Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceHackney introduces digital FOI system

Hackney introduces digital FOI system

Hackney Council has rolled out a new digital Freedom of Information (FOI) management system that will relieve the pressure on Information Officers and provide a slick and easy online experience for citizens

Hackney Council has rolled out a new digital Freedom of Information (FOI) management system that will relieve the pressure on Information Officers and provide a slick and easy online experience for citizens.

Developed in conjunction with mySociety, the new open source platform is largely powered by the new Infreemation case management system that Hackney were in the process of commissioning. Infreemation is targeted primarily at Information Officers, so there was no use in reinventing the wheel and building a heavy backend for this own FOI for Councils software.

“Instead we built the FOI request process, using our experience in designing for citizens, and submitted the data directly to Infreemation using their API,” explains Gareth Rees from mySociety. “This means that every request goes straight in to the case management system used by Information Officers, with no need for double entry; a set-up we’re very familiar with from our work integrating council systems with FixMyStreet.

“Information Officers respond to the FOI request through Infreemation, and when they publish the response to Infreemation’s disclosure log, FOI for Councils can pull that response into its innovative suggestions engine.”

As a result, Information Officers get to use the tools that are designed directly with them in mind, but citizens get the best experience possible for the process at hand, rather than trying to battle the typical generic forms offered by one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, citizens can work through the entire process via a maximum of six screens, while throughout the whole user journey only three details are asked for: name; email address and then the actual request for information. Each screen provides contextual help along the way, maximising the chances that the FOI request will be well-formed by the time it gets submitted.

Making the process intuitive for the people using it is a key factor in building citizens’ trust in an authority. Too often we see complex forms with terrible usability that almost seem designed to put people off exercising their rights.

Information Officers

Rees says that perhaps the most interesting piece of the process is the suggestions step. “Before the citizen submits their request to the authority, we scan the text for keywords to see if anything matches the pool of already-published information,” he explains. “If we find any matches, we show the top three to the citizen to hopefully answer their question before they submit it to the authority.”

This helps the citizen avoid a 20-day wait for information that they might be able to access immediately. If the suggestions don’t answer their question, the citizen can easily continue with their request. Suggestions also benefit Hackney Council, by reducing workload when requests can be answered by existing public information.

“The intelligent part of the system though, is the automated suggestions,”adds Rees. “As FOI for Councils integrates with the Infreemation case management system, we can feed the suggestion pool with the anonymised responses to previous requests where the authority has published them to the disclosure log.

“By doing this the authority is making each FOI response work a little harder for them. Over time this automatic suggestion pool should help to reduce duplicate FOI requests.

“FOI for Councils also analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made. This allows Information Officers to see which information is being asked for, but where existing resources aren’t providing the information necessary to the citizen.”

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