Do They Know What 2: The Revenge

Last week, I blogged my reservations about What Do They Know. Although I received none of the abuse from the wilder contingent of the site’s users that I was hoping for, various volunteers and friends of the site commented in a friendly, more-in-sorrow-than-anger kind of way. One of them (the Director of My Society, Tom Steinberg), threw down a classic gauntlet of ‘haven’t you got anything positive to say?’ Moreover, even I’m not paranoid or arrogant enough to interpret @FoiMonkey’s Herculean post about WDTK’s successes on the Confirm or Deny blog as a riposte to mine, but it probably serves as that nonetheless (she still missed a trick by not calling it ‘What has WDTK ever done for us?’).


Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with criticism that isn’t wholly constructive. There’s a phrase that encapsulates a society where everyone looks on the bright side and doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone or anything: it’s ‘North Korea’. Sometimes you need one person to say that a thing is flawed or useless, and then another person can come along and suggest how to improve it. So part of me wanted to react by making lip farts at the screen and finding someone else in the information world to have a pop at. I’m really constructive when I’m working (ask around), but though I hoped it would be a spin-off from my training work, this blog has rapidly degenerated into an outlet for the side of my character that thinks everything is rubbish.

However, given that I would prefer What Do They Know to succeed than fail, it seems churlish to ignore an apparently sincere request for my feedback. Moreover, given that my chief reservation about the site is probably that its volunteers are not ruthless enough with some of its users, that the site’s attitude is a bit too Boy Scout / Girl Guide for FOI’s good, perhaps what they really need is advice from someone who doesn’t have the rose-tinted spectacles on. And that’s usually where I come in.

So, WDTKers, here are my suggestions for How To Make ‘What Do They Know’ Even More Great!

1) Get a volunteer who thinks that Red Pen / Red Hair / Killing Scotsmen requests are childish and vexatious. Users who make such requests are a gift for the haters and if you don’t see that, you need someone who does. FOI officers do an incredibly hard job, and you don’t help them by giving twerps a bigger stage than they could earn by themselves. The enemies of FOI need crass, easy to digest fodder to keep going. You’re publishing it for them.

2) Disable the comments function for everyone except My Society / WDTK volunteers. The most extreme applicants use the comment function to extend their rants and score points with no real value for anyone else. In my experience, helpful and dispassionate comments usually come from WDTK volunteers (and apparent fans of this blog), Alex Skene and Ganesh Sittampalam. A clampdown on comments would suck a lot of heat out of the specialist applicants. And before someone comes along with some whiny new age stuff about the internet being a space for free expression, I say phooey (NB: I say something a lot stronger than phooey, but I’m not typing it). You’re talking about the internet in general, not this website in particular. If WDTK was a free-flowing environment for free expression, every axe-grinding obsessive with an unjustifiable grudge would be given free rein. The site owners have decided to moderate, and I suggest that the comments – ancillary to the main function and not essential – don’t add enough to the site to justify the rants.

3) Look dispassionately at every user who has made more than 50 requests on the site. If this is more than a handful of users, up it to 100, but the point stands. You’ll find many legitimate applicants who simply have a wide range of interests. However, others who use the site to pursue vendettas or cause pointless trouble mark themselves out by volume, and 50+ is a good indicator of someone who might need to wind it in a little. The site has already recognised the need to put a daily cap on volume, so having a volume threshold to trigger some further attention isn’t unreasonable.

4) Remove every organisation that is not covered by FOI or EIR. You’ve disabled Network Rail even though everyone with a nodding acquaintance with FOI knows that they should be covered. On the other hand, the Church of Scotland has no place on an FOI site. I’m one of these militant secularists Baroness Warsi is so scared of, and I still think they should be left alone, whatever well-meaning circulars they may have issued.

4a) If you don’t like that idea, show them all how it’s done by voluntarily opting My Society into FOI.

4b) And if you’re determined to use the site to agitate for wider FOI coverage, put Network Rail and other similar candidates back on. Otherwise, an unkind person might suggest that you’ve bottled it for some reason.

5) Remove users who have obviously fake names automatically as soon as they come to your attention. No ifs, buts or exceptions. You know what the ICO advice is. If WDTK or its volunteers want to offer a service of making requests on behalf of others, that’s nobody’s business but yours. Anyone who wants to use a pseudonym on WDTK (or anywhere else) is perfectly at liberty to use a sensible avatar. A daft, look-at-me name is chosen solely to goad the organisation. Why do you support this?

6) Hide the profiles of the users you have suspended. You’ve chosen to modify the behaviour of excessive users by showing them that they will be cut off if they don’t use your site responsibly. Just as powerful would be the message that their efforts will be invisible if they transgress.

7) Give a visible yellow card to users who have been the subject of complaints. Allow us to see who’s been complained about, so if they’re misbehaving, users have the opportunity to keep an eye on them.

I genuinely hope that some of these suggestions might help. However, if anyone would like to use the comments to pour bile and vitriol on my thoughts, please feel free.

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.