Friday, March 31, 2006

Media update

National news

Private Eye - HP sauce column. Discusses the ICO's £100K contract with PA consulting: "That sum should just about pay the first year's fees fir PA's new director who among her many other jobs, is also a Director of teh DCA"

Press Gazette - Centre of power slow to act on FoI
"Guardian freedom of information specialist David Hencke has told MPs that the nearer reporters get to Tony Blair, the less information they get. A watchdog committee of MPs called in Hencke on Tuesday night to hear first-hand how Whitehall was responding to reporters' requests made under the Freedom of Information Act."

Freelance uk - BBC spends £4m on freelance design
"Obtained by The Observer under the Freedom of Information Act, the disclosures show that the Canadian artist Mark Pimlott won the most lucrative design project, costing licence payers’ over £1.6m."

Supply Management - Absence of prejudice
"The National Maritime Museum could not rely on the 'commercial prejudice' exemption when it was asked to reveal details of payments made to a contractor. David Allen Green explains"

Regional news

This is Wiltshire - GWH rakes in £600k from parking fees
"SWINDON'S flagship hospital raked in more than £600,000 in parking charges from patients and visitors. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act lift the lid on the money-spinning parking regime run by the town's health chiefs."

South Wales Echo -£200,000 cost of missing mail
"More than 17,000 residents and businesses in South Wales received compensation topping £200,000 from Royal Mail, it has been revealed."

Belfast Telegraph - Bird flu pandemic power crisis fears
"Maintaining essential services such as oil and gas supplies cannot be guaranteed if a flu pandemic strikes Northern Ireland, the Government has privately admitted. The revelation is contained in a paper obtained by the Belfast Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act."

Birmingham Post - Post appeals decison to keep agreement secret
"The Birmingham Post has appealed against a decision by Solihull Council to refuse disclosing documents relating to the £100 million redevelopment of Shirley town centre."

Surrey online - MRSA hits 300 patients in hospital
"A SURREY Mirror investigation has found a staggering 302 patients contracted the potentially fatal superbug Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) at East Surrey Hospital in the past 12 months. Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 the Mirror has learned that more than 300 patients caught the disease at the hospital, while a further 357 arrived at the hospital with the disease over the same time period."

Birmingham Post - Sir Albert runs up £1,450 council phone bill
"Top Birmingham Labour politician Sir Albert Bore ran-up a £1,450 bill on his city council mobile phone in just six months - easily outstripping local authority colleagues."

Yorkshire Post - Darling under fire over tram project
"The revelations, revealed in documents obtained by the Yorkshire Post under freedom of information rules, come as the Government is being investigated by Whitehall's spending watchdog over the project's collapse and the £39m of taxpayers' cash spent on it."

Overseas FOI

Business Day
(South Africa) -
"THE Supreme Court of Appeal has handed down two ground-breaking judgments involving the Promotion of Access to Information Act and tender processes. The rulings require transparency in the adjudication of tender processes, including easy access to information about bidding companies."

Reuters - U.S. agrees to release Abu Ghraib pictures
"The release of the images is part of a Freedom of Information Act suit filed in 2003 by civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, over treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Media update

Scotsman - Act now to help improve freedom of information legislation
"IT IS over a year since freedom of information legislation was introduced and the impact of openness has been felt throughout the public sector, which accounts for about 25 per cent of Scotland's workforce. The Scottish Executive is undertaking a consultation to assess the impact of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.." (reg. required)

Sunday Herald (Scotland) - Revealed: how the Tories spent £18m on election
"Labour insiders, still reeling from their party’s handling of the row over loans, have used the FOI disclosure to call on the Tories to reveal who financed them. The information – provided to the Sunday Herald by the Electoral Commission – is the first time such detail on campaign spending has been published."

Daily Telegraph - Defra told The Archers to halt march of 4x4s
"An e-mail, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) contacted producers on the show, which attracts more than four million listeners a week."

Regional news

The Carlisle News & Star - £100,000 for hospitals from car park charges
"Figures obtained by the News& Star under freedom of information laws reveal that North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the hospitals, receives an annual index-linked fee of £65,000 from Interserve FM, the company running the Cumberland Infirmary’s car parks..."

Friday, March 24, 2006

UK Sunshine week?

Taken from the Press Gazette:
"At the Society of Editors conference last year, journalist and FoI campaigner Heather Brooke, the author of the guidebook and blog Your Right to Know, advocated organising a similar event here in support of Britain’s young Freedom of Information Act and other open government laws.

Brooke says plans for a UK version of Sunshine Week, tentatively titled “Spotlight Week” are progressing slowly as Brooke and the Society of Editors hope to build support and funding from Britain’s notoriously competitive media organisations. Two national broadsheets are understood to have given early support to the project."
Latest decisions

Some interesting decisions here, the DFID case for the statement in the DN about S16:
"A public authority cannot be judged to have provided advice and assistance if it suggests to a complainant that they refine their request and subsequently claim that to comply with this refined request would exceed the appropriate limit."

and the IPCC case for the debate over issues in releasing information with "errors" in that could be misleading:
"They additionally argued that part of the information contained an 'error' which could be misleading and would be likely to prejudice police investigation, and which could only be corrected by the disclosure of the requested information and that the part of the information containing an 'error' could have been disclosed by being put into context or explained furthe..Subsequently, the IPCC accepted that there were no exemptionswhich could be applied, and so provided the complainant with all the information requested."

Case Ref: FS50077102
Date: 21/03/06
Public Authority: Bolsover District Council
Summary: On the 8 April 2005 the complainant made a request for the necessary information so that he would be able to calculate for himself whether he was due council tax benefit and if so how much. The Council did not initially recognise the complainant's request as a request under the Freedom of Information Act and sent him an application form for council tax benefit. A further response from the Council explained that the usual method of assessment involved inputting the information from benefit application forms into the Council's computer system which then analyses the data and generates an assessment. After an investigation the Commissioner is satisfied that the Council were unable to disclose the information requested because they did not hold it. The Council have demonstrated that there is no general formula or calculation that could have been provided to the applicant that would allow him to calculate for himself how much council tax he may have been due. However, the Council did not make it sufficiently clear to the complainant that they did not hold the information.
Section of Act/EIR and finding: FOI s.1(1)(a) - Complaint Upheld; FOI s.1(1)(b)
- Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.16 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50077102

Case Ref: FS50085601
Date: 21/03/06
Public Authority: City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
Summary: On 10 January 2005 the complainant requested information about speed cameras held by West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership on behalf of the Council. The Council responded on the 31 March 2005 therefore breaching the statutory time period for compliance, and the complainant was not satisfied that the information provided adequately answered his request and so asked for the information to be provided in full. The council did not respond, prompting the complainant to ask for details of its internal review procedure. The council then referred the complainant to the Commissioner. The complainant understood that an internal review must be completed prior to an appeal to the Commissioner, and therefore he again requested details of a procedure to facilitate this. The Council again refused to conduct an internal review and so an appeal was lodged with the Commissioner. Before the Commissioner began his investigation the council initiated an internal review into the handling of the request, the outcome of which satisfied the complainant. The Commissioner is of the view that further advice and assistance, as required by s.16, could have been provided and that this may have prevented this request resulting in a complaint.
Section of the Act/EIR and finding: FOI s.1 Upheld; FOI s.10 Upheld; FOI s.16 Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50085601

Case Ref: FS50077717
Date: 21/03/06
Public Authority: Royal Berkshire Fire Authority
Summary: The complainant requested the name of the insurance company and policy number for the cover provided under a particular section of the Fire Authority's personal accident scheme. The Fire Authority provided information which stated that AIG Europe (UK) Limited was the company providing the cover. However, the complainant had written separately to AIG and had been informed that it did not cover the policy. He therefore questioned the discrepancy between these two contrasting responses and asked the Commissioner to review whether all relevant information has been provided by the Authority in response to the second part of his request. The public authority told the Commissioner that this information was sourced from the Policy Schedule, which was held in a filing cabinet in the authority's Treasurer's Office, where information on the Authority's insurance policies is usually kept. However, the policy certificate, relating to the schedule, is displayed in the workplace as a statutory requirement. The authority has assured the Commissioner that there is no further information held in relation to the second part of the complainant's request, and the Commissioner is satisfied with this assurance.
Section of Act/EIR and finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50077717

Case Ref: FS50082257
Date: 21/03/06
Public Authority: The Department for International Development (DFID)
Summary: The complainant requested copies of all minutes and notes of all meetings between the DFID and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) held since 1997. DFID responded by claiming that to comply with this request would exceed the appropriate cost limit and asked that the complainant refine his requests, suggesting minutes and notes of meetings involving the topics of Health and Education. The complainant agreed to this, but after an investigation by the Commissioner it became clear that to do so would exceed the appropriate limit. It is the Commissioner's decision that DFID's suggestion set out in section 16 of the Act. A public authority cannot be judged to have provided advice and assistance if it suggests to a complainant that they refine their request and subsequently claim that to comply with this refined request would exceed the appropriate limit.
Section of Act/EIR and finding: FOI s.16 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50082257

Case Ref: FS50066868
Date: 15/03/06
Public Authority: Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCC)
Summary: The complainant requested copies of correspondence with Hull City Council and a Member of Parliament regarding the IPCC's investigation into allegations surrounding the previous Humberside Police investigation into Colin Inglis, ex-chairman of Humberside Police Authority and former leader of Hull City Council. The request was refused on the basis that information would be likely to prejudice a criminal investigation being conducted by the police. However, the IPCC has only provided evidence in support of the likelihood of prejudice in relation to part of the requested information. They additionally argued that part of the information contained an 'error' which could be misleading and would be likely to prejudice police investigation, and which could only be corrected by the disclosure of the requested information and that the part of the information containing an 'error' could have been disclosed by being put into context or explained further, (awareness guidance number 3). Subsequently, the IPCC accepted that there were no exemptions which could be applied, and so provided the complainant with all the information
Section of Act/EIR and finding: FOI s.31 Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50066868
Information Tribunal

Latest decision published: appeal dismissed (Brent Council)
"Mr J Smith v Information Commissioner" (20th February 2006)

Read the original ICO decision
Media update

National news

Daily Telegraph
- Nation's most crowded trains
"A commuter service from Cambridge to London has been identified by the Department for Transport (DfT) as the most overcrowded in Britain.Statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that demand for the service was 85 per cent greater than the number of seats normally provided."

Daily Mail - Truth revealed about big cat shooting
"A report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals for the first time in 15 years details about the shooting of the big cat and its subsequent discovery in a freezer. The report confirms claims by Danny Bamping, founder of the British Big Cats Society (BBCS) that a photo of the shot lynx is genuine."

Regional news

IC Surrey Online - Group slams council secrecy on store plan
"The information related to discussions that had taken place between the council and the company building the store, Thornfield Properties. Under the Freedom of Information Act the group asked the council if it could see all the correspondence that had taken place between MVDC and Thornfield Properties. But the request was refused because it was believed the information could prejudice the interests of Thornfield Properties."

IC Surrey online- Court challenge to Health Secretary over hospital site
"TWO councils are going ahead with a £15,000 legal challenge to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's interference in the site of a new £300 million critical care hospital.....And this week Epsom and Ewell Conservative MP Chris Grayling said inside knowledge he had gained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed it had been such a bad decision from a health point view, that even her closest expert medical advisers had warned against it."

Bournemouth Echo - 3 YEARS TO FIX IT!
"CASTLEPOINT'S building contractors have admitted repairs to the car park are likely to take at least three years, the Daily Echo can reveal.Their prediction was revealed to the Echo after we requested documents related to the car park, under the Freedom of Information Act, following its temporary closure in November due to health and safety reasons."

Belfast Telegraph - Home Office has details of 35,000 Ulster people's DNA
"Fears over Big Brother-style government resurfaced today after it emerged that DNA samples from thousands of people in Northern Ireland are held on a central database. Concerns were expressed by political representatives and civil liberties groups following revelations that details of approximately 35,500 people in Northern Ireland are held on a UK-wide DNA database.The figure was disclosed following a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph but officials from the Home Office, who administer the database, said they could not provide any breakdown of how many of those people had been convicted of an offence."

Hamilton Advertiser - Information watchdog slams council
"SOUTH Lanarkshire Council have been criticised by Scotland’s Freedom of Information Officer.Kevin Dunion investigated a complaint from Eddlewood Tenants’ Association secretary Christine Divers.The association asked the council for information on the criteria used to decide which homes were to be upgraded first under the authority’s Home Happening refurbishment programme."

Overseas FOI

Statewatch - passenger name records
"MEPs demand that the report on EU-US PNR (passenger name records) is de-classified: Letter to US from Liberal group MEPs"

Open the Government - Special Reports: Sunshine Week

East African Standard - Kenya needs a Freedom of Information Act now
"This situation always leaves journalists groping in the dark for information. They must resort to their own devices and sources. Yet even with these limitations, they put out credible stories. What Kenya really needs is a Freedom of Information Act that will provide for the release of unclassified information by Government departments and agencies on request. This would complement the citizen’s right to information and also criminalise those hiding it from the public. "

Thursday, March 23, 2006

UCL Information rights internship

UCL's Constitution Unit is looking for someone who is interested in the subject of information rights and would like to undertake an internship on either a part-time or full-time basis. Full details.

Now offers comprehensive resources on freedom of information laws by country

March 22, 2006 - Four years after its launch and more than 1 million hits later, has a whole new look. But the dual mission of the site remains -- a virtual network linking freedom of information (FOI) movements globally and an institutional memory for transparency and access to information rights throughout the world. today introduces a new, comprehensive country-by-country section that gives users access to resources about FOI laws in more than 60 countries -- including background, legal texts, links to government bodies and organizations, and current news about the FOI movement in the country. As more countries move towards adopting FOI laws everyday, provides vital tools for researchers, advocates, journalists, government officials, and members of the public to stay informed about the progress of the right to information around the world and in their own backyards.

The site will continue to publish up-to-date international FOI news as well as feature articles, reports, and case studies focusing on transparency and FOI issues worldwide and in international institutions. New featured stories include:

* the first installment in a series of reports by Maria Baron evaluating the transparency of legislatures in 20 countries;

* a review of "Sunshine Week," celebrated in the United States March 12-18 to raise awareness about open government;

* an article by Toby McIntosh detailing the role of FOI laws in international development agendas; and

* an update on the development of transparency policies in a number of international institutions. is a one-stop portal that describes best practices, consolidates lessons learned, explains campaign strategies and tactics, and links the efforts of freedom of information advocates around the world. It contains crucial information on freedom of information laws and how they were drafted and implemented, including how various provisions have worked in practice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Latest on appeals at the Tribunal

View the latest appeals that have been received and are being processed at the Information Tribunal.
Latest ICO caseload database

Heather at YRTK has received the latest caseload database from the ICO. Gives a more structured breakdown than previously released. States that 2683 cases are in the system, see below for an overview of the basic data, the spreadsheet gives more detail of each cases.

Case - Withdrawn Count 1
Closed - Abandoned Count 131
Closed - Complaint withdrawn Count 223
Closed - Decision Amended Count 3
Closed - Decision declined Count 10
Closed - Decision Notice served - not upheld Count 42
Closed - Decision Notice served - upheld Count 58
Closed - Decision Notice served - varied Count 19
Closed - Decision Noticed served - upheld Count 1
Closed - Decision upheld Count 3
Closed - Ineligible Count 216
Closed - Late compliance Count 6
Closed - No internal review Count 337
Closed - Referred external Count 1
Closed - Undue delay Count 13
Closed - Vexatious Count 7
Closed - Withdrawn Count 221
Open Count 207
Open - Determining nature of EIR complaint Count 49
Open - Determining nature of FOI complaint Count 606
Open - Evaluate Count 292
Open - Information Notice served Count 3
Open - Processing Count 219
Open - Referred to Legal Count 7
Open - Under tribunal appeal Count 8
Grand Count 2683
House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into FOI

A further meeting will take place next week, with the DCA to give evidence following on the 18th April.

Tuesday 28 March 2006, The Wilson Room, Portcullis House 4.15pm

Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for the Freedom of Information, Steve Wood, Lecturer, John Moores University, David Hencke, journalist, the Guardian

Dr Lydia Pollard, Improvement and Development Agency (I&DeA), Ian Readhead, Deputy Chief Constable, Hampshire and Association of Police Officers (ACPO)

Natalie Ceeney, Chief Executive, National Archives

Tuesday 18 April 2006, The Grimond Room, Portcullis House 4.15pm

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Under Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Evidence from 14th March

The Uncorrected transcript of Oral Evidence given by Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, Graham Smith, Deputy Commissioner and Jane Durkin, Casework and Advice Division on is now available on the Select Committee website. The evidence covers a lot of ground, all very interesting discussion - worth reccommend reading in full, a few select highlights:

-The processing of cases -700 is stated as "backlog"

-There has been a switch of ICO staff from promotion and development to complaint handling

-The IC's view on the public ineterest extension to the 20 day limit:
"Richard Thomas: In some situations they will need the time, but I am increasingly sceptical they need as much time as they are taking. We have got one example where I think they required six extensions of time, and I am not prepared in future to let my staff have that degree of tolerance towards a public authority....I cannot create law on this front, but what I have been saying increasingly informally, and perhaps we will find ways of saying it formally, is that two months ought to be quite long enough for anybody to go through a weighing of the public interest considerations."

-On the lack of a statutory time limit for internal review:
"Richard Thomas:So, yes, the answer is we would like to see a tighter control there, but, equally, where we feel that we are being spun a line by a public authority, we think that they are not actually pursuing the internal review as fast as they should be, then we will do our best to put more pressure upon the public authority to speed up their act."

-The ICO has bid for an extra £1.13 million from the DCA to clear the backlog:
Richard Thomas: We are saying if we got nothing it would take years to clear the backlog, if we got 50% we reckon we would clear the backlog in two years, if we got the full bid we put in for, 100% of our £1.13 million, we think we can clear the backlog, we said 14 months starting in January, so we think it would be clear by March 2007, but we have lost two or three months already.......
Q61 Keith Vaz: But will the backlog grow because you have not received this money?
Richard Thomas: I fear absolutely, Mr Vaz, that is a real risk. I was very pleased over a year ago with this Committee, and if I can just read out and remind the Committee what you said in your report because resources are critical to this.

-On the fees Review:
"I do have an anxiety that any fee regime which did deter members of the public from making a legitimate request would be inconsistent with the principle of open government. I am concerned about the Irish experience, where the fees were increased, and that had a very obvious chilling effect on the uses to which the Act was being put."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Media update

National news

Daily Telegraph - How too many adverts are interrupting your viewing
"Newly released documents shows that Big Brother, Lost and other Channel 4 shows have fallen foul of rules limiting the amount of advertising that can be shown.In the case of Big Brother, television executives attempted to justify the breach by arguing that the reality show should be treated more like a sporting fixture, documents obtained by the Sunday Telegraph, under the Freedom of Information reveal."

Daily Telegraph - Prince's 'carbuncle' under fire as the battle of Poundbury hots up (again)
"Now an email released to local residents under the Freedom of Information Act appears to show that a council officer has advised the Duchy to reinsert the five-storey tower for the latest plan for the site by developers Woodpecker Properties."

Daily Mail - One in six parents denied school of their choice
"But in another setback only one in 1,000 heads has registered an interest in becoming one of his trust schools, according to a Government list disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act."

"WHAT does Downing Street do when it receives a tricky question from a Labour MP? Nothing, if the experience of former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle is any guide. The dogged Liverpudlian has sent a second letter to Tony Blair seeking an explanation for glaring contradictions in No.10's responses to George W Bush's threat to commit a war crime by bombing Arabic TV station al-Jazeera. The Cabinet Office had confirmed under the Freedom of Information Act it held documents on Bush's threat but wouldn't release them."

""I believe it is the responsibility of NHS Ayrshire and Arran to be as open and transparent as they can in ascertaining the reasons behind the failures in Mr Heron's case. They should start by revealing the name of the surgeon." Mr Neil said he would use the Freedom of Information Act to demand the surgeon's identity if the trust refused to reveal it."

Regional News

Belfast Telegraph - Legal body snubs Telegraph appeal
"Northern Ireland's public information authority has criticised the Legal Services Commission for failing to disclose information to the Belfast Telegraph under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.In an investigation into criminal legal aid in Ulster, the Belfast Telegraph requested statistics from the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC) on how many people not in receipt of state benefits received legal aid over 12 months, and the total cost."

Birmingham Post - Pheonix information bid fails
"Phoenix Venture Holdings bosses have been denied access to records of conversations between the Government and City bank Rothschild's which they say could shed new light on the collapse of Longbridge.Chairman John Towers and other Phoenix directors used the Freedom of Information Act to try to obtain details of talks between the Department of Trade and Industry and the bank."

Overseas FOI


CCNMatthews- Government Announces the Extension of the Appointment of the Information Commissioner
"Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today a six-month extension of John Reid's appointment as Information Commissioner. Mr. Reid's current term extension expires on March 31, 2006."Mr. Reid's extension will ensure that the Office of the Information Commissioner continues to function effectively as the Government moves forward with reviewing the Access to Information Act," said the Prime Minister."

Ottawa Citizen
- Harper's gag on ministers breaks vow
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's clampdown on communications to the public
could put his government on a collision course with its top priority to open
up government and make it more accountable, officials say.Bureaucrats say the Harper government made it clear from the start that its policy agenda and communication plans must stick to five key priorities. But recent media reports suggest Mr. Harper is so determined to focus oncampaign promises that he imposed tight controls on what ministers and bureaucrats can publicly talk about."

al-Jazeera - FBI targeting those who oppose Bush’s war
"Recently released documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, accused the U.S. government of spying on members of an antiwar activist group in 2002 because of its views."

IOL - Commissioner: Garda must be subject to Freedom of Information laws
"More public bodies, including the Garda Siochana, must be included under the Freedom of Information Act, it was claimed today. Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly told an Oireachtas Committee that police forces in England and Scotland were already subject to similar legislation and it must happen here."
Act Now Training

Spring and Summer Programme details are available. Including couses on FOI, DPA, Re-Use Regs, Information auditing, RIPA.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The British Intelligence view of FOI in 1974

The following document is an interesting artefact perhaps showing that we have moved a little in the last 30 years. It is a memo Historian Peter Hennessey found at the National Archives from the Cabinet Security and Policy Methods Committee (1974) about the risks posed to British Intelligence Information held in the US due to the US FOIA, noting the "serious threat" it posed to this information.

(The memo was distributed at the recent British Academy/National Archives conference on FOI)

Download (PDF)

Technorati tag:
The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has not received much press but the New Politics Network have a useful briefing paper outlining some of the risks of the legislation that could allow the Government to amend legislation with much less scrutiny. The Bill is part of the better regulation agenda. (See Cabinet Office pages)

Read the New Politics Network Briefing (PDF)

House of Commons Libary Research Paper:(PDF)
"Under the provisions of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, the Government can propose regulatory reform orders, which allow statute law to be amended by delegated rather than primary legislation. The Government has acknowledged that the Act was “constitutionally ground breaking”.
USA- Audit on Sensitive Unclassified Information

Press Release from the National Security Archive:

"The first-ever government-wide audit of the ways that federal agencies mark and protect information that is unclassified but sensitive for security reasons has found 28 different and uncoordinated policies, none of which include effective oversight or monitoring of how many records are marked and withheld, by whom, or for how long."
Scottish Information Commissioner's decisions: what do they mean in practice?

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland is providing a half-day training course in Glasgow on Wednesday 31 May 2006. The training will be lead by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign. The course will cover the key decisions to date under both the Scottish and UK legislation.

Details of the training course with a booking form: download (PDF)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Constitutional Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into FOI

The first evidence sessions for the above inquiry took place on Tuesday 14th March, with Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, and Graham Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner giving evidence.

You can watch here:, click on archive, search under "committees" and for "freedom of information". Lasts just over an hour.

The BBC Parliament Channel (via Freeview, cable etc) is broadcasting this session from the 14th on 18th March 1800GMT.

A transcript should be the Parliament site in the next week.

View the meeting information

There is another evidence session on 28th March

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Academy Schools and FOI

A reader of the blog has sent me a copy of a letter he received from his MP about Academy schools not being covered by the FOIA.

