Tag Archive for journalists

Don’t Google your requesters

FOIMan explains that searching for FOI requesters is not a great idea – and is ethically (and legally) dubious.

This blog originally aimed to give the practitioner’s view of FOI. Far too often, the important role of FOI officers and public officials in making FOI work has been ignored. So an increasing interest in how FOI really works behind the scenes is to be celebrated.

We’ve seen it in two recent reports on FOI in local authorities. The first from MySociety looked at FOI in local government across the UK. The second, from the Campaign for FOI, focussed on how London boroughs managed their FOI obligations. Interestingly, the findings of the two reports on practices in local councils are broadly in line with my own research which you can read about in the free chapter from The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook that I wrote about in my last post.

The Campaign for FOI’s research commented on the London Borough of Lambeth’s practices, and I was reminded of this when my attention was drawn last week to a post by a local blogger who had obtained Lambeth’s internal staff guidance for handling FOI requests. The News from Crystal Palace blog published the guidance pretty much in full, highlighting a number of practices which they felt were of concern.

Having read through it, much of the guidance is pretty standard stuff, and in fact I would go as far as to suggest that there is some very good practice in Lambeth. For example, strict timelines and service standards are a good way to ensure that requests are answered within statutory deadlines.

One particular section is of concern, however. Staff allocated a request are told:

‘You may want to consider all or some of the following when you are assessing a request:

  • Google the requester to understand who is making the request, why and assess the likely impact to the council (e.g. political, media, legal, commercial, personal data).
  • Review previous requests from the requester in iCasework.’

No. I can, at a pinch, understand the human instinct of curiosity that might lead an uninformed member of staff to use a search engine to find out about a requester. But FOI officers should be discouraging this practice, and certainly not making it official policy.

I know all the excuses. Often it is linked to a policy whereby an authority’s Press Office is informed when a journalist makes a request. In principle I don’t have a problem with that, as long as public authorities are open about the fact that they do it. The problem is that some journalists, perhaps suspicious that they will be treated differently, don’t identify themselves as such. The Act doesn’t require them to do so. The argument goes that therefore every requester has to be googled in order to identify the very small percentage of requesters that are unidentified journalists.

I’m going to suggest that this is flawed logic. Firstly, since most public authorities, and certainly councils, are suffering the effects of cuts to their budgets, why are they encouraging staff to waste precious staff time on the off-chance that someone might be a journalist? Even if they are, it shouldn’t make any difference to the outcome of the request, so surely this is a complete waste of time?

Secondly, how does the council know that someone who isn’t a journalist in the formal sense won’t blog or Tweet about disclosed information? Or pass it to a journalist for that matter? Given this, the fact that one or two journalists might not be picked up doesn’t seem that important.

Thirdly, whilst I recognise that Press Officers have a job to do, I don’t see why they necessarily need to know who is making a request. The sensitivity of a request surely ought to be judged on the subject matter, irrespective of who has made it. Lambeth apparently circulate a list of requests to their Press Office and the Leader’s Office. If this just describes the subject matter of the request this should normally be enough for them to identify where they might need to be prepared for controversy (which really should be the limit of their involvement following an FOI request).

There will be a director of public relations somewhere barking “well, why shouldn’t we?”, so here are a few points in answer to that question.

  • what’s your lawful basis? An individual’s FOI request, their identity, biographical information about them is personal data. You need a lawful basis to justify the handling of personal data – including searching for information about someone online. I presume you’ve completed a legitimate interest assessment and successfully justified how your need to know whether or not someone is a journalist outweighs the rights and freedoms of requesters? Even if you decide that you do have such a basis, are you otherwise complying with the requirements of the GDPR? Are you telling requesters that if they make a request it will result in the council looking them up online?
  • they can find out that you’re doing it. If the requester has a website, the most commonly used analytics tools will provide enough information to them so that they will spot unusual spikes in interest from your general location just after they made a request to you. There’s an example of this happening described in my book if you don’t believe me.
  • it’s creepy. Most comment on Twitter in response to revelations about Lambeth’s practice was to the effect that Lambeth were ‘spying’ on their residents. If a public authority is so concerned about its reputation that it employs Press Officers, shouldn’t it be just a little uncomfortable about gaining a public image associated with the fiction of George Orwell?

FOI is a right. Full stop. If people choose to exercise it, that is their business. If a public authority has good reason to believe that someone is misusing this right – perhaps harassing a member of staff, for instance – there are mechanisms for dealing with that. It is not usually necessary for a public authority to snoop on people to identify this kind of misuse.

