Tag Archive for statistics

FOI 2.0

FOI Man looks at the Government’s latest proposals for FOI 2.0.

The Government has launched a new consultation looking at Open Data and transparency in public services. I’m all for progress in this field.

I wanted to focus though on what the Government is saying about FOI specifically in this report. It suggests the following:

  • establishing the principle that data/information not subject to exemptions should be published;
  • a new requirement that all public bodies/providers of public services should proactively publish information about the services they provide;
  • an enhanced right of challenge against decisions not to publish data to an independent body (I’m really hoping that they’re thinking about the Information Commissioner, and not another body to confuse matters);
  • reform of the fees regulations – notably raising the ‘acceptable limit';
  • reviewing the Information Commissioner’s powers;
  • statutory limits for internal reviews;
  • using procurement rules to ensure that new ICT systems are designed to facilitate the publication of data;
  • phased introduction of new generation of ICT systems that facilitate publication of data.

I don’t have a significant problem with individual proposals here. I worry about the practical implications of making it all work, especially at a time when the public sector is cutting staff. But I’m sure that Government, enlightened by the responses to its consultation, will factor all that in and make sure that adequate resources are provided.

My main concern is the general tone of this section of the report. In common with many reports by this Government, the underlying message is that public sector bodies and their employees are the problem. In this case, we’re clearly doing all we can to thwart openness. We’re only refusing requests that exceed the ‘acceptable limit’ because we can. All internal reviews are being delayed as long as possible, just because we can. We’re deliberately procuring ICT systems that make it difficult to publish data just so we can argue that it will cost too much to publish it.

No, no, no. I’m sure that some of you reading this will immediately respond that that reflects your experience of public bodies and FOI. And no doubt you have had bad experiences, or felt that you’d had a bad experience because your request was refused. But just because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted, or you had a bad experience with an authority that got it wrong, doesn’t mean that all public bodies are actively anti-openness.

As I’ve tried to make clear in this blog on a regular basis, the biggest obstacle to openness is the resource implication. Not only does it stop you getting information when your request exceeds the ‘appropriate limit’, but it’s also behind 90% of the disputes that I have with colleagues over disclosure – they’re not secretive, they’re busy; and the experience of having to carry out their main function whilst also digging out information  poisons the minds of some officials to FOI in the long term. It’s a real issue. And you can hit us over the head and tell us how awful we are as much as you like, making FOI and openness work is about winning people round so that they can think about these issues positively rather than under duress.

So here are my proposals for a better, more effective FOI regime:

  • more powers for the Information Commissioner;
  • even more important, more resources for the Information Commissioner;
  • ensuring that FOI requests can be regulated – I don’t mind how, but there does need to be some way to do this; like it or not, we have limited resources and likely to become still more limited. Charging is far too blunt a tool, but I’m not really in favour of raising the ‘acceptable limit’ – 18 hours is still a vast amount of time for an authority to spend on answering one person’s questions;
  • ensuring that public authorities are resourced to facilitate openness;
  • abolishing the ministerial veto;
  • requiring public authorities to publish their statistics for FOI compliance (after all, how can the Commissioner ‘name and shame’ authorities if they’re under no obligation to publish or return such statistics).

This would be all along side more pro-active disclosure. But it all needs to be balanced against the ability to provide a workable service. Change, yes, but let’s make it gradual and realistic.

When it comes to making FOI requests, it should be quality over quantity

FOI Man observes that while the volume of FOI requests continues to rise, their quality is not.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my Tweet on Thursday saying that my organisation had received more FOI requests in 2011 so far than in the whole of 2010. This prompted a flurry of “Me Too”s from fellow FOI Officers. The general consensus seemed to suggest roughly a 25% rise in requests this year. As unscientific as this survey is, it does suggest that use of FOI is still on the rise.

One observer sensibly commented that more requests doesn’t mean more openness. We should consider quality over quantity.

This is absolutely right. Although we’ve had more requests this year, I’ve also refused far more than ever before. Not, in most cases, due to any of the ‘Part II’ exemptions (or EIR exceptions). But my use of the s.12 provision that allows us to refuse requests that exceed the ‘appropriate limit’ has rocketed. Similarly, many requests have been refused simply because they are just too vague or don’t make sense.

