Here are a few stories that were in the news recently. They have two things in common — see if you can you guess what they are:
- Money laundering fears as universities accept £52m in cash (Times)
- Almost 1,000 UK homeless deaths recorded in 2020 (ITV)
- Covid bike and walking schemes do not delay ambulances, trusts say (Guardian)
- Councils fail to pay £1.3bn of emergency Covid business grants (Times)
- Covid-19: NHS trusts deny restricting PPE during pandemic (BMJ)
- Half of London boroughs found using Chinese surveillance tech linked to Uighur abuses (Japan Times)
If you’ve been keeping up with mySociety’s posts, it’s probably no surprise that the first thing these stories have in common is that they are all based on Freedom of Information requests — in fact, multiple requests made across many bodies.
We often mention how useful Freedom of Information can be in helping campaigns, journalists or individuals to gather information from a variety of sources, to create a dataset that didn’t exist in one place before.
Naturally we are all in favour of such stories — but we think the organisations and media behind these requests are missing an extra trick, and that’s the second thing they have in common.
In every case, it seems the journalist or organisation has submitted their requests, and gathered the data, then written the story — and that’s the end of it. That data is hidden away, and no-one else can access it to verify the story, dig further or to find more interesting leads.
Journalists understandably gather information for their stories in private so that they aren’t ‘scooped’: this is one factor that led us to develop WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, which allows users to embargo requests and responses until their story has been published. But, once it has, the tool features strong encouragements to put the underlying data live, so that everyone can access it.
After all, at this stage there is often little benefit to the journalist from keeping the data all to themselves — and lots of potential public good from putting it out in the open. This is also a great way of providing extra credibility for a news item, showing that the facts back it up.
Here are those stories again, together with details of the requests that informed them:
- University money laundering fears: The Times surveyed multiple British universities to break this front-page story.
- Homeless deaths: The Museum of Homelessness put in over 300 FOI requests to gain one part of the information backing up their Dying Homeless project.
- Bike and walking schemes not delaying ambulances The charity Cycling UK asked 10 ambulance trusts for their data.
- Councils fail to pay grants 400 FOI requests were issued by the Event Supplier and Services Association to local authorities across England.
- NHS trusts deny restricting PPE: The BMJ sent Freedom of Information requests to 130 acute, community, integrated, and ambulance trusts.
- London boroughs using Chinese surveillance tech FOI requests were submitted to all 32 London councils and the next 20 largest UK city councils.
If you’re a journalist or campaigner yourself, we’d like to suggest that you consider making your data public next time you use FOI like this. Do it via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, or, if you prefer, do it elsewhere: naturally, the choice is yours, though it’s worth noting that data on WhatDoTheyKnow is easy for people to find, thanks to our excellent search engine positions.
Pro also has other features that aid journalists in their investigations, including the ability to send batch requests to multiple authorities.
With our citations tool, you can even link directly to your story, giving it a boost in visibility that is also accelerated by our good standing with Google et al (or other users can link to it in an annotation).
On the other hand, if you’re just an interested citizen who would love to know more about one or more of those news stories, don’t forget that you could use WhatDoTheyKnow to request the same information, and it will then be public for all to see.
For example, if the homelessness or the PPE story is of interest to you, you could make an FOI request to your own council or NHS Trust to get the local picture. Once you have the facts, you might take informed action on them: perhaps lobbying your local representatives for change, or contacting the local media if there’s a story to be told.
And, to help us in our attempts to get more journalists thinking about opening up their data, you could keep your eyes open for stories like these in the future.
If you see one, perhaps give the writer a friendly nudge to publish their data. After all, they’re using transparency to get their scoop — why not also practice transparency for the good of all?
Artificial Intelligence, innovative use of data and the arms industry – now there’s a bunch of areas you’d want oversight on. And yet, a high-profile new government research agency appears to have been absolved from the obligations of public scrutiny before it even begins work.
News broke this week that the treasury has authorised £800 million of funding over the next four years for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). This research agency was originally conceived by Dominic Cummings, and, according to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, will be producing “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”.
