1. PACAC makes the positive case for FOI, but there is more work to do

    Today the House of Commons’  Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) released its report on the Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House

    We submitted evidence to the inquiry. It is also highly worth reading journalist Jenna Corderoy’s evidence, as her investigation and appeals are the big reason that the evidence we have exists, and that the inquiry happened in the first place. 

    A summary of the evidence given to the committee can be found in this twitter thread

    Reaction to report

    Many of the committee’s recommendations (such as better procedures and more regular data about the Clearing House) are non-controversial, and indeed would be very good to see implemented. However, a big area of concern is their recommendation around how the ICO should be funded. 

    There is an excellent line taken through the report that FOI is a good thing, that makes good things happen. It does not see the Cabinet Office’s coordination role as illegitimate, but does see it as pointing in the wrong direction. The report has a vision of the government embracing the positive benefits of FOI, and the Cabinet Office playing a leading role in setting the standard, and maintaining the direction across all government departments. Rather than a secretive role,  the Clearing House should be public and transparent about how it goes about its business. The Cabinet Office should not just ensure a compliant response across government, but advocate for the principles and benefits of Freedom of Information. 

    The report’s recommendations constrain themselves to actions for the government, and do not address the potential for legal change to address the problems. While we generally argue that legal change is needed to bring UK legislation up to the Scottish standard and set firm deadlines for internal review and public interest tests (to prevent the abuse described in PACAC’s report), it would obviously be a good outcome for the government to proactively meet those standards.

    But to be realistic, this would be a big shift in culture that seems unlikely to happen spontaneously. The report recommended that the Cabinet Office allow the ICO to conduct an external and independent audit of their FOI procedures. The day before this report was released, after months of delay, the Cabinet Office instead announced the details of their planned internal audit. This is not a good start, and legislative change is still likely to be required to meet the objectives the committee has set out. 

    The area where the report falls down is in addressing the urgent problem of ICO funding. While the report has a clear sense of the scale of the problem, their proposed fix is unlikely to improve the situation, and might make it worse. 

    At the moment, while government FOI policy is set by the Cabinet Office, the “sponsor department” which provides the ICO with its FOI funding is the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This existing arrangement is bad because there is a clear conflict of interest in the government having the power to underfund its own regulator. As is already the case with the Scottish Information Commissioner, the most suitable sponsor is Parliament itself

    However, PACAC has decided the problem is not government funding, but that policy and funding are split between two departments. They recommend that either the Cabinet Office takes over funding, or DCMS takes over policy. Given the general approach of the rest of the report (and the role of the Cabinet Office working across government), the effective recommendation is that the Cabinet Office should be the sponsor department of the ICO and responsible for managing its FOI funding. This seems like a bad idea without substantial changes at the Cabinet Office happening first. 

    In the happy future where the Cabinet Office is an FOI champion, it is possible to imagine this arrangement working, but this is not where we are now.  The Cabinet Office is currently one of the least suitable departments to be trusted to treat the ICO appropriately. Evidence from the previous Information Commissioner stressed that one reason they are not able to use their full legal powers to address issues is a lack of funding. The Cabinet Office has fairly directly benefited from an underfunded ICO, in that the system of regulation meant to prevent the problems described in PACAC’s report just doesn’t have enough resources to work correctly. It would be a bizarre outcome of this process to give them even more direct power to make this happen. 

    The positive understanding of FOI from this committee is very much welcome, as is the pushback against new bodies being excluded from Freedom of Information. But wider changes are needed to bring this vision of how FOI improves good governance into practice. As we have argued before (and will set out in more detail in the next few weeks), the most appropriate long term arrangement for funding the ICO is through a direct grant from Parliament. Legislative change to make key principles unambiguous, and to learn from best practice across the UK and further afield, are needed to take us further along the road into the positive future imagined. 

    Summary of PACAC Recommendations 

    For Cabinet Office

    Clearing House

    • Publish more data about the performance of the Clearing House.
      • Return to the previous standard of the number of referrals to the Clearing House split by department and month, quarterly.
        • Additionally, data on how casework volume is split by referral category and timeliness.
    • Accept ICO’s offer for an audit to “to reassure the public that the Government’s approach to Freedom of Information requests is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act and that they are handled with the utmost professionalism”. 
      • Publish an action plan in response to this. 

    FOI Procedure

    • Adopt procedures that guarantee the legal standard of applicant-blind processes for requests.
    • Guidance on limited circumstances Minister and Special Advisors can get involved in responding to FOI.
    • Establish timetable for completion of internal review. 

    Lead and model good FOI practice

    • Cabinet Office should “drive a cultural shift from mere baseline compliance with the [FOI Act] to to a greater advocacy for the core principles and tenets of the Act
    • Cabinet Office should model best practice, and intervene elsewhere in government that doesn’t meet this best practice. 
    • Issue guidance on the need to maintain public record given private messaging systems.

