1. Party voting instructions should be public

    Summary

    • 62% of the public agree that parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. 
    • 55% of the public think MPs are personally responsible for their vote, regardless of party instruction. 
    • The public are undecided on whether the fact that an MP was elected on a party manifesto means they should follow party instructions. 

    The public think voting instructions should be public

    Many votes in Parliament are ‘whipped’, meaning that the party gives MPs instructions on how to vote. This practice is both well known and secretive. While “everyone knows” parties instruct their MPs on how to vote, the instructions  are not publicly released. 

    In late 2021, we worked with Opinium to ask the public some questions to inform our work around TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow. This polling shows that 62% of the public think parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. Only 8% disagree that this information should be public. 

    From our point of view, releasing this information would solve a practical problem. TheyWorkForYou makes comparisons between MPs and their party, but to do this it has to calculate what the instruction probably was, based on how most MPs voted. We don’t know what the whip’s instruction was, and so have to work harder to get a result that is inferring what is happening behind closed doors. We also do not have information about the strength of the instruction, and can’t say when a party has a mild preference or a strong opinion about how their MPs should vote. 

    This information is also important on a principled level. The role of whipped votes is part of the argument about the value of individual MP voting records, where one side argues that MPs don’t really make voting decisions, and so should not be judged individually. If you accept this argument that votes in Parliament are really decided by the party leadership, the democratic case for releasing these instructions is overwhelming. 

    Net agree 62%, net disagree 8%, strong disagree 2%, somewhat disagree 30%, somewaht agree 35%, strong agree, 28%

    Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes

    The argument made to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (in her book Commons and Lords)  by party whips was that they were performing a democratic function: the people elected the MPs on a party manifesto, and so MPs in Parliament should “scrutinise and improve” but not oppose government plans. 

    The public is split on how convincing this argument is. We asked if respondents agreed with the statement “MPs are elected on a party’s manifesto, and should vote as the party leadership instructs”.  Only 24% agree with this statement, 35% disagree, with 41% neither agreeing or disagreeing. That only a small group outright agree with a philosophy that justifies how Parliament currently works is a problem, but the large group in the middle suggests that the views of the public might be more nuanced about what the role of parties should be in directing votes. 

    The answer to this question also varies by how people voted in the 2019 election. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were more likely to move from ‘don’t know’ to ‘disagree’ with the idea that MPs should do as their party instructs, with 43% of Labour voters polled disagreeing and 51% of Liberal Democrat voters disagreeing. This might also reflect an idea that opposition MPs should be less bound by what they said in the last election. 

    24% net agree, 35% net disagree, 12% strong disagree, 23% somewhat disagree, 41% neither agree nor disagree, 18% somewhat agree, 5% strongly agree

    43% of labour respondents disagreed, to 51% of liberal democrat respondents, to 26% of conservative respondents. Other parties did not have significant differences.

    Regardless of why they made the decision, the public think MPs are personally responsible for how they vote

    Our polling also showed that the majority of the public (55%) believe that MPs are personally responsible for their vote, with only 15% disagreeing with the statement.  This should sound a note of caution for MPs. While it being common practice to follow the instructions of the party is an explanation of how Parliament works, it is not universally accepted this should be the case, or that it removes personal responsibility for their votes in the eyes of the public. 

    55% net agree, 15% net disagree, 5% strong disagree, 9% somewhat disagree, 30% neither agree nor disagree, 29% somewhat agree, 27% strongly agree

    This polling forms part of a wider series of questions that we hope to use to shape our work, and we will share more with you in the coming months.

    Thanks to Opinium for providing free polling questions to charities as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign. 

     

    Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash

  2. New in CAPE: Five different ways of finding similar councils

    One of the things we want CAPE,  the Climate Action Plan Explorer, to do is make useful comparisons between different councils, and help surface where councils are similar and might be able to learn from each other. 

    The first go at this was a physical proximity tool, which highlighted neighbouring councils, but this can miss that adjacent councils might well have some different circumstances. As announced in December’s month notes, we’ve now expanded this tool so that it offers five possible ways of seeing which councils are similar to each other. 

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    One of the approaches we’ve been exploring is the use of BEIS carbon emissions data to provide an alternate lens, where councils can be shown to be ‘similar’ on the basis of the overall profile of their different kinds of emissions. 

    As part of this process we created a prototype using binder and wrote a public blog post to gather feedback (and had a few good Twitter conversations about problems with specific comparisons). We showed the tool to climate officers directly, and also asked a larger group of climate officers and other participants at a session in NetZeroLocal about what aspects they would find useful in comparisons. We also talked to Connected Places Catapult, which is exploring a very similar approach in its Net Zero Navigator

    Generally people were supportive of the idea of making comparisons based on emissions, but raised the point that it might be less or more useful depending on the kind of policy that was being compared.  

    In the NetZeroLocal session there was broadly a lot of support for urban/rural splits and physical proximity and population size, with then lower support for a range of other options. This included low interest in the abstract idea of the carbon comparison, although in practice this effectively works as an urban/rural split classification. 

    People also suggested additional datasets for specific kinds of problems. For instance, the rural and urban divide is useful across a whole range of factors, but housing stock would be useful for understanding a comparison of specific policy areas. 

    The lesson from this is that one single ‘similar’ measure was not going to be good enough. Different kinds of problems require different kinds of comparisons, so we need a framework that can let people choose the comparison they want to make, and datasets that help them make good comparisons.  As such, CAPE now works with an improved version of the emissions comparison, but also three other measures, and a composite measure that uses all of these to give an impression of general similarity. This can be used to explore councils, or to limit a text search of plans just to similar councils. 

    Improving emissions comparison

    When we first started looking at emissions data, it quickly became clear there was a set of questions around understanding what the data meant in the first place, whether there was a “correct” way to manipulate it, and then how to describe what it meant at the end. 

    The original uncertainty about whether it is correct to use ‘per person’ emissions is especially clear for industrial emissions – which have no clear relationship to the number of people in an area. Adjusting by the number of people leads to mid-industry but low-density areas being seen as comparable to very high-industry, high-density areas, which did not seem correct for comparisons.  In general, very high- and low-density areas make outliers and for odd clustering. Small authorities in Scotland ended up paired with the centre of London. This affects a small number of councils, but probably reflects patterns that are less obvious (and probably unhelpful) throughout the approach. 

    There are several approaches to this problem. Connected Place Catapult uses local GDP rather than population as an alternative way of comparing industrial emissions between areas. Another approach would be to explicitly include population density as a dimension of the clustering. This should generally do little for most councils (as it is indirectly reflected in emissions), but should drive a wedge between incorrect comparisons in per person measures. Another option is to cap (winsorization) the population used to calculate per person. This should stop extreme outliers presenting bizarrely in comparisons without excluding them completely. 

    For v2, we tested a few approaches and in the end used versions of all of these. The raw emissions data is adjusted in the following ways:

    • Domestic emissions are adjusted to be per person
    • Commercial and industrial to be per unit of GDP
    • Transport and Public Sector are per person, but winsorized.
    • A weighted down version of population density is used as an extra factor to push dissimilar councils a little bit further apart.

    This produces clusters that are broadly similar to V1, but passes the test of not grouping a set of councils that seemed incorrectly grouped in the original. 

    We also took a different approach to labelling these groups. Feedback was positive for the urban/rural distinction in V1, but this is now being taken care of more directly through a different approach. 

    Given this, the labels for emissions data focus on which aspect of emissions the grouping has a higher than normal distribution of. While there are also times where a grouping has a below average amount of emissions for a particular type, this was hard to condense into a quick label (below average is not ‘low’) and is expanded on in the description.

    Label Description
    Industry/domestic/transport Above average for industry/domestic/transport, below average public sector emissions.
    Public sector Well above average public sector (government, education, health), below average in other areas.
    Urban mainstream Below average for most emissions scores.
    Domestic Slightly above average in domestic emissions, below average public sector emissions.
    Industry/commercial/public sector Above average industry/commercial and public sector.
    City of London The City of London does not have a comparable emissions profile

     

    Map of UK local authorities showing different emissions groups

    For the moment we are not displaying these labels in the interface, but may use them as the basis for other forms of comparison in future.  In general, this process is inherently throwing away data to make comparisons easier, and so will always break down at some level of analysis. The solution to this is not to make the approach perfect, but to present multiple options that meet different use cases. 

    New options

    From feedback we learned that we couldn’t solve everyone’s problems with the same measure of similarity, so we’ve gone away and created a few new measures, and a framework where we could add more in future. 

    This includes the previous measure of which councils geographically border or overlap with the selected council and introduces three new measures, deprivation profile, rural/urban profile and a composite overall comparison.  

    Deprivation profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in high deprivation (1st quintile), medium deprivation (2nd-3rd quintile) and low deprivation (4th and 5th quintile) neighbourhoods. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities with very similar profiles of deprivation. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Index of Multiple Deprivation system.

    Rural/Urban profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in urban, rural, and highly rural neighbourhoods in an authority. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities in entirely urban areas. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Rural Urban Classification system.

    Overall comparison

    There is also an overall comparison, which is the default view. This takes all of the above, and calculates which councils are nearest to each other along all these measurements. Councils may be shown as overall highly similar because they are very similar in one degree, or because they are slightly similar across several.

    Our thinking in this was to create a single measure that was likely to be slightly useful in most cases, while giving more advanced users additional tools to dig into specific comparisons. 

    The underlying datasets and code are available on Github

  3. Call for proposals: Public understanding of local authorities and climate

    Important links

    Download as PDF.

    In one sentence

    mySociety is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change, primarily through conducting a literature review, to be completed by the end of March 2022.

    About mySociety

    Established in 2003, mySociety is a not-for-profit group, based in the UK but working with partners internationally. We believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role is to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy. We build and share digital technologies that help people be active citizens, across the four areas of Democracy, Transparency, and Community and Climate. Our projects include TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, and FixMyStreet. We also conduct and commission research in our areas of interest, which includes our new Climate programme. Our research programme is concerned with ensuring we are producing tools and approaches that are a good fit for the problems the organisation is trying to address. 

    About mySociety’s existing work in this area 

    The starting point for mySociety’s Climate programme is that around a third of UK greenhouse gas emissions are within the power or influence of local authorities and their communities. Through the deployment of data and digital services, we are helping councils, community organisations, campaign groups and individual citizens to take faster, more informed and effective action to cut emissions at the local level. Our initial project is a website that makes local authority climate action plans more discoverable and searchable. Our Climate programme seeks to support engagement from citizens, action from local government, and better information for all. You can read more about mySociety’s Climate programme here.

    Other areas of our work have involved local government and local democracy. Previous mySociety work of relevance to this project includes Participation vs representation: Councillor attitudes towards citizen engagement and Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem.

    About this project

    We want to decrease UK carbon emissions that are either directly controlled or influenced by local government (see Climate Change Committee report on role of Local Authorities). Our hypothesis is that people know relatively little about local government, relatively little about the idea of Net Zero, and even less about the intersection of the two. If this is true,  there are opportunities to improve public/campaigner knowledge that would help align public pressure and campaigns with the biggest opportunities for emissions reduction through local government. But, similarly the reasons for low understanding of local government may present barriers to this approach that need to be addressed. 

    We want to understand what people know about what local government does, what actions people think “the government” in general needs to take to reduce emissions, and where there is alignment/mismatch between where people put responsibility for changes, and the reality of local government areas of responsibility. 

    We would like a short literature review to clearly summarise existing work on these questions. We may also commission some polling (up to three questions) on this topic during the course of the project. If so, we would hope the research could help us shape the polling questions, and that the results would be included in the review (polling costs themselves should not be included in the budget).  Useful sources are likely to include public opinion work conducted by polling companies, organisations like NatCen, and specific projects such as the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement. Work by organisations focused on local government, such as the Local Government Association and New Local, may also be helpful.

    The available budget for this work is up to £5000-8000 (inclusive of VAT), and the project would need to be completed by the end of March (around 4-6 weeks from end of commissioning process).

    The main audience for this work will be mySociety, as we seek to understand how best to develop our Climate programme. However, we would hope it would be of wider use to other researchers and the interested public, and in line with our general approach, would plan to make the outputs public. Our default assumption is that the main output is a single written report, that will be edited to our style, and published on our research site, with a short 500-1,000 word summary that can stand alone from the document. We are open to proposals on the length and form of the outputs (for instance, if you believe the problem is better solved by a series of linked shorter pieces). We are also open to variations on the approach/research method if you believe it might provide a useful answer to our problem.

    What we are looking for in and from a partner

    Expertise/ skill set

    While all projects benefit from subject expertise, we believe this project could be completed without a huge amount of prior experience with the local government/net zero problem, with knowledge of local government being more important.

    Being able to understand our problem, effectively summarise available information, and work productively with us are also key factors. We will especially be looking for clarity of written communication. The proposed output should be focused on informing future decisions mySociety makes and so should be simple, concise and well-written. We will provide access to the mySociety research style guide which the project will eventually be edited to. 

    Alignment with values and aims

    Our Repowering Democracy strategy puts a special emphasis on embedding equity and inclusion in our work practices and services, and our work aims in general to fulfill values of equity/justice, openness and collaboration

    Applicants should consider if this presents any obstacles to a working relationship, and think about how these values should be reflected in the project plan, either in terms of subject matter to investigate, or research approach. For instance, within the bounds possible given what has been written, we would be interested in strategies for ensuring a reasonable gender balance in authors cited.

    Working practices

    mySociety works flexibly and remotely, and there is no requirement to work from or visit an office. Applicants can distribute their work as appropriate over the time available, but we would expect regular check-ins on progress to be arranged over that period. A shared slack channel and a specific contact person will be used to help coordinate and quickly share questions and information between mySociety and the researcher. 