Don’t google requesters. There’s usually no good reason, and it has the potential to do a lot of harm.

 

New FOI Media Masterclass Launches

FOIMan announces the launch of an exciting new Masterclass in FOI for journalists and the media.

Flyer for Media MasterclassI’m very excited to announce a new collaboration between FOIMan and the creator of FOI Directory, journalist Matt Burgess.

Matt’s new book Freedom of Information: a practical guide for UK journalists will be published later this month (and is available for pre-order). As well as being a thoroughly nice chap, he is extremely knowledgeable about how the media and others can get the most out of FOI. With this in mind, I’ve asked Matt to collaborate with me in developing a new Masterclass for the media.

Matt and I will share the delivery of the Masterclass. We hope that bringing together the experience and knowledge of a former practitioner with that of an active journalist will result in a unique learning experience for journalists and other writers who want to use FOI to great effect.

If you’re interested in attending the first Masterclass, we’re holding it in London on 30 October – full details and a booking form can be found on the FOI Media Masterclass page. A flyer is also available for download.

Why is higher education seeing a big rise in FOI requests?

FOIMan puts a report on FOI from Times Higher Education into context.

“The number of Freedom of Information requests received by UK universities has risen by about 40 per cent in the past three years…”

begins a piece in this week’s Times Higher Education. Readers who’ve been following this blog for a long time (ie for the last month) will remember that I used to be an FOI Officer for a higher education institution, so this article caught my eye.

Certainly my experience in a small college of the University of London supports these findings. Up to the point that I left in December we had received almost 150 requests. When I joined SOAS in 2010, the number was 69. Not long before it was less than 50. SOAS is a fairly small institution and doesn’t always get included in the “round-robin” requests sent to universities so the impact will be even greater in other institutions. THE cite York (home of the largest plastic bottomed lake in Western Europe, fact fans) as receiving 416 requests in 2013.

So why is this happening? Well, as a recently demobbed Higher Ed FOI Officer I can offer some educated guesses. Some have pointed to the number of requests being made by student journalists. Certainly a large proportion of the requests I dealt with in the last 6 months (which was primarily when the increase happened in 2013) came from that demographic. The reason for this sudden burst in activity? Well, anecdotally there is speculation that university journalism courses are setting assessments requiring students to make FOI requests.

Is this ethical? Personally, I don’t have a problem with it if the students are uncovering useful information in the public interest, but if it is merely a box-ticking exercise as part of a course, then I think course convenors ought to be asking themselves if there is a better way to educate students in the use of FOI. And perhaps asking FOI Officers in their own organisations to assist in developing courses which empasise that FOI should be used responsibly and as part of wider research employing a range of techniques.

The other reason that I think universities are seeing increased levels of requests is to do with the maturity of the legislation. When I worked in the NHS, the levels of FOI requests were first of all low compared to my experience in local government. But shortly after I joined the Trust in question (in 2009), the numbers started to rocket. And now we see the same happening in universities. (An alternative theory is that it’s my fault, but as this is happening across the country, I think we should probably discount that). What appears to be happening is that awareness that particular areas are subject to FOI increases over time. In 2005, everybody knew that central and local government were subject to the Act and wanted to try it out to dig out political stories. As time has gone on, people have become more aware that other areas are covered, and what’s more their use of the Act has become more sophisticated. Now it is common practice for journalists and others to send FOI requests to a number of institutions to compare the results, so numbers across a whole sector rise. It is also worth noting that higher education has been in the news a lot more in recent years due to tuition fees and other government reforms. (A mischievous element in me wonders whether the fuss Universities UK made in 2012 in its attempt to influence the post-legislative scrutiny may have backfired rather magnificently).

So my theory is that the rise in requests is partly due to a novel development (students being given FOI requests as homework), partly just the natural evolution of FOI awareness, and partly higher education drawing more attention to itself.

The THE article was based on an FOI request submitted to higher education institutions in December. I remember it well as it was one of the last that I answered before I left. It asked for the numbers of requests submitted over each of the last 3 years, together with the numbers answered late, how many had been refused and how many times each exemption had been used.

As well as reporting on the rise in requests, THE has been pretty scathing both in the main article and in a withering editorial about universities’ attitudes to FOI based on both their experience with the response to this particular request and on the statistics disclosed. Whilst in the past I have been the first to draw attention to skepticism in higher education about FOI, I do think the THE criticism on this occasion is unfair.

