Monday, July 7, 2014

The use of Twitter to make FOI requests

I have a rule – when it comes to Twitter, I try not to discuss any organisation within the sector that I work in. According to the ICO decision notice search tool, I work in the ‘police and criminal justice’ sector. So, when I saw FS50543791 published today against the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), I did decide not to comment. But the fact that it was served against a police force is pretty much irrelevant – it would have happened to anyone at all. This has nothing to do with the police or where I work (note: @Tim2040).
The DN is straight-forward – boy tweets org, org does not realise they are so loved, boy complains to ICO, ICO tears org a new one, boy and org live happily ever after.

The DN stated:

2. Twitter is a 'microblogging' platform which allows users to post short text messages (up to 140 characters in length) and converse with other users.

The first thing that other Twitter users will notice is that this definition is hopelessly out of date and shows how little the ICO understands this medium – it is not trivial that one can post videos and pictures – it is not just ‘short text messages’. This would be irrelevant point scoring, but it matters because the ICO then goes on to draw a parallel between conversations and Tweeting. I don’t like this.

I certainly interact with people on Twitter – I even described to someone how I spent a lot of this afternoon in a meeting at work ‘chatting’ to friends on Twitter about this issue. But it is not a conversation in one crucial sense – I experience it more like people making announcements and other people choosing to respond with their own announcement and so on. What can emerge can resemble a conversation. But it does not start out as one.

So, what about directing your announcement to someone? Lots of Tweets start @someone. Does not matter. I think of it as someone shouting and picking a specific direction in which to do so.Other people, who follow both accounts, can also see the tweets. It is broadcast to lots of people.

All of the above could be nonsense. It is just how I see it. The thing is, there is room for discussion on whether Tweeting is a conversation – which is something that the ICO has just decided is a fact and a definition.

I like what @FOIMonkey said: Just say @ ing an authority doesn't count as recieved. It's a bit like painting a request on a wall opposite council HQ

...then telling them to look outside to read it. A Tribunal may one day take different view from the ICO on this.

@bainsey1969: Disagree with analogy - unless PA puts wall up and invites people to write on it with expectation they'll get a reply...

@FOIMonkey: Is there an expectation that they'll reply? Twitter is also a broadcast only medium. For wall, you could read billboard

Personally, I think it is looks a lot more like CB radio – you can yell out all you want, but it is not clear that anyone is listening and even less clear whether anyone owes it to you to listen. 

And now we come to the base reason that public authorities reply to stuff – in the bad old days, PAs barely used to reply to anything at all. It would not have occurred to most people to even bother writing to the council or the government about anything, which was just as well – you would get ignored unless you wrote through your MP. So, the Cabinet Office published an edict to force government departments to reply to correspondence in a timely manner (cannot find the original, but an updated version is here). 

It is not just a matter of good customer, of wanting to be seen to engage more, etc – the root of the transformation of why PAs started to reply to anything at all was because once their sponsoring government department had to start answering stuff and pretending to be accountable, the local PA had to follow. While your local NHS is not bound by the Cabinet Office decision, it follows the Department of Health in never setting more than a 20 day limit for responding to letters (although most NHS organisations, depending on who you write to, will have much tighter deadlines). This is the mindset into which the big bad wolf of email came along. 

We remember the days of PAs arguing about accepting FOIs via email. Then there was Brent Council refusing to respond through In a few years, the drama was over – sense had prevailed and you could use email or WDTK. But Twitter is not like that – it is not just a luddite resistance to (relatively) new technology. For a start, it is not clear to me that we ‘receive’ a tweet. We definitely receive email – a package of code moves from one server, through others, to that of the recipient. Once sent, even if the sender deletes it, the receiver holds an independent copy. 

This is not so of Twitter – the person tweeting can delete the tweet – which removes the ability for everyone to see it (unless it has been replicated, either by retweeting or copied and pasted into another medium by the receiver). From all of this, it is not clear that a tweet is ‘received’. 

While it might be that people will argue that has been, when I look at the ICO guidance, it is not clear to me that they have gone into this sort of depth and analysed the situation – which is why I think that the guidance is not worth much. 

