1. Party on, WhatDoTheyKnow

    Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.

    Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.

    All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.

    The party took place at Newspeak House, the Bethnal Green hub of Civic Tech and innovation. Playing softly in the background was our specially-tailored FOI-themed playlist.

    We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.

    Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.

    Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.

    That drama aside, the party went smoothly.

    There were cakes, of course.

    Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.

    And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.

    We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.

    Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.

    We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.

    Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.

    I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.

    Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.

  2. National Democracy Week: supporting women in Civic Tech

    Throughout National Democracy Week, we’ve been focusing on women in politics: how they’re represented; how they’re affected; and how data can help us understand more about these two topics.

    To wrap things up, we want to highlight some of the organisations helping women in tech, and especially in our own field of Civic Tech.

    Coding, researching, designing and promoting web tools that help people to understand and engage with democracy is mySociety’s own way of participating in politics. We’d like to encourage more women to join us in this very rewarding field.

    Working in Civic Tech

    Civic Tech is a fairly new field, and a broad one. And while the coding side is often — rightly — highlighted as an area where there’s a minority of women, it’s also worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other career routes available (to everyone!).

    We can see some of these in mySociety: in fact, browsing our Team page is one good way of seeing the diverse roles within which we’re all chipping away at the organisation’s goals.

    These include research, design, events, communications, sysadmin, data analysis, sales and delivery — and of course in the wider field there are people working in hands-on activism and philanthropy.

    Organisations supporting women in Civic Tech

    mySociety’s gender balance fluctuates, as you’d expect, when people leave or join; but women currently make up about a third of the workforce. We’d always love to employ more women, and when we recruit it’s something we actively think about; in fact we wrote a whole longform blog post about it a while back.

    But in order for that to happen, women need to know about the routes open to them, and the benefits of working in Civic Tech. For starters, here’s a selection of the organisations actively working to get more women into this field and to support them once they’re here.

    • Open Heroines brings together the voices of women working in open government, open data and Civic Tech.
    • Code First: Girls (UK) works with companies and with men and women directly, to help increase the number of women in tech.
    • 23 Code Street (London) offers coding courses to women; for every paying student, they also teach digital skills to a woman in the slums of India.
    • Women Hack For Non-Profits (London) a community of women building open source projects for non-profit organisations and charities. Learn to code and work on real life projects.
    • Codebar.io (UK and worldwide) teaches coding in a supportive, collaborative environment for women, LGBTQ, and underrepresented ethnic groups.
    • blackgirl.tech (UK) ‘code and chill’ workshops for black women and non binary people.
    • Rails Girls (worldwide) Ruby on Rails workshops for women.
    • Lesbians Who Tech (US and worldwide) a community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them).
    • Geek Girl Meetup UK (London and worldwide) a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design, and startup.
    • Mums in Tech (UK) coding school for mums, with baby friendly courses, events and classes.
    • DevelopHer (UK) non-profit community dedicated to elevating women in tech.
    • Pyladies (worldwide) mentorship group for women in the python community.
    • TLA Women in Tech (London) movement for gender equality in the global tech industry.
    • Ada’s List (email-based community) a group for women who are committed to changing the tech industry.
    • AuthorAID (worldwide) Supporting women researchers with practical advice and also provides grants to support researchers in attending a conference on the topic of gender or hosting a gender workshop in their country.
    • Uscreates (UK) supporting gender equality in design leadership.
    • Women who design (Twitter-based) a directory of women in the design industry.
    • Double or nothing (UK) campaign for gender equality in design.
    • Hidden women of design (Facebook page) a series of curated talks by Female Graphic Designers sharing insight into their creative practice.
    • Women in data (UK) Annual conference for data professionals.

    Words from mySociety’s staff

    Louise, Head of Development: I enjoy working for an organisation that has a positive effect on the state of the world and helps a wide range of people participate in civic life. As far as tech goes, I think programming is an amazing career choice for women for a lot of reasons — but three really obvious ones are money (tech jobs tend to pay above the average), power (you can build things that change the world) and flexibility (tech jobs tend to be inherently flexible and, as mySociety demonstrates, you can work from home).

    Bec, Head of Research: What I enjoy about working in Civic Tech is discovering how relatively small tools can change behaviours and change institutions. Hopefully for the better!

    Abi, HR: My Top Tips for Job Applicants now include reading this great piece, Confidence and the Gender Gap: 14 tips for Women in Tech. Think you’re slightly under-qualified? APPLY ANYWAY. We have seen worse, believe me.

    Myf, Communications Manager: I’ve found Civic Tech to be a really welcoming field that judges you on the quality of your work, not your gender or any other factor that’s irrelevant to the task in hand.

  3. TheyWorkForYou and the history of feminism in Parliament

    When was the phrase ‘women’s lib’ first uttered in parliament? Has Spare Rib ever been referred to? And will ‘broflake’, the Bechdel test, or meninists ever get a mention?

    All this week, we’ve been looking at women’s participation in Parliament as part of National Democracy Week. Today, we’re going see how the historic content on TheyWorkForYou can be used to take a snapshot of when certain words and phrases became common currency.

    TheyWorkForYou allows you to search for any word or phrase, and then sort the results so that the oldest results are at the top, providing a very simple way of seeing when a word was first mentioned in the House of Commons (back as far as 1918, anyway).

    Now, a word might have been in widespread usage for many years before being mentioned in Parliament, especially if we are looking at slang: even in today’s less formal times, it’s fair to say that MPs tend to adopt a more ‘correct’ manner of speaking in debates than we might be used to in everyday conversation.

    And conversely, when MPs are debating very technical subjects, they may use vocabulary that is above the reach of the common person. But those two caveats aside, we think that a mention in Parliament is a good sign that a word or phrase has entered the public consciousness.

    And so, from ‘sex discrimination’ to ‘mansplaining’, here’s a look at words and phrases to do with women and feminism. Like them or not, this is when they crept into Parliament.

     

    If you would like to receive an email every time a word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament in future debates, take a look at this blog post on how to set up alerts.

    Image: John Saunders (public domain)

  4. Exploring the representation of women around the world

    The Inter Parliamentary Union release a report each year detailing changes in the representation of women across the world. In 2017, women represented 23.4% of all MPs – which is less than half of the proportion of women in the population at large.

    While the picture for the last decade shows a positive trend, there is nothing inevitable about ever-increasing representation of women. The IPU report notes that while Albania and France’s representation of women rose by 10% and 12% respectively, other countries saw a decline. Improved representation of women is often a result of decisions deliberately taken to improve representation, rather than being a natural outcome of unstoppable social forces.

    One of the pitfalls of international comparisons is that it obscures some of the drivers of good and poor representation. Increased representation of women is often uneven, and concentrated more in some parties rather than others. As Miki Caul points out, international comparisons of relative representation of women overlook “the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud arguescross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.

    To understand more about this, we’ve built an experimental mini site to examine the roles of parties in driving the representation of women. Using data from EveryPolitician.org (which contains gender and party information for a number of countries), we can explore the respective contributions of different parties to representation of women.

    For this it’s not enough to look at the gender ratios of all the parties individually, as those with the best proportional representation of women are often quite small — for instance,  the Green Party in the UK has 100% female representation, in the form of its one MP.

    Instead, what we look at is the respective contributions to the total gender ratio. For each party we look at how much better or worse the proportional representation of women would be if you ignored that party’s MPs.

    For instance in the UK, while the gender ratio of the current House of Commons is around 32%, the Labour Party’s ratio is around 44%. If you take out the Labour Party the representation of women in the House of Common as a whole drops to 23%.

    For our purposes, the Labour Party is the UK’s Most Valuable Party (MVP) — ignoring it leads to the largest reduction in the representation of women. For each country, the gap between the ‘gender ratio’ and the ‘gender ratio ignoring the MVP’ gives a new metric of how to understand the gap in gender representation. Where this number is high, it means that the role of individual parties is very important; where it is lower it means that the ratio is not strongly driven by party effects. For instance, the gender ratio in the United States is strongly driven by party effects, while in Bolivia it is not.

    Countries with a wide gap between the ‘ratio ignoring the best party’ and ‘ratio ignoring the worst party’ tend to be countries that use majoritarian electoral systems, like the UK. Pippa Norris shows that systems using majoritarian electoral systems tend to have a poorer representation of women than those using proportional representation, but also that there is a lot of variation within each family of electoral systems and “the basic type of electoral system is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to guarantee women’s representation”.

    Our analysis shows that parties have different levels of agency to improve the overall representation of women depending on the party structure created by the electoral system. Countries that use proportional representation tend to show smaller party effects because there are usually more parties with fewer MPs — and so the ability of any one party to shift the overall representation is reduced. Conversely, in FPTP parliaments with only a few major parties, a large amount of change can happen by only one of these major parties taking measures to improve their internal representation of women.

    For example, while Germany’s CDU and the UK’s Conservative party have a similar representation of women at the national level (20.5% and 21.14% respectively), the Conservative party has more than twice the leverage to affect the overall representation of women simply by changing their own policy.

    There are limits to using the proportional representation of women as a single measure for the political representation of women. As mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul has previously shown, even bodies with relatively good representation of women like the National Assembly for Wales can then fall down on other areas – with a low proportion of oral evidence to consultations and committees coming from women. While the UK’s Conservative party performs poorly on the proportion of MPs, it has conversely selected more female party leaders and Prime Ministers.

    Importantly, looking at the representation of women as a single figure also obscures the important role of social factors as such class or race in shaping which women are represented. Creating a metric for comparison across many different countries is inherently reductive and discards important information about local context in every instance.

    Our goal with this website has been to re-complicate the international comparison by moving away from a single national statistic for representation in a way that assigns agency to political actors within each country. Variations among these parties (and international variations in this variation) reflect that representation of currently under-represented groups isn’t a natural fact of life in a given country, but reflects choices made – and that other choices can lead to different outcomes.

    This is still a work in progress and we acknowledge there will be holes in how this data has been applied. Lack of gender information for all countries means that some countries that have high representation of women (such as Rwanda) are not addressed. This means that it shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive ranking — but we hope it is useful as a jumping off point for thinking about the representation of women in parliaments across the world.

    We have detailed our methodology here, including known issues with the data. This is an early experiment with the data and we welcome feedback on the website here; or get in touch through the contact details here.

    The data the site is built on can be downloaded from everypolitician.org.

    You can explore the website here, or sign up to the research newsletter here.


    Image: Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

  5. Votes that changed women’s lives

    We might take our freedoms and rights for granted these days, but we should try to remember that many of them were hard-won.

    In this, the centenary of women first gaining the vote, we’ve had ample reminders of the struggles the suffragettes went through in order to make that possible. But, through recent history, there are several other changes in the law which have impacted on the way women live, their chances of prosperity, their ability to make life choices, and to progress in their chosen careers.

    From the Married Women’s Property Act to last year’s legislation requiring businesses to publish data on their gender pay gaps, we’ve put together a short timeline to show those milestones, linking back to our Parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou for those who’d like to explore in more detail. It’s all part of our activity for National Democracy Week.

    So, take a quick look at the votes that changed women’s lives, and then take your pick: marvel at how far we’ve come…. or wonder how far we still have to go.

    Image: Shaun Dawson (CC by.nd/2.0)

  6. Using mySociety data to explore the representation of women

    A key part of mySociety’s research agenda is understanding how Civic Technology is (or isn’t) helping under-represented groups in society access government services and their representation. In 2015 we released a report  Who Benefits from Civic Technology, that explored variations in usage of Civic Tech in various countries and demographics. You can read or download it here.

    In this blog post I’m going to talk a bit about how we’ve internally tried to apply our data to understanding the under-representation of women in politics and as users of our services, as well as some interesting things that external researchers have found using our data.

    EveryPolitician

    Our EveryPolitician dataset contains information on current (and in some cases historical) politicians for a large number of countries around the world. For a large number of representatives, this includes gender information.

    However, a key problem of international comparisons of the representation of women is, as Miki Caul points out, that it “overlooks the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud argues “cross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.

    Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of problem that an international dataset like EveryPolitician is well placed to examine – on Thursday we’ll be using a new mini-site to explore the gender and party information contained in EveryPolitician to give a sense of the international picture and the party-level differences within each country. Stay tuned! Or you can download the data yourself (there are APIs for Python, Ruby and R) and try and beat us to it.

    TheyWorkForYou

    TheyWorkForYou makes it easy to search through the history of what has been said in Parliament, and we make the data (based on the Hansard dataset but more consistently formatted) freely available to download. As essentially a download of a very large amount of text, getting insights from this dataset is a bit more complicated, but potentially very rewarding.

    Jack Blumenau has a paper based on TheyWorkForYou data using language to analyse whether appointing female ministers changes how other female MPs participate in debates. Looking at “half a million Commons’ speeches between 1997 and 2017, [he demonstrates] that appointing a female minster increases the participation of women MPs in relevant debates by approximately one third over the level of female participation under male ministers” – and that “female MPs also became more influential in debates under the purview of female ministers […] female ministers respond in a systematically different fashion to the speeches of female MPs.” In this case, influence is a measure of whether the language an individual used is then taken up by others, and this kind of analysis shows how the TheyWorkForYou dataset can be used to demonstrate not just counts of how many women were in Parliament, but the substantive effects of women holding office on the political process.

    As Myf talked about yesterday, TheyWorkForYou’s Commons content now extends back to 1918, and so includes every speech by a female MP ever made. We hope this is a useful resource for anyone interested in exploring the history of the representation of women in the UK and have plans for a small project in the upcoming months to show in a simple way how this data can be used (please sign up to our mailing list if you’re interested in hearing about this when it’s completed).

    TheyWorkForYou data can either be accessed through an API, or downloaded as formatted XML files.

    FixMyStreet and WriteToThem

    Understanding the under-representation of women is important across our services. Where men and women are experiencing different issues and concerns, imbalances in access (or use of access) potentially lead to differences in resource allocation.

    The majority of reports on FixMyStreet.com are reported by men – but to make things more complicated, it’s not just that women make fewer reports, but women report substantively different kinds of reports.

    Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama investigated FixMyStreet reports and found (by determining gender from names of problem reporters) that different kinds of reports are more likely to be reported by men and women – they suggest that at “first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter)”.

    If different kinds of reports are differently gendered, this complicates thinking about how to improve how women use the website – as potential users are having substantially different experiences of problems in the real world well before they interact with the site. We have to engage with the nuance of this kind of finding to understand how to redress issues of access to services.

    We’re currently in the process of extending this kind of analysis to our other service. For WriteToThem, we’ve learned that while the majority of people using the service to write to MPs are male (around 60%), this picture is different depending on the level of government – for instance the gender balance for people writing to councils is pretty close to 50/50.

    As part of this, we’re investigating whether having the same gender as their representative makes people more likely to make contact. This has some interesting preliminary findings, and we hope to have more to say about this towards the end of the year.

    Our research in this area is ongoing, and we’re keen to help people use our data to investigate under-representation – especially where you have expertise or knowledge that we don’t. If you’d like to discuss potential uses of the data please get in touch, or sign up to our mailing list to hear about future research releases.

