Archive for blogging

FOIMan to take flight in 2014

FOIMan explains why things have been a little quiet here of late, and why that’s about to change…

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that I haven’t been blogging very often of late. There are a number of reasons for this but put simply, it’s become increasingly difficult to balance my day job, FOIMan commitments such as writing articles, training and speaking at events, blogging, and a healthy personal life.

I realised this about a year ago and over Christmas and new year it became increasingly clear to me that something had to go. So I made the obvious choice. I decided to quit my day job.

It’s taken a bit of time to prepare things (and in truth, I still don’t feel as ready as I’d like to), but from January 2014 FOIMan will be more than just my blog. It will be my livelihood.

So I hope you’ll all bear with me for the next couple of months whilst I update the website – some subtle changes have already begun (see if you can spot them). And if you know anyone who needs in-house training or help with freedom of information (from either side of the fence), data protection or records management, I’d be much obliged if you’d point them in my direction. More details of the services I’ll be offering will be published here over the coming weeks and months (and you can see some of the training courses I’ll be running already being advertised over on the Act Now Training website).

Blog posts are likely to remain fairly sparse until January as I must now add “prepare to work for myself” to the list I set out at the start of this post. But I’m intending to return to regular blogging in the new year. After all that’s how it all started…

FOI Man – Unmasked

FOI Man explains why he has decided to remove his mask in 2012.

Happy new year to you all! 2012 – it’s going to be an important one for anyone interested in FOI. But more of that in my next post…

A long time ago (well, 15 months ago in truth) in a flat in South London, a humble Information Compliance Manager pulled a mask over his face, took it off again and cut eyeholes in it, replaced it, and began to type. And so, with the technical assistance of his loyal butler Alfred, and the loving (and proofreading) support of his very own Vicki Vale, FOI Man was born.

Why the mask? It meant I could be frank about the issues I cared about, without causing embarrassment. It was a way to dip my toe in the waters of the blogging world. It meant I could speak freely. That, at least, was the idea.

And it has had its advantages. I’m sure that at least some of the interest generated by this blog has come from the mystery attached to its author.

But over time, the anonymity which originally seemed so liberating has started to restrict the development of FOI Man. Whilst I receive many positive comments about the content here, some are reluctant to use it or draw attention to it as long as the author is unknown. I’ve had to turn down offers to speak at events in order to preserve my anonymity. And there was always (acknowledged) irony in the idea of a blog about freedom of information and transparency being written by someone who chose to keep his identity secret.

There are important debates about the future of FOI in the UK that will be had this coming year. As long as I remain anonymous, there will be those who will, not unreasonably, question my motives and identity as I take part in those discussions.

Fundamentally, I’m proud of this site and the reputation that it has built up, and in future I’d like my name to be associated with it.

Before reaching this decision, I spoke to my employer, and I’d like to thank them for their understanding. But it is important to state (and I will reiterate this here many times, I’m sure) that the views I express here (and on Twitter or any other forum where I write as FOI Man) will always be my own. As I’ve said right from the beginning, this blog isn’t about attacking or embarrassing my employer (or indeed my previous employers), but about the experience of dealing with FOI as a practitioner, and the views I’ve developed whilst working as one.

This blog isn’t about me. It’s about the Freedom of Information Act and other associated issues. But if anyone does want to know more about the man behind the mask, in future you’ll be able to do so by reading the About section of this site. I hope this won’t affect your enjoyment of the blog.

 

FOI, Blogging and My Sanity

FOI Man recommends a number of FOI blogs that you might be interested in and bids you all adieu…for now

Blogging about FOI in the UK is becoming much more common now. The first FOI blog that I read (indeed the first blog I ever read) was the brilliant UK Freedom of Information Blog originally written by Steve Wood, who at the time was an academic at Liverpool John Moores University. It was essential reading and my main source of information when I was first getting to grips with the Act. I have to admit to a degree of disappointment when he was poached by the Information Commissioner (to become the ICO’s Head of Policy) and could no longer keep up the blog. The Campaign for Freedom of Information took over Steve’s blog and it is still a useful one to follow even if it’s not quite as essential as it was back in the early years of FOI.

The next blog that I started to follow religiously was Martin Rosenbaum’s Open Secrets for the BBC (it’s no longer called that, but it’s still great). Martin’s always knowledgeable and interesting, and for a while was the best insight I had into how journalists viewed FOI. Heather Brooke was also, of course, blogging at the time, but whilst I admire her tenacity, I’ve always found her approach a little negative for my tastes (we’re not all establishment conspirators, honest). But that’s just a personal opinion, and many really enjoy her writing.

Whilst I’m talking about journalists who blog about FOI, I’ve got to mention the fabulous David Higgerson. A more recent discovery, David blogs weekly on the best news stories (usually in the local press) resulting from FOI requests, and regularly blogs on the use of FOI by journalists. I don’t always agree with his view – in fact on more than one occasion David has provoked a fiery post from me on this blog – but he’s always interesting and appears genuinely interested himself to engage with FOI Officers and others to better understand how FOI works behind the scenes.

