1. Climate programme: new season, new cycle

    Joining mySociety as the Climate Programme’s Delivery Manager a couple of months ago, it soon became clear I had walked into a super-organised, passionate and able team. What was there left for me to do? Turns out the answer is to variously support, organise, communicate, enable, help them look ahead, let them get on with it and occasionally help them to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ to the things that aren’t top of the list. I led the team through cycle planning last week. This is a particularly favorite part of the job for me: it gives us a chance to look back and see how far we’ve travelled; and then think big for the future.

    The last six weeks has seen Climate Emergency UK (CEUK) steam ahead on the analysis of councils’ climate action plans, recruiting around 140 volunteers, developing and delivering training, and designing subsequent stages to the process which will include a ‘right to reply’ by councils and second marking by a smaller group. mySociety has supported CEUK by developing technical systems that enable them to carry out this work – from robust spreadsheets that minimise the risk of scores being overwritten by other volunteers, through to automatically tracking the number of plans started and completed. We expect the results to go live in January 2022.

    mySociety developer Struan joined the Climate team full-time in early August and, along with designer Zarino, he has been working on improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) including better search, a zip download of all plans, and the basics of an API.

    Our new Outreach and Networks Coordinator Siôn Williams started in mid-August and hit the ground running, helping the team think through its approach to outreach while bringing fresh perspectives and considerable relevant experience. Several relationships are already bearing fruit including Friends of the Earth asking all their supporters to ask their Councils for stronger Climate Action Plan commitments, using CAPE as their main source of information. Myf meanwhile has developed a set of ‘explainer resources’ to help people understand how to use CAPE to maximum effect; as well as forming key relationships and building up a database of ‘who’s who’ in a range of sectors.

    We’ve also been starting to explore our assumptions about how we can best support local communities and local authorities to act quickly and effectively, laying out our Theory of Change for the programme, encouraging us to pan out and think about what change we want to see in the next few years. CAPE is a start, but we are hungry to achieve more.

    Looking forward, we will develop this further over the next few weeks, using it to lead into some longer-term planning. We have also been working on mechanisms to ensure we can work emergently, and hope to detail this out in next Climate month notes. Watch this space. And enjoy the crunchy autumn leaves when they come.

    Image: Andrew Ieviev

  2. Complement not competitor: how deliberative and representative democracy can work together

    For International Day of Democracy, we’re sharing a post from our trustee Julia Keutgen, who is also Senior Transparency Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

    In it she makes a case for supporting democratic innovations that put the citizen at the centre of decision-making, whilst at the same time strengthening and improving the democratic institutions we’ve got.


    Deliberative democracy is based on the idea that an entire population has a stake in political decisions, especially when they can help to break political deadlocks. This is especially true when members of parliament feel unable to develop new laws or policies due to fear of voter retribution. It offers a way to breathe new life into governance because political work is seen as a shared enterprise, not just among professional politicians but also with citizens who are offered an opportunity to participate.

    This does not mean that deliberative democracy processes should replace members of parliament’s responsibility to represent and oversee. Deliberative democracy complements representative democracy to enhance certain policy outcomes but should not be seen as competing against existing political authorities. If deliberation and representation clash, they can create a self-defeating environment where citizens feel their process has been sabotaged and members of parliament feel their authority is being handed away. This was seen to some extent during the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate: many members of parliament were not in favour of the assembly and argued that deliberative democracy would never be able to replace proper parliamentary debates by elected representatives.

    Deliberative processes can also be a powerful tool in pushing back against executive obstinance. Many countries are experiencing increasing centralisation and executive dominance, with legislatures often marginalised and their recommendations ignored. A legislature’s intervention, backed by the direct feedback and support of citizens, can be much more powerful than one from a parliamentary committee or individual member of parliament alone.