    Successful applicants would be expected to abide by the mySociety Code of Conduct in mySociety communications channels and events. 

    Outputs and deliverables

    The production of a literature review in around 4-6 weeks (deadline by the end of March 2022), a summary of this research and an internal presentation of the research to mySociety staff.  To be discussed: the usefulness of public polling, and any specific areas there is a lack of evidence. 

    Q&A and contact details

    The application timeline includes a Q&A event, which you can sign up at the link at the top of this document.. The Q&A session will include an element to help individual researchers coordinate to form a joint submission (applications are also welcome from individual researchers). Answers will be made available in a video on this page for applicants who cannot take part. Questions can be emailed to the contact address below. 

    Please send any queries or questions to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org and mention which project it is in regard to. Questions in advance are preferred and will be prioritised in the session. 

    Your application

    Applications can be submitted by individuals, organisations, or joint teams of individuals/organisations. These should be sent to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org by the closing date. 

    You should submit a short application, of up to 4 pages of A4. A template for the response can be download at the link at the top of this page, and covers: 

    • Who you are (whether an individual, organisation, or joint team).
    • A description of your previous experience/previous work and why you want to take on this project.
      • To the extent that this is possible, this should be anonymous and not include names of the org or members of the team (to help with anonymous stages of the recruitment process)
    • How you would approach and deliver this project – a short project plan with approximate timings. 
      • This could include discussion of whether the suggested approach – a short literature review – is the right one for what we want to achieve, and any possible alternatives.
    • The total value (£) of your proposal (including VAT), and high-level breakdown of costs  (perhaps an indication of days per person, any other expenses). This does not need to include production costs of the report. 
      • Given the cost of the project, we will not be giving a great deal of weight to budget plans so please keep this short and high-level – we can dig into further details during interviews, if necessary.
    • A short description of the individuals or team who will do the work, including biographies

    A separate equalities monitoring form, which can be filled out online and is processed separately  from the main application (there is a link to the form in the application form). This is for understanding the reach of our method of distributing the call for proposals. 

    If you are interested in joining a ‘researcher pool’ mailing list that we will contact with details of future projects, please see the link at the top of this document. 

    Application timeline

    If there are changes during this timeline, the table on the website version of this form will be updated. 

    Stage Date Description
    Call for proposals published 6 January 2022  
    Q&A Webinar 14 January 2022 An open, online public event for interested bidders to learn more about the project and ask questions. This will be recorded and available afterwards. You can submit questions in advance to research-commissioning@mysociety.org. Questions in advance are preferred. 
    Questions answered 17 January 2022 Video of the webinar to be made available to all potential bidders, in addition to answers to any other questions submitted via email
    Deadline for applications 21 January 2022 (end of day)  
    Initial decisions 27th January 2022 Applicants to be informed whether they have made it through to a short panel interview (and may be asked for a sample of existing work). Applicants not progressing past this stage to be offered written feedback
    Interviews w/c 31 January 2022 Format to be decided, but this will likely be a one-hour panel interview with several people involved in the climate programme, towards the end of the week (3rd, 4th Feb)
    Final decision w/c 8 February 2022 Remaining applicants to be informed of the final decision. Applicants not progressing to be offered feedback
    Project briefing/kick-off meeting End of w/c 8 February 2022 To include a brief introduction to mySociety, discussion of any onboarding required and approach to project management, communication and catch-ups
    Project deadline 31 March 2022 End of project

     

    What happens after the project 

    We intend to publish the report you produce, credited to you, on the mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence (see recent publications on research.mysociety.org for details). We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted. 

    We will convene a short ‘lessons learned’ session to discuss how the project went – what went well and anything that could have been improved. We will also discuss any future work based on the delivered project (eg if you are an academic and might want to co-author an article) and our ongoing relationship. We would also like to arrange a presentation on the project to mySociety staff, and there may also be an opportunity to promote the work in a public event held by mySociety (budgeting for this would be separate to the project above). 

    Terms and conditions

    Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.

    Work must be completed by the end of the financial year (31 March 2022). 

  4. What we learned about research commissioning

    In November we blogged that we were looking at best practice in commissioning research, and asked Gavin Freeguard to help us with that.

    After getting a lot of helpful comments and conversations (thank you), Gavin put what he learned into a document that is helping us shape our commissioning process. While aimed at a relatively small organisation, a lot of the general lessons and thinking should apply to organisations of any size.

    This can be read online and as a pdf on our research site.

    We will announce a few calls for proposals over the next few weeks and give this process a go. At the end of the projects, we will do a follow-up post on what we’ve learned.

    Header image: Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

  5. Climate monthnotes: December 2021

    Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.

    Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.

