1. Understanding the votes on TheyWorkForYou

    With so very much going on in politics right now, and so many MPs in the spotlight at any given moment, there has been a lot of sharing of TheyWorkForYou’s voting records on social media.

    Of course, we’re all for it, if it helps people understand MPs’ voting history and the stances they’ve taken during their careers: we even include little share buttons beneath each voting record section to help you do this.

    But as from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll also see a new addition to these sections: we’ve added a link saying ‘please share these voting records responsibly’ — and if you click on it, you’ll see a page setting out lots more information about votes, including the data that feeds the voting information on the site, and what you can — and what you definitely shouldn’t — conclude from it.

    What TheyWorkForYou has always tried to do is take the complex, sometimes messy, often arcane and opaque business of Parliament and make it easy for the everyday person to understand, even if they don’t have a degree in Politics or lifelong membership of a political party.

    The trouble is, as our users and MPs themselves can be very quick to point out, when you try to simplify a complicated area, some nuance is always lost. There are things everyone should know before they charge onto Twitter or Facebook, hoping to win an argument or denigrate an MP by brandishing their record on foreign policy or social issues. And so we’ve set these points out on one page.

    A key question that arises when writing a page like this is: if we can’t present everything (either because the data doesn’t exist, or because including it would complicate the overall picture so much that we would risk losing our aim of making things easy to understand) should we present anything at all?

    We ask ourselves this question fairly often, and so far our answer has always been ‘yes’. Please read our page so that you fully understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.

    Image: MP speaking at Theresa May’s last Prime Minister’s Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

  2. AlaveteliCon 2019: technology, investigations and collaboration

    We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.

    As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.

    It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.

    As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.

    Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.

    There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.

    So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.

    Thanks to the Adessium Foundation and the NUUG Foundation for making AlaveteliCon 2019 possible. We hope it won’t be another four years before we all get the chance to come together again.

  3. FixMyStreet Pro for Westminster

    London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If you’re living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, your reports will drop directly into the council’s own systems.

    In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:

    • Bins
    • Drains
    • Fly tipping
    • Graffiti
    • Flyposting
    • Street cleaning
    • Vehicles

    So, visitors to Hyde Park can report overflowing dog poo bins. Commuters coming through Victoria Station can let the authorities know about graffiti.

    And may we suggest that Westminster’s best known residents are welcome to report, should the view from the palace ever be marred by an unswept Mall.

    Everyone — royalty, the political ruling class, the humble citizen and even tourists from far flung places — can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to log in through the council’s My Westminster portal.

    Especially for Westminster

    As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features, and the integration with the My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on, was a vital requirement.

    mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams

    The two systems working together like this means that for those already signed up to My Westminster, only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order.

    Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.

    “Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.

    “mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.

    Testing with the people that matter

    Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.

    Residents testing FixMyStreet prototypes

    Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.

    We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.


    Top image: Dean Molyneaux (CC by-sa 2.0)

  4. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)

  5. Speedy integration for Hounslow

    Hounslow is the latest borough to adopt FixMyStreet Pro, adding to the ever-growing share of Greater London councils who have chosen the service as their main street reporting interface.

    As with other Pro integrations, citizens can now make reports via the Hounslow website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way they’ll display on both sites, and will drop directly into the council’s case management system — in this case, Confirm.

    It’s part of a dual contract with contractors Ringway that operates the highways contract on behalf of the London Borough of Hounslow: watch this space for the other council implementation going live soon on the Isle of Wight.

    In fact, this installation has involved a seamless transfer which minimised the impact on council staff; everything was handled through Ringway, including user testing via their network of volunteer ‘Lay Assessors’.

    Thanks to a lot of previous experience with Confirm, it’s all proven very straightforward from our point of view. The whole system was up and running in just two weeks, something of a record for FixMyStreet Pro implementation — and a great illustration of just how quickly councils can get going and start to see real change in their customer interface with FixMyStreet Pro if everything is in place.

