Do They Know What?

If anything is guaranteed to get participants in an FOI training course talking, it’s an early reference to the website What Do They Know. Especially if I mention it with anything approaching enthusiasm, I’m guaranteed that people will be switched on to what I’m saying and wanting to respond. This is because they’ll want to tell me how much they hate it. A little over year ago, the eminent blogger FOI Man took a look at WDTK  and came out with a measured and balanced approach to competing attitudes towards the site. With his habitual diplomacy, he came to the conclusion that FOI officers should embrace the site despite its flaws. By contrast, I do not come to bury WDTK, but I’m definitely not here to praise it. In classic A-Level essay style, I know I should balance my criticisms with a recitation of all that is good about the site. But frankly, balance is what the comments section is for. 

UPDATE: The comments section is flaky, so some of the balance is now at the bottom of this post as well.

A number of FOI officers have cited WDTK to me as being vital in the process of educating colleagues about the way in which FOI is applicant blind. A disclosure is not to the applicant, but to the public at large and in this context, WDTK is a metaphor made digital flesh (which sounds more early Cronenberg than I was expecting). But it’s not just that. A distinguished FOI twitterer described WDTK as a ‘public email client’. Email clients don’t take political positions (being pro-FOI is one of those, even if you agree with it) and they don’t solicit correspondence to bodies that they decide ought to get mail, which is what WDTK does when they include non-FOI bodies on their site. Email clients also don’t use the journalism exemption to justify the policies they deploy on their website. Part of the difficulty with the site is this identity crisis – they’re neutral except sometimes they’re not.

WDTK is a campaigning tool, and not just for its users, but also for its sponsors / owners. MySociety created WDTK to facilitate the making of FOI requests and the wider dissemination of FOI responses, but there is also an unambiguous agenda at work. The Association of Colleges is not an FOI public authority, but WDTK plonks it in its broad ‘Miscellaneous’ category with this explanation: “Although AoC is not subject to FOI, it has been included on this site because it is majority owned by publicly funded colleges”. Give me a break. On this evidence, WDTK isn’t even an FOI request site any more, because the Association of Colleges, like 3 Estates Kings Norton, Barking and Dagenham Safeguarding Children Board, and the Church of Scotland, is not covered by FOI, but they’re all on there. Needless to say, I searched in vain for an entry for ‘What Do They Know’ or ‘My Society’. Let he who is without sin cast the first FOI, and all that.

The real problem I have with WDTK is its public nature, which can change everything about the requests made under its auspices. I know Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle isn’t really as simple as ‘observation changes the nature of the observed’, but the colloquial version of this notion is played out every day on the site. WDTK is easily hijacked for point-scoring and stunt requests (check out this clown for example). You can find many other – and I would argue worse – examples. Often the request itself is simply the excuse to use the site as a forum for precisely the kind of ‘ranty politics’ that the designers purport to discourage. I enjoy the carnival sideshow end of FOI as much as anyone, but in this siege year, I accept that I ought to grow up and talk about FOI like the grown-ups at the Constitution Unit do. And back at WDTK, they’re helping people to ask Tesco about the hot food counter. A Tesco Pharmacy is covered by FOI, but this is like saying that it’s fine to use FOI to ask a GP what’s going on in the pie shop next door. I don’t believe that people would do this if they didn’t have an audience, and WDTK help to put on the show. And as long as it’s still there, WDTK must be saying that it’s OK.

WDTK’s FAQs say that it’s like Hotmail. Can I say I’m like Christian Bale because we’re both 38-year-old men? No, I can’t. I haven’t got the cheekbones and his attempts at facial hair are a joke. And neither can WDTK pretend to be a humble FOI postie. In answer to an FAQ about publishing officer names, WDTK says “We consider what officers or servants do in the course of their employment to be public information.” Although this doesn’t answer the question (what a person does is not the same as who they are), the underlying point they’re making is clear – we decide that the FOI officers’ names and numbers stay on this site because that suits us. I looked for a list of the names of volunteers on the site to see if this keen interest in transparency was reflected in the operation of the site itself, but it must be on a page I couldn’t find. NB: If you think that was a cheap shot, you’re in the wrong place. Nice and balanced is not what we sell round here.

UPDATE: There is an (out of date) list of credits including volunteers here.

