1. Look back on the year, with mySociety

    Our Annual Review is now ready for your perusal!

    As usual, it’s been a joy to compile all the progress we’ve made during the past 12 months, and to sprinkle them through with some thoughts and memories from mySociety staff. We hope some of that joy comes to you, too.

    This year, for the first time, SocietyWorks has its own standalone Review, and we’ve also spun off a Transparency report for WhatDoTheyKnow. The latter is something we hope to build upon for the future, as you’ll see.

    As we head into the festive season, we wish you a very happy holiday and all the best for the new year. Now grab a mince pie, stick on that Santa hat, and settle in for a read!

     

  2. Now Croatians can pop a report on Popravi

    Another FixMyStreet site has launched in another international location, adding to the number of citizens across the world who can enjoy keeping their neighbourhoods safe and clean with the codebase’s simple functionality. 

    Popravi.to (‘Fix It’) will enable the citizens of Croatia to report issues to the authority that will get them resolved, and to make sure that everyone understands how it works there’s a jaunty video:

    Open source 

    The FixMyStreet codebase is open source, meaning that anyone with the required technical knowhow can pick it up, tweak it for their local context, and create an issue-reporting website for their own country, all for free.

    And that’s just what Gong — an NGO not entirely unlike mySociety, but Croatian — have done, with help from a cohort of Code for Croatia members. These volunteer coders gave up their time over a period of ten months to get the website up and running, led by Gong’s Miroslav Schlossberg as a project manager, who says that the project also had the wider aim of promoting open civic technology. 

    A report page from Popravi, the Coratian FixMystreet, showing a map with some report pins on it

    Gong came into being in 1997, choosing an acronym for their name to stand for “Građani Organizirano Nadgledaju Glasanje — or ‘Citizens Monitor Voting in an Organised Manner’. In time, as their activities expanded beyond elections, they realised that the name Gong itself was perfectly apt for an organisation that could be said to be sounding an alarm wherever they find corruption or a threat to democracy.

    With all of this background in mind, it may come as little surprise that the same Gong/Code for Croatia coalition are also behind the country’s Freedom of Information site Imamo Pravo Znati, which runs on our Alaveteli platform.

    Not least among their initial tasks will be securing the cooperation and understanding of the authorities to whom reports will be sent. “We are counting on the local government to recognise Popravi.to as a service that makes it easier for them to detect and locate problems and damage”, says Miroslav, “and to appreciate the contribution of citizens who report them.” 

    We recognise this sentiment very well, having spent several years doing just that here in the UK for FixMyStreet.com  — and we wish Gong the best of luck as they begin on the same journey.

  3. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #1: Public-private collaborations

    Last week saw the first TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, a new format for us and a hands-on approach to fixing some of the pervasive problems in civic tech.

    The TICTeC Labs programme goes like this: we gather experts together to lead a discussion on the challenges, potential solutions and ideas within one topic area affecting the civic tech community. If interested, participants can apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant to support their work.

    Our first Surgery saw four experts tackling the problems that occur when NGOs and non-profits take on work within governments and public authorities, something mySociety is well acquainted with thanks to our activity — now all under the banner of SocietyWorks — selling Software as a Service.

    Adding their ideas and experience to the conversation were Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab; Amanda Clarke, Associate Professor at Carleton University; Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here, but we’ll summarise the main points here.

    Problems

    Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.

    The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.

    The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.

    The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.

    The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.

    Possible solutions

    Shaking up procurement One solution that can be effective is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial.

    Clever contracts Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use.

    Nurturing government staff If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches; for example they can be included in bootcamp sessions.

    Writing case studies It’s really useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. At the same time we could look to write some case studies with examples of where the problems we’ve identified were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work, as a persuader.

    Research We can learn a lot of research conducted 40-50 years ago, when many of the issues with public/private contracting, a new idea back then, were the same as they are now. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects: if we can uncover corruption (which we know is an issue in places across the world) it will cause an uproar.

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.

  4. Friends of the Earth: how Climate Action Plan data informed a campaign

    In collaboration with Climate Emergency UK, we’ve collected local councils’ Climate Action Plans into one searchable online database we’re calling CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer. Work continues on adding more features to make this resource as useful as possible.

    From the start it was clear that such a project would benefit several different stakeholders: councils can see what their counterparts in other regions are doing, and pick up good ideas from them; journalists and researchers can query the data to find nationwide trends and comparisons. And for concerned citizens and climate campaigners, CAPE provides a one-stop shop to see whether or not their council has a plan, and what exactly it contains. Coming soon will be new functionality to help laypeople to understand the quality of the plans, which can be quite complex, too.

    As with most tools that we build at mySociety, CAPE is not only useful as a website in itself; its underlying data can also be used to inform developers’ own apps and websites, which can of course be useful for larger campaigning organisations. 

    This aspect played an important part in a recent campaign from Friends of the Earth, who ran an email action asking supporters to contact their local councillors to ask for an ambitious Climate Action Plan. This campaign is still up and running, but the initial push gave it a strong start from their most committed supporters.

    Friends of the Earth campaign page on asking your councillor to support an ambitious Climate Action Plan

    A simple but crucial piece of data

    FoE knew that it was important to tailor the messages they were asking their supporters to send: if the council being contacted had no Climate Action Plan at all, then the email needed to ask for this first step to be taken; while if there was a plan in place, the request was for rapid and ambitious implementation. 

    And so, CAPE data played a small but vital part in the FoE action, simply informing the automated email builder whether there was a plan for the user’s council or not, so that it could modify the text accordingly.

    Shaan Jindal, FoE’s Digital Mobilisation Officer, led this campaign, and also conducted a thorough assessment of its effectiveness afterwards. He explains that the action had several main aims:

    • To educate Friends of the Earth supporters on the role councils can play in addressing climate change
    • To empower them to engage with their local councillors about their local Climate Action Plan
    • To support the work of those FoE local groups and climate action groups campaigning for action plans, while  educating the wider supporter base about the activity of these groups and encouraging them to join one.
    • To demonstrate a high level of local support for action to councils, putting pressure on them to improve, enact and create ambitious plans.

    The simple request to ‘ask your council for strong climate action now’ does however hide some fairly complex challenges, as Shaan explains:

    “Climate Action Plans might be a fairly new concept to many of our email list supporters. They may have come to the action page from our email hoping for more information on how CAPs are important, the theory of change behind them or why campaigning at the local government level is as important as getting national-level change. 

    “But that said, the supporter email performed well for an ‘email your representative’ style action (7.4% of recipients clicked through to the action page), suggesting that supporters did find this a compelling way to create change and take climate action themselves.”

    Engaging with councillors will, of course, ideally result in a response, and perhaps a bit of a longer back-and-forth, so FoE followed up with resources to guide supporters on how to reply back to their representatives, especially if these replies were pushing back on the very idea that any action needed to be taken by the council. They plan to keep up communications with every supporter who took the action, emailing them to provide further support where needed.

    Coverage and new members

    Practically every council in the UK, with the exception of just three, received at least one email from FoE’s action. Some councils received over 150 emails, and others only a handful. 

    It’s worth saying at this point that mySociety’s own WriteToThem service is built to explicitly prevent mass sending of similar or identical emails, in the belief that they are more easily ignored than personal communications and can be an irritant rather than changing the minds of representatives. But of course this was not our campaign, and indeed, since one of the aims of this action was to show councils that they have mass support from their residents to take ambitious steps towards Net Zero, it can be seen that a wave of consistent messaging is actually desirable in this case.

    FoE detected additionally that about 140 people had made contact with their local branch to find out more after taking this action, prompted by a ‘find a group near you’ link in an automated thank you email, so it had a secondary effect of potentially creating new activists in the space.

    Impact

    While it’s too soon to comment on the wider impact of this action, there are definitely some encouraging results, says Shaan:

    “The majority of supporters who completed our survey (79%) said that their councillor responded positively to their email, and only a small minority said they replied negatively (4%) or indifferently (9%). The remainder of supporters said they weren’t sure how to interpret their councillor’s response (8%). 

    “This is a positive initial indicator, but more time is needed to see whether this translates into councillors speaking up or taking action on creating, implementing or improving CAPs.”

    Shaan goes on to explain that there are potential knock-on benefits, too:

    “The action may have also helped to clarify with councillors what exactly a CAP is, and what a strong plan should look like. A couple of councillors got back to supporters saying that they already had a CAP, when in fact they just had a Climate Emergency declaration. 

    “Our follow up email to supporters with tips on how to respond to common councillor replies helped supporters to clarify this. Conversely, one councillor got back to us saying they directly used our template CAP in a council motion, as a result of receiving it from a constituent via our action.”

    Shaan puts much of the action’s success down to the long lead time that was built in, and good all-round communications:

    “We got in touch with groups early, gave them plenty of notice and resources to get involved with their own version of the action, and plenty of time to opt out of our wider supporter base emailing councillors in their area if that would hinder their campaign or implicate their relationship with the council.”

    How CAPE helped

    And how did that data from CAPE make a difference?

    “The ability to send a different message to councillors, based on whether they had a CAP, was invaluable in increasing the chances of having a real impact. Climate Emergency UK and mySociety’s up-to-date data was vital for supporters to be able to accurately send councillors the correct version of the email.”

     We’re really pleased that CAPE data was able to provide help to a campaign that is so aligned to our initial aims when we started this project, and we hope there will be many more opportunities to work together with FoE in the future, as councils’ activity moves on from plans and on to tangible action.

    Top image: Danist Soh

  5. Be a Net Zero Local Hero

    Ahead of COP26, everyone’s talking about the climate and what we can do to keep global temperature raises below 1.5°. But when world leaders are discussing huge global policies around industry, fuels and energy, it’s easy to feel that there’s very little that you can do as an individual.

    This week, we’ve launched the ‘Net Zero Local Hero’ campaign, to show that there’s one very effective channel to making change around the climate, and that’s engaging with your local council’s Climate Action Plan (if they have one, that is. If they don’t, the quickest and most effective thing you can do is ask them to implement one!).

    If you’re in Glasgow for COP26, look out for our stickers with their QR code and URL; you might also come across our ads on social media. Any of these will lead you directly to our Net Zero Local Hero page. No need to wait though; you can visit the page right now.

    As you’ll see, and on the further materials we link to from there, a third of all reductions to the UK’s emissions are within the power of local councils.

    It’s our local authorities who will oversee areas such as how we heat our homes, how we get around our local communities, and what features can be put in place in our towns and cities to mitigate the worst excesses of climate change. Low traffic neighbourhoods, urban regreening, sustainable public transport and electric vehicle charging points are all examples of the types of intervention we’ll see from councils… but they’re a lot less likely without enthusiastic support from residents.

    Local councillors and council climate officers need the support of their constituents if they’re to take bold and effective action. That’s why we’re encouraging everyone to check whether there’s a Climate Action Plan in place for your area, and start reading it!

    We’ll soon be rolling out new tools and features to help you engage in a meaningful way – for example, we’ll be showing how to understand whether your council’s plan is a good one; and giving you tips on how to make effective engagement with your local representatives.

    If you’d like to come along for the ride, sign up for our mail-outs now. We’ll only use them for these purposes: to tell you about new tools we’ve made to help you take action on the climate; to help you make meaningful contact with your local council; and, sometimes, to ask your opinion about how well those tools are working for you. Here’s where to subscribe.

  6. Cosmetic improvements to TheyWorkForYou

    One service we offer on TheyWorkForYou is an email alert: this lets you know when there is new data published on the site that either contains a word/phrase that you’ve subscribed to, or that indicates new activity from your selected Member/s of Parliament.

    (Didn’t know this? Go and sign up now!)

    We send around 400,000 of these emails a month. For many years, the look has remained exactly as it was when we first developed them: plain text, which has the benefit of being lightweight and unlikely to get scrambled by email clients. The downsides are that it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling email, visually speaking, and that some find it hard to identify which sections are of interest in a uniform block of unformatted text.

    We’ve now finally transformed alert emails into a much more polished HTML format, and at the same time we’ve also improved the look and feel of four other vital elements of TWFY: profile images, the API, the sign-up page, and the Contact page.

    Screenshot of a TheyWorkForYou alert email, showing results for the term 'FOI'

    As usual, before starting work, we did a bit of research into who uses this feature and why, so we could be sure we were answering their needs. You can see more about this in Alex’s post here.

    Photos of MPs

    Boris Johnson on TheyWorkForYouWhere there is a more recent and higher quality image available, we’ve updated the profile image we use for MPs. In some cases, this has replaced some pretty youthful faces — it’s clearly high time we caught up with this particular ticket! 

    Higher resolution or larger images also mean that they’ll be more useful to developers using the images (which are all available under an open licence) on other sites and apps.

    Clearer access to the API

    The API page (where developers and researchers can access TheyWorkForYou data) has been given a slick new design. We’ve updated it with new examples of how the API might be used, and streamlined the language and content to make it easier to understand. 

    The TheyWorkForYou API, homepage

    We hope that all of these features will make it easier and more pleasant for you to use TheyWorkForYou, either when you’re checking up on what’s happened in Parliament for yourself, or using our data to make other parliamentary apps and sites.

    Image: David Pisnoy

  7. TICTeC Show and Tell: Right to Know across Europe

    It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.

    We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.

    As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:

    • All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
    • Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
    • We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.

    Full video

    Individual presentations

    The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government

    Jenna Corderoy of OpenDemocracyJenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)

    openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.

    openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.

    See this presentation


    Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation

    Liset Hamming of LIELiset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands

    Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.

    See this presentation


    Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign

    Dražen Hoffmann of GONGDražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)

    In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.

    The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.

    See this presentation


    Regulating Access to Information

    Alex Parsons of mySocietyAlex Parsons (mySociety)

    The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.

    Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.

    See this presentation


    Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories

    Samuel Goeta of MadadaSamuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)

    Open data in France, says Samuel,  looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.

    Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.

    See this presentation


    A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Give Them Time logoPatricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)

    Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.

    Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.

    See this presentation


     

    If you enjoyed that little lot, do sign up to our Research newsletter and we’ll let you know what we’re planning next. It’ll also be the way to ensure you’re one of the first to know about the new TICTeC Labs we’ve got in the pipeline!

  8. Climate Action Plans: what’s the score?

    One of the aims of the Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is to help make better-informed citizens: people who understand how their local council is planning to reach Net Zero targets, and who have the ability to assess whether or not those plans are adequate.

    An online database of plans is a first step towards that, but there’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through. And plans vary, from the short and vague to the in-depth and precise. As a citizen, how can you tell whether your council’s plan is really up to the challenges ahead?

    There’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through.

    The answer came in the form of an impressive mobilisation effort from our partners at Climate Emergency UK (CEUK), who are in the process of applying scores to every council’s Climate Action Plan (or every council that has one, that is — currently around 81%), with the eventual aim of creating a ranked league table.

    We heard all about the undertaking from CEUK’s Campaigns and Policy Officers, Isaac Beevor and Grace McMeekin, who told us how and why they approached this challenging task. First of all, we were keen to understand where the concept of scoring the plans began.

    Comparing plans

    “Once the database of Climate Action Plans was in place, it became obvious how widely they differed in quality and in the level of commitments that each council has made”, explained Grace.

    “We started to wonder if it was possible to systematically compare plans and make a reliable assessment on which ones stood up to scrutiny.

    “We’d already developed a checklist, detailing 60+ points that an ideal plan should contain, and so, to test the water, I used this to assess Nottingham’s Climate Action plan. At that point, Nottingham had the most comprehensive plan that we knew of, so it seemed like a good place to start.”

    “So we were already thinking about scoring”, Isaac adds, “but the concept of comparing only came about when we were approached by Annie, a campaigner, with the idea of creating a “Council Climate League”, based on the People & Planet’s  tool that ranks universities according to their environmental and ethical performance.”

    Right to reply

    The need for scoring was quite clear: it would help citizens understand the context around their own councils’ plans — but would councils themselves see it that way? It’s possible that some of them wouldn’t take too kindly to having their action plans assessed, especially if they were near the bottom of the league.

    That’s why CEUK decided to get in touch with councils well ahead of time, to work transparently and to give fair notice that the scoring process was to occur. Additionally, once the plans had been scored, every council would have a right to respond and their remarks will be taken into consideration in the final score.

    “Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”

    “If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved, as you ensure that no information is lost,” says Isaac. “It allows councils to have their voice heard and correct any mistakes.

    “There are just over 400 councils in this country. Some of them have multiple plans and updates: we may not have been looking at the very latest version. Some plans aren’t published front and centre on the council website, but may be embedded in meeting minutes… so we may well have missed a number of plans that were, theoretically, at least, available to the public by our cut-off date of September 20th.

    “We also know that despite our best efforts to make the questions objective and to train scorers to mark consistently, people will approach plans differently. They might miss information or make mistakes. It’s just human nature and you have to allow for it.”

    Once councils have all had their chance to reply, the initial scoring will then be audited by a small team. Taking into account the initial assessment and the council’s response, they will confirm and finalise each score. The whole process is expected to be complete in early 2022.

    Many hands

    CEUK have managed the arduous first round, in which they have scored more than 300 Climate Action Plans, by training up a cohort of volunteers. Was this the plan from the very beginning?

    “Yes: the number of action plans, the fact that councils often don’t publish them in places that are particularly easy to find, and the fact that they’re not just static documents but might be frequently updated — all these complications made it clear that we’d need to call on others for help.

    “However, what wasn’t obvious was whether we could really expect volunteers to trawl through plans that are often boring, confusing or just plain unsexy! It’s a lot of work when you’re not even being paid, so we had to think about what we might be able to give back in return.”

    “If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved.”

    CEUK cunningly made this potentially tedious task into a more enticing prospect that would have benefits for people taking part. They wrapped the scoring project within a training process that would leave participants better informed and with some new skills under their belt: “The idea was that if we offered people an opportunity to learn then they would be interested in scoring a higher number of plans”, says Grace.

    Since not everyone can give the same amount of time and commitment, they decided to offer two different tracks.

    The Local Climate Policy Programme was a course for anyone involved with or interested in local climate policy. It involved 15 hours of webinars and training over three weeks, and included the scoring of three to six action plans.

    Participants on this track heard from experts such as council climate officers, analysts, project managers and prominent figures in climate policy, including Louise Evans, who wrote the Local Authorities and Sixth Carbon Budget Report, Judi Kilgallon, Climate Change Transformation Manager from the Scottish Improvement Service and Dr Anthony Hurford, Project Manager of Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab at Centre for Alternative Technology.

    Volunteer Assessors: This simpler offering involved a more traditional model of volunteering, with a single session of training on how to score, and ongoing support via instant messaging and CEUK’s documentation as plans were marked. For this model, participants were expected to score just one or two plans within a month.

    For both tracks, volunteers were recruited via websites like Charityjob and Environmentjob. “We didn’t know what sort of response to expect, and when there was an enthusiastic takeup, we were just blown away,” says Grace.

    “In fact there were so many applicants — 137 of them — that the challenge became more about whittling them down rather than finding enough people. We conducted interviews to ensure that we were only recruiting the keenest people.

    “In the end we maxed out our capacity for two cohorts of the Local Climate Policy Programme, involving 65 participants”.

    Meanwhile the Volunteer Assessor programme attracted almost 170 applicants. Again these were trimmed down to a total of 65 who actually took part in the scoring.

    Climate Action Plans Explorer inner page (Thurrock)Isaac says, “They were a mix of people with a mix of motivations. Some were considering jobs in policy and wanted to learn more about it, while others were just interested to scrutinise their own council’s Action Plan. Across the board there was also the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.

    “What was nice was the diversity of the applicants in terms of age and background. The majority were a mix of students and recent graduates, but about 40% were people looking to change careers, and then there were people who had retired. They were based across England, Scotland and Wales, although there was a bit of a skew towards Londoners”.

    Everyone who had completed scoring on at least three plans was offered a certificate at the end of their course.

    What it’s all for

    We asked Grace and Isaac to summarise what CEUK hope to achieve with all of this industrious effort. They mentioned four desired outcomes.

    “First, of course, it gives councils the motivation to ensure that their plans are the very best they can be, meaning they’ll be more effective and more likely to actually meet the challenges of the climate emergency.

    “We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.”

    “Then, and this is a slightly more nuanced point — one really good outcome would be more standardisation of what’s expected from a council’s Climate Action Plan. At the very least that means that they’ve calculated their baseline and included a breakdown of where emissions currently arise. Once plans are held to the same standards, it’s so much easier to compare them, but also, this is the bare minimum of what we should be able to expect from our councils.

    “The third thing is visibility. If we want everyone to be able to understand Action Plans, the first step is being able to find them in the first place, so if we make that at all easier, that’s a positive step as well.

    “And then finally, and most importantly, we hope the whole project will result in more awareness from citizens and more action around the climate emergency from councils.”

    Working together

    mySociety and CEUK have worked closely during the creation of the Climate Action Plans Explorer, and we’ll continue to do so as new features and analysis like this are added throughout the project.

    It’s proving to be a felicitous partnership that allows each organisation to play to its strengths: CEUK has indepth climate knowledge, sector contacts, interns and volunteer capacity; while at mySociety we can provide technical development and data wrangling.

    “mySociety has just been incredibly useful,” says Isaac. “We couldn’t have done any of this alone.”

    And what’s next, once the councils have all been given the right to reply and the final audit is over?

    “We’ll be publishing the league table,” Grace says, “so that everyone can easily see how their council is doing, and how they compare to, say, neighbouring councils. We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.

    There was the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.

    “Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”

    But, once that’s done, it’s not as if CEUK will be putting their feet up — in fact, they’ve already got the next steps mapped out, as Isaac explained:

    “Well of course, all these climate action plans are all just that — plans! Most of them came out in 2020 and some are still being published now. They’re lists of intended actions, and generally the councils will have provided a date – commonly 2030 or 2050 – by which they want to realise those actions.

    “That’s a long period of time to keep on track, and is likely to involve several changes in council make-ups and majorities, so it’s absolutely vital that there’s a regular assessment of progress, and so the next step is to figure out the best way to manage that.”

    Sounds like CEUK have guaranteed themselves work to do for a good long while. We’re really glad to be playing our part and helping to make it happen.

    Banner image: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu
    Hands image: Daniel Thomas
    Working together image: Alexis Brown

  9. A decade and 10K FOI requests: happy birthday AskTheEU!

    Today is the annual International Day for Universal Access to Information.

    Transparency organisations all around the world are celebrating the Right To Know, as embodied in many countries’ FOI Acts: here at mySociety we’re getting ready for our special TICTeC FOI Show and Tell (it’s not too late to register, and you totally should!).

    Aptly, it’s also the tenth anniversary of the launch of AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site which allows anyone to send an FOI request to the institutions of the European Union. Many happy returns to this unique project, which is also celebrating its 10,000th full request.

    Back in 2011 we wrote: “AskTheEU will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level“, while also noting the evergreen fact that “a successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.”

    Well, it seems that any worries about the site’s viability were unfounded, as it’s survived very successfully as a project of AccessInfo for the past decade.

    Clearly, a lot has happened since AskTheEU’s launch, not least the UK’s departure from the EU. Do note that users living in the UK (or anywhere) can still submit requests to it, though; there’s no need to be a EU citizen to take advantage of the Right To Know in Europe, and the EU institutions, like all governmental bodies, certainly offer plenty of interesting documents to request.

    Need inspiration? Keep an eye on AskTheEU’s social media today as they’ll be highlighting some of the more notable requests from across the past decade, as well as celebrating FOI generally.

    To get things kicked off, they’re giving away some Pro accounts, which is definitely a cause for celebration all round. Why not see if you can get hold of one, and start an EU investigation today?

    Image: Imants Kaziļuns

  10. Freedom of Information as a tool for making cycle routes more accessible

    The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.

    If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.

    We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.

    “I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”

    The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.

    It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.

    These FOI requests have been inspired by  a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:

    Tweet from the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as seen at https://twitter.com/CrippledCyclist/status/1418242775443808257

    We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.

    “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website  — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.

    As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:

    The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.

    We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.

    As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.

    He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”

    But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:

    “Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”

    Image: York Cycle Campaign