The Joy Of Text

Einstein said he couldn’t predict what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth war would play out with sticks and stones.  The direction of the FOI arms race is equally hard to predict. Tony Blair’s era in power gave us ‘sofa government’, a term coined to describe the informal, un-minuted approach to decision-making that he supposedly preferred. More recently, Lord McNally has scared us with the “post-it-note culture’, with vital information recorded in the most temporary of media, to be screwed up and dumped as soon as the decision is made. Given Government Ministers’ propensity for putting stuff in the wrong bin, perhaps 3M will produce Post-It pads made of rice paper, so the offending article can be swallowed and FOI thwarted for ever more. But after sofas and post-its, have we now got ‘Txt Gvmnt’?
In the wake of the DfE private email kerfuffle (I’ve downgraded it from a hoo-ha), I read a story about Boris Johnson using both private emails and text messages to get around FOI. It had never occurred to me that a text message would be covered by FOI. Had I ever thought about it, I would have said they were, but the scrappy and informal medium I always use as an example of how far FOI goes is the Post-It. I was therefore intrigued to find out whether Boris had been sending interesting secret texts, and whether anyone would try some sleight of hand to say that they weren’t covered. I nearly didn’t ask on the basis that Boris and the GLA are local government, and I generally operate a ‘don’t shit where you eat’ approach to my FOI requests. But if Boris was trying to keep things out of sight, the possibilities were endless and if nothing else, here was the opportunity to see how the Mayor renders ‘cripes’ and ‘spiffing’ in text speak. So I asked for the following;
the content of any text message sent or received on official business between 1September 2011 and the present day (24 September) and still retained as at the time of this request by any of the following individuals:
  • the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson
  • Any of the deputy mayors
  • Guto Harri, Director of External Affairs
I should confess that I didn’t realise Harri had left the BBC until I saw his name on the Mayor’s website and I threw him in on a whim. I hope the aftermath book he will inevitably write is as good as fellow ex-BBC turned spinner Lance Price’s was. If Boris is anything like the Boris of the popular imagination, it may be a bit more Hogarthian.
They turned me down on cost grounds. It’s difficult for me to say that I am disappointed with the reply because firstly, it contains one of the features of an FOI response that I always used to enjoy when deploying it, i.e. the Show-Stopping Estimated Cost of Response. In this case, the SSECoR was a whopping £2,550.  My rule of thumb when trying to make this technique convincing was always to aim for a grand and while I am slightly sceptical about the idea that it would require the claimed 3-4 minutes per text to cut and paste all the messages, I accept that it would be a horrendous task, well over the cost limit.
Which leads me on to the second thing about the response that didn’t disappoint. The admirable estimate was based on the fact that “there are approximately 1,530 messages relating to GLA business sent and received by the people specified in this period (based on an average of 81 text messages per working day and 20 text messages on each Saturday and Sunday)”. My request covered six people, so the number is nowhere near as daft as it sounded to me when I first read it. I know someone who can send 81 text messages in an hour (many of them admittedly the electronic equivalent of finger painting). But nevertheless, that’s a lot of correspondence between important people doing important jobs – remember, my request explicitly asked only for texts sent for official business, so anything about lunch arrangements or ping pong would have been excluded from the calculations. Texts sent and deleted before my request was made would also be out of the game. I’m clearly very naive, because I didn’t anticipate there being enough messages for my request to fail on cost grounds. 


UPDATE: The estimable tweeter @FOIMonkey, who understands the black arts of mobile technology, advises me that the estimate may not be entirely realistic (AKA “nonsense”), so I have put in an internal review on principle.


And there’s the payoff.  If you live in London, a fair amount of official correspondence about how your city is governed lives only on a phone, and may be being generated only with a thumb (OK, I can’t imagine Boris doing that insane teenage texting thing, but you never know). Have I finally reached the age where the way things work inevitably seems trivial? Will I start to use the phrase ‘new-fangled’? Or should we have concerns about the people who govern the so-called engine of our economy using their phones to run the place? What important information might reside in that most transitory of places? And are they using Twitter to run London as well? (NB, of course they bloody are)
Full credit to the FOI people at the Mayor’s Office, they didn’t flinch. I didn’t get my shocking Boris text revelations because I asked for too many of them and was legitimately refused, not because of any ‘texts aren’t covered by FOI’ nonsense.  But think on this; up and down the land, there are enough people with iPhones, Blackberrys and intermittent common sense to make the prospect of what FOI might do with text messages more than interesting.  All it will take is for someone to work out a better question than the one I asked.
And for my next experiment, Twitter or BBM?

Comments

  1. very interesting. in southwark, when we submitted a FOI asking for records of all communications between councillors and an organisation some of them met during the pre-application process, we were told 'Any communications between individual Councillors and the organisations listed above may have been undertaken in a personal capacity by them. Under Schedule 1, Part 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 it should be noted that the Act is applicable to “public authorities”. Councillors are not public authorities and therefore are not subject to this Act.' it took an internal review AND complaint to the information commissioners' office to get some stuff out. and that's in southwark, london. (here's the link: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/communications_with_rccg_hop_and#incoming-192403

  2. If it was the pre-application phase of planning, FOI wouldn't apply anyway. It would be EIR.

  3. Thanks, Tim, the ICO did use EIR to retrieve the information. My biggest concern is that, in Southwark, a hell of a lot seems to be happening 'in private' (where the council/councillors are consulting with select token groups as and when necessary but little of this ever becomes public knowledge & it's difficult to work out just what to do :S – any suggestions really appreciated)

  4. It would be worth picking one person and one day to see how that would work.I'm sceptical about the cut and paste method too – there should be an easier way to download or export messages from a mobile phone. It may be worth asking first what sort of phone the individual uses and then getting advice on how to download a mass of messages as a text dump.More broadly, you could FOI their policy on the retention of text messages sent by members on public business (presumably their phone is a company phone). If they have no policy or systematic method of retention (to prevent deletion, for example), then that should be of interest.

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