1. PACAC Clearing House Inquiry – evidence submission

    The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House function. We have submitted written evidence to the Committee building on our recent report “Reforming Freedom of Information: Improvements to strengthen access to information in the UK”. We outline how tactics used by the Cabinet Office fit into a wider pattern of evasion, and how Scottish FOI legislation provides a model for how these issues can be addressed. 

    Our full submission can be read online, or downloaded as a PDF. Written evidence from other organisations and individuals can be found on the Parliament website.  A summary of our evidence and recommendations is below. 

    Recommendations

    • The Clearing House, and/or any other FOI coordinating body, should be compelled to operate in a fully transparent manner, publishing its procedures, decisions and appeals data.
    • The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should be revised to improve clarity of process and to close procedural loopholes that currently frustrate disclosure and effective regulation.
    • FOIA should be revised to include a legal obligation upon public authorities and the regulator to collect and publish data on the administration of the Act. 
    • The regulation of the FOIA should be split from the current Information Commissioner’s Office, where its budget and importance is dwarfed by data protection work, and constituted as an individual entity focused solely on FOI. 
    • The oversight of the FOI regulator should be migrated from its current Ministerial portfolio, where it is vulnerable to political pressure and influence, and should instead become accountable to Parliament. 

    Contents

    Q1: The Cabinet Office’s compliance with and implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000

    Q2: Role and operation of Clearing House

    Summary

    • In official statistics, the Cabinet Office stands out as having a lower than average percentage of requests for information fully granted, and a higher percentage of requests that were not returned within the 20 day statutory limit. 
    • The Cabinet Office has received a high number of decision notices from the ICO, with over 50% of complaints upheld or partially upheld in all but four years (2014-2017). 
    • The highest number of complaints are upheld in procedural areas, which, taken in combination with wider patterns and specific decisions, are reflective of tactics used to delay or obstruct the release of information. For instance, administrative silence/stonewalling can be a highly effective tactic to delay the long term release of information. 
    • While a coordinating function can be legitimate, that the Clearing House is based in the Cabinet Office is a cause for concern. There is a key question of whether the Clearing House reduces the volume or quality of information disclosures through permissible or impermissible means.
    • Evidence from the information tribunal concerning the release of information related to the Clearing House should be seen as informative as to the general attitude towards transparency: by default withholding everything, and using every tool to delay scrutiny of this decision. 
    • FOI requests should be ‘applicant’ and ‘purpose’ blind. The storage of unnecessary information about the applicant in the Clearing House system is an information hazard that raises reasonable suspicions that requests are not being treated as legally required.
    • However, fixing the underlying problem requires more than changes in which information is gathered and stored. Impermissible methods (such as higher scrutiny for journalists) can be reframed as higher scrutiny for particular kinds of requests (that are likely to be requested by journalists). The root problem requires more effective ways of ensuring the correct information is made available promptly. 
    • In general, concerns about coordinating bodies undermining the functioning of the Act should be directed at closing loopholes they (and any public authority) can use to delay or obstruct the release of information. 
    • We recommend mirroring the approach used in Scottish Freedom of Information legislation to provide stronger clarity around time scales and administrative silence that can prevent delaying tactics. 
    • More generally, the system of regulation could be improved by moving supervision and funding of the Information Commissioner’s FOI functions from government ministerial oversight (where there is clear capacity to limit resources for FOI enforcement) to Parliament. 

    Our full submission can be read online, or downloaded as a PDF.

    Header image: Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

  2. Be a Net Zero Local Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. Cosmetic improvements to TheyWorkForYou

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Photos of MPs

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

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

    Clearer access to the API

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

    The TheyWorkForYou API, homepage

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

    Image: David Pisnoy

  4. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

    TheyWorkForYou’s alerts service helps keep people informed on things that happen across a range of UK legislatures (The UK Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly).

    We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of selected parliamentarians, or when defined phrases are used in debates or written questions or answers. On average, this means around 400,000 emails are sent a month. The service was originally intended to act as a way to notify people of their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also makes it a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool.

