Tag Archive for Government

Attack of the Zombie FOI Requesters

FOI Man suggests that for FOI to thrive, we need to start listening to its critics from within the public sector. And recognising that zombie requesters won’t help.

Last week’s Friday fun was an FOI request to Leicester City Council regarding their emergency planning. Specifically, their planning for the eventuality of an invasion of zombies. And we now know (though the formal response is yet to be sent out) that the council is not prepared for a sudden incursion of the braindead (insert witty comment here).

Reaction on Twitter was mixed. Most found it amusing (and I amongst them in truth). But some, and not just public officials, saw it as a misguided use of FOI. A subversion of an important right.

The journalist David Higgerson feared that the story had been planted by a public authority press officer to show how FOI was being abused. But he was encouraged by the response of the local authority’s Head of Information Governance, Lynn Wyeth, who had this to say of the request (according to BBC News):

“To you it might seem frivolous and a waste of time… but to different people it actually means something,” said Ms Wyeth.

“Everybody has their own interests and their own reasons for asking these questions.”

A sentiment worthy of applause. It’s absolutely at the heart of FOI that it doesn’t matter who is asking or what they are asking for, their request should be answered. It is a right. And FOI Officers should take Ms Wyeth’s approach at all times. If somebody asks the question, just answer it.

And yet…and yet. Whilst I share that view, and I know that many other FOI Officers will, I’m sure they will also share my experience that the majority of our colleagues are not yet there. They are cynical of the advantages that FOI brings. Some of those colleagues are at senior levels, and David mentions the councillors who grumble about the cost of FOI. It’s not just councillors. There are many who resent the time and apparent cost of FOI. I hear it all the time.

We who believe in FOI can always find an answer to their concerns. But however right we may be, there are many who will remain unconvinced. And unfortunately, as the public sector comes under more financial pressure in coming months and years, their voices will get louder. And they will point to requests about zombies, the paranormal and toilet rolls to support their case that FOI is costly and fails to deliver benefit. There will be many in Government who will sympathise.

It has happened before. In Ireland, following similar experiences, the Government introduced an inhibitive charging scheme. Requests dropped off rapidly. But so did the effectiveness of FOI in that country at opening up government and the public sector.

My fear is that a combination of zombie requests, public sector spending cuts and lack of support for FOI at all levels in public authorities could seriously damage our right to access information in this country.  As FOI Officers, we have a duty to promote FOI to our colleagues. But we can’t just keep repeating the same old answers in the hope that they will have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion.

The only way we can progress in instilling FOI as a culture in our organisations and our country is to listen to colleagues’ concerns. Are there ways we can work with them to demonstrate that FOI doesn’t have to be a threat? Can we recognise that sometimes the results of FOI are unhelpful? These are questions that we need to seriously consider and find answers to.

We should acknowledge that some requests are a waste of resources (even if we can’t actually refuse them). We should use exemptions appropriately where colleagues have legitimate concerns. We should refuse requests that will be overly onerous on grounds of cost. And as long as we don’t compromise on ensuring that requests are responded to in compliance with the legislation, we should work with colleagues in other departments who are responsible for defending our organisation’s reputation.

There’s no shame in any of that. But it might, slowly but surely, start to win over some of those with concerns over FOI and dampen down demands for restrictive reform.

 

Keeping secrets secret

The Daily Telegraph has highlighted the tricky issue of redaction. FOI Man reflects on the perhaps surprising difficulties of blanking out a bit of text.

Today’s Daily Telegraph features a story about redaction. And for a change, this is not a story complaining about public authorities redacting too much, but about them failing to do so properly.

The Departments for Health and Communities and Local Government, and the Ministry of Defence, are all alleged to have disclosed and published documents containing redactions. But unfortunately, it appears that the redactions were poorly done, and as a result, the material that should have remained secret can be read by requesters and others with very little effort on their part.

Redaction, for those who don’t speak FOI, is the term used to describe blanking out information in documents. It happens when public authorities are disclosing documents but there are particular words or passages that contain sensitive information and are therefore exempt. Rather than refusing to provide the whole document, public authorities will blank out the relevant sections.

