Tag Archives: foi

The slow drain of accountability in watchdog reporting

David Higgerson writes about some depressing recent developments – and equally depressing wider trends – around the lack of transparency in public office and public spending. It’s worth reading:

“The reason this is so important now is because we are on the cusp of another wave of political restructuring. Devolution is on its way to Greater Manchester, and to other major city regions too. Whether you believe this is a good thing or not, there is hopefully no denying that with such major power moves there has to also be a cast-iron guarantee that those making decisions will be accountable.”

And here’s the background:

What to do if your FOI is refused under ‘commercial sensitivity’ and ‘breach of confidence’

If you’re using FOI to ask questions about public services involving private companies it’s quite common to be refused on the basis of ‘commercial sensitivity‘ or ‘breach of confidence‘.

In fact, I’d suggest anticipating this in your initial request – or at the very least pushing for details when you receive any initial refusal.

Both exemptions are often misused by authorities as a ‘catch-all’ reason to fob off a requestor.

But neither exemption is simple, and both have a public interest test element which the authority is supposed to have thought through. In brief there are two things you can do to help your request: Continue reading

Did St Albans Council give misleading figures on FOI requests from police – and could other authorities be doing the same?

St Albans Council are one of an increasing number of public bodies to complain about Freedom of Information requests. In calculating the cost to the body of a quarter of a million pounds every year, they said that over one in ten requests come from the Metropolitan Police.

But Tim Turner was skeptical. So he asked how many of the police requests actually mentioned FOI. They avoided the question:

“St Albans drew my attention to a section on the Information Commissioner’s website which says that any request for information that is plainly not an EIR or a subject access request should be treated as an FOI.”

The implication being that routine requests for information from other public bodies may be being classified as ‘FOI’ as a way of inflating costs and supporting the case against it – even where they would previously just be routine.

Turner then asked specifically how many of those police requests were made under the Data Protection Act:

They admitted that all of them were“.

Continue reading

Avon and Somerset Police calculate an “average” cost for an FOI request which is higher than the maximum

£540 is claimed - but £450 is the maximum

Background image by Paul Townsend

While I’m on the subject of Freedom of Information, here’s an odd story in the recent onslaught of anti-FOI press releases, from Avon and Somerset Police.

The police force is just one of many public bodies recently to moan about “bizarre and comical” FOI requests*. They claim that Freedom Of Information cost the body over half a million pounds last year. But can we trust their calculations?

Here’s how they say they arrived at their figure of £514,620:

"The cost of answering requests is calculated on a basis of £30 per hour , with an average time of 18 hours per request."

“The cost of answering requests is calculated on a basis of £30 per hour , with an average time of 18 hours per request.”

That’s an average cost of £540.

Now, here’s the guidance on costs from the Information Commissioner:

“The cost limit for complying with a request or a linked series of requests from the same person or group is set at £450 for [non central] public authorities.”

So somehow Avon and Somerset have arrived at an average cost per request which is higher than the maximum cost for FOI requests.

How? Well, firstly the 18 hours “average” they mention is actually the maximum time that can be spent on an FOI request. So either every requester is somehow managing to hit that magical maximum, or they cannot calculate an average.

Worse, the £30 cost per hour is higher than they are supposed to charge.

According to the Ministry of Justice:

“£25 is the standard hourly rate that all authorities must use to calculate the staff costs of answering requests.”

Perhaps we need an FOI request to find out why Avon and Somerset Police are charging so much to answer FOI requests, and the calculations they used to arrive at an ‘average’?

UPDATE: It seems someone did exactly that:

avon somerset police foi story

*Apparently it’s “bizarre and comical” to ask how many police officers failed a physical. The answer is one in ten.

Too many FOI requests are “commercial”? You know that businesses pay tax too?

Every so often public officials who wish to curtail Freedom of Information rights will argue that money spent on fulfilling FOI requests might be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads, or catching criminals.

This argument is superficially persuasive, but there are two significant counter-arguments:

  • Firstly, that as taxpayers we have already ‘paid’ for the collection of information held by public authorities and have the right to access that;
  • And secondly that FOI allows citizens to scrutinise how our money is being spent and highlight inefficiencies and abuse.

In other words, even if your argument is purely economic (rather than, say, about democratic accountability), Freedom of Information may save at least as much money as it costs: money which, well, might also be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads or catching criminals.

A system in which public officials can spend money without scrutiny is a system more open to abuse and overspending. So curtailing Freedom of Information to ‘save money’ may be a false economy.

The latest weapon to be used in attacking FOI is to list how many requests are being made by businessesSt Albans Council‘s media offensive against the FOI Act, for example, mentions that:

“57 percent of the requests were from businesses, 15 percent from the national media and 13 percent from the Metropolitan Police.”

Continue reading

Staffordshire Council just made a very persuasive case for the value of Freedom of Information

Yesterday Staffordshire County Council controversially published details of “The cost of “Freedom of Information” to local people. The titling of that page gives some clue to its intent: FOI is a ‘cost’, and it’s you, local people, who pay.

But I think the list – despite its obvious agenda and related weaknesses – is actually rather brilliant.

Why? Because it shows just how flexible a tool FOI is, how widely it is used, and perhaps raises questions to be answered about why it has to be used in the first place.

staffordshire FOI requesters

Staffordshire’s top 10 list of FOI requesters includes a parish council, elected MP and local and national media

The top ten requesters, for example, throws up not just news organisations but a politician, a parish council, and the right wing campaign group TaxPayers’ Alliance. Continue reading

Ethics in data journalism: mass data gathering – scraping, FOI and deception

chicago_crime

Automated mapping of data – ChicagoCrime.org – image from Source

This is the third in a series of extracts from a draft book chapter on ethics in data journalismThe first looked at how ethics of accuracy play out in data journalism projects, and the second at culture clashes, privacy, user data and collaborationThis is a work in progress, so if you have examples of ethical dilemmas, best practice, or guidance, I’d be happy to include it with an acknowledgement.

Mass data gathering – scraping, FOI, deception and harm

The data journalism practice of ‘scraping’ – getting a computer to capture information from online sources – raises some ethical issues around deception and minimisation of harm. Some scrapers, for example, ‘pretend’ to be a particular web browser, or pace their scraping activity more slowly to avoid detection. But the deception is practised on another computer, not a human – so is it deception at all? And if the ‘victim’ is a computer, is there harm? Continue reading

Three book reviews: leaks, FOI, and surveillance

Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark book cover
This Machine Kills Secrets book cover

If you’re interested in leaks, surveillance or FOI, three book reviews I wrote over the last two months on the Help Me Investigate blog recently might interest you:

Hyperlocal Voices: Simon Pipe, St Helena Online

After a short summer break, our Hyperlocal Voices series returns.  In this issue we visit the tiny island South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Perhaps best known for being the home of an exiled Napoleon, it is frequently described as one of the world’s most isolated islands. At just 10 x 5 miles, and with a population of 4,255 people, Simon Pipe’s St Helena Online, offered Damian Radcliffe an insight into a very different type of hyperlocal site. Continue reading

Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act: