FOI via a Tweet? A silly flight of fancy, surely….

As a journalist, I guess I should think it is great news that the Information Commissioner has ruled that FOI requests sent via Twitter should be accepted in the same way as emails or letters by authorities.

After all, it’s another way to fire off an FOI, isn’t it? No need to wait until you get back to the office when you’re hit by that idea for an FOI – just get out your phone and send it straight away.

Brilliant eh? Er, well, no.

Lets deal with the bleeding obvious first. Twitter, unless you use Twitlonger, restricts you to 140 characters. Try summing up an FOI request in 140 characters. I imagine it’s possible if you really, really tried, but you’d be leaving yourself wide open for an unsatisfactory response.

Then there’s the fact that making an FOI request via Twitter is perhaps the most public way of submitting an FOI possible. Presumably, the response would come back the same way. An FOI response in 140 characters? Now the mind boggles.

And then there’s who you’d actually send the FOI request to. One of the basic tips for a successful FOI is: Make sure you’re sending it to the FOI officer. It’s highly unlikely that sending a tweet to a council’s Twitter account will mean it goes instantly to the FOI officer. Indeed, unless you actually tweet ‘Under the FOI Act I want to know’ there’s no guarantee the council officers dealing with the Twitter account will even know it’s an FOI request.

So when the ICO says that ‘Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests’ what it should actually be saying is: “Twitter is never a good way to deal with FOI requests.”

For a journalist, the art of writing a good FOI request involves making it as watertight as possible – so if you’re after correspondence between a council and a health authority, you don’t just ask for copies of letters, you ask for all correspondence, both hard copy and electronic.

In some cases, you need to pre-empt some of the exemptions which may be used by an authority – such as the tendency to use commercial confidentiality for anything involving a private sector partner – by pointing out why you don’t think that exemption applies.

You may also want to ask multiple questions. In short, you need to demonstrate you’ve thought about your questions, and also researched that you can’t the get the information by other means.

Put simply, you can’t demonstrate all of that in 140 characters.

I don’t have a massive amount of time for the complaints by councils – yet rarely from FOI officers themselves – that people are abusing FOI by asking for too much information. If councils made it easier to get information, or were more open by default, FOI wouldn’t be so essential. Radical thought, I know.

But I do think it’s incumbent on people requesting information via FOI to treat the Act with respect, and treat FOI officers with respect. That goes out of the window when you’re trying to pack an FOI request into a 140-character Tweet.

A Tweet may be written down in the sense it involves typing, but it has, by its nature, much more in common with a spoken conversation that it does written correspondence. To that end, I think the ICO got this one wrong.

 

 

10 comments

  1. Got to take issue with much of this David…

    “Try summing up an FOI request in 140 characters.” First off you don’t need to. Link to your question (maybe you’ve blogged it) or it could be a simple question such as “How much money do you pay ACPOA to manage parking enforcement?”

    “Then there’s the fact that making an FOI request via Twitter is perhaps the most public way of submitting an FOI possible.” Actually, no – WDTK is probably more public. Finding an old tweet when you don’t know the content of it isn’t very easy. Hashtag searches are pretty poor after a week. WDTK is much more permanent and searchable than Twitter.

    “An FOI response in 140 characters?” Again, a full response could easily be linked to a document. Plenty before me have advocated the practice of authorities responding to every request by publishing it online.

    “Indeed, unless you actually tweet ‘Under the FOI Act I want to know’ there’s no guarantee the council officers dealing with the Twitter account will even know it’s an FOI request.” My understanding is that any request for information should be dealt with under the terms of FOIA so this shouldn’t be an issue. Regardless of that, it surely isn’t beyond the officer responsible for the Twitter account to be forwarding tweets to the appropriate department.

    “Put simply, you can’t demonstrate all of that in 140 characters.” Yes, you may want to flesh out your request as many of us do but again that can be done on a blog/doc/wherever and simply submitted using Twitter.

    “But I do think it’s incumbent on people requesting information via FOI to treat the Act with respect, and treat FOI officers with respect. That goes out of the window when you’re trying to pack an FOI request into a 140-character Tweet.” How exactly does tweeting an FOI request show a lack of respect?

    1. Hi Phil.

      Dealing with your points in order: Your question doesn’t state whether you want a monthly figure, an annual figure, whether you’re after all the money paid to them, or a breakdown of each service they provide. It also doesn’t address why they should release that figure to you, which would help reduce the likelihood of it being rejected on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

      I’d disagree that What Do They Know is more public than a tweet – because WDTK involves someone to go looking for your FOI, rather than just seeing it in passing. I’m not saying FOIs shouldn’t be sent in a public way, it’s just that it doesn’t always work for journalists to do so. Also, WDTK sends the FOI request straight to the FOI officer’s email address, a tweet wouldn’t do that. I agree that you should be able to assume the Tweet would be forwarded, but why add an extra link in the chain?

      I take your point about being able to link to a blog post from a tweet explaining your request in full, but I can’t understand why you’d want to do that, given that the tweet wouldn’t necessarily be going to the FOI officer, and would probably just add to delays. As for all requests for information being treated as FOI requests, I don’t think that is the case – in fact one of the things I’ve repeatedly been told is to make sure you state you’re using FOI so that you are protected by the terms of the act

      The final observation, about respect, is just my opinion. FOI is a powerful tool and one we should use with respect. I believe an FOI requester has a duty to ensure thought goes into the request, and that the request is articulated in such a way as to make it as easy as possible for the FOI officer to know exactly what information you are after. I don’t think this is possible via a tweet.

      1. WDTK obviously is more publicly accessible – it’s searchable for a start, which Twitter simply isn’t. Tweets disappear after about a week unless you know the specific URL or are prepared to dig.

        The rest comes down to the treatment of a request for information. Whether or not someone says “under the terms of FOIA” a request for information should still be dealt with according to the act.

        That means, if I send a letter asking for information and don’t get a reply within 20 working days or a satisfactory reply, I can refer it to the ICO. The same applies to any request for information and I’m not aware of any restriction based on medium.

        If I ask on Twitter “are bins in Wade Street, Lichfield being collected tomorrow?” that is still a request for information subject to the FOIA.

        The act is medium blind, as WDTK has clearly shown with authorities forced to respond through the service against their will.

  2. I can explain in fewer than 140 characters why this is a Really Bad Idea:

    The majority of staff working in the statutory sector have access blocked to most social networking.

    (ends)

    ‘Access Denied’ to the vast majority of blog sites, e.g. google blogs, livejournal etc, as well as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the like so Twittering a request which says ‘please see full detail on [blog]’ in the hope of a speedier response is a bit … counter-productive. Most organisations have a dedicated e-mail address for FOI requests and is it REALLY such a hardship to send your request in this shockingly old-fashioned way? – you’ll actually probably get your information faster.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Is that really the case – that many councils still don’t allow access to social media?

  3. I don’t know about councils, but should imagine that policies are similar to NHS, where only a selected few have access to Twitter/Facebook to keep an eye on the organisation’s account (usually Comms team? – certainly the case here).

    As you’ve said in your response to the earlier poster, no guarantee that a Twitter will get to the FOI lead, so that also has the potential to delay a response.

    As for all requests for information being treated as FOIs – that would be totally impossible to manage as these run into thousands if not tens of thousands a year. Of course the Act still applies to all, but if it’s a straightforward/simple request that can be answered directly by the recipient there is no good reason to add a layer of bureaucracy by putting it through the internal FOI process. So unless FOI is specifically mentioned, we don’t!

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