Friday, March 09, 2012

The challenge of using Freedom of Information for good

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 ( - 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'.


  1. Hey Craig,

    Are you aware that there's been another push to get WhatDoTheyKnow deployed here in Australia recently?

    Is this the kind of thing you are thinking of with

    Alex kicked off the discussion about WDTK earlier this year.

    I've been assisting on the technical side and will be attending AlaveteliCon in a couple of weeks.

    The main thing stopping the launch at the moment is finding non-geek volunteers to help administer the site. Would you be interested in getting involved and leading the search for volunteers and supporters to help set up and run the site?

    Cheers, Henare

  2. Craig

    With respect, this post is crap. If you want information to assist you identify future business opportunities then fair enough, but please don't try to hide behind an FOI request. Given you were able to compile a list of FOI coordinators, which i assume you did while working for the Commonwealth, I am a little surprised you couldn't also have compiled a list of government web managers - most of whom would have given you the information you seek. Seeking this information under the guise of an FOI request and the principles of open government makes you look at best opportunistic and at worse lazy and obnoxious.

    From a Commonwealth Government Web Manager

    1. This is a rather silly comment. Most agencies have dedicated staff to deal with FOI requests - why not use them?

      I also suspect that most web managers don't want to assaulted by requests for policy documents, and many would be uncertain whether they were permitted to release them at all. FOI staff are unlikely to have that problem.

      Open government means an open government; Craig is entitled to have the information he's requested. His motives are not relevant. He's also entitled to the protections and procedural safeguards that making an FOI request entails - a casual request to a web manager may be refused out of hand, but an FOI request is governed by clear rules, and an FOI determination is reviewable.

    2. Hi Commonwealth Government Web Manager,

      The commenter who responded provided many of the points, however I wanted to expand further as your comment is essentially a personal attack where you have hidden behind anonymity.

      Firstly let's take the notion of 'hiding behind an FOI request'. I am unsure how this can be defined as hiding. My name is on the request and, due to how FOI is scrutinised, will be seen at senior levels in most agencies. I also blogged about it.

      Your suggestion to ask government web managers is a course I have taken in previous years in conversations and by advocating at events for Web Managers to at least share information with peers via mediums such as the Govdex Gov 2.0 group, if not publicly.

      Asking web managers for information about their agency and publishing it publicly is, in my view, a breach of trust. It puts them in an awkward position professionally.

      I would consider it a Code breach had I asked Web Managers to give me information and published it without advising them of the intent.

      If I had advised them then they would often had been reluctant to supply this information. Some are not empowered to approve this, others would use the position that they have no obligation to do so outside of the official Freedom of Information process.

      Regarding me looking for future business opportunities - clearly you don't know me well, if at all.

      The information I have requested is valuable for many companies seeking or doing business with government. It is valuable for the public and media to understand the 'terms of engagement' whereby public servants are engaging online. It is also useful for agencies, allowing them to compare, contrast and learn from each other more actively than by calling a few friends in other agencies.

      The process itself is also useful as it will demonstrate any differences in how agencies treat FOI and allow the OAIC to provide training and support as needed - or identify issues that need consideration in legislation such as the difference between a 'document' and information (an area the NSW government has already addressed).

      By publishing the information publicly any benefit I personally get is negligible (and no I am not seeking to exploit a period of time before collection, collation and publication - though as an individual this may take me some time).

      If I look opportunistic, well - please tell me the 'opportunity' I am taking and how it is unfair to use FOI law to source valuable information from government. I thought that was its purpose. Also I thought it should be up to the public to define what information they sought, not up to Commonwealth Government Web Managers to tell the public what is appropriate.

      If I look lazy - well how do agencies who have not yet published this information look (and please consider the time required to compile the list and coordinate requests to just about all eligible agencies - personal time mind you).

      And if I look obnoxious - well anyone who innovates or advocates new approaches runs a strong risk of appearing obnoxious whenever they don't accept the status quo.
      Sorry you feel this way, but I hope that one outcome of my 'obnoxious, opportunistic and lazy' Freedom of Information request is to help you and all my former APS colleagues to build better business cases, develop improved social media policies and waste less time with vendors who do not design for government web browser capabilities.

      If so, it is totally worthwhile in my view.

  3. Craig - you wrote "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."

    I think you might have misinterpreted the FOI Act definition of 'document'. If you look at the definition in s6 of the FOI Act, a document includes 'any other record of information', and 'any copy, reproduction or duplicate of such a thing', or part thereof.

    It seems to me that an electronic record or data file, or part thereof, being 'a record of information', is certainly a 'document' for the purpose of the FOI Act, and may be the subject of an FOI request.

    1. Hi Anonymous (my so many people wish to be anonymous when talking about FOI!)

      I may have misinterpreted the FOI Act, however I am receiving many responses which state that the information is not FOIable as it does not exist in a document that can be FOIed. This includes some guidance from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

      You might wish to call the OAIC and have a chat with them about the definition.

  4. I am a tad surprised at the personal attack on Craig. To be honest, in a well ordered system aka the APS the information Craig is asking for is the type of information that should be collected and available to all APS employees. That would be good management.

    The fact of the matter is that systemic (or whole of APS FOI requests) should be made easy and centrally supported by the OAIC and, where the FOI request is supported, agencies be instructed to comply with that request.

    What needs to happen is for there to be an open conversation about what sort of information should be the looked at as systemic FOI and be treated in the way I am suggesting.

    I have a small example. Employee engagement surveys should be dealt with systemically, but are not. Consequently, such requests remain at the cultural whim of individual agencies. Check out my post on this very issue

  5. What an absolute waste of time. This is achieving nothing.

  6. This is good timing don't you think given your recent appointment in Delib?. It's hard not believe this isn't opportunitistic, even blind Freddie can see that. This request leads me to believe that now in commercial capacity you have the ability to indentify gaps and offer Delibs services based on that knowledge.

    FIO is a good cover for it though.........

    1. Given that I'll be publishing it all publicly, so others can use it as well, there's little value for me commercially.

      The timing had to do with me having a window of free time and being out of the APS, as there can be senior concerns with FOIing the government when you are working for them.

  7. most inane request.ever.

    1. I'd appreciate if you expanded on this and explained why you thought this.

  8. Craig

    Welcome to the Commercial side of the fence.

    No matter how well-meaning & magnanimous a particular action may be from your perspective, in the eyes of your Gov't customers it is always interpreted as having a commercial angle.

    There is no mechanism that can mitigate this natural response. It is the way it is. And as a taxpayer, I actually like my Gov't looking upon all us commercial types with suspicion.

    No matter how widely your data will be published, this particular request looks to aid your employer. Again, there is no way you can whitewash over this perspective.

    I can also understand the reluctance to deal with formalised processes of FOI requests. It is my understanding they take significant amounts of time to complete; and many requests are inane/trivial or vexatious. (anecdotal)

    Therefore, I suggest crowdsourcing the data you need in a wiki or similar. It will therefore become a living resource for all, with data submitted by those that know & are willing to see policy change in the APS.

  9. Good luck Craig - I agree the culture within much of the APS is anti-FOI, with those making requests routinely characterised as trouble-makers, time-wasters or worse.

    For those arguing that Craig miused his APS knowledge somehow - all FOI officers are listed on agency websites - it's not a matter of inside knowledge, it's a requirement!

    Secondly, there is no way Craig can improperly profit from this request - all FOI results are published on the agency's website for all to see. If he aggregates and publishes the results he will have done a favour to many - including those of us in the APS who would like to know what others are doing or not doing, so we can benchmark our performance and try to improve.

    Wish this wasn't an anonymous comment but mine is one of the agencies that received the FOI request, so it's best for me to be circumspect.

  10. Oh my - how the bitter and twisted appear sometimes. Here's my two cents. It is the responsibility of FOI officers to release any information on behalf of a government agency. Asking individual officers to publicily release information is A: DUMB and B: Stupid. This information would need to be vetted by an FOI officer to ensure it was suitable for release anyway. I find it hard to believe that a web manager has been delegated with this responsibility in a department. If they are - sucks to be you!

    Annonymous .. umm ... Government Web Manager .. superstar ... l33t h4ck3r < Yea boi!

  11. Hi Craig,

    As a Web Manager, Project Manager, and Web Enthusiast (named - see below). I think this information would make for great interest. I believe I could extrapolate an understanding of why some agencies are having difficulty in meeting accessibility guidelines, the issues surrounding greater involvement in social media use (and integration), and could begin to feel a sense of empathy for some agencies from the information gleamed from these questions.

    As an active member of the web community, I think it is ridiculous that it has taken a now EX member of the government web community to pull this information together – and who continues to pull this type of information together on our behalf. Belittling someone for taking an initiative is just proof that we have some dead wood in the ranks which needs clearing out.

    As for commercial gain, that’s part of the reason for the FOI reform. Government holds an enormous amount of data which should be publicly accessible – this way business can tell us what they really really really want. :)

    As for the bitchy, yes bitchy comments above. My name is below, please feel free to get in contact and I would more than happy to discuss why your comments are a breach of the code of conduct and why they are based on incoherent and inaccurate reasoning.

    Geoff Mason

  12. When do you anticipate the fioaustralia going live, Craig?

    1. It's a bit of a juggle at the moment as it's just me working on this :)

      I want to allow enough time for responses to my FOI to arrive (have over 60 at the moment with some very interesting information and also a few disappointing rejections) while also compiling enough related content to be useful.

      However at the same time as I'm managing 20 or so agency interactions daily for the request I'm also working full-time, organising other activities (one launched tonight - you'll see it in my blog tomorrow) plus household stuff, so I have been a bit stop start on the FOI site.

      I am also speaking to Open Australia about what they wish to do in the FOI space - so it may end up as some form of merged effort.

      I will, however, commit to releasing all the responses I have received by the end of April.

      Assistance would be nice :)

  13. Hi, can you please advise where the detailed responses from this FoI request are publicly available. I have seen the survey monkey collated responese, however this does not provide an agency breakdown. It does not appear the website noted above FOIAustralia is live?

  14. Hi Anonymous,

    Unfortunately I'm suffering from 'too-much-on-itis' at the moment & haven't found anyone prepared to dedicate a few hours to a good cause (helping me to get the site live).

    You can actually view the individual responses from agencies in the published SurveyMonkey responses - using the button at the top right of the screen.