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This blog post is a companion post to a shorter blog post explaining the significance of this polling to mySociety’s FOI work.
We know very little about the real picture of Freedom of Information use because there are not comprehensive statistics. Information on users of Freedom of Information is very hard to come by. We have some information through a survey we run on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we know this only covers the minority of requesters who use our service.
Knowing about this picture is important to us for several reasons.
The first reason is one of the big benefits to society of WhatDoTheyKnow is that we make public information easier to discover without explicitly asking for it. If we can know more about how many FOIs are being made in total, we can have a better sense of what proportion of this information we’re publishing (based on some of the maths below, It’s probably somewhere from 5-10%).
The second reason is that conversations about the pros and cons of freedom of information can be dominated by the problems journalists experience in requesting information from the central government. This is a big and important problem, but it shifts the general understanding of the impact freedom of information has had on our society. Through WhatDoTheyKnow, we get a glimpse of a bigger world when citizens are making requests that affect them and their communities – but we don’t see everything, and getting more information about this is vital in informing how we approach our policy and campaigning work.
As part of a “Giving Tuesday”, Opinium gave five survey questions (for a national representative survey panel) to a number of charities, including mySociety. We used one of these questions to find out how many people had made a freedom of information request. The rest of this blog post explains the results of that survey.
The question we asked
Our data comes from an Opinium survey of a representative selection of UK adults that ran between 30th November – 3rd December 2021. Respondents were asked:
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to request a large range of information from public authorities (government departments, local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, etc). These are called Freedom of information requests. Have you ever made a Freedom of Information request?
Respondents had the option of responding:
- No I haven’t made a request, and I am not aware of Freedom of Information
- No, I am aware of freedom of information but haven’t used it
- Yes, as part of my job
- Yes, to find out something that might be useful for me personally
- Yes, to find out something that might be useful to my community/society in general
- I’m not sure / NA
mySociety/Opinium polling in 2021 found that 10% of UK adults have used FOI to try and get information they thought would be useful to themselves, their community or society. When including people who made a request as part of their work, this figure goes up to 14%. When looking just at personal use, the figure is 6%. Overall, a majority of people (62%) had either used FOI or were otherwise aware of it.
There was a small gender difference in both awareness and use of FOI, with men having higher awareness than women (68% to 57%), and greater use (16% to 11%). Our polling found that the 18-34 age group were the least aware of Freedom of Information (55%), but were also the age group most likely to have made an FOI request (25%). This is possibly partially explained by a much higher rate of using it as part of employment in younger demographics (12% compared to 6% overall), but the number using it for other reasons is still notably higher (some more discussion of this further down). Looking at respondents by nation/region, there was a less than expected proportion of people who made a request in Wales (6%) and Northern Ireland (2%), but a greater number who made a request in London (28%).
Validating these figures
When I first saw some of these figures, I was a little surprised and wanted to explore some different ways to validate the number.
Digging into it, I found that other polls asking different versions of the question show a similar figure, and back of the envelope calculations based on known statistics suggest the basic ballpark is right – there are millions, rather than hundreds of thousands, of people who have used the Freedom of Information Act.
Part of the reason this figure might be surprising is that our statistical picture of Freedom of Information is so poor, we have very little idea of the scale of it – and what we do know is misleading as to that scale. For instance, a recent Financial Times article, when highlighting the (bad) trend of how central governments are withholding more and more information requested, falls into the trap of assuming that this picture represents all freedom of information requests. But departments and ministries are not the only public bodies that receive Freedom of Information requests. In fact there’s good reason to believe they receive only a small percentage of the overall total.
Most FOI requests in the UK are not covered by official statistics. In 2017, we did a meta-FOI to ask local authorities about the number of FOIs they received. We calculated around 467k were made that year, compared to 46k made in that same year to the central government. From running WhatDoTheyKnow, we know that only 10% of requests made through the site go to the central government departments that are covered in the statistics.
As the number of Freedom of Information requests is much higher than the official statistics show, this helps explain why the number of requesters can be far higher than expected. Not only are there many more public bodies outside central government, but these bodies are closer to people’s day to day lives, and so a broader range of people might want information, and find it through the Freedom of Information Act.
Polling by the UK’s Information Commissioners
The clearest reassurance of the 10%ish figure is that a similar poll found a very similar number. Polling by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2021 found 49% were aware of “the right to request information held by public organisations”. This is lower than our equivalent question, where 62% had either made use of FOI, or were aware of it and not used it. However in the same 2021 survey, 10% of respondents to the ICO’s survey said they had already made use of “the right to request information held by public organisations”. In the previous year this figure was 12%. This figure is very close to our figure of 10-14% making use of FOI, and it is reassuring to see something in this ball park come from a different survey company.
Both these surveys might be wrong of course, but polling by the Scottish Information Commission in 2022 found an even higher number. This poll found 36% of a weighted sample of Scottish respondents had at some time “asked for information from a Scottish public body by letter, email or online form”. 18% said they did this annually or more frequently. This is a much higher number than the other survey. There are several possible reasons why.
- There is a genuine difference in awareness and use of rights between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
- The way this question is phrased should also include requests for personal information (subject access requests) as well as freedom of information requests.
- This version of the question does not ask about a right, just if someone did something that might have engaged the Freedom of Information Act. This might catch people who get through the process unaware they may have benefited or made use of information rights.
How should we interpret this? There is no strong reason to believe the use of rights is significantly different in Scotland. The Scottish figure was 63% awareness of freedom of Information, which is higher than the ICO UK-wide, but in the same general area as our UK-wide polling, which did not show a significant difference for Scotland. Similarly, our survey found a statistically significant difference in use of FOI by respondents in London and did not find this for Scotland.
As for subject access requests, we actually know from the (really good) statistics recorded in Scotland that around one-quarter of information requests are subject access requests. So even applying this correction, this question is still suggesting around double the figure from our survey. This is likely to be part of the explanation, but is not all of that.
This leaves the possibility that by not prompting about rights or freedom of information, this is capturing a set of people who are coming into contact with information rights issues without noticing it. It is possible to exercise your freedom of information rights without being aware you are doing so. My first freedom of information request was made this way as a student, asking OFCOM if they held some information from the Broadcasting Complaints Commissions’s archive. If you email your local council wanting to know something, it should be processed under the Freedom of Information Act, even if you were unaware of it. This is likely to include some interactions with authorities that will have existed before FOI (and information may have been made available) but which is now covered formally through the Freedom of Information process. For example, a request for library opening times could be processed as an FOI request, but may well have been answered before the FOI act existed.
If this is an explanation for a higher number in response to the OSIC survey, it might also explain the higher proportion of 18-34 respondents in our poll who had used Freedom of Information for personal reasons. Contact with public bodies for information is more likely now to be by email, and trigger the formal FOI process. There is more to explore here around possible shifting patterns of first contact with FOI.
Back of the envelope calculation based on WhatDoTheyKnow statistics
The relevant polling we have is supportive of our poll not being outrageously high. The other approach is to try a very back of the envelope approach based on known statistics to see if this is a reasonable amount of FOIs to have been made.
Based on previous research by mySociety and the Constitution Unit, we have estimates for the number of FOIs made to local authorities in 2005-2010 and 2017. Filling in the extra years between those dates, extending forward, and doubling the number (roughly 48% of requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow are to local authorities – but we don’t know if this applies more generally or not), this gives roughly 11 million FOI requests all time. On WhatDoTheyKnow there are an average of six requests per user (again, don’t know if this applies more generally) – so applying that ratio gives roughly 2 million requesters all time. A figure of 10% of UK adults would expect roughly 4.3 million requesters all time.
To get the two numbers more into sync some combination of the following could be true:
- More local government requests have been made all time than this assumes.
- Not impossible given this is based on three data points (all of which are incomplete surveys and require some amount of extrapolation).
- A greater proportion of requests being made to non-local government bodies than happens in WhatDoTheyKnow
- No way of knowing this without a complete statistical picture.
- OSIC statistics show a higher 60% statistic in Scotland being made to local government.
- Given there are many more non-local government public authorities in the rest of the UK, it is reasonable to guess it’s closer to the WhatDoTheyKnow statistic of 50%, but could it be lower than that?
- The ratio between requesters and requests is different outside of WhatDoTheyKnow.
