Tag Archive for journalists

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…

What’s wrong with FOI?

FOI Man makes the case for and against FOI and more transparency – what do you think?

It’s very easy for an FOI Officer to find fault with FOI. But hopefully regular readers will have picked up by now that I support FOI and moves towards openness in the public sector.

Unlike some, I don’t have any beef with particular groups who use FOI. Let’s look at the usual suspects.

Of course businesses use it to draw up contact lists for marketing, or to build databases which they will then sell at profit. It’s their right, and those who promote FOI in Government think this is a “good thing”. It is a mechanism that allows information collected or created at public expense to stimulate the economy. It is a strong justification of FOI in a largely market-based economy. It is why Conservative, as much as Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters, feel able to support openness initiatives.

Students use it to research their degree projects. So what? It’s good that they have the nous to use a facility such as FOI. We only have to provide what we have and if the cost is excessive we have an answer to that. It’s frankly not true that, as some would have it, we have to do their work for them – if information is publicly available to them, we just have to point them in the right direction and if necessary cite the exemption for information that is otherwise accessible.

It’s a good thing that journalists use FOI. I’d rather see stories based on evidence that I’ve helped provide than see badly researched sensationalism in the papers. Surely I’m not the only FOI Officer that gets a buzz when I see something I’ve provided mentioned in the Press? I sympathise with those who have become jaded because of the attitude of some (not all, or even most) journalists, and the way that some disclosures have been presented, but the answer is to remain positive and open, not to become defensive. Otherwise we just reinforce negative attitudes to the public sector in the media.

Users of WhatDoTheyKnow are using a service to make requests. It’s marginally easier to make a request using it than sending an email. Some will abuse that ease, but that’s going to happen with any route made available. And by engaging with those who work for and with WDTK, we have an opportunity to encourage responsible behaviour amongst requesters.

My point is that we can’t have a right and then quibble about who’s “allowed” to use it. And FOI is an important right. Whether we like it or not, it has become an internationally recognised badge of a free and democratic society. It’s as much about demonstrating our aspirations as a modern and progressive country as it is about accountability and transparency. This is one reason that I was disappointed by Tony Blair’s admittance in his autobiography that he considered FOI a mistake. If that’s true, that’s not only hindsight, but also short sight.

That said, of course, it’s very easy for supporters and users of FOI to become blinkered. One of the vaguely articulated aims of this blog is to demonstrate the impact that the legislation, and people’s use of it, has on public authorities and the services that they provide. It is neither perfect nor pain-free. And maintaining it, somewhere down the line, means choosing between FOI and provision of other services.

I’ve said previously that I am irritated by statements such as “it’s our information”. Aside from the fact that it is legally inaccurate, it is hopelessly impractical. Information is collected by public bodies so that they can provide the services that some or all of us rely on. Often, the provision of those services will be compatible with, and may even be served by, disclosure of the collected information to the public. But on occasion, it just isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be in our interests (as a society) to do so. It’s not that I view Government as always benevolent and paternal, or take a view that we should accept what we’re given without question. But I do accept that at least some of the time, things work better without me or others knowing every last detail. If only because the physical means of disseminating that level of information will get in the way of the provision of essential services.

If FOI and other transparency initiatives are going to work, they have to be managed as a process. That means, I’m afraid, refusing requests that will cost too much. Recognising that some people do abuse the privilege and turning them away. And using exemptions where we have concerns over the impact of disclosure of certain information. It means thinking carefully about the resource implications (I know, dirty words in the public sector at the moment) of more transparency. I think it also means looking at how transparency and FOI can contribute to the wider aims of the public sector. It has to be more obvious to public servants what the point of openness is, beyond satisfying curiosity. Can it help us make the savings expected of us? Are there ways that it can be built into our processes to make them more (and not less) effective? What are the wider benefits to our society?

So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about the future of FOI and how it can be made to work better? I’m particularly interested in hearing your constructive comments on FOI and transparency (rather than the knee-jerk reactions that we’re all prone to when we feel very strongly about something). Let me know by commenting here, or via Twitter (@foimanuk).