Tag Archive for HEIs

Vexatious requests – new Tribunal decision

Just a quick post from me today to flag up an interesting Tribunal decision on vexatious requests (s.14 of the Act). The case is particularly interesting as both the Tribunal and the Commissioner are seen to support the use of the provision to defend against the FOI equivalent of ‘Denial of Service’ attacks.

The decision is also entertaining in its descriptions of the lengths that the University concerned and the Information Commissioner went to to establish that a number of individuals were acting in concert.

Why the public interest test is so important

Most exemptions are subject to a public interest test. But why is it so important to ensuring that the Freedom of Information Act works?

If you make FOI requests, you probably hate it when public authorities respond citing an exemption. If the Bill that the Labour Government first presented in 1999 had stood, all requesters would have remained frustrated.

The Bill allowed for appeal to the Information Commissioner. But the Commissioner would only have been able to advise public authorities to disclose information. Few, if any exemptions were subject to a public interest test. So the Commissioner would only have been able to advise disclosure if it was clear that the public authority had mistakenly applied an exemption. Let’s take a look at what that means.

I’ve carried out a rough and ready survey of the decisions reached by the Commissioner in 2008 relating to one of the exemptions, section 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs). Section 36 is a very broad exemption and has been criticised in the past because of this. In 2008, 30 decision notices were issued relating to the exemption. In 21 of these cases, the Commissioner found that the information did fall within the exemption. Not really terribly surprising given the breadth of the exemption.

But of those 21 cases, the Commissioner ordered disclosure in 13 cases because he found that the public interest test had been applied incorrectly. And that’s why the public interest test is so important. If all the Commissioner could consider was whether an exemption applied, his power to challenge public authorities’ decisions would be very limited. The public interest test has empowered the Commissioner to take a broader view, and as a result has really given the FOI Act teeth.

So what is the public interest? It’s not defined in the Act, but it is a well known concept in law. In a high profile Australian court case, it was defined as:

“…a term embracing matters, among others, of standards of human conduct and of the functioning of government and government instrumentalities tacitly accepted and acknowledged to be for the good order of society and for the well-being of its members…events of interest to the public may or may not be ones which are for the benefit of the public; it follows that such form of interest per se is not a facet of the public interest.” (DPP v Smith [1991] 1 VR 63 at 75 for those lawyers amongst you who like to check my facts)

Or, as the Information Commissioner’s guidance more succinctly put it, the public interest is that which serves the interests of the public, not necessarily that which the public is interested in. So whenever we apply a qualified exemption (which is most of them), we have to consider whether the public will be better served by disclosure or by withholding the information.

The Environmental Information Regulations explicitly say that public authorities should presume that information should be disclosed when considering the use of exemptions. But the FOI Act, believe it or not, doesn’t actually say that. In practice though, the courts have found that there is an assumption that information should be disclosed running through the Act. It is, after all, called the Freedom of Information Act.

This means that one of the arguments for disclosure is always that there is a public interest in accountability and transparency. There may well be arguments in favour of disclosure in addition that are specific to the information requested. So, for example, it might be argued (and often is) that as an issue is currently the subject of controversy, there is a public interest in disclosing such information so that public debate can be well informed. The arguments for disclosure can be very general, yet they should be given considerable weight.

The next step is to consider the arguments against disclosure (and in favour of applying the exemption). Of course, in truth, unless we (or at least somebody in the public body) thought there were strong reasons for withholding the information, we wouldn’t even have started down this route. Try making an FOI request to a public body for its written consideration of the public interest in cases where the information was eventually disclosed – there won’t be any record. Part of the FOI Officer’s role is to be aware of case law and have a sense of whether or not withholding information is viable. If we don’t believe that a public interest can be successfully argued, expect us to resist the reliance on an exemption in the first place. Of course there are times when we have to find arguments even if we don’t think there is a strong case, but it is usually possible to find reasons – there is generally some grain of justifiable concern if someone is insisting on withholding the information, even if we’re not necessarily convinced that it would survive an encounter with a member of the Commissioner’s staff.