The letter included a response from the DCA Minister Baroness Ashdown (Read the letter from Baroness Ashton) that suggests that Academy Schools cannot be added by ammending Schedule 1 using the powers under S4(1)of the FOIA as academies do not satisfy this condition of S4:

3) The second condition is-

(a) in the case of a body, that the body is wholly or partly constituted by appointment made by the Crown, by a Minister of the Crown, by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales, or
(b) in the case of an office, that appointments to the office are made by the Crown, by a Minister of the Crown, by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales.

As this issue has not come up before we cannot be sure what is meant by "partly constituted by appointment" but according to the DFES website the running of these schools certainly has direct involvement with officials from the DFES which could satify the "by a governmeny department" part:

"Once the Secretary of State has given approval for an Academy, an Academy Trust is formed which will be responsible for the building and running of the Academy and has control over the land and other assets. The Trust is a charitable company. Members of this Company (Trust) include the sponsor, the chair of the governing body, other members and a representative of the Secretary of State. The Members of the Trust have limited liability up to L10 in the event of financial difficulty. They delegate the management of the school to the governors (Directors)."

The letter does also state they could be added under section 5 as a private organisation providing functions of a public nature. (None have been added this way so far). No timetable is offered for this though. It should also be added that the Lord Chancellor did make reference to the fact they were considering extending coverage in his speech to the British Academy back in February:

"We are looking right now at how exactly we will do this. The sort of private bodies we're likely to extend to are privately run prisons and school academies - which should be subject to the same principles of openness and transparency that applies to the thousands of other public authorities covered by FOI. But we will ensure that - where we extend the scope - it does not have a disproportionate impact on the ability of those bodies to carry out their functions. We need to get the balance right."

Thanks to David for sending this.
Media update

National news

Independent - Tanweer was a 'modest and unassuming' pupil
"Shahzad Tanweer, who killed eight people at Aldgate Tube station on 7 July last year, was a model pupil and showed no sign that he might be radicalised into one of Britain's first home-grown bombers, his school record shows. The record, obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that English was one of Tanweer's strongest subjects, providing him with the chance to articulate his views, which he evidently relished. He enjoyed studying Romeo and Juliet, contributed well to a "TV debate" on crime and excelled at an assignment examining a newspaper report on violent crime."

Guardian - Oyster data use rises in crime clampdown
"Overall, police have requested to see journey information 243 times, and been given it 229 times, according to figures obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, the Press Association reported."

The Times - Jowell 'misled' secretary on links to Iran
"The Culture Secretary informed Dame Sue Street, her Permanent Secretary, last year that David Mills had resigned as managing director of a firm that was selling £115 million worth of British Aerospace jets to Iran....Yesterday The Sunday Times said that the disclosure, in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, would add pressure to Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to begin a full investigation into Ms Jowell’s compliance with the ministerial code."

Daily Telegraph - The number of Paras winning their wings is in free fall
"Figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act show that the number to have successfully completed the parachute course at Brize Norton has plummeted from 92 per cent in 2003 to just under a quarter last year."
The Guardian - Headteachers cold-shoulder trusts scheme
"The government's controversial education reforms have failed to win the backing of headteachers, with just a handful of schools showing any interest in becoming self-governing trusts, according to a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

Sunday Times (scotland) Councils fail to track drug addict parents
"Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that councils have no uniform system of identifying children born to drug addicts and sex offenders. "

Regional news

Suffolk Evening Star - Council disciplinary hearings revealed
"FIVE employees were dismissed by Suffolk County Council last year out of a total of 74 staff disciplinary hearings, it emerged today...The details have been released under the Freedom of Information Act following a request by The Evening Star."

ICSurrey - Evidence suggests ASBOs are working
"Information from Surrey Police shows that, despite growing concerns that ASBOs do not work, just one person out of a selection of 13 cases since August 2003 has breached conditions placed upon them by the authorities."

ICSouthLondon - How safe is you train station?
"CONGRATULATIONS to Canada Water - it is the safest station in South London. According to figures exclusively obtained by the South London Press there was no reported crime there in the whole of 2004. But the rest of the statistics obtained under the Freedom of Information Act make for less than happy reading."

Norwich Evening news - Royal Mail and the missing money
"Royal Mail bosses have come under fire again just weeks after revelations that six postal workers had been prosecuted for dishonesty....Her comments follow an Evening News Freedom of Information Act request which showed six Norfolk postal workers were prosecuted over the past three years during Royal Mail's clampdown on dishonest employees."

Overseas FOI

Reuters -CIA cited as worst freedom of information agency
"The CIA has the worst record of any U.S. government agency for complying with the Freedom of Information Act, an independent archive that publishes declassified U.S. government documents said on Monday. The National Security Archive at George Washington University named the spy agency as the 2006 recipient of its annual Rosemary Award, which recognizes the poorest performance within the federal government for responses to Freedom of Information Act requests from the public."

USA Today - Survey finds more information kept from public
"Local, state and federal government agencies are keeping more information secret from the public, making it harder for citizens to keep tabs on what elected officials and bureaucrats are doing, an investigation by the Associated Press shows." - Critics say Freedom of Information Act needs reform
"As federal law turns 40 this year, federal agencies seem increasingly reluctant to make their records public."

Australia - Ombudsman criticises FOI delays
"The Commonwealth Ombudsman has criticised excessive delays in responses to Freedom of Information requests and recommended an independent monitor of the system.....He said the government should consider establishing an FOI Commissioner, possibly as a specialised and separately funded unit in the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman."At present there is no single or authoritative source of advocacy for good FOI practice," he said."

BBC- Indians find information too costly
"When Rakesh Shukla, a poor farmer from the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, asked local authorities for information on paddy field purchases in his area, he was handed a bill for 182,000 rupees ($4,100)."

New vision- ‘Govt to okay access to information soon’
"THE bureaucratic secrecy that has obtained in government for years and has been an impediment to access to information will soon be no more. Information state minister Dr. James Nsaba Buturo announced, “On April 20th, everybody will be entitled to access information in the hands of the State.” Buturo, however, urged the public to be patient saying, “The system is not going to be efficient in one day."

(with thanks to Dave Banisar for some of these international news items)
Decision notice

This is the first important DN for FOI Practitioners in the HE sector to digest:

Case Ref: FS50080353
Date: 07/03/06
Public Authority: De Montfort University
Summary: The request was for various documents relating to the maintenance of standards on the University's pharmacy courses, including information about pass rates, passing grades and the maintenance of numbers. The University has already released some information about this matter, but on this occasion various documents on the grounds that their release would prejudice the University's commercial interests. The Commissioner has however decided that the withheld documents should be released, as there is a very strong public interest in academic standards being maintained, particularly in relation to the education of pharmacists who, on completion of their courses, will dispense medicines to the public.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.36 and s.43 - Complaint Upheld; FOI
s.40 - Complaint Partially Upheld.
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50080353
1911 census

Further update from Dennis McCready on the battle for the 1911 census, over 150 MPs have now signed the the EDM, Dennis outlines the detail over the alleged 100 confidentaility rule and includes information from internal corresponce by officials over the matter.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sunshine Week 2006: March 12-18

It is Sunshine week this week in the US, an annual event to promote open government. Sunshine Week involves: journalism groups, media companies, state press associations, open-government and First Amendment advocates, librarians, civic groups, educators and student journalists etc....


Friday, March 10, 2006

Training courses from the Camapaign for FOI

Information Commissioner & Tribunal Decisions - what do they mean in practice?
A half-day course in London on 16 May 2006. This course will examine the UK and Scottish Information Commissioner's decisions to date and those of the Information Tribunal. It will highlight the most significant, discussing their implications for request handling, exemptions and the public interest test. The course is aimed at public authorities, lawyers and FOI specialists.
Download the course leaflet and booking form.

The Campaign is running practical training courses to help serious users, including journalists and campaigners, make effective use of the Freedom of Information Act. The next course is in London on 9 May 2006.
Media update

Public finance - Businesses criticised for using FoI to gain commercial insight
"‘Most’ freedom of information requests from businesses to local authorities are illegitimate, FoI officers have told an independent review of the Act’s first six months of implementation."

Belfast Telegraph - Freedom of information? ...not if you want to know who's on Hain's Xmas card list!
"The Government has refused to release Secretary of State Peter Hain's Christmas card list - in case it offends people not on it.The Northern Ireland Office flatly turned down a freedom of information request from the Belfast Telegraph for a list of Mr Hain's festive card recipients."

Guardian - Maxwell was under investigation for war crimes
"A Metropolitan police file released to the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that police had begun questioning members of Maxwell's platoon and were preparing a case for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)."

Guardian -Britain gave Israel plutonium, files show
"Britain secretly supplied Israel with plutonium during the 1960s despite a warning from military intelligence that it could help the Israelis to develop a nuclear bomb, it was disclosed last night. The deal, made during Harold Wilson's Labour government, is revealed in classified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained by BBC2's Newsnight programme."

Cambs Times - Long term offenders do some useful work
"SOME of Britain's most notorious criminals are being given the chance to earn up to £1,200 a year while serving their time at Whitemoor Prison, March.The figures have been supplied to the Cambs Times by the National Offender Management Service after an application for information under the Freedom of Information Act."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Constitutional Affairs Select Committe

"Uncorrected transcript of Oral Evidence given by Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, QC, a Member of the House of Lords, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, and Alex Allan, Permanent Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs." (28th February)

Read the evidence (go to Q191 for the FOI qs)


Lord Falconer of Thoroton: We always said that we would look at the fees because we have introduced a regime that basically does not charge for providing information under the Freedom of Information Act. What it does is set a limit by reference to time, which is £600 in central government and £450 outside central government. There are issues about the extent to which some things that are not currently included in that £600 should be included. For example, people have adopted the technique of getting a list of files under the Freedom of Information Act, then asking for all of the contents of the file. That, before it can be released, plainly requires somebody to read the file, which does not seem to me to be legitimate. The time it takes for a civil servant to read the file is not included in the time it takes you to get to the £600 limit. Various government departments are now having to employ people specially to read files to see whether or not any provisions of the Freedom of Information Act would affect whether it should be disclosed or not. The sort of question we need to look at is, for example, should the reading of the file be included in the fee.

Q194 Chairman: Is there a review?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: We are looking at what we should do about fees at the moment and we will reach a conclusion, I think, fairly soon in relation to that.

Also discussed: 1911 census (Q219)
First Decision notice on use of vexatious exemption

Case Ref: FS50078594
Date: 08/03/06
Public Authority: Birmingham City Council
Summary: The complainant made 27 largely thematic requests for information and was advised by the council that they were considering applying the s14 exemption. The complainant then submitted a further 11 largely thematic requests. In line with Freedom of Information Act 2000 Awareness Guidance No. 22: Vexatious and Repeated Requests, the Commissioner considered whether the Public Authority had demonstrated that the requests would impose a significant burden, have the effect of harassing the Public Authority, or could otherwise be characterised as obsessive or manifestly unreasonable. In addition the Commissioner considered the number and nature of the requests, the exemption had been applied by the Council. The Commissioner concluded that there was a demonstrable pattern in all but two of the requests for information, and so judged that the Council had applied the exemption correctly in all but
the two identified requests.
Section of Act/EIR & Findings: FOI s.14 Complaint largely upheld.
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50078594

Further decision notices

Case Ref: FS50083404
Date: 03/03/06
Public Authority: The Parole Board
Summary: On 20 June 2005 the complainant requested from the Parole Board the number of prisoners of Persian origin who had been refused parole. The complainant received the information on 23 December 2005, and so the Commissioner has therefore found that the Board breached s.10 of the Act by not responding within 20 working days.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.10 - Complaint Upheld.
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50083404

Case Ref: FS50092024
Date: 02/03/06
Public Authority: The University of Ulster
Summary: On 13 May 2002 the complainant requested information from the
University of Ulster relating to a series of homophobic incidents at the Jordanstown campus, and also asked for a copy of the university's complaints procedure. Following the intervention of the Commissioner the University released the information 16 November, six months after the initial request. The Commissioner has therefore judged that the University was in breach of s.10 of the Act by not responding with the 20 working day time limit.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Upheld; FOI s.10 - Complaint Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50092024

Case Ref: FS50073127
Dae: 01/03/06
Public Authority: Department of the Environment (NI)
Summary: On 12 March 2005 the complainant requested information related to the granting of planning permission to store asbestos at Crosshill Quarry. The information was provided on 9 May 2005, outside the 20 working day time limit, and so the commissioner has judged the Department to be in breach of s.10 of the Act.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.10 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50073127

Book Review

I have reviewed the following text: Turle, M (2005) Freedom of Information Manual. London. Sweet and Maxwell.