FOI is at risk (see previous post). With that in mind, nobody can sit on the fence, least of all a big blundering beast like WDTK. At its worst, it’s a splinter in the thumb of every FOI practitioner, an excuse for every harassed colleague to claim that FOI is a “total f*****g b******t waste of time”- this was not my phrase, even though it sounded like my kind of swearing when someone else said it when discussing a request with me. Though they’re giving evidence on FOI as part of post-legislative scrutiny, WDTK / MySociety seems to be scrutiny-free: I couldn’t find a single reference to What Do They Know on any mainstream news source or website except Martin Rosenbaum’s blog on the BBC, and the Great Man is writing about FOI anyway. So beyond working out how you feel about the deluge of requests that the site has sponsored, there’s scant debate about whether the site’s owners and volunteers ought to take more responsibility for what they have created. Meanwhile, if people are looking for excuses to take pot-shots at the legislation, they’ll take the easier route of attacking the way it’s used. And if I wanted to demonstrate that FOI was a problem in need of some surgery, WDTK is where I would go.

It would be hypocritical of me to say that WDTK doesn’t demonstrate some sense of responsibility because I have complained about users who have subsequently been suspended. However, they didn’t suspend an applicant who asked a council asking how many red pens they’re using. Which is blinkered at best, and enabling at worst. Of course, wider, proactive moderation of the site would be all but impossible without a lot more money and volunteers, but nobody put a gun to MySociety’s head and forced them to create this monster. They should deal more robustly and honestly with its consequences. If they can lecture public servants about whether their data goes online, they can deal more thoroughly with the twerps.

Beyond the Charity Commission, MySociety and its bumptious offspring probably shouldn’t and definitely won’t face any external regulation or restriction. It’s a free country and they can help screw perceptions of FOI if they want to. Like private sector trainers, WDTK in particular and MySociety in general are free from the freewheeling accountability that FOI provides. But the site is – or ought to be – accountable to anyone who wants to see FOI work in this country. The site owners and volunteers make choices about how the site works, who is included, what gets published and who gets to use it. So they should stop abuses more proactively. I’d volunteer to sort the wheat from the crazy today.

The delusion that What Do They Know is nothing more than an email directory for public authorities and a repository of information for high-minded onlookers is just that; a delusion. If they believe the site is just a conduit, WDTK’s owners and volunteers don’t have to worry about any of the crap that flows through it. But convenience doesn’t equal truth. Those responsible for the site ought to get off the fence and acknowledge this. What Do They Know has altered the way in which FOI works in the UK, in ways good and bad. Those running the site should consider whether its more obsessive and just plain prodigious users risk bringing it into disrepute, and FOI along with it. What they do is, and will remain, emphatically their choice. But if they carry on hosting and by default promoting the worst excesses of FOI, they could end up doing more harm than good.

UPDATE: For technical reasons beyond my comprehension, a follow-up comment from Tom Steinberg keeps dropping off the blog page, so with his permission, I’m adding it here, but it should have appeared in the first exchange between me and him below.

Hi Tim,

Thanks for this more feedback – please let us know more policy ideas if you have them.

We are currently engaging in a process of revising site policies – we will certainly discuss your views as part of that. We’ll also let you know what is decided, when it is done.

You might be interested to know that something we added recently is a rate cap on the frequency of new requests for a single user. How this cap operates in future will also be part of the site policies review.

I don’t think anyone involved in WhatDoTheyKnow wants to see the site contain stupid, ranting requests that aren’t really FOIs at all. Running the website WriteToThem we were the first (perhaps only?) people to build in filtering mechanisms to prevent MPs being sent abusive or cut and paste emails through the web.

The challenge is developing policies to minimise abuse or nonsense that doesn’t discourage legitimate, politically inexperienced and low-skilled users from using the power that FOI can offer: these are the core beneficiaries of our charity.

Such policies have to be balanced, nuanced and allow for the fact that our volunteers have limited hours in the day. If you want to be part of that discussion, then I welcome your involvement today and over the next weeks.

all the best,

Tom

UPDATE (AGAIN): FOI expert Andrew Ecclestone has a comment too long for comments section. It’s like what my post would look like if I was a grown-up. Will appear as separate blog post.



