Tag Archive for Procedures

Practically speaking, Part I – Deadlines

FOIMan brings you the first in a series of articles about the practical implications of FOI.

This year I’ve been writing a series of articles about the practical implications of FOI in PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal. Over the next few weeks, with PDP’s kind permission, I’m going to publish each article here. I’ll be continuing to write for the journal next year.

This week I’m publishing the first article in the series which covers the 20 working day deadline whilst referencing Douglas Adams and Lewis Carroll en route. Next week – Game, Dataset and Match – about… well, I’m sure you can figure that out.

UPDATE, 27 November 2013: my thanks to Ganesh Sittampalam and Lee Gardiner for highlighting an error in this article. On the second page (helpfully labelled p.4), second column, second paragraph, public authorities are not obliged to restart the clock once a request has been better defined – it will normally be the case that the newly defined request will be treated as a new request and the clock restarted at 20 working days. I’m sure that what I’ve said there made sense to me at the time, but right here and now I cannot recall what I intended. Apologies if anyone reading has been misled on this point.

FOI requests via Twitter – a Supreme problem

FOI Man looks at whether FOI requests can be made via Twitter, and concludes that it just isn’t a very good idea.

Earlier today, the UK’s Supreme Court started to use Twitter to much excitement (well, a little, and mostly from lawyers and geeky-types like me). Their first Tweet directed Twitter followers to their Twitter policy, available on the Supreme Court website.

Personally I was impressed that the Supreme Court actually had a Twitter policy. But the stirrings in my Twitter-stream were not about that. No, some of you were concerned about a short statement half way down the page:

“Sending messages to our Twitter feed will not be considered as contacting the Supreme Court for any official purpose (including the administration of cases or Freedom of Information requests).”

Oh dear. The thing is, this goes against advice provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. After some deliberation, they came out with a statement saying that as long as the name of the Twitterer was clear (perhaps in their profile), and the information requested was clear, a Tweet could be a valid FOI request. And I agree with their analysis.

This all comes down to the definition of a request at section 8 of the FOI Act. To be valid, a request has to be in writing; it must provide the name and address of the requester; and it must describe the information that they are looking for. That’s all. It’s long been accepted that you could in principle make a request via text message. It’s not much of a stretch therefore to say that the same applies to Twitter.

In short, if someone does make a valid request to the Supreme Court via their Twitter address, and they ignore it, the requester could complain, and the Information Commissioner could slap them on the wrists for not complying with the Act. So their statement is pretty meaningless. And of course, because they’ve said it, there are now people up and down these isles submitting requests that they wouldn’t have done if the statement wasn’t there, just to prove a point.

My view on this is that using Twitter to make an FOI request is generally a waste of everybody’s time. Of course you can make a request through that route. But why? Firstly, it’s not the easiest thing to fit a request into 140 characters – there are ways round that (eg links), but if you’re going to link to another document why don’t you just use email in the first place? Secondly, if, like the Supreme Court, the authority clearly isn’t geared up to receive requests through that route, the chances are that your request won’t be seen. So then you complain. Well, woopy-doo (I believe I may have invented a new utterance of celebration, but bear with me) – you’ve successfully caught the authority out. But you haven’t got the information you wanted. So who wins here?

Somebody made the excellent point that it’s not a massive job to instruct whoever is maintaining the Twitter feed that they might get FOI requests and to be on the look out for them. That’s absolutely true. But in practice, most authorities probably aren’t aware that requests can come through that route. Jonathan Baines blogged last year about one surprising authority that didn’t seem to be (I promise you, you’ll love this, if you haven’t heard about it before). Also, even those of us who are aware – is this really a priority amongst the many messages that we want to get out to colleagues about FOI (and other things)? I have mentioned it to the people in my authority who maintain official Twitter accounts (and mine isn’t one before you unleash a thousand Tweets in my direction, those of you of a mischievous disposition – @foimanuk is a personal account), but I’m pretty sure that they will still be surprised the first time that it happens (that being the point – it’s still a very unusual thing to do).

