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FOIMan News

FOIMan highlights some recent developments of interest. Water utilities are not subject to FOI. However, they are apparently subject to the Environmental Information Regulations according to a new Upper Tribunal decision. The long and complex decision has been reproduced on the Panopticon blog. In the

Industrial use of FOI

FOIMan highlights the difficulty of handling FOI requests at the height of industrial disputes. Those responsible for managing FOI compliance are in a difficult position at the best of times. I’m sure they wouldn’t quote Stealers Wheel to describe their situation (“clowns to the left

Who’s afraid of the dark age?

FOIMan explains why he’s not afraid of the dark age. In my last post I recounted how pioneers in the UK have contributed to the development of digital preservation solutions over the last 20 years. This was inspired by several news articles at the end

Preserving our digital past

FOIMan highlights the important work of UK pioneers to preserve digital records for future generations. Thank goodness for Vint Cerf. Cerf’s up because he has been speaking at a conference in the US about the dangers of a “forgotten century”. He is highlighting the problem

More FOI Resources

FOIMan brings you more of his articles from PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal. During the course of 2014 I continued my association with PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal with a series of articles on various practical aspects of FOI. If you don’t subscribe to the

FOIMan Flies East

FOIMan brings tales of his recent exploits – delivering training in Brunei Darussalam.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

Regular readers will have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet here on the website. This is largely because of a big project I’ve been delivering for my friends at Act Now Training.

Ibrahim Hasan, Director of Act Now, asked me some months ago if I’d be willing to deliver training on Data Protection auditing to the Brunei Government. Somewhat hesitantly I agreed, and admit that I was sceptical that it would actually happen. But then a few months later Ibrahim emailed to say “We’re on”. Apparently my scepticism was misplaced.

I’m going to admit it…I didn’t actually know where Brunei was. I thought I did, but further investigation revealed that I had been mistaken. Not a good start. This despite the fact that my last employer had a building named after the place (and funded by its ruler). (Quiz lovers may want to squirrel away the fact that the Brunei Gallery in Russell Square is the only building in London with an apology written on it. You never know what you’ll learn on this site.)

Kampung Ayer stilt village, Brunei

Kampung Ayer stilt village, Brunei

For much of January I was preparing a training course on a data protection regime different to the one I was used to (though thankfully based on it). Reading Lonely Planet guidebooks and (I confess) Wikipedia, I learnt about many cultural differences. I was a little excited about the opportunity, but as a wise man once said, excitement is what you call fear after the event.

The day of departure soon arrived, and 16 hours after leaving Heathrow, we touched down in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei’s capital. It was soon clear that any worries I had about cultural differences were misplaced – from the moment we were picked up at the airport, the people we met could not have been friendlier.

Great Egret, Brunei

Great Egret, Brunei

We had a day to ourselves for a little sightseeing and we took full advantage, visiting the impressive Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the traditional stilt villages of the capital at Kampung Ayer, and wildlife at the edge of the Bornean jungle fringing the city. Ibrahim in particular was keen to engage in a wide range of the culinary experiences of Brunei, so we ate adventurously and well!

The training itself went better than I could have dreamed beforehand. It helped having two of us to break things up, and Ibrahim’s input was crucial. I confessed in advance that I’d been nervous of delivering training in front of a fellow trainer, but we soon formed a double act which appeared to win our audience over.

It’s always nice to come home, but visiting and delivering training in Brunei is an experience I will always remember fondly. And not one I ever expected!

Ibrahim has written in more length and depth about our Brunei adventures on the Blog Now site. You can even see me in action delivering training to our hosts!

 

Ten years of FOI – a personal reflection

FOIMan reflects on ten years of FOI in his latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.

Simon Hughes MP on a panel with the Information Commissioner and others at the ICO's recent event celebrating 10 years of FOI

Simon Hughes MP on a panel with the Information Commissioner and others at the ICO’s recent event celebrating 10 years of FOI

Happy new year. Like many others I return to work today after an extended Christmas break, refreshed and ready for the year ahead (at least in theory). Ten years ago it was much the same, but for the first time, I was fielding FOI requests.

As you’d expect, the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the right of access has seen a range of pieces celebrating this important milestone. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham,  highlighted five landmark decisions. The Campaign for Freedom of Information emphasised some of the achievements of FOI whilst warning that increasing use of private companies to deliver public services is undermining accountability. Even the Minister for FOI, Simon Hughes MP, has issued a press release to celebrate the first decade of the right to know. Journalists including the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum and David Higgerson have marked the occasion.

All good pieces and worth a read. But what was the experience of those on the inside over the last ten years? The FOI Officers and others who were responsible for making sure their organisations answered the requests that started to pour in from January 2005 onwards? Well, I can’t speak for others, but here are my reflections, recently published in PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.