    Wider government

    Set the right tone and meet a higher standard

    • PACAC wants to see stronger tone on the benefits to good government from Freedom of Information, and greater demonstrable action on steps taken to improve outcomes for Freedom of Information applicants. 
    • Review decision to exclude ARIA from Freedom of Information Act, but only to ensure this is not a precedent. The report criticises the way FOI was discussed at the time, but does not directly say the decision should be reversed. 
    • Government as standard (with Cabinet Office driving change) should respond to internal review within the 20 days suggested by the ICO. 

    FOI Governance

    • Reconcile the split between FOI Policy responsibility (Cabinet Office) and sponsor department (Department for Culture Media and Sport) by either shifting policy from Cabinet Office to DCMS, or the funding responsibility from DCMS to Cabinet Office.

     

  2. New report: Improving oversight of Access to Information

    The right to access information requires high quality oversight. Studies of effectiveness of Access to Information (ATI) legislation tells a clear story: the benefits of greater transparency and access to information can only be realised when this system is actively enforced. To be effective, the whole system of ATI review and appeal has to be designed as a system of cultural change. The system has to use limited resources in a strategic way to reform cultures of unnecessary secrecy in government that protect corruption and inefficiency in public life. 

    Building on a comprehensive picture of appeal systems and processes across Europe, our new report argues for the value of specialised oversight bodies (Information Commissioners), who have independence from government and the power to compel compliance from authorities. In countries that use a system of internal review, better monitoring and interventions are necessary to ensure this system enhances rather than detracts from access to information.

    The report can be read online, or downloaded as a pdf

    Summary of recommendations:

    • Better investment in the resources, capacities and independence of Information Commissioners improves the quality of the ATI regime, attacks corruption, and strengthens good governance.
    • Specialist Information commissioners are preferable to general ombudsman, bringing more specific knowledge, and are a more suitable structure to shepherd the access to information regime. 
    • The power to enforce decisions is a required tool for driving culture change in public authorities. 
    • Systems of internal review should be replaced by commissioner-led systems of appeal, where information commissioners have understanding of appeals across the entire system, and can use internal review as a strategic choice, rather than a hurdle before an appeal can be considered. 
    • In general, oversight bodies and civil society rarely have high quality information about full workings of the ATI system. We argue that better quality statistics are a valuable tool in demonstrating the value of the system, and in allowing targeted focus on problems. 

    Fundamentally, good ATI regimes are important because of the effects they have in society, strengthening anti-corruption and good policy-making approaches. Better oversight is a cost-effective way of unlocking these wider benefits. This report explores how technical details of how the oversight system works are important in achieving these overall objectives.

    The report can be read online, or downloaded as a pdf

  3. New research: joining up local government and citizens in climate action

    mySociety’s climate programme is focused around reducing the carbon emissions that are within the power and influence of local authorities in the UK. 

    A big area of ignorance for us was the public understanding of local government and its role in combating climate change. We anticipated that in general there might be low public understanding, but we wanted to know more about the shape of that understanding, and how that might affect how we approach our work.  

    We commissioned Tom Sasse to write a literature review to help us understand more about this area. The report can be read online or downloaded as a PDF

    The report has seven key messages:

    Net zero is a national mission on a huge scale. It will mean changes to our landscapes and lifestyles, our physical infrastructure and energy systems, our homes, our diets, the way we travel. As well as being necessary, it should be a positive transition (think cleaner, healthier, more productive communities). But it will require some big investments, which need to be paid for fairly, and changes in people’s lives. Broad support will be critical.

    To be successful, net zero will require strong local direction. This is the message from a growing chorus of voices (and not just diehard devolution advocates). Central government will have to take some decisions and set direction. It overwhelmingly controls funding. But the path to net zero will be different across the UK: rural areas face very different issues to dense urban ones. Councils are well placed to understand local concerns, needs and capabilities – and build support for local transition pathways. They can act as conveners, working with local citizens, businesses and community groups.

    Local climate action is gearing up, but councils face constraints. Councils hold key levers in housing, transport and planning; in all, they exercise powers or influence over around a third of all UK emissions. Almost all have a net zero target and four fifths have published a climate action plan. But these vary in scope and detail, and many councils are still getting to grips with how to cut (or just measure) emissions. Some have started engaging citizens. But in general councils lack funding and capabilities, which is holding back action.

    The public supports stronger climate action. In the last three years public concern about climate change has climbed from mid-ranking to be the third most important issue facing the country – and this change appears pretty robust. Cost of living pressures present challenges, but recent polling shows the public still overwhelmingly supports the UK’s net zero target. Most people think stronger action is needed to meet it.

