOI request may not actually be necessary.

    I’ve encountered a few organisations who would rather deal with a request I’ve submitted under FOI, as a general enquiry and are VERY open….whereas others would rather deal with everything under FOI.

    Sometimes a common sense approach is needed.

  4. Dave says:

    I’m also an FOI officer, and have had similar thoughts about the benefits of using WDTK as a standard route for submitting FOI requests and therefore automatically managing an effective disclosure log.

    I’ll put my helmet on and join you in the bunker.

  5. Tony Maycock says:

    Whilst working as an auditor for a local authority, I’ve audited FOI and found WDTK to be a good resource for testing purposes, e.g. looking at the requests made to my authority and verifying dates and responses between the WDTK site and local authority records.
    I’ve also used it in a private capacity and have been less then impressed with the responses I’ve received so the sites cynicism of FOI Officers could be seen as being justified. However, the requestor often has to take their share of the blame as they often phrase their requests so as to leave public organisations wiggle room in their responses.
    The concept of using WDTK as a disclosure log is interesting. I know that my authority fails at providing a disclosure log that is more than just a list of requests received, i.e. people viewing the disclosure log cannot access the information that was provided. My concern would be whether WDTK would have the resources to be able to handle the increase demand if all requests were directed through this. Losing WDTK would be the greater loss.

  6. Alex Skene says:

    I’m writing in my personal capacity as a volunteer for WhatDoTheyKnow, so this may not reflect the views of mySociety (which owns the site).

    You’ve raised a number of excellent points, and it’s timely too, as some of the site’s volunteers have recently been discussing how we could simplify how WhatDoTheyKnow works. We always appreciate receiving feedback as it does significantly help us make improvements to the site’s code and wording.

    Much of the guidance on the help pages has reflected input from a number of different sources, including suggestions from FOI officers, and it has grown fairly organically over time. We are considering simplifying the help text (ie removing much of it!), to help make more requests be considered as “business as usual” by public authorities, and hopefully making it feel simpler and easier to use. We’re also thinking about removing specific mentions of FOI or EIR from the outbound email templates & subject headers. We’ve recommended for some time that people make their request concisely (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/help/requesting#focused ), and I personally dislike the approach of trying to pre-empt any exemptions.

    We would welcome any suggestions your readers could offer about how we should make the public nature of requests clearer. The following is currently appended to each outgoing email:
    “Disclaimer: This message and any reply that you make will be published on the internet”

    As volunteers, we are fairly activist in encouraging the transparency of public bodies. We would like to see changes to the FOI laws to make them reach more authorities, get quicker responses (like in many other EU countries), and reduce the large number & impact of exemptions. The wordings on the site do reflect this campaigning viewpoint to some extent, and we apologise if this has caused ill feeling.

    We also campaign for copyright reform – as a minimum I’d like to see all government information (which was paid for out of public funds) released under the new permissive Open Government Licence ( http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/open-government-licence.htm ), officially encouraging re-use. The ideal would be to mirror the US position, where a work prepared by an officer or employee of the US government as part of that person’s official duties is not protected by domestic copyright law.

    For some historical context, this 2006 article by Heather Brooke about TheyWorkForyou.com (another mySociety website) and Parliamentary Copyright is worth a read ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2006/jun/08/epublic.freedomofinformation ) as there are parallels to be drawn with WDTK’s own stance on copyright.

    Finally, we have received a few enquiries about incorporating WDTK into public authorities’ disclosure log & request processes – if anyone wants to explore this further, please contact the team: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/help/contact

    Kind regards
    Alex – WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer

  7. Hi there, I’m the Director of mySociety, the organisation that runs WhatDoTheyKnow.

    I’ll leave responding directly to the concerns to the volunteers who give so much time to run the site. But I would like to say two things:

    1. We would *love* to have public bodies use WDTK to disclose FOI responses made through other channels. One of our hopes in building the site is that it would provide both an incentive for public bodies to share, and a low cost, low effort answer to the inevitible “but how can we share?” question that follows from this idea.

    2. MySociety should do a better job of explaining how much value the released data brings to people other than the original requestor. Over 30,000 unique visitors a week look at materials on that site, dwarfing the number of people who actually make FOI requests. We should explain this more loudly and more often so officers can understand that by responding to one irritating request they might ultimately benefit a huge number of people. And when you reply to a request that doesn’t come via this site, you’re correspondingly not helping people who might otherwise have benefitted.

    I look forward to working with any of you willing to don the hard hat.

  8. foiman says:

    Alex, Tom

    Thanks so much for commenting – one of the aims of this blog is to break down the ‘us and them’ mentality that sometimes pervades discussion about FOI. But to do that we have to acknowledge the issues on both sides – hopefully my post is seen in that light. And as you’ll have gathered, I actually think WDTK is a good idea, and it’s great that people volunteer to keep it going.
    The concerns I listed in the post are all ones that I’ve heard from other Officers and that I’ve felt myself when looking at the site/dealing with requests. On the copyright one, I suspect that many of us would welcome a clearer position on that issue. But until it is clearer, it’s perhaps not so unreasonable of public authorities to take a cautious approach. I favour the approach taken by the Commissioner – that disclosure to WDTK does not breach copyright – but I do have some sympathy with authorities who are not yet convinced.
    Great that you support the idea of authorities channelling their requests through WDTK. Would you always prefer that auths discuss this with you first or are you equally happy for people just to put a link on their website?
    Thanks again for commenting and please keep following the blog and encouraging your users to take a look here too.
    FOI Man

  9. Interesting and provocative post.

    On the point about requesters using their real names, there may be circumstances where an applicant has a valid reason for fearing repercussions if they are seen to to be making an FOI request. We know of one case where someone was sacked for making a request.

    I note you’re own blog is pseudonymous, so presumably you can appreciate this!

    We don’t agree with the ICO that it’s a requirement for requesters to use give their real names – during the FOI Bill’s report stage ministers expressly told Parliament that the Act was not intended to require real names and that pseudonymous requests would be valid. There’s no sign the ICO realised this when producing their guidance.

    That said, we don’t advise requesters to conceal their identity (or their purpose for that matter) for the sake of it.

    Best wishes

    Katherine Gundersen
    Campaign for Freedom of Information

  10. Alex Skene says:

    “Great that you support the idea of authorities channelling their requests through WDTK. Would you always prefer that auths discuss this with you first or are you equally happy for people just to put a link on their website?”

    We’re happy for authorities to just link to us, either to their own requests (partial disclosure log) or to give an option for requesters wanting to make new requests in public, there’s no need to get in touch for this. Authorities also have the option of incorporating data from our RSS feeds into their site – see http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/help/api for more info.

    If an authority wants to go a bit further, eg by having all their requests on the site or wanting a branded request service, then they should talk to us in the first instance to discuss their requirements.

    Kind regards
    Alex

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ed Walker, FoI Man. FoI Man said: Useful comment from Alex @whatdotheyknow giving options if FOI Officers want to use WDTK to create Disclosure Logs – http://bit.ly/az4w3A […]