Saturday 21 June 2014

Changing a maggot into a fly.

In the lead up to the transformation of British Waterways into the Canal and River Trust. Which one wag at the time likened the change of a maggot into a fly. The inference being that neither was wanted! Instead of an ending to the long running hostilities between the old BW board and boaters. There was a bit of additional discord created amongst the Waterways community. There was a even touch of the clandestine 'cloak and dagger' when an attempt was made by the transitional team, for CaRT to be made exempt from the FoI legislation. 

This attempt at a clandestine exemption spectacularly backfired. In the main due to political pressure being applied by inland waterways activists. This act was viewed by many as a deliberate attempt to avoid any openness and transparency. So before CaRT came into being people were already being alerted in advance of the future direction. That rather than an all singing and dancing all encompassing change to a charitable ethos. There would be a continuation of obfuscation by the fledgling trust. I now believe this was a very significant missed opportunity. 

Now we have a 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. In the perfect world, CaRT would collate and publish all FoI requests that they receive. Along with their replies creating a knowledge base of queries that people could consult. CaRT with its myopic view chose not to. Adopting this one simple act alone could have given some credence to Richard Parry's promised change. An opportunity for wearing the mantle of being an open, honest and transparent charitable trust. 

There has been much written over the years about the lack of transparency. Often questioning the accuracy and veracity of any 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. Published facts and figures are often challenged because different people give different information.

As a result, another website now fulfils the role. Which is a public website that hosts many of the 'Freedom of Information' requests that are made in the UK. 'What Do They Know' is a place where you can see many thousands of such requests that are made each year. WDTK replaces the unwillingness of some to publish the requests. So you are after all, able to share the requesters experience. Not only that it makes it much easier to make such FoI requests. You can also see working examples of requests.

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. There are well over 200,000 FoI requests hosted through WDTK which are in the public domain. Anyone can comment on the individual requests. FoI requests then become a living, growing history of the issues. 

Quote WDTK website: 'Canal & River Trust is subject to Environmental Information Regulations and also subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 with respect to functions inherited from British Waterways. The Canal & River Trust have undertaken to voluntarily release information where they can regardless of whether they are obliged to do so.'

The 'What Do They Know' website also highlights the length of time taken by CaRT to supply a meaningful answer.  WDTK currently holds information on 186 Freedom of Information requests that have been made to the Canal and River Trust. Only 39 requests have been successful and a further 41 have been partly successful. Around 50 requests have been refused. Around 50 others remain unanswered or unclassified.

When people use the What Do They Know website their request can be seen by large number of people. Not only those with an interest in the inland waterways. The FoI request also turn up in web searches. You could also get additional feedback not from CaRt but from other comments and opinions on your FoI request, left by other individuals. There may also 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. As usual, CaRT have missed yet another golden opportunity to demonstrate the promised open and transparent access to information. 

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