    The public supports more local involvement in net zero. Trust and satisfaction with government has been in decline, but attitudes towards local councils have held up much better (44% trust their local councillor vs 19% for government ministers). In particular, people much prefer councillors when asked who should make decisions about their local areas. They think local areas have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and believe central government should provide more funding to enable local action.

    Public understanding of local government is relatively low. The public makes little distinction between different tiers of government. While people know councils are responsible for some highly visible services like waste collection, their understanding of the range of actions local authorities could take to tackle climate change is limited.

    Climate action will need to be framed around local concerns. The public are particularly keen on certain net zero policies including frequent flier levies, carbon taxes, improved public transport, and support for replacing gas boilers and installing energy efficiency. But there has been less polling on preferences around local action. People have some concerns about how costs and impacts will fall, and when asked about priorities for their local area, they tend to raise wider issues like vibrant high streets or youth employment.

    The report concludes by offering recommendations on four areas where mySociety could make a difference: supporting efforts to address information gaps and raise awareness, which could help provide a stronger foundation for local climate action; supporting wider use of public engagement, and helping councils to achieve wider reach via digital tools; helping to address knowledge gaps around public opinion and preferences for local net zero action; and supporting more effective ways of monitoring and tracking progress in local climate action.

    Reflections on the report:

    While we anticipated (and the report confirms) low public awareness around some aspects of local authorities, the process of writing the report helped expose some questions we’ve been dancing around the edges of, about how local authorities relate to their communities. For instance, our work is focused on the potential of local authorities to reduce emissions, but there are different opinions on exactly the proportion of emissions local authorities could have influence over. Depending who you ask, it can be anywhere between almost no emissions, and almost all emissions. This report helps navigate that area, in particular distinguishing between where local authorities are genuinely best placed to take action (and how this capacity could be improved), versus where central government may want to shift responsibility without properly enabling action. 

    This report has been helpful in encouraging clearer thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘local action’. Some sources slide between talk of local action (from communities) and local action (from local authorities). Accepting a framing that local authorities are not only better placed than central government to work with local communities (certainly true) but are the same thing as their local communities (definitely not true) hides a large problem area where local authorities’ ability to work in and with their community can be substantially improved. Being clear-eyed about the current situation, as well as the potential for change, is essential for the success of our programme of work. 

    The report can be read online or downloaded as a PDF

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    Photo credit: Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

  4. Categorising local government services for emissions reduction

    The goal of mySociety’s climate programme is to try and reduce the estimated 33%  of UK emissions that are within the scope of local authorities’ activities. To be systematic about what that might mean, we’ve tried to categorise all local authority services and activities into three broad areas:

    • Service delivery is where councils’ direct  or outsourced activities have an implication for emissions. This includes their own facilities, services run directly or those externally procured. For instance, waste disposal and coastal protection are both services in this category, and our initial pass put 71 services in this category.
    • Enforcement and regulation is where councils have power to reduce third party/citizen emissions through regulatory frameworks. This might include transport or building regulation, or enforcement of regulations of the private rental sector (80 services). 
    • Place making is where local government have a coordinating/enabling role in emissions generated by third parties/citizens within their boundaries. This will involve fewer actual duties to take action, but a greater coordinating role, including general planning and research, borrowing and investment powers or strategic economic planning (90 services). 

    Using the ESD standard list of services provided by local authorities in England and Wales, a first pass identified services that might have relevance to emissions reduction (trying to be inclusive when in doubt). A second pass then assigned those services to at least one of the categories above. 

    The results of this process are in a GitHub repository. This is an initial test of this concept and the list, and classifications may be refined over time. Future additions might further distinguish powers from duties (where authorities can take action versus when they have to take action) and broad/specific service descriptions. 

    Internally, we’re using this list as a reminder of the wide range of activities local authorities have responsibility for, and to consider whether different groups of these services may be suitable for similar kinds of external interventions or services we might build as part of our work. As a dataset, this might eventually be able to add value directly to services. For instance the description data could be used in a machine learning approach as described in this paper for tagging and improving search of plans in the Climate Action Plan Explorer

    Alternative approaches

    The Climate Change Committee report on local authorities has two alternate ways of dividing local government functions. 

    The first is a list of areas of local government responsibility that relate to emissions:

    • An overarching role to support the economic, health and social wellbeing of communities
    • Powers to ensure buildings meet basic energy efficiency standards
    • Duties to prevent homelessness and prevent hazards in housing
    • Duties to manage risk including climate risks such as flooding
    • Duties and powers to protect the environment, wildlife and heritage
    • Duties to collect and dispose of waste
    • Borrowing and investment powers

    The second is a 6 stage “onion” diagram of activities based on the Centre for Sustainability model, where each layer accounts for a larger slice of emissions, but is less directly under the power of the council:

    • Direct control: buildings, operations, travel
    • Procurement: plus commissioning & commercialisation
    • Place shaping: using powers to control development and transport
    • Showcasing: innovating, piloting, demonstrating and sharing good practice, scaling and replicating
    • Partnerships: leading bringing people and organisations together, coordinating and supporting others, joining others’ partnerships
    • Involving, Engaging and Communicating: translating global and national climate change targets for local relevance, with stakeholders to raise awareness, involving people & ideas for local solutions
    Onion Diagram based on internal Centre for Sustainability model. A series of 6 expanding circles that correspond to the list above.

