“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.”
― Bruce Coville
WhatDoTheyKnow.com (WDTK) is an extremely valuable website. Without it the Freedom of Information Act would be in a far, far greater perilous state than it is at the moment.
You have the right to request information from any publicly-funded body, and get answers. WhatDoTheyKnow helps you make a Freedom of Information request. It also publishes all requests online
The unique attraction, and strength, of WDTK is the on-line publication of each request and the responses by public bodies. By putting everything into the public domain in such a visible and readily accessible form it makes it that much harder for a public body to deal with one requester differently from another. The responses are also instantly searchable by key word and it is possible to tag a public body, or an individual request and get automated updates in one’s area of interest.
When Freedom of Information requests are made by letter or email only the requester knows whether the public body has responded promptly, and unless the organisation has a web based publication policy, and follows it, nobody else gets to see the information gathered.
The WDTK website automatically calculates what the deadline for a response should be, and alerts the requester should there be a delay. The site also contains useful hints and tips on how (and how not) to make a FOI request, and what to do should an organisation refuse to provide the requested information.
In short, WDTK makes it easy for anyone to make FOI requests, and we at IODPA recommend it.
Requests, users and authorities all have JSON versions containing basic information about them. Every request feed has a JSON equivalent, containing summary information about the list of events in the feed. In other words, this tool provides a quick way of getting numbers from everything on WDTK.
Want to instantly know how any requests the Home Office has received? How many were answered? How many are overdue? For an example of what can be done, take a look at this:
So what does this all mean to you? It means we can quickly quantify and compare how public authorities deal with FOIA requests. Of course, not all requests are sent through WDTK but it is the most widely used method so is hugely representative.
An interesting statistic comes in the answer to this question: of all the public authorities listed as being a policing body, how many requests are unsuccessful?
Would it shock you to to learn that over half of all requests made to public bodies via WDTK which are classed as ‘policing’ were not successful? Policing bodies are making a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act!
Here is a frequency chart, otherwise known as a histogram, which is a diagram consisting of rectangles whose area is proportional to the count. The count in this case is the percentage of unsuccessful requests by all bodies listed on WDTK as classified as a ‘policing body’.
See the high bars, from the tallest, at 40%, 50%,100% and 70%? 40% is the mode; the mode is a type of average and on a histogram it is the tallest column and so is the value that appears most often in a set of data. The next highest is 50% then 100% and so on. As you can see there are more bars the further right you look. The average of the data is 59.8%. In other words almost 60% of requests to policing bodies are unsuccessful.
So 60% of requests to police authorities are not answered! Shameful isn’t it.
Policing bodies apparently have a culture of doing whatever they can to prevent disclosure under the FOI act.
To prove this point let us see how NHS trusts compare. This histogram has the same data as the above but this time we have overlapped the figures of policing bodies unsuccessful requests with data from the 237 active NHS trusts listed on WDTK.
The NHS trusts are shown in blue and the policing body data is now in pink. It is clear that the NHS trusts are far more consistent with each other – the blue bars are grouped significantly closer together than the pink. But look at the highest point now with the sharp decline of blue to its right and notice that there is only a small handful of NHS trusts that fail to answer more than 50% of received requests – this is directly contrary to the majority of the policing bodies whose unsuccessful request count spans further to the right and all the way to 100%. Past 50% there is much, much more pink than blue.
The average of unsuccessful requests for NHS trusts is only 32%. Stating the obvious, this is significantly lower when compared to the 59.8% of policing bodies.
Why the difference? And why is the NHS performing better in answering FOIA requests? The disclosure law applies in equal measure to all. There is no doubt that within policing bodies an institutional arrogance exists that makes them think they are above the legal requirement to make information disclosures.
Let us examine which policing bodies are the most frequent offenders. Using JSON we can examine the number of requests received by each policing body and plot this with the number of requests outstanding (outstanding means the request hasn’t been answered and has gone over the 20 day answer deadline). The size of plot represents, by body, the number of requests, which are not successful (the bigger the shape, the higher the count of unsuccessful requests).
For the sake of simplicity we have only coloured the shapes that are way above the blue ‘expected’ regression line or are of interest; the remainder are grey. The Metropolitan Police is the pink circle in the top right who has received over 2500 requests and has 130 currently overdue. It is below the blue line so this is in proportion to what is expected of a force of that size.
Avon & Somerset Constabulary (blue), Dorset Police (orange), Essex Police (green), Greater Manchester Police (red), Humberside Police (lilac), Kent Police (purple) and Sussex Police (yellow) all seem to be offenders when it comes to not answering requests as they are high above the expected value and way above their peers.
Perhaps the Information Commissioner should start asking questions of these 7 police forces.
There needs to be a root and branch inquiry into the deliberate methods used by some policing authorities to undermine the FOI act. Unfortunately, the responses provided by the police officials who have responsibility for responding to requests are often quite remarkable in how creative and underhand they are at not providing information.
Below are some of the ways in which policing bodies delay and prevent the publication of information
- Why respond promptly when you can reply on the 11th hour on the 20th day.
- Ignore the request completely.
- Claiming they didn’t understand the request
- Blatantly start counting the time allowed for a response from a date convenient to them
- Wrongly declare the request requires an unreasonable allocation of resources.
- They decide at the beginning that they don’t want to give the information and only then seek inappropriate exemptions to justify the non-disclosure.
- Using one exemption to justify a refusal, then when challenged successfully, falling back on a different exemption.
- They provide lip service to any public interest test, and inevitably say it is not in the public interest to provide the information.
- Any internal review results in a foregone conclusion rubber stamp confirmation of their original refusal. An internal review hardly ever corrects the wrong use of an exemption.
- Finally, they fall back on saying that they don’t have the information when they know full well they do.
Until these FOI departments understand the ethos of the Act they will carry on the abuse. We at IODPA have good reason to believe that the staff who work in the FOI offices of policing bodies are subjected to interference and pressure from senior people to refuse providing information.
Few members of the public realise that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) run a ‘Central Referral Unit’ which, perhaps understandably, requires all policing bodies to alert the Unit to requests relating to security matters, firearms, witness protection and other sensitive topics. There are three categories flagged from Low to High. Interestingly, the Unit expects to be sent a copy of requests relating to information sent to and from a policing body to a national body – and the Home Office is given as the single example of such a national body.
We know, however, that some forces run to the Unit when they have a request they don’t like and seek advice on how to prevent giving out the information requested.
Policing, by its very nature, cultivates a culture of tight lips. Small wonder then that policing bodies find it hard to come to an understanding that providing information is a legal duty. The FOI Act provides ample protection to allow policing bodies to keep information from the public which we would all accept should be kept from the public. We also fully appreciate that some requests for information are far too detailed, ask for far too much information in one go, or are just rants about some topic or other. Such time-wasters are universal. All forces get them. So why do some policing bodies have a far worse record that do others when it comes to refusals? And why are policing bodies so very much worse than the NHS in handling and responding to requests?