Friday, 7 June 2013

What Do They Know

CaRT FoI Requests
In the lead up to the formation of CaRT - there was quite a bit of discord created when there was a secret move made by the transitional team, for CaRT to be made exempt from the FoI legislation. This backfired due to pressure being applied by inland waterways activists. This was seen by many activists as either an attempt to stifle criticism and or avoid any transparency. Now we have the situation where some parts of CaRT are exempt from FoI and other parts are not. In a perverse sort of way - the Freedom of Information that CaRT wanted to avoid has now come full circle and it has also come of age. The result of which is that the FoI genie is out of the bottle. 

In the perfect world, CaRT would collate and publish all FoI requests that they receive. Along with their replies. This could give some credence  for wearing the mantle of being an open, honest and transparent charitable trust. This I now believe was a very significant missed opportunity. As a result, another website is starting to fulfil that role. This has all come around as a result of a myopic view and as a result of an unintended consequence. 

But why do people feel the need to resort to using FoI requests? 
The answer I think is a plain and simple one. There has been much written over the years in various Internet forums about the lack of transparency. Often questioning the accuracy and veracity of information provided by the management of the old British Waterways Board. This perception seems to have carried over into the new Trust, along with the old BWB management personnel.

There are people who have asked in the past serious questions of BWB/CaRT. After being unsuccessful they have then had to resort to the FoI. Done in an attempt to get a meaningful answer by use of FoI legislation. The website in question is the "What Do They Know". WDTK holds some information on 177 freedom of Information requests that have made to the old British Waterways Board. Starting on the 8th of October 2008. That is a FoI request being made on average every 9.5 days.

The What Do They Know website currently holds some information on 101 freedom of Information requests that have made to the Canal and River Trust. Starting on the 13th of July 2012. That is equivalent to a FoI request for information being made every 2.9 days. That's about three times the rate that questions were being asked of the old BW Board. I can't help but think, rather than What Do They Know the website should be called What Don't We Know! 

Now here is the rub, rather than being a last port of call. A FoI request is beginning to be seen by some as the first port of call. It is seen as reducing the length of time required to illicit a meaningful answer. FoI requests hosted through WDTK are held in the public domain. Anyone can comment on the requests. FoI requests then become in a way, a sort of potted history of issues. 

Unintended Consequence
In a way, there is another unintended consequence. WDTK highlights the length of time taken by CaRT to supply a meaningful answer. There is a curious sort of paradox. Make a FoI request and there is an automatic response to receipt of the request.  Then there can be a silent period where there are no updates to the FoI request. The time limits expire. This then elicits a "can you tell me what's happening response" generated by the requester. Only then is there a second almost automatic response. In some cases followed by a further period of silence.

By way of gauging the system and to gather some additional information, I wrote by email to Sarina Young at the Canal and River Trust. I had a prompt acknowledgement from customer services, followed up after the weekend by a prompt reply from Sarina. The broad brush strokes of numbers provided by Sarina helped me to get a handle on the frequency and numbers that are unpublished or not hosted on WDTK.

There is a caveat
You may wish to keep your FoI involvement with CaRT a private matter. Alternatively, if you were requesting information of a personal nature you might not want that displayed in a public forum such as WDTK. If you ask for information about yourself, then your FoI request should also be handled under the proviso of the Data Protection Act anyway

So what are the benefits for submitting FoI requests that are hosted on WDTK
First your request can be seen by large numbers of people with an interest in the inland waterways. You could also get additional feedback from the comments and opinions on your FoI request, left by other individuals. There may be other individuals who are pursuing the same or similar lines of enquiry as yourself. You may be able to exchange information for mutual benefit.

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