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.