    As more parliaments are initiating deliberative democracy processes around the world, there are several considerations to bear in mind. Among them are the need to build coalitions of like-minded members of parliament; the need to involve the media and civil society; the need to pay attention to key design decisions and trade-offs; and the extent to which parliament should be involved in the deliberative process – many of these have been discussed in our blog series so far.

    Read Marcin Gerwin’s outline of the factors that make for a successful citizen’s assembly

    But one of the major considerations is to identify from the outset how the parliament will be involved in implementing the recommendations that come out of the process. Members of parliament have a wide range of constitutional tools at their disposal to support the implementation of outcomes from these deliberative processes. It is useful for the participants in deliberative processes to understand from the outset what role parliament can play in following up their recommendations. It is also important for participants to get an understanding of the framework in which members of parliament operate. For example, whilst a deliberative process can be conducted in a few weeks, it takes parliament months to pass a new law. This rigorous process is important as it allows the parliament to balance the actions of the executive, and members of citizens’ assemblies need to understand this.

    As more and more members of parliament are convinced of the benefits of deliberative democracy, some parliaments are starting to embed these processes into their decision-making structures. This ensures that deliberative processes become fully complementary. But institutionalisation can also help to consolidate trust in decision makers and members of parliament and lead to increased efficiency and cost saving.

    Consider the Belgian example: two of the most prominent examples of institutionalisation of deliberative processes are found in Belgium.

    Firstly, in February 2019, the parliament of the German-speaking community passed a law to establish a permanent citizen council to set the agenda and a citizen assembly. The main objective of the assembly is to issue recommendations to the parliament. Although the recommendations are not legally binding, the parliament is compelled to engage in debate with them.

    Secondly, in December 2019, the parliament of the Region of Brussels in Belgium amended its rules of procedure to establish deliberative committees composed of a mixture of members of the regional parliament and randomly selected citizens. Members of parliament and citizens suggest agenda items for up to three deliberative committees each year, and a committee can arise from citizens who can gather 1,000 signatures on a proposed issue. The deliberative parliamentary committee is composed of 15 members of parliaments and 45 citizens to draft recommendations on a given issue. These recommendations must be considered by the standing committee within 6 months and presented at a public sitting of the standing committee in which the randomly selected citizens are invited.

    Speaking about the process, Magali Plovie, President of the Francophone Brussels Parliament has said “there are also huge challenges headed our way — from climate change to lasting social injustices that increase every year — and we need to adapt our decision-making processes to this reality. Citizens need to contribute to these decisions, as they will be impacted first and foremost. Institutionalising citizen deliberation will contribute to building lasting trust between citizens and the parliament.”

    Whether institutionalizing such processes will lead to stronger take up of recommendations remains to be seen. As the Belgian constitution grants legislative power to the parliament, the power that deliberative democracy holds within parliament remains dependent on the representative institution and its members – in complement, not competition.


    Originally published by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

    Image: Social Cut

  3. To defend FOI rights, we need a separate FOI Commissioner 

    Yesterday John Edwards, the government’s preferred candidate to be the next Information Commissioner, was questioned by the House of Commons’ DCMS committee.

    During this session, Mr Edwards made several comments that raised alarm bells for us. Generally, he seemed more concerned with hypothetical abuse of the system by the public, rather than the demonstrable behaviour of the authorities that he would be charged with regulating. He also expressed support for the idea of charging requesters (contrary to the ICO’s current position and rejected by the 2016 review).

    While it is not good that those were his instinctive reactions, the general sense is that he has not yet had a chance to become fully acquainted with Freedom of Information, despite it being a significant part of his future role. The bigger problem is that any potential candidate for the job (now or in the future) is likely to be in a similar position.

    The UK Information Commissioner is two roles joined into one. In other jurisdictions these would separately be called the Privacy Commissioner (who oversees data protection) and Information Commissioner (who oversees access to information laws). When the role was created, there was more of a balance between the two aspects, but the growing significance of data protection in a digital world has meant that this side of the role has increased in focus and funding. Currently, less than 10% of the funding the ICO receives is for Freedom of Information related work.