- Arguments both ways, WhatDoTheyKnow is missing all the ‘not intentionally using FOI’ one-offs, but also some of the bulk requesters who don’t want the results to be public on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Given so many of these numbers are made-up or trying to generalise from WhatDoTheyKnow to all uses of FOI, there is no real reason not to prefer the figure two separate polls agree on. That said, it is reassuring it is in the right order of magnitude (still talking millions rather than hundreds of thousands of FOI users). This question would be helped by a complete statistical picture of FOI in the UK, and to be honest, that would be so useful, it’d be fine if it proved our current numbers wrong.
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Demographic difference graphs
The following graphs show the demographic split on aspects of the FOI polling. Where the percentage for a category is higher than would be expected statistically if there was no difference between groups, it is highlighted in blue. If it is smaller than would be expected, it is highlighted in red. For non-highlighted categories there is insufficient data to say the category differs from the general average.
Data users in the UK often encounter fragmented public data, where public authorities are each spending money to publish data independently, but their outputs are difficult to find and join together. This means that a lot of effort is going into creating data which cannot be used to its full potential.
Our current thinking is that some level of central coordination is required to accompany a central mandate to publish. Public bodies need support and coordination to publish data to a lightweight common standard and in a common location.
We want to kick the wheels of this conclusion, identify existing attempts to fix the problem, and talk to people who produce and use the data to see what the obstacles are. If you’re interested, get in touch at email@example.com, or drop your views in this survey.
What is fragmented public data?
Fragmented public data is when many public authorities are required to publish the same data, but not to a common standard (structure) or in a single location – so data becomes fragmented across multiple locations and multiple formats.
In theory, this data should be being used by companies, researchers and journalists to provide insight into spending, spot fraud, and find opportunities to sell to councils.
But in practice, to use the data, you’ll need to search all 333 council websites each month, then import each spreadsheet into a central database – and you’ll spend a lot of time pulling your hair out, because the spreadsheets don’t use a consistent format.
As a result, not much has actually been done with all this data. And the grand promises that spending data would unleash an ‘army of armchair auditors’ have largely failed to materialise.
Why does this matter?
This is a problem because most of the effort is already being spent to do the job ineffectually. Councils do a lot of work to produce this data, and companies and analysts waste time fixing import scripts or crowdsourcing data, rather than creating new products or insights — and for many organisations, the skills and resources required to create national level datasets are beyond them.
This is not an isolated problem – there are many other examples of fragmented data.
For many datasets, while individual disclosures are useful, the combined data is much more than the sum of its parts because it allows real understanding of the picture across the whole country, and makes it easier to draw comparisons between different areas.
Across all these datasets the potential loss is huge – and just a bit of extra work could unlock huge amounts of the overall value of the data. We want to fix this for data that is already being published, and make sure that datasets in future are published in the best possible way.
So what can we do?
The big problem is one of coordination. We think the UK’s central data teams just need to help public authorities do two things:
- Use a lightweight common standard
- Report the location of the data in a central register.
By taking things that individual authorities are doing anyway, but getting an agreed format and location, all the individual datasets become far more useful. But the details of the standard are less important than the fact that the government and legislators should be as interested in this side of the problem as they are in requiring the data to be published in the first place.
We’re keen to learn lessons from previous attempts to do this, and reviewing old publication guides, our initial conclusion is that these over-complicated the idea of what open data is (with a fixation on file formats and linked standards), rather than simple interventions that help both publishers and users (where generally, the best approach is probably an Excel template with common headers). Common standards need to be a compromise between technical requirements and the people who work in local authorities who produce this data.
We’re encouraged by an approach taken by the Scottish Parliament, where publication of compliance with climate change duties was mandated in a particular format – and a consultation on this process found most organisations involved thought standard reporting was an improvement. We’re interested in any other examples of this kind of approach.
What are we doing now?
We’re trying to explore this problem a bit more, to understand the scale of the problem, and the viability of our approach.
We are interested in talking to:
- People who have run into this issue, what they were trying to do, if they were able to overcome it, or if they had to give up.
- People who publish information in public bodies to understand what their restrictions are
- People or organisations with experience in trying to coordinate a single standard or location for public data releases.
