1. TICTeC Local 2019: Join us in London

    Following on from the success of our first TICTeC Local conference in Manchester last year, we’re delighted to be hosting the second TICTeC Local on 1st November 2019.

    Thanks to support from London’s Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, we’re thrilled to be hosting TICTeC Local 2019 at London City Hall, home to the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

    TICTeC Local is part of mySociety’s global The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) series, which has been examining Civic Tech at the local, national and global levels since 2015. TICTeC Local narrows the lens, focusing on where and how Civic Tech connects with and impacts local communities and local government.

    What are the digital innovations that are helping local communities and local government to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems? Join us at City Hall this November to find out.

    Call for Papers now open

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC Local 2019, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 6th September 2019.

    We encourage presentation submissions to focus on specific digital innovations that are helping local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement/participation, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.

    We welcome examples from across the UK and from around the world, but the focus must be the local level.

    We will prioritise submissions that focus on the specific impacts of these digital innovations, rather than those that simply showcase new tools that are as yet untested.

    Workshop proposals should be relevant to the conference theme. Submit your proposal now.

    Register

    Registration is now open. Tickets are free for the public sector. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on 13th September 2019.

    Sponsor

    mySociety is a charity and relies on sponsorship and ticket sales to make events like TICTeC Local happen. If you’re interested in hearing about sponsorship opportunities at TICTeC Local or our global TICTeC events then please get in touch to discuss further.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC Local website for full details of proceedings as they are announced. You can also sign up for updates and we’ll let you know when speakers and agenda details are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in London in November! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC Local is all about, you can browse all the resources from last year’s conference.

    Image: Wojtek Gurak (CC BY-NC 2.0)

  2. Research report: better FOI and SARs management for councils

    Last week, we shared research into the state of Freedom of Information in local councils. The standout finding? That the volume of FOI requests to local authorities has more than doubled in the past decade.

    The resulting increase in transparency of our councils, along with the work many have done to ensure that they are providing more and better services to citizens, can only be welcomed. But of course, such an increase also brings challenges, which will be best met with robust systems and tools to maximise efficiency.

    Fortunately, while mySociety’s Research team were crunching those figures, the Transparency team have been working in parallel on a project to explore and prototype around better case management of FOI and Subject Access Requests in local authorities.

    In partnership with four councils, and funded by the Local Digital Fund, this project looked at user journeys for council staff who handle information requests, to determine whether the development of a new digital tool was likely to foster efficiencies.

    The resulting reports are now available to read on the mySociety research portal. One early discovery was that most existing digital case management solutions are not ideal for the very specific needs of FOI handling in local councils, for various reasons that are outlined in the reports.

    But problems with request handling are not due only to a lack of suitable digital tools. By observing and speaking to people dealing with information requests across the four councils, the team was able to identify the offline systems and qualities that are likely to lead to better case management, and to pin down the issues that prevent such outcomes.

    Another major finding came while assessing the viability of designing a digital tool that would better serve councils’ needs. The team were made aware of an existing piece of Open Source software developed by the Ministry of Justice, and ascertained that one practical way forward would be to build on this tool to supplement it with the features identified as lacking elsewhere.

    Along the way, the team amassed much information on the variations in the way that different councils handle requests, and considered metrics which any council would be wise to monitor in order to understand the efficacy of their services and where weak points exist.

    Every council will benefit from reading these reports, and of course if the recommendations are put in place, the improvements that should follow will also benefit all citizens who seek information.

    Meanwhile, we would very much like to take our own findings further, and develop a digital offering based on the MoJ tool: we think it could be genuinely transformative for councils, and, being Open Source, the outcome would be available to all. If you’re from a local authority who might be interested in exploring this with us, do get in touch; we’re also planning to add the potential project to G-Cloud so that a wider audience of councils see it as a potential option if they’re searching for request handling software.

    Read the FOI and SARs management reports now or get in touch if you want to talk further!

     

  3. Understanding Freedom of Information in local government

    Over the last year, mySociety’s research team has been trying to build a picture of how Freedom of Information functions in local government. This research project became our report into FOI in Local Government (which can be read in full here).

    One of the key questions for this research project is how many FOI requests are received by local government.

    We believe that use of WhatDoTheyKnow has benefits beyond people who submit requests because requests made through the site are available publicly — increasing the sum of knowledge available to all. Given this, a good metric for us to understand is what percentage of all information being released through FOI is being stored on WhatDoTheyKnow. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data in this area that allows us to make a clear comparison.

    The Cabinet Office release annual statistics about FOI requests made to central government, which can be used for comparison. In 2017, 16.8% of requests sent to central government were sent via WhatDoTheyKnow — but this represents a very small volume of all use of WhatDoTheyKnow. 88% of FOI requests were sent to public authorities outside  central government, suggesting that the majority of FOI activity is elsewhere, but there is no official figure of the total number of FOI requests received by all public bodies.

    In 2010, UCL’s Constitution Unit estimated a figure for all local authorities in England of 197,000 FOI requests received. We wanted to understand if this was still a good baseline for FOI requests to local government and gain new understanding of local authorities beyond England.

    To do this, we sent an FOI request to every local authority (except those in Scotland, who publish these figures in a central repository) asking for a set of FOI statistics for the year 2017.

    This presented an immediate set of problems. There was a split in how authorities understood ‘2017’, with internal statistics recorded in a split of financial and calendar year — a choice that has a demonstrable difference in the volume of FOIs recorded that year. A minority of councils did not respond to the FOI requests – which unaddressed would lead to an under-count in the total number of FOI requests.

    To correct these problems, using the requests that were returned and other sources of public information, we constructed a model to address the issue of the split in recording year and predict a range of values for councils that didn’t return data.

    The result of this is an estimate of 468,780 FOI requests received in the calendar year 2017. There is a 95% confidence this value falls between 467,587 and 469,975 (range of 2,387).  

    On average an individual council receives around 1,120 requests in a given year. But as the graph below shows, this has substantial variation:

    [

    And the type of council has substantial impact on the number of requests recorded — with London boroughs receiving over three times as many requests as authorities in Northern Ireland.

    Authority type Average FOI requests
    Northern Ireland authorities 532.2
    Non-metropolitan districts 799.4
    Welsh authorities 1133.5
    County councils 1331.0
    Unitary authority 1346.9
    Metropolitan districts 1417.2
    City of London 1521.1
    Scottish authorities 1536.2
    London borough 1815.0

     

    What does this mean for WhatDoTheyKnow? Comparing totals, the 28,282 requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow in 2017 represented 6% of all FOI requests made to local authorities. Similarly, there is a lot of variation across authorities some councils have around 2% of requests start on WhatDoTheyKnow, others have around 13%.  This shows that the overwhelming majority of requests to local authorities are made through other means.

    Part two of this blog post discusses what we learned about the administration of FOI from this research. You can read the full report online, or download as a pdf.


    This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)  — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the  original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.


    Image: Ula Kuźma

  4. How Freedom of Information is administered in local government

    Our previous blog post about our new report, Freedom of Information in Local Government, discussed our findings about the volume of requests received by local government. This second post explores our findings about how FOI is administered, working from information received via FOI requests to all councils and an anonymous survey of FOI officers.

    Staff responsible for the administration of FOI in local government tend to hold this as one responsibility among several. FOI teams are generally embedded in larger teams, with few staff solely working on FOI. As such, FOI administration rarely appears as a specific budget item.

    While this makes the data patchy, from the information that is available, staffing levels (and hence budget) seem to be responsive to the number of FOIs received by a council. Every thousand additional FOI requests increases the number of staff dealing with FOI by 0.75 (95% confidence this is between 0.35 and 1.15).  Similarly, use of a case management system was associated with a greater number of requests — with the use of an organised system, and then use of specialist software being predicted by increases in the number of FOI requests received.