More explicitly, The Guardian sees the agency very much working in the area of defence, while also noting that many technologies developed in this area have gone on to benefit society more widely. The BBC says ARIA has been inspired by US agency DARPA, which is “credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS”.
All well and good, perhaps, until you see the government’s assertion that “the new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy.”
Judging by multiple press reports and a comment from Ed Milliband, although the agency is to be funded by taxpayers’ money it will be exempt from Freedom of Information law. While we very much hope this is not the case, this aspect has been reported by several sources.
FOI is explicitly for the purpose of allowing citizens to demand transparency from the institutions which we fund. The Times, reporting this story, also takes a moment to remind readers that it, along with other major news outlets — not to mention organisations including mySociety — is calling for urgent action on declining levels of governmental transparency, and we can see from the ICO’s many notices to Whitehall departments that the current administration are not complying with their obligations.
Our friends at the Campaign for FOI point out that DARPA, the blueprint for ARIA, is in fact subject to the US FOI Act, so removing those obligations would be something that has been built in as part of ARIA’s conception:
This new taxpayer funded body must not be exempt from #FOI. The Act has an exemption to protect commercial interests. The US agency, DARPA, on which it is modelled is subject to FOIA. So ministers have no basis for claiming FOI would give rivals an unfair competitive advantage. https://t.co/Ch4Spnp91S
— Campaign for Freedom of Information (@CampaignFoI) February 17, 2021
Additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team point out that any authority wholly owned by the public sector is subject to FOI unless specific provision is made to exclude it — and so, dodging the obligations of the Act would require either setting up an opaque operating structure for that purpose, or a new exemption to be passed into law under the FoIA.
Meanwhile, our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow does list authorities that are not subject to FOI if there is a good argument that they should be. If indeed it is officially exempted from the Act, we will also take this route with ARIA, just as soon as it formally comes into being.
EDIT: The official government press release is now here, and includes the statement: “Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.”
Image: Kevin Ku
Info Pro Vsechny (IPV) is the Freedom of Information site for the Czech Republic, run on our Alaveteli software.
Czech civil movement Million Moments for Democracy (Milion Chvilek Pro Demokracii) is currently using the platform to run a campaign, making for an interesting example of how such groups can leverage FOI sites to mobilise support, and to encourage citizens to engage in the democratic process.
Million Moments approached IPV, who were able to advise on the best way to allow their supporters to get involved, as the FOI site’s team explained when we chatted to them recently.
But first, to make sure we understood the context, we had a quick read of the Wikipedia page on the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. It’s fair to say that Babiš is a contentious figure, as demonstrated by no fewer than eight entries in the ‘controversies’ section of that page.
Conflict of interest
Top of the agenda today, though, is a scandal currently under investigation by the European Commission. Babiš was instrumental in decisions to award EU grants to the massive Agrofert conglomerate, a holding company with over 250 subsidiaries across forestry, farming, food, construction and logistics industries, among others.
In doing so, he breached EU legislation. Why? Because he just happens to be the previous CEO of Agrofert.
While Babiš’ shares were subsequently transferred to a trust fund, as IPV told us, the European Commission has ruled that there is still a case to be answered: “They stated that the main fund beneficiary is still Babiš and the conflict of interest has not been resolved. And while they’ve asked the Czech government to act upon their recommendation, things are moving very slowly.”
This was the impetus behind Million Moments FOI campaign, which is currently encouraging their followers to use IPV to ask pertinent questions about this conflict of interest, and to potentially dig up others.
“They want to ensure that the Czech authorities are asking the right questions on behalf of the country’s citizens, rather than sweeping it under the carpet,” explain IPV. “So they’re encouraging people to ask all the institutions and semi-owned-state companies to what extent they deal with companies in the Agrofert holding.
“More questions, more people engaged, more institutions involved — it all puts greater pressure on the Prime Minister and owner of Agrofert.
“And one never knows, we might learn further things about how the state institutions co-operate with Agrofert companies.”