    Before our redesign of the alert emails (blog post to follow), we wanted to know more about what subscribers find useful.  So in February 2021 we ran a survey of users of our alerts, receiving 1,866 replies. Going by responses to a question on the reasons for alerts, 16% of respondents can be categorised as some kind of ‘professional’ user, who use alerts as part of their role in an organisation. The largest groups were in the charitable sector (40%) and the public sector (35%).

    Generally the alerts serve their core (and largest) audience of ‘ordinary citizens’ (ie those without a professional interest) well. Most are people using the service, as intended, to follow their own MP, and are generally interested in the kind of content the alerts service provides.

    Free text answers showed general satisfaction among users.  Professional users are mainly from the charitable or public sector, and differ in making more use of keyword searches and finding vote information less useful.

    graph showing 16% of alerts users are 'professional' Professional usage is mostly by the charitable and public sector

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

    Respondents were given a set of options on what their alert tracked and could pick more than one. Almost all citizens (94%) and a fair few of professional users (67%) had an alert tracking their own MP.

    Professional users were far more likely to make use of keyword/issue searches (69% to 30% for citizens) and to follow Lords (22% to 9%), which may be because Lords often focus on specific areas of interest.

    New and old users showed similar usage of alerts. One respondent was a parent of an MP, using the site to keep up with their contributions.

    Chart showing the difference between citizen and professional users. Professioanl users are much more interested in keywords.

    What content do users find useful?

    Respondents were given a tick-box question to let them select which alert content was useful.

    All options were considered useful by more than 50% of both groups. The most useful content for citizens was votes (87%), followed by written questions/answers(82%) and speeches (79%).

    For professionals, it was written questions/answers (89%), speeches (76%) and written statements (68%). The largest difference is in votes, which citizens see as useful, but professionals make less use of (although still seen as useful by 59% of professional users).

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

    This survey has helped us understand more about the different users of alerts and their different needs, and shaped our views on how they could be improved to be more useful. The use by the charitable and public sector is especially interesting, because they show the indirect impact of making information more accessible.

    For more information, a 2016 GovLab report explored the impact of this kind of usage of the site. While the improvements in the official Hansard site over the last five years mean there is less of a sharp divide between the official site and TheyWorkForYou,  email alerts remain a key way that TheyWorkForYou helps make Parliamentary activity more transparent for all.

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

     

  5. Changes to party comparisons on TheyWorkForyou

    On TheyWorkForYou’s voting records, we have made comparisons with the party consensus visible in more places, and changed how we calculate that consensus.

    Since 2015, MP’s summary pages on TheyWorkForYou have highlighted votes which differ from those of the other MPs in their party. Over time, issues have emerged with how this process works, and recently we have made several changes to address these.

    This year we have:

    • Made party comparisons more prominent.
    • Adjusted party comparisons to only compare against MPs who had the opportunity to vote in the same divisions, rather than the all time party record.

    This fits into a longer running process of reviewing our public statistics. This update is not the end of our thinking around voting records, and we will have more to say in future about our work in this area.

    Making party comparisons more prominent

    The intended flow of TheyWorkForYou is that people arrive, search for their MP, are presented by the summary page (with divergences from party highlighted), and can click through to the voting record for more information.

    What has become more common is that users skip the intended flow through searching for a search record directly (“[MP] voting record” will usually lead to TheyWorkForYou).

    Alternatively, screenshots of a specific policy voting record can be shared directly on social media. As we were highlighting divergences from party in the summary rather than voting records page, this context was being calculated, but we weren’t showing it in all the places where it might be relevant/useful.

    Our assumption that the MP’s summary page is seen more than the voting record still generally holds up, but as the graph below shows, during 2019 there were almost as many views of the voting records of MPs as of the summary pages.

    In February 2021,  we made a change to bring the party context into the voting record page itself and added additional context about the time range of the votes used in a comparison. Similar to the summary page, this highlights votes where an MP differs from the general party consensus. We have now extended this to also indicate when a vote is in line with the party consensus.

    A screenshot of Boris Johson's voting record, showing his position on EU integration is aligned with his party.

    The party comparison is included when the party and MP are aligned.

     

    A graph showing the growing ratio of views of voting record pages to views of summary record pages, with the two measures almost the same in 2019.

    A graph showing the growing ratio of views of voting record pages to views of summary record pages, with the two measures almost the same in 2019.