It is a difficult process from start to finish. First of all, if the document (or documents) is very long, it can be time consuming (and this time often can’t be included in estimates of the cost). Secondly, as the Telegraph has highlighted, the practicalities of how to redact are not straightforward.

The Telegraph gives two examples of how redaction can go wrong. In the first, it appears that the Civil Servant responsible thought they had successfully blanked out the relevant sections using available software, but when the journalist studied the documents, it was a simple matter to highlight the relevant sections to see what had been supposedly hidden. In the second, rather more prosaic (and familiar) example, the text had been blanked out using a black marker pen, but when the document was held up against the light, again the information was magically revealed.

Another common difficulty occurs with Track Changes™ or similar functionality in office software (or more accurately, with staff understanding how it works). In a previous job, we  purchased redaction software in an attempt to overcome these issues, only to find that it didn’t work properly (it tended to blank out more than the section you wanted to cover up).

In the end, less technical solutions tend to be the most effective. The standard one is to use a black marker pen to cover the relevant words, then photocopy the pages, possibly use the pen again on the photocopy, then photocopy the pages again, and so on until you (and usually half a dozen colleagues interrupted to double check it for you) are satisfied that the words or passage can’t be read.

My favoured solution, sometimes complemented by the one above, is to use cut up bits of Post-It ™ note or paper that can be otherwise secured, and place them over the relevant sections before photocopying the pages (taking care not to dislodge said bits of paper en route to the photocopier). You can even indicate the relevant exemptions on the paper covering each section. This is effective, and has the added benefit of making your desk look like the aftermath of a Blue Peter craft session. “And here’s a document I prepared earlier…”

So I feel for my colleagues in central Government. They will no doubt want to read up about redaction, so if they and you want to know more, both the Information Commissioner and the National Archives publish useful guidance for public authorities.

If you’re waiting for my post on exemptions and the public interest test, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about it. I’ve just extended the deadline(!) and hope to publish it later this week.

Public Data Vs FOI?

FOI Man welcomes Government moves to improve transparency across the public sector. But a more pro-active approach to publication of data mustn’t be used as justification for (or a smokescreen for) weakening the right to make requests for information through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Government’s Transparency Board is, as they say,  just what it says on the tin. It is a Board that champions transparency across the public sector, chaired by Francis Maude. Its membership is impressive, including in its number Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, a champion of open data. And as you’d expect from such an institution, its minutes are published online.

The minutes of the latest meeting of 2 March are already available to anyone who’s interested. They include a discussion of the Freedom of Information Act and its relation to the transparency agenda. The thing that strikes me about the report of this discussion is that a presentation on FOI very quickly gets usurped by the general discussion about open data, despite the fact that the rest of the meeting covers much the same ground. This may be just the way its been recorded, and it may not be anything to worry about, but the sense to me is that FOI isn’t seen as a significant part of this process. There seems to be a belief that wider transparency is almost a ‘cure’ for rising FOI requests (which I’m sceptical of, by the way). To quote the minutes:

“It was noted that a move towards proactive publication, rather than just a response to requests for data, was firmly in line with the aims of the Transparency Board.”

Obviously, the Government is keen to press its own agenda, and doesn’t want to work within the straightjacket of the previous Government’s law. Though in truth, there seems little in their agenda that FOI didn’t already permit – it’s a difference of emphasis rather than real substance. Which isn’t to say that an emphasis on more transparency isn’t welcome.

But I think that those who support FOI as a powerful tool for opening up Government ought to be watching developments carefully. I’m still nervous that the Government at some point is going to suggest that as they’re disclosing all this data, there’s a reduced need for the general right of access (the right to make FOI requests). That they use this agenda to bring in restrictions on that right, such as a prohibitive fees regime. This won’t happen until after the post-legislative scrutiny process has been completed of course, but we need to keep an eye on where that scrutiny is led.

The general right of access is very important. As I’ve said before, it means that you choose what information you want (subject to statutory exemptions approved by Parliament). Increased pro-active disclosure is valuable, of course, but it means that the public body, or Government, chooses what it will allow you to have access to. True transparency requires both to be truly effective, not an either/or.

So it should be Public Data + FOI.

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.

FOI Man at Large: the DPO Conference

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend the Information Commissioner’s Data Protection Officers Conference in Manchester. Don’t be misled by the name though – there was plenty to entertain us FOI obsessives.