Back to the ICO guidance: “authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them”. So, I look up ‘should’ and read that it is totally different to ‘must’ – the former being the right thing to do from a duty of appropriateness, the latter deriving from a legal obligation. But the MPS went too far in its self-abasement:

However, in relation to the circumstances of this case the MPS, going forward, has put in place additional measures to ensure that the MPS twitter account is monitored appropriately to ensure that we are compliant in respect of the requirements of Freedom of Information Legislation. 

What requirements? The ICO's evangelism is not the basis for a requirement – the ICO itself recognises this because it avoids ‘must’ and uses ‘should’. It is not in the legislation – and if that is how the legislation MUST be interpreted, then a lot more questions need to be answered.

The MPS reported that it gets 500 mentions a day on Twitter. It is a struggle for most public authorities to keep up with the mounds of correspondence that they receive through snail mail and email. When I was at the Department of Health, as a correspondence team leader, one of my jobs was to read up to 150 pieces of correspondence a day that my team had received, just in case any one of them was from someone threatening to harm his or her kid, or threatening suicide, or from someone who could not tell the difference between a hospital and a department of state and wanted to know what to do about chest pains (seriously) – finally, I was supposed to look out for FOI requests and pass them on to the relevant team.

Twitter is a great way for public authorities to disseminate information – but they do not always reply to tweets. I recall several occasions on which @bainsey1969 has tweeted the ICO about something that really merited a reply and heard nothing back for weeks. Most Twitter users know that most PAs do not reply to most tweets and no one realistically expects a reply to everything that that they tweet (compare this with correspondence - pretty much everything, unless it is totally garbled or vexatious gets a reply).

It is really expensive to treat Twitter accounts as something that must be monitored. Getting someone to read 500 tweets a day is just less than one a minute – not quite a full time job, but not hellishly far off it.

I must confess, when No.10 pissed me off about something, I did tweet them a FOI – knowing that in the blizzard of abuse that that account receives, it would go unnoticed – then I could whine about it – which I did and I got a stuffy apology at internal review – I knew that I was being an arsehole. I was not really asking for information. And I suspect that most of the time when a FOI is made using Twitter, the person is just being difficult, or has found a bright new shiny stick with which to poke a civil or public servant.

I am all for transparency and in most organisations have spent my time arguing for the release of information. I get pissed off by the Cabinet Office’s recalcitrance. But this insistence on Twitter is silly – the above is not designed to be a knock down argument – it is just to say that there is doubt in my mind about whether a tweet meets the requirements – the main issue is that if you want information, ask for it in a traditional way, email, letter, WDTK – if you call me and tell me that you have sprained your wrist and cannot type, I will even ignore the stuff about having the request in writing – I will write the request out for you, send it to you and process it. I am desperate to give you as much information as I can – but using Twitter is just a waste of everyone’s time.


Paul (FOIMan) said...

Overall I agree with your argument that this isn't clear cut. And I wholeheartedly agree that people should be discouraged from using this medium for requests. I'm not clear though why you're so critical of the ICO for this. Firstly, the ICO has to take a view. It is certainly arguable either way, and their position is not illogical. Until they either change their mind or are overruled by the Tribunal, their guidance (and this decision) is the best we have to go on. I think we also have to read between the lines. Far from "tearing the Met a new one", the decision notice reads to me as the ICO knowing that they have to be consistent with their own guidance, and therefore they've had a word with the Met, who've acted accordingly. The notice merely describes the course of events - it's not really very critical of the Met. I think this is one of those issues where the ICO have taken a line, but intend to enforce it pragmatically - ie only if they really have to. And ironically of course - it's not the ICO drawing attention to this issue - it's us bloggers and tweeters! Just to reiterate - I agree with where you're coming from, but I don't think it's the ICO's fault.

Anonymous said...

I don't think people should be discouraged / encouraged either way. There is no harm in ensuring that potential applicants understand the limitations of Twitter as an avenue for requests, but equally, FOI should not be a tool for the cognoscenti. A corporate Twitter account is easy to find (easier in many cases than the corporate FOI page or address, if there is one). Many people use their phone as their chief way of accessing the internet, especially if they are young; Twitter is ideal for those people to interact with the public sector. If FOI doesn't move with the times, it dies. Years ago, people objected to the publication of planning documents, clinging to a system where the local planning system was made up of notices tied to lamp-posts and stuffy meetings. Now, the system is more participative. The ICO may be wrong about Twitter, but discouraging its use until we know they are is backward thinking.