Comments

  1. Hi Tim,I'm the director of mySociety, which runs WhatDoTheyKnow.The question of what use of WhatDoTheyKnow is and isn't appropriate is an ongoing debate for us, and your post is a contribution to that debate.However, it would be much more useful contribution if you could be more specific about what you think should be different about the site's policies. How would you change them? You say that the site's effect has been "good and bad". How would you change things so that preventing the bad doesn't destroy the good?all the best,Tom

  2. I knew this would happen. Someone would come along and ask me to be constructive. That's not my strong suit. The site should either give up the illusion of neutrality and let everyone do what they like (which would be more honest but ultimately much more destructive), or alternatively, it should be more activist in removing patently vexatious requests. One of the applicants I complained about had made 300+ requests and spat vitriol at public servants in several public bodies, encouraging others to join in. The site should be more active in removing stupid, piss-taking requests, and much quicker to remove ranting applicants. I accept that you can't pre-moderate all requests (though maybe you should have thought about whether that would have been desirable before you started), but the reactive approach of 'nobody's complained, so how could we know' invites abuse.

  3. Our volunteer list is here: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/help/creditsIt's out of date, for no particularly good reason other than inertia (I've been a volunteer for more than a year) – but we're certainly not trying to hide the list.

  4. I've amended the post to reflect that. But isn't anyone from What Do They Know going to come in, spit blood and go nuts?

  5. No, sorry, we don't like websites that are full of ranting 🙂

  6. Tim, you are giving a good impression of someone who thinks the world would be a better place if the internet did not exist.It is disruptive. That's just a fact of life. The nice ordered world you want to live in where only people you class as responsible get to do stuff no longer exists.You either believe that the FoI system should be available to anyone, or you think all requests should be pre-vetted. The internet, it could be WDTK or some other system, really is policy-neutral. It is just an enabler that opens up the prospect of mass participation in whatever sphere it is applied to.But if you are unhappy about this particular aspect of internet-based disruption, I would suggest you are missing the point.In the internet age, the real question is not "why can so many people make these requests" but rather "why do so many people *have* to make these requests".All of this stuff should be published as a matter of routine, that is how the disruptive effect of participation should be applied in this sphere.I'm sure you would still apply some exemptions to commercial information etc. But if it is FoIable then just release it anyway.So really, I think you are missing the point about TWFY and criticising symptoms, not causes.(No, I don't work for MySoc)

  7. If you read my comment above, you'd see that I've already suggested that WDTK could remove all moderation and let nature take its course. That would be fine. WDTK have already decided to exercise precisely the kind of reasonableness test you object to, and my problem is with how they are doing it. If they chose to act solely as a public email client, I could not object. Besides, the requests I'm complaining about are not the ones where intransigent authority has forced the brave netizen to forth into cyberspace to act as virtual watchdog, but the silly bullshit about the Tesco hot food counter and red pens, and the obsessive playing to the gallery. Nobody *has* to make such requests, and they devalue the site.

  8. As someone who uses wdtk quite a lot, I have to agree with you. It makes me cringe to read some of the requests sent by the nutters on there. I do hate it when they add annotations to my requests. I really think that there should be a stronger moderation policy and bans for abusive users. It's not hard to spot who are the nutters/vexatious requesters.

  9. Absolutely. I am going to take WDTK up on their request for suggestions, and one element will be candidates for a cull.

  10. (Speaking from my perspective as a WDTK volunteer, but not on behalf of the team:)I don't really understand this position. At the moment, the practical situation is that we say "don't do X", where X = make unfocused requests/abusive annotations/etc, but we only typically enforce this for egregious violations. This is for a variety of reasons including available resources and clear-cut cases being easier to identify than subtler ones.What you seem to be saying is that it would be better than the current position for us to stop saying "don't do X" and then to let everything go.While this would certainly improve consistency between how we ask people to use the site and how they actually use it, it would make the site much worse from the point of view of your arguments about useless requests.

  11. I'm probably not making myself clear enough. I think WDTK purports to be neutral. If that was true, it would give up moderation and reap the undoubtedly embarrassing consequences. As WDTK is not neutral, it should abandon any semblance of neutrality and root out the miscreants with far more ruthlessness than happens now.

  12. When you say neutral, what opposing interests do you mean? And why do you think we purport to be neutral?I also still don't understand the idea that it's fine for WDTK to either be flooded with all kinds of junk or to have no/very little junk at all, but not fine for it to be only partially flooded. 🙂

  13. WDTK purports to be neutral because in its FAQs it is compared with Hotmail i.e. a medium for correspondence. Because it moderates content and users (in my opinion, not well enough), it cannot bear out this comparison. It is not neutral, it takes a stance against certain types of behaviour.It's not fine to be only partially flooded because, as I have already said, WDTK is not a natural phenomenon, and nobody forced My Society to set it up. Many FOI jurisdictions do just fine without an equivalent. It was created, it was designed, and it is operated. So it's legitimate to make the comment that it could be operated better.