From the keynote speech from Lord McNally, the Lib Dem Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice, through to the Commissioner’s closing remarks, this was a conference that aimed to fully integrate the Commissioner’s Data Protection and FOI duties. So what was there that caught the eye on FOI?

It was clear from Lord McNally that support – and opposition – for FOI and openness issues is cross-party within the Coalition. He spoke of his surprise at finding himself on the same side as Francis Maude and Eric Pickles in meetings.

In questions, it became clear however that there was some dispute within Government over whether FOI should be extended to the private sector when it provides public services. Some in Government are sceptical as they argue that this would deter companies from bidding for Government contracts. From the tone of the Minister’s response it appeared that there is some fierce debate going on in Government on this very issue. Interestingly, Graham Smith of the ICO later argued that the private sector was effectively covered under the existing Act, as FOI continues to cover services provided on behalf of public bodies.

Lord McNally stated that the changes to the Information Commissioner’s role proposed in the Protection of Freedoms Bill were designed to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner. The Commissioner himself welcomed them later in the day, though he did suggest that if the Commissioner is only to serve one term, that term ought to be longer.

The Orders bringing ACPO and UCAS under FOI will be laid at some point from October this year. My guess, based on nothing in particular (other than neatness), would be that the aim would be for the order to come into force on 1 January 2012, but perhaps it will take effect instantly. I know that ACPO have some excellent people helping them prepare for this, and I’m sure it’s the same picture at UCAS.

Lord McNally also spoke about the changes to the 30 year rule for Public Records. He explained that the long lead in time is because the move to a 20 year rule is an expensive exercise.

Post-legislative scrutiny of FOI is seen by the Minister as an important step after 6 years of the Act. The fact that issues will be aired in a public forum will help in developing proposals to amend the Act further.

We also heard from Katie Davis of the Cabinet Office. It was clear from Katie’s presentation, as from the Minister’s speech, that the Government really does attach great importance to opening up public data. The Government’s aim is to be the most open and accountable government in the world. She explained that the Government’s Transparency Board, chaired by Francis Maude, was challenging assumptions across Whitehall. Its membership is certainly impressive – as well as ministers, it includes luminaries such as Professor Nigel Shadbolt (whose Southampton University home launched their open data repository this week) and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of a little thing called the world wide web). It was good in questions to hear her comment that Local Government is leading the way on transparency.

A question mark still remains over the impact of open data initiatives on the general right of access under FOI. Senior figures within the Information Commissioner’s Office remain as sceptical as many of us FOI Officers as to whether bulk disclosures will lead to reduced numbers of FOI requests.

Graham Smith, Director of FOI at the ICO, struck a cautious note. He commented that FOI was certainly embedded in the public sector; everyone knows they have to comply, but whether they want to is very much another matter. There is a culture of compliance rather than openness at present, in his view. The Government’s transparency agenda is very much welcomed by the ICO. Graham spoke of a lack of political direction on openness in the past which has contributed to lack of progress in changing the culture.

An interesting point raised by Graham was the fact that our FOI legislation was very much designed with paper record-keeping systems in mind. Now that much of the work of Government is carried out electronically, does that affect the effectiveness of the Act? Finally, he observed that the private sector appeared to be ‘waking up’ to FOI. Not just in terms of using it, but in realising the implications of FOI for their dealings with the public sector.

Later in the day, there was the message that public sector bodies shouldn’t be afraid to apply the provisions for vexatious and repetitious requests where necessary. Similarly aggregation of requests when estimating costs. The ICO will be supportive when looking at these cases where it is clear that requesters are making significant numbers of requests or are harassing authorities. It was clear that this attitude was coloured in part by the ICO’s own experience with some requesters! Public bodies should also be careful to protect personal details of their employees – in many cases, these details will still be protected by the Data Protection Act and section 40 ought to be utilised.

The Commissioner raised a laugh at the end of the day when, following his best impression of the former Prime Minister expressing his regret over FOI, he exclaimed, “Tony, it wasn’t about you!”. He reminded FOI Officers that we should be on the side of Dr Samuel Johnson – a famous exponent of openness – and not that of Cardinal Richelieu, who believed that secrecy was the first requirement of Government.