This piece was originally posted on the FOI Man blog on 6 February, and is reposted here with thanks.

FOI Man looks at whether FOI requests can be made via Twitter, and concludes that it just isn’t a very good idea.

Earlier today, the UK’s Supreme Court started to use Twitter to much excitement (well, a little, and mostly from lawyers and geeky-types like me). Their first Tweet directed Twitter followers to their Twitter policy, available on the Supreme Court website.

Personally I was impressed that the Supreme Court actually had a Twitter policy. But the stirrings in my Twitter-stream were not about that. No, some of you were concerned about a short statement half way down the page:

“Sending messages to our Twitter feed will not be considered as contacting the Supreme Court for any official purpose (including the administration of cases or Freedom of Information requests).”

Oh dear. The thing is, this goes against advice provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. After some deliberation, they came out with a statement saying that as long as the name of the Twitterer was clear (perhaps in their profile), and the information requested was clear, a Tweet could be a valid FOI request. And I agree with their analysis.

This all comes down to the definition of a request at section 8 of the FOI Act. To be valid, a request has to be in writing; it must provide the name and address of the requester; and it must describe the information that they are looking for. That’s all. It’s long been accepted that you could in principle make a request via text message. It’s not much of a stretch therefore to say that the same applies to Twitter.

In short, if someone does make a valid request to the Supreme Court via their Twitter address, and they ignore it, the requester could complain, and the Information Commissioner could slap them on the wrists for not complying with the Act. So their statement is pretty meaningless. And of course, because they’ve said it, there are now people up and down these isles submitting requests that they wouldn’t have done if the statement wasn’t there, just to prove a point.

My view on this is that using Twitter to make an FOI request is generally a waste of everybody’s time. Of course you can make a request through that route. But why? Firstly, it’s not the easiest thing to fit a request into 140 characters – there are ways round that (eg links), but if you’re going to link to another document why don’t you just use email in the first place? Secondly, if, like the Supreme Court, the authority clearly isn’t geared up to receive requests through that route, the chances are that your request won’t be seen. So then you complain. Well, woopy-doo (I believe I may have invented a new utterance of celebration, but bear with me) – you’ve successfully caught the authority out. But you haven’t got the information you wanted. So who wins here?

Somebody made the excellent point that it’s not a massive job to instruct whoever is maintaining the Twitter feed that they might get FOI requests and to be on the look out for them. That’s absolutely true. But in practice, most authorities probably aren’t aware that requests can come through that route. Jonathan Baines blogged last year about one surprising authority that didn’t seem to be (I promise you, you’ll love this, if you haven’t heard about it before). Also, even those of us who are aware – is this really a priority amongst the many messages that we want to get out to colleagues about FOI (and other things)? I have mentioned it to the people in my authority who maintain official Twitter accounts (and mine isn’t one before you unleash a thousand Tweets in my direction, those of you of a mischievous disposition – @foimanuk is a personal account), but I’m pretty sure that they will still be surprised the first time that it happens (that being the point – it’s still a very unusual thing to do).

And let’s be clear. There are lots of ways to make a valid FOI request that would most likely get you nowhere. In theory, next time your bins are being emptied, you could hand a written note to your waste collection operative, and as they’re providing a service for the council, that would arguably count as an FOI request. Good luck with that.

I’ve got no problem with FOI requests being made in any format or via any media in principle. Some authorities are very good at adjusting to new technologies and providing new ways for the public to interact with them. But many aren’t so good, or have limited resources to support additional communication portals. Is there really any point in sending a request through unusual media if the likelihood is that the authority won’t see your request?

Postscript, Tuesday 7 February

Shortly after I published this post on Monday, the Supreme Court Communications team tweeted the following, addressed to myself and Andy Mabbett, who Tweets as @pigsonthewing, (and who had first alerted me to the Twitter Policy):

@pigsonawing [sic] @foimanuk Fair point! We’ll accept FOIs via Twitter and will amend our policy accordingly.”

And true to their word, the statement in their policy now reads:

“We would prefer to receive Freedom of Information requests via email or letter, in order to assist us in giving them a full response, but we note the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance on the validity of Twitter as a channel for receiving such requests and will handle them in accordance with that guidance.”

A swift and sensible response to the points raised, and it reflects well on the Communications team at the Supreme Court. Let’s hope there will be more moves towards openness in our court system. For more on that, I do recommend Adam Wagner’s post from earlier today.