Tag Archive for Open Data

FOI and Open Data Developments

FOIMan reports on a new strategy from the ICO and a move for open data (and data sharing) responsibilities in government.

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner

Elizabeth Denham

I’m briefly emerging from my monastic cell to note some recent developments in FOI that may have passed you by amidst frenzied GDPR preparations.

The Information Commissioner recently gave the annual Jenkinson Lecture at University College London. In it, she made intriguing reference to a new ICO FOI strategy. What does this strategy consist of?

  1. The Commissioner wants to augment the “request-based, and frankly, reactive” model of FOI. There appears to be a new focus on pro-active disclosure, and linked to this, the Commissioner is interested in giving new impetus to open data initiatives, particularly focussing on making them more sustainable. Self-assessment tools for public authorities are mooted.
  2. She wants FOI to expand to reflect changes in the way that public services are run (not a new call, of course). Housing Associations were particularly singled out for attention.
  3. She remains concerned about compliance with FOI deadlines, and is keen to explore ways to improve these. The publication of FOI statistics proposed by the FOI Commission in March 2016 (and more recently included in the draft s.45 Code of Practice released before Christmas) was highlighted, and it was suggested that the Commissioner could carry out audits even where no specific complaint has been received (or ‘own-motion compliance investigations’).
  4. Access Impact Assessments may be coming your way. Presumably inspired by her office’s preparations for GDPR, the Commissioner suggested that assessments should be made of the “access impact of new systems and initiatives”.

News of such a strategy is interesting in its own right, but I read earlier today of changes to responsibilities in central government (what are known as ‘changes to the machinery of government’). Responsibility for open data policy, together with data sharing, data governance and data ethics has moved from the Government Digital Service (in the Cabinet Office) to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Could the Commissioner’s comments on open data be linked to this move, perhaps? And are there moves afoot to move FOI to DCMS as well? It would make sense – but machinery of government changes don’t always appear to be made with good sense in mind.

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.

Practically Speaking, Part II – Game, Dataset & Match

FOIMan brings you the second in his series of articles for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here about the series of articles I’ve been writing for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal. The first article was on deadlines, and this week I’m making available my piece called Game, Dataset and Match, which, as the more perceptive amongst you will have gathered, is about the new dataset requirements that came in on 1 September. You should note that this article was published much earlier in the year before the Information Commissioner and Ministry of Justice had published their guidance/finalised Code of Practice, so is a little out of date already. (The general trend this year has been that if I’ve prepared a talk or an article, a major development supercedes it just before publication or presentation. All I need now is to find a way to exploit this extraordinary gift.)

However…in September I was also asked to write on this subject for Privacy Laws & Business, another information rights publication, and as a special bonus, I have their permission to reproduce that piece here as well. Bang(ish) up to date. So there you go, two articles on datasets and FOI for the price of one right here at foiman.com.

Next week I’ll be bringing you a piece on handling vexatious requests. And there may be one or two other posts in the next week or so (including another guest post from academic researcher Joe Reddington), so keep your eyes peeled.

Game, Dataset and Match

FOI Man highlights forthcoming changes to FOI and provides some hints and tips for public authorities on how to deal with them.

Last year, the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed. Amongst the changes it brought in, were a small number of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act.

But we’re still waiting for most, if not all, of those changes to come into force. To bring them into force, the Government has to lay a commencement order before Parliament…and this is yet to happen. It was expected that the commencement order would be laid last month, bringing the changes into force on 1 April. But this has now been delayed, as reported by the Information Commissioner’s Office earlier this month.

The most significant change is the requirement on public authorities to release datasets in a reusable format, and to publish disclosed datasets in their publication schemes. In my latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal, I’ve written about these requirements and how to comply with them. (And don’t forget also my report on open data work at Southampton University, which contains further tips on managing and publishing open data).

Personally, I don’t think public authorities should worry too much about these changes. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, as I commented when the Bill was first published, the effect of these changes will be very limited in my view – they change very little. Public authorities already have to provide information in the format requested “so far as reasonably practicable”; I’ve never been convinced by Francis Maude’s claims that public authorities routinely (and deliberately) choose to disclose data in pdf just to frustrate entrepreneurs.

There may be a mad rush of requests for datasets later this summer (if indeed the Government sticks to its latest timetable), and no doubt there will be more impact for some than others. But I don’t anticipate that this is going to cause significant issues overall.

What can public authorities do to prepare? Well, I suggest the following:

  • identify your key datasets – if you regularly get requests for particular data, then you know what is likely to be asked for in future
  • work out what kind of licence you want to apply to these datasets if you disclose them; the easiest thing will be to use the Open Government Licence for information your authority owns the copyright for, but it is likely you will also be able to offer a non-commercial licence (limiting re-use to non-commercial use) or a charged licence (allowing re-use in exchange for a fee)
  • set up a section in your publication scheme for datasets and if you are happy to disclose datasets and make them available for re-use, get them up there on your website for people to use – don’t wait for the requests
  • once you’ve released a dataset and have licensed re-use, you are obliged to make it available in your publication scheme and to keep it up to date.

That last point may sound worryingly like a potentially unmanageable task for some public authorities, but the relevant amendment goes on to say “unless the authority is satisfied that it is not appropriate for the dataset to be published”. “Not appropriate” isn’t defined (as ever), but if it would be expensive to keep the dataset up to date, for instance, that might well be a justifiable reason not to do so.

So the usual advice applies to these changes – don’t panic! But we’ll have to wait and see what the actual impact will be. And indeed when that impact will be felt. At the moment we only have a draft Code of Practice to go on, so hopefully these few thoughts will be useful.

 

 

Are universities transparent enough?

FOI Man talks to Times Higher Education about universities and openness.

Times Higher Education magazine this week features an article about…higher education, and how open and transparent it is. I was interviewed for this feature a few weeks ago – wonder at my high rhetoric – “[FOI is seen] as a pain in the backside”. Seriously, it’s a comprehensive survey of all aspects of transparency in the UK university sector, including everything from FOI to open data to MOOCs (that’s massive open online courses for those of you not in the know).