Providing a platform for a campaign
Million Moments provide example texts of the kind of requests their followers could make, pre-written on Google Docs, together with instructions on how to use IPV.
“For example the state still owns a majority share in the globally famous Budvar brewery (brewers of Czech Budweiser, the real original according to many patent law victories around the world!)”
A site for everyone
At mySociety, our charitable status means that we must remain resolutely non-partisan, providing tools for anyone and everyone to use. This doesn’t mean that our partner organisations abroad have to stick to the same principles, though — they will be led by their country’s laws and their own funding structures.
Nonetheless we were interested to ask IPV whether it was a concern for them to be working with a campaign that has a clear political agenda.
They say, “We discussed at some length with Million Moments that the platform should only be seen as a technical facilitator of the campaign. As individuals we might or might not support their goals — but that is irrelevant, really. As an organisation, we’re only interested in providing a clear path for anyone who wants to use FOI to uncover information.
“That comes with some responsibilities. In particular we were concerned that the same few authorities would not be flooded with requests with exactly the same wording, which could incite the dangerous criticism that the platform facilitates spamming or politically motivated harassment.
“We initially suggested the possibility that one “master question” could be put to each authority, and all the other followers could just sign up to follow the requests. However, Million Moments wanted to let people feel they were actively participating, so the compromise is that some examples are offered as suggestions for questions, but in the end individuals decide for themselves.”
A swell in users
The campaign started with a mailout to Million Moments’ 400,000 followers, and this alone has brought a great result for IPV, a site which was operating with a fairly small userbase. When we spoke to them, it had been live for six days.
“We’ve already got over 400 new users”, they say, “which means we’ve increased our total userbase by nearly 25%, and many of these will likely use the site in the future as they are obviously active citizens. Between them, they look to have placed around 200 questions already.
“We’ll be looking to use this campaign as a platform to build up interest from journalists, who are one of the categories of people who can really benefit from using FOI.
“The Million Moments campaign has definitely given us some momentum! The next burst of interest will probably come when we see how the questions are answered…or not.
“But we have to be pleased with such an increase in our userbase in the space of a single week, especially as we’d expect many of these people to return.
“They are the type of citizens we believe the site is made for.”
We share IPV’s interest in this campaign, and will watch with interest to find out how it develops, and what it might uncover. Thanks to the team for keeping us informed — we always love to hear stories from our many Alaveteli partners about how their sites are making change.
Image: Anthony Delanoix
Open Democracy’s recent Art of Darkness report highlighted the worsening state of Freedom of Information request-handling in central government, with concerns over a gravely dwindling response rate, stonewalled responses and a disregard for the ‘applicant blind’ principle.
In combination, these deficiencies have served to erode government transparency at a time when scrutiny is vital. That’s we’ve signed Open Democracy’s open letter calling for an urgent investigation.
In The Art of Darkness, report write Lucas Amin states, “Central government granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests in 2019 than ever before, according to official statistics collected by the Cabinet Office. The percentage of requests granted in full has declined every year since 2010 – from a high of 62% in 2010 to 44% in 2019. The percentage of requests withheld in full has steadily increased from 21% in 2010 to 35% in 2019.”
The report also notes the the government’s increased use of a central ‘clearing house’ through which sensitive requests must be passed. Open Democracy have uncovered evidence that, contrary to the FOI Act’s principle of ‘applicant blindness’ (ie, information is accessible to all, with no consideration of who is making the request), this clearing house, which has been functioning since 2007, is in the practice of identifying which requests are made by journalists and exercising increased caution in their handling.
With this report also picking up many fundamental procedural errors in the way in which requests are being handled, it seems particularly timely that at mySociety we’re working on a tool to help request-makers to understand the reasons for refused requests and guide them in seeking an internal review as part of wider updates within our own WhatDoTheyKnow service.
But perhaps more importantly: as an organisation that campaigns for transparency from our authorities, and works closely with journalists, we recognise the danger of such practices going unquestioned.
That’s why we’ve added our voice to those of the many editors, journalists, campaigners and citizens who call for an inquiry. You can do the same here.