    Improving the quality of party comparisons

    As a side effect of making party comparisons more prominent, some existing problems with the way we displayed data have become more obvious. As years go by, the time range covered by voting records has increased, and this has caused the method of comparing votes to parties to become more strained.

    Behind the scenes, the original system compared an MP’s position to a ‘party score’ for a policy area. This was generated from the votes of all current MPs in a party in that policy area. Over time, and with turnover of MPs, this has become less of a useful measure.

    For instance, a reversal of a party’s position over multiple parliaments leads to new MPs being compared to a score weighted towards votes in previous parliaments. New MPs were highlighted as being outside the party consensus, while in reality following the party whip.

    We have made a change so that MPs are only compared with their direct counterparts: people of their party who had the opportunity to take part in the same votes. The aggregate effect of this is that most MPs are now slightly more similar to their parties (generally making no change to how they are displayed on the site), and MPs who joined in more recent cohorts are recognised as being within the modern consensus. A more detailed analysis of this shift can be read here.

    New approaches to party switchers

    One problem in presenting voting records is in how to present good comparisons for MPs who changed parties. Historically this does not come up often, but became a more prominent issue in 2019.

    Comparing a MP to their new party means they will have a large amount of difference, without reflecting if they followed the party line at the time of a vote. For instance, someone switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats would be compared to a Liberal Democrat party record that they had frequently voted differently from. This is an accurate reflection of what has happened, but there is obviously extra context that is useful.

    Given that most party switchers are now ex-MPs and spent the majority of their parliamentary time with their original party, the default approach is to retain a comparison to the original party, while adding an information box explaining that they have switched parties. This means that party comparisons remain active for MPs who have become independent through losing the whip (which can be a temporary event).

    In instances where this approach doesn’t make sense (e.g. Jeffery M. Donaldson changed parties in 2003, and has remained with his new party since), the comparison is reversed to use the current party.  This approach has also been taken for the two Alba MPs who moved from the SNP in March 2021.

    This change means that MPs whose party status changes will have a better default comparison, while allowing some discretion to choose a different approach for MPs where this does not make sense.

    Ongoing thinking

    These changes are part of an ongoing process around our public statistics. This time last year we published the thinking behind decisions to publish less information on TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in general. There are many ongoing questions about voting records and how to best display this information in a way that is both accurate and useful to the public.

    This update is not the end of that thinking, and we will have more to say in future about our work in this area.

    Header image: UK Parliament flickr

  6. TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #1: Public-private collaborations

    As outlined in this blog post, as part of our brand new TICTeC Labs programme, we’ll be hosting a series of Civic Tech Surgeries to diagnose, dissect and address Civic Tech dilemmas to unlock impact.

    I’m delighted to share details of our first Civic Tech Surgery. It will be held online on 28th October 14.00 – 16.00 GMT+1, and the topic is: Public-private collaborations: how can civic tech work effectively with public and private institutions?

    During the Surgery, we will hear about the challenges of working on private-public civic tech projects from practitioners from across the world, as well as their solutions and ideas to tackle these. There will be ample opportunity for attendees to also provide their feedback on issues they have faced, and their solutions and ideas.

    The Surgery will also feature reflections from civic tech researchers, to give perspectives on any existing evidence or research ideas on the topic that might be beneficial, that can then be elaborated on in subsequent TICTeC Action Labs.

    After not being able to meet as a global community in-person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re really excited to again facilitate the exchange of relevant and timely research, lessons learnt, successes, failures, ideas and code amongst the civic tech sector globally, so ultimately, civic tech tools are more effective.

    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 event will be of particular interest to civic tech practitioners and researchers, elected government representatives, civil servants, technology companies, funders and software developers.

    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.

    We look forward to seeing you there! To hear of future TICTeC events and initiatives first, do consider signing up to our mailing list.

  7. Introducing TICTeC Labs

    We’re delighted to share an exciting new chapter for TICTeC.

    TICTeC stands for ‘The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference’. Since 2015 mySociety has convened an international cohort of those who build, use and research technologies that aim to enhance public participation, transparency and accountability, in order to openly and honestly examine how digital civic interventions are shaping society.

    Discussion leading to action

    Now, thanks to financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy, TICTeC is expanding from an annual conference into a continuous programme of activities and events that will run across the next 18 months, primarily remotely.

    The aim is to discuss and tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the global civic tech/digital democracy sector — and once they’ve been identified, we’ll grant participants the funding that will enable them to work on solutions.

    We’re calling this new programme TICTeC Labs and it consists of two streams:

    1. Civic Tech Surgeries

    Regular online convenings bringing together the global civic tech community to discuss challenges facing the sector, to share existing research and experience, and identify evidence gaps and other needs.

    Each Civic Tech Surgery will be around two hours long, and open to participants from around the world; there will be six surgeries across the next 18 months, each focused on a specific theme identified as a key challenge for the global civic tech sector.

    The first Civic Tech Surgery

    Public-private collaborations: how can civic tech work effectively with public and private institutions?

    28 October 14.00 – 16.00 GMT+1

    Read more about it and sign up here.

    2. Action Labs

    A collaborative and action-oriented process to take forward ideas generated in Civic Tech Surgeries and support initiatives that address common challenges.

    Following each surgery session, a working group of expert individuals will be convened to lead the Action Lab for that issue area, feeding back to the wider pool of participants as they go. Action Labs members will work together to decide what would be helpful to produce in order to help the civic tech community with challenges identified in Civic Tech Surgeries.

    Grants will be available to those who apply to actually produce the work identified by the Action Lab.

    We’ll be opening applications to join the first TICTeC Action Lab soon, so do sign up for updates.

    Oversight

    To help guide and promote the TICTeC Labs programme, as well as to make it as relevant and inclusive as possible to local and regional contexts and contributors, we have established a global Steering Group. We are delighted to welcome the following exceptional people to the TICTeC Labs Steering Group, and we thank them for their contributions:

    • Neema Iyer, Founder, Pollicy
    • Oscar Montiel, Independent Consultant (formerly The Engine Room, Codeando México, Open Knowledge etc)
    • Matt Stempeck, Technologist in Residence, Cornell University, and founder and director of the Civic Tech Field Guide
    • Isabel Hou, Open Culture Foundation and g0v
    • Nonso Jideofor, Funding & Partnerships Manager, Code for All

    With the help of the Steering Group we have now identified topics for the Civic Tech Surgeries and Action Labs over the next 18 months:

    • Public-private collaborations: how can civic tech work effectively with public and private institutions?
    • Ensuring civic tech is accessible: how can we lead and popularise best practice?
    • Accessing quality information: how can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?
    • Scaling and replicating civic tech: how can we overcome the well known challenges to achieving scale and replication?
    • Tackling the climate crisis with civic tech: Where can civic tech be most impactful?
    • Storytelling and reach: how can we amplify our successes beyond the civic tech community to evidence our impact through mainstream channels?

    If you would like to join a Civic Tech Surgery as a discussant to share your experiences of, or reflect on, any of the above topics, then please get in touch. We will of course communicate dates for the Civic Tech Surgeries in due course, and you can hear these first by signing up to our mailing list.

    Future plans

    We do of course still plan to host our usual in-person TICTeC global gatherings again in future, but at this stage we still think it is too early to start organising a conference with attendees from over 35 countries worldwide, whilst international travel is still so uncertain.

    This is why TICTeC Labs is so exciting – we can’t wait to connect more meaningfully with the global civic tech community again and ensure that the peer and cooperation network we worked so hard to build through TICTeC conferences can survive and thrive in this period of uncertainty. We really hope you can join us for this new chapter.

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

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

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

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

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

    Full video

    Individual presentations

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

    Jenna Corderoy of OpenDemocracyJenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)

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

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

    See this presentation


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

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

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

    See this presentation


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

    Dražen Hoffmann of GONGDražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)

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

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

    See this presentation


    Regulating Access to Information

    Alex Parsons of mySocietyAlex Parsons (mySociety)

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

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

    See this presentation


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

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

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

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

    See this presentation


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

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

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

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

    See this presentation


     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Comparing plans

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

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

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

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

    Right to reply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Many hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What it’s all for

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Working together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Image: Imants Kaziļuns