And let’s be clear. There are lots of ways to make a valid FOI request that would most likely get you nowhere. In theory, next time your bins are being emptied, you could hand a written note to your waste collection operative, and as they’re providing a service for the council, that would arguably count as an FOI request. Good luck with that.

I’ve got no problem with FOI requests being made in any format or via any media in principle. Some authorities are very good at adjusting to new technologies and providing new ways for the public to interact with them. But many aren’t so good, or have limited resources to support additional communication portals. Is there really any point in sending a request through unusual media if the likelihood is that the authority won’t see your request?

Postscript, Tuesday 7 February

Shortly after I published this post on Monday, the Supreme Court Communications team tweeted the following, addressed to myself and Andy Mabbett, who Tweets as @pigsonthewing, (and who had first alerted me to the Twitter Policy):

@pigsonawing [sic] @foimanuk Fair point! We’ll accept FOIs via Twitter and will amend our policy accordingly.”

And true to their word, the statement in their policy now reads:

“We would prefer to receive Freedom of Information requests via email or letter, in order to assist us in giving them a full response, but we note the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance on the validity of Twitter as a channel for receiving such requests and will handle them in accordance with that guidance.”

A swift and sensible response to the points raised, and it reflects well on the Communications team at the Supreme Court. Let’s hope there will be more moves towards openness in our court system. For more on that, I do recommend Adam Wagner’s post from earlier today.

Why is my simple query being treated as FOI?

FOI Man suggests that how an enquiry is badged is irrelevant – it’s other issues that dictate how long a request takes to answer.

A question I get asked a lot is why, when an individual asks a simple question of their local council or other public authority it gets treated as FOI. Their concern, presumably, is that handling a query as an FOI request will take longer than handling it as a routine enquiry. And that organisations are deliberately badging queries as FOI for this purpose.

To be honest, this is one of those issues that causes confusion on both sides of the fence. I’ve written previously about the inside view of this. As I said on that occasion, the difficulty is that the legislation doesn’t distinguish between ‘routine enquiries’ in written form and more complex requests that most people would consider ‘FOI requests’.

It just struck me as I answered this question again that the complaint about how an enquiry is classed is missing the point. There’s no reason in theory why something should take longer to answer just because it is considered an FOI request by an organisation. It’s irrelevant. The reason why something takes longer to answer, however it is badged, is because there is something about it that makes it more difficult to answer.

That might be that it relates to something that is controversial or sensitive. But just as likely it could be that it’s not as easy to find or collate the information as you, as a member of the public, think it should be. It might be that the person who deals with it has gone off sick for the day. There are all sorts of reasons why some enquiries might take longer to answer than others.

In fact the advice that FOI Officers tend to give their colleagues is that if a query is contentious or novel then they should handle it as an FOI request. But it’s not the fact that it is an FOI request that means it will take longer to answer – it’s the fact that it needs proper consideration.

In other words, badging something as FOI isn’t a way of “kicking an enquiry into the long grass”. By definition, it can’t be – we have to answer within a set time limit (and OK we don’t always succeed, but we are obliged to get there in the end).

That’s not to say, of course, that some authorities don’t stretch the requirements to the limit. But that’s not a problem with the FOI legislation, and we should remember that FOI has significantly enhanced people’s right to information in the main, not reduced it. If there wasn’t a right to information through FOI, I suspect that many enquiries would never be answered, let alone be answered quickly.

So if you are told that your enquiry is being dealt with as an FOI, don’t groan. It’s not poor old FOI’s fault. But if you think it’s taking longer than it should, don’t be afraid to ask why with an open mind and a friendly tone.

Why my £9K saving wasn’t a victory for the Big Society

Earlier this week I sent the following Tweet:

“Preparing an FOI response, identified £9k that should have been reclaimed. Hasty emails being sent to recover it. FOI can save real money.”

This is great news, of course. As a direct result of FOI, a significant figure was saved, which can now be reinvested in other areas of our work. I was able to use it to demonstrate to a senior figure how, despite its occasional frustrations, FOI can save the organisation money. What this isn’t though, is evidence that through more openness we can cut down on the number of public servants employed. This isn’t a triumph of the Big Society.