Image: Gianluca D’Intino
Here at mySociety, before pressing ‘post’, we sometimes pass the wording of a tweet or blog entry past a couple of colleagues, just to make sure it strikes the right tone.
So when we saw emails from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Cabinet Office’s ‘Rapid Response unit’ going back and forth to get the wording of a tweet absolutely correct, we sympathised.
“The quote would need to be shrunk down to fit, what should the main focus be?”
“Have added some bits, not sure what the highlighted section was meant to be?”
“[Redacted] wants us to delete the tweet for relationship management purposes and replace with the below.”
“I’ll check at this end, but isn’t doing that just going to reignite?”
“It could potentially reignite it, yes. But the Mail Online did not approach us for a comment and their headline is very misleading so feel we should rebut with less confrontational language.”
“But you can’t replace a tweet? You can only delete and then go back on the original article with a new comment, so you’re rebutting twice, only the second time around admitting that you went too hard first time? Which just creates another story. Isn’t it better to just leave it?”
Admittedly the DHSC’s predicament was higher stakes than ours generally is — they were responding to a piece in the Mail Online and tackling disinformation about coronavirus statistics. The email that kicks off all this discussion reads:
“Flagging growing engagement with a Daily Mail article claiming that Covid-19 statistics around fatalities and hospitalisation have been twisted to create fear among the public (6.6k interactions).
“Although not very high engagement, the article has now been picked up by several high profile lockdown sceptics such as Simon Dolan and Adam Books.
“Given these damaging claims could affect compliance, we recommend that the press office contact the Daily Mail to make them aware of the public health impact, and if possible, include a government line in the article.”
For those who work in communications, and perhaps everyone else too, it is quite interesting to see the authority’s rebuttal process roll into action, with each statement requiring sign-off by a named person, presumably for accountability purposes (these names have, though, been redacted before release).
Available thanks to FOI
How did we come to see these internal memos? Because a WhatDoTheyKnow user requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.
We can’t know this user’s intent*: were they hoping to reveal evidence that there is indeed a governmental coverup over lockdown, or perhaps to argue the case that there is none? Either way, it seems pretty clear from the released email threads that if there is a conspiracy at play, the staff frantically scrambling to get the right message out to the public don’t know about it.
This request is also notable because the user, spotting that the authority had not provided everything they had asked for, requested an internal review, as is anyone’s right if they believe their FOI request has not been handled correctly.
To DHSC’s credit, they did go on to provide the missing data, and also went out of their way to give some background information “outside of the scope of the FOI Act, and on a discretionary basis”.
It’s worth noting that, for all the effort put in by DHSC’s communications team, however, Mail Online does not appear to have amended the article.
FOI as fact-checker
As we’re in the midst of a fast-changing pandemic situation, it’s perhaps inevitable that there’s lots of misinformation and confusion flying around at the moment — and thanks to social media, it spreads fast.
Freedom of Information requests can play one small part in countering ‘fake news’, by bringing background information into the public domain, helping us understand the full picture a bit better.
Is it always useful for such data to be public? That’s a matter for debate, and a question that is baked into the ICO’s FOI guidance for authorities.
We’ve been doing some in-depth work around exemptions recently, so it is interesting to see COVID-related requests like this one about ill-effects of vaccines in the light of Section 22 exemptions, which cover ‘information intended for future publication and research information’. We suspect a Section 22 exemption may be applied here.
That request is for Adverse Drug Reaction (ADR) data, and includes the instruction, ‘This information should be made available now as raw data, not held back to be accompanied by any analysis.’
Would that be desirable, or is the release of raw data just opening the door wide for potential misinterpretation and the drawing of erroneous conclusions?
When applying a Section 22 exemption, the ICO says that the authority must perform a public interest test to assess whether there is more public good in releasing the requested information than there would be in withholding it.
Their guidance specifically notes that “In most instances public authorities will not be able to argue that information is too technical, complex or misleading to disclose, or that it may be misunderstood or is incomplete, because they can explain it or set it into context.”
And so, the ideal scenario is that the data is released, with robust explanations and in a way that can be understood by all. That would be a great outcome made possible by FOI**.
* UPDATE: The request-maker has now added an annotation which explains their intent.
** UPDATE: Vaccine adverse reaction data is available, with context, on the GOV.uk website.
Image: Garry Butterfield
The climate emergency is, of course, a massive concern, and that’s why we often urge you to contact your MPs and councillors to demand faster, better, greener progress.
And that’s important — but also, we really should take the time to give positive feedback, thanking those councils and politicians who are doing the right thing.
This year, we’re taking part in the Climate Coalition’s Good News Day which, since 2015, has asked “organisations, institutions, household names and millions of people to use the power of green hearts to join together and ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis.”
Here’s how you can get involved
- On Friday February 12, use our Climate Action Plans database to search for your local council and see if they have a plan in place.
- If they have, drop your councillors a line on our WriteToThem service to let them know you appreciate it.
Local authorities and councillors who are taking action need to know they’re supported in their actions, some of which may be radical or taking them into new territories — so let’s thank them for everything they’ve done so far, and maybe give them the support to go further, too.
- If they haven’t? Let them know you care about any climate-related action the council have taken, and urge them to get a wider plan approved.
- Maximise the power of your action by shouting about it on social media. Use the hashtag #ShowTheLove, and use a picture of a green heart (we’ve added links to some royalty-free images below you can download or copy and paste) to join in with the national Good News Day movement. Or, if you want to go all out, make your own crafty green heart: there are some ideas on the Climate Coalition’s worksheet and on cafod.org.uk.
- If you’d like to do more, see the Climate Coalition’s collection of downloadable resources.
If you’re on a roll…
There are other ways you can #showthelove, too.
We think the prompt to ‘ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis‘ is a particularly important one, so:
- You could also use WriteToThem to email your MP with this message…
- …or go public and tweet them!
And finally, there is encouragement to share everything your own organisation is doing to help the climate. With that in mind:
- Here’s mySociety’s own environment policy — which any other organisation is welcome to copy and adapt for your own needs.
- And a reminder of our post showing the various ways in which our services can be used to help the climate.
- If you’re one of our many friend and partner organisations in the UK and around the world, please consider joining Good News Day and getting the word out to your own followers.
Green heart pictures
Pictures on Unsplash are free to use and you don’t even have to credit the photographer, although if we’re talking about showing the love, we should of course do the same for the creative people whose work we benefit from!
Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.
But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.
We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.
A confusing state of affairs
We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.
“Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.
WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.
“No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.
“This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”
So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?
“Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.
“With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.
“Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”
FOI for gathering hard evidence
As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?
“We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”
WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.
These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.
Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:
“We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”
You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.
The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow
Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.
This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.
“I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
“It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”
This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).
Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:
“WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.
“On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”
You should use it, too
Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.
“Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”
We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.
Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem
Each December we gather together everything we’ve done through the year, and bundle it all up in our annual report.
And at the end of every annual report we add a small section forecasting what we’ll be up to in the year ahead — it’s always pretty gratifying to be able to look back at the previous year’s report and think, ‘Yup, that happened’.
Not this year, though. Skilled clairvoyants might have been able to foresee some of the parliamentary happenings, or that political events would result in an explosion of use in our Democracy services, or the growing need for enhanced Transparency from our public authorities — but no-one could blame us for happily planning an international conference to take place in March, completely unaware that travel would be off the cards for some time to come.
In many ways, mySociety’s work-from-home set-up (which we’ve had since our very beginnings) served us very well in being able to provide uninterrupted services to our users and clients alike. In other ways, we suffered like everyone else from a lack of face to face contact — remote we may be, but we do like our occasional meet-ups!
Well, anyway: you can see all the highs and lows for yourself in the annual report. We hope you enjoy reliving the year with us… and, yes, call us foolish, but we have indeed included that little forecasting section at the end. What could possibly go wrong?
At LocalGovCamp, our designer Martin ran an interactive exercise that took attendees through a ‘consequence scanning’ exercise, as a way to predict and mitigate all the outcomes, both positive and negative, of a proposed piece of development.
In this case, the service under discussion was a fictional parking violation reporting app.
Let’s just repeat that, in case of any angry reactions: fictional!
So, what could possibly go wrong with a piece of tech designed to encourage residents to grass on fellow citizens for their poor parking? You can see how it played out in this video:
Now you’ve seen a consequence scanning exercise in action. If you’d like to understand more about the process, read on: this is how Martin explained the whole idea to us here at mySociety, with more detail on the underlying principles:
We’ve been working on a few sensitive projects recently – specifically our work expanding FixMyStreet Pro to cover issues of a more social nature, like noise reporting, antisocial behaviour, that sort of thing.
As experienced as we are with the ‘make a report by sticking a pin in a map’ style of interaction design, we recognise the need for extra care when applying this to issues that are about people, rather than things. There’s an increased risk of building a tool that results in unintended negative consequences; especially where the service concerns an area already prone to controversy.
mySociety Board member Jonathan Flowers put us in touch with Connected Places Catapult, who had been using ‘Consequence Scanning’ for this very thing, and we realised it was just what we needed.
It’s a structured system for drawing out the consequences of a new idea, and giving people a say in what actions are used to mitigate or address them. It originated from the Doteveryone thinktank, and CPC have taken it forward and customised it for their needs.
In Consequence Scanning, consequences are classified as either intended or unintended, with the important distinction that intended consequences aren’t always positive, and unintended consequences aren’t always negative.
The process is delivered in a workshop format and works best with a good mixture of participants with diverse views and backgrounds, directly involved in the service on both sides. This means ideally both service users and service officers should take part and be prepared to be honest about consequences. For this reason it’s important to create a safe space where information can be shared honestly and openly.
The process is split into three parts:
Part one: What are the consequences?
Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?
Part three: What are the unintended consequences we should mitigate?
Part one: What are the consequences?
- What are the intended consequences for:
- Organisation – How might this affect our organisation?
- Users – How might this affect the users of this service?
- Community – What are the consequences that could affect the wider community?
- What are the unintended consequences? For the kind of work we do, unintended consequences tend to emerge in these areas:
- Lack of digital understanding:
- What can happen in a situation where there is a lack of digital skills or access to technology?
- Unintended uses and users
- What could be the unintended uses of this service?
- What could be the unintended users of this service? Eg private companies using public services for profit
- Weak security/reliability/poor support/monitoring
- What could happen in situations of technical failure, poorly equipped staff, or lack of budget etc?
- Changes in norms and behaviours
- How could this cause changes in societal norms and behaviours?
- Displacement (what will people do this instead of… )
- If people use this service instead of others what could result?
- Impact on environment
- How might this service result in consequences for the planet or local environment?
Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?
- Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
- Add further details or related information
Part three: What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?
- Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
- Use causal mapping to work out the relationships between the consequences and help determine where mitigations could have the greatest impact: eg, solve A before B, solve D and prevent E,F,G
- Use grouping and categorisation of consequences to show relationships
This system works best on a new, but defined idea. If it’s done too early in the design process, the consequences end up being very general, or people bring their own assumptions and often focus on the wrong things. It’s best to bring it in once scope has been defined.
The primary function is to identify the consequences and not to “solutionise” the mitigations, but the group should be free to discuss possible mitigations where they feel it’s important.
We’ve been using Consequence Scanning in our work on noise reporting and antisocial behaviour, and it’s also proving useful for our internal anti-racism action group, where we want to understand the potential unintended results of any future development in terms of who our services reach, and who they exclude.
Image: Drew Graham
Our third and final TICTeC Seminar for this year was on civic tech and the climate emergency.
Speakers Rachel Coxcoon of the Centre for Sustainable Energy (and also a District Councillor & Cabinet Member for Climate Change & Forward Planning), Tom Sasse of the Institute of Government, Natalia Carfi from Open Data Charter and Louise Crow, mySociety’s own Head of Development, engaged in a productive hour-long discussion.
Meanwhile there was an equally useful conversation scrolling by as attendees shared links and insights in the chat window! We’ve summarised this at the foot of this post.
Local councils may have declared a Climate Emergency, but now we get into the nitty gritty: where will money be spent, and how can it be used most effectively?
“The biggest political issue is politics”, said Rachel, pointing out that our current, slow decision-making processes may not be fit for purpose in the face of a global emergency.
She bemoaned the duplication of effort, almost inevitable thanks to our local government structures, when so much could be achieved across the country as a whole with a bit of co-ordination.
Natalia was keen to point out the value of open data in all of this – and yet, as she says, the topic was hardly on the agenda at the last COP. The key is to get the governments in the same room as the people who need the data, so that the use case can suddenly become crystal clear to those engaged in gathering and sharing it.
Tom reminded us that two thirds of people have never even heard of the term ‘net zero’, let alone thought about what it means, so there is a long way to go. He agreed that it’s no good each council working in isolation within their own carbon budgets: somehow we need to step back and get the wider picture.
That’s where there may be a role for smaller data organisations, said Louise: taking big countrywide datasets and using them to inform the general public about the actions they can most usefully take.
You can watch the whole event again via this video, or read the collaborative notes here.
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Thoughts and links from the Seminar chat
We’ve removed names for the sake of privacy, but if there’s a comment or opportunity you’d like to respond to, email us at email@example.com and we can put you in touch with the relevant person.
- The Climate Action Open Up Guide: “the Chilean implementation report in Spanish and English”
- mySociety’s Climate Action Plan explorer
- The UK Climate Assembly website
- “What ClimateView are doing with this open data project around defining a set of indicators for reducing carbon is also a useful tool when focusing on carbon and changes to make.”
- “I’m working on Open Carbon UK – aiming to define data standards for carbon emission disclosure by all sizes of organisation. We’ve got some initial map-based visualisations from existing BEIS and public data here. Would love to talk to potential data or tech collaborators.”
- “For learning how to effectively and constructively engage with decision makers, I can recommend Hope For The Future and for climate literacy training (including for local councils) I can recommend Carbon Literacy.”
- “Here’s a playbook for Civic Voice during COVID — incorporating the new digital rules in the US Congress.”
- “Builders build for profit and most are not installing the technologies needed until forced to do so, eg solar panels or heat pumps. Any thoughts how to overcome this barrier?”
- “With regard to retrofit and how we find local trades etc, a good example is the Futureproof project. It’s vital that supply and demand are stimulated at the same time. Badly timed grant schemes that are too short are causing huge problems. Citizens want to act, and then find that the supply chain simply doesn’t exist in their area, and they lose heart.”
- “Here’s an Open Environmental Data Project where we’re building this overlap between communities.”
- “This is one of the projects where citizens are helping leverage data via sensors – and another one.”
- “This is the Climate Outreach resource Rachel is mentioning just now.
- “Local initiatives based on the specific situation on the ground is the way to do this. The pandemic response has illustrated this starkly this year.”
- “More councils using similar or the same frameworks for tracking and taking climate action would also help sharing and reuse of good practice.”
- “In the UK charging points are holding back the transition to electric cars, particularly the reliability of the charging points. I wonder if anything can be done to help?”
- “In the UK planning system we have a low level called Neighbourhood Plans which need to cover minimisation and impacts of Climate change. The Government intends to computerise these.”
- “We’ve tried to do the best for our Neighbourhood plan by our own research but it should have been better connected to the data. Hopefully future NPs can be better connected. … Perhaps there could be boilerplate material available for Climate change data input to Neighbourhood plans. It’s taken us 4 years to curate relevant material :-(”
- “There are so many NDP groups trying hard on this and MHCLG has let them down by not centralising a lot of data and making this available to them. But this is because MHCLG does not prioritise climate. ”
- “Last May Congress changed its rules to allow for electronic document submission—does anyone have a legislature template or schema so that this kind of participatory climate data can be archived and discovered for example, during research on legislative history? For lawmakers?”
- “The west coast fires in the USA has created a massive opening up of general awareness of vulnerability …we need to figure out how to channel the momentum now…”