    Image: Theresa May’s first PMQs: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor (CC by-nc/2.0)

  7. Celebrating National Democracy Week

    Excuse us while we just finish hanging this bunting…

    Yes, wave the flags and toot those vuvuzelas: it’s National Democracy Week, a new initiative to celebrate the democratic process and encourage democratic participation.

    And thanks to some extra-curricular work by one of the mySociety team, we’re now able to celebrate it in a quite exceptional way. Longstanding  developer Matthew has used his own free time to import historic House of Commons debates from 1919-1935 into our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. With this work, he’s extended the site’s value as an easy-access archive of parliamentary activity even further.

    You can check it out now by visiting TheyWorkForYou, searching for any word or phrase, and then sorting the search results by ‘oldest’. Or, pick any MP active during 1919-1935 and search for them to see every speech they made in Parliament.

    Please let us know if you find anything of interest! For developers who use TheyWorkForYou data to power their own sites and apps, the extended content will also be available via TheyWorkForYou’s API.

    “No one sex can govern alone” – Nancy Astor

    This is the first National Democracy Week, and it has taken, as its theme, the anniversary of women’s suffrage: as you’re sure to have heard by now, 2018 is the centenary of (some) women getting the vote* in the UK.

    We wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of the big milestones of women’s participation in Parliament, but there was just one problem.  TheyWorkForYou only contained House of Commons debates as far back as the 1930s — while, for example, the maiden speech of Nancy Astor, the first woman to speak in Parliament, was in 1920.

    So it’s a big deal that Matthew’s imported this early data into TheyWorkForYou, and we’re all the more grateful because he did so on his own time. It’s something we’ve wanted to do, but not had the resource for. You can now browse, search or link to Commons debates right back to 1919, and find not just women’s contributions, but a whole wealth of historic parliamentary content. Result!

    What you can enjoy this week

    We’re going to take this opportunity to highlight, through a week-long series of posts:

    • Tomorrow, our researcher Alex will be highlighting some of the ways people have used our data and APIs to explore issues of gender and representation and describe some of our future plans in this area. This also gives us the opportunity to point out where you can access all our lovely, juicy data, should you want to do something similar yourself.
    • Finally, as a weekend bonus, we’ll be blogging on the various organisations which support women within our own sphere of Civic Tech.

    We’ll add the links in for each day’s content as it goes live.

    Since our sites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in the UK, our activities with the Democratic Commons, and the support we give to partners in other countries are all, at heart, aiming to make democratic participation easier, we are, of course, all over this event. We hope you’ll enjoy the week!


    *We can have another celebration in 2028 for the remaining women.

  8. Let’s try this again! WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary party

    Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.

    And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.

    But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.

    If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.

    Image: Gaelle Marcel

  9. FOI: one part of the fight against the ‘lose-lose’ LOBO loans to local councils

    Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).

    These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.

    DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.

    We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.

    What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?

    Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.

    LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.

    How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?

    Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.

    We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.

    The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.

    We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.

    We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.

    Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.

    In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.

    We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.

    We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.

    This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.

    Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.

    What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.

    We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?

    Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.

    Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.

    There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:

    • In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
    • LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
    • The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.

    What’s next for the campaign?

    Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.

    We have been collaborating with  the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:

    Objections to LOBO loans across the UK

    We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.

    This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.

    A citizen debt audit in Newham

    Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of its LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.

    How can people get involved?

    Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.

    If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.

    The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.

    To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.

    NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.

    Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.

    Image: Raw Pixel

  10. How local newspapers uncover council spending using FOI

    The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.

    These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.

    Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.

    Spending on administration

    It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.

    While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.

    In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.

    That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.

    But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.

    Spending on infrastructure and services

    Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.

    In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.

    And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.

    Spending on staff… and disputes

    Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today.  When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.

    In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.

    The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.

    In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.

    Spending on compensation

    We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.

    Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.

    In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.

    Have we sparked ideas?

    If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story —  while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.

    As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made  to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.