Finding information on gov.uk and ico.org.uk

FOIMan reviews the Information Commissioner’s latest website revamp via a grumble about gov.uk.

Classifying information is not easy

Classifying information is not easy

The way people prefer to find information is subjective. On my Records Management training courses I illustrate this by giving delegates a pack of headings on strips of paper and asking them in groups to create a logical filing plan. There are two main results of this:

  • each group comes up with an entirely different structure
  • each group has perfectly rational explanations as to why they’ve chosen to structure their plan the way they have.

So anyone designing any information management system has a real challenge on their hands. Adding to this challenge is the fact that most people are wary of change. As a result, any new structure or mechanism to find information is going to meet resistance.

I say all this as a preamble to a comparison of the government website, gov.uk and the ICO’s new website, which you can also read about on their blog. I was initially concerned when the ICO stated that they wanted their site to be more like gov.uk for reasons which I’ll outline, but my impression at this stage is that those fears were misplaced.

The parts of gov.uk that work best for people are those which allow them to conduct specific transactions. So, for example, they can apply for a driving licence online. This works well for these kind of activities. It takes you through the process step-by-step. If you’re someone who isn’t used to computers, I’m guessing that it is quite reassuring, and I’m sure that is the aim. If government wants to get more people conducting transactions online, that’s what they need to do.

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

Gov.uk has replaced lots of government websites with one interface. And lots of people – myself included – are mostly interested in using government websites to find information about policy. Sometimes that information is readily located through a search – for example I had little trouble recently locating information about Eric Pickles’ reforms of local government transparency. But far too often it is simply impossible to locate information using either the structure of gov.uk or its search engine. As others have suggested, it is sometimes because the information simply hasn’t been transferred – it isn’t there. But very often it is because there is so much information now on gov.uk that the information I do want is just buried.

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

If government had said that they would develop a single site for delivery of services but maintain departmental sites so that people could get at the information ABOUT government, that would have kept us all happy. But no.

The revamped ICO website

The revamped ICO website

Which brings me to the new design for the ICO site. They appear to have gone for a similar transactional style to gov.uk though delivered more effectively (of course, there isn’t as much material so it should be an easier task). If you’re a novice FOI Officer or you are considering making a request, you will probably like it, as it will take you through how to deal with or make a request step-by-step.

One thing that initially worried me was that if you’re reasonably experienced, and you just want to double check something in a piece of ICO guidance – say, how to carry out a public interest test – you would have to wade through the process to get at the guidance you want. Lists of links might well be considered old-fashioned in web design circles, but they are easy to use. And usability should be near the top of requirements in any specification for a public website. So I was relieved to discover that the “Guidance Index” remains on the ICO website – albeit hidden away at the bottom of the page.

This is a relief as in my experience the ICO’s search function suffers in much the same way as the gov.uk one. A search for a particular subject brings up a range of minutes, presentations, decision notices and so on, rarely including the document you want. It has improved somewhat, with more ability to filter searches, but a search on “public interest test guidance”, even restricted to the “For Organisations” section of the site, delivers a long list of results which fails to include the specific guidance the ICO provides on the public interest test. The decision notices database works reasonably well if searching on a single keyword, but appears to struggle with phrases.

A few grumbles aside (I’d still like a separate list of the Data Protection Codes of Practice, for example), I think the ICO changes have improved their site. I’m pleased that by retaining features like the guidance index, they’ve found ways to cater for those of us old hands who were used to finding information in a particular way, whilst providing a helpful step-by-step approach for new users. The gov.uk site could certainly learn a thing or two from this – trying to make digital services accessible to new groups is a noble aim, but the needs of existing users of online resources should be taken into account as well.

FOI v Open Data?

FOIMan questions Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s suggestion that FOI requests will be made redundant by the government’s transparency and open data initiatives.

Francis Maude made a speech earlier today about government transparency and open data. It caught my attention partly because of a section in which he talks about the Freedom of Information Act:

Ten years ago the Freedom of Information Act came into force. Tony Blair called it his biggest mistake. But it was a historic piece of legislation, it wasn’t perfect. My aim if I’m honest with you is to make Freedom of Information redundant. My view is that we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate. You should make redundant the need for people to ask for access to information.

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

I don’t think anybody would question the laudable aim of making information available to the public proactively. The government has made lots of data available and, as I reported in my last post, has forced other parts of the public sector to be more transparent. There are practical challenges caused by these requirements, such as how to make the vast amount of data useful and accessible to the public, and how to avoid making public authority websites unnavigable and cumbersome. But in principle it is undoubtedly a welcome development for central government to be talking so positively about transparency.