Now, contrary to popular belief, I don’t sit around trying to construct new and devious ways to keep my organisation’s ‘secrets’. It’s my job to try, where possible, to answer requests. But it’s also my job to manage requests so that they don’t become an unreasonable burden on the organisation. The Act has those provisions in place to allow us to do that, and the Information Commissioner has in recent years made clear that he is supportive of public bodies who do that legitimately. After all, all public bodies are there to do a particular job, and FOI shouldn’t be preventing them from doing that job.

I always offer advice and assistance to help those who make requests that are likely to cost more than the ‘acceptable limit’ to bring their request within the limit. But often they just give up, and in other cases they respond but make it quite clear that they think I’m just giving them the run around. I’m not.

So it really helps if people make realistic requests in the first place. It saves us all time, and it avoids that nasty taste you get in the mouth when I have to refuse your request (however politely – and of course, I’m always polite – I may explain the situation to you). The key thing is to do your research first so that you can focus your request, and then try not to be greedy. “Fishing trips” are tempting, but as well as being expensive to process even if they can be done within limits, they’re quite often disappointing.

If you want to make FOI requests, you could do much worse than to take a look at my handy guide to making responsible requests. I want FOI to work, but it’s not just down to me to make that happen. It’s in your hands too.

Number crunching: Who’s better – Boris or Ken? Only one way to find out…

FOI Man looks at what FOI performance statistics tell us about the attitudes to openness of the rival Mayoral candidates in London

Even if you’re not a Londoner (and I wasn’t always), and possibly even if you don’t live in the UK, you are probably aware of the colourful personalities that have inhabited the ‘glass testicle’ (or motorbike helmet if you’re of a more gentle disposition) as London’s Mayor.

For 8 years, City Hall was the domain of Ken Livingstone, who before its abolition in 1986, had been the Leader of the previous pan-London authority, the Greater London Council (GLC). He claimed credit for increases in police numbers in the capital, improvements to the transport infrastructure, and winning the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games for London.

Many were surprised when a combination of voter fatigue, corruption allegations and a backlash from the outer borough residents saw him fall to the eccentric but charismatic figure of Boris Johnson in 2008. Boris claims to have cut staff numbers across the GLA Group, is proud of the city-wide ‘Boris-Bikes’ scheme that has been introduced by his administration, and has used London as the guinea pig for many of the ideas that the Coalition Government has begun to roll out nationally in the last year. In particular, he claimed to be bringing in a new transparency to City Hall.

So is Boris really more transparent than Ken? Some of his initiatives are undoubtedly a move in the right direction. Two years before Eric Pickles took on local authorities and insisted that they published all expenditure over £500, the GLA was publishing its expenditure over £1,000 (radical at the time). You can now access that data, together with much else, in the pioneering London Datastore.

It’s probably a little unfair though to compare this with Ken’s record. Nobody published datasets until very recently, and there was little pressure to publish all expenditure until Boris’s campaign team came up with it. So points to Boris for keeping up with (and slightly ahead of ) the Jones’s on pro-active disclosure. But the GLA (especially City Hall) was always rather good at pro-active disclosure on its website – it’s just the methods that have changed.

A fairer fight can be based on FOI statistics. Who is quicker at answering requests? How ready are they to use an exemption? Courtesy of a WhatDoTheyKnow requester, the figures for 2007 to 2010, and the GLA’s internal request log, can now be found online (links below so you can do your own analysis).

A caveat. I’m not a statistician, so don’t expect too much from this analysis – it’s just my impression gained from playing around with the numbers. But what do I think the figures tell us?

Well, London’s journalists regularly complain about the speed of response to FOI requests from the GLA. So has that got worse or better since Boris’s election in May 2008?

