The challenge of using Freedom of Information for good

Posted on March 9th 2012

I'm a big supporter of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and the rights of citizens to access information from their government to better understand the processes and data considered around how decisions are made and policies formed.

I am also a big supporter of FOI as a tool for public good - including for sharing information that is useful within government and for businesses seeking to engage government agencies on a commercial basis.

As such, I put in an FOI request yesterday to the full list of FOI contacts for the Australian Government I collated for the following information:
  • The web browsers approved and used across department hardware (desktop, laptop, tablets and mobile).
  • Whether the agency had a staff social media policy and what it contained.
  • Whether the agency provided additional guidance and training for staff on social media and what these contained.
  • What social media channels were blocked by the agency.
  • What plans the agency had approved to change any of the above.

This information is enormously useful for businesses seeking to engage with government.

Companies seeking to do business with government need their websites to be visible and usable to agencies - hence they must support the web browser technologies that agencies are using. For those that sell online services it is even more crucial that their apps and systems are accessible to agencies, otherwise they can't do business. Equally web developers seeking to sell to government need to understand the browsers their websites will need to support before quoting as older web browsers can add significant cost to a website's development.

Many companies today use social media channels to inform audiences, promote their products and provide support and assistance - a video walk-through, a support forum or product roadmap blog. They need to know whether government agencies block these channels so they can make specific arrangements to ensure they are able to competitively service and support agencies that do.

A number of government agencies are currently in the process of developing social media policies, guidelines and training. I have received many requests over the last few years from people in all parts of government asking if I am aware of other similar policies and guidelines they can borrow from and build on.

I provide what I can, however there's no central repository for this information in Australian government (though there is an international site, the Online Database of Social Media Policies). A central place to find this information would greatly reduce the time and resourcing cost for sourcing models to build from and greatly improve the initial quality of the efforts of agencies.

I also plan on publishing all the correspondence I have with agencies on a new website (foiaustralia.net.au - not yet in place), to help open up the process of making FOI requests, which is still foreign to many people across the community, despite the improvements made in recent revisions of the law.


I attempted to structure my FOI request in a format which would make it easier for agencies to respond - and easier for me to collate and publish the information at a central online location - saving time and money all round... or so I thought. (see my request here)

Unfortunately there's a stricture in FOI law where the information requested needs to be stored in 'documents'.

Although I did specify the documents I requested, this wasn't in a particularly overt fashion and appears to be being overlooked or misunderstood by agencies, some of who are (very rapidly) beginning to respond to my request.

These documents included:
  • Their Standard Operating Environment documentation, which should specify the web browsers officially supported and deployed by platform and the filtering technologies used, including the social media platforms blocked and coached.
  • Their social media policy and associated guidelines for staff. 
  • A register of the social media channels operated by their agency.
  • Internal briefs and strategies related to the use of social media channels by their agency and staff.
I also asked informational questions about the official plans of the agency, such as whether they planned on updating their web browers in the next twelve months, whether they planned to create a social media policy when they had none, whether they planned on unblocking or blocking additional social media channels and how they used their official social media channels.

I have encountered a few minor issues, that I will be progressively sharing with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and publishing in due course - a major agency whose published FOI email address is not working, a major and several minor agencies that do not provide electronic FOI contacts at all on their site, spelling mistakes and poor grammar in automated FOI responses.


However the overwhelming issue I am encountering is that it appears that much of the information I am requesting is not stored in 'documents'. It is known and shared within the agency, but is not FOIable if not recorded in the appropriate format.

The flaw I see is in the use and interpretation of the word 'document' - a discrete, paper-like format which doesn't describe much of the information and data stored and distributed within organisations today.

In the future we're likely to see even less information in 'documents' - a thousands of years old archaic mode of information storage - and more information stored in fragments and tables, shared electronically via transient communication tools.

While I totally appreciate agencies sticking to the letter of FOI - that information must be in a structured document, which an FOI requester must specifically request - the opaqueness of public agencies to the public (in knowing which document to request), the increasing range of information in forms other than documents and the danger that agencies, following poor business practice, do not create documents with some important information in order to avoid being FOIed, risks undermining the spirit of Freedom of Information.

I appreciate governments applauding their own successes at openness and transparency - at legislation where the only excuses remaining for not releasing information are privacy, commercial confidentiality and national security.

However they are still overlooking the major and persistant barriers to real freedom of information - the implied need for the requester to already know precisely what documents to ask for and the explicit requirement for that information to be stored in one specific format, a 'document'.

 

CraigThomler

Craig Thomler

Having worked in the online industry since 1995, Craig is a veteran of the Australian start-up sector and an experienced online communicator. Now working in the public sector, Craig's focus is on assisting public enterprises to effectively use the web to engage, collaborate and unleash their data to add value and improve Australian governance. Craig was awarded the Gov 2.0 individual Innovator award from the Australian Gov 2.0 Taskforce in 2009 and voted one of the international Top 10 changing the world of internet and politics in 2010. He regularly speaks at and organises events addressing the strategy and practice of Gov 2.0 and shares his personal thoughts through the eGovAU blog (http://egovau.blogspot.com).
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