Download the review (PDF)

A review by a different reviewer will also appear in the next issue of Open Government
Casino bosses lose legal battle to stop The Post publishing

Some of you may remember me reporting on this story before Xmas, the High Court has now completed the Judicial Review:

Birmingham Post
"An American gaming corporation has failed in a High Court attempt to prevent The Birmingham Post from publishing financial information and contractual details of a super-casino at the new Birmingham City stadium.

Las Vegas Sands sought a judicial review against a decision by Birmingham City Council to release confidential documents about the proposed casino under the Freedom of Information Act."

I can't find the Judgment details on the web, but will post them when they are published.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

al-Jazeera memo

Along side my request to the Cabinet Office for the al-Jazeera memo I also made a request to the US Department of State for any similar documents. The Request was sent in December and I've just received an acknowledgement letter(PDF). Doesn't really give much away. Will post more when I hear anything.
Commonwealth FOI laws

The Commonwealth Human Rights Institute website gives a useful overview of which Commonwealth member states have freedom of information legislation in a useful comparative table.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Disclosure logs update

The following new disclosure logs have bee added to the index:

-Copeland Borough Council

-Durham County Council

-Peterborough City Council

-University of Salford

-Rochford District Council

-East Dunbartonshire Council

-South Ayrshire Council
Media update

The Argus (Sussex) - £5m pavement falls payout
"Almost £5 million has been paid to people who have tripped up on Sussex pavements in the past five years. A total 1,556 people have demanded cash for bumps, bruises and broken limbs between 2000 and 2004, figures obtained by The Argus under the Freedom of Information Act show."

Birmingham Post - Jobs-row college facing inquiry
"A Midland college that is sacking nearly 500 staff is being investigated by a watchdog after using public money on a consultant to push through the drive. Walsall College of Art and Technology has employed Durham-based csm-consulting to advise on the restructuring since September. Walsall College has refused to answer a request from The Birmingham Post under the Freedom of Information Act to reveal how much it is paying Mr Graham."

Article 19 (Dance online) - ACE Backtracks On FOIA Refusal
"Arts Council England (ACE) has backtracked on a previous decision to deny Article19's Freedom of Information request for details of the 4Dance:Dance4Film television programme that aired on Channel 4 on December 29th. Initially ACE rejected the request on the grounds it would cost more than £450 (@£25 per hour) to retrieve the information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows certain organisations to refuse requests if they determine that processing the request will exceed that amount."
National Audit Office Report - selling government services into a wider market

Martin at the Re-use of Public Sector Information blog has flagged up a National Audit Office report - " selling government services into a wider market" that focuses on: "Public assets such as land, buildings, people and intellectual property, which are needed to deliver core services, can often be used more fully.". The report highlights the developmet of prodcucts such as: "Licensing and repackaging of datasets, Sale of anonymised data and ‘Value added’ products based on public information".
New decision notices

Case Ref: FS50090013
Date: 3/03/06
Public Authority: Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC)
Summary: On 27 May 2005 the complainant requested information relating to legal aid in Northern Ireland, but the information was not provided and the complainant approached the Commissioner on 28 September 2005. The Commissioner
contacted the NILSC, and following correspondence the information was provided to the complainant on 25 November 2005. The Commissioner has therefore found that the public authority had breached Section 10 of the Act in exceeding the 20 day time limit.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s10 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50090013

Case Ref: FS50082264
Date: 3/03/06
Public Authority: Astley Abbots Parish Council
Summary: Believing that the Council had organised a meeting to discuss plans to convert his public house into a residential property, the complainant requested information related to this meeting. The Council stated that it had not organised the meeting in question and so did not hold any information about it. On the basis of the information available to him, the Commissioner has accepted the representations of the Council. However, the Commissioner did conclude that a breach of the Act had occurred as the Council failed to respond to the information request within 20 working days.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Not Upheld, FOI s10 -
Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50074584

Case Ref: FS50074584
Date: 3/03/06
Public Authority: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
Summary: DEFRA stated that they had not received the complainant's request for information which was sent on 19 January 2005. They also failed to comply promptly when sent a copy of the request by the Information Commissioner on 30 August 2005. However, the Decision Notice has now been complied with.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s10 - Complaint Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50074584

Case Ref: FS50069396
Date: 1/03/06
Public Authority: Cyngor Cymuned Llandysul
Summary: The complainant requested the sight documentation relating to the placement of a BT pole and land ownership. The council offered photocopies of the documentation at 10 pence per sheet but refused sight of the information. The Commissioner has decided that the Council should have given preference to the complainant's request to see the information, and has therefore upheld the complaint.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s11 - Complaint Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50069396
New Blog on FOI

The Press Gazette's new journalism blog, "Blog Watches Dog" has a section for stories about FOI in journalism.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Norman Baker PQ reveals backlog at ICO

Taken from
Written Answer 27/02/06

Norman Baker (Lewes, LDem) Hansard source

To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many appeals have been received by the Information Commissioner in each month since the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and in each month how many have (a) been determined and allowed in whole, (b) been determined and allowed in part, (c) been determined and refused and (d) not yet been determined

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source

The answer to this question is set out in the two following tables: (1) Number of cases received per month and number of cases yet to be determined per month; (2) Number and status of cases closed by month of receipt and information on cases which have been closed by informal resolution.

Table 1: Number of cases received per month and number of cases yet to be determined per month

Cases received per month Cases yet to be determined per month
January 19 1
February 134 26
March 212 56
April 290 105
May 252 113
June 203 114
July 273 164
August 243 184
September 232 177
October 191 147
November 185 121
December 152 66
January 2006 183 99
Total 2,569 1,373
Table 2: Number and status of cases closed by month of receipt

Status of closed case

Allowed in whole Allowed in part Refused Informally resolved Total
January 3 11 4 18
February 3 2 80 23 108
March 8 8 79 61 156
April 15 6 81 83 185
May 13 4 59 63 139
June 4 2 50 33 89
July 5 74 30 109
August 3 36 20 59
September 4 1 33 17 55
October 32 12 44
November 1 43 20 64
December 58 28 86
January 2006 1 60 23 84
Total 59 24 696 417 1,196
ICO new guidance

There is a new guidance note available from the ICO on refusal notices.
The Public Contracts Regulations 2006

Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 5 The Public Contracts Regulations 2006 came into force january 31st 2006.

