Tag Archive for blogs

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!

Interview with an FOI Officer

Just a quick post before I go to let you know that I’ve given an interview about FOI this week to Kellie Maddox for the Help Me Investigate blog.

We cover this blog, the Freedom of Information Act – good or bad, what annoys FOI Officers (could have been longer that bit!), and the recent Open Data developments. Goes on a bit (sorry – down to me, not Kellie!), but if you’re interested, do take a look.

What Do I Know? A Postscript

Well, this blog has come of age this week. The Campaign for FOI described my last post as “Interesting and provocative”. And it certainly has provoked more comment than anything I’ve previously written.

Before addressing the most controversial issue raised in the comments, I just want to highlight some great advice that WhatDoTheyKnow have given to FOI Officers if they want to follow my suggestion and encourage their requesters to submit requests through WDTK (to facilitate its use as a Disclosure Log):

  • The simplest method is to link to the WDTK site – you can link directly to the part of the site for your organisation – WDTK have no problem with you doing this and you don’t have to let them know you are doing it
  • I would suggest that if you’re going to do this effectively, you should at the very least provide instructions on your website to potential requesters explaining how they can make their request through WDTK alongside your direct contact details; it’s up to you how far you promote this as a method of making requests (ie is it your preferred method or just one of several?)
  • Alex from WDTK has suggested that “If an authority wants to go a bit further, e.g. 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.”

So there you go, those are your options if you want to try this out.

The most controversial of the points I raised related to the suggestion that WDTK advised requesters on how to avoid providing their name when making requests. I’ve got to say that at this stage I’m unapologetic about this point (though if I’m persuaded otherwise I may post on this topic again). My reasons for this are:

  • It’s there in black and white at section 8 – a request is only valid if it “states the name of the applicant”; the Information Commissioner also takes this view and explains why in his guidance (CFOI disagree with the Commissioner on his view)
  • There’s good reason – much as you as a requester may not like it (especially if you are on the fringes of acceptability when it comes to your dealings with the authority), if we don’t have a name, it is difficult to identify requesters that are making repeat or vexatious requests, or to apply the fees regulations where costs could be aggregated
  • It costs money to answer requests; arguably we should not be spending this money on requests that are not valid, or can be refused for other reasons. We have a duty not just to those who use FOI but also to other taxpayers.

To me, it always comes back to the Act itself. Someone commented that ‘vexatious’ is “redundant and subjective”. It’s not. A vexatious request is defined in the Act and in numerous ICO and Tribunal decisions now. The ICO’s guidance is clear on when it can be applied. We are not talking about vague concepts here, but about specific behaviour which goes beyond what public officials should be expected to put up with. In 6 years, I’ve only used section 14 once, and this was for an individual who had written well over 100 times (not all FOIs) in a year, and had made threats of physical violence to a politician at the authority. But to apply it depends on being able to demonstrate who is making the requests in the first place.

I completely accept that some people might have a reason for remaining anonymous (CFOI cited an example where someone lost their job as a result of making a request). And ultimately, who’s going to know if you do use a (subtle) pseudonym? But I stick by my view that in general, if you’re making a request you should follow the rules just as you expect a public authority to do.

In passing, I should recommend a blog posting from a barrister on WDTK’s liability if they publish documents containing libellous material. This wasn’t an issue discussed in my post, but is certainly of interest.

Thanks for your continued support – nearly 1400 of you have read the blog at some point in the last 6 weeks, and whether I agree with you or not, its also great to receive your comments. Do continue to spread the word – if you have access to other forums or blogs, please do mention this blog if they touch on subjects I’ve discussed. More next week.

How Pro-FOI is the Coalition Government?

This week, we’ve heard about Conservative proposals to extend FOI. But apparently, that’s not all. The Lib Dem Minister responsible for FOI has indicated that the extensions may go even further:

“what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.” (Source, Campaign for FOI blog)

We’ve seen in recent months several announcements about openness. So is this Government more open than the last? And how long can it last? Yesterday I received a message via Twitter from one of my readers directing me to Sir Humphrey’s thoughts on the matter.

Seriously though, some observations. I think we need to give the new government a chance to show its hand on FOI and openness. There is a difference between choosing to publish all expenditure over £500 say, and having to answer requests made under the general right of access under FOI. It sounds very open to publish information pro-actively (and it is certainly something to be encouraged), but the public body still retains some control. It knows what information will be published and can design its processes and decisions around that.

The important thing about making a Freedom of Information request is that you, the citizen, choose what to ask about. Politicians and their advisors who may happily embrace the concept of open government, as long as they can choose what to be open about, go into the biggest flaps when confronted by an FOI request, exactly because they might have to disclose something that they’d rather not. I know – I’ve seen this happen. So I’ll be interested to see not just how much information the new Government is prepared to make freely available, but how readily they respond to individual requests under FOI. The experience of the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance is not encouraging.

There is, of course, a problem with extending FOI. It’s one of the great myths of FOI that it doesn’t cost anything. The Labour Government countered Conservative arguments (during the passing of the Bill through Parliament) that FOI would be an expensive burden by arguing that public authorities would be expected to deal with FOI requests out of their existing resources. That clearly hasn’t proved to be true, but resources for dealing with FOI requests are limited. Heather Brooke used FOI to compare spending on FOI with spending on public relations by police forces in the UK, and not surprisingly found that there were rather fewer FOI Officers in the UK than Press and Marketing Officers. It’s interesting that the very people who call loudest for cuts to public services are often the very same people that demand their rights (and extensions to their rights) to obtain information from those services.

So, like every public servant in the country, I say to the Government, put your money where your mouth is. If you want more openness, support your FOI Officers. And if you think that by pro-actively publishing information you will cut down on FOI requests, I suggest you take a look at this blog entry about the OpenlyLocal website. One-click FOI requests. I suspect I’ll be coming back to that one…

Personally, I’m a supporter of openness and certainly have no desire to see FOI weakened in any way. But any extension has got to recognise the practicalities – if you’re going to ask public authorities to do more, you can’t then take away resources, and in fact you may have to add to them. You only have to look at the Information Commissioner’s backlog of complaints over the last few years to see how meaningless rights are without the resources in place to deliver and enforce them.

Thanks for your interest this week – well over a thousand hits in week one. Do feel free to comment via the blog or twitter (@foimanuk) on any of the issues I raise here.

Is there room for another blog on FOI?

There are quite a number of blogs about FOI now. You’ll find links to some of them at the side of this page. So what is it that I have to say that will be different?

Most blogs about this subject are written by journalists. Often they give a pretty balanced view of FOI – I particularly like Martin Rosenbaum’s blog for the BBC, Open Secrets. But what I think is missing is the view from the inside. When information is withheld, it’s always because the public authority is trying to hide something. Public authorities are always portrayed as monolithic entities – yet as any FOI Officer will tell you, there are diverse opinions about FOI and specific requests within their organisation. And while we hear lots of accusations that public authorities are ‘dodging’ FOI, we hear very little of the very real concerns of some public sector workers about the impact of FOI on their work. And when we do, it is portrayed as a resistance to change.

The Russell Report into the Climate Change Unit of the University of East Anglia back in July included an interesting quote from the FOI Officer of the University of East Anglia. He described his job as feeling “like the bullseye at the centre of the target”. It certainly can be difficult navigating a course between the expectations of requesters, the requirements of the law and the concerns, founded or otherwise of colleagues, superiors and politicians. But it does give us a unique view of FOI and its impact on our organisations. Is it delivering its original aims? Is the public sector changing? The view from within is up to now largely unheard, but is a valuable contribution to this debate.