Meeting FOI Demand through Assisted Self-Service

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

Problem Statement

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the UK public a ‘right of access’ to information held by public authorities including central government departments, Parliament, the armed forces, local authorities, the NHS, universities and police forces. These public authorities have a duty to respond to FOI requests within 20 working days.

The volume of FOI requests public authorities receive increases every year. See central government statistics.

In 2017 Waltham Forest received 1974 FOI requests. Of these:

  • 40% requested information already available in the public domain
  • 40% were repeat requests, where the FOI submitted was asking for information previously asked for by someone else
  • 30% required input from more than one Service area within the council, making responding to these requests time consuming to coordinate.

Objectives

Conduct user research and testing to produce a service blueprint that local authorities can use to:

  1. Redesign their FOI application process to assist a requester to self-serve from a database repository of previous FOI requests and responses plus other public domain information.
  2. Redesign internal processes for managing complex requests so:
    1. Services can select predefined responses from an existing answer repository and are prompted to update the repository as FOIs are answered
    2. Requests are managed between services in a more efficient way.
  3. Save money by reducing the number of requests received and improving response process efficiency.
  4. Trial the blueprint using any chosen CRM and/or assistive chatbot technology to guide users through a workflow series of questions before submitting a FOI request.

The FOI blueprint will be delivered using in-house digital and information governance resources, and specialists procured through the Local Digital Fund. Both Waltham Forest and Coventry councils will dedicate staff to the project team. Waltham Forest will lead the project.

We will work in 2-week sprint cycles, with defined milestones for each sprint including  publishable outputs that can be used by other local authorities to redesign their FOI service.

Sprint Activity Output
Sprint 1

w/c 7 Jan 19

  • Project kick off meeting
  • Formalised agreement, including roles and responsibilities
  • Core team established with resources from both councils allocated
Project started, plan and resources agreed

Multidisciplinary team set up and ready to start work

Sprint 2

w/c 21 Jan 19

  • Data gathering and analysis
  • Map existing FOI processes and compare
  • Identify common pain points and opportunities
Baselining and data gathering complete

User testing objectives agreed

Sprint 3

w/c 4 Feb 19

User research round 1

  • Build hypotheses
  • Plan and carry out user research to test hypotheses for both requester and responder processes
  • Outcome analysis
User research round 1 complete

Key findings from user research documented

Sprint 4

w/c 18 Feb 19

Process mapping and pilot/prototype

  • New processes mapped based on outcome analysis
  • V1 FOI processes pilot built
V1 processes documented

V1 pilot service built

Sprint 5

w/c 4 March 19

User research round 2 using V1 pilot

  • Build hypotheses
  • V1 pilot shared with users for feedback and process iteration
  • User research analysis
User research Round 2 complete

Key findings from user research documented

Recommendations to improve pilots agreed and documented

Sprint 6

w/c 18 March 19

Process mapping and pilot/prototype V2

  • Pilot iterated – V2 built

Write up and share discovery findings

  • Business case
  • User research report
  • Process maps and prototypes
  • Cost saving analysis
V2 processes documented

V2 pilot service built

Discovery outputs produced and shared

Current cost of the problem

At present Waltham Forest has two full time employees that triage FOI requests and coordinate responses, in addition to 316 officers who are regularly engaged to respond to FOI requests. We estimate the cost of managing these requests is close to £235,000 per annum  (increasing each year):

  • 2x support officers (£32,000 annual salary plus 15% on-costs): £73,600
  • 1974 FOI requests in 2017, each taking approx half day to respond to by a service area: £124,000 (calculated based on an average salary of £40,000 per annum with 15% on-costs)
  • Plus an additional 30% cost (FOIs that require more than one service area to respond): £37,000

We know from speaking with other local councils that many public authorities are facing similar, if not higher costs that could be avoided.

Project proposal

With the number of FOI requests increasing each year and the costs to manage responses also increasing public authorities require a blueprint that supports them to redesign their FOI service using a technology and platform of their choice.

Our proposal is to build a best-in-class FOI service blueprint that can be easily adopted and adapted that assists:

  • FOI requesters to self-serve and find publicly available information instead of submitting a request
  • Services to maintain a database of responses and information (shared repository) that can be updated easily and used multiple times with low effort.