Firstly, I think THE’s methodology meant that the likelihood of receiving a complete set of useful responses was minimised. If you want to find out how a public body performed under FOI in a calendar year, complete figures will not be available until February of the following year at the earliest (this is a matter of pure mathematics – the last day that counts for this purpose is 31 December, so 20 working days after that, taking into account all UK bank holidays, will be in early February). Furthermore, although public bodies are obliged to answer requests within 20 working days, practical obstacles do sometimes make that difficult. If you make an FOI request in December to institutions that tend to close over the Christmas period, then perhaps it isn’t so surprising if those institutions struggle to meet a deadline, especially if you are also aware that they are experiencing a significant spike in workload. If the same request had been made in March, say, the journalist would have received many more responses on time and complete data from each responding institution.

THE also claimed that a lot of universities didn’t provide all the information. Certainly I didn’t. I pointed the journalist in the direction of published data (not just for my university but for several) which provided everything he wanted for 2011 and 2012, citing the exemption for information that is readily available (s.21). I also cited s.22 – future publication – for the 2013 figures as they will also be made available when complete (arguably I could also just have said that we didn’t hold the information given that it wasn’t yet complete). I did provide an interim total for the requests received. No doubt this counted as a refusal for the purposes of the article, but I effectively provided most of what was asked for and only refused to preempt a task that will be carried out very soon.

The article and the editorial make much of the fact that of those universities that provided data, there were big variations in the percentage of requests that were turned down. But there is nothing odd about this (indeed, it would be more suspicious if they were of a uniform nature). Firstly, percentages are meaningless without the numbers involved. Given that some universities had received 50 – 60 requests in 2013, and others had received many times that amount, this is an important point. Secondly, within the higher education community there is huge variation in the issues that are faced. SOAS is a humanities and social sciences college, so won’t hold information on scientific or medical research or have any of the issues associated with that research. Some universities have major collaborations with the private sector whilst others don’t. It may cost larger universities more to locate information as it is spread over a larger geographical area and in more places. Smaller universities may have less resources to establish systems to manage their information better and therefore bring the cost of retrieval beneath the appropriate limit. And so on. There are many and varied reasons why different universities might be more inclined to withhold information than others. There’s no need for a conspiracy theory to explain these variations. (The ICO, asked to comment, said more or less the same thing).

I welcome journalists scrutinizing the performance of public bodies in complying with FOI, and also highlighting the growing pressures that are faced by those tasked with managing FOI requests. But if the methodology used is flawed, and the conclusions made hyperbolic, there is a risk that far from encouraging a positive approach to FOI, skepticism about FOI within public bodies will grow.

Telling the complete story

FOI Man examines a news story that appears to use FOI responses and other information in a misleading way.

Today’s Times Higher Education magazine includes a story with the headline:

Academy accused of ‘gaming’ OIA complaint rules.”

One of my other hats at work, alongside FOI, data protection and copyright, is dealing with student complaints. So this story caught my eye. A story featuring FOI and complaints. Imagine my excitement!

The article claims that “Universities are declaring only a fraction of the student complaints made against them, figures show, prompting accusations that they are deliberately minimising the figures.” It explains – correctly – that universities are expected to issue a completion of procedures letter when a student has exhausted the internal procedures of the institution. This letter sets out the university’s position on the complaint or appeal and gives the student instructions as to how they can take their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, commonly known as the OIA.

Each year the OIA collects and publishes the numbers of completion of procedures letters issued by each university. The article in THE then goes on to explain that through making FOI requests to universities, they had found that the letters were sent only to a “handful” of students who had made unsuccessful appeals or complaints. In other words, the numbers of reported completion of procedures letters were much smaller than the numbers of complaints and appeals that had been rejected by universities. The universities concerned explained the difference. Quite rightly, and in line with OIA rules, the letters are only sent to students who exhaust all internal procedures. So if a student chooses not to appeal a decision internally (which could be for many reasons – including that they were persuaded that their case had no merit), they won’t receive such a letter.

And of course, universities haven’t tried to hide the number of complaints and appeals. The numbers were released when asked for under FOI.

What this story boils down to is that the number of completion of procedures letters is not representative of the number of complaints and appeals made to universities. That’s not exactly news, folks. That’s not to say that universities don’t get these issues wrong. But it isn’t possible to conclude that from the evidence described.

This isn’t a particularly important or high profile story, but I think it illustrates why some public employees and politicians get irritated with FOI – because too often the facts released are used in misleading ways.

What if the Requester became the Requested?

