1. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #4: Storytelling and reach

    Last week saw us come together for the fourth online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

    Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

    This time, the discussants examined the issues around getting our work out to the wider world: with resources always stretched and often complex stories to tell, how can small civic tech groups reach a more mainstream audience?

    Discussants were Daniel Carranza of DATA Uruguay, Attila Juhász from K-Monitor in Hungary, Amy Leach of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and me, Myf Nixon on behalf of mySociety.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but if you’d prefer a higher-level view, read on.

    Problems

    A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.

    Resource and capacity Civic tech organisations tend to be quite small and focused on the creation of their services. Communications can be seen as a luxury, or something that is spread between the team as a bit of an afterthought. Even if there’s a dedicated comms person, they often can’t focus deeply on all the tasks that need doing, and bringing in a freelancer doesn’t always work if they don’t have a full understanding of your work.

    Complexity of our offerings Talking to the public about our work often means that we’re also having to explain things that are taken as a given within the civic tech world: for example, Freedom of Information; how governments work, what open source is, etc.

    Temptation to speak at a technical level It’s important to use simple language, but because we’re ‘experts’ in our field we have to make an effort to not use jargon – especially if you’ve also been involved with the development side personally. Users probably don’t care about things like how it was coded or whether it’s open source: it’s more important to talk about what it can do for them.

    Narratives aren’t always clear-cut People want stories with a nice narrative, but if you are making systemic change it can be iterative and messy, and take time.

    We are in a polarised world Some areas that civic tech operates within, eg migration or health, are divisive issues that get boiled down to clickbait/soundbites on social media.

    Projects can be longterm but enthusiasm doesn’t last As with funding, it can be easier to get attention at launch, but it’s harder to find stories and get interest once a project has been going for a while.

    We can’t always find the interesting stories We can be sure that our software is being used in some really interesting ways; but we’re not always aware of them. There’s no compulsion for users or site-runners to tell us how they’re using our sites or software.

    The range of potential audiences is really broad We might be trying to talk to ‘everyone’ – or if not, we’re trying to put messaging out to citizens (with varying amounts of knowledge), governments, funders and several other potential user groups.

    We don’t always reach every sector of society It takes focus and effort to reach a more diverse audience in terms of race, education, deprivation etc.

    It is hard to maintain a stable team Small organisations can’t pay market rates, which means that there’s a higher staff turnover, and the narrative thread can be lost as a result.

    The issues we tackle are often quite abstract It’s hard to represent concepts like ‘corruption’ or ‘transparency’ in image form.

    Possible solutions

    Simplify your language Assume basic knowledge in your audience: run it by a relative if you want to check how an ‘outsider’ will receive and understand it. Create a style guide so everyone in the organisation understands how to talk about your services simply.

    Don’t worry about technical details If concepts like ‘open source’ and ‘open data’ are vital to your work, you can always work them in at the end of your communications – but they are very rarely the main story.

    Find the story that resonates with people What will make people connect on a personal level with your software or service? Show how it solves the problems they encounter on a daily basis.

    Create communities mySociety has set up mailing lists, events like TICTeC and when funds allow, runs conferences. These are all ways of discovering the stories around how people are using our software.

    Be systematic about audiences Spend half a day thinking about where your work will have the most impact and who you’ll need it to reach. Once you know who you want to talk to, it is much easier to pinpoint where you will find them and what you will need to say.

    Build comms into your funding applications Comms is an important part of any project launch, so make sure you include a budget line that allows for it.

    Consider volunteers Can you offer jobs that will benefit people who volunteer – eg by giving them specialised experience that they can use elsewhere – and which will also give your comms a boost?

    Make sure your services all promote one another A cheap and relatively quick way to spread the word is to tell users of one service about all the others you offer.

    Pool efforts with your partner organisation/s They are likely to have different networks and audiences that you can really benefit from, especially if they are larger than you.

    Find open source images and other sources for visuals You can often find Creative Commons images. If there is budget, illustrations and animations can be very effective for abstract concepts.

    Time upgrades to coincide with new funding or partners That means that when you have something to talk about, you also have the capacity and resource to put out your comms.

    Forge relationships with journalists When you send them a press release you’re helping them out and writing the story for them. Or go even further and train up journalists in using your tools so they can generate their own stories.

    Look for stories around your tools How are people using them? How does this tie in with whatever is more widely in the news at the moment? Even a surge in users can be a story if it relates to the main news story that day.

    How the grant could help

    Media training for civic tech comms people.

    Set up a journalism prize for the best news story to come from one of our services.

    Or a civic tech fellowship for local journalists.

    Run a conference specifically for journalists to meet civic tech people.

    Or just pay for some civic tech people to attend journalism conferences and speak about the potential stories in our work.

    Set up a portal where all civic tech groups can place their stories, and let journalists know it’s available as a resource for them.

    Pool resources Look into bulk-buying Google ads or Facebook ads etc, across multiple organisations. It will be cheaper and we can also share expertise (or commission a contractor together).

    Create an image library and advice around making good photographs with your phone. This could be used by all civic tech groups everywhere.

    Or commission a generic set of visual explainers that anyone could pick up, alter and reuse.

    Create a sharing community More widely, a space like Slack or Matrix could be used to share tips, advice, images and comms opportunities.

    Make universal logos for some of our common themes There is no logo for ‘open data’ etc – we could commission one.

    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 six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.

    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.

  2. TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #4: Storytelling and reach

    Civic Tech Surgery 4 header

    Take part

    Join us this Thursday, 12th May for our next Civic Tech Surgery to discuss the challenges of amplifying civic tech projects and their successes beyond the civic tech community, as well as solutions. Making sure more people know about civic tech projects and their successes remains one of the biggest challenges facing the sector.

    We’re delighted that we’ll be hearing from:

    Our speakers will discuss their experiences of telling the stories of Civic Tech projects and there will also be ample opportunity for attendees to provide their feedback on issues they have faced, and their solutions and ideas. You can share your thoughts on the topic over on this Padlet board, whether you can attend the Surgery or not. These will then be discussed at the Surgery, and then by the subsequent TICTeC Action Lab (aka working group) that will ultimately commission a project to help tackle one or more of the identified common challenges around accessing quality information for civic tech projects.

    About TICTeC Labs

    TICTeC Civic Tech Surgeries are part of mySociety’s TICTeC Labs programme, which aims to address the biggest issues facing the civic tech/digital democracy sector, and enhance the effectiveness and potential impact of civic tech projects. This programme is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for Democracy.

    Who are Civic Tech Surgeries for?

    Anyone interested in the use and effectiveness of digital tools to enhance public participation, democracy, transparency and accountability.

    We think the events will be of particular interest to civic tech practitioners and researchers, elected government representatives, civil servants, technology companies, funders and software developers, but anyone interested is welcome to attend.

    Register to attend

    The Civic Tech Surgery will be held virtually on Zoom. You need to register to attend by signing up on this Eventbrite page.

    To hear of future TICTeC events and initiatives first, sign up to our mailing list.

  3. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

    Reaction to report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Summary of PACAC Recommendations 

    For Cabinet Office

    Clearing House

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

    FOI Procedure

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

    Lead and model good FOI practice

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

    Wider government

    Set the right tone and meet a higher standard

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

    FOI Governance

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

     

  5. Climate month notes: April 2022

    mySociety’s Climate team is used to grappling with the big questions, but this month the one at the forefront of our minds was something along the lines of ‘Where did March go!?’ – Still, there’s a lot to report on for the last few weeks, including our first two prototyping weeks, new research outputs, and further improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Working in the open

    Unsurprisingly, our first two prototyping weeks have been top of the agenda this last month.

    First, an exploration of council procurement as a lever for local climate action kicked off with a day of workshops on Monday 4th April, including a ‘Lightning Decision Jam’ exercise (aka rapidly writing thoughts on digital Post-It notes) on the challenges around climate and procurement, as seen in the picture at the top of this post).

    All the discussions, input and ideas culminated with us building a mock-up of a service that would help notify journalists and local climate action groups about council (re-)procurement activities so they could act on them before it’s too late. We’ve summarised the week’s findings in a short report here, where you can also see screenshots and even a link to the prototype where you can click around a bit to see how it would work.

    Thank you to all of the wonderful participants who joined us throughout the week, collaborating in our workshops and testing out our prototype.

    Our second prototyping week—looking at conditional commitment as a model for addressing challenges around home energy—is already underway, and has provided a fascinating insight into how local collective action could help with the challenge many people around the UK are currently facing with fuel pricing and energy efficiency.

    We’re in the final stages of building and testing a prototype service that helps neighbours act together to book thermal imaging of their houses, and then make small and large improvements to their homes, benefiting from group activity. We’ll have another write-up about this prototype ready in a week or so.

    If you’re interested in joining our upcoming prototyping weeks (the next one, starting 9th May, is on access to nature) then get in touch.

    Researching, measuring, understanding

    But we haven’t just been prototyping: there’s other exciting stuff going on, too. This month we were happy to finally publish a fascinating review of public understanding of local government and its role in combatting climate change, prepared for us by Tom Sasse.

    Amongst Tom’s findings were: a marked rise in public concern over climate change, and continued support for stronger action on climate issues; a general agreement across society that local councils have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and that central government should provide more funding to enable local action; and signs that the most effective way to promote climate action will be by framing it around local—rather than national or global—concerns. Read Alex’s blog post for more details.

    Alex also did some experimentation into how we can categorise local government services. His dataset is already shaping our outreach with local authorities, and our policy work. It could also form the basis for improved comparisons on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Meanwhile, Pauline, our Policy and Advocacy Manager, combed through all 305 pages of the government’s Levelling Up whitepaper, to extract the policy implications for local authorities trying to reach net zero. The whitepaper’s proposal to establish a new independent body for gathering, enhancing, and making available public data is really encouraging, especially in a field like local climate response, where a lack of timely, high quality data is already hampering local authorities’ abilities to plan and measure climate initiatives. You can read more about this in Pauline’s blog post.

    Everything else

    Our developer, Struan, took advantage of the lack of an Easter Monday holiday in Scotland to deploy a number of improvements to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans and emissions data. You can now, for example, filter the list of councils by English regions (like the North West, or South East) and also quickly compare district or borough councils inside a given county. This filtering is also available on CAPE’s sister site, Council Climate Plan Scorecards.

    We also improved the way we decide whether a council “has a plan”, so that draft plans, or other types of documents no longer count. As a result, the figure on our homepage of “councils with a plan” dropped from 88% to 77%, but we think you’ll agree that this is a more accurate reflection of the real number of councils with a real climate action plan or climate strategy. Of course, new plans are released every week, and we’re doing work behind the scenes to make it easier for council officers to notify us of these changes, and get their CAPE pages updated quickly.

    We also had our first six-month check-in with one of our funders, the National Lottery Community Fund. We’re really excited to see how we can work with them over the next two years, to enable local climate action that both involves and respects communities that wouldn’t normally be active on climate. As part of this, Gemma and I, in particular, have been thinking about how we can use public events to convene a community of practice around climate and other complementary sectors of society. For more on that, watch this space!

     

  6. New report: Improving oversight of Access to Information

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

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

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

    Summary of recommendations:

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

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

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

  7. We’re prototyping — fancy joining us?

    Having launched two services – the Climate Action Plan Explorer and Council Climate Scorecards – mySociety’s Climate Programme is running a series of six rapid prototyping weeks to explore what we could do next.

    The next prototyping week, during the week starting 9 May 2022, will be all about access to nature. How can we use mySociety’s expertise in data and digital tools to help accelerate initiatives that integrate nature with the urban environment, open up rural spaces to a broader demographic, or encourage better stewardship, understanding and nurturing of our flora and fauna?

    If you’d like to get involved, please fill this short form to express your interest and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. We’ll also soon be announcing the topic of prototyping week #4.

    Prototyping? What’s that?

    If you’re wondering what happens during a prototyping week, look no further than my colleague Zarino’s report on week #1, which focused on enabling local authority emissions reductions through procurement.

    Right now we’re midway through prototyping week #2, exploring the potential to catalyse local climate action on energy through conditional commitment. As with #1, we’ve had a busy couple of days with a great bunch of people from organisations outside of mySociety contributing thoughts on problems and potential solutions in this space. Several inspiring ideas emerged and we’ve whittled it down to one solution to prototype. Now our thoughts are turning towards building and testing that prototype with a few people before the end of this week.

    So it’s a real rollercoaster, trying to quickly grasp what mySociety could contribute and taking steps towards understanding if it’s useful before going any further. We hope a couple of ideas will be strong enough for us to develop further, preferably in partnership. And by working openly we hope that this series of prototyping weeks provides possibilities for people outside of mySociety to pick up and pursue ideas that we aren’t able to commit to ourselves.

    All that said, using this approach in this way – designing for the needs of society in the face of an ongoing emergency – is something of an experiment. So we’re reflecting and adapting as we go. This post is part of those broader efforts to continuously improve. We hope that by working in the open we’ll enable a richer range of feedback on, and involvement in, what we’re doing.

    So, please do join us if access to nature is an area in which you have expertise or strong ideas, or pass this on to anyone suitable.

    In line with our equity, diversity and inclusion strategy we’d be particularly grateful if you could also share this post in places that will help us in our policy of centring minoritised groups. We’ve been particularly inspired by orgs such as Black2Nature, Black Girls Hike and Nature is a Human Right but we know there must be more out there with relevant experience and expertise on access to nature — please do help us find them.

  8. Business Improvement Districts on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve recently added lots of Business Improvement District (BID) organisations to our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    BIDs are directly funded via business rates. They spend public money, and have a significant impact on important public spaces, but are generally not subject to Freedom of Information law. 

    We are listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow because we think they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. WhatDoTheyKnow is not only an FOI service: we also actively seek to expand the scope of access to information law, and will add bodies to the site if it is clear that they should be open to public scrutiny.

    Business Improvement Districts were introduced via Part 4 of the Local Government Act 2003

    Most BIDs are focused on shopping streets, but there are others which work around industrial estates, and a handful seek to boost the tourism sector in their areas. 

    BIDs’ activities vary from body to body. Examples include:

    The establishment of a BID requires the support of both: 

    1. the majority of business rate payers in the relevant sectors and area, and
    2. those representing a majority of the rateable value relating to the votes cast.

    The local council responsible for collecting business rates may veto a proposal for a BID, but once it has been approved the council is required to collect the “BID levy” alongside business rates and pass it on to the BID organisation.

    While these ballots provide a democratic mandate for BIDs, the ability to scrutinise how a BID is run during its period of operation is important so that people can assess the performance of these organisations and assure themselves that the public money they are responsible for is spent appropriately.

    BIDs can increase the level of influence businesses have in their areas of operation. One argument in favour of BIDs is they correct for an “influence gap” arising due to the fact businesses don’t have a vote when it comes to electing local councillors. On the flip-side of that, BIDs can be argued to reduce the ability of local residents to influence projects relating to their local shopping streets, or other areas of BID activity. 

    A recent report from the lottery funded Power to Change Trust on the operation of BIDs stated: 

    Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have proven successful in involving businesses in the development of local economies, addressing a previous influence gap – but there is no parallel system for residents to participate, other than via indirect means with their local councillor or planning system. This leaves those who have ideas about how to shape their places without a strong voice.

    While listing BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow won’t directly give people a greater say in how BIDs which impact their local areas are run, greater transparency will hopefully enable informed lobbying, better quality media reporting, and enable those running the organisations to be held to account. WhatDoTheyKnow is open to all, anyone with an interest in the operation of a BID, be they a local resident, a levy paying business, or anyone else, is welcome to use our service to request information from a BID.  

    All public bodies which receive funding via council tax, such as parish councils, Police and Crime Commissioners and Fire Authorities are subject to FOI. It seems right that bodies funded via a levy collected as part of business rates should also be subject to the Act.

    Enabling people to request information from BIDs in public, and automatically publishing any responses, will hopefully improve the transparency of these organisations. If there are refusals to provide requested information, these may be cited by those who, like us, think that BIDs should be made subject to the Act. 

    A new approach to developing the public body database

    We are currently listing around 300 BIDs on WhatDoTheyKnow

    At the time of writing we don’t hold an email address for around 120 of them. If anyone seeks to make a request to those we don’t have an address for, they will be prompted to look for an email address for us to use, and let us know if they find one. 

    To-date, we’ve generally avoided listing bodies without email addresses, although doing so would closely copy a model that’s worked well on mySociety’s WriteToThem site for many years — where someone wants to email their MP or councillor and we don’t have an address, we will ask users to see if they can find the required details. 

    For WhatDoTheyKnow, this is an experiment to see if listing bodies without an address encourages users to find them for us. We hope to experiment with more nudges like this, to see if they motivate users to help us keep our database updated — thus spreading the load of a task that would otherwise take up quite a bit of our time.

    Image: Artur Kraft

  9. Democracy in a changing climate

    A year into our Climate programme, with two digital services targeted at local climate action under our belts, I’ve been taking the opportunity to reflect on the reasons we started the programme, and how it connects to our mission as an organisation. The Climate programme’s anniversary also coincides with the point at which I’m picking up the role of Chief Executive, with more responsibility to explore—with our team and trustees—where we can best contribute in future.  

    Is mySociety pivoting to climate now?

    When we developed the programme, we had a lot of conversations about whether this represented a pivot for us as an organisation, away from our core practice areas of Democracy, Transparency and Community. 

    To me, the answer is clear. We aren’t pivoting towards climate change; we’re recognising that, in the words of Paddy Loughman, climate is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. And that includes the story of democracy which has at its heart the question “how can we live together?”.

    The climate crisis puts into sharp focus all the questions we already face about how democracy can work at the scale, speed and complexity we need it to in the modern world. It is no coincidence that climate has been the topic that has brought democratic innovations like citizens assemblies and place-based commissions to the UK. With the wicked problem of a changing climate as the setting, all organisations should be considering what role they can play through their work. 

    In terms of our work, “no longer the story but the setting in which stories happen” is also a way of thinking of the transformative effect the internet has had on all our lives.  We don’t talk so much about digital democracy as we did in the era when mySociety was founded, partly because the digital part now goes without saying for so many people. 

    mySociety began its life as an exploration of the ways in which digital technology could allow democratic participation to flourish. Our history has been one of experimentation, of using digital services to ask ‘what if?’ TheyWorkForYou is a response to the question ‘What if there were better ways for people to get information about the decisions that are being made on their behalf?’ WhatDoTheyKnow is a response to the question ‘What if asking questions of those in power were completely normalised?’ Millions of people’s lives are improved by these engines of democratic access each year. 

    As the climate crisis brings urgent new challenges for the ways we make decisions, we think our unique contribution to the response to that crisis is in exploring the beneficial role digital services can play at the intersection of climate and democracy. That is the heart of our climate programme. 

    So what are we doing?

    There are many threads to pull on here, and we’ve started with local democratic response. Partly because a third of the UK’s emissions are under the influence of local government and the communities they serve, but also because literally starting where you are is a reasonable response both to the complexity of what we do about climate as individuals and how we might engage as citizens in a modern democracy. Climate action is a local problem – it’s just a local problem everywhere.

    When individual change and systemic change need to feed upon each other, there are many needs that digital services can play a part in responding to, such as:

    • better information about the scale of the problem and what government and institutions are and could be doing
    • better information about local communities and the complexity and difference of modern lives as we make the huge transition ahead
    • opportunities for people to come together to act and to make fair decisions for current and future generations
    • faster feedback loops between these elements, so that many different organisations and individuals can coordinate

    It’s especially exciting for me to be reflecting on these opportunities at a point where we’re starting a series of experiments we’re calling ‘prototyping weeks’, working in the open and with others, to continue to ask ‘what if?’ and see where digital services might help bridge the gaps. We’ll be talking more about this over the next few months, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us. 

    This blog post inspired in part by the essays in ​​Addressing the Climate Crisis – Local action in theory and practice, edited by Candice Howarth, Matthew Lane and Amanda Slevin

    Image: Sheffield at Sunset by Benjamin Elliot

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

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

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

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

    The report has seven key messages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Reflections on the report:

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

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

    The report can be read online or downloaded as a PDF

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    Photo credit: Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash