1. Your help please: designing a research commissioning process for mySociety

    We’re going to be commissioning several pieces of research as part of our Climate Programme over the next few months. We’ve not really commissioned research – publishing a proposal and inviting individuals and organisations to bid for it – before, so we want to build a new process we can use for our climate work and other projects across mySociety in future. We’re working with freelance consultant Gavin Freeguard to help us design this process. 

    As part of developing that process, we’d love to hear from you. Have you had experience of commissioning research, and do you have views on what a good process looks like? Have you been on the receiving end, bidding for work, and do you have insights about how we can make things as straightforward and as effective as possible? If so, we’d be really interested in speaking to you – please get in touch at research-commissioning@mysociety.org (or put a comment below).

    We’re keen to explore all the parts of the process, including:

    • How to develop a proposal, including calculating budgets and timescales
    • Where to advertise, what to include in the published proposal and other information those bidding for the project would find helpful
    • How to assess applications and award the work
    • What to provide to successful applicants, to help them work with mySociety as seamlessly as possible
    • How to manage the project and assess progress as the work is conducted and concluded
    • How to evaluate the project and learn lessons once the work has been completed
    • How to maintain a relationship with the commissioner researchers/organisation.

    We’re planning to publish a short report in the next few weeks summarising what we’ve learnt from others and how we plan to commission research in future. We want it to capture the best examples of what organisations are already doing and support other organisations who may need to develop a similar process in future. So please do get in touch if you have any ideas: research-commissioning@mysociety.org

    Header image: Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

  2. mySociety’s response to ‘Data: a new direction’

    The government is currently consulting on its plans for a new framework around data (‘Data: a new direction’).  This involves changes to the structure and powers of the Information Commissioner (ICO), the office responsible for regulating and enforcing a set of legislation that includes both data protection and Freedom of Information. 

    In April this year, we published a report “Reforming FOI”, which among other changes argued for improving the funding of this organisation’s access to information functions. We also argue that changes in the importance of data protection over the last 20 years make the case for splitting off Access to Information into a different organisation, in particular as the Information Commissioner tends to be recruited mostly for their data protection expertise. 

    The language in the  current consultation is around bringing the ICO into line with other ‘economic’ regulators, who mainly regulate private sector activity (OFCOM, OFGEM, etc). Part of this would involve a switch from a ‘corporate sole’ model (there is a person, ‘the Information Commissioner’), to a governance board model, where the ‘Information Commissioner’ is the chair of a statutory independent board with the commission itself run by a CEO. 

    The consultation is generally focused on the data protection roles of the organisation, but changing the governance of the ICO as a whole would have important knock-on impacts on their Access to Information work.   Our reply to this consultation focuses on the impact on Freedom of Information.

    Key points:

    • We are supportive of a board structure for the ICO as a way of bringing in additional expertise. We recommend a specific seat for FOI/Access to Information expertise. This seat should be appointed by Parliament.
    • We believe that the appointment process for the Chair of the board (the new ‘Information Commissioner’) needs to substantively include Parliament and give them the ability to reject the government candidate.  
    • We oppose measures to extend government control over strategy and CEO appointments beyond the situation for comparable regulators. 
    • More generally, reform of ICO governance is an opportunity to set regulation of Access to Information on a more sustainable and independent path.
      • A strong sign that the independence of the FOI functions is considered important would be to transfer funding from DCMS to a parliamentary process similar to the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman and the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner. 
      • It should also be considered whether the different long term directions of the ‘privacy’ and ‘Access to Information’ functions of the organisation mean it would be appropriate to divide the Commissioner’s Office, and create funding and oversight structures appropriate to each branch. 

    Our full reply can be read here

    The deadline is 19th November if you or your organisation want to submit a response

    The ODI has a guide to the consultation to help you identify relevant areas. For more background, the ICO and Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner‘s responses present their views on proposed structural reforms.  The Institute for Government organised a roundtable on the proposed ICO reforms, and a summary can be read online. The Legal Education Foundation has commissioned an analysis on the equality impact of the proposed changes.

    Header image: Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

     

  3. PACAC Clearing House Inquiry – evidence submission

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

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

    Recommendations

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

    Contents

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

    Q2: Role and operation of Clearing House

    Summary

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

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

    Header image: Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

  4. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

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

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

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

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

    What content do users find useful?

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

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

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

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

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

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

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Who are Civic Tech Surgeries for?

    Anyone interested in the use and effectiveness of digital tools to enhance public participation, democracy, transparency and accountability.

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

    Register to attend

    The Civic Tech Surgery will be held virtually on Zoom. You need to register to attend by signing up on this Eventbrite page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  7. Identifying councils with similar emissions profiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

     

    Map of different labelled clusters of Emissions profiles in the UK

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

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

    Screenshot of demo interface

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

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

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

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

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

    The datasets and processing steps are available on GitHub.

    Image: Max Böttinger

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

     

    Image: Waldemar Brandt

  9. Exploring information about Freedom of Information in the UK

    To understand the effectiveness of Freedom of Information laws requires good quality information about the volume of requests and how they are being processed.  Picking up on previous work investigating FOI statistics for central and local government, we have built a new minisite that covers Cabinet Office statistics on Freedom of Information in UK central government and OSIC statistics on Freedom of Information in Scotland. This site is up-to-date with 2020 statistics, and can be viewed at: https://research.mysociety.org/sites/foi-monitor

    We can do this because there are already sets of statistics gathered and publicly released for several groups of public authorities in the UK. But in most jurisdictions there is not good information about the overall working of the system, with data often limited to issues that are brought to the attention of the local equivalent of an Information Commissioner. In our recent report we made the case for more information gathering in the UK

    In the UK, there are two good partial sources of statistics about Freedom of Information requests. The Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner (OSIC) has a quarterly process where Scottish authorities deposit statistics about the SAR, FOI and EIR requests they have received, how they have been processed, and how exemptions and exceptions were applied.  For the rest of the UK, there is far less data on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. The Cabinet Office publishes a similar quarterly series covering FOI statistics covering requests made to a selection of central government ministries, departments and agencies.  

    In principle, FOI in the UK applies to far more public authorities than FOI in Scotland, but in terms of available information, the OSIC collects more information from more agencies. The Cabinet Office collects 76 sets of statistics from 40 agencies, while the OSIC collects 110 from 507. This means that the available picture of information on FOI is far more complete in Scotland. In both cases information is published and accessible as spreadsheets, making it possible to analyse differences between authorities and change over time. 

    However, this information is not always easy to understand or use. To generalise our previous analysis of Cabinet Office statistics, we have built a new minisite that also applies to information about Scottish authorities and in principle could be generalised for other jurisdictions. 

    This allows examination of trends in individual statistics (overall request volumes, how those requests were processed, or how individual exemptions were used) across sectors or individual authorities. These statistics are up to date with 2020 information. 

    We hope this will be a useful resource for all those interested in UK FOI statistics, and as a potential model for how FOI statistics collected can be made easier to access and understand.

    This site can be viewed at https://research.mysociety.org/sites/foi-monitor, and the source code is available on GitHub

    The creation of this mini-site was partially supported by a Adesssium grant.

    Header image: Photo by Tobias Messer on Unsplash

  10. Network Rail: how accounting definitions of control can expand FOI/EIR coverage 

    Exploring the history of expansions of FOI to private operators for our report on Reforming FOI led to trying to understand the history of how Network Rail became subject to FOI and EIR. This blog post explores how in very niche circumstances, the highest information court is the Office for National Statistics. 

    Network Rail is a body that owns and manages the infrastructure of most of the railway network in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). As such, it holds information of potential public interest, but its status under Freedom of Information (FOI) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) has been contested. A 2006 ICO decision concluded that Network Rail was not a public authority for the purposes of FOI (FER0071801 /FER0087031), but was for the purposes of EIR. This decision was overturned by the Information Tribunal (EA/2006/0061 EA2006/0062) in 2007, who held it was not a public authority for the purposes of EIR either. These decisions are now mostly irrelevant as in 2015 Network Rail became unambiguously a public body subject to FOI and EIR, and was added under s.5 to the FOIA schedule. The complication is that this change was not a political decision, but was effectively decided by the Office of National Statistics.

    When implementing the 2010 European System of Accounts (ESA10) in 2014, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) retroactively reclassified Network Rail as a “central government controlled, nonmarket body classified as part of the Central Government sector”, and as having been so since 2004. This did not result from any new understanding of facts, but ESA10 included several new tests of government ‘control’ of an organisation: the ‘degree of financing’ and the degree of ‘risk exposure’. Previous tests (appointment of officers, provisions of enabling instruments, contractual agreements) had not concluded that Network Rail was government controlled but these new tests changed that picture.

    The ‘degree of financing’ test required the government to ‘fully or close to fully’ fund the body for it to count as government controlled, this was not the case with Network Rail. The second test of risk exposure is sensitive to the question of who holds debt for the organisation. In this case, ONS argued that the debt was guaranteed by the Department for Transport, and there was an effective statutory obligation for the government to step in if Network Rail was to collapse. This by ESA10 criteria made Network Rail government controlled and part of the public sector. The reclassification was announced in 2014, and the new framework agreement between Network Rail and the Department of Transport agreed that Network Rail should be subject to Freedom of Information (1.15). While the body was added under section 5 of the FOI Act (rare), this order is in other respects similar to the frequent amendments made under section 4 as it reflected a change in ‘the public sector’ rather than including non-public sector bodies fulfilling a public function under the Act.

    Given accounting change means that retrospectively Network Rail should be seen as part of the government accounts in 2007, does this have any impact on the underlying logic of the Information Tribunal decision that it was not subject to EIR at this time? In this case, the Information Tribunal did consider the degree of government control through the same test of board appointment and public funding that the ONS similarly considered Network Rail to ‘pass’. It did not consider the question of where the debt is guaranteed, but this would have been a novel approach. This wider idea of government control might be useful in future questions of examining government ‘control’ of an organisation for EIR purposes. However, subsequent decisions by the Upper Tribunal have suggested a strict definition of control as meaning “no genuine autonomy”, creating a high bar for a control based argument. The debt test of control is an inversion of the typical control argument. The organisation may (like Network Rail) have fairly clear operational autonomy but the government does not have autonomy because it holds all of the risk and none of the decision-making power. This is a situation that the public accounts (and good governance rules) should seek to correct but may not meet the strict test of control.

    This more general idea of independence from government was a supporting part of the Information Tribunal’s argument and not the key argument. The main difference between the Information Tribunal and ONS arguments is this question of what would happen if Network Rail did not exist. The Information Tribunal argue that the services provided were not necessarily a public function, as “[i]f [National Rail Limited] did not perform these functions, they would be performed by some other similar body, not by central government”. In contrast, the ONS’ position was that the Department of Transport was on the hook both on the debt guarantee and through the Railways Act 2005 maintaining an older responsibility to “protect the interests of users of railway services”. This is interpreted by ONS as implying the government would need to keep the railways operating as “that government could allow Network Rail Ltd to fail while stepping in to support and protect the wider rail industry seems questionable, given that no one else is bearing any significant financial risks in relation to Network Rail”[1]. The evaluation of who holds the financial risk questions the Information Tribunal’s premise that another similar body rather than central government would perform the functions of Network Rail. As Network Rail’s functions were only possible as a result of substantial arm’s length support from the central government, the same would be true for any replacement organisation and so the central government is not a disinterested party. This undermines the argument about lack of control, but it was just one supporting argument. It is unclear if the approach would have led to a different decision, but it seems unlikely.

    In the niche situation that government control is a result of risk exposure, the Network Rail case shows the Information Tribunal and Upper Tribunal are not the only possible avenue. A  large and significant organisation that was judged to not be subject to FOI and EIR is now retrospectively understood to have been part of the government accounts throughout the whole period. Accountancy arguments of control may or may not convince the courts, but they only need to convince the accountants.

    Footnotes:

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