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  • WhatIsTheProblem.Com

    Posted on June 10th, 2010 admin 2 comments
    Where did they get that 1950s couple from?

    Where did they get that 1950s couple from?

    When WhatDoTheyKnow first appeared I have to admit that I was a little bit sceptical of the idea. I was wrong.

    Now I think it is a brilliant, easy way of asking questions. The idea of having the answers, and the questions, available for the whole world to view on-line is a masterstroke that intersects perfectly with the Freedom of Information Act’s principles of transparency and accountability.

    But not everybody is a fan. The fact that the data is automatically splashed up on the web for anybody to look at does seem to make some authorities nervous.

    I have deliberately used my account at WhatDoTheyKnow on occasions because it has been my perception that if the public authority knows it’s response to me will be on display to the rest of the world it might just take a little extra care.

    But there is a reluctance from some public authorities to engage with requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, which shows a somewhat prehistoric attitude towards the fundamental principle of openness which the Act was supposed to promote.

    A few examples:

    The House of Commons: Martin Rosenbaum’s excellent Open Secrets blog has recently covered this case in which a request was made for details of an electronic voting system. The House of Commons refused to release the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow e-mail site as they said the publication on the web would be a breach of copyright. The Information Commissioner has ruled against the House of Commons [decision notice] and the response can now be seen [here].

    Southampton University: Here the University bizarrely started to password protect its FoI answers that were posted on the site, yet the password was also posted! A few people, me included, sent in FoI requests to get a rationale for this decision. But that only seems to have made things worse. The most recent exchange [link] has the Uni holding an internal review after the person who made the request called them “brusque and snide” in its reply. Most amusingly we then have the University looking up the Oxford English Dictionary definition of those words. Snide = insinuating, sneering and slyly derogatory. But curiously the issue doesn’t seem to have moved on any and I’m still perplexed as to what the University’s position is, although it definitely isn’t slyly derogatory.

    Salford University: Many thanks to the person who pointed me into the path of this tower of learning. When you view its pages on the site [link] you will see that it is almost a default position to make somebody vexatious just because they are on the site. One of the most recent requests on WhatDoTheyKnow to the University asked a quite reasonable question asking why this was the case. Yes, you’ve guessed it them made the requester vexatious and refused to answer it. Intrigued by this approve I am left with no option but to make a similar request on papyrus and send it by Pony Express. I’ll let you know how I get on.

    NOTE: This week I was very kindly invited to be a guest at the ACPO/ACPOS Freedom of Information Conference in the Midlands. Some of the delegates said some nice things about this blog. Sometimes it can seem a lonely, pointless exercise writing it in glorious isolation. But those kind comments have re-invigorated me, and in the words of Shawshank Redemption I shall “Get Busy Blogging”.


    2 responses to “WhatIsTheProblem.Com”

    1. FOI administrator

      I administer FOI requests. I am not the lead, or the person in the organisation who “owns” the information/is responsible for it. I collect the information. I send it out. That is all. I have to get everything approved by a higher authority, which means that I am not, actually, ultimately responsible for what does go out (and might add that I have occasionally been very unhappy about having responses entirely rewritten or my opinion ignored when I *know* I am right!) Therefore, I do not want my name - which is an unusual one - published. I haven’t bothered telling What Do They Know because I know that the name publication issue has been argued with them previously and they are not backing down on it.

      Don’t get me wrong - I approve of the principle of publishing FOI responses for all to see - if information has left the organisation, then it’s in the public domain, why not disseminate it as widely as possible? I am looking forward to the day when I can issue a Section 21 notice referring the applicant to What Do They Know!

      However, as I am purely the conduit for information from my organisation, I persist in being extremely unhappy that my name and contact details are not removed from publication of responses. Perhaps I shall have a go at What Do They Know after all ;P

    2. Ganesh Sittampalam

      FOI administrator: why not just send out your replies to WDTK without your name, then? I’ve seen some public authorities do that.

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