The right to access information requires high quality oversight. Studies of effectiveness of Access to Information (ATI) legislation tells a clear story: the benefits of greater transparency and access to information can only be realised when this system is actively enforced. To be effective, the whole system of ATI review and appeal has to be designed as a system of cultural change. The system has to use limited resources in a strategic way to reform cultures of unnecessary secrecy in government that protect corruption and inefficiency in public life.
Building on a comprehensive picture of appeal systems and processes across Europe, our new report argues for the value of specialised oversight bodies (Information Commissioners), who have independence from government and the power to compel compliance from authorities. In countries that use a system of internal review, better monitoring and interventions are necessary to ensure this system enhances rather than detracts from access to information.
Summary of recommendations:
- Better investment in the resources, capacities and independence of Information Commissioners improves the quality of the ATI regime, attacks corruption, and strengthens good governance.
- Specialist Information commissioners are preferable to general ombudsman, bringing more specific knowledge, and are a more suitable structure to shepherd the access to information regime.
- The power to enforce decisions is a required tool for driving culture change in public authorities.
- Systems of internal review should be replaced by commissioner-led systems of appeal, where information commissioners have understanding of appeals across the entire system, and can use internal review as a strategic choice, rather than a hurdle before an appeal can be considered.
- In general, oversight bodies and civil society rarely have high quality information about full workings of the ATI system. We argue that better quality statistics are a valuable tool in demonstrating the value of the system, and in allowing targeted focus on problems.
Fundamentally, good ATI regimes are important because of the effects they have in society, strengthening anti-corruption and good policy-making approaches. Better oversight is a cost-effective way of unlocking these wider benefits. This report explores how technical details of how the oversight system works are important in achieving these overall objectives.
mySociety’s climate programme is focused around reducing the carbon emissions that are within the power and influence of local authorities in the UK.
A big area of ignorance for us was the public understanding of local government and its role in combating climate change. We anticipated that in general there might be low public understanding, but we wanted to know more about the shape of that understanding, and how that might affect how we approach our work.
The report has seven key messages:
Net zero is a national mission on a huge scale. It will mean changes to our landscapes and lifestyles, our physical infrastructure and energy systems, our homes, our diets, the way we travel. As well as being necessary, it should be a positive transition (think cleaner, healthier, more productive communities). But it will require some big investments, which need to be paid for fairly, and changes in people’s lives. Broad support will be critical.
To be successful, net zero will require strong local direction. This is the message from a growing chorus of voices (and not just diehard devolution advocates). Central government will have to take some decisions and set direction. It overwhelmingly controls funding. But the path to net zero will be different across the UK: rural areas face very different issues to dense urban ones. Councils are well placed to understand local concerns, needs and capabilities – and build support for local transition pathways. They can act as conveners, working with local citizens, businesses and community groups.
Local climate action is gearing up, but councils face constraints. Councils hold key levers in housing, transport and planning; in all, they exercise powers or influence over around a third of all UK emissions. Almost all have a net zero target and four fifths have published a climate action plan. But these vary in scope and detail, and many councils are still getting to grips with how to cut (or just measure) emissions. Some have started engaging citizens. But in general councils lack funding and capabilities, which is holding back action.
The public supports stronger climate action. In the last three years public concern about climate change has climbed from mid-ranking to be the third most important issue facing the country – and this change appears pretty robust. Cost of living pressures present challenges, but recent polling shows the public still overwhelmingly supports the UK’s net zero target. Most people think stronger action is needed to meet it.
The public supports more local involvement in net zero. Trust and satisfaction with government has been in decline, but attitudes towards local councils have held up much better (44% trust their local councillor vs 19% for government ministers). In particular, people much prefer councillors when asked who should make decisions about their local areas. They think local areas have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and believe central government should provide more funding to enable local action.
Public understanding of local government is relatively low. The public makes little distinction between different tiers of government. While people know councils are responsible for some highly visible services like waste collection, their understanding of the range of actions local authorities could take to tackle climate change is limited.
Climate action will need to be framed around local concerns. The public are particularly keen on certain net zero policies including frequent flier levies, carbon taxes, improved public transport, and support for replacing gas boilers and installing energy efficiency. But there has been less polling on preferences around local action. People have some concerns about how costs and impacts will fall, and when asked about priorities for their local area, they tend to raise wider issues like vibrant high streets or youth employment.