    However, use of a case management system was not associated with any increase in the percentage of requests being replied to within the statutory limit (20 days), which suggests that differences in delays are caused elsewhere than the management of incoming FOI requests. Some requests are more complex in this respect than others, with FOI officers estimating that 38% of requests required responses from multiple departments or teams in the authority and 23% required ‘double handling’ — additional sign-off from senior or specialist staff.  The number of requests appealed to internal review was low (1.4%), but within these the success rate was quite high — between 36% and 49% were successful in changing some component of the original outcome.

    Councils fairly universally keep records on the number of requests received, and time taken to reply — but have fewer records on the volume of information disclosed, or on the status of appeals.

    The highest availability of knowledge were figures on numbers of FOI requests received. The two areas where almost all authorities had records was the number of FOI requests received (98% recorded these figures) and how many were completed inside the statutory deadline (92%). Records of internal review were held in 87% of cases and records of appeals to ICO in 86% of cases. The questions with the most missing information related to how much of a request had been delivered. 73% had records of the number that were completely granted; 70% had records of the number that were entirely withheld; and 65% had records of partially withheld/disclosed requests.

    Most councils do not publish a disclosure log (a record of FOI requests received and their responses). Adding this factor into the model used to predict missing values for the number of FOI requests received found that there was no positive or negative effect of publishing a disclosure log on the number of FOIs received. In individual responses, while many FOI Officers expressed a desire to publish more (or steps taken towards that), there was also a strong skepticism of the value of doing this, and concerns that people do not check the log before submitting their requests, meaning logs do not reduce the volume of incoming requests. Several councils that had previously run disclosure logs had discontinued them due to low usage.

    An upcoming blog post will talk about what we learned about using a front end interface to reduce FOI requests by searching the disclosure log. Sign up to our FOI newsletter to hear more when released.

    Part one of this blog post discusses what we learned about the administration of FOI from this research. You can read the full report online, or download as a pdf.


    This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)  — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the  original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.

    Image: Martin Adams


    Image: Ula Kuźma

  5. Expanding our research store

    We’ve been working over the last few years to make our research as easy to read and explore as we can. However, because we release a lot of open data (and are usually open to sharing other data with researchers) there’s also been a lot of research written by researchers outside mySociety, which of course also forms part of the knowledge base about our services.  

    As such, we’re expanding the scope of the research store to include work about mySociety’s services that has been produced by researchers beyond our own team.

    Where papers have been released under a Creative Commons licence but there is only a PDF file available, we will sometimes create more accessible versions. For instance, we have already done so with Emily Shaw’s research into Civic Tech Cities and Frederik M Sjoberg, Jonathan Mellon, & Tiago Peixoto’s exploration of how receiving a response through FixMyStreet affects the probability of making future reports.

    This isn’t yet a comprehensive collection, but we plan to add new research as it is published, and retrospectively add older research on a rolling basis. Sign up for our newsletter to hear when new research is added.

    While we’re making things easier to find — we’ve also started including mySociety’s responses to calls for evidence and consultations on the research portal, and you can see those here.

  6. See maps of FixMyStreet reports across the UK

    With funding from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) we’ve been working with researchers from the University of Sheffield and University of Sterling to open up FixMyStreet data for researchers.

    For an example of the kind of thing that can be done with this data, this group have produced maps for every local authority in the UK, mapping FixMyStreet reports against indices of deprivation (a few examples: Sheffield, Harrogate and Cardiff). These can be explored on our mini-site, where for each authority you can also download a printable poster with additional statistics.

    If you’d like to know more about what these maps mean and what we learned from the process, there’s a report exploring what we learned here.

  7. Parliament and people: research report launch

    Thanks to everyone who braved the very long queues to get into Parliament yesterday — ironically, they were battling for access to a meeting about making parliaments easier to access!

