Exploring wider use of the Ministry of Justice open source correspondence tool to support better case management of FOI requests and SARs

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

During our previous project looking into better case management of FOI and SAR requests, we were approached by the MOJ about an open source correspondence tool that they developed and use internally. We investigated the tool, made some rough prototypes on how it could be expanded to match the capabilities of off the shelf tooling, and built an initial benefits case around repurposing it for use by local authorities. 

This project aims to deepen our understanding of the correspondence tool and test the viability of using it in local authorities, focusing on three big risks to wider use: 

  1. To what extent does the tool meet user needs for handling FOI and SAR in a local authority context in practice? 

Cornwall council will test whether the tool can in principle meet the needs of their staff, as the people and process aspects of their FOI system are well developed. They were a partner in the previous project, so understand the context well, and are interested in trying the MOJ tool to test whether it meets user needs under good conditions. 

For this test we’d create a temporary team to use the tool for handling live cases. During the test period we’d build documentation where the operation of the tool is unclear, and rapidly prototype product features where we notice shortfalls. At the end of the test period we’d run a retrospective to assess how the test team felt about the tool compared to their existing process. 

  1. To what extent can and should the tool to be adapted to handle a variety of correspondence outside of FOI and SAR? 

In our previous project, we noted that in order for this tool to be widely used by local authorities, it may need to meet their need for one system to handle all correspondence. Hackney is currently procuring a complaints system on a short term contract and are considering whether to use the same system to handle FOI and SARs. 

There’s also been demand from other departments, such as complaints and housing, to introduce a tool for managing other forms of customer contact. Using a similar approach as the previous project, we’d assess how similar their needs are to the Information Governance teams, so that we can establish which parts of the process are similar or different, and whether those could be handled by a single tool. This analysis would produce a further research report and some level of prototyping to demonstrate how a multi-purpose tool could be effective in meeting the identified user needs. 

  1. What would be the costs of achieving this, and maintaining the software and would this be the most economically advantageous approach relative to alternatives? 

We have produced an initial estimated benefits case around the use of the correspondence tool. In this project, we will iteratively test and develop that benefits case – firstly by further developing and prioritising user stories for development based on testing in Hackney and Cornwall. Then, by exploring models around collaborative development and maintenance of the tool between local authorities and central government, and further researching and developing our model of the costs and benefits relative to alternative approaches. Our lead at GMCA will help us get insight in a light touch way from the smaller authorities within GMCA on the questions of wider use of case management tools (particularly around other information rights) and the costs and benefits associated with the adoption of an open source approach for smaller authorities.

This project will address the problem of efficient case management of FOI and SAR requests in local authorities and how best to resolve the tensions between general correspondence handling and specific needs around FOI/SAR. 

The effective handling of FOIs/SARs (and EIRs) is a widely held statutory requirement on local authorities. The users are local authority staff in information governance service teams and other service areas, and members of the public who stand to benefit from more efficient and effective handling of their requests. 

Our initial hypothesis from Hackney’s discovery work around FOI and SAR handling was that user needs discovered in Hackney that are not well met by commercial systems might be shared by other local authorities and that there could be benefit in developing an open-source case management system to address them. 

During our alpha project, we developed a process model for request handling that was common to all the authorities. We widened our focus, recognising that while the technology in place can have a dramatic effect on performance, it’s only one part of the overall system. We also became aware of the existing open source correspondence tool, which was developed by the Ministry of Justice with a good understanding of their own user needs. This meant that any further development would have a strong foundation to build on. 

A key observation from the first alpha was that councils are keen to procure and use one system to case manage different kinds of correspondence, as there’s a fatigue associated with switching between several complex tools (particularly for light touch users like information holders) and because of the organisational cost benefits. This was also a barrier to some potential partners joining the project originally. A conflict exists between the desire for a single tool and the existing problems observed in commercial systems, which can try to cover everything but end up too complicated for occasional interactions, or don’t effectively model FOI/SAR specific logic that would really boost productivity. 

Our overall hypothesis for this alpha project, focused on the correspondence tool, is that there is value to the sector in wider adoption and use of this tool. The assumptions we want to test are that: 

  • the user journey for council staff can be improved through reduced double entry, improvements in process insight and efficiency, and the potential for demand reduction 
  • the tool could be extended to handle wider correspondence without losing its effectiveness in handling FOI 
  • a collaborative development model could be established that offers value over the existing commercial offerings, both in terms of procurement, cost to maintain and capability

From the benefits case work done in our previous project, we project that the main variable benefits from addressing this problem will be non-cashable, in the form of improvements to efficiency, effectiveness and compliance. The staff time saved could be used in better compliance with statutory deadlines and the delivery of front line services, both of which would benefit the wider public. We estimated that these benefits might total around £250,000 for a council (like Hackney and Cornwall) with a high volume of requests over 12 years, and between £131,000-£166,000 for an average council. 

There are also benefits to a shared open source solution in terms of reduced software development costs for authorities whose case management system is developed in house, and reduced software licensing fees and changes in the cost of procurement for those authorities that are using a commercial solution. This reduction in licensing fees might amount to £76,000 for an authority like Hackney over 12 years. We estimated reduced procurement and customisation costs of between £31,000 and £94,000 per local authority for authorities using commercial systems. 

We developed some indicative future cost estimates for a collaborative project between two councils to develop the correspondence tool into a full-featured case management system across alpha, beta and live phases of development with costs to two partners between £123,000 and £151,000 each and implementation costs for each subsequent authority around £12,000- £15,000. We’d like to develop these further in the course of this, more focused, alpha project. 

Across the sector, our initial benefits model estimated that if 75 councils adopt the case management system over the next five years, starting with five councils in the first year, and rising steadily for the next four years, the net present value of such an approach considered over the next 12 years would be around £9,924,000. 

There is also the potential for wider reuse in the public sector – in smaller local authorities that can’t afford a commercial case management system and in other institutions. The statutory duty to respond to FOI requests and SARs is widely held – by around 24,000 organisations. The Ministry of Justice, the original developer of the codebase, would also see an increased potential return on their investment as new features are added at a low cost, which they have the option of incorporating into their own use. 

One of the focuses of this project will be to develop these cost and benefit projections to better understand the potential economic advantage.

We’ll use tools that worked well in the first round project – short weekly calls with all partners, using a conference line that everyone can access, focused on progress made during the preceding week and on planning the approach for the next week. We’ll prepare weeknotes in advance to structure the call but keep a relatively free form approach otherwise so that we can talk honestly about how things are progressing. As with our previous project, our goal will be to have something to ‘show’ each week, whether it’s a prototype or the results of some user testing or research. 

We’ll combine remote collaboration tools, such as the calls and Trello board, with more intensive periods of in-person user research and testing, working with the team from mySociety. 

For this project, we also plan some changes – we have fewer partner councils, working with a clear focus for each partner. Cornwall will be focusing on testing the correspondence tool in practice in the context of their well established request handling process. In Hackney, we’ll be conducting research around the tensions between specialism in FOI and SAR and wider use as for correspondence as a potential blocker to wider usage of the tool. We’ll use interviews with non-IG team members and some prototyping and user testing to do this. 

In our first project, the contribution from the smaller authorities was invaluable, and a useful counterpoint to that of larger authorities, but they also struggled at points with the time commitment to the project. Our lead at GMCA will be using her role as chair of the local authority Information Governance group to act as a conduit to that network of 10 district councils to understand what their requirements, as smaller authorities with limited time and budgets, around use of an open source tool would be, and where the chief benefits and blockers would lie. 

As a collaborative team, we’ll aim to get decisions by consensus amongst the project team, but failing that, the single point of decision making will be the project lead from Hackney. We’ll use two show-and-tell sessions with senior stakeholders to share progress and as an opportunity for review of the team’s work.

As in our previous work, it may be useful to complement relatively intensive work in our partner councils with some lighter touch information gathering across a broader range of authorities. If we pursue this as an approach, for example with a survey, it would be useful if the Local Digital Collaboration Unit would be willing to use their communication channels (e.g. email newsletter etc) to distribute it and solicit for responses. 

We’ll also be working to develop the benefits case around adoption of this tool, relative to the costs of other approaches as a key deliverable, not only for the Local Digital funding, but for the senior stakeholder at our lead authority. Getting input from the economist on the Local Digital team as we work through that would be extremely helpful.