    Most of these fit into the placemaking category used above, but more generally our approach recognises a distinct regulation role that might be supported in a different way by potential future services to placemaking approaches. 

    Header image:  愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

  5. Freedom of Information is good, and stops bad things happening

    The Freedom of information Act is a defence against corruption and incompetence in public life. Arguments to exclude ARIA from FOI do not make a convincing case for an exception, and are part of a broader attack on a pillar of good governance. 

    The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill passed through Parliament this week. This creates a new research investment agency (ARIA), with the unusual feature of the organisation being explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information (FOI). 

    This is unusual. Very few public organisations are explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information and the few other examples include the Queen and MI5 [1]. How FOI law works is that certain kinds of information are excluded, and so this means different organisations have different amounts of their work open to the public. Existing exemptions around research interests and confidential information mean that similar research bodies can operate within a reasonable balance of preserving confidentiality, space for policy making, and protection of on-going research (see the CFOI briefing on ARIA and an editorial on the topic in Nature). There is no real reason to believe FOI compliance would damage ARIA’s mission… unless you believe that FOI is bad, full stop.

    When ARIA was announced, the statement said:

    “Noting that ARIA will be a small body with minimal administrative capacity, we will remove the burden of processing Freedom of Information requests.”

    This is already fairly negative about FOI, but when it came to defending the policy in the House of Lords, the language got worse. Lord Callanan (a minister at BEIS, which will have oversight of ARIA) called Freedom of Information a “truly malign piece of legislation” that does not achieve “anything at all” and “not much is ever released under freedom of information that causes any problems for government”. Punchy stuff, that also makes you think decision-makers are not opposed to Freedom of Information just for this case. ARIA is the embodiment of a bigger idea that the government takes too few risks, and so should place some risky bets on what is going to succeed in the future. The exclusion from FOI is also part of a bigger idea, that accountability and open government is bad.

    You could pick apart the specific arguments made about ARIA, but these aren’t the real arguments, and taking them seriously makes everyone involved sound silly. It’s not credible that even if a well-funded agency received “a disproportionate” number of FOI requests, having a person sit in the corner and process them would substantially impact the mission. If FOI would really trip up ARIA, it is not going to achieve its goals. If, on the other hand, ARIA is going to be staffed with professionals making reasonable decisions on long-bet investments, these professionals could handle a few FOI requests, as professionals do across the public sector.

    These arguments are not really about ARIA, and it is not fair to the people tasked with delivering ARIA’s expansive vision that they are starting off under the implication that they have something to hide. The real argument being made is that Freedom of Information is annoying and it stops people doing things they shouldn’t. If FOI was as useless as Callanan says, he wouldn’t care enough to block it, and no one else would care if he did. Indeed, while he was speaking the government was separately dealing with the fallout from the Owen Patterson scandal which was sparked by an FOI request. FOI is an effective way to discover bad things that are happening.

    Freedom of Information is swiss-army-knife legislation that stops the need for a thousand bespoke systems of disclosure for every new government agency.  Most FOI requests do not discover big scandals, but more than none do, and these have a very big impact. Freedom of Information has a chilling effect on government incompetence and corruption, and those trying to hide from it should be seen as suspiciously as people carrying bin bags of money into a bank. 

    ARIA is going to be outside FOI, and that’s a shame. But they’re only small in the grand scheme of things. Last year, we outlined a series of straightforward reforms to make the whole system of FOI better and more effective. Over the next year we’ll expand more on how we can improve the power of Freedom of Information, to make sure it continues to expose bad government, and annoy the right people far into the future. 

    When created, ARIA will be subject to the environmental information regulations, and will be listed on WhatDoTheyKnow, in line with our policy on including authorities beyond the scope of FOI. We would hope that ARIA chooses to answer questions from the public, even in cases where they are not legally required to do so.

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    Header image: Michael Held on Unsplash

    [1]: Technically the ‘Royal household’ and it’s the wider range of security services such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. 

  6. Public understanding of local authorities and climate: starting the research

    A month ago we wrote a blog post looking for outside researchers to do some research to keep our climate work well rooted in the evidence base. The goal of this first piece of work is to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change. 