Read in full

In particular S43 is of interest —(1) Subject to the provisions of these Regulations, a contracting authority shall not disclose information forwarded to it by an economic operator which the economic operator has reasonably designated as confidential.
(2) In this regulation, confidential information includes technical or trade secrets and the confidential aspects of tenders.

In terms of FOIA 2000, this would work as a "prohibition on disclosure" under Section 44.
Media update

National news

BBC news - Paper's brothel photo bid fails
"A newspaper has failed to use freedom of information (FOI) law to force police to hand over surveillance photos of men visiting a west Wales brothel."

The Register - Yahoo! boosts Freedom of Information awareness
"The UK's Cabinet Office is using paid-for search engine placements to promote public awareness of the Freedom of Information Act.Directgov, the government’s central internet portal, has been using Yahoo!’s Overture sponsored links service to direct web users to its FOIA page."

Regional news

Eastbourne Today - Only one in six dgh workers has had flu jab
"Figures show that 524 people employed at the hospital have had the inoculation, out of a total workforce of 2,900. The number has been released under the Freedom of Information Act and includes both medical and support staff."

Doncaster today - Alarming figures show young teens prescribed morning after pill
"THIRTY-FOUR girls aged 13 or under were given the morning after contraceptive pill by the NHS in Doncaster last year.And 14 other girls in the same age group were put on the pill by health professionals between January and December, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show."

Yorkshire Post - Park accused of shunning views of trail bikers and 4x4 drivers
"The group says information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows the recording of complaints has been haphazard, with no attempt to validate them or filter those from known anti-vehicle activists."

Overseas FOI

Independent - Details of Camp Delta inmates released to public
"The US government has been forced to release documents giving details of those being held at Guantanamo Bay after years of refusing to do so. The 5,000 pages of transcript were handed over by the Pentagon on the order of a judge in response to legal action brought under the Freedom of Information Act by the news agency Associated Press."

NY Times - US/Ger - Flare-Up Over Vast Nazi Camp Archives
"Tempers are flaring over a United States demand to open to scholars and researchers a huge repository of information about the Holocaust contained in the files of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.Based in part on documents gathered by Allied forces as they liberated Nazi concentration camps, the stock of files held by the organization stretches for about 15.5 miles, and holds information on 17.5 million people. It amounts to one of the largest closed archives anywhere."

Zambia news - Govt still consulting on Freedom of Information Bill-Mwaanga
"Information and Broadcasting Minister Vernon Mwaanga says government is still undertaking consultations on the Freedom of Information bill so as to avoid problems when the bill is enacted.Mr. Mwaanga said that the ministry has to be wise so that the country does not fall in the same trap as other countries that enacted the freedom of information act."

Asia media- PAKISTAN: Changes to Freedom of Information law sought
"Islamabad --- A non-government organization has written to the Cabinet
Division to make changes to what it called "Flawed and Restrictive Rules
(2004) for the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002".

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Use of pay per click to advertise FOI

I've had an interesting reponse to an FOIA request I made to the Cabinet Office about their use of the Overture sponsored results service via for the term "Freedom of Information Act" (see my previous post) that links through to the Directgov FOI page. They have been using the service since July 2005. The request has been met in full: I have been provided with the cost per click details: they pay 10p per click (the lowest bid) and have paid £191 for 1,917 clicks to the word "freedom of information" and £194 for 1,948 clicks to the term "Freedom of Information". It is also interesting to note the conversion rates of 13% and 16% from all searches made. Over 26000 searches were condcuted for both of the terms during the time period. The conversion rates are impressive compared to data for conversion rates for e-commerce sites (see recent research). I also received the page impressions data for the FOI page on the Directgov website which in January 2006 received about 4000 page views. It can be presumed a much a higher number of searches were made via google (which directgov does not currently use for these terms, other terms such as "Council tax" do come up as sponsored google results for directgov though).

I made the request and think it is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly it is first real example of any media advertising for the FOIA in the UK (this is in comparison to Scotland where TV advertisments have been prodcued by the Scottish Information Commissioner).

I feel the data illustrates that the use of the service has been a positive and innovative example of a cost effective way to guide users of the Act to the relevant official information on the topic. It would be good to see it is expanded to Google as well in the future. I would also say that that it illustrates a further issue about how the average user will often start to find information about the FOIA using a search engine as their starting point. It also in points to towards the need for some further research into the use of these services in promoting e-government more generally and the take up of services after the 2005 target for e-enablement. On the conversion rate issue it would merit further research to investigate whether government links gain better conversion rates because the public should have a higher level of trust than with commercial sites.

The number of visits to the Directgov pages in general would appear to be low though (only about the same number or less that this blog tend to get). There appears to be a missed opportunity in making the Directgov FOI pages into more of a "citzen portal" for users of the freedom of information act containing FOI contact links, publication schemes, aggregated discolsure logs etc. Though I am sure there are counter arguements that too comprehensive a central portal could make it too easy for users to bombard departments with questions....

Read the full response (PDF) and see the breakdown of "click through data" (MS word)
New FOI blog from Australia

I was interested to hear from Peter Timmins from NSW in Australia who has set a new blog based on FOI-Privacy issues in Australia called Open and Shut. The blog is well worth visiting and some interesting cases are highlighted that UK practitioners might be interested in.

For example Peter highlights a recent Administrative tribunal ruling relating to whether a search conducted for documents at a University was sufficient under the 1989 NSW Freedom of Information Act. The Decision under review was affirmed. The case was essetentially about:"Whether the conclusion [the agency] reached, that the agency did not hold any documents relating to the applicant other than the ones released … was sound". The decision covers some interesting ground in terms of the searches that took place at the University concerned and that a personal laptop that had been ponteailly used for University business was off-limits.

It is also interesting to note that in a difference to the UK Tribunal "The NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal (ADT) in Miriani v Commissioner for Fair Trading decided in favour of a award of costs against another FOI applicant where it was clear that the application for review had no merit."