So what does survive an encounter with the Information Commissioner or the Information Tribunal? Analysis of their decisions demonstrates that it is about how convincing the argument is. It will be more convincing where an authority is able to produce evidence of the damage to the public interest. A great example I saw recently was when a University argued successfully in favour of section 36 to withhold a list of email addresses for all their staff. Quite often in the past, the Commissioner has ruled in favour of disclosure in these kind of cases, but what I think was different about this case was that they were able to produce evidence, in the form of experience of previous accidental disclosures, that disclosure could cause significant disruption to the university, and that this was not in the public interest.

The public interest test is a complex process. You can’t say for sure, whether you’re a public authority or a requester, which way appealed decisions will go. It ensures that the application of exemptions is fluid, that FOI doesn’t become trapped in the year 2000 when the Act was passed. It’s a brilliant mechanism and one that shouldn’t be underestimated in any assessment of how important the Act is in practice.

 

Open Data – Just Do It?

Central Government has established a datastore for Open Data. But if you’re outside of Central Government, how do you react to calls for more online data? And what is the role of FOI Officers in getting them established? Southampton University’s new datastore may give us some clues.

This week Southampton University launched data.southampton.ac.uk, its open data repository. It is perhaps unsurprising that Southampton should take the lead in the Higher Education sector in this way. Two of its academic staff, Professors Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (yes, that one), sit on the Government’s Transparency Board and are heavily involved in the data.gov.uk site.

However, this is the lowest tier of the public sector at which I’ve seen this done. The Greater London Authority (GLA) in London has a Datastore, but the GLA has always been a strange beast – a weird hybrid between local government and central government with more flexibility than most public sector bodies. There may well be others doing great things, but I’m not aware of them. The fact that a higher education institution could do this set me thinking. Was this something I should be doing?

I’ve been hearing great things about the power of open data, but it all seems rather distant from me. The language used can be off-putting at times. All this XML, ODF, even the term ‘Repository’ suggests to me something difficult, technical and, most of all, expensive.

A journalist asked me last week if FOI Officers were involved in Open Data initiatives in the public sector. Being honest (like Superman, FOI Man never lies), I explained that from what I had gathered, where open data initiatives were in place (basically Government and the GLA) the two things seemed to be dealt with separately. FOI Officers were busy dealing with FOI requests and required specific knowledge of the application of legislation. Open Data projects tend to be run by techie-types, statisticians and economists. And it rankled with me that I was being left out of this important stage of the openness agenda.

Why shouldn’t we be involved in these projects? Through answering FOI requests we’ve built up a vast knowledge of the information held in our organisations and how feasible it is to extract and make public. Those of us who are records managers as well have an even deeper knowledge of our organisations’ information resources. Some of us even maintain Information Asset Registers so have already identified all the key datasets in our organisations. No, scratch that. Not only should we be involved, we should be initiating and leading on these projects.

A ‘repository’ is no more than the place where the files are put; it doesn’t have to be something new – unless and until the volume of material is massive, it can just be saved to our Content Management System (CMS) and published to the website that way. The format we publish in is probably less important than just getting it out there, but I have a hunch that the Excel spreadsheets we often send out when asked for data under FOI would be sufficient for most people who wanted to re-use our data. Once we start publishing this data routinely, we’ll presumably get feedback which will tell us which formats we should make data available in in future.

The biggest obstacle is perhaps the legal side of things. Here too though, things are simpler than they were. The National Archives’ new Open Government Licence provides a straightforward way to licence re-use of our data. Assuming the Protection of Freedoms Bill is passed, it will become mandatory for public bodies to adopt such a licence, so why not get ahead of the game?

But surely FOI Officers are there to deal with the requests that come in under the general right of access? Well, we’re also supposed to be maintaining Publication Schemes, pointing to the information our organisations make available pro-actively. And we’ve come under increasing pressure to create and keep up-to-date disclosure logs of the responses we’ve made to FOI requests. The Publication Scheme and Disclosure Log could well be used to structure our datastores.

I may be being terribly naive here, but it seems to me that establishing institutional online datastores outside central government is simpler than we may think. And that FOI Officers ought to be leading the way on them. We already have the tools and the justification for doing these things. Much of it won’t even need additional approval (which if you read We Love Local Government’s amusing, if depressingly familiar, post on Friday, you may appreciate).

I’d love to hear from anyone who has been involved in establishing an Open Data store for their organisation, or has expertise in this area. Am I over-simplifying this? Or perhaps I’m being slow on the uptake (not the most unlikely thing in the world) and everybody else is already well aware how to go about this? Whichever, do please comment on this post – I’m particularly interested to hear your views on Open Data and what we should be doing to make it a reality.

Is FOI reform a two-way street? Public funding and FOI

On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave a speech on civil liberties which included significant proposals on reform of FOI. The Ministry of Justice simultaneously published more details on their website. One of the most widely expected, but still important, announcements concerned adding to the list of bodies currently covered by FOI.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the higher education admissions service (UCAS) and the Financial Ombudsman service had already been consulted on becoming FOIable (to coin a word), and the necessary statutory instrument will be drawn up in short order. A much longer list of public authorities will now be consulted on joining this far from select band. In addition, bodies jointly funded by public authorities will no longer be able to escape the widening bounds of the Act.

So what is the justification for bodies becoming subject to FOI? It is common for people to say that if bodies receive public funding, they should be open to public scrutiny. Many, if not all, of the bodies proposed for inclusion will fall into this category.

So should it be a two-way street? What if bodies lose public funding? Does that mean that they should be removed from FOI?

Higher education is an example. And to some, quite a persuasive one. Even before the recent cuts, some leading figures in universities were pointing out that most of their funding does not come from the Government. The Registrar of the University of Warwick, speaking on Radio 4′s You and Your’s in October 2010, pointed out that only 25% of that university’s funding came from the public purse (and this is not an unusual figure). How much greater the argument for removing universities from FOI when many will soon receive much less, especially those which do not offer science courses.

The Government would probably argue that despite a reduction in public money, higher education institutions will still receive some government funding. And they have been very careful with their language in making these latest announcements. Mr Clegg’s words on the subject were:

“if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions have clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.”

And the MOJ announcement talks about “public bodies which perform functions of a public nature”. Given this, I think it’s highly unlikely that the Government will seriously consider removing universities and other higher education institutions from FOI.

That said, with a Government keen to move many public functions outside of the public purse and into the ‘Big Society’, I wonder if we will hear more calls for FOI reform in the other direction.

Barmy FOI requests

FOI Officers working in higher education have this week been bombarded by a series of FOI requests which looked remarkably similar but came from separate email addresses and were signed off with different names. The questions (three or four of which were in each email) were very long and rambling, but basically all related to the governance of Student Unions under the Education Act 1994.

It was clear that the requests were from one organisation, even if not the same person, and further research confirmed the likelihood of this.

In practice, whilst the requests are rather rambling, some of the information should be reasonably easy for universities to pull together. If it doesn’t prove that easy, there is enough evidence in the requests to support aggregation of the requests and refusal on grounds of cost should the cost of locating and retrieving the information requested in all four be more than £450 (requests can be aggregated if they’re from a campaign as well as if they’re from an individual).

But why send four or five requests when you can send one? Why pretend to be several people when it’s likely these were all written by one person (and why make such a rubbish pretence that you’re not the same person/organisation)? The questions could have been sent in one request (and made rather more succinct). My guess is that the requesters don’t understand the way the fees regulations work and are trying to bypass them.

In practice, all they’ve achieved is the irritation of every Higher Education FOI Officer in the country.  Perhaps they should be directed to my ten top tips for making responsible FOI requests!