Human Wrongs

A few years ago I went to Strasbourg, home of the famous European Court of Human Rights. After admiring the building itself, I noticed a disabled man camping on the other side of the tracks that take visitors to the tram stop named, rather piously, ‘Droits De L’Homme’. He had a huge display in several languages, setting out the appalling injustice that the Court had dealt him by not upholding his case. There were several such men, who would no doubt have treated a ECHR victory as total vindication, but the loss was evidence only of the Court’s bias and corruption. I immediately thought of the notorious FOI applicant and progenitor of vexatious caselaw Alan Dransfield, and wondered if one day, he would be one of the poor souls, earnestly telling his sorry tale to tourists. This is unlikely of course, because Dransfield would spend his time shouting at every passer-by that they were a dickhead.

Nevertheless, the website ‘Amazon News Media’ chose to celebrate International Human Rights Day last month (10th December, diary fans) by publishing an open letter from Dransfield to the Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Fans of Dransfield’s work will be pleased to see a number of familiar themes in the letter. Dransfield claims that the Information Commissioner’s Office is guilty of fraud and theft of public funds. There is ‘tangible evidence‘ that they, along with multiple public authorities, are involved in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice:

The evidence of complicity between the ICO and Public Authorities seeking to avoid obligations under FOI by consistent misuse and abuse of Section 14/1 vexatious exemption is overwhelming

Dransfield doesn’t specify what the overwhelming / tangible evidence is, beyond asserting that he lost his case at the Court of Appeal, so QED: the fix is in. The letter makes a series of allegations about the ICO and demands that the Commissioner is sacked and replaced by himself. The allegations are a mixture of falsehood (he says that they don’t publish their register of interests when they do) and opinion (he claims it is a breach of an unspecified EU Trade law that the ICO usually uses 11KBW for legal services, ignoring the fact that they are the leading information law chambers in the UK). The only verifiable claim is the conflict of interest in having a council leader act as a manager of a team that deals with complaints about councils and political parties. Dransfield only knows about this because I did an FOI request about it and wrote about it here (inevitably, Dransfield spells his name wrong and the mistake slipped through Amazon News Media’s presumably robust fact checking procedures).

If you’re not familiar with it, the scale of the Dransfield conspiracy is breathtaking – construction companies including Balfour Beatty, multiple councils, the Health and Safety Executive, Dransfield’s MP Ben Bradshaw, the previous and current Information Commissioners and many of their staff, West Ham United, the Olympic Delivery Authority and various other Olympic bodies, former secretary of state Chris Grayling, myself, the Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the House of Lords, all working tirelessly to cover up the construction of a network of unsafe buildings and bridges across the UK. Only Dransfield has the insight to see the conspiracy in all its Byzantine complexity, and the entire UK legal system is ranged against him to stop his crusade.

There is, of course, another perspective, but Amazon News Media have seemingly backed Dransfield with gusto. The accompanying editorial hails “Mr Dransfield’s long experience as a social watchdog” and complains of his “extensive scapegoating” but demonstrates a slender grasp on the facts. For example, it claims that vexatiousness was planted at the second, Upper Tier Tribunal, rather than being a feature of the original refusal dealt with by the ICO. Moreover, like Dransfield, Amazon News Media make big play of the fact that it was the ICO who appealed to the Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal, describing it as an “abuse” of the system. When Dransfield went to the First Tier Tribunal, he was appealing the ICO’s decision, not Devon’s original refusal. If the ICO disagrees with the FTT, it is they (and not Devon) who must take forward the appeal. The appeal process is not open only to the applicant – public authorities and applicants can challenge the Commissioner, but the Commissioner is entitled to challenge decisions that they think are wrong. This is how the system is designed, and Dransfield chose to use that system. Complaining about the result of a process you initiated is acting like the men outside the ECHR.

I put a comment on the Amazon News Media blog, pointing out that I had made 100s* of FOI requests without ever being refused as vexatious (the issue of Alex Ganotis’ role at the ICO just being one of many), pointing out that Dransfield’s hostility and abusive character is probably part of the problem. An unnamed representative of the organisation dismissed this – apparently, when Dransfield called the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham a ‘useless cow’ on Twitter, this was just “colourful language [that] perhaps reflects the insult of having your name unreasonably scape-goated for half a decade“. So perhaps the insult is Denham’s fault for not giving Dransfield the face-to-face meeting he’s been demanding since July. It’s an odd perspective, because Dransfield has been calling me a prick and a dickhead for disagreeing with him ever since this mess started.

