Angry birds

With two blogs already published on the question of Tweeted FOIs, there is every reason not to add to the noise. Alistair (@alistair_sloan) Sloan, from a legal perspective, has argued persuasively that a Tweeted FOI request has enough of the characteristics of a FOI request to often be valid. Bilal (@FOIkid) Ghafoor, from a more instinctive position, argues strongly that a Tweeted FOI is a ‘waste of everyone’s time’. Even the most pro-FOI advocates are very much against the idea of using Twitter for FOI, with no less than Paul (@FOIMan) Gibbons commenting  that applicants ought to be “discouraged” from using Twitter. All in all, the consensus seems to be in. Go back to your quill pens and vellum, citizens, we will have none of your modern technology here.

I am the last person to claim that because the Information Commissioner’s Office have issued guidance that Tweeted FOIs are valid, public authorities should acquiesce. Some of their guidance is muddy and vague, some of it is just plain wrong (the recent rewrite of their position on Data Processors is as worthless as anything issued by Wilmslow in this decade). Any public authority that wants to blow a loud raspberry at the ICO has nothing but my encouragement – the appropriate reaction to much of what they say and do is often scepticism, if not sarcasm. Moreover, when I first heard about the ICO line on Twitter, I thought it was stupid. I tweeted them an FOI request to show them how daft it was, and they had the bad taste to answer it quickly and clearly.

But since then, I’ve changed my mind.

Years ago, the local authority planning system was a closed system. If a new development was in prospect, typewritten signs would be fixed to lampposts or telegraph poles informing locals. The planning documents were only available for inspection. Those with time on their hands would turn up to Council meetings and sit mutely while Councillors made their decisions. I’m not arguing that the planning system necessarily works any better now, but at least the documents are likely to be published on the internet. Members of the public use their smartphones to film meetings, even if the councillors don’t want them to. It’s a lot easier to know what’s going on, and to get involved. The system has been shaken up. This is what technology does. I hate to use a buzzword, but in both the new jargon and the old-fashioned dictionary senses of the word, technology has a great capacity to be disruptive.

In 2000, Parliament decided that you don’t have to cite ‘FOI’ to make a valid request. FOI isn’t specialist; it’s for everyone, not just journalists and angry middle-aged men with time on their hands. All you need is a coherent request for information, expressed in a written format. It’s true that Tweeted FOI requests don’t work like email – the request sits on a Twitter App or the internet, rather than a copy of the request being delivered to the public authority’s mail server. But who cares? The tweeted FOI request is “capable of being used for subsequent reference” because it has appeared in an electronic channel that you have opened up, and you can (almost certainly will) copy it onto your FOI system and get going.

I know quite a few people who don’t use email except at work – their personal interaction is via Twitter and Facebook. Fax is dead. I don’t know anyone who routinely sends letters except myself. I still enjoy the shock and awe that most people under 30 exhibit when I use a fountain pen in a meeting, especially when they realise that this is an artefact I bought new, rather than having scavenged it from a time capsule. If you deny people the opportunity to use the tools that they already have, and force them to use the channels you think are appropriate, proper, or serious, you’re condemning the legislation to a well-meaning, specialised ghetto.

FOI should not be open only to the cognoscenti. The applicant should not have to track down the FOI email address, find the (often buried) FOI page on the spin-strewn website. You’re there on Twitter, I can find you easily using a tool that is on my phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to use that for FOI if I can formulate a 140 character FOI request?

Would an epidemic of tweeted FOI requests be easy to deal with? No. Will it increase costs for public authorities? Perhaps. But if you want to use the inconvenient and expensive argument, then you might as well abolish the legislation altogether, because the same case could be made for FOI as a whole.

I know that many supporters of FOI believe in all that ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant’ stuff, but the jury is way, way out on that. I honestly don’t know whether I believe that FOI will ultimately improve the public sector. Much of it is fine already, and a bit of it is probably irredeemable. I believe in FOI because I think the public should have access to information, because information is power and a few votes over the electoral cycle aren’t enough. You shouldn’t be able to use FOI to browbeat and punish public servants you don’t like, but beyond that, if FOI requests are annoying and uncomfortable, they’re probably doing their job. Last year, public authorities were given the gift of Dransfield, allowing them to refuse a wide variety of FOI requests on vexatious grounds, even those that are plainly in the public interest (like Laura McInerney’s recent interrogations of the DfE). Swings, meet roundabouts.

There are many awful consequences that spin off from FOI’s existence, and I don’t doubt that tweeted FOI requests annoy FOI Officers and public sector staff more widely. And before you say it, it’s true that I write this knowing that I don’t work in the public sector, and I don’t have to deal with FOI requests at all. I just make them. Nevertheless, nobody made public bodies open their Twitter accounts. Nobody forced you to open these doors. Twitter is not just a loudhailer.

Comments

  1. Tim,
    I agree. The twitter channel is opened by public sector bodies and it will be used. Some still have paper forms that can be completed by hand so this is just another way to make requests. If you build it, they will use it.

    I would argue that sunlight is a good but not infallible disinfectant.** The sun literally bleaches things, which is what creates its disinfectant properties. However, some things, like weeds, flourish in the sunlight so it does have its limits.

    A separate question, although related to the issue of disinfectant, is whether FOIA requests and response improve or help the public sector. I would take a radical approach and say yes it does. Most organisations are opaque to themselves let alone to the public. This is the nature of bureaucracy, which is what makes organisations function, so the added, publicly driven stimulus, to be transparent to itself has to be a good thing.

    Thanks again for a stimulating post.

    **http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/08/sunlight_is_the_best_disinfectant_not_exactly.html

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