    After a really strong set of applications, we are delighted that we’ll be working with Tom Sasse on this project. Tom is an associate director at the Institute for Government and is taking this work on in a freelance capacity.

    As he starts on this research, he’s interested in any material (especially that may be off the beaten path) that could be relevant to that question. He can be reached on Twitter or through email at research-public-understanding@mysociety.org.

    We’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned from this process to make improvements to both the application process, and the design of our future research briefs. If you’re interested in hearing about those future calls for proposals, you can join the mailing list

  7. Party voting instructions should be public

    Summary

    • 62% of the public agree that parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. 
    • 55% of the public think MPs are personally responsible for their vote, regardless of party instruction. 
    • The public are undecided on whether the fact that an MP was elected on a party manifesto means they should follow party instructions. 

    The public think voting instructions should be public

    Many votes in Parliament are ‘whipped’, meaning that the party gives MPs instructions on how to vote. This practice is both well known and secretive. While “everyone knows” parties instruct their MPs on how to vote, the instructions  are not publicly released. 

    In late 2021, we worked with Opinium to ask the public some questions to inform our work around TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow. This polling shows that 62% of the public think parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. Only 8% disagree that this information should be public. 

    From our point of view, releasing this information would solve a practical problem. TheyWorkForYou makes comparisons between MPs and their party, but to do this it has to calculate what the instruction probably was, based on how most MPs voted. We don’t know what the whip’s instruction was, and so have to work harder to get a result that is inferring what is happening behind closed doors. We also do not have information about the strength of the instruction, and can’t say when a party has a mild preference or a strong opinion about how their MPs should vote. 

    This information is also important on a principled level. The role of whipped votes is part of the argument about the value of individual MP voting records, where one side argues that MPs don’t really make voting decisions, and so should not be judged individually. If you accept this argument that votes in Parliament are really decided by the party leadership, the democratic case for releasing these instructions is overwhelming. 

    Net agree 62%, net disagree 8%, strong disagree 2%, somewhat disagree 30%, somewaht agree 35%, strong agree, 28%

    Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes

    The argument made to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (in her book Commons and Lords)  by party whips was that they were performing a democratic function: the people elected the MPs on a party manifesto, and so MPs in Parliament should “scrutinise and improve” but not oppose government plans. 

    The public is split on how convincing this argument is. We asked if respondents agreed with the statement “MPs are elected on a party’s manifesto, and should vote as the party leadership instructs”.  Only 24% agree with this statement, 35% disagree, with 41% neither agreeing or disagreeing. That only a small group outright agree with a philosophy that justifies how Parliament currently works is a problem, but the large group in the middle suggests that the views of the public might be more nuanced about what the role of parties should be in directing votes. 

    The answer to this question also varies by how people voted in the 2019 election. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were more likely to move from ‘don’t know’ to ‘disagree’ with the idea that MPs should do as their party instructs, with 43% of Labour voters polled disagreeing and 51% of Liberal Democrat voters disagreeing. This might also reflect an idea that opposition MPs should be less bound by what they said in the last election. 

    24% net agree, 35% net disagree, 12% strong disagree, 23% somewhat disagree, 41% neither agree nor disagree, 18% somewhat agree, 5% strongly agree

    43% of labour respondents disagreed, to 51% of liberal democrat respondents, to 26% of conservative respondents. Other parties did not have significant differences.

    Regardless of why they made the decision, the public think MPs are personally responsible for how they vote

    Our polling also showed that the majority of the public (55%) believe that MPs are personally responsible for their vote, with only 15% disagreeing with the statement.  This should sound a note of caution for MPs. While it being common practice to follow the instructions of the party is an explanation of how Parliament works, it is not universally accepted this should be the case, or that it removes personal responsibility for their votes in the eyes of the public. 

    55% net agree, 15% net disagree, 5% strong disagree, 9% somewhat disagree, 30% neither agree nor disagree, 29% somewhat agree, 27% strongly agree

    This polling forms part of a wider series of questions that we hope to use to shape our work, and we will share more with you in the coming months.

    Thanks to Opinium for providing free polling questions to charities as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign. 

     

    Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash

  8. New in CAPE: Five different ways of finding similar councils

    One of the things we want CAPE,  the Climate Action Plan Explorer, to do is make useful comparisons between different councils, and help surface where councils are similar and might be able to learn from each other. 

    The first go at this was a physical proximity tool, which highlighted neighbouring councils, but this can miss that adjacent councils might well have some different circumstances. As announced in December’s month notes, we’ve now expanded this tool so that it offers five possible ways of seeing which councils are similar to each other. 

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    One of the approaches we’ve been exploring is the use of BEIS carbon emissions data to provide an alternate lens, where councils can be shown to be ‘similar’ on the basis of the overall profile of their different kinds of emissions. 

