FOI Hate: Response from Staffordshire County Council

Following my letter to my Staffordshire county councillor, Terry Finn, I received the response below. I’ve some comments below.

Councillor Finn has asked me to respond to your recent communication. Thank you for your comments which have been noted.

Shame my councillor couldn’t be bothered to respond himself. He could have at least responded with his own thoughts and included the response from the officer (the author of this letter).

Staffordshire County Council believe It’s absolutely right that all local authorities are open and transparent about how they use taxpayers’ money to provide the services that residents, communities and businesses need.

Staffordshire County Council answered almost 2,700 Freedom of Information and the similar Environmental Information Regulation requests last year. While we fully support people’s right to have access to information, we do have concerns about the bureaucracy involved since the Freedom of Information Act came into force, and the way that some organisations use it.

For instance we receive numerous requests from businesses looking to sell us their goods or services, and using FOI legislation to save them time and money on research, at a cost to local taxpayers.

This is a good time to point out that as the Information Commissioner has said more than enough times, any information that could be released under FOI should be released pre-emptively. Were Staffs CC to do this as a default they would immediately reduce the very costs they are complaining about.

We therefore think our taxpayers equally have a right to know the time and costs involved in dealing with these enquiries and for the last two years have published this information on our website, including where those enquiries are coming from. We also publish all of our responses to ensure this information is freely available.

Do they really publish all those responses? Well, I started my stopwatch and took myself off to their site.

Could I find the published responses? No. I spent six minutes looking.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the recording I took as I did so:

You’ll notice I find a page that has the line “Freedom of Information – What have we been asked?” that looks like it should be a link but is not a link at all. A search turned up nothing either.

Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies

Attr: Flickr/scaredofbabies

The closest I got was a page of disclosures but they relate only to requests made subject to the ‘public interest test’ and don’t actually include the substance of the request at all so are useless in helping others find information.

This further emphasises my last point. If they want to reduce the cost of FOIs asking for ‘already publicy-available information’, maybe they should go and dust the cobwebs off their web team.

Within your communication there were some specific pieces of information you requested:

You asked ‘…I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties’

We only record costs in relation to actual requests. In this instance a request would have been received that could be associated with this category. We would not include any groups that could be associated with a category per se unless they made a request.

You asked ‘…the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?’

We do not seek explicit permission from individuals, although the links to the disclosure logs are included on the request page. Many individuals make requests through sites such as ‘What do they know’ and their names would already be in the public domain. We are currently reviewing our approach in line with new ICO guidance.

Slightly worrying. They’ve released names but don’t confirm if they have sought permission from those who submitted an FOI request privately. There may be very good reasons why someone is asking for information but would have serious issues with their name being disclosed and it sounds like Staffs CC may have made a mistake here.

You asked ‘ Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicly available’.

In the last 12 months we have received 350 requests where the information was available elsewhere either on our own internet pages or with another organisation this equates to approximately 12 per cent.

The main reason SCC give for scare mongering about the ‘cost of FOI’ is based on a measely 12% of all requests. Even if that represented 12% of the cost, that’s only £8,196 – 0.0000008% of their budget rather than the 0.00003% Ampp3d calculated.

Additional: It just occurred to me (post-publication) that the 12% will not even cost £8,196. Given the responses will likely be short and relatively quick (i.e. either stating information is already available and/or pointing the requester to the where the information is held) they should cost much less than the average response (which requires an information gathering exercise).

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that they have failed to lower this cost on two fronts themselves; a) by pre-empting FOI requests and releasing information before it’s requested and b) by disclosing their responses to previous FOI requests (aka knowing their arse from their elbow).

If you have any queries or require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me.

In the first instance if you have any comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please write to Lian Stibbs, Access Manager, Information Governance Unit, Staffordshire County Council, Wedgwood Building, Block A, Tipping Street, Stafford, ST16 2DH.

If you have any further comments relating to how your request has been handled by our authority, please contact the Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

I’ll make just one more point that I failed to adequately make in my original letter. The subtitle of the page on the SCC website is “The cost of “Freedom of Information” to local people.” (my emphasis). No, the cost is to Staffordshire County Council, not ‘the people’ and it’s SCC that has the power to reduce those costs, as I’ve made clear.

The erosion of civil liberties and the legitimacy of Parliament

*sigh*

I’ve moved from angry to depressed. Here’s my letter to my MP, Michael Fabricant, about the Data Rentention and General Bullshit Bill (DRIP);

Michael,

There’s probably no point in even bothering, given you are highly unlikely to rebel against your party (which, by the way, says something about our “representative democracy”, don’t you think?) but I can’t let this one pass.

After trying it with the slave labour Workfare scheme your party in Government is trying to legalise something that has been found illegal. The new Data Retention & Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) has no legal basis, being as it seeks to legalise an existing practice that has already been ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice.

Not only that but the way in which this bill has been concocted and is being pushed through questions the very legitimacy of Parliament itself.

It is a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy that bills are presented to the House of Commons and scrutinised in depth by our elected representatives. We put faith in you do to this. No such process is taking place with this bill, which has been cobbled together in a secret cabal of all three major parties. MPs, such as yourself, have very little time to look at the bill.

We have been told that no new powers are being introduced. If this were true that does still not make the bill any more necessary or legal, given the legality of the practice it legislates on. However, initial analysis of the bill shows that it does contain new, wider powers.

We’re told this is a temporary measure, but as the last Labour government demonstrated this is meaningless. Hindsight tells us to expect these powers to remain permanently. Parliament’s record on this is there for all to see.

So I implore, no, I demand, you vote against this legislation in the interests of promoting a liberal country free of unwarranted mass surveillance already deemed illegal. Were you to vote for this legislation (or cowardly abstain as I fear many will) you will be complicit in the continued erosion of our civil liberties that will further damage the legitimacy of Parliament. Parliament is already woefully unrepresentative and citizens are engaging more with campaign groups than they are political parties such as yours. This is just one battle in the ongoing war for a politics that serves the people, not narrow interests.

Yours expectantly,

Philip John

Questioning Staffordshire on why they hate FOI

After reading on Ampp3d that Staffordshire County Council were whinging about spending 0.00003% of their budget answering FOI requests, and checking out their whinge myself, I decided to write to my County Councillor (Terry Finn) to ask why SCC are attempting to demonise users of this critically important transparency law. I made a point of reminding him that it helps us (citizens) to hold power (him) to account, given that we are the ones that have given him that power, and temporarily at that.

The letter:

Dear Terence Finn,

I am writing to you to express my disappointment in the way that Staffordshire County Council is attempting to demonise the use of a fundamentally important transparency law. Namely, the Freedom of Information Act.

As a Staffordshire resident the FOIA is crucial in ensuring I, and my fellow citizens, can hold you and council staff to account for the decisions you take in our name using the power we have lent you via the ballot box.

“The Cost of FOI Requests” on the SCC website (http://www.staffordshire.gov.uk/yourcouncil/dataprotectionandfreedomofinformation/HowMuchFOIsCost/home.aspx) states that “Often the FOI process is used by some commercial organisations to save time and research costs. We think this is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly. The same applies to a growing number of FOI requests from the media. This can save companies and the press money by, for example, reducing research costs but only at a significant cost to the Authority which is unfair to Staffordshire tax payers.”

This statement is an inexcusable attempt to belittle the important work that the media do in holding power (that’s you) to account on our (citizens) behalf. Individual citizens mostly do not have the time, expertise or resources to carry out the kind of investigations that are necessary to effectively scrutinise local authority decision making. We rely on the media to do that for us. Attempting to accuse them of wasting our money is an attempt to tarnish their reputation at our expense, and your benefit.

Pressure groups and political groups are also singled out in the FOI Costs page of the SCC website. I am pleased to see that WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and independent website, has already been removed from that section as it should be. Still, the singling out of those groups also seeks to highlight those in a negative way given the preamble of the page. As fewer people join political parties and instead join issue-specific campaigning and pressure groups, such groups are becoming much more representative of citizens than the membership of political parties. Something you would be wise to remember as you claim a ‘mandate’ for the decisions you make using the power we have loaned to you.

Following from that point, I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties. Can you clarify whether this is an omission by releasing to me the number of FOI requests submitted by each registered political party, or party-affiliated group, in the last two years please? I trust that given SCC’s dislike of FOI you’ll get that information to me in a timely manner without my having to resort using the FOIA.

I also noticed the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?

Finally, the website states “the information requested is already freely available publicly”. Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicy available. Again, I trust that you will provide this in a timely manner to avoid the use of FOI. To be clear, I am requesting this information in order to verify whether the claim that many FOI requests are due to lazy researchers is actually true.

Yours sincerely,

Philip John

When secularism is not secularism: when it’s French (or European)

It’s disappointing that the European Court of Hunan Rights has upheld the French ban on full-face veils.

Some call this a ‘victory for secularism’ but it is no such thing. Secularism is about equality for all. Freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. It is not about curtailing individual liberties for some misguided notion about the ‘greater good’.

Banning the veil does nothing to address the mistreatment of women by adherents to Islam, it only serves to discriminate against those women who freely choose to wear face coverings and open them up to victimisation, isolating them from the rest of society.

Veil bans are a divisive policy concocted by politicians seeking to placate the far right for fear of losing votes to the likes of the National Front. The ECHR should be recognising this illiberal nonsense and rejecting it, not endorsing it.

WordPress security: the case for dependency management

Two things happened in the last week to spark this post; I gave the weekly “Show and Tell” at work on my favourite things about Drupal that I’d like WordPress to learn from (one of them should appear in 4.1, by the way), and yesterday a vulnerability was revealed in the still popular TimThumb library used by many WordPress themes and plugins.

Dependencies

One of my favourite things about Drupal is that it offers theme and module developers the ability to use dependencies. A few simple lines in the module.info file (Drupal’s sort-of readme.txt equivalent) can specify that the module depends on other modules and Drupal will recognise that, offering to install and/or enable those modules for you in order to meet those dependencies. E.g.;

That’s not all though, Drupal also allows module developers to specify required libraries in a similar way. Those libraries are then installed in a ‘libraries’ directory alongside the modules directory.

Duplicated Effort

By contrast, WordPress plugin and theme developers often have to bundle those libraries into their plugin or theme. The result, when a security issue like yesterday’s TimThumb exploit is revealed, is that individual plugin and theme developers need to update their projects individually and push out an update, leaving users vulnerable until the developer gets round to it.

Instead, having a system like Drupal’s dependencies means that, once the library itself is updated, all installations could pull down that library update and secure their site without the plugin/theme developer having to lift a finger. Installs are secured quicker with minimal effort.

There are other benefits to a dependency system but I believe the security angle is by far the most compelling.

My suggestions above actually go a bit further than what Drupal offers at the moment, I believe, but a system that works as close to the plugin/theme system as possible would be beneficial.

TimThumb, seriously?

Before you say it, yes, there is a better way to deal with TimThumb specifically. David Bisset put it best:

Thoughts?

Picture credit: The Colorful Library of an Interaction Designer by See-ming Lee

Could/should the WordPress Foundation do more?

Wordpress_logoGenuine question.

A couple of posts have caught my attention over the last week;

It got me thinking about the WordPress Foundation and whether it could do more to help promote WordPress. With 18.9% of the web powered by WordPress you might think there is no need! You might be right.

As John points out, efforts from the likes of the WordPress.com VIP team and the Big Media & Enterprise WordPress meetups are great, but with much of that coming from Automattic and WordPress agencies, is there a case for pooling that effort to better promote WordPress more widely, and with more independence?