    Graph showing a divergence between ICO funding for data protection (much higher in recent years) and FOI (declining or static)

    While it is possible that some people exist who could handle both sides of the job equally well, recruiting with an emphasis on data protection minimises any focus on the FOI role.

    John Edwards is currently the Privacy Commissioner in New Zealand, where there is an Ombudsman who separately deals with the equivalent of Freedom of Information complaints. While Elizabeth Denham, the current UK Information Commissioner had prior experience of a joint role in British Columbia, her role at the national level in Canada was similarly on the privacy side.

    Here in the UK, this is likely to be a recurring issue for Freedom of Information. It has been positioned as a sideline to the ICO’s main priorities and something that new commissioners have to catch up on, rather than hitting the ground running with a clear sense of the problems inherent in the field.

    In our recent report, we argued for a separate and independent FOI Commissioner, mirroring the arrangement in Scotland. We dug into the historical reasons why the roles were joined, and found that it had resulted from uncertainty about different offices applying different ideas about what ‘personal data’ is. The solidification and internationalisation of data protection rules (which also helps create an international recruiting pool for the role) makes this far less of a concern now, while the same trend has reduced the prominence of FOI in the joint role.

    It is also our belief that the FOI Commissioner should be independent of the government. By this we mean that as a constitutional watchdog, the Commissioner should operate under the Officer of Parliament model, and receive oversight and funding from Parliament rather than the government. The current situation presents an obvious conflict of interest, where the government controls funding for its own regulator.

    Freedom of Information has survived direct challenges in this country and across the world, but the danger (and default trajectory) for our Right To Know is not that it is abolished, but that it becomes less effective as time goes on. State activity moves to private contractors and the act is not extended to follow them.  The lack of effective and well-funded enforcement from the ICO means increasingly open non-compliance, as public bodies discover loopholes that allow them to drag out responding to requests. The solutions to these problems are not difficult (and in many cases can borrow from processes in Scottish Freedom of Information legislation), but require the political will not just to defend the FOI act as it exists, but to argue for its role into the future.

    As we approach the UK’s 20 year anniversary of Freedom of Information in 2025, we believe that change is needed to reclaim the ground that has been lost, and to strengthen Freedom of Information as a continuing practical and effective tool of government accountability. To this end, we are actively seeking to work with interested organisations and stakeholders to safeguard our right to information and place it on a more sustainable footing. In the run up to the next election, expected in 2024, we hope to see parties from across the political spectrum include provisions to defend and improve FOI operation in their manifestos. We also hope to explore opportunities for FOI to flourish in the devolved nations. To keep up with our work, sign up to our mailing list.

  4. Climate month notes #3 – some early experiments

    In June, I wrote about planning using the horizons of two weeks, six weeks , three months and a year as we build up our climate programme. At the end of July, we reached the end of our second chunk of six weeks of work.

    During this six week ‘cycle’ of work, Alex and Zarino completed their goal of setting up tracking on who’s using the site and how – we now have an automatically generated report to look at each time we plan our next two weeks of work that shows us how many local authorities have climate action plans, who is using the Climate Action Plans Explorer and what they’re looking for – it’s early days for this, but it’s already given us some ideas for little improvements.

    Zarino’s been hard at work making the site itself a bit more self-explanatory, so that Myf can start sharing it with groups who might make use of it and we can get some more feedback on the most useful next steps.

    Mid-month, the National Audit Office released their report on Local Government and Net Zero in England. We were very happy to have been able to share an early version of our climate action plans dataset with them to cross check against their own research, and in turn now benefit from their analysis, which has prompted a call for evidence from the Environmental Audit Committee who commissioned the NAO’s report. This feels like a small validation of the idea that open data on local climate action is going to help inform better policy.

    We also recruited for a new role in the programme – an Outreach and Networks Coordinator – to ensure that other organisations learn about and can get the maximum benefit from our work, and that we scope projects that complement and support them. More on that next time.

    Meanwhile we’ve been supporting our colleagues at Climate Emergency UK with some technical help as they train their first cohort of learners in local climate policy, who will be helping their communities and other people around the UK understand how well councils are tackling the climate crisis by analysing action plans. It’s been really inspiring to see this work come together, and we’re excited about the potential of the national picture of climate action that we hope will emerge.

    Finally, Alex has been working on an early experiment in applying some data science to the challenge of identifying which communities in the UK have similar challenges around climate change, so that people inside and outside local government in those communities can compare climate action across other relevant communities across the country. We think that in the longer term this might offer a good complement to case studies, which are quite common as a way of sharing knowledge, and we’re keen to get any early feedback on this approach. I’ll hand over to Alex for a more in-depth post on where he’s got to so far.

     

    Image: Austin D

  5. Identifying councils with similar emissions profiles

    One goal of our Climate Action Plans Explorer is to make it easier for good ideas around cutting carbon to be shared and replicated between local areas. For this to happen, the service should be good at helping people in one area identify other areas that are dealing with similar situations or problems.

    Currently the climate plans website shows the physical neighbours on a council’s page, but there’s every chance that councils are geographically close while being very different in other ways. We have been exploring an approach that identifies which authorities have similar causes of emissions, with the goal that this leads to better discovery of common approaches to reducing those emissions.

    The idea of automatically grouping councils using data is not a new one. The CIPFA nearest neighbours dataset suggests a set of councils that are similar to an input authority (based on “41 metrics using a wide range of socio-economic indicators”). However, this dataset is not open, only covers councils in England rather than across the UK, and is not directly focused on the emissions problem.

    This blog post explores our experiment in using the BEIS dataset of carbon dioxide emissions to identify councils with similar emissions profiles. A demo of this approach can be found here (it may take a minute  to load).

    Using the ‘subset’ dataset in the BEIS data (which excludes emissions local authorities cannot influence), we calculated the per person emissions in each local authority for the five groupings of emissions (Industry, Commercial, Domestic, Public Sector and Transport). We calculated the ‘distance’ between all local authorities based on how far they differed within each of these five areas. For each authority, we can now identify which other authorities have the most similar profile of emissions.

    We also wanted to use this data to tell more of a story about why authorities are and are not similar. We’ve done this in two ways.

    The first is converting the difficult to parse ‘emissions per type per person’ number into relative deciles, where all authorities are ranked from highest to lowest and assigned a decile from one to ten (where ten is the highest level of emissions). This makes it easy to see at a glance how a council’s emissions relate to other authorities. For instance, the following table shows the emissions deciles for Leeds City Council. This shows a relatively high set of emissions for the Commercial and Public Sector, while being just below average for Industry, Domestic and Transport.

    Emissions type Decile for Leeds City Council
    Industry Emissions Decile 4
    Commercial Emissions Decile 7
    Domestic Emissions Decile 4
    Public Sector Emissions Decile 9
    Transport Emissions Decile 4

     

    The second story-telling approach is to put easy-to-understand labels on groups of councils to make the similarities more obvious. We’ve used k-means clustering to try and identify groups of councils that are more similar to each other than to other groups of councils. Given the way that the data is arranged, there seemed to be a sweet spot at six and nine clusters, and as an experiment we looked at what the six clusters looked like.

    How ‘Urban Mainstream’ Industrial emissions differ from other local authorities using a raincloud plot.Raincloud plot of Industry Emissions 

    Using tools demonstrated in this jupyter notebook, we looked at the features of the six clusters and grouped these into three “Mainstream” clusters (which were generally similar to each other but with some difference in features), and three “Outlier” clusters, which tended to be smaller, and much further outside the mainstream. Reviewing the properties of these labels, these were relabelled into six categories that at a glance gets the broad feature of an area across.

    Label Description Authority count Lower Tier Land Area % Lower Tier Population %
    Urban – Mainstream Below average commercial/industry/transport/ domestic emissions. High density. 165 14% 45%
    Rural – Mainstream Above average industry/transport/domestic emissions. Low density. 122 44% 26%
    Urban – Commercial Above average commercial/public sector, below average domestic/transport. High density. 66 4% 22%
    Rural – Industrial Above average transport/ industry/ domestic emissions. Low density. 43 37% 7%
    Urban – High Commercial Very high commercial/public sector emissions. 7 1% 2%
    High Domestic Counties Very above average domestic and transport emissions in county councils. 2

     

    Map of different labelled clusters of Emissions profiles in the UK

    This data is not tightly clustered, and the number of clusters could be expanded or contracted, but six seemed to hit a good spot before there were more clusters that only had a small number of authorities. The map below shows how these clusters are spread across the country. This  map uses an exploded cartogram approach, where authorities with larger populations appear bigger. The authority is then positioned broadly close to their original position (so the blank space has no meaning).

    Joining these different approaches allowed us to build a demo where for any local authority, you can get a short description of the emissions profile and cluster, and identify councils that are similar. This demo can be explored here (it may take a minute to load). The description for Croydon looks like this:

    Screenshot of demo interface

    This is not the only possible way of crunching the numbers.

    For example, the first thing we did was adjust the emissions data to be per person. This helps simplify comparison between areas of different sizes, but how many people are in an area is information that is relevant in helping councils find similar councils.

    The BEIS data also breaks down those five categories by more variables (which might better separate agriculture from other kinds of industry for instance): an alternative approach could make more use of these.

    We are considering using multiple different measures to help councils explore similar areas. This could include situation features like flood risk, deprivation scores and EPC data on household energy efficiency, but could also include, for example,  that some councils are more politically similar to each other, and may find it easier to transfer ideas.

    If you have any feedback, positive or negative, on this approach, please email me at alex.parsons@mysociety.org, make a comment below or raise an issue on the GitHub repo.

    The datasets and processing steps are available on GitHub.

    Image: Max Böttinger

  6. 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

  7. Climate month notes #2: kind of tedious, kind of magical

    This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.

    As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.

    Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.

    First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.

    Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.

    He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Map showing the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.

    This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.

    Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth  to produce a checklist for the plans.

    We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.

    As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:

    “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”

    Image: Tim Rickhuss

  8. One month in: how the refusals tool is helping people appeal FOI requests

    A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we’d added new functionality to WhatDoTheyKnow to help people challenge FOI refusals. In fact, this tool had been quietly rolled out at the end of May, giving us a little time to ensure everything was working before we shared it. 

    It tries to detect which exemptions were applied where information was withheld, and provides advice on next steps. This might involve making a revised request or asking for clarification, and the tool can also provide text fragments to use in a request for an internal review of the decision. 

    It is early days, but just in the last month users have sent 158 requests for internal review after seeing this advice. Most of these are still waiting for a reply, but around a third (16) of complete internal reviews have led to an improvement in the amount of information released. This is above the monthly average for the last year, but we need to wait for more data to determine if this will represent a sustained increase in the success of appeals. 

    As time goes on, we will be able to examine whether specific bits of advice or challenges to particular kinds of refusals are more likely to be successful than others. The goal is to give requesters the knowledge required to successfully challenge incorrect use of exemptions, and increase the percentage of internal reviews made through WhatDoTheyKnow that successfully lead to more information being released, either through increasing the quality and substance of appeals, or reducing appeals where exemptions have been applied correctly. 

     

    Process Requests
    Total number of times refusal advice acted on 415
    Total number of times internal review submitted after acting on refusal advice 158
    Internal review requested and awaiting response 108
    Internal review completed, no improvement 34
    Internal review completed, improvement over last status 16

     

    Image: Waldemar Brandt

  9. Lost in Europe: a cross-border investigation into missing children

    It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.

    According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.

    Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.

    Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.

    We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.

    These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.

    Local knowledge

    There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.

    Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.

    This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:

    • Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
    • Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
    • Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership

    The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.

    In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.

    The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.

    The requests

    Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio

  10. Rewild road verges with FixMyStreet

    At this time of year, when plants run rampant, we see two common types of report on FixMyStreet: those asking their councils to mow the local verges, and those asking them why they have cut the wildflowers and grasses back.

    With increasing amounts of coverage in the press about wildflowers and the benefits they can provide, we spoke to British wild plant conservation charity Plantlife to understand more about why citizens might be using FixMyStreet to request some flower-based improvements to their local road verges.

    Not just a pretty place

    According to Plantlife, more than 700 of species of wildflower can be found alongside UK road verges. If they’ve been left unmown in your neighbourhood, you’ll know that in these summer months they really are beautiful, with poppies, convolvulus, meadowsweet, celandine, thrift, clover and harebells (to name but a few) scattering a variety of colour through the grasses.

    But there’s more than the visual appeal: these verges also improve air quality, buffer noise, and give a home to precious insect life.

    With the correct verge management, Plantlife estimates that the 313,000+ miles of rural road verges in this country could become a sanctuary for 400 billion more wild flowers, as well as providing a habitat to all the bees, birds, butterflies and many other creatures that count on such flowers to survive.

    A change of direction

    So given all these benefits, why aren’t councils already leaving their verges to grow?

    In some cases it’s the perceived expense of specialist equipment; in others it’s the fear that longer grass creates road safety issues (such as a lack of visibility at junctions) or attracts litter. Sometimes, it simply comes down to residents preferring closely mown grass.

    As Plantlife points out in their Managing Grassland Road Verges guide though, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. There are lots of ways that councils can easily, safely and cost-effectively manage road verges to encourage wildflower growth, without compromising on the ‘neat’ look of an area and still ensuring safety.

    Wild verges aren’t left entirely to their own devices: they just require a different regime of care, and still get cut back — just in a way that encourages biodiversity.

    The picture is changing. Freedom of Information data collected by The Press Association earlier this year revealed that 7 in 10 councils are already taking steps to encourage wildflowers on road verges.

    That being the case, giving your support by requesting a wildflower road verge in your local area could help to move those steps along and sow the seeds of better wildflower road verge management in places where opinions are still divided.

    How to request a wildflower road verge via FixMyStreet

    1. Go to fixmystreet.com or open the FixMyStreet app.
    2. Enter the area or postcode of the road verge, or if you’re making the report on-the-go and you’re (safely!) standing right by the verge, you can select ‘use my current location’.
    3. Drag the pin across the map to the exact location of the road verge and hit ‘continue’.
    4. Select a category. It’s worth noting that categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. For this reason, you might be able to select a specific verge-related category, such as ‘verges’ ‘wildlife verges’ or ‘grass verges’, but if your council hasn’t supplied us with a designated category for verges, you might need to select one such as ‘roads’ or ‘other’.
    5. Add a photo of the verge if you want to. If not, click ‘continue’ again.
    6. In the ‘Summarise your problem’ box, type a title such as ‘Wildflower road verge request’.
    7. In the ‘Explain what’s wrong’ box, tell your council the reasons why you would like to encourage it to manage the road verge in a way that maximises flowering plant diversity. See Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign for advice – you could even link to it to help the council get the guidance they need.
    8. Once you’re ready, click ‘continue’, fill in your details (if you’re not already logged in) and then hit ‘Submit’ to complete your request.
    9. Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign also has posters you can print out and display in your window, if you’d like to get your neighbours on board.
    10. Experiencing pushback or (almost worse) no response from your council? Try getting your MP or local councillors to join your call, using WriteToThem.com.