However, I do question Mr Maude’s aim of making “Freedom of Information redundant”. The key here is his phrase “we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate.” Who decides what is “appropriate”? How do people challenge that decision? What if people have further questions about the information that has been disclosed?

Statistics also out today show that of the requests that were considered “resolvable” by the Cabinet Office between July and September this year, only 29% were granted in full. So nearly three-quarters of the time, the Cabinet Office considers that it is not appropriate to disclose the information people actually are interested in. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Cabinet Office is wrong to withhold that information in every case, or even most cases, but it does place a whopping big question mark over Mr Maude’s ambition to make FOI redundant. No matter how much information is published, people will want to know more than government is willing to put out there.

Mr Maude’s comment echoes the Prime Minister’s statement that FOI requests are “furring up the arteries” of government. Of course, if you want to run government efficiently, FOI is not the best way to be transparent. Answering requests can be time-consuming, and it is difficult to allocate and plan resources. This is the argument of many in the public sector who criticise it. But it is the main reason I think it is so valuable. If you were running a business, nobody in their right mind would choose to obligate themselves to answer requests for information in this way. That’s the point. Delivering public services is not about running a business. It involves spending people’s money to make the country and communities work in a way that benefits as many as possible, whilst giving them as much say as possible in the way that happens. That a government recognised that people should have a right to question public bodies about the way they are delivering services, despite the inconveniences that it may involve, is something that gives me a little faith in politics – and God knows, we need more of that.

Mr Maude and the government’s ongoing efforts to publish more public sector information should be welcomed. But they will never make FOI redundant – true transparency requires both.

Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems

FOIMan reviews the current regulatory state of Town Hall Transparency.

I declare this meeting open!

I declare this meeting open!

Freedom of Information (FOI) regularly receives a bad press from public authorities, and in particular from the Local Government Association, who like to highlight “wacky” FOI requests (which, as others have made clear, may not in actual fact be that wacky). The funny thing is though, a cursory glance at local authority transparency regulation makes it pretty clear that FOI is the least of town halls’ worries.

I was recently asked to provide training in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations  2014. Now, in all honesty it’s quite some time since I worked in a local authority, so whilst I was aware of the regulations in a very broad sense, I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time researching the current scope of local government transparency requirements. Once I had delved a little deeper I began to wonder why FOI attracted all the ire.

The Openness Regs are just the tip of a large and glassy iceberg. The bit that got most people’s attention when they were launched by DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles earlier this year was the requirement on councils to allow local people to film council meetings. In fact, the regulations also add to the growing list of information that DCLG expects local authorities to publish.

Just this year we’ve seen a new Transparency Code which for the most part is now mandatory in England. English councils have to publish details of staff members earning over £50,000; contracts over £5,000; time spent on trade union activities; all council property; grants to various organisations; how much they collect in parking fines; and much else besides. They’re encouraged to adopt the Open Government Licence for all this, so that people can download it and use it however they see fit.

Since the mid-1980s, councils have been expected to allow the public access to papers of their meetings – agenda, minutes, reports. Until recently this just meant allowing them to pick up copies from council offices. But more recent legislation means that papers relating to executive meetings must also be published on the local authority website (“if it has one” – cue councils up and down the country rushing to dismantle their internet connection). “Key” decisions must be advertised 28 days in advance, as must matters that are to be discussed in private. The decisions taken by members and officers under executive powers must be published, and now, through the Openness Regs, the same is true of many decisions taken by council officers under delegated powers. They must also publish “background papers” that were used in reaching the decision.

You may be thinking that this is still very different from the obligations under FOI though. People can’t request that papers be sent to them. Except they can – as long as they’re prepared to pay for photocopying, printing and postage, the regulations of the last couple of years require the council to provide the copies. Bear in mind that public authorities can charge the same for information released under FOI. The similarities don’t end there. Just as it is a criminal offence to block access to information requested under FOI, council officers can find themselves facing a charge if they attempt to stop you accessing council meeting papers.

The good news is that if councils comply with these requirements, they won’t have to answer FOI requests – most of the time – for the same information. Section 21 of FOI provides an exemption where information is already reasonably accessible to the requester, and this applies in situations where an existing legal requirement provides access. Councils can even refuse to provide the information in a format specified by the requester unless the requester’s situation – for example, a disability – means that the information is not reasonably accessible to them in the published format.

So even if FOI was abolished tomorrow, town halls up and down the country would still find themselves having to publish significant volumes of information, and perhaps even having to answer requests. In the meantime, as the end of FOI does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment, town hall transparency can at least save them some work in answering FOI requests as well as keeping Mr Pickles at bay (not to mention avoiding some embarrassing judicial review outcomes).

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about my in-house training in Local Government Transparency.