If you want a more academic perspective, the Constitution Unit provides a monthly update on FOI. For the latest case law, you can’t beat 11kbw’s Panopticon – the writers have often been personally involved in the cases they report on. And ActNow Training, especially the entertaining Ibrahim Hasan, still provides regular podcasts on the latest FOI developments.

More recently, my blog here has been joined by a number of other blogs by others with an insider’s perspective. Which is great! I started this blog because I felt there was nobody writing about what it was like to make FOI work in practice. So it’s fantastic to see Jonathan Baines who works for a local authority; Tim Turner, who is now a consultant, but has worked for the ICO and a local authority; and Kit Good, a university FOI and Records Manager, joining me to write about FOI amongst their other interests.

Aside from the fact that I thought you might be interested in these blogs if you’re not already aware of them, I have another reason for writing this post. Regular readers, and especially Twitter followers, may recall me referring to Mrs FOIMan. Well, I may have misled you a tad, as she isn’t really Mrs FOIMan – currently. But in the next month I’m putting that right and also moving house. So I’m rather afraid that the only way for me to retain my sanity is to take a break from the blog for the next month. In the meantime I hope you’ll find much of interest at the sites above and I will return, refreshed, (married), and eager to write, in a month’s time. I’m sure I’ll still post from time-to-time on Twitter but I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m a little quieter than usual over the coming weeks. Thanks as ever for your interest and support and I look forward to rejoining you in the very near future.

Guest post coming soon

Quick post to inform you of an exciting development for the FOI Man blog. For the first time, I’ve invited someone to write a guest post.

Next week I’ll be bringing you the first guest post from Emily Goodhand who Twitter followers will know better as @CopyrightGirl. Emily works for a university on copyright compliance issues and has her own blog on Education and Copyright. She recently featured in The Times’ list of best legal tweeters (behind the paywall unfortunately).  Her posts will focus on the interface between FOI and copyright law.

So watch out next week for Emily’s first post for FOI Man.

Reflections on writing a public sector blog

It’s Christmas, and every blogger worth their salt is reviewing the year, or rewriting the lyrics to Christmas Carols. Well, I don’t need to because they’ve already done it better than I ever could! Instead, here are my reflections on my first three months as a blogger.

When I started this blog back at the end of September, I wanted to give a new perspective on FOI – “from the inside”. But not just on FOI, if I’m honest. I also wanted to get across what it was like working in the public sector. Most public sector workers are accustomed to the media take on their activities. And politicians on all sides find it all too easy to blame us when things go wrong (and twist things when they go right if it suits them), and the current political situation has not exactly helped that. I wanted to find a new way to communicate what I really thought, and what the truth behind FOI stories really was.

It may seem odd, but only after I’d started my blog did I start to read other blogs covering issues beyond FOI. Twitter has helped widen my reading. And what have I found? I’m not on my own. There are hundreds of public sector workers blogging about their activities, all with the same motivation – to reach out directly to the public they serve and give a more even handed view of their work.

Through these blogs I have read about civil servants giving up their weekends to improve the accessibility of government data. Local Government workers have exhorted their fellows to go the extra mile in helping the public. And all of this in the face of often unfair media coverage, lacking in context, and the ever present threat of redundancy hanging over their heads.

FOI is the main subject of this blog, but I do want to tackle openness in general, hence the posts on WikiLeaks and Open Government Data Disclosures. And I think that these blogs from public servants (modesty forbids me from including my own) are becoming an important strand in this movement. If Government is serious about engaging with the public and making public services work better, it should avoid discouraging this activity, even if it can’t bring itself to encourage it. So there will be more in the coming year from me on blogging in the public sector.

Another surprise to me is how ready the public (for want of a better word for all those who read and comment on our blogs) is to engage with those of us who feel motivated to put our thoughts online. I have to admit to being nervous as to the comments that I might attract when I started out. But this has not proved to be a problem (save for the inevitable spammers which I spend some time everyday blocking). Comments from all quarters have been largely constructive even if I haven’t always agreed, and have on many occasions helped to shape my own opinions.

And writing the blog and getting comments is challenging my own preconceptions. Last week a volunteer from WhatDoTheyKnow argued that I should have used an exemption when I was reluctant to do so. David Higgerson will be pleased to hear that I am now less cynical about journalists than perhaps I once was thanks to a number of his posts and comments. I’d like to think that that’s because the blog is doing its job – breaking down the barriers between me and the people who make requests – but I think it’s probably a little early to claim that victory.

Through the blog and Twitter, I’ve reached a number of campaigners on various issues. One of them has contacted me recently and asked me to write a brief guide to making responsible FOI requests for their site. What I’ve agreed to do is to write a guide but make it available here so that anyone who wants to can use it. That’s great, isn’t it? That I can work with people who want to make requests to make the process more effective and less confrontational. The possibilities that social networking is opening up are only beginning to become clear to me.

Thank you to all of you that have read this blog in the last three months, and especially if you’ve commented. I hope you’ve found it interesting, and that you continue to do so in the coming year. I’m certainly looking forward to pulling my cloak, mask and lycra leggings back on in the new year, but in the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and see you back here in 2011!