    As part of this process we created a prototype using binder and wrote a public blog post to gather feedback (and had a few good Twitter conversations about problems with specific comparisons). We showed the tool to climate officers directly, and also asked a larger group of climate officers and other participants at a session in NetZeroLocal about what aspects they would find useful in comparisons. We also talked to Connected Places Catapult, which is exploring a very similar approach in its Net Zero Navigator

    Generally people were supportive of the idea of making comparisons based on emissions, but raised the point that it might be less or more useful depending on the kind of policy that was being compared.  

    In the NetZeroLocal session there was broadly a lot of support for urban/rural splits and physical proximity and population size, with then lower support for a range of other options. This included low interest in the abstract idea of the carbon comparison, although in practice this effectively works as an urban/rural split classification. 

    People also suggested additional datasets for specific kinds of problems. For instance, the rural and urban divide is useful across a whole range of factors, but housing stock would be useful for understanding a comparison of specific policy areas. 

    The lesson from this is that one single ‘similar’ measure was not going to be good enough. Different kinds of problems require different kinds of comparisons, so we need a framework that can let people choose the comparison they want to make, and datasets that help them make good comparisons.  As such, CAPE now works with an improved version of the emissions comparison, but also three other measures, and a composite measure that uses all of these to give an impression of general similarity. This can be used to explore councils, or to limit a text search of plans just to similar councils. 

    Improving emissions comparison

    When we first started looking at emissions data, it quickly became clear there was a set of questions around understanding what the data meant in the first place, whether there was a “correct” way to manipulate it, and then how to describe what it meant at the end. 

    The original uncertainty about whether it is correct to use ‘per person’ emissions is especially clear for industrial emissions – which have no clear relationship to the number of people in an area. Adjusting by the number of people leads to mid-industry but low-density areas being seen as comparable to very high-industry, high-density areas, which did not seem correct for comparisons.  In general, very high- and low-density areas make outliers and for odd clustering. Small authorities in Scotland ended up paired with the centre of London. This affects a small number of councils, but probably reflects patterns that are less obvious (and probably unhelpful) throughout the approach. 

    There are several approaches to this problem. Connected Place Catapult uses local GDP rather than population as an alternative way of comparing industrial emissions between areas. Another approach would be to explicitly include population density as a dimension of the clustering. This should generally do little for most councils (as it is indirectly reflected in emissions), but should drive a wedge between incorrect comparisons in per person measures. Another option is to cap (winsorization) the population used to calculate per person. This should stop extreme outliers presenting bizarrely in comparisons without excluding them completely. 

    For v2, we tested a few approaches and in the end used versions of all of these. The raw emissions data is adjusted in the following ways:

    • Domestic emissions are adjusted to be per person
    • Commercial and industrial to be per unit of GDP
    • Transport and Public Sector are per person, but winsorized.
    • A weighted down version of population density is used as an extra factor to push dissimilar councils a little bit further apart.

    This produces clusters that are broadly similar to V1, but passes the test of not grouping a set of councils that seemed incorrectly grouped in the original. 

    We also took a different approach to labelling these groups. Feedback was positive for the urban/rural distinction in V1, but this is now being taken care of more directly through a different approach. 

    Given this, the labels for emissions data focus on which aspect of emissions the grouping has a higher than normal distribution of. While there are also times where a grouping has a below average amount of emissions for a particular type, this was hard to condense into a quick label (below average is not ‘low’) and is expanded on in the description.

    Label Description
    Industry/domestic/transport Above average for industry/domestic/transport, below average public sector emissions.
    Public sector Well above average public sector (government, education, health), below average in other areas.
    Urban mainstream Below average for most emissions scores.
    Domestic Slightly above average in domestic emissions, below average public sector emissions.
    Industry/commercial/public sector Above average industry/commercial and public sector.
    City of London The City of London does not have a comparable emissions profile

     

    Map of UK local authorities showing different emissions groups

    For the moment we are not displaying these labels in the interface, but may use them as the basis for other forms of comparison in future.  In general, this process is inherently throwing away data to make comparisons easier, and so will always break down at some level of analysis. The solution to this is not to make the approach perfect, but to present multiple options that meet different use cases. 

    New options

    From feedback we learned that we couldn’t solve everyone’s problems with the same measure of similarity, so we’ve gone away and created a few new measures, and a framework where we could add more in future. 

    This includes the previous measure of which councils geographically border or overlap with the selected council and introduces three new measures, deprivation profile, rural/urban profile and a composite overall comparison.  

    Deprivation profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in high deprivation (1st quintile), medium deprivation (2nd-3rd quintile) and low deprivation (4th and 5th quintile) neighbourhoods. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities with very similar profiles of deprivation. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Index of Multiple Deprivation system.

    Rural/Urban profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in urban, rural, and highly rural neighbourhoods in an authority. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities in entirely urban areas. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Rural Urban Classification system.

