The use of disclosure logs in relation to freedom of information (FOI) requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is recommended for principal local authorities by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
There are a number of reasons for this advice, the main one being because well-maintained disclosure logs make it much easier for citizens to access information that is already available. This, in turn, saves local authorities time and effort spent on responding to duplicate requests, or requests for information that have already been published elsewhere.
With an easy to navigate disclosure log in place, citizens should be able to browse or search for already published information. If a request is made for information that already exists in the public realm, information officers can quickly apply the Section 21 exemption in response and simply signpost requesters to the information they seek.
Disclosure logs also represent an opportunity for citizens to learn what a successful request for information looks like. The more responses published in the log, the more useful it becomes, with today’s responses answering tomorrow’s requests.
In certain cases, some of the software used by local authorities may even allow information officers to manually enter topical information into the disclosure log in anticipation of potential future FOI requests, giving them the opportunity to work proactively and publish information before it is requested.
In spite of being recommended by the ICO, and in spite of the usefulness they represent, research in 2019 by our parent charity, mySociety, shows the use of disclosure logs by local authorities is still inconsistent.
There is a distinct lack of established sector-wide process for setting up a disclosure log, technology is rarely designed to meet the needs of information officers or FOI requesters, and there is a huge disparity in inter-authority knowledge sharing and training around this topic.
Of course, local authorities are under significant pressure to reduce costs, create efficiencies and contribute towards Net Zero targets, among many other responsibilities. Understandably then, while the long term benefits for councils’ information officers and for citizens are desirable, the short term effort required to establish an easy-to-maintain disclosure log may be considered a relatively low priority.
However, with fifteen years’ experience working in freedom of information, and over a decade of experience providing services to the local government sector, we have seen firsthand how disclosure logs, when used to their full potential, can save significant time and effort for local authorities in the context of managing scarce resources and competing priorities.
In collaboration with the FOI experts on mySociety’s Transparency team, who run the well-used WhatDoTheyKnow request service, and expert FOI consultant Martin Rosenbaum, who was the BBC’s leading specialist in using freedom of information for journalistic purposes, we have put together a best practice guide to using disclosure logs for local authorities.
Download Disclosure logs: a best practice guide for local authorities to discover:
You can view more research and guidance for local authorities and the public sector on our website: https://www.societyworks.org/research-and-guidance/
Image: Iñaki del Olmo
FOI Works, our citizen-friendly FOI service for public authorities, can now integrate with the iCasework FOI case management service.
Back in 2018, we started working with Hackney Council on a new Freedom of Information service that would improve citizen access to FOI and which could be integrated into their existing case management system via an API.
That service is FOI Works, and we’re very pleased to say that we have recently added a new standard integration for it: iCasework.
FOI Works is an unobtrusive, open-source FOI service for public bodies that provides a user-centred FOI request process, while intelligently leveraging already published information to reduce request volume.
Acting as the easy-to-navigate front door to FOI for citizens, FOI Works integrates seamlessly with case management systems to help divert citizens to potentially relevant responses already published within the case management system’s disclosure log.
Through this integration, FOI Works also removes the need for authorities to do any manual data entry; sending requests straight through to the case management system and immediately allocating a case number to the citizen.
After initially using the Infreemation case management service to manage their FOI requests, Hackney Council recently told us they were switching to iCasework. So, sticking to our promise of connecting our services up to whichever systems our customers choose, we jumped straight into expanding FOI Works’ integration workflow, allowing for a new API connection with iCasework.
While we made some tweaks to the software behind the scenes, the in-built flexibility of FOI Works meant that there has been little to no change or disruption to how the service works for the Council and its residents. This is important because it allows our public authority partners to grow with the software, rather than needing to change everything whenever new or alternative systems are introduced.
Our top priority when it comes to providing public authority services is the citizen, so we’re always thinking about how we can ensure that no matter what integration is required on the backend, the citizen gets the best possible experience on the frontend.
Looking ahead for FOI Works, we’d like to partner up with another public body to build a disclosure log into the service to further ensure that no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, FOI Works can provide citizens with easy access to all of the information they seek, while at the same time helping authorities to reduce the quantity of duplicate or unactionable FOI requests submitted.
FOI Works can be procured as a bolt-on to any case management system for public authorities – find FOI Works on G-Cloud.
Image: Samuel Regan-Asante
Managing the end-to-end process of Freedom of Information requests can be a challenge for public authorities. For that reason, there are some things you should be making sure your FOI service is doing to make that process as smooth as possible for you, and for citizens.
To help maximise the chances that FOI requests will be well-formed by the time they reach you, always offer citizens a simple form to complete, and definitely don’t ask them to send an email.
Try to avoid using generic form builders, and instead opt for one that’s been specifically designed around making FOI requests straightforward to submit, and which provides citizens with contextual help at each stage. Not only does this save you time by helping you to avoid poorly-grounded requests and diverting Subject Access Requests, it also builds trust in your willingness to be receptive to citizens’ FOI requests and make it easy for them to exercise their rights.
Responding to FOI requests can be time-consuming, especially when citizens are requesting the same information. You can actively minimise the risk of receiving duplicate requests by using a suggestion system that leverages already published information by redirecting citizens to existing material before they make a request.
This could be a custom link curated by you, or a copy of a response you’ve already provided within your disclosure log. Either way, it saves you time, and means that the requester might be able to get the answer they’re looking for immediately, instead of waiting for up to 20 days.
Of course, to be able to automatically divert citizens to potentially relevant responses already published within the disclosure log of your case management system, your FOI service needs to be integrated with it. Getting your systems to speak to each other fluently, from frontend to backend, will allow you to offer a much more intelligent service to citizens.
End-to-end integration will also save you from having to do any manual data entry, because requests will go straight through to your case management system, and a case number will be allocated to the citizen immediately.
If your FOI service isn’t helping you to gain an overview of what citizens are requesting the most, which suggestions are most popular and which are helping to reduce the number of new requests, then you’re always going to be on the back foot when it comes to responding to FOI requests.
A service that provides you with analytics will help you to better understand how you can reduce request volume or divert duplicate requests by populating your website with the relevant, in-demand information.
We’ve already talked about why it’s a good idea to ensure your FOI service uses previously published responses to FOI requests or curated links to help reduce duplicates, but there’s another reason why this is a powerful tool for you to have; it increases the value of your responses.
When your Information Officers have gathered all the information required in response to a FOI request that may well be asked again by someone else, it seems a shame to let that response go to waste. If your FOI service can intelligently resurface relevant past responses within your disclosure log for citizens, then each response starts to work harder. Plus, if you have that end-to-end integration sorted, it means no more copying and pasting responses, because it will all happen automatically – a good thing for you and for the citizen.
Anyone can make a Freedom of Information request, so it’s crucial that your FOI service meets the WCAG AA Government standard and is easy to use for everyone, no matter what adjustments they may need you to make.
From being able to enlarge the font size or change the contrast to being screen reader-friendly, it’s essential that whoever wants to make a FOI request to you, can do so without a hitch.
Our user-centred, fully-integrated FOI Works service will help you to deliver all of the above FOI service essentials, tailored to your organisations’ needs.
If you want to learn more about FOI Works, click here.
Image: Bernard Hermant on Unsplash
The quickest and easiest way to procure SocietyWorks services is on the G-Cloud digital marketplace.
Procuring services through this government framework is faster and cheaper than entering into a direct contract: services come pre-approved, so there’s no requirement to go through a long process of tendering. You can see the full specs laid out, download PDFs to share your colleagues, and compare with other services on price and features.
Any questions? Just get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.
Image: Joshua Earle