Expert knowledge and exploring public payments to private contractors are key steps in proving value to Freedom of Information

Posted: July 15th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

On Saturday morning I found myself not sitting in my back garden enjoying some glorious sunshine but instead doing my best David Higgerson impression at a political conference in Manchester talking about Freedom of Information.

The Social Liberal Forum conference had a session about ownership of information and I was asked to talk about how journalists use the Freedom of Information Act, alongside me were a lawyer – Serena Tierney – and a Lib Dem organiser and PR man – Mark Pack.

My gambit was that FOI is vital for the local and regional newsrooms – it’s rare to see at least one news list not mention FOI somewhere on a daily basis, and more importantly it is enjoyed by our audiences – who we are ultimately beholden to.

I spoke about how the kind of FOI stories, as referenced in David Higgerson’s FOI Friday round-ups, regularly help drive both audience spikes on Trinity Mirror’s regional news sites and also help lift sales. Why? Because telling people which school is the most popular in the area or which top notch restaurant might keep them off work for a week is the kind of useful information that puts local media at the heart of its community.

If audiences didn’t like these stories, they wouldn’t read them. The beauty of digital analytics means we can really understand which stories drive engagement on our regional newspaper sites – and stories generated from FOI and data are regularly among the top bunch when it comes to this.

FOI has also proved a useful asset to hyperlocal news providers, as they look to establish themselves in a community it is a good way – as I’ve seen with Blog Preston, the community news site I run for Preston, Lancashire – to generate content and uncover local issues and information.

Below are the key takeaways I got from the debate, chaired by Paula Keaveney:

Expert knowledge is crucial to FOI

There was a great question from a retired tax inspector who told us about how he’d been trying to get information from HMRC.

He knew exactly what questions he needed to ask because he had the terminology to go straight to the information.

Some of the best FOI requests and responses I’ve seen have been where reporters combine with people who have this expert knowledge and help uncover the information needed to tell the story. The reporter may uncover this themselves but it may take multiple failed attempts before they do. FOI enables whistleblowing by proxy, leaving the expert source safer in their position but allowing the reporter to still get the information they need.

FOI without the expert knowledge or interpretation can sometimes be a useless exercise in unearthing some numbers.

FOI to ask questions of private firms carrying out statutory public sector contracts

Both Serena and Mark raised the issue of FOI not being extensively used to gain figures on the performance of public sector contracts handed out to the private sector.

Serena detailed how nearly every large contract – certainly in central government – contains a clause for the private firm to do everything it can to assist when an FOI request is made about that contract.

Mark quite rightly said if there was one industry we really wanted to see data and information for it was the rail industry – just imagine the stories which could be revealed with that.

Perhaps there is a greater need for reporters to understand the Act can be used to unearth this kind of information and present it to their audience?

Is there too much data?

There was a question about whether the current government is the “most open government ever” due to its push for open data and pushing councils to allow filming and tweeting of council meetings.

But is the position of releasing all the data and information actually making it more difficult? Serena made a good point in the debate, look beyond the data being released and think “what are they trying to hide”.

I think one of the best things about the FOI Act is you can ask very specifically for a piece of data. Publishing reams of data in jargon and spreadsheet after spreadsheet might excite the most geeky among us but to the general public it is essentially jibberish.

This is why the role of the reporter has never been more important, with all data and information becoming publicly available you need the likes of the Claire Miller’s (award-winning data journalist with Trinity Mirror’s data journalism team) to be finding the stories within the data.

Journalists have a crucial role to take this information and make it publicly accessible, and we need to ensure we resist any attempts to curb the FOI Act – particularly the idea to group similar requests together.

After all, we have the audience, many of whom have the expert knowledge we need to work with, and the public bodies have the information and data but little or no audience.

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