  14. (Speaking from my perspective as a WDTK volunteer, but not on behalf of the team)Regarding the comparison, Hotmail also has an Acceptable Use Policy and will ban problematic users based on feedback from recipients of mail sent from it. It has a strong stance against spam, and it silently moderates a large volume of mail that passes through it too (albeit using technical means via its heuristic spam filters rather than human moderation).

  15. At this rate, I think I'm going to get a full house of WDTK volunteers. It's like collecting Panini stickers.Anyway, the comparison is still misguided in my opinion. Hotmail is a fundamentally a means of communication. What Do They Know is fundamentally both a means of making FOIs *and* a political (small p) site. If it was purely an FOI-making tool, there wouldn't be a single organisation on the site that wasn't covered by either FOI or EIR.Any more?

  16. I'm sure that it could be operated better – I for one would certainly like to see less of the junk, though I think it's difficult to surgically remove some of it. I'm just bemused by your apparent position that worse would also be better.

  17. The absence of moderation would be more consistent with the veneer of neutrality. It would be better in terms of honesty, and WDTK would have to live with the consequences. Moderation is clearly more beneficial to the site's aims, but once you've gone down that road, there are some glaring problems with the way it is being done. There will always be a problem with the theatrical possibilities that WDTK creates, giving people an audience that they would otherwise have to toil to earn. By removing too few genuinely vexatious requests, you do FOI no favours (and this is a situation you have created by creating the site).

  18. wow. personally I like WDTK's functionality and system, which makes it much easier to track progress of FoIs – and other people's. I can see why FoI officers might be frustrated by abuse and silly requests, but Tom's comment suggests they're very much open to improving their processes. I do think it's a bit unfair to say:"WDTK / MySociety seems to be scrutiny-free: I couldn’t find a single reference to What Do They Know on any mainstream news source or website except Martin Rosenbaum’s blog on the BBC, and the Great Man is writing about FOI anyway."It's not really their fault that mainstream media is a bit blinkered when reporting stuff outside its own bubble! I've noticed mySociety projects often don't get credit where it's due either. Blogs like yours provide a perfect platform for raising criticisms – making it more likely journalists / other bloggers will become aware of issues. For a more productive view of WDTK's output, I like FoI Monkey's 366 days post – http://www.confirmordeny.org.uk/?p=243%5Bfrom a WDTK (pretty light) user/follower but not a volunteer!]great stuff on ICO and Motorman by the way – reading with interest. cheers.

  19. WhatDoTheyKnow does get around 2-3 FOI-based news articles a week citing it directly, mostly in the local press rather than nationals (the Guardian & Telegraph are exceptions to the rule, and do reference it reasonably frequently), plus online news sites such as The Register & Computing. Some examples quickly thrown together:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/consumertips/7375576/Child-Trust-Funds-families-count-cost-of-child-benefit-delay.htmlhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/dec/17/google-street-view-datahttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/oct/05/pope-uk-environment-department-costsThere are plenty of examples of articles where no citation is given, such as http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/any_communications_with_talk_tal which resulted in over 15 news articles.Although annotations are often added to link to the articles, it's something we could definitely do more of to increase awareness.

  20. That red pen request is really a red herring. In my work as an FOI Officer, those kind of enquiries were rare, less than one percent of the total. And they were also the easiest to answer. How long did the red pen response take? Not more than ten minutes I hope. There were lots of other requests that were tedious but they were clearly important to the requester, and who are we to say what is important? Not being able to make that judgement is an important strength of FOI. Maybe the requester is testing the market for his newly-invented, incredibly cheap and utterly unbreakable red pen. If not … well, a certain level of frivolity is the price you pay for greater transparency. In my experience, the signal to noise ratio is very high with FOI. The enquiries that take the most time to answer tend to be the ones that organizations would rather not answer.

  21. I was an FOI officer for five years, and I agree, those kinds of requests are the small minority. But the LGA, the NHS Managers and ACPO aren't going to fight on the ground of 'we keep getting asked stuff that exposes our fallibility', because they don't want to admit that. It's the red pen request that will become the poster image for the attack on FOI that you and I want to fight against. So it would be better if that kind of stuff wasn't around to be exploited. The LGA have already done it, and there will be a lot of more of it. Quite frankly, the price of indulging frivolity might be a profound retrograde step for the legislation and a permanent kick in the teeth for the grown-ups who want to use FOI for more than just showing off.

  22. At the justice committee evidence session yesterday, Sir Alan Beith in particular seemed quite clear about there being an easy "not held" response to such requests.

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