    We hope that those who waited over an hour to gain entry to the House of Lords committee room felt that it was worth it, despite the wintry temperatures.

    Launching Parliament and the People

    Parliament and the people: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa is the result of two in-depth fact-finding trips to Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda by our research team. Read the report here.

    While visiting these countries, report authors Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder spoke to numerous activists, civil servants, elected representatives and civic tech organisations to fully understand just how political information is disseminated digitally in the region.

    Their findings give both a unique insight into how technology is being used in sub-Saharan Africa right now, but also allowed for the formulating of six key recommendations for anyone funding or building tech for political engagement. We believe they will apply anywhere in the world.

    parliament-and-people

    Speakers

    Great thanks to our invited guests who gave us the benefit of their experience and insights into a wide range of associated areas.

    Joining mySociety’s Mark Cridge for hosting duties was Lord Purvis of Tweed, who as a member of the International Relations Committee has an interest in digital tools that help build better, more responsive societies.

    After an overview of the report findings by our own Dr Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder, there was a discussion with Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust, Julia Keutgen of Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Tom Walker of the Engine Room.

    Recommendations

    The full report is a great read, but if you only have time to take away the key points, here they are in an easily-digestible form.

    1 – Conduct thorough scoping exercises in-country before committing to fund, build or implement a specific solution, and use the intelligence gathered to inform the final product.

    Paul Lenz previously worked for mySociety, and recalled the process of setting up projects inspired by our own TheyWorkForYou parliamentary monitoring website, for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s now working for Indigo, the grant-makers who made those projects possible, so he’s seen both sides of the picture.

    Paul described the act of lifting tech from a UK context and ‘parachuting it in, often at the behest of the in-country organisations themselves, who had seen it working well’ as, in retrospect, a mistake. Rebecca stressed that we need to ask the projected end-users what they need, rather than telling them. Work from the ground up, not the top down.

    Tom added that in-depth scoping research is always useful, and described occasions when it had showed his organisation that a proposed new technology tool was not necessary because local groups were already tackling the problem in other ways. He suggests organisations use the Alidade tool to create a plan for finding technology tools that suit their social change project.

    2 – Work with in-country partners that have a good working relationship with their parliament, and ensure the digital tool is integrated into both their regular work and future discussions with parliament about improving civic engagement

    Again, Paul brought insights from mySociety’s early days, when we positioned ourselves almost as renegade outsiders — in the early days of TheyWorkForYou, for example, we were even threatened with litigation for publishing Hansard without permission. 15 years later, says Paul, we’ve broadly come to understand that it’s far more sensible to work with institutions than against them.

    Some Parliaments may be hostile to overtures from NGOs, but the key is often to find one sympathetic individual and discover what you can do, digitally, for them. That tends to open doors.

    Julia brought in the role of parliaments as distinct from government, especially in relation to scrutiny and committee hearings. Committees need to be open to public record, as they are often closed sessions.

    3 – Make peace with solutions that aren’t necessarily replicable, because a good digital platform that is built to be specifically appropriate to each country’s unique governance structure will likely be better used and have greater longevity than platform structures replicated wholesale from other jurisdictions.

    Each of the countries examined for this report had their own distinct profile when it came to political dissemination by digital means.

    Often these are shaped by factors such as access to the internet or mobile data: is it cheap and available to all sectors of society? Attitudes to politics will have been shaped by the country’s history, and will require different means by which to encourage engagement with the democratic process. These, and many other factors, cannot be shoehorned into a one size fits all solution.

    4 – Ensure that comprehensive, good quality, data sources are identified before trying to build anything, because poor or inconsistent data is one of the most common issues that threatens the operability of digital tools for parliamentary monitoring.

    Contact details of politicians quickly become obsolete — in one of the countries examined, it was common for politicians to change them frequently, specifically to prevent easy access by constituents! Activists have better things to do than collect and maintain data, so input in this area can be extremely helpful – which is the thinking behind our own Democratic Commons project.

    5 – Ensure ongoing, stable funding for maintenance and growth, and ensure this encompasses both development and non-development work, as without this, the platform will rapidly become out of date, and is likely to fall into obsolescence.
     Bad tech ‘poisons the well’, and so do projects that launch with a fanfare but then fall by the wayside as funding is removed. Well-meaning projects can even do more harm than good, if they result in potential users mistrusting new projects because previous ones have made them jaded.

    6 – Integrate digital tools as much as possible with relevant social media platforms, as shareable and user-friendly content is likely to be disseminated much more widely through these channels, than through visits to the tool itself.

    One significant point is that in some countries, internet access is constrained to a few ring-fenced platforms sold as a bundle by mobile phone providers: those subscribing to these very common data packages will never see a parliamentary monitoring website, no matter how beautiful it is, if it can’t be accessed via Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter — and especially if it is heavy to load and eats into a rigid data allowance.

    Of course it’s far more exciting to launch a new site or an app, but the reality is that a quick video clip or graphic that can be easily shared by social media may have much further reach.

     

    Hopefully that has given you a taster of the debate around the report launch and the salient points you’ll find within. For a much more in-depth look at digital democracy in the region, download the report, for free, now.

     

  8. Coming Soon! Parliaments, People and Digital Development Report

    On Wednesday 21st November we will be launching our latest research report ‘Parliaments and the People: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa’.

    This report presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The full report will be published here on our news feed, via Amazon Kindle, and on our social media feed at 4pm on the 21st November to coincide with a launch event for the report at the House of Lords. That event is now fully subscribed, but please follow along on Twitter #ParliamentsandPeople and @mysociety to share the report and join the conversation.

     

  9. Parliaments, People and Digital Development seminar

    On 21st November we will host a seminar at the House of Lords exploring how digital tools are being used in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring parliaments and citizens closer together.

    During the seminar, we will be launching our Parliaments and the People: Digital Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa report, which presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The seminar will bring together researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss how the insights from this and other work can be integrated into policy, engagement and future development work.

    Speakers:

    • Hosted by Lord Purvis of Tweed & Mark Cridge, CEO mySociety
    • Dr Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety (Report author)
    • Gemma Moulder, Partnership Development Manager, mySociety (Report author)
    • Paul Lenz, Trust Executive, Indigo Trust
    • Julia Keutgen, Parliamentary Development Advisor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
    • Two further speakers will be announced soon.

    Date/time: 21st November 4pm – 6pm.

    As capacity is limited, attendance to the event is by invitation only. If you’re interested in attending please email  to request an invite and we’ll let you know full details.

     

     

  10. Get ready for TICTeC Local in Manchester

    We’re delighted to be hosting the first TICTeC Local conference in Manchester on 6th November 2018.

    TICTeC Local is a spinoff from our global The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, which is now in its fifth successful year.

    This event will narrow the lens, focusing on where and how civic tech connects with and impacts Local Government, rather than the international focus we have with our global TICTeC events.

    We’ll be examining what works and why, the challenges and ethical decisions involved in using civic tech and how these initiatives can be replicated by local authorities around the UK.

    We’ll hear from many local authorities and civic tech practitioners in the UK and further afield who are leading the way on using technology to improve civic participation, streamline citizen interaction with public bodies, and create efficiencies in civic budgets.

    If you work in or around the local authority or local public institution space, and have an interest in using digital tools, then do come and join us in Manchester.

    You will leave inspired by some of our showcased projects, you’ll have a better understanding of the most effective digital tools, and you’ll have met interesting people who are on a similar journey, or who might be able to help you in developing your digital capacity in the future.

    We’ll be announcing speakers and contributors over the next couple of weeks.

    For further information and booking please visit the TICTeC Local website. Tickets are available over on Eventbrite and will go fast.