First thing to say is that the GLA Group consists of five main bodies. There is the Greater London Authority (GLA) at the centre, which supports the Mayor and the London Assembly on a day to day basis. Then there is Transport for London (TfL), the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA – which oversees the Metropolitan Police Service, what we know as ‘The Met’), the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) and finally the London Development Agency (LDA – which used to be known as ‘the Mayor’s piggy bank’ and is being abolished as we speak as part of the Government cuts).

Across the Group (excluding TfL), it may surprise you to hear that there has been little change over the last four years in the speed of responses. Approximately 14% of requests are answered later than 20 working days. And that was the same in Ken’s last full year (2007). It also should be borne in mind that this performance has been maintained in the face of rising volumes of requests, and job cuts. In 2007, the whole group received 1,662 requests. By 2010 that had risen to 2,807.

One glaring exception stands out. It is no surprise that TfL were investigated by the Information Commissioner for their performance. In 2007, only 17% of requests were answered late (still a significant figure). In Boris’s first full year of 2009, 35% of requests to TfL were answered late. The situation is clearly improving from more recent figures, but it remains a mystery as to why there was such a sharp rise in the rate of late responses following Boris’s election.

So what about use of exemptions? Well, again, proportionally, not much has changed across the group as a whole. The exception, this time, is the GLA itself at City Hall. In 2007, exemptions were only used in 6% of cases. This has risen in every year since and in 2010 15% of requests were fully or partially refused. The GLA’s detailed log indicates which exemptions were used, and this suggests a rise in the use of exemptions for commercial and policy information. To be fair, the biggest rise has been in the use of the section 40 personal information exemption, which could well just be the entirely reasonable redaction of private individuals’ names and contact details.

So, on balance, there’s not much between Boris and Ken on FOI and openness. And that’s not to be sniffed at in the light of rising volumes of requests and cuts to staff answering them. But the figures do perhaps suggest some worrying trends, in punctuality and use of exemptions, in the first half of Boris’s first term of office.

Here are the links to the WhatDoTheyKnow data – see what you can make of it.

GLA FOI statistics

GLA FOI Log

TfL FOI statistics

LDA FOI statistics (watch out for their exemption stats – I think they’ve provided total numbers of exemptions used as opposed to numbers of requests where exemptions were used, which is a subtle, but important, difference)

LFEPA FOI statistics

MPA FOI statistics

 

How to make an FOI request (Part 2)

Further to yesterday’s post, one of my regular readers, Nicholas, asked for statistics to illustrate my point that the vast majority of requests are answered on time and in full. Here’s just a few examples, based both on publicly available sources and on personal experience/knowledge.

The obvious starting point is Central Government. The Ministry of Justice publishes quarterly and annual statistics for them. In 2009, central Government (that’s all Departments of State + their related agencies) received 40,473 requests. Of these, 19% were for information not held and a further 7% required further clarification. Of the remaining 30,124 requests,  all of the information was disclosed in 58% of cases. Only in 23% of cases was the information refused completely. And 82% of requests were answered within 20 working days. (Admittedly, the figure falls to 75% if you look just at Departments of State, but still…)

So let’s look outside central government, which is more difficult because there are few published figures for the other parts of the public sector. So I’ll give you some examples of individual organisations.

One County Council received 1449 requests in 2009. If you exclude information not held, it refused to provide some or all of the information in only 16% of cases.

A university received 56 requests, of which 54 were answered on time. Only 10 were partially or fully refused.

A busy hospital received approximately 240 requests. Despite requests rising five-fold between 2005 and 2009, and with no extra resources, it still answered FOI requests within 20 working days in approximately 84% of cases. Less than 5% of requests were partially or fully refused.

Another public authority received just under 400 requests in 2008. 85% of these were answered within 20 days. Only 9% were partially or fully refused.

Of course, it’s not good enough when a request is answered later than 20 working days in any situation. There is a legal requirement to respond sooner. And it is frustrating when you don’t get the information you want (believe me, I’ve made requests myself, so I know the feeling). But I think the above demonstrates that when the Media and others criticise public authorities over FOI, they’re actually talking about a minority of requests. The trouble for public authorities (and people like me) is that the Media and campaigners are most likely to ask the most difficult questions (in every sense) and are also most likely to make the most noise when they don’t get what they want!