Archive for June, 2008

What _Do_ They Know?
June 25, 2008

I have discovered a wonderful website: WhatDoTheyKnow.com – from the same people behind the also delightful TheyWorkForYou.com.

The UK has had Freedom of Information for several years now, with mixed results. Many authorities, whilst claiming to be in favour, in principle, appear in practice to see it as a burden. There has been murmuring about finding ways to cut back on “frivolous” requests – the classic example being the request as to how many Ferrero Rocher chocolates the Foreign Office serves!

Yet despite the humourous nature of that request, I believe it does a great disservice to the principles of FoI to automatically treat it as a vexatious or frivolous request. The association between Ferroro Rocher and the embassador’s dinner party is, through a long-running advertising campaign, strongly connected in the public’s mind. It is entirely plausible that someone may have wished to know just how accurate it is. It may not even be mere idle curiosity: a confectioner might be investigating the production of a rival chocolate. In light of the aforementioned public association, it would certainly be a PR coup if he would be able to advertise his chocolates as the ones actually served by the Foreign Office, and was conducting some basic market research.

Furthermore it is generally accepted that the public should be entitled to know how their money is being spent. Were it to be discovered that actually the Foreign Office spends £18million a year on Ferero Rocher, this would certainly be in the public interest.

However, even ignoring these so-called “frivolous” requests, FoI to date has not been a particularly useful way of bringing things into public light. Although requests are to be treated as impersonal, and disclosure to one person is treated as disclosure to all, most authorities choose to send their responses solely to the original requestor. Where that is not a journalist or representative of a pressure group or the like, that is often the end of the matter. Some authorities do publish a selection of responses on their website, but they are, so far, in the minority.

Into this arena steps WhatDoTheyKnow.com. The site provides two main benefits that I can see.

Firstly, by already having gathered the FoI contact addresses for most authorities throughout the UK, they can save you considerable time in tracking that information down (some authorities make it ludicrously difficult to find, which is a rant for another day!)

Secondly, much more importantly, all correspondence is public and archived. Release to one now really does become release to all. Anyone can browse and search through requests made before. As well as bringing a great deal of information into the open that, this potentially cuts down on the amount of duplicate work required for authorities, and anyone new to FoI can gain a great education really quickly on how to construct a request, what sorts of information can and can’t be requested, what to do if a request is rejected, etc.

The site would be even better if there was a facility for users to comment on each others’ requests – noting, for example, where an authority seems to have failed to release information they should – but it does allow users to contact each other privately, so at least some knowledge exchange can happen there.

Certainly journalists who are hoping to gather information for a story and want to retain the scoop will continue to “go it alone”, but for more ‘casual’ citizens who just want to gain that little degree more insight into what their representatives are doing this site is a godsend.

And herein will lie my chronicles of using it …

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