Benefits for service providers

All public authorities must adhere to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Providing a blueprint for authorities to build an FOI service using a technology of their choice will drive:

  • A reduction of FOI enquiries (cost saving)
  • More efficient, automated processes for managing enquiries and information (cost saving)
  • Faster response times to FOI requests (higher customer satisfaction, complaints reduction)

Benefits for UK public

UK public looking for information will benefit from improved provision of publicly available information that is easy to search for and access (self-serve) without needing to raise a FOI request (faster access, better customer experience).

We are a project group of two local authorities, with the potential to add others. Our group represents a broad range of populations and local authorities. We will collaborate on user research, analysis and prototyping.

Our blueprint, user research findings and project retrospective learnings will be shared with each other via Slack and Confluence, and more widely via newsletters and and an open Slack channel to ensure the blueprint is accessible to all public authorities within the UK. We will be available to answer questions on Slack.

We will host bi-weekly show and tells at the conclusion of each Sprint, and stream these online  to allow other local authorities to benefit from our learnings and get involved.

We will build our pilot using Firmstep software, which is used by over 100 local authorities in the UK, and make our development processes and code available to anyone that would like to use it.

For benefits research, we will gather financial and qualitative data from both project partners and other organisations willing to supply it to estimate UK wide savings and benefits over time.

By April 2019 we will produce the following outputs:

Output Action
Business case We will collate information and data from both councils to make a like for like comparison of our old FOI Service offerings and the new blueprint and V1 prototype to prove anticipated cost savings.
User testing report We will publish all outputs on slack and via newsletters at the end of each bi-weekly sprint, and will produce a final summary report at the end of the project that is ready to be published on localdigital.gov.uk.

The user testing team will make use of existing templates to present user research findings in a consistent way after each round of user testing. A final user testing report with the exercises and outcomes will also be produced.

Summary report and recommendations We will produce a report that either proposes how to take this project forward to alpha stage or explains why the work should not continue. There is time set aside in the final sprint to ensure that the deadline is met.
FOI service map We will map out external and internal user journeys to document the current create (‘as is’) of our FOI services and complete a user journey blueprint (‘to be’) with recommendations based on user testing.

The new user journeys and process maps will be accessible to other local authorities to inform the redesign of their own FOI services.

We will use them to redesign our service offer and produce a working prototype in Beta, if successful.

Initial prototype We will build and iterate a basic prototype in the fourth sprint of the project based on user research and feedback to be used in the second round of user testing.

This prototype will later be iterated and used as the starting point of a full FOI service blueprint in Beta, if successful.

User profile

Our users are:

  • adults from all backgrounds, and with varied levels of digital skills and access who want to raise a FOI request or search for information available in the public domain
  • professional users such as media requests
  • digital services that assist the public in submitting FOI requests.

Engagement

We will start our project by gathering all available data related to FOI requests at Waltham Forest and Coventry councils, as well as any other data published by other local authorities. We will complete an analysis of this data to identify common challenges and opportunities.

During the project we will run two rounds of user testing and prototyping by engaging with:

  • The Waltham Forest Digital testers user group. This is a group of 105 residents who have volunteered to user test digital services, and who the Waltham Forest digital team engage with on a regular basis. We will engage via surveys, online user tests and face-to-face scenarios once an initial prototype has been developed.
  • Waltham Forest Digital Champions, who support residents who lack digital skills to get online for feedback.
  • Engaging with internal Information Governance Officers at both councils who manage and/or often respond to FOI requests.

User research objectives

Through user research we aim to:

  1. Understand how residents want to engage with us for information (e.g.online form or via social channels, chatbot) and how they would commonly behave when presented with self-serve options.
  2. Understand online research behaviours and how behavioural insight can encourage self-service rather than submitting a request.
  3. Understand internal knowledge management behaviours and common culture challenges, and how behavioural insight can encourage officers to maintain information that is accessible by the public.

We would like to be able to benefit from:

  • Access to GDS user research labs (to help us bring down the project cost for user research sessions)
  • Crash course of basic agile training for the whole team
  • Crash course in user testing and prototyping for key team members
  • Expert knowledge and support in running bias-free user testing
  • Ability to send comms via MHCLG channels (like newsletter, twitter, etc) to help us ‘work out loud’ and get feedback for other local authorities
  • Help to share our blueprint and user testing outputs with the local government sector.

We have not previously received any funding for this project.

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