Although the information was requested through FOI, the error would not have been evident to the requester. In order to provide the information requested, more detailed information had to be collated. It was only when somebody directly affected (ie a member of staff) saw the detailed figures before the response went out that they noticed the error. Even if the detailed figures had been disclosed, it is highly unlikely that the requester, or anyone else, would have noticed the discrepancy.

This also highlights the importance of having someone check responses before they go out. I’ve posted before about the fact that no process of discovery is fool-proof. David Higgerson wrote yesterday about the irritation for the requester when erroneous data is released. The only real answer to this is for someone who knows the information well to check it over before it is disclosed. And for the FOI Officer to cross his fingers before hitting send.

What is an FOI request?

Chris, commenting on my last post, asked why FOI requests are treated as ‘Special’. Surely, he suggests, the way that the legislation was drafted, there shouldn’t be any distinction between the requests that we class as ‘FOI’ and other, more routine enquiries?

Chris, you’ve opened a huge can of worms there. Thankfully, I’ve had some help from another FOI Officer – do take a look at their extensive answer in the comments to my last post. I’ll see if I can add some context here.

The truth is, Chris is absolutely right. Section 8 of the FOI Act defines a request as:

“a request which –

(a) is in writing,

(b) states the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence, and

(c) describes the information requested.”

You can see the problem. This definition encompasses pretty much any enquiry that anyone makes to a public body. Even those made by other public bodies. It covers enquiries that are already covered by other legislation. It covers things that the writer never intended in their wildest dreams to be classed as FOI.

What most people responsible for implementing FOI were considering at the start was “how do we avoid unnecessary bureaucracy?”. We don’t want to make it harder for people to get information we already give out. We don’t have any more resources to deal with this legislation. And we really don’t want to annoy colleagues who have established and effective processes in place.

So any enquiries that were already dealt with under existing procedures were left that way. Where authorities thought things through properly, they also made sure that targets for answering correspondence generally were brought into line with FOI (I know of at least one authority that thereby doubled its own targets for answering correspondence, so it wasn’t all bad news).

In addition, we were expected to maintain statistics on the numbers of FOI requests received. In order to report on statistics we had to be clear what we were going to count. Clearly we couldn’t count the ones that were already being dealt with under other procedures as they weren’t being logged with us. Routine enquiries – for published material, for application forms, for details such as opening times – were excluded. What was left was what we now call ‘FOI’. A pretty common definition of these requests used in many authorities is:

  • it mentions FOI or EIR and/or
  • it will be complex to comply with and/or
  • staff are unsure how to deal with it and/or
  • it is for information that wouldn’t normally be disclosed.

You would not believe the hours and days of my life that I have spent arguing with colleagues about whether a piece of correspondence should be classed as ‘FOI’ or not. Never mind the fact that unless they’re planning to withhold the information it really doesn’t matter as long as they answer within 20 working days. Or that if they are planning to withhold it, then it definitely should be dealt with under FOI procedures. It causes real angst to people.

Why? Generally because, rightly or wrongly, people perceive FOI procedures within their authority as more complicated than other processes. In many organisations, a response to a piece of correspondence marked as FOI has to be sent for formal approval. The same enquiry, if not marked FOI, could be answered the same day by the relevant team without such formal approval. So there’s a clamour not to mark requests as FOI if it can possibly be avoided.

It’s an arbitrary distinction to a degree. It’s entirely possible that somebody could ask for an internal review of the response to their enquiry which wasn’t treated as FOI if they weren’t happy with it. It’s equally possible that the team concerned might disclose information that they shouldn’t do because checks weren’t carried out.

I think, unfortunately, it also has a lot to do with how many people in public authorities still see FOI. It is, in their view, still an expensive and time consuming imposition. More bureaucracy. The truth is that the things that public employees hate the most about FOI are, for the most part, not even required by the legislation – just by their own political masters and senior managers.