FOI Man imagines a world where journalists have to answer FOI requests…

In these hallowed pages, you’ve read on many an occasion of the concerns that some in the public sector have about FOI. Some of those concerns I sympathise with, some I don’t. One thing that is predictable, by and large, is that journalists won’t.

Now I love the ladies and gentlemen of the Press. Well, most of them, anyway. But I’ve often wondered if their views of FOI might be affected if they experienced working in an FOIable world. It’s very easy to criticise delays if you’ve never had to juggle the main work that you have to complete with one or more demanding FOI requests. And the use of exemptions to withhold information can readily be painted as a lack of commitment to openness if your emails have never been the subject of a statutory duty to disclose. (Although some media organisations are probably getting more used to that these days, come to think of it).

At the height of hackgate last month, one MP made the wild suggestion that media organisations should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I’ve been dying to write this ever since. And as it’s Friday…

A bead of perspiration ran down Bill’s forehead. A hot summer day, but he hadn’t the time to join his colleagues in the pub. Bill was writing up the scoop of his life. This was the kind of story that could make a journalist’s career. All he had to do was get it to his editor by 7.

The phone rings. Bill sees who it is and sighs. He picks up.

“Hi Bill?”

“Yes, Sarah, how can I help you? Not another FOI?”

“’fraid so. And I need the answers by tomorrow – it’s been with you for three weeks now.”

“You’re kidding? I’m dead busy Sarah – can’t do it now.”

“It’s got to be now. We’ve already been named and shamed by the Information Commissioner for not meeting deadlines. Unless this goes out on time, we will have trouble. The Editor signed an undertaking last month, and told us all to get our house in order.”

Bill knew she was right. The paper had had some bad press itself lately, and this would add to their troubles.

“OK, Sarah, let me look into it and I’ll come back to you.”

So Bill dropped his work on his scoop. The FOI, funnily enough, was asking for copies of all correspondence relating to the story he was working on. It was speculative, from a journalist on another paper, but it happened that all his key evidence was relevant. He’d put months of work into this story, but some hack who had got lucky with a fishing expedition was now going to get the fruits of his labour for free. His only hope was to get his story out first. But he’d already lost three or four hours pulling together the information for Sarah. He finished forwarding the relevant emails to her, and looked at his watch, yawning. He had to get home, and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to miss the last train. Oh well. Another day tomorrow not even touched.

The next day, Thursday, Bill completed his piece. He forwarded it to the Editor for approval. Nothing. He checked with the Editor’s PA. She was busy all afternoon with the Head of Law and Sarah, considering a request for internal review in a case where there were five boxes of papers. They’d have to read every sheet to work out if anything could be disclosed. When he did eventually hear from the Editor, it was to say that she’d need to consider the story carefully as there were legal issues. Bill sighed, pulled on his coat and headed off to meet his source and buy them dinner.

He watched with some consternation as the Source chose the most expensive item on the menu, before selecting a fine wine. That was a hundred quid he could wave goodbye to. In the old days, he might have claimed for dinner on expenses, but since an MP had made an FOI request for all journalists’ expense claims and receipts two years ago, he was afraid to claim for anything. He had just managed to escape with his job from the resulting furore, though his claim for a pigeon coop had caused much mirth in Parliament.

Friday morning. Heading to the station, Bill stopped off at the newsagent for a packet of paracetamol and the morning’s papers. He stopped aghast as he laid the papers on the counter. There, on the front page of the Daily Jupiter, is his story. It is illustrated with a huge image of one of the emails that he’d sent to Sarah two days before. He nearly forgot to pay in his rush to get to the office. It was time to go freelance.

Meanwhile, the Editor was sweating over an email she’d sent to a private investigator the year before, which had come up in a search for relevant information to answer an FOI request. She couldn’t believe that she’d put her instruction in writing…

It’s worth pointing out that if the media were subject to FOI, it is likely that they would benefit from the same derogation that the BBC and Channel 4 have for information related to their journalism (and which often attracts criticism from other media organisations). But hopefully this story illustrates the point that often dealing with FOI requests involves people central to delivering public services – senior nurses, doctors, lecturers, social workers, etc. And even with a derogation, FOI has implications for how an organisation is resourced.

I’m sure this sketch bears little relation to a real newsroom. I’ve never worked for a newspaper, so I’m basing this on too much TV and a fertile imagination. But perhaps it might illustrate to some why public sector bodies sometimes struggle with FOI.

Don’t worry, media friends, I’m not seriously proposing that you should be subject to FOI. But I bet there are a few out there who would like it…