Monthly Archives: February 2011

FOI: why who is requesting (shouldn’t but) can matter

Freedom of Information requests should be “applicant blind” and “motive blind” but they are often not treated as such – David Higgerson, head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regional, points out in his blog post FOI FAQ.


This means that FOI rules are being breached if a press officer, to whom your request has been passed on by the FOI officer, asks you what you need the information for. 


It is important for journalists to be aware of this to ensure their FOI requests are not treated differently just because they are coming from a member of the Press. Read David Higgerson’s other post on how NHS officers are being instructed to keep an eye on ’round-robin requests’ as evidence that, in the world of FOIs, not all requests are equal.


A public sector FOI practitioner who blogs under the name FOI Man has posted his insider’s view on when he deems it fair to reveal the identity of the requester and when not. 


Double-edged sword

Until I read FOI Man’s blog, I hadn’t been fully aware of the implications of an FOI officer sharing details of journalists’ requests with the organisation’s press officer, whose job, after all, is to manage its relations with the Press. The press officer cannot, of course, ask the FOI officer to modify the FOI response but it is still rather a worrying thought that spin doctors should be able to freely see who is asking for what information and comment on a draft reply. 


FOI Man says he often removes the name and contact details of the requester before circulating them in-house. But authorities are entitled to know who made the request and may need to know their ID to ascertain that it is not ‘vexatious’. 


In practice, in the spirit of the FOI Act, transparency works both ways: just as you count on full disclosure of the information requested, there is nothing an FOI officer can ultimately do to justify withholding information on the person requesting the information.


Vexatious or not vexatious?

Higgerson explains in his post that the circumstances under which a request can be considered as such are restricted. More details and examples can be found in this guidance note issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office “Vexatious or repeated requests“. 


 Below is a summary of the four possible ‘vexatious’ scenarios. 


1. The requester is obsessive: if the requesters’ records show FOI requests on the same topic are being used repeatedly to reopen issues that have already been considered.


2. The request is a harassment: if the authority believes the request itself could constitute harassment ‘of a reasonable person’. Requests biased by complaints/accusations, use of hostile or offensive language, or an unreasonable fixation on a particular individual could all be used as grounds to classify the request as harassment.


3. The request is seen as aiming to cause disruption: the authority must prove the requester has got malicious intent, but the argument would hold only in the unlikely event the requester has openly stated they are out to cause maximum inconvenience.


4. The request lacks real purpose or value: an auhority can claim this but only as an additional argument to support points one to three above. Thankfully, for the requester, the ICO rules that “it is not appropriate to use lack of value as an argument simply because you cannot imagine what the value might be” and that the fact that the FOI request has a serious purpose can stop it being vexatious.


ID Protection

Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act states that for a request to be valid the request must “state the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence”.


The dilemma arises, however, when someone is requesting information about their employer. In such instance identification of the requester may not be in their best interest. 


FOI Man says there is then no other recourse than to go undercover and use a (credible) pseudonym, though it is not a method he condones.


‘At your own risk’, is probably the best answer. The ICO clearly states “pseudonymous requests are outside the scope of [the Information Commissioner]’s jurisdiction”. 


Is it a case of right to know versus the right not to be known.

Help Me Investigate is changing

I wanted to give you the heads-up on some big changes I’m planning at Help Me Investigate.

In a nutshell: the site is going open source. This means that the code behind the site will be released so that anyone can install their own crowdsourcing investigation platform.

However, that also means that the current Help Me Investigate site will be taken down for a while as people play with the code.

Why open source?

Going open source addresses a number of legal weaknesses and geographical limitations that the project has encountered, as well as providing an opportunity to improve the technology that we simply don’t have in our current form. We’ve had dozens of requests to join the site from people in South America, Australia, the US, Middle East and South Africa that we couldn’t comply with for legal reasons. There have also been those who wanted private investigations, or completely public ones. Now there is a way that those people can use and change the technology accordingly.

It also allows us to focus our efforts on what I believe is the most important feature of the site: its community and resources.

What next for Help Me

The plan is to refocus the HMI website on continuing to build a community of users who want to investigate questions in the public interest, across a number of platforms.

The site will also further build the bank of resources for investigators, focusing further on particular areas, e.g. education, health, social care, environment etc.

We are looking for volunteers to explore these areas, so if there is an area you wish you were more expert on, and you want to learn with others, let me know.

What about my investigation(s)?

The site will be taken down or redirected in two weeks, at which point investigations will no longer be accessible. If you want to get your investigation off the site let us know and we’ll try to make it as easy as possible.

This is a huge change for Help Me Investigate. The site long ago achieved what it set out to prove: that people could collaborate to investigate questions in the public interest. It works. But based on our experiences, I know it can work better. Open sourcing Help Me Investigate, and moving to a distributed network of communities based on a shared set of resources, is the right thing to do. If you want to be involved in making that happen (we will need open source project managers, community managers, bloggers and subject experts!), please let me know.

The potential for permanently unlocking public service information…

Freedom of Information has enabled access to information.

But sometimes, there are still issues with making this information accessible to all in usable formats, whilst still avoiding charging or licensing issues.

It’s nice to see a government-encouraged website trying to change things; the Public Sector Information Unlocking Service, although the regulator for the re-use of public sector information, is trying to encourage the copying and re-mixing of data by allowing users to essentially make mini-petitions for information.

They ask you for the problem, your ideal solution and what you will do with the information. Requests are stored by data (under each month) and adding your name and e-mail address allows you to ‘support’ a request, giving it more prominence and a greater chance of getting noticed.

It’s a good idea with potential, but at the moment, the information asked for is a bit vague and confusing (a lot of people get confused when asked for ‘the problem’, and whether or not this with regards to why the information couldn’t be easily accessed or why they are asking for the information), and it only allows access to information that is accessible under the Freedom of Information Act.

Alongside this, it seems that, for a long time, none of the requests have gained any supporters, and despite requests dating back to 2008 it seems as though the whole thing hasn’t really caught any momentum.

It is something to keep an eye on forever, and something that could make the utilisation of Freedom of Information and access to open data a whole lot easier.