    Overall comparison

    There is also an overall comparison, which is the default view. This takes all of the above, and calculates which councils are nearest to each other along all these measurements. Councils may be shown as overall highly similar because they are very similar in one degree, or because they are slightly similar across several.

    Our thinking in this was to create a single measure that was likely to be slightly useful in most cases, while giving more advanced users additional tools to dig into specific comparisons. 

    The underlying datasets and code are available on Github

  9. Call for proposals: Public understanding of local authorities and climate

    Important links

    Download as PDF.

    In one sentence

    mySociety is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change, primarily through conducting a literature review, to be completed by the end of March 2022.

    About mySociety

    Established in 2003, mySociety is a not-for-profit group, based in the UK but working with partners internationally. We believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role is to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy. We build and share digital technologies that help people be active citizens, across the four areas of Democracy, Transparency, and Community and Climate. Our projects include TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, and FixMyStreet. We also conduct and commission research in our areas of interest, which includes our new Climate programme. Our research programme is concerned with ensuring we are producing tools and approaches that are a good fit for the problems the organisation is trying to address. 

    About mySociety’s existing work in this area 

    The starting point for mySociety’s Climate programme is that around a third of UK greenhouse gas emissions are within the power or influence of local authorities and their communities. Through the deployment of data and digital services, we are helping councils, community organisations, campaign groups and individual citizens to take faster, more informed and effective action to cut emissions at the local level. Our initial project is a website that makes local authority climate action plans more discoverable and searchable. Our Climate programme seeks to support engagement from citizens, action from local government, and better information for all. You can read more about mySociety’s Climate programme here.

    Other areas of our work have involved local government and local democracy. Previous mySociety work of relevance to this project includes Participation vs representation: Councillor attitudes towards citizen engagement and Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem.

    About this project

    We want to decrease UK carbon emissions that are either directly controlled or influenced by local government (see Climate Change Committee report on role of Local Authorities). Our hypothesis is that people know relatively little about local government, relatively little about the idea of Net Zero, and even less about the intersection of the two. If this is true,  there are opportunities to improve public/campaigner knowledge that would help align public pressure and campaigns with the biggest opportunities for emissions reduction through local government. But, similarly the reasons for low understanding of local government may present barriers to this approach that need to be addressed. 

    We want to understand what people know about what local government does, what actions people think “the government” in general needs to take to reduce emissions, and where there is alignment/mismatch between where people put responsibility for changes, and the reality of local government areas of responsibility. 

    We would like a short literature review to clearly summarise existing work on these questions. We may also commission some polling (up to three questions) on this topic during the course of the project. If so, we would hope the research could help us shape the polling questions, and that the results would be included in the review (polling costs themselves should not be included in the budget).  Useful sources are likely to include public opinion work conducted by polling companies, organisations like NatCen, and specific projects such as the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement. Work by organisations focused on local government, such as the Local Government Association and New Local, may also be helpful.

    The available budget for this work is up to £5000-8000 (inclusive of VAT), and the project would need to be completed by the end of March (around 4-6 weeks from end of commissioning process).

    The main audience for this work will be mySociety, as we seek to understand how best to develop our Climate programme. However, we would hope it would be of wider use to other researchers and the interested public, and in line with our general approach, would plan to make the outputs public. Our default assumption is that the main output is a single written report, that will be edited to our style, and published on our research site, with a short 500-1,000 word summary that can stand alone from the document. We are open to proposals on the length and form of the outputs (for instance, if you believe the problem is better solved by a series of linked shorter pieces). We are also open to variations on the approach/research method if you believe it might provide a useful answer to our problem.

    What we are looking for in and from a partner

    Expertise/ skill set

    While all projects benefit from subject expertise, we believe this project could be completed without a huge amount of prior experience with the local government/net zero problem, with knowledge of local government being more important.

    Being able to understand our problem, effectively summarise available information, and work productively with us are also key factors. We will especially be looking for clarity of written communication. The proposed output should be focused on informing future decisions mySociety makes and so should be simple, concise and well-written. We will provide access to the mySociety research style guide which the project will eventually be edited to. 

    Alignment with values and aims

    Our Repowering Democracy strategy puts a special emphasis on embedding equity and inclusion in our work practices and services, and our work aims in general to fulfill values of equity/justice, openness and collaboration

    Applicants should consider if this presents any obstacles to a working relationship, and think about how these values should be reflected in the project plan, either in terms of subject matter to investigate, or research approach. For instance, within the bounds possible given what has been written, we would be interested in strategies for ensuring a reasonable gender balance in authors cited.

