Saturday, March 08, 2008

What Do They Know.com

The FOI aggregation and publication service I referred to in my post, FOI - Army of One, a few days ago is now known as "WhatDoTheyKnow.com." That makes sense and is in line with previous MySociety names, such as theyworkforyou.com. I worry that it might beg the answer, notasmuchasyou'dlike, but we'll see.

Browsing through the list of questions asked - and the responses from the departments that have had a chance to put their data together - there's a fair level of consistency and, in fact, uncertainty in the responses. This is in no way a big enough sample to draw proper conclusions from, but anyway:

There are at least two of these:

You should redirect your request to the Central Office of Information who will be best-placed to assist you

Two of these similar requests for more information

The department reasonably requires further information in order to identify and locate the information that you have asked for

It is not at all clear to the possible information holders what it is you are actually seeking

And just one of these (that I could see)

I have some material to send to you in relation to your request. However, it is not appropriate for this to be automatically republished on your website.

And so, the early conclusions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that

a) Government is quite hard to navigate even by those who we might consider reasonably government-savvy (I have a sense early users of this are generally gov-aware)

b) Responses are mostly helpful but often struggle to figure out exactly what is being asked - I think it's likely that many that are "awaiting response" are in the internal loop with lots of people scratching their head and asking what's wanted. It would be useful to have some guidance on the WDTK site that says "hey, when you request something how about you

1. Ensure you've got the right department. If it's about a service, then check who runs the service now and use them as the start point rather than who used to run the service at the time relating to the question you ask

2. Be pretty specific about what you want. The broader the question, the harder it will be to answer

3. Most importantly, give the department a clue about why you want it. If you really want all the source code that PICT has, then say you want to see all of the code where they own the IPR and can do give you so that you can check the efficiency of the code against standard benchmarks (or whatever you do with that sort of thing). If what you wanted was a list of software licences held by a department or its IT supplier so that you can see what the most popular software held by a department is, then say that. If, instead, you want to know how much has been spent on a system or series of systems so that you can send it to a journalist and wildly wonder about the wild world of government IT, say that - it shouldn't make a difference, but it will at least allow the person answering the question to figure out the nub of what you want and so better respond.

What should emerge from this site after perhaps a few months or maybe a year of operation is an almost perfect template of how to ask a question and get the answer you are looking for. At the same time, there will be facts and figures about response rates, success rates, clarification requirements and so on.

So far, so good. Be fascinating to see how this develops.

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