I can’t work out who runs the Amazon News Media site – it describes itself as “an evidence-based website practising freelance written and video journalism“, but the website, Twitter account and Facebook page are all somewhat anonymous. The site itself is registered to a David Hodgson in New Zealand, but the nameless person who runs the Twitter account told me that it is based in Swansea. Whoever they are,

UPDATE: I know who they are. I’ve read all 59 pages of the judgement.

They have made a fatal error in their analysis of Dransfield’s case. The editorial states that Dransfield enjoys “superior knowledge of lighting protection systems, and Health and Safety regulations” – the problem is that this is irrelevant to the case. S14 of FOI has no public interest test – it’s not about the information, but the process.

The Information Commissioner, the two Tribunals and the Court of Appeal are not supposed to decide whether Dransfield is right about the unsafe buildings. For the record, I think the conspiracy is a complete fantasy, and Dransfield’s requests are the result of a grudge against his former employer, Balfour Beatty. None of Dransfield’s blood-curdling predictions about fatal lightning strikes have come true, and I am not aware of anyone in the UK Health and Safety sector who backs his theories (I’m famously an arsehole and lots of people agree with me about Data Protection despite this impediment).

None of this matters. The question in play is not one about Health and Safety. The question is whether Dransfield’s torrent of requests, complaints and other correspondence were an abuse of the FOI system. Dransfield had every opportunity to put his case before four independent bodies – one of them agreed with him, and the others did not. It’s not impossible for Dransfield to be right about the buildings (as unlikely as this may seem) and yet, because of his hostility, his stubbornness and the sheer weight of his requests, they tip into vexatiousness.

Ironically, despite Dransfield’s antipathy towards the ICO (and his misogyny towards the new Commissioner), his demand that the ICO sort out the vexatious issue is completely wide of the mark. Even if Denham accepted that he was right, she is powerless to reverse the Dransfield decision. If Wilmslow executed a volte face tomorrow, the Court of Appeal decision would still stand. Public authorities could use the CoA judgement against the ICO in the Tribunals who would be bound by it. Only the courts can change the decision – it is out of the Commissioner’s hands. It’s tempting to believe that Dransfield knows this, and he directs his rage toward the ICO solely because he enjoys it, rather than knowing it will change the outcome.

In the end, Amazon News Media grew tired of my interventions and refused to publish my final comment unless I edited out all of the mansplaining, repetition and “snark”. Instead of being censored, you can – if you wish – read the comments on ANM, and then, by way of a conclusion to all this, I reproduce the comment that they found so objectionable.

You can twist what I have said in any direction that suits you. The decisions that the ICO makes are, obviously, about the public interest (where that applies, and with some exemptions, it doesn’t). Sometimes they get those decisions wrong, sometimes they get them right. When a decision has been tested at several levels, and then looked at subsequently by differently constituted tribunals, you have two choices. Either you can believe that there is an enormous conspiracy to subvert the FOI Act, or you can look at the particular case and decide that maybe the system got it right. There is no inner truth here – you believe what you want to believe based on your own prejudices.

What I said above is that Mr Dransfield’s letter, your publication of it and your conspiracy theories about the legal system will have no practical effect. Truss will not intervene because it isn’t her place to intervene in legal cases. The European Court of Human Rights will not intervene, because Mr Dransfield has been refused leave to appeal there. These are facts – you can put a political / paranoid spin on them if you like, but the spin doesn’t change the facts. If you want to stop vexatious decisions being made under Dransfield, someone needs to take a case all the way to the Court of Appeal and get Dransfield overturned. Alternatively, the FOI Act will have to be amended in Parliament. Given that you think the entire legal system is corrupt, I assume you’re not much keener on MPs. Which makes all of the above a monumental waste of time. But at least it gives you and Dransfield something to do.

* ANM refuse to believe that I have made 100s of FOI requests without proof. Given that they are willing to turn an abusive blowhard into a Human Rights champion without any justification, I am content to say that I have, and if they or you don’t believe me, I don’t care.