    Working practices

    mySociety works flexibly and remotely, and there is no requirement to work from or visit an office. Applicants can distribute their work as appropriate over the time available, but we would expect regular check-ins on progress to be arranged over that period. A shared slack channel and a specific contact person will be used to help coordinate and quickly share questions and information between mySociety and the researcher. 

    Successful applicants would be expected to abide by the mySociety Code of Conduct in mySociety communications channels and events. 

    Outputs and deliverables

    The production of a literature review in around 4-6 weeks (deadline by the end of March 2022), a summary of this research and an internal presentation of the research to mySociety staff.  To be discussed: the usefulness of public polling, and any specific areas there is a lack of evidence. 

    Q&A and contact details

    The application timeline includes a Q&A event, which you can sign up at the link at the top of this document.. The Q&A session will include an element to help individual researchers coordinate to form a joint submission (applications are also welcome from individual researchers). Answers will be made available in a video on this page for applicants who cannot take part. Questions can be emailed to the contact address below. 

    Please send any queries or questions to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org and mention which project it is in regard to. Questions in advance are preferred and will be prioritised in the session. 

    Your application

    Applications can be submitted by individuals, organisations, or joint teams of individuals/organisations. These should be sent to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org by the closing date. 

    You should submit a short application, of up to 4 pages of A4. A template for the response can be download at the link at the top of this page, and covers: 

    • Who you are (whether an individual, organisation, or joint team).
    • A description of your previous experience/previous work and why you want to take on this project.
      • To the extent that this is possible, this should be anonymous and not include names of the org or members of the team (to help with anonymous stages of the recruitment process)
    • How you would approach and deliver this project – a short project plan with approximate timings. 
      • This could include discussion of whether the suggested approach – a short literature review – is the right one for what we want to achieve, and any possible alternatives.
    • The total value (£) of your proposal (including VAT), and high-level breakdown of costs  (perhaps an indication of days per person, any other expenses). This does not need to include production costs of the report. 
      • Given the cost of the project, we will not be giving a great deal of weight to budget plans so please keep this short and high-level – we can dig into further details during interviews, if necessary.
    • A short description of the individuals or team who will do the work, including biographies

    A separate equalities monitoring form, which can be filled out online and is processed separately  from the main application (there is a link to the form in the application form). This is for understanding the reach of our method of distributing the call for proposals. 

    If you are interested in joining a ‘researcher pool’ mailing list that we will contact with details of future projects, please see the link at the top of this document. 

    Application timeline

    If there are changes during this timeline, the table on the website version of this form will be updated. 

    Stage Date Description
    Call for proposals published 6 January 2022  
    Q&A Webinar 14 January 2022 An open, online public event for interested bidders to learn more about the project and ask questions. This will be recorded and available afterwards. You can submit questions in advance to research-commissioning@mysociety.org. Questions in advance are preferred. 
    Questions answered 17 January 2022 Video of the webinar to be made available to all potential bidders, in addition to answers to any other questions submitted via email
    Deadline for applications 21 January 2022 (end of day)  
    Initial decisions 27th January 2022 Applicants to be informed whether they have made it through to a short panel interview (and may be asked for a sample of existing work). Applicants not progressing past this stage to be offered written feedback
    Interviews w/c 31 January 2022 Format to be decided, but this will likely be a one-hour panel interview with several people involved in the climate programme, towards the end of the week (3rd, 4th Feb)
    Final decision w/c 8 February 2022 Remaining applicants to be informed of the final decision. Applicants not progressing to be offered feedback
    Project briefing/kick-off meeting End of w/c 8 February 2022 To include a brief introduction to mySociety, discussion of any onboarding required and approach to project management, communication and catch-ups
    Project deadline 31 March 2022 End of project

     

    What happens after the project 

    We intend to publish the report you produce, credited to you, on the mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence (see recent publications on research.mysociety.org for details). We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted. 

    We will convene a short ‘lessons learned’ session to discuss how the project went – what went well and anything that could have been improved. We will also discuss any future work based on the delivered project (eg if you are an academic and might want to co-author an article) and our ongoing relationship. We would also like to arrange a presentation on the project to mySociety staff, and there may also be an opportunity to promote the work in a public event held by mySociety (budgeting for this would be separate to the project above). 

    Terms and conditions

    Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.

    Work must be completed by the end of the financial year (31 March 2022). 

  10. What we learned about research commissioning

    In November we blogged that we were looking at best practice in commissioning research, and asked Gavin Freeguard to help us with that.

    After getting a lot of helpful comments and conversations (thank you), Gavin put what he learned into a document that is helping us shape our commissioning process. While aimed at a relatively small organisation, a lot of the general lessons and thinking should apply to organisations of any size.

    This can be read online and as a pdf on our research site.

    We will announce a few calls for proposals over the next few weeks and give this process a go. At the end of the projects, we will do a follow-up post on what we’ve learned.

    Header image: Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash