1. WhatDoTheyKnow: one for the admin-lovers

    WhatDoTheyKnow is kept up and running by a dedicated team of volunteers. Do you have the time or skills required to help? If you think you might like to lend a hand, read on to see what they do on a daily basis, as well as some examples of desired site improvements. 


    Ginormous database

    One of the volunteers’ many tasks is to maintain what we believe to be the largest existing database of public bodies in the UK (38,362 of them…and counting).

    This requires quite a bit of time and effort to keep up to date: email addresses change; bodies merge, get new names or just cease to exist.

    The turnover of the financial year always brings an extra slew of required changes; presumably many bodies like to use this date for a nice neat cut-off in their records. So, to give a snapshot of the sort of admin work the volunteers undertake, let’s take a look at every task April 1 brought the team this year.

    New authorities

    Thirteen new authorities were added. Some of them are so new that they haven’t yet had any FOI requests made through the site. Perhaps you’ll be the first?

    When we add a new body that replaces an existing one, we also make sure that no-one can make requests to the now-defunct authority — while at the same time, requests made to it in the past, along with any responses, are still available to view, and requests in progress can still be followed up.

    We also set up page redirects to the new body, and replicate all of the metadata that helps WhatDoTheyKnow’s system work behind the scenes. It might be a bit of a faff but it’s worth the effort to keep things running smoothly.

    Many thanks to volunteer Martyn for completing the lion’s share of the work listed above.

    How you can help

    If you know of any other changes that haven’t been reflected on the site, please do let us know.

    If this post has reminded you how much you enjoy admin, consider joining the team! We always need more volunteers to help us run the site, keep the database up to date, deal with requests to remove material, and support our users. Find out more here.

    There are some specific tasks that are top of our wish-list, too:

    • We’d love to do some intensive work on our list of parish level councils to make it comprehensive — this could mean a few people working systematically through a list, or several checking how well their local area is represented on WhatDoTheyKnow. Local democracy matters, more so than ever, and transparency is important for bringing happenings to light (as events in Handforth have recently reminded us!).
    • We have ambitions to organise our bodies geographically, showing bodies which operate in particular areas, or showing maps of the areas covered by bodies. See this ticket for a discussion of some of the possibilities which we haven’t had the resource to completely finesse.
      mySociety has experience in mapping UK governmental areas, but we’re yet to integrate that expertise into WhatDoTheyKnow — do you have the required coding skills to make it happen?
    • We’d like to do more organising of the bodies by their function too, helping guide users to the appropriate body fo their request.

    If you have skills in web-scraping, spreadsheet wrangling, database maintenance or other relevant areas and think you can help us — please let us know!


    Image: Anastasia Zhenina

  2. Fish passports? Any fin is possible

    People making FOI requests are sometimes accused of embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’  — looking for news stories without a clear idea of what they will dredge up — but a recent request on WhatDoTheyKnow asked for something very specific.

    “Could you state”, it asked, “the number of passports issued to British fish since Brexit proper began on 1st Jan 2021?”.

    This request was not as fishy as it might at first appear: it was based on a statement in Parliament. On 14 January, commenting on Brexit and its impact on the fishing industry, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

    “The key is that we have our fish back: they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”

    Ordinarily, we discourage what might be seen as frivolous use of FOI via our site, but as it happens this request was processed by the authority without complaint. They replied in a straightfaced manner:

    “Her Majesty’s Passport Office does not hold the information which you have requested. Animal classification is not captured as part of the passport application process.”

    While this might not have been exemplary use of our service, citizens have the right to make requests that clarify puzzling statements from our elected representatives, or to simply highlight that they are incomprehensible.

    One of the team says, “It’s understandable that the public might ponder, ‘what did he really mean?’ It could be something of a floccinaucinihilipilification, but it might also relate to a ‘catch certificate’, or one of the many other new items of bureaucracy that have appeared in recent months.”

    Another WhatDoTheyKnow team member added, “My reading of that response is that the Government aren’t sure that everyone with a British passport is actually human… and some proportion might well in fact be fish.”

    We, however, think that’s something of a red herring, and we’d advise that anyone seriously wanting to surface information about piscine issues might have more luck sending a request to DEFRA, CEFAS, or the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

     —

    Image: Fredrik Öhlander

  3. From the horse’s mouth: chatting to MaDada

    One of the great joys of working on Alaveteli is that we also get to meet and collaborate with all kinds of organisations around the world who care about transparency, helping them set up their own Freedom of Information websites on our open source codebase.

    MaDada logoOne such project is MaDada, the French FOI site which launched in the autumn of 2019, helping citizens navigate the bureaucracy around submitting a request for information. The name is a pun: ‘dada’ being a kids’ word for horse — hence their equine logo.

    Thanks to ongoing support from the Adessium fund, we’ve recently equipped MaDada with the ‘Pro’ add-on that allows journalists and other professional users of FOI to access specialised tools.

    We took the opportunity to speak with Laurent Savaete and Eda Nano from the Ma Dada team, to learn more about how the site has been received by the French populace and what the hopes are for this new Pro functionality (or ‘Plus Plus‘ as they’re calling it over there).

    FOI in France

    But first, we wanted to know more about the background of FOI in France. The Alaveteli community consists of so many organisations pursuing the same types of aims, but always against different cultural backgrounds, and there’s always an opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. Eda and Laurent filled us in:

    “The French FOI law is one of the oldest around — it dates back as far as 1978. It’s often referred to as the CADA law, based on the ‘Commission d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs’ which is the official institution in charge of overseeing how administrations comply with it. One good thing is that in both 2016 and 2018 the law was reinforced to require all documents to be released as open data, in open standards and easy-to-use formats.

    “But unfortunately the right to information is not so strong here in France. For example, CADA doesn’t have a power of mandate. When an administration fails to respond to a request, CADA’s decisions are no more than advisory opinions, though they can be crucial if you want to take the administration to court for lack of response.

    “Not everyone’s able or ready to take administrations to court, though. I mean, it’s not that the process is difficult, but it’s far more complex than filing an FOI request via MaDada.

    “Also, while anyone can ask for documents, and the service is always free, we can only request documents that already exist and ‘do not require too much work from the authority’. There is of course no clear definition of ‘too much work’, but it’s often used as a reason to reject a request, along with the exemptions around matters of defence and official secrets which are too easily brandished in response to requests.”

    Wait, ‘of course’ there’s no definition — did we hear that correctly? Apparently so:

    “The exact wording of the French law is that a request must only be fulfilled if it ‘does not require so much work that it could impede the officer or the administration from doing their main work’.”

    We were astonished to hear this — here in the UK, we have the same exemption, but it comes complete with an upper cost, which can also be expressed as hours of work, which must be undertaken before the authority can refuse the request due to ‘exceeding the appropriate limit’. We’ve also got a bunch of other exemptions! But at least they are all clearly defined.

    Plan for an Open Government

    When it comes to other problems with FOI, there’s a story that’s familiar to many in the Alaveteli network:

    “The key problem in France is the gap between the law, and how the law is actually applied or enforced. Incentives for public officers tend to push against transparency: nobody will get in trouble for ignoring a request for documents, but they could if they disclose documents which shouldn’t have been published. So erring on the side of safety means less transparency.

    “More and more, journalists and activists have been pointing out the complete lack of FOI responses or the overrun in delays from administrations in providing a legally required response.”

    “Transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool!”

    On the other hand, something’s in the air: “What we’ve seen in recent years and especially months, is that after the mid 2020 elections, municipalities started appointing deputies on transparency matters. For example in Marseilles, we now have a Representative for Transparency and Open Data for the town.

    “France signed up for the Open Government Partnership initiative in 2014, but its first action plan in 2018-20? Frankly the results were not spectacular at all: it was more words than action.

    “Last month, the Government launched a second two-year ‘Plan for an Open Government’: this one’s set to run until 2023. They said it will be better, with more money to serve it, more concrete actions, more collaborations with citizens. And they’ve asked MaDada to give feedback and tell them what we’d like to see realised in the next few years.

    “So transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool. But at the moment it’s too young to be judged. The words are there and we need to see concrete actions. Let’s hope that things really will change drastically towards openness and transparency and that that we do not only have words to rely on.”

    Enter MaDada

    That’s all very interesting and helps us understand the background details. Now, into this mix a new FOI site for the general public appeared 18 months ago. So how has MaDada been received?

    “When we launched in October 2019, the French FOI law was quite an unknown topic for the public at large, and the need for transparency and open data were still, somehow, something only discussed internally.

    “In our first year of existence we had something like 200 requests (see MaDada’s blog posts about their first year online – in French).

    “We are now at 800 public requests. So numbers picked up pace: something’s happened recently.

    “It’s not just that the platform recently improved — with better user support and the addition of the Pro feature: we can also see that the topics of open data and transparency are becoming more and more popular. Several activists and organisations have been campaigning around these matters, sometimes via MaDada. The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.

    “We list 50,509 public authorities (I think France has the world record here). A lot of our support time is used up trying to keep the email addresses for these authorities up to date. And that’s tricky: there’s not much proactive updating from the authorities themselves, we’re constantly having to ask them for new addresses. We hope that the Project for an Open Government will make this easier for us.

    “As of today we’ve reached 955 requests, of which 794 are public — the rest are still embargoed. Out of those, just 126 have been successful so far. That’s very low: many authorities in France just ignore the law, and sit on incoming requests until the one month time limit to reply is over. We’re at around a 15% success rate, which is probably not too bad in the average French context. We’re obviously hoping to work to improve this!

    “We’ve just seen an incredible growth in the number of users and requests in the past five months: more or less an exponential growth, which is pretty exciting! We hope this trend continues.”

    Plusplus good

    And as for the addition of Pro, allowing for the MaDada++ service? We were interested to hear the organisation’s experiences and hopes around this add-on.

    “The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.”

    “The Madada++ feature is working so well: it’s been attracting journalists mostly, as well as data scientists and activists. The biggest appeal is the batch requests, and also the temporarily embargoed requests, allowing them to keep their news stories exclusive, or giving them time to analyse data before publishing.

    “We’re happy to see that despite this ability, they still follow our advice to publish data as soon as they can.

    “Since the MaDada++ feature went live, we’ve clearly seen more in-depth analysis and journals publishing reports on data obtained through it. We hope to see more coming in the next months.”

    What’s France asking for?

    Finally, we were curious about the type of information that’s been released on MaDada. Anything of interest here?

    “Well, recently, as you might expect, there have been a lot of requests related to COVID-19: data around the analysis of COVID in sewage water; about the circulation of COVID variants in France; metrics showing the usage of our national COVID app.

    “Let us also mention the publication of a report on poverty and conditions in accessing minimum social aid in France by the Secours Catholique and Aequitaz organisations: this report used responses to batch requests made via MaDada++.

    “And another journalist, who uses MaDada extensively, just published a report on the fees of deputies, pointing out the lack of and need for transparency  —  that the French law already requires!

    “Also, we’re very proud to begin our collaboration with La Quadrature Du Net, the French organisation defending digital fundamental liberties, who are intensively using MaDada for their legal analysis and for their Technopolice campaign that reveals the encroaching police surveillance powers.”

    And on that last note, there’s the proof of the assertion we made at the top of this post: that the international community of Alaveteli users have so much in common. Privacy International have been looking into exactly this same issue, as we covered in a blog post.

    We want to thank MaDada so much for sharing their experiences in deploying and running the Alaveteli codebase and offering the people of France an easier route to accessing information. While we’re all unable to travel, we can still have these useful and interesting discussions. May their project go from strength to strength.


    Image: Amy Barr (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  4. TICTeC Show & Tell: Scrutiny, oversight, and the data that makes it possible

    TICTeC – mySociety’s long running research conference – continues to offer a convening place for the global civic tech community. Of course, like every other event we’ve moved to an online environment, and we’re keen to keep things fresh in an era of screen fatigue.

    With that in mind, the TICTeC Show and Tell sessions are just an hour long, feature six different speakers, and move fast. We’re putting them on monthly until May, and the first, ‘Scrutiny, oversight, and the data that makes it possible‘, took place this week.

    Given the speed of the proceedings, you may be glad to know that a variety of outputs are available for you to review via whichever format you prefer:

    Full video

    Six 7-minute presentations  on using tech for transparency and accountability.


    How to monitor emergency procurement with open data: lessons from 12 countries

    Camila Salazar from Open Contracting Partnership kicked things off with a look at OGP’s research into the data around emergency procurement in 12 countries. As you might expect, the availability and quality of data varied widely, but the project was able to provide an outcome of useful recommendations across the board.

    See this presentation


    Civic tech for smartphone beginners: is the future binary?

    Next up, Arran Leonard of Integrity Action took us through a variety of iterations in a promise-tracking app, each of which built on learnings from the last. Monitors on the ground may have a strong motivation to report on progress, but low tech skills – here we see how a simple interface can still provide the data that’s needed to effectively oversee public services and infrastructure projects.

    See this presentation


    Find that Charity: a tool to help find charities and improve charity data

    David Kane, Project Lead at 360Giving introduced the Find that Charity tool, while discussing the importance of standardised data in the grant-making world and beyond. With charities often being known to the public by different names than the ones they’re registered under, a searchable register is invaluable for the sector.

    See this presentation


    Civic tech vs. illicit pharmacies

    We next turned to the issue of unlicensed pharmacies, with Ibraheem Saleem of Code for Pakistan. A project to digitise the previously manual licencing process and cut down on counterfeit medicines has been widely successful, saving government hours and bringing transparency and accountability to the sector.

    See this presentation


    Keeping track of open data in times of political change

    Silvana Fumega of ILDA  and David Zamora from Latin American and the Caribbean Open Data Barometer talked us through how data was gathered in the most recent update that would inform and contribute to the improvement and extension of open data policies and projects in the region. With the inclusion of lessons learned, this was a practical overview of how to manage such a snapshot.

    See this presentation


    How AfricanLII saves its users $100million a year

    Finally, Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust and Amy Sinclair from AfricaLII explained why the latter is such an inviting prospect for funders: just a small investment can provide very substantial returns in the form of access to legal documents, brining significant positive, social, legal, and financial impacts for their users.

    See this presentation


    And that’s not all

    The next TICTeC Show and Tell, Hearing every voice: lessons learned from online deliberation projects focuses on public engagement, and takes place on April 20. See who’s speaking, and sign up for free, here.

  5. A guide to working from home, sustainably

    We’ve created a guide giving some tips on how to lower your carbon footprint when working from home — and we think it might be useful to others as well, especially now so many are using their living space as a temporary or permanent office due to lockdown. We’re inviting you to share and adapt it for your own use, if you want to. You can download it here. Don’t print it out 😉


    Last year at mySociety, we started an internal Climate Action Group: the underlying aim is to explore and propose ways in which we, as an organisation, can work more sustainably.

    We started with the low hanging fruit of our travel impact (suddenly diminished in this era of lockdowns, of course: but we now have policies in place for when they are needed again) and calculating our existing carbon footprint; and we’re continuing to research into offsetting and reducing our server emissions, working with more environmentally-friendly suppliers, etc.

    But when we turned to our own work environment, we realised that of course most of the guidance for businesses assumes they operate out of a shared office — which mySociety doesn’t.

    For bricks and mortar businesses, the responsibility for emissions during working hours would belong to your employer: they’d be the ones thinking about recycling, or sustainable stationery suppliers, or keeping heating economical and eco-friendly. But as a remote organisation, mySociety doesn’t have an office building, and now that we’re in lockdown, none of us even use coworking spaces.

    So here we all are, working in our own individual homes across the UK. Does that mean we should forget about our workplace carbon footprint?

    Certainly there’s an argument to say that once you’re working from home, it’s up to you what you do, and your climate impact is your own responsibility. It’s a fine line for sure; and there’s an additional risk of patronising our colleagues who might all know perfectly well how to go about heating their homes or recycling office supplies in a sustainable manner.

    These are fair enough considerations, but we reckon we can still collate good practice — the document’s open for comment among staff and we’ll continue adding everyone’s ideas and resources to it. There’s bound to be something that’s new, or at least a good reminder, in there for everyone.

    And if you are reading this from outside mySociety, but have suggestions for additions, please do get in touch.

    You can download the guide here. We hope you get something useful from it.

    Image: Egor Myznik

  6. We believe in the right to protest

    mySociety condemns the inclusion of new legislation against protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the second reading of which started on Monday and which continued to be debated and was then voted through last night.

    Clauses 54 to 60, amending the Public Order Act 1986, were added at short notice to a wide-ranging Bill and threaten to expand police powers with loosely written clauses that will allow almost any act of assembly or protest to be seen as breaking the law.

    The Bill now goes to the Committee stage stage for a clause by clause analysis which you’ll be able to follow on TheyWorkForYou. There is still time to send your comments to your MP before the proposals become law.

    A vital right within a democracy

    mySociety is a non-partisan organisation which gives people the tools they need to be active citizens. We strongly believe that in a thriving democracy, citizens must be able to hold their elected representatives to account. We recognise that public protest is a vital part of being an active citizen; a mechanism for making change and challenging those in power.

    When a single voice isn’t enough, a message can be amplified by marching on the streets with banners and megaphones — an entitlement that is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, codified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and which we believe to be of huge importance to the way that democracy functions.

    Protest doesn’t just block roads and display inconvenient dissent to governments. Protest is a means by which communities across the UK may discuss amongst themselves and come to agreement about what they believe in; what they will or will not stand for and the kind of country in which they want to live.

    It brings issues to the public discourse far from the cities in which a march or assembly takes place, and can result in nuanced discussions, changed minds, and ultimately, alterations to law that reflect this new consensus.

    Impact is the whole point

    With vague wording that allows for police to clamp down on any assembly (or indeed lone protester) that “may” cause disruption, this addition to the Bill extends maximum sentencing for public nuisance to ten years; and deters citizens from one of the important means of displaying dissatisfaction — all points that were brought up during the debate but which were ultimately discounted in the final division.

    Under this clause, a Senior Police Officer may “impose any conditions they consider necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”, reports the Good Law Project, also pointing out that “the very object of exercising the right to protest is to have impact.”

    Indeed, we can look back at a long history of instances where protest has done just that, from the abrupt withdrawal of the Poll Tax to the gradual change in law over gay rights.

    The Good Law Project is not alone in pointing out that the proposed amendments also give Home Secretaries (present and future) unrestricted powers to change the definition of ‘serious disruption’: they have a perhaps surprising ally in Theresa May:

    “It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”

    This provision was conceived during the pandemic and presented as a temporary measure that would allow the government to ensure that people did not endanger others by breaking lockdown rules. As many have pointed out, such simultaneously nebulous and sinister adjustments to police powers should not be written into law lightly, in a hurry, and without intense scrutiny from civil society.

    But it was added at short notice to the Bill along with other hurried restrictions and significant omissions which should be similarly subject to proper scrutiny.

    What you can do

    As this is the Second Reading, the Bill now undergoes its Committee and Reporting stages before being sent to the House of Lords. If the Lords want to propose amendments, it will return to the Commons for further debate. So there is still time to use our WriteToThem service to email your MP and tell them how important the right to protest is to you and to your community.

    If you’d like to really make sure your experiences and insights count, this joint committee is currently accepting input from ‘interested groups and individuals’.

    You can also add your name to the demand for a charter for Freedom of Assembly via this petition from Netpol.

    Ironically, there will be real-world protests too — indeed, these began outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday night and there have been smaller demonstrations across the UK. If you are taking part, please do be careful out there.

    Image: Steve Eason (CC by-nc/2.0)

  7. Join us at our TICTeC Show & Tells

    We’re excited to invite you to our TICTeC Show & Tell events, which will be taking place online in March, April and May.

    At each event, six speakers from across the world will be given 7 minutes each to share their research and learnings related to the impacts of civic technology.

    TICTeC is the global home of civic tech impact research, learning and change. It’s a safe place to honestly examine what works, what doesn’t, what can be improved, what to be aware of etc., so ultimately, better digital tools for civic and democratic engagement are developed.

    Event 1:

    At this session, speakers will share their research, lessons learned and insights related to the impacts of using technology and data for improved accountability and transparency.

    Find out more here and sign up to come along.

    Event 2:

    At this event, speakers will share research and past experiences on using technology to involve citizens in policy and decision making. Topics include online citizen assemblies, online post-COVID consultations and citizen-representative communications.

    Read about each of the presentations and sign up here.

    Event 3:

    Shows & Tells at this session will cover how using geospatial/place-based technology can empower local communities to engage in planning and policy decisions.

    Read about all the presentations, and sign up here.

    Interested in sponsoring TICTeC?

    We’re a charity, so in order to continue running TICTeC events and initiatives we need financial support. Sponsorship opportunities for the TICTeC Show & Tells can be found here. We’re also looking for support for an expanded TICTeC programme of work to strengthen and solidify an international network of specialists armed with the skills and knowledge to instigate real change in how democracy can be developed and practised online. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about these opportunities.

  8. How to use FixMyStreet to make roads safer for blind people

    Since FixMyStreet first launched back in 2007, we’ve always loved hearing stories from citizens about how they use the service within their local community.

    Earlier this year, we heard from Lauren and John, who told us about how they’ve been using FixMyStreet to help make roads in their local area safer for blind people by reporting any pedestrian crossings with faulty or missing audio, tactile or visual indicators.

    These indicators are essential for anyone with sight or hearing loss to be able to safely navigate crossing the road, so when they’re broken, it is a serious hazard. A hazard that most people probably wouldn’t notice, let alone report.

    We were so inspired by their story that we asked if we could share it and encourage more people to make use of FixMyStreet in this way.

    Happily, not only did they agree, but they also made a video for us! So, meet best friends Lauren and John:

    John is deafblind and relies on using tactile indicators (those little plastic or metal cones beneath pedestrian crossing boxes, sometimes referred to as ‘twirlers’ or ‘spinners’) to know when it is safe to cross the road.

    The pair say they started reporting any broken pedestrian crossings during lockdown as a way to make the most of their daily exercise: “We wanted to use our time to do something positive that would make journeys safer for other cane and guide dog users in the local area.

    “Covid has hit visually impaired people quite hard and there have been lots of changes to street layouts, one way systems and social distancing is pretty difficult for those that cannot see.”

    There are several things that Lauren and John look out for and report on FixMyStreet: “We look at all aspects of the crossing, including buttons, lights and the spinner.

    “The wait light is surprisingly important because even John, who has very little remaining vision, can see if the light is on or off. If a tactile spinner isn’t working he can work out when it’s safe to cross using this light, as it will go off when the man turns green.”

    That’s not all, though. Broken glass is also high up on their reporting priority list. Lauren explains, “[Glass] is a real hazard for John’s guide dog Daisy who will walk through it if there is no easy way around or if it is very small pieces she can’t see.”