    New features on CAPE

    Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:

    CAPE showing climate declarations and promises for a council

    CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.

    As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.

    Old CAPE page showing nearby councils

    However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.

    We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.

    Council Climate Plan Scorecards

    As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.

    As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.

    With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.

    Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.

    Research commissioning

    Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:

    1. Public understanding of local authorities and climate
    2. Public pressure and local authorities
    3. How local authorities make decisions around climate

    Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.

  6. Look back on the year, with mySociety

    Our Annual Review is now ready for your perusal!

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

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

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

     

  7. WhatDoTheyKnow Transparency report

    In 2021 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 100,092 Freedom of Information requests.

    Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see. But what’s not quite so visible is the work the WhatDoTheyKnow team do behind the scenes — answering users’ questions, removing inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.

    Some of the team’s most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.

    For this reason, the default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.

    This year, for the first time, we’re extending our efforts towards transparency even further, with this report in which we’ll summarise the information removal requests and actions taken during the last twelve months.

    To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2020 to 31 October 2021

    Headline facts and figures

    • 20,714,033 visitors to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year
    • 22,847 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts this year, taking the total to 222,694
    • 7,971 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2021
    • 822 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2021
      …in the context of 100,092 requests made in the year, and a total of 772,971 requests now published on the site
    • 196 Total number of published requests where we redacted some material in 2021
      …usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
    • 126 The number of users who created accounts this year banned
      …that’s just 0.06% of new users.
    • WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.

    And in more detail…

    Requests flagged for our attention

    The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported for admin attention this year. Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.

    Reason for attention request Total number
    Contains personal information 143
    Not a valid request 108
    Vexatious 94
    Request for personal information 85
    Contains defamatory material 51
    Other 287
    Total 768

    Material removed from the site

    The following tables show where members of the support team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.

    There is a range of options available to moderators, from ‘hidden’ (the most extreme) to ‘discoverable with link’. This is in addition to the censor rules that are used to hide certain information within a request or response.

    Request visibility Total number
    Visible only to the request maker 805
    Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 11
    Hidden 8
    Reason for removing from public view Total number
    Not a valid FOI request 701
    Vexatious use of FOI 29
    Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 124

    *Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, but we are hoping to improve our systems so future transparency reports can include a more detailed breakdown.

    Censor rules (programmatically hiding the problematic part/s of a request) Total number
    Number of censor rules applied 881
    Number of requests with censor rules applied 196 
    Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 188

    Data protection issues raised to the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox 

    The following data shows the number of email threads* received into the WhatDoTheyKnow user support inbox regarding the most common types of concern around information published on the site. Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.

    GDPR = UK General Data Protection Regulations
    DPA: Data Protection Act

    Label Total number of threads
    GDPR Right to Erasure 317
    Defamation  130
    Data breach 96
    GDPR & DPA concerns (type not specified) 42
    GDPR Right to Rectification 33
    GDPR Right of Access 21
    Harassment 17
    GDPR Right to Object 12
    Data breach – internal** 2
    Impersonation 1
    Total 674

    * Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.

    ** “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are reported even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss — which both of these cases were.

    High risk concerns raised for review 

    Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive and the Chair of the Trustees.  Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.

    Case type* Total number
    Defamation 66
    GDPR Right to Erasure 42
    Data breach 40
    Complaints 33
    GDPR & DPA concerns 11
    GDPR Right of Access 6
    Harassment 5
    Takedown 2
    GDPR Right to Object 2
    GDPR Right to Rectification 1
    Other 78
    Total 286

    * Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow support team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them.

    Users

    User accounts Total 
    WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 222,694
    New user accounts activated in 2021 22,847
    Reason for banning users in 2021 Total 
    Spam 3,936
    Other site misuse 166
    Total number of users banned in 2021 4,102
    Anonymisation* Total 
    Accounts anonymised in 2021 170

    * Where accounts have been anonymised this is at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.

    Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.

    Thank you for reading

    This is the first time we’ve compiled a Transparency Report like this for WhatDoTheyKnow, but it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for some time. We demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practice it ourselves. 

    Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that moderating a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.

    In future years, we hope to build on this initial report, ideally automating many of the stats so that they can be seen on a live dashboard. For now, we thought it was worthwhile making a manually-compiled proof of concept. 

    If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line. They’ll get back to you as soon as the urgent moderation work is done!

    See mySociety’s 2021 annual review

    Image: Create & Bloom

  8. We know it’s not perfect, but we’re carbon offsetting: here’s why

    Back in December 2020, we blogged about how we track mySociety’s carbon footprint in order to understand our impact and to monitor whether climate policies we’ve implemented are having the desired effect of reducing our emissions. 

    In that blog post, we said: ‘having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended [carbon] offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate the carbon we produce’. As you can tell from the title of this blog post, we’ve now settled on a different approach, for the time being at least!

    After many discussions within our Climate Action Group, we’ve decided for now to purchase carbon offsets from atmosfair.

    This blog post aims to explain why we’ve made the decision (for now) to offset all mySociety’s carbon emissions, and how we’re doing it. This is part of our policy of talking openly about our climate actions, in the hope that these types of conversations become more normal and widespread in our sector and beyond — and that we can all learn from each other.

    Doing something is better than doing nothing

    It’s important to emphasise that our main priority is to reduce mySociety’s carbon footprint, and as you can see over on our Environmental Policy, we’ve set in place various strategies to do this. However, it’s undeniable that our work still produces carbon emissions, and by its very nature, no matter how much we succeed in minimising them, inevitably will continue to do so at some degree.

    We don’t want to shrug and say that there’s nothing we can do about these emissions, and we want to emphasise that carbon has a cost, so mySociety’s Climate Action Group (a internal policy group comprising around six staff members) has been (and still is!) on a bit of a learning journey about what to do.

    We spent quite a bit of time discussing the pros and cons of offsetting as a concept, and exploring other avenues we could take — more about which, below — and it was beginning to feel like we were letting perfect be the enemy of any progress whatsoever.

    Enter atmosfair

    So when atmosfair was recommended to us as “historically the most responsible and environmentally conscious provider of offset credits” — their projects are verified by both the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism and Gold Standard — we decided to offset with them for now, while still actively exploring other options. 

    According to atmosfair, the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations requires considerably more from carbon-offsetting projects than the Gold Standard, including written consent to the project from the government of the host country, liable auditors, on-site audits of each individual project, and recurring audits of each project by an elected body of representatives with equal rights from industrialised and developing countries (the CDM Executive Board). 

    This additional level of scrutiny on their projects resolved some of the doubts we’d had around offsetting, giving us that extra confidence to purchase from them. Nonetheless, as we’ve previously said we know this is not a perfect solution and we will review our decision on offsetting every year at a minimum, as well as continually keeping an eye out for news articles and innovations in the area. 

    When we come to review our decision to offset next year, we will take into account whether companies include representatives from the Global South on their board or executive team.

    We think this representation is important when implementing offsetting projects directly in the region, as is the practice of many offsetting companies. We have written to atmosfair to ask them if they are considering diversifying their board and/or executive team, and we’re keen to learn about Global South-led carbon offsetting/removal organisations we could support in future. 

    The winding path to our decision

    Over the last year, we considered a few different options for mitigating the carbon our activities produce, including: donating to high impact projects for climate change action; paying for trees to be planted; investing in local community energy organisations in the UK; and purchasing carbon offsets from non-profit certified providers. 

    What we’ve realised about mitigating carbon is that there really isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution and every idea/scheme seems to have its controversies or counterarguments that, if you’re not climate change experts, are pretty difficult to assess and view comparatively. However, as a group we felt that trying to do something to mitigate our carbon is still better than doing nothing.

    • When it came to donating to high impact projects for climate change action, we learned that even organisations like the NewClimate Institute are still figuring out which projects are the most beneficial to support, and we haven’t felt confident enough in their efficacy to support projects that are still very new. 
    • As for paying for trees to be planted, we’d heard from a few sources that it’s not as effective as other offsetting projects, and takes longer for benefits to arise. 
    • We loved the idea of investing in local community energy projects in the UK, but as a charity ourselves there are strict legal requirements we must meet when investing charity money, and as a small organisation we don’t currently have the resources to administer that without letting other aspects of our work suffer. 
    • We had initially decided last year to offset by purchasing credits directly from Gold Standard, but after hearing from investigative journalists at the Dataharvest conference that Gold Standard projects are potentially not reviewed as well as they could be, we decided to have a rethink.

    So atmosfair it is for now – which, along with all the safeguards mentioned above, also has the additional appeal of being a nonprofit, like us.

    To reiterate, just because we’ve chosen to offset in this way for now, doesn’t mean we will do so forever. On that note, we’re really keen to hear from others about if/how they are mitigating their carbon emissions, so please do get in touch if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.  The latest idea we’ve heard of is carbon budgeting, and if you know anything about it we would love to chat.

    Image: DFID (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

     

  9. New behaviours for repowering democracy

    In the first post in this series I introduced our new focus around repowering democracy, and in the second I outlined how we think we need to change as an organisation to make this happen. In this final post we’ll give an overview of the new behaviours we’ll adopt across the organisation so that we’re better able to help repower democracy.

    Over the next 10 years, we might have two general elections; maybe three rounds of various local elections; and quite possibly a vote for Scottish independence in 2023 – but by and large the elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders and institutions we already have in place today are the ones who will be making the big decisions about democracy and climate over the next decade.

    With this in mind we’ve identified seven cross-cutting behaviours we need to adopt in order to deliver our strategy. Below, we introduce each behaviour and the key events and outcomes we are seeking to deliver as we incorporate these into our day to day work.

    1. Partner for impact and diversity

    We can deliver our greatest impact through and with others. We look for partners with the ‘same goals, different skill sets’: organisations and groups that want to achieve similar outcomes to ourselves, but that might be approaching it in a different way, or have a distinct set of skills so we can each complement what the other is doing.

    Understanding, learning from, and seeking to collaborate with the systematic connections and existing networks already active in tackling the democratic and climate challenges ensure that we can best understand the unique contribution we can make to drive the most positive outcomes.

    2. Build community everywhere

    We’ll seek to build community everywhere, inside and outside our organisation – stewarding and supporting the growth of participant communities around our existing services, enabling a greater sense of ownership by those communities. We’ll help users to help each other more, reach new users, and provide more evidence for the benefits of becoming active citizens.

    Building community is a core concept for understanding how to put more power into more people’s hands and better understanding societal needs beyond the needs of individuals. To make this happen we’ll become a more porous organisation, helping us improve at working with and collaborating with others to achieve our shared goals.

    3. Advocate for change

    Our research work to date has played a relatively passive role in putting forward practical and actionable ideas for how things might be done differently. Considering the scale of the crises we face, we need to advocate and push for more significant and swifter change – pulling the levers of power where they are open to us; aligning with movements for change where they are not.

    At its simplest this means getting the word out about how people can work with us, find common cause, and pool our resources in order to increase active pressure for change. We’ll seek to expand our public policy and public affairs skills directly and through partnering, increasing our capacity to really dig into institutions to identify key decision makers and allies.

    4. A drumbeat of experimentation

    We want to recapture the early approach to experimentation which kickstarted mySociety by placing new bets within each of our programmes, to try new approaches and engage new users and participants who might not be familiar with our work or how they can make use of it.

    We will look for every opportunity to move quickly and experiment widely – doing what’s necessary to learn, putting that into practice and looking for ways to ‘put money behind what works’.

    5. Everyday equity and inclusion

    Whilst technology can achieve many things, it can often serve to reinforce structural inequality. Representation in civic tech suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields: with predominantly white leadership and staff, the majority of technical roles and positions of power held by men, limited opportunities for those from historically excluded and as a result underrepresented groups – particularly racially minoritised and disabled people.

    We need to better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they benefit more marginalised communities, and actively work to diversify our workforce – leading to better outcomes for everyone.

    6. Home is where the heart is

    We started in the UK and we still run our largest active services here. Over the past 18 years we’ve worked with fellow civic technologists around the globe as part of the civic tech community, sharing, adapting and collaborating on building a movement of technology led participation.

    Through this strategy we are recommitting to incubating solutions to democratic and climate challenges here in the UK first of all – and working in the open to support partners to adopt this work elsewhere. Through TICTeC we seek to better connect and equip others to undertake effective, evidence-based and impactful work that enhances public participation, transparency and accountability.

    7. A bigger idea of team

    We have an excellent, experienced and committed team. But we are often thinly spread and constrained around our capacity to explore new ideas at pace and scale and we need to be more inclusive and diverse both as a team and through the partners and communities we serve.

    If we’re going to operate in a way that is commensurate with the crises we face, we’ll need to find new and imaginative ways to do more; enhancing our collective skills further, with new staff who can help us collaborate more effectively and work better with others to achieve our goals.

    We’ll invest in community building roles, with outreach and network skills to give us more capacity to better connect, learn and collaborate; we’ll rejuvenate our approach to volunteering, expanding the ways for more people to contribute their time in more meaningful ways to support and extend our work – becoming a more open and porous organisation along the way.

    We’ll work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.

    We’ve learned a lot about what we need to change in order to make the shifts we’ve identified, in order to be ready to repower democracy.

    Our experience over the past 18 years has taught us that advocacy campaigns and policy influencing is more effective when it’s done in partnership, and that we offer a specific set of skills and experience that many organisations do not have inhouse. We plan to partner more with a broad range of experienced people and partners outside of the organisation.

    We need to rethink our definition of the team beyond the confines of just the staff – our volunteers, board members, and not least the wider community of which we are all part helps forge a bigger, better definition of what mySociety needs to be.

    We’ve recognised that we can’t just play one side of the game: it’s not enough just to empower citizens, we need to prime institutions to be capable of responding to that empowerment.

    And along with all of this we’ll need to increasingly rethink where power lies, and where we refocus our activity beyond government and the public sector.

    Where we go next

    The thoughts outlined in these three posts set out the direction of travel for our work over the next few years – over the next few months we’ll be working through what this means for our existing programmes and services, how we live up to the three shifts and fully incorporate our new behaviours.

    In developing this thinking we’ve drawn upon support from across our whole team, board members, staff and volunteers, with lots of input from external peers and advisors. I’m especially grateful to the New Citizenship Project who have helped us imagine what the #citizenshift means for our day to day work and have helped us work though how we might put that into practice.

    If you have any thoughts on how you might help repower democracy, I’ll put all three of these posts on Medium for comments and further discussion.

    Image: Ussama Azam

  10. Three shifts we’ll make, to repower democracy

    To realise our goal of repowering democracy, and to really consider how we can contribute to mitigating the worst aspects of the climate crisis, we need to change how we do things.

    We’ll base these shifts on what we’ve learned over the past two decades; a recognition of the scale of the crises we face; and an understanding of how we might be part of a bigger solution.

    The three interlinked strategic shifts that we need to make as an organisation are:

    Shift #1:
    Design for the needs of society, not just provide tools for individual citizens.
    Shift #2:
    Place more power in more people’s hands, not just make old power more accountable.
    Shift #3:
    Prise open institutions, so they are better able to support and embrace meaningful participation.

    Shift #1: Design for the needs of society

    Building digital services for individual action has been a big part of our work to date, but we recognise that this isn’t enough to address the really big problems we face.

    We need to better understand not just individual citizens’ needs, but the needs of communities as a whole.

    Designing for society’s shared problems means understanding the wider system of potential partners and collaborators, assessing who has power and how it is exercised, understanding where tools and services might play a role, or where it might make more sense to amplify the efforts of others.

    Undertaking this process will lead to engaged and informed systems of partners and collaborators who understand which tools are available to them to shift or create new power; who are able to radically imagine and deliver new ways of working together to tackle the pressing crises of democracy and climate.

    Delivering for the needs of society sets the stage for meaningful participation by citizens and communities, especially those that are underrepresented or less likely to engage in democratic processes.

    From picking a problem > to understanding needs
    From user needs > to community and societal needs
    From individual services > to enabling people to organise
    From suppliers and beneficiaries > to partnerships and coalitions
    From pre-packaged solutions > to being led by experimentation

    Shift #2: More power in more people’s hands

    It’s not enough just to hold power to account: instead we need to change how power is distributed and how it is exercised.

    Getting more power into more people’s hands means creating more opportunities for meaningful participation in decision making; helping people to organise together to come up with solutions that work for all sectors of society.

    We’ll contribute to this by drawing upon established communities of practice around our current programmes, so that people are able to work together for collaborative democracy and climate action at scale.

    We will seek opportunities to work in coalition with partners to digitally supercharge their campaigning, mobilising and advocacy, through a repowering of democratic participation, so that we can better achieve our outcomes by working with others – leading to improved decision-making and sustained long-term participation and new impactful partnerships.

    From holding power to account > to exercising new forms of power
    From individual actions > to collaborative movements
    From incremental change > to transformative shifts
    From sharing information > to solution building
    From calling for action > to helping drive change

    Shift #3: Prise open institutions for meaningful participation

    Thinking about how we put more power in more people’s hands leads us to consider where power lies and how much leverage we have to redistribute this power or create new forms of complementary power.

    Public institutions hold a lot of power, within large and often rigid bureaucracies that struggle to shift their own behaviours quickly. Any meaningful repowering of democracy to make it work better for citizens, with deeper participation and greater accountability, can only be achieved with the consent and collaboration of these existing institutions.

    Putting more power in people’s hands needs to be matched with the prising open of institutions so that they are capable of welcoming and supporting greater participation in decision making. Through our research and civic technology work, and through working with allies and agents of change inside of institutions, using evidence-based approaches, we will advocate for significant long-term policy shifts in how citizens and communities can meaningfully shape decision-making.

    When central and local government are better able to engage with and involve citizens and communities in decisions that affect them and facilitate solutions coming from communities themselves we’ll know we’re getting this right – because greater participation between institutions and diverse representative groups of citizens leads to better outcomes.

    From project based research > to influencing policy change
    From outside critique > to driving institutional change
    From calling for change > to enabling citizen participation
    From accepting balance of power > to prising open institutions
    From highlighting failure > to forcing changes to be made

    What these three shifts represent

    Together these three shifts represent HOW we plan to change as an organisation to be better able to contribute to a repowering of democracy.

    Next: Behaviours we’ll adopt to better repower democracy.

    Image: Sandro Katalina