** It has been suggested to me that in my comment above, I said that the Court of Appeal can overturn Dransfield, whereas the suggestion is that actually, only the Supreme Court can do it i.e. the court *above* the Court of Appeal. If this is right (and I suspect that it is), the difficulty of reversing Dransfield is greater.

What do they know?

A few months ago, a dispute arose between the popular / reviled* FOI request website What Do They Know and a landlord in Bournemouth, after his address was inadvertently included in an FOI response. The landlord asked for his address to be removed, and What Do They Know refused. WDTK volunteer Richard Taylor described all this on the site, drawing attention to the fact that the address was still there. I can see no evidence that WDTK informed the landlord that they would publicise the fact that he had complained; my guess is that they did not.

The landlord complained to the ICO. Replying to the ICO on behalf of the charity, Taylor claimed that there was a legitimate interest in continued publication, but hedged his bets by stating that WDTK was exempt under DP’s S32 journalistic purposes exemption. The ICO rejected both arguments and asked WDTK to remove the original spreadsheet. Again, Taylor wrote in detail about this on the site, revealing in the process that the landlord had complained to the ICO. It’s worth noting that the ICO never reveals the identity of those who make complaints to it, and I can find no evidence that the complaint was made public anywhere else. None of my correspondence with the charity has revealed any.

A similar issue arose last year. Another council published the name of a Unison official (apparently in error) and What Do They Know refused to take it down. Again, Taylor revealed the fact that the individual had complained to the ICO, although on this occasion the ICO chose to take no action. Taylor also researched the complainant and published information about his wife on the WDTK page. Though the information Taylor gathered was clearly in the public domain, at best, it suggests an unsympathetic attitude to those who raise concerns when their data gets published on the site.

The first Data Protection principle requires Data Controllers to process data fairly, lawfully and according to a set of conditions. In this case, the data controller is UK Citizens Online Democracy, the charity which runs My Society. Data Protection requires that people must be told how their data will be used, while the only condition available to What Do They Know is legitimate interest, which must be balanced against any prejudice to the rights and freedoms of data subjects. If you complain to What Do They Know, or to the ICO about What Do They Know, they’ll make this public and a volunteer may research your family relationships and publish that too. As Taylor’s comments are always couched in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’, I believe that that this approach is endorsed by the charity as a whole. This blows the legitimate interest argument out of the water: if a person cannot complain to either What Do They Know or the ICO without the matter being published by What Do They Know, there is clearly prejudice to their rights and freedoms.

The doomed use of S32 piqued my interest, so last month I asked What Do They Know for copies of: “any procedures or guidance available to control how personal data is obtained and published by My Society in the context of the What Do They Know website”. Of course, the charity isn’t covered by the Freedom of Information Act, but for an organisation whose public commitment to FOI and transparency verges on the obsessive, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to apply FOI standards to themselves. A month later, I received a reply:

“Personal data generally comes from users and public bodies and the site, and emails sent by it, contain lots of warnings when material is to be published online. We do our best to ensure our users, including those responding to requests at public bodies, are fully aware of what we do with the information we obtain.

NB: if you’re writing a blog post, please note how we write mySociety.”

That’s right – they didn’t give me the guidance, but Heaven Forbid I get the branding wrong. I persisted, pointing out they’d dodged the request for procedures in favour of a vague narrative answer. This time, I received a reply from Mark Cridge, the Chief Executive, setting out the decision-making process for What Do They Know (there was an opportunity for him to distance the charity from Taylor’s actions here, and he didn’t take it). On the specific request for procedures, despite the fact I’d pointed out that my request had been sidestepped, this was his reply:

We also have policies on our private internal wiki, which volunteers can refer to which provide more detailed guidance on our established policies, specific data protection guidance and key learnings from our experience of running the service for the past eight years

But he didn’t provide them, though this was what I had asked for twice. Yes, the charity is not covered by FOI and can do what it likes when annoying people like me ask them questions. No, this approach is not consistent with the values of an FOI campaigning organisation. In any case, it doesn’t matter, because I already know what the Private Wiki says about Personal Data:

Personal data in general

  1. We only consider takedown requests when we get them. We don’t pre- or post-moderate the site.
  2. The source of personal data is irrelevant, whether it is inadvertent, leaked with intent, or from someone who later develops “Google remorse”. The source of complaint/takedown request is also irrelevant, whether it comes from the data subject or a third party.
  3. Our responsibilities are therefore about deciding whether to continue to publishing or not, in line with our obligations as Data Processors, when a complaint about personal data drawn to our attention, i.e. on a case-by-case basis
  4. We have DPA Section 32 on our side, so we look at the PCC code and weigh up the public interest

The guidance proves that Taylor’s use of S32 isn’t just a randomly clutched straw. S32 is an immense exemption – it removes more or less every Data Protection requirement except security. The fact that it doesn’t apply to What Do They Know (and we know that this is the ICO’s position) isn’t the only problem. The reference to What Do They Know being ‘Data Processors’ is even more stupid. Data Processors have no data protection responsibilities – they are merely agents of someone else. There are two problems here. First, it’s impossible for the charity to be simultaneously a data controller using S32 and a data processor – they’re either one or the other. Second, the subtext of both positions is that the operation of What Do They Know exists in a vacuum – whether it’s because they’re journalists or data processors, they’re not answerable for DP issues.

The absurdity of the charity thinking it’s a data processor is plain as soon as you try to work out on whose behalf they would be operating. They’re definitely not data processors for the public authorities, who have no option but to send data to the website. It’s equally ridiculous for the charity to think that they’re Data Processors for the applicants. If this was true, UKCOD wouldn’t be allowed to remove material from requests without the applicants’ permission, applicants would be the ones dealing with the ICO over complaints, and every What Do They Know user would need a binding legal contract with the charity, or find themselves in breach of the Data Protection Act’s seventh principle.

Guidance like this could easily create a sense of immunity and entitlement – whatever happens, we’re not covered. Worse that that, the volunteer who seems to take the lead on Data Protection issues is Taylor, an anti-privacy zealot who films people without their permission, without properly identifying himself and publishing the results despite their explicit requests for him not to. When I contacted him about this intrusive behaviour earlier this year, he justified his antics with similarly vague S32 arguments. He also compared himself to Channel 4 News and Roger Cook, although I don’t think they ever stood in the rain filming a meeting through a window despite being invited inside. He also told me that he didn’t need to provide a Data Protection notification for his website because he claims the ICO says that ‘personal websites’ are exempt. They’re not, and the ICO doesn’t say so. I can’t prove that Taylor wrote the WDTK guidance, but I think it’s a safe assumption.

Whenever I write a blog like this about people who perceive themselves to be doing the right thing for the right reasons, one of the criticisms that is thrown back at me is that I am being deliberately negative. Why can’t I offer something constructive? Indeed, the last time I criticised What Do They Know, this is exactly what the former Director of My Society Tom Steinberg said. I did write a blog with some helpful suggestions of how What Do They Know could be improved, but none of my suggestions were taken up. This time around, I put my money where my mouth is. Last year, long before I corresponded with UKCOD or Taylor about these matters, I offered free Data Protection training to the volunteers at a time and venue of their convenience. I didn’t want any PR; indeed, I would have asked them to keep it a secret. Of course, I am not a cheerleader for What Do They Know – I think it can be an unhelpfully ideological enterprise, sometimes showcasing the worst aspects of FOI – but the offer was genuine and it fell by the wayside for reasons that were never explained.

So here we are. Cridge told me that the policies and procedures he didn’t want to show me will be reviewed, but how long has the above-quoted nonsense held sway? A What Do They Know volunteers can shame complainants and dig into their backgrounds, while the organisation fails to be transparent over its flawed guidance. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone at What Do They Know that I knew what the guidance said, but if transparency is such an unalloyed positive, why couldn’t I prise it out of them?

It’s impossible to blame UKCOD for the fact that public authorities sometimes inadvertently disclose information in response to FOI requests. It would be unacceptable if data was accidentally sent to a single applicant. Nevertheless, What Do They Know magnifies the problem by publishing all responses and failing to moderate what goes onto the site. I’m not convinced Richard Taylor is qualified to be involved in complex decisions about the publication or removal of personal data on behalf of a charity. I certainly don’t have confidence in a system based on wildly illogical guidance, and which allows volunteers to publish information about complainants and research their backgrounds. Complainants must be treated with respect, even if their complaints fail.

UKCOD’s management and trustees cannot hide behind the volunteer nature of What Do They Know – the website is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and it needs to be managed and controlled. They created it, they run it, knowing that they lack the resources to proactively moderate it. In the light of this, if it is in the public interest for FOI requests to be broadcast, exactly the same approach should be taken for how What Do They Know is run.

 

(*delete as appropriate)


 

A Company of Wolves

In November 2015, the Managing Director of Wolverhampton Council, Mr Keith Ireland, gave his considered verdict on Freedom of Information:

The vast majority of requests come from media across the country, be that the BBC, local media, or media in general. They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research. Others come from big companies who can’t be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation. It is a really costly exercise. The original principal (sic) of FOI is not what is happening in reality.

Although the council has previously estimated that it cost them £199,200 to process last year’s FOI requests, Mr Ireland told his council’s scrutiny committee that the cost was more like £500,000.

Mr Ireland is no stranger to the expensive burdens of running a modern local authority or FOI requests designed to make trouble for councils. In July 2011, while he was acting as an interim Big Cheese at Northumberland Council, an FOI request made by a local councillor revealed that his services had cost the council £131,600 in six months, a rate of £1175 per day. It’s possible that the consultancy firm Gatenby Sanderson (currently recruiting the new Information Commissioner) might have trousered some of that money, but Mr Ireland was apparently not pleased by the revelation, sending a “scathing email” to the councillor in question.

Mr Ireland is clearly keen for a debate on the costs of council activities, so I decided to dust off a favourite old FOI request – how much money does Wolverhampton spend on FOI staff, and how much does it spend on PR? FOI and PR are a good match – both are concerned with delivering information to journalists and the wider public, both are delivered by a small core of dedicated staff, but involve a huge variety of council officers on occasion, including senior officers. There are two main differences: FOI is statutory and PR is not, and while many happily participate in PR (here’s Mr Ireland involved in a completely pointless photo-op marking his appointment at Wolverhampton), they resent FOI.

This is what I asked for:

For the most recent financial year for which figures are available, the total number of staff working on public relations and communications, and the total salaries paid to those staff. I do not want to request a breakdown of the figures per member of staff.

For the most recent financial year for which figures are available, the total number of staff working on freedom of information, and the total salaries paid to those staff. I do not want to request a breakdown of the figures per member of staff.

You can pick apart the way that I phrased it, but one thing you cannot deny: the two questions are the same. However you interpret the first question, you must interpret the second one in the same way. FOI and PR are not done simply by those who have FOI or PR / communications in their job title. All sorts of people get roped into both activities – the Leader of the Council will even stand outside the Council offices to shake Mr Ireland’s hand. So even if you read that question and think “I have to tell this guy about all the extra work FOI involves, even though it’s not what he’s asked for”, you’d surely have to think the same for the PR question.

There are two possible answers; either Wolverhampton gives me the total salaries of the PR staff and the FOI staff, or they assume that I want to know the total cost of both activities, given that I have asked for both activities in exactly the same way. It would be really weird if they gave me the total salaries for the PR people, but made an assumption based on absolutely nothing in my request that I wanted the total cost of FOI compliance.

But that is what they did.

The PR answer was:

For the period 2014/2015 there were nine people working on public relations and communications with a combined annual salary of £431,062.

But the FOI answer was

The total estimated cost of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in 2014/15 was £490,000. This comprises an element of process management and administration and is based on six people working on FOI requests for a percentage of their time. This figure also comprises an assessment of respondent time across the organisation based upon the number of requests received last year (1245) broken down into categories of complexity; but does not include any costs associated with Councillors or Strategic Directors.” Several paragraphs follow about how they cannot be any more specific about the total costs for all the process management and administration I didn’t ask about. The effect, needless to say, was to ensure that the FOI figure was higher than the PR figure, and perhaps coincidentally, it was remarkably close to the £500,000 figure brandished by Mr Ireland.

Needless to say, I asked for an internal review, pointing out that they hadn’t answered my question, and asking why it was that they had approached my two identical questions in two completely different ways. I didn’t expect them to say “We deliberately massaged the figures so that you wouldn’t be able to say that our Managing Director moans about FOI while spending double on PR”, though that would have been fabulous. Instead, I was told that the Council assumed my “focus” was on the “total cost of overall compliance with the provisions of the Act“. The reviewer said that “the actual answer to your query based upon your most recent email” was £242,280, a little under half the figure for the PR staff. The implication that somehow they only realised what my original request meant when I explained it to them bears no scrutiny at all.

If I had wanted the total cost of overall compliance with FOI, I would have asked for, I don’t know, the total cost of overall compliance with FOI. I asked about staff “working on freedom of information” – even if an estimate of the total costs of all the people who might get involved in FOI was available (an estimate I wouldn’t handle with gloves on), it was plainly not what I had asked for. If there had been any doubt about what I wanted, they could have asked for clarification at the outset, something which the reviewer begrudgingly acknowledged when I emailed them again.

There are various arsehole things I could do at this point – complain to the ICO, do a meta-request to see all of the correspondence that led to this,  dig deeper into how the additional £247,720 was calculated, or even ask how much it cost to stage this surreal crossover of weather warnings and football mascots – but I have my answer, so I am done. As is usually the case, PR is given a higher priority in Mr Ireland’s council than FOI, so I don’t care what he says about FOI and neither should you. PR is what the organisation wants to tell you; FOI is what you want to know. FOI is the law. The only other thing that I can say is that he cares so much about the expense associated with FOI, maybe Mr Ireland should ensure that his Council answers reasonable questions first time round, rather than making people ask twice. Imagine the savings.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

As a secretive committee of slightly unappetising characters attempts to cut the FOI Act down to size, the voices ranged in favour of the legislation is bewilderingly wide, from The Sun to Reprieve. Relatively few people have put their head above the parapet to put the case for less FOI, but one brave example is Paul Greatrix, the Registrar of the University of Nottingham. Admittedly, Mr Greatrix doesn’t have much to say beyond a list of requests that he feels were inappropriate, along with the inevitable reference to Tony Blair’s regrets about introducing FOI in the first place, but nevertheless, it’s a rare and so notable experience to see someone properly giving FOI a kicking.

I feel some sympathy for the secrecy brigade, as Blair is one of the few well-known names willing to repudiate FOI in public. When the only people you can pray in aid are Jack Straw, David ‘furring the arteries’ Cameron and the nameless Foreign Office civil servant who thought that FOI was ‘sand in the machinery’, it’s not easy to find an acceptable champion to rally behind. For myself, if the best you’ve got is a shop-soiled ex-PM who earns his living advising various unpleasant dictatorships, you might be better looking for some hard evidence instead of celebrity endorsements.

It gets worse. Greatrix invites the reader to sympathise with his frustration at a list of requests which “makes you question the benefits of this particular piece of legislation”. There are a few niche ones: I can’t imagine that the answer to ‘Number of ice cleats bought over 3 years and number of accidents due to icy/snowy conditions’ echoed resoundingly through the East Midlands. The number of registered library users is equally unlikely to rival to MPs’ expenses or the NHS Risk Register in terms of its significance.

However, every other request on his list is a matter of some legitimate interest, and many of them would be of genuine concern to students, staff and the wider public. Greatrix cites a litany of spending choices that he does not want people to ask about: electrical work, art for university buildings, Christmas parties, garments (who for and why?), and buffets and “banquets”. There is a debate about whether Universities should be subject to FOI given that they are not wholly funded by the public sector, but as successive governments have increased the amount paid by students for their university education, the idea that what that money is spent on should be off limits is ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that universities shouldn’t buy art or have Christmas parties – but why would it be inappropriate to ask how much was spent on them, or on gowns for senior staff?

The role of a university registrar normally involves the management of student records, so the list of shame also includes an applicant who had the temerity to ask about the University’s compliance with Data Protection subject access timescales. Needless to say, Mr Greatrix also objects to people asking about the number of FOI requests received, and whether they were dealt with on time as well.

Universities are supposed to be places of study and research where ideas are explored and tested, so there is a double irony in the fact that people apparently shouldn’t ask which websites have been blocked by the University – ‘don’t ask us about the things we don’t want you to look at’ doesn’t  sound like a way of encouraging the kind of debate for which universities are supposedly famous, but maybe I’m just old fashioned. He also seems to against revealing the costs of catering to religious groups of several different kinds through the provision of prayer rooms and chaplaincy. As an atheist, I am amazed that legitimate questions about how religious groups are treated are supposedly off limits.

Perhaps most surprising of all, essential information about the relationship between the university and students is – according to Mr Greatrix – not fit for disclosure: examples include drug testing of students before exams, legal action taken against student protestors and astonishingly, the number of examination scripts lost over 5 years plus resolutions and compensation. It is here that I can wholeheartedly agree with one aspect of the piece: I do not think that people should be using FOI to get access to this information because I think the University should be obliged to publish it.

Remarkably, Greatrix even wants to keep the number of deaths on University property a secret. I’m not suggesting that there should be deaths league table for universities, but then again, I’m not going into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to attend one.

Many FOI officers will look enviously at the final flourish of Greatrix’s piece – the hilariously low numbers of requests that his university receives and which have prompted his complaint (a positively satirical 52 in 2005, rising to the adorable less-than-one-per-day that was received in 2014). The other remarkable feature of the article is that most of the cited requests are for hard facts that will either exist (and so could be found and disclosed) or which will be spread across the institution in bits, and so a competent FOI officer would probably be entitled to refuse as breaching the cost limit. I don’t believe that a single request would be subject to an exemption. None of them represent the real difficulty of FOI – the trawl for emails, notes and frank internal discussions that (although I think should be released) are clearly more of a challenge.

Of course, I will probably be dismissed as being part of the “vested interest” or FOI ‘salariat’ for being rude enough to earn about 10% of my living (and falling) from FOI courses. I’m happy to be pushed to the sidelines when every national and local newspaper is united in FOI’s support. In the meantime, and not for the first time, I would like to draw Mr Greatrix’s attention to the famous Streisand Effect, whereby trying to keep something secret makes it better known. FOI has an equivalent phenomenon, in that those who complain most loudly about answering FOI requests tend to get nothing but more FOI requests. I will not be troubling the University with any questions, but I would be surprised if others do not pick up the gauntlet.

Hunting the snark

There isn’t any legal requirement to publish a clear public link, explaining how to make an FOI request, but it is obviously in the interests of both applicants and the organisation. The applicant knows where to go, and the organisation directs requests into the hands of those best placed to answer them properly. If there is any organisation that could be relied on to showcase its transparency, it would surely be the Information Commissioner’s Office. So how hard is it to find their FOI email address?

Start with the front page. Have a look. Go on.

Did you find it? I can find two ways to get to the ICO FOI page, and both of them take four steps. If you’re lucky, you guess that the link is in ‘About the ICO’ at the top of the page.

Page 1 copy 2

Then you choose ‘Our Information’, because it’s really obvious, right?

Page 2 alt

Now you’re on a roll. On the next page, they actually mention requesting information. They don’t actually say ‘Make an FOI request to us’, but really, is it good taste to say ‘FOI’ in mixed company?

Page 3 copy

Yes, it’s on the far side of the page, but I’m here. I can see it. I can almost taste it. Except even when I click on ‘Request information from us’, I have to read THE WHOLE BASTARD PAGE TO GET THE EMAIL ADDRESS.

Page 4 copy

BONUS SECTION. If your psychic powers deserted you, and you didn’t guess that it was in ‘About the ICO’, there’s another way in. It starts ‘Contact Us’ right at the bottom of the front page, then ‘Access information about us’, then the last two pages as before.

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I could have used What Do They Know, but that requires me to have specialist knowledge. It’s not a household name, not yet. What does that leave me with? Some FOI experts are a bit sniffy about the tweeted FOI request. I don’t agree with this on its own terms – many people increasingly see Twitter as an email alternative, and if an organisation chooses to open up the channel, they have to expect FOI requests. But if a public body makes it that hard to find their official email address for FOI requests, they only have themselves to blame. I tweeted the ICO last week to ask them a question which they failed to answer, which is how I came to be looking for their email address. Ironically, if they had just given me a quick tweeted response, they wouldn’t be dealing with the much more detailed request I ended up making.