    Lauren says it was a local litter picking group that recommended using FixMyStreet to report all the issues she and John were finding at pedestrian crossings.

    “Before finding the website I actually wouldn’t have known where or who to report the issues to.”

    FixMyStreet uses the location data provided within a report to automatically send it to the correct authority. In Lauren and John’s case, it was Birmingham City Council that received their reports.

    John and Lauren say using FixMyStreet has made reporting problems “easy”, and that they’ve been impressed by how quickly Birmingham City Council has responded to their FixMyStreet reports: “We have had issues fixed in less than 48 hours, which is great.”

    This is something we’re very pleased to hear, and serves as a reminder of why we encourage all UK councils to give their residents the option to make reports via FixMyStreet (currently, around 2% of councils don’t accept reports from third party websites like ours).

    Although lockdown will hopefully be over in the near future, John and Lauren have no plans to stop their walking and reporting routine: “Finding so many problems has motivated us to keep checking and reporting issues.

    “It could be a missing button, broken light or the tactile spinner could be missing or broken. If nobody knows they are broken, then they can’t be fixed!”

    Thanks so much to Lauren and John for sharing their story with us, and for being such active members of their community through FixMyStreet – this is exactly why we created the service in the first place.

    Next time you’re waiting at a pedestrian crossing, why not check that everything’s working as it should, and make a quick report on FixMyStreet if it’s not?

    If you want to follow more of Lauren and John’s adventures, check out their Facebook page.

    How do you use FixMyStreet? Share your own story with us here.

    Image: Valou_c on Unsplash

  9. UK government on OGP watch list for lack of transparency

    Along with several other transparency organisations, we’ve cosigned a letter from Open Government Network, adding our voice to the message of concern at the UK government’s failure to meet its own targets as laid out in the National Action Plan for Open Government  — and calling for it to get back on track before the next Action Plan is released in September.

    The UK was one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition launched in 2011 with a commitment for participating governments to work with civil society groups and the public towards ‘ambitious and radical’ improvements in transparency, accountability and democracy. Yet the organisation has now placed the UK under review for poor outcomes in open government.

    The National Action Plans (NAPs) are the mechanism by which targets are set — supposedly in consultation with participating NGOs — on a cyclical basis; these are then assessed independently through mid- and end-term reports.

    Clearly the aims and vision underpinning the OGP are very much in line with mySociety’s own missions and values, and we were commissioned last year to author the end-term design report to check how effective, and inclusive, the 2019-2021 NAP has been.

    It was this report which brought to light just where, and to what degree, the government has fallen short of the required standards for public involvement, failing to liaise and take on board recommendations from civil society — and which has led to the OGP adding the UK to its watch list, putting us alongside eight other countries including Greece, Israel and Malawi.

    Consultation and co-design of the UK Action Plan with civil society, a prerequisite of the mechanism, has been lacking: for example well-evidenced suggestions for improvements to Freedom of Information have been unacknowledged and unadopted. As the government heads towards the next Action Plan, due for September, there are no signs of improved engagement.

    The letter asks the UK government to commit to four points to put it back on track as a leading partner in the network, including a review of previous unmet commitments to see why they were not met and whether they can be included in the new NAP. The letter also appeals for a timely publication of the next NAP, before which urgent meetings with civil society stakeholders need to be held, and the actions that arise from them implemented.

    The current NAP expires in September 2021, and we, along with our civil society colleagues, implore the UK government to commit to speedy and meaningful engagement on developing high quality and effective open governance. This is especially vital for civil society and the public as a whole to be sufficiently informed to hold our government to account, now more than ever, as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and development as an isolated trading entity outside of the EU.

    Image: Timo Wielink

  10. Connecting parliaments: the opportunities, risks and barriers of digital transformation

    Download the new research report Connected Parliaments here.

    When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.

    Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.

    One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.

    ‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.

    The report can be accessed here.

    Image: Fabio Bracht