    Rob Gillespie, Ringway’s Regional Director, agrees: “I have been impressed with the level of engagement and simplicity of this change. The team behind FixMyStreet has supported our team to develop a service that I believe will be a real game-changer for the industry. Our aim was to improve the accessibility of our highway services, and improve the connectivity between customers and our operational teams. This partnership has really delivered on these expectations.”

     

    Image: Nigel Thompson (CC by-sa/2.0)

  6. After Exploitation: using FOI to understand what happens to victims of modern slavery

    In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.

    But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.

    Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.

    In 2016 and in a follow-up report in 2018, Sir Stephen Shaw reviewed this country’s immigration detention practices, with a focus on the welfare of vulnerable detainees.

    One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.

    We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.

    She told us:

    “Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.

    “The figures revealed that 507 potential victims and 29 recognised victims of trafficking were held in detention, despite a low rate of eventual deportation.

    “This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”

    Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:

    “Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.

    FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:

    “The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”

    The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.

    As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.

    “We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.

    “When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”

    We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.

    And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:

    “I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.

    “Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”

    (We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)

    Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:

    “The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.

    “Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.

    “However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”

    The research gained wider attention, too:

    MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.

    “In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.

    “However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.

    “This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”

    We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.

    “I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.

    “When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”

    We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.

    You can read more about After Exploitation’s work here, and find their WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests here.

    Image: CC by-sa/4.0 via Wikipedia

  7. What’s needed for a Citizens’ Assembly website?

    As part of our work investigating the digital side of Citizens’ Assemblies (see our previous report), mySociety have started writing a guide on what the website for a Citizens’ Assembly should look like.

    A dedicated website can be important before, during and after the event. It can help you to recruit, inform and communicate during the whole process, from planning to sharing of results. But beyond that, it helps ensure you meet two of the most crucial standards suggested in Marcin Gerwin’s well-regarded list for Citizens’ Assemblies: Visibility and Transparency

    It can also help with the further standards of Impact: making clear from the outset what will result from the outcome of the Assembly; and Openness: providing a forum where everyone can contribute to the process.

    In this guide we discuss broad design and editorial principles, as well as information that should be included. While we include examples of what we consider good practice from previous Assembly websites, this is very much a first attempt at consolidating good practice rather than a definitive document.

    The guide is available as a PDF, and also as a commentable Google Docs file, so we can continue to gather feedback and improve the guidance.


    Image: Markus Spiske

  8. Putting the important questions

    mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul will be speaking at the first ever Welsh Citizens’ Assembly next week. She’ll be exploring how citizens might more easily feed into the questions posed to ministers and the First Minister in the National Assembly for Wales.

    Questions are a fundamental part of all of the UK’s parliaments, most famously in the form of PMQs, the half hour every Wednesday when MPs can raise any issue they deem important with the Prime Minister.

    In the devolved parliaments there are also various formats for Q&As, both written and oral. But, Rebecca will argue, there are fundamental problems inherent in all of them, from a lack of representation of the views of the general public, to the political motivations that lead to many questions lacking meaningful substance.

    Of course, a Citizens’ Assembly is most concerned with hearing from the general populace, and Rebecca will go on to present our recent research into the digital tools that can help with that process, while examining the pros and cons of each.

    Rebecca is one of several speakers who will also include Dr Diana Stirbu and Professor Graham Smith. The event is being co-facilitated by Involve and you can keep up to date with the Citizens’ Assembly’s activities on their dedicated website.

    Image: eNil (CC-by/2.0)

  9. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps journalists ‘further transparency, accountability and public trust’

    In a strike for transparency, journalist Jenna Corderoy has secured the release of documents from the European Research Group (ERG), the pro Brexit lobby of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is a prominent member.

    For more than a year, Jenna has been striving to ensure that the facts around Brexit — and the funding that drives it — reach the public domain: she also broke the now-infamous revelations about Vote Leave’s campaign overspending.

    The release of material such as this into the public domain is beneficial to all, as it means that public debate is based on facts rather than conjecture. FOI can be a vital tool in ensuring that the documents shaping our society’s future direction are available for scrutiny.

    On this latest release, a piece by Jenna and Peter Geoghegan reports:

    “The ERG is part-funded by subscriptions paid out of MPs’ parliamentary expenses. As a consequence the group has to supply samples of its research for scrutiny to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority [IPSA] to ensure public money is being properly spent and not used for party political campaigning.”

    Using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — our service for professional users of FOI, which among other features, allows users to hold off from putting request correspondence in public until a story has been published —  in January 2018 a request was made to IPSA to see these materials.

    The request’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is now public. IPSA initially argued that the release of these materials was exempted under section 43 of the FOI Act as it would prejudice the commercial interests of the ERG, whose research is ordinarily available only to those paying a £2,000 annual subscription.

    Subsequently Jenna referred this refusal to the Information Commissioner, who upheld the decision. Determined that the public has the right to see the research, Jenna and Peter did not leave the matter there, taking it to an information tribunal.

    The tribunal made the final decision that the material must indeed be released, vindicating the effort and determination Jenna put into pursuing this request and stating that to make the documents available would:

    “further transparency, accountability and public trust with respect to the working of Parliament”.

    As a result, the documents will be made available on 11 July — keep an eye on OpenDemocracy for news of their release — and we’ll make sure we update the annotations on the original request as further details unfold. Meanwhile, you can see the full tribunal decision here.

    Image: Udur Akdemir

  10. Measuring the savings brought by FixMyStreet Pro

    Buckinghamshire County Council have revealed the cost savings brought to them by FixMyStreet Pro.

    The authority switched over to FixMyStreet Pro as their official fault reporting system in April 2018. They’re now able to assess a year’s worth of data and compare it to the year previous. The findings are gratifying, to say the least — and set out a real case for councils who are considering opting for the service themselves.

    Saving staff time and resources

    The council reports that they’ve seen a 13% decrease in calls and a 40% reduction in emails about street faults since FixMyStreet Pro was introduced.

    In case you’re wondering how that translates into monetary savings, well, on average they reckon that a single call costs £5.88 in staff time, while a report made by email, with its potential for back and forth communication to pin down the precise details, chalks up £7.81.

    In comparison, because FixMyStreet Pro places reports directly into the system, and little staff time is required to administer them, the perceived cost is just 9p per report.

    Additionally, Buckinghamshire has seen a 29% drop in calls where residents are chasing progress: report makers no longer need to get on the phone to check whether their issue is being seen to, because updates are pushed directly back to them as the report progresses through the system.

    And there’s been a  59% decrease in unnecessary clarification, that is, when the council need to go back to the report-maker to check the exact location or nature of an issue. FixMyStreet can be set up to the council’s exact specifications to ensure that the user is prompted to provide all the information they’ll need, which accounts for this impressive drop.

    Avoiding unnecessary reports

    It can be a frustrating waste of time and resources when a council receives reports about issues which are not their responsibility: with the UK’s two tier system, it’s almost inevitable that citizens get confused about which authority deals with which category of street fault — and on top of that, there are the reports that are dealt with by other bodies such as TfL or Highways England.

    FixMyStreet has always done a good job of routing reports to the right council, though, and the improvements we’ve made to the service over the last few years mean we can also make sure the relevant reports go through to TfL and Highways England too. Bucks say that since introducing FixMyStreet Pro, they’ve seen a 19% decrease in misrouted reports that have to be forwarded elsewhere.

    Finally, they can see a 30% decrease in street light reports. Since Bucks are one of the councils who display all their streetlights on FixMyStreet it’s now very easy for a resident to check online whether an issue has already been reported for any specific lamp post. If it has, they can also see its progress towards resolution — so there’s no need for them to open a new report.

    These figures illustrate very clearly what is meant by channel shift: real, tangible results that save money for councils, and thus ultimately, for residents too. It’s great to have this confirmation that FixMyStreet Pro brings results — and we’re still in a continual process of development in consultation with councils, to keep making more improvements wherever we can.

    Come and talk to us at the LGA conference next week

    LGA confernece 2019We’d be delighted to answer your questions and give you a demo if you’re planning on being in Bournemouth for next week’s LGA conference. You’ll find us on stand BL3 in the Purbeck Hall.

    Image: Peter O’Connor (CC by-sa/2.0)