1. Party voting instructions should be public

    Summary

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

    The public think voting instructions should be public

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

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

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

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

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

    Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash

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

    Important links

    Download as PDF.

    In one sentence

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

    About mySociety

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

    About mySociety’s existing work in this area 

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

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

    About this project

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

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

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

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

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

    What we are looking for in and from a partner

    Expertise/ skill set

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

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

    Alignment with values and aims

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

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

    Working practices

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

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

    Outputs and deliverables

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

    Q&A and contact details

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

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

    Your application

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

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

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

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

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

    Application timeline

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

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

     

    What happens after the project 

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

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

    Terms and conditions

    Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.

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

  3. What we learned about research commissioning

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

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

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

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

    Header image: Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

  4. 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

  5. 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

     

  6. 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

  7. 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

     

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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