Already the Foundation gives enabling support to WordCamps and it’s fantastic that we have so many. Here are some quick ideas off the top of my head of other promotional efforts the Foundation could* do;

  • WordPress sector champions who would work on promoting the use of WordPress in specific sectors, producing case studies, networking in those sectors, generating connections and leads for agencies and freelancers and so on. Target sectors might include;
    • Enterprise
    • Education
    • Government
    • Retail
    • Journalism
  • Core support staff who would help with organising IRC chats, trac tickets, helping new contributors get started, running/supporting contributor days. These could be either employed direct by the Foundation or seconded to it by agencies. (I have no idea if some of the work I’ve mentioned here is even required.)
  • Outreach people to help arrange things like Google Summer of Code and other as-yet-unspecified outreach projects aimed at getting folks engaged with WordPress.
  • A WordCamp team who would work with and support WordCamp organisers. Likely nothing/little needs to change on this point anyway.

Of course, all that would need funding, and I’m reminded here of the jQuery Foundation and it’s membership structure. Something similar for the WordPress Foundation may work, and help those involved in WordPress feel like not only are they contributing to WordPress the project, but also the WordPress ecosystem.

What do you think; does that sound like a good idea, is is necessary, is it a terrible idea, is it okay but could be done differently? Shout below!

 

* Not could as in could do now, but could do at some point, if the resource was available.

The Communist Manifesto

Years after buying a copy, along with some other political philosophy books, I finally got around to reading Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

My understanding of it is that it postulates two things;

  1. Society is split into two factions; the working class, and the ruling class, with the latter exploiting the former for it’s benefit.
  2. In order for the working class to break out of this exploitation permanently it must rise up, take over the state and use that power to bring all property into state ownership and use it for the good of the working class.

At a basic level, I accept the first of those.

Income inequality, housing crises, too-big-to-fail banks etc are all signs of a society split between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, the 1% and the 99%. That’s today, so I think the first point resonates and is reasonable.

I understand the thinking process behind the second. If this is a struggle between the haves and have nots and the power of exploitation that owning property supposedly confers, then presumably the essential ban on property ownership would take away that power.

What this point misses, I feel, is that it is inevitable that if the working class does rise up, seize the state and the means of production, there will be a class of people who are ruling the country. There will have to be a group, who represent a tiny minority of the population, who make decisions based on power granted to them to do so. Without that, the state, and therefore society will cease to function adequately. If I’ve misunderstood please correct me.

Thus, it is inevitable that if communism was to succeed in it’s aims it would not stop their being a ruling and working class. It may initially put those two classes on a more level footing but there would still be antagonisms (the manifesto talks about antagonism a lot) which would likely increase as time went on. The new ruling class, fervent in it’s belief that it is acting in the best interests of society would continue to do so, face opposition from the working class and there would eventually be another revolution.

So communism is not for me.

Next philosophy to read is that of Friederich Nietzsche. Bit worried about the Hitler connection with that one!

Why I’m voting Green, and why you should definitely vote today.

After using the excellent Vote Match website, I reviewed my answers and the comparisons to the policies of the various political parties and decided that I agreed with it’s assessment that I should vote for the Green Party.

There are a few things I do disagree with the Greens on, such as their stance on Nuclear power and GM crops which I believe are anti-scientific. Mostly though, I’m more closely matched with them than any other party, and I think that makes sense. If I could vote Pirate, I would.

Please use Vote Match to decide who to vote for.

Not bothering to vote?

Please do.

I’ve flip-flopped on whether to vote or not, but one thing the rise of UKIP in polls has shown me is that not voting is tantamount to voting by proxy.

What do I mean by that?

If there are 100,000 eligible voters (of which you are one) and only 40,000 vote, that effectively makes each of those 40,000 votes worth 2.5 votes. You are giving your voting power to someone else.

So if anyone votes for a party you despise, or just don’t like enough to vote for, not voting will be gifting the weight of your vote to those parties anyway. Your inaction will help those parties you don’t like to get into power.

Don’t like ANY of the parties or candidates? Then spoil your ballot paper and deny everyone else the power to use your vote against you!

Embedded tech can be implanted in brains, thanks to new power technique

Re: Wearable tech can be implanted in brains, thanks to new power technique

That title has it wrong – it’s not embedding wearable tech, it’s just embedded tech.

I’ve been saying for a while that I’m not interested in wearable tech like “smart watches” -it’s embedded tech that excites me, and this innovation is a great move forward in that area.