The report concludes by offering recommendations on four areas where mySociety could make a difference: supporting efforts to address information gaps and raise awareness, which could help provide a stronger foundation for local climate action; supporting wider use of public engagement, and helping councils to achieve wider reach via digital tools; helping to address knowledge gaps around public opinion and preferences for local net zero action; and supporting more effective ways of monitoring and tracking progress in local climate action.
Reflections on the report:
While we anticipated (and the report confirms) low public awareness around some aspects of local authorities, the process of writing the report helped expose some questions we’ve been dancing around the edges of, about how local authorities relate to their communities. For instance, our work is focused on the potential of local authorities to reduce emissions, but there are different opinions on exactly the proportion of emissions local authorities could have influence over. Depending who you ask, it can be anywhere between almost no emissions, and almost all emissions. This report helps navigate that area, in particular distinguishing between where local authorities are genuinely best placed to take action (and how this capacity could be improved), versus where central government may want to shift responsibility without properly enabling action.
This report has been helpful in encouraging clearer thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘local action’. Some sources slide between talk of local action (from communities) and local action (from local authorities). Accepting a framing that local authorities are not only better placed than central government to work with local communities (certainly true) but are the same thing as their local communities (definitely not true) hides a large problem area where local authorities’ ability to work in and with their community can be substantially improved. Being clear-eyed about the current situation, as well as the potential for change, is essential for the success of our programme of work.
Photo credit: Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash
The goal of mySociety’s climate programme is to try and reduce the estimated 33% of UK emissions that are within the scope of local authorities’ activities. To be systematic about what that might mean, we’ve tried to categorise all local authority services and activities into three broad areas:
- Service delivery is where councils’ direct or outsourced activities have an implication for emissions. This includes their own facilities, services run directly or those externally procured. For instance, waste disposal and coastal protection are both services in this category, and our initial pass put 71 services in this category.
- Enforcement and regulation is where councils have power to reduce third party/citizen emissions through regulatory frameworks. This might include transport or building regulation, or enforcement of regulations of the private rental sector (80 services).
- Place making is where local government have a coordinating/enabling role in emissions generated by third parties/citizens within their boundaries. This will involve fewer actual duties to take action, but a greater coordinating role, including general planning and research, borrowing and investment powers or strategic economic planning (90 services).
Using the ESD standard list of services provided by local authorities in England and Wales, a first pass identified services that might have relevance to emissions reduction (trying to be inclusive when in doubt). A second pass then assigned those services to at least one of the categories above.
The results of this process are in a GitHub repository. This is an initial test of this concept and the list, and classifications may be refined over time. Future additions might further distinguish powers from duties (where authorities can take action versus when they have to take action) and broad/specific service descriptions.
Internally, we’re using this list as a reminder of the wide range of activities local authorities have responsibility for, and to consider whether different groups of these services may be suitable for similar kinds of external interventions or services we might build as part of our work. As a dataset, this might eventually be able to add value directly to services. For instance the description data could be used in a machine learning approach as described in this paper for tagging and improving search of plans in the Climate Action Plan Explorer.
The Climate Change Committee report on local authorities has two alternate ways of dividing local government functions.
The first is a list of areas of local government responsibility that relate to emissions:
- An overarching role to support the economic, health and social wellbeing of communities
- Powers to ensure buildings meet basic energy efficiency standards
- Duties to prevent homelessness and prevent hazards in housing
- Duties to manage risk including climate risks such as flooding
- Duties and powers to protect the environment, wildlife and heritage
- Duties to collect and dispose of waste
- Borrowing and investment powers
The second is a 6 stage “onion” diagram of activities based on the Centre for Sustainability model, where each layer accounts for a larger slice of emissions, but is less directly under the power of the council:
- Direct control: buildings, operations, travel
- Procurement: plus commissioning & commercialisation
- Place shaping: using powers to control development and transport
- Showcasing: innovating, piloting, demonstrating and sharing good practice, scaling and replicating
- Partnerships: leading bringing people and organisations together, coordinating and supporting others, joining others’ partnerships
- Involving, Engaging and Communicating: translating global and national climate change targets for local relevance, with stakeholders to raise awareness, involving people & ideas for local solutions
Most of these fit into the placemaking category used above, but more generally our approach recognises a distinct regulation role that might be supported in a different way by potential future services to placemaking approaches.
Header image: 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash
In one sentence
TICTeC Action Lab #1 is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to produce a piece of work to showcase examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens.
About TICTeC Action Lab #1
As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, mySociety convened the TICTeC Action Lab #1 working group in order to take ideas raised at Civic Tech Surgery #1 forward, and decide together what piece of work would be useful to commission to help civic tech organisations around the world to work more effectively with governments/public institutions.
The TICTeC Labs programme is looking at six key dilemmas facing civic tech. The first of those challenges was how civic tech organisations can work effectively with public and private institutions. Our Civic Tech Surgery #1 discussed some of the challenges and suggested some ways forward. Our Action Lab #1 considered those ideas and decided on a piece of work that could be commissioned to help solve some of the problems raised.
TICTeC Action Lab #1 is comprised of 6 individuals from across the world, who between them have many years of experience working on civic tech and/or the issues that surround the effectiveness of civic tech. You can read more about Action Lab #1 members here.
About this project
TICTeC Action Lab #1 members agreed to commission a piece of work that showcases examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens.
The Action Lab believes highlighting successful examples will help civic tech organisations across the world to work more effectively with governments, as it will help them to promote the benefits of civic tech and inspire and motivate government actors, as well as themselves, to start similar civic tech projects in their contexts.
Therefore, the primary target audience for this work are public institutions across the world, as well as civic tech organisations themselves who want to be inspired. The work should include:
- Examples of civic tech organisations working with public institutions (e.g. local governments/councils; national governments; government departments/agencies etc) on civic tech/digital democracy projects that have resulted in tangible improvements for the public institutions and their citizens. By ‘civic tech organisations’, we mean organisations that focus on informing citizens, connecting them with each other and getting them to engage with their governments in order to work together for the public good.
- Examples from multiple countries, ensuring that examples from both the Global South and the Global North are represented.
- Specific details on how the civic tech/digital democracy projects were set up and why; what the challenges were; what the tangible improvements were; and any other details that would be helpful for other civic tech organisations and public institutions who may like to replicate the examples in their contexts.
There is $2500 USD (inclusive of taxes) available for this work. We are open to what form this piece of work takes – e.g. it could be a set of case studies; interviews; visualisations/images; a literature review; a graphic novel even! Above all, we want the work to be as accessible as possible to ensure it can be easily used in practice. We ask applicants to let us know what approach they will take in their application.
It may be helpful for applicants to look back at schedules from previous TICTeC events to find examples of presentations that discuss how civic tech projects have led to tangible improvements.
How to apply
If you’re interested in producing this piece of work, then please fill in this application form by 28th March 2022. Applications will be reviewed by the TICTeC Labs team at mySociety and the TICTeC Labs Steering Group. Applicants will be notified of the status of their application no later than 15th April. The work will then need to be completed within 8 weeks of the successful applicant being appointed.
What happens after the project
We intend to publish the work you produce, credited to you, on the TICTeC and mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence. 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. The project will then be disseminated by TICTeC Action Lab members, the TICTeC Labs Steering group, and the TICTeC community to ensure it’s used as much as possible.
mySociety will convene a ‘report back’ event at the end of the TICTeC Labs programme to discuss how the programme went and the work commissioned by the programme and its participants. Authors of commissioned work will be invited to attend to present their work.
Please send any queries or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Identifying opportunities for levelling up and net zero both require high quality, comparable local data
The levelling-up white paper sets out the government’s direction and strategy for reducing regional inequalities, a much-needed objective as the UK has one of the worst regional inequalities in the OECD countries. The paper outlines new opportunities for local authorities to have devolution-style powers and gain more autonomy by 2030.
There is a large gap in the levelling-up agenda: the white paper does not put the recently published net zero strategy at its heart. Both levelling up and net zero require systematic changes to the role local government plays in directing the economic activities of their area, and engaging and working with communities and citizens.
Improving local data is important to boosting local economies while delivering a net zero transformation, and implementing those two as one comprehensive package will help fully embed environmental considerations in economic decisions.
Levelling up and net zero have to be approached as a mutually supportive package, and not as two separate packages. Their implementation will create new economic models and lead to new governance structures. Both require new transparency mechanisms to enable citizens to track progress towards commitments.
A new independent body to gather, enhance and make data accessible to local governments and citizens
Both the levelling up and net zero agendas would benefit from high quality, evidence-based, and comparable local data. In the current situation, local data is not easy to navigate and does not always allow easy data discovery, aggregation and re-use.
mySociety and Climate Emergency UK have been working to transform a situation where council’s climate plans are hard to find and understand by making council climate action plans accessible on a central website, and producing comparison tools and scores on the basis of written commitments found in climate emergency plans to spur comparisons, identify best practice, and improve performance.
The importance of improved local data is recognised in the levelling up white paper announcement of a new independent body (p. 138) to gather, enhance, and make data accessible to local governments and citizens. Creating central pools of information helps spread learning and improve accountability, without undermining the local innovation that devolving power and responsibilities to local authorities and communities unlocks. The stated goal of this new body is to improve local leaders’ knowledge of their own services while increasing central government’s understanding of local authorities’ activities. This new body can play a very important part in improving the local data ecosystem.
This new capacity is equally important to the goal of net zero. It would be a missed opportunity not to strongly consider how this body could support local governments’ move towards net zero, and enable a transparent and just transition.
Addressing the limitations
Creating high quality local data is important to improving outcomes, but will also demonstrate the limits of current financial constraints. To deliver ambitious and sustainable transformations in both regional inequality and net zero requires sustained and structured investment in the resources and capacities of local authorities. Addressing inequalities through better local data should not be limited to collating data on economic inequalities, and it is therefore critical that the new datasets also highlight local health inequalities and gaps in social care funding that significantly contribute to existing inequalities that, in turn, lead to poor engagement in climate action. Data should not be a stick to beat local governments, but a tool to help them articulate problems and find solutions.
The plan is for the new independent data body to be co-designed with local government, but it is also important that this reflects the needs of local communities and citizens. Citizen engagement and participation is vital for both levelling up and net zero. As outlined by the Climate Change Committee, 62 per cent of the measures needed to meet the country’s net zero goal will require some form of behaviour or societal change, and this should be reflected on how data is used to drive accountability and transparency.
As more plans about this new data body emerge, we will advocate for it to support the transition to net zero through promoting inter-council learning, central government understanding, and community accountability.
What mySociety is doing around net zero and data
mySociety is working to repower democracy and enable new approaches to reducing carbon emissions. We are taking our experience running services such as TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet to work with partners and explore new services to reduce emissions within the scope of local authority activities.
To date, we have worked with Climate Emergency UK on the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, making local climate action plans more discoverable and accessible for local governments, campaigners, and citizens.
Image: Retrofitting homes in progress, by Ashden
Would you like to join TICTeC Action Lab #2, collaborating with others around the world to discuss this question, and to commission a solution to benefit everyone who uses civic tech?
As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, we recently convened a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of around 100 civic tech practitioners and researchers from across the world to discuss common challenges in ensuring the tech we make is accessible, and the possible solutions.
You can find resources from this online event here, including minutes, a summary blog post, contributions from attendees, and the full recording.
Now the second part of the TICTeC Labs process kicks in, as we convene an Action Lab, a working group to decide on what to commission as a solution to the issues raised at the Civic Tech Surgery.
The aim is to provide a practical solution that will help organisations running civic tech projects to make their projects more accessible for everyone.
Some of the ideas that arose from the Surgery were: gathering and sharing existing guidance on accessibility best practice and sharing with community; creating policy templates for civic tech organisations; and compiling a database of for-hire or volunteer software developers with experience in making sites and tools accessible. There were many more ideas, and it’s up to Action Lab #2 members to decide which would be most useful — and practical to commission — using a dedicated $2,500 USD grant.
Applications to join this Action Lab are now open, and we would like to invite those interested in being part of this project to apply. Your job will be to decide exactly which piece of work to commission with the available funding.
A month ago we wrote a blog post looking for outside researchers to do some research to keep our climate work well rooted in the evidence base. The goal of this first piece of work is to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change.
After a really strong set of applications, we are delighted that we’ll be working with Tom Sasse on this project. Tom is an associate director at the Institute for Government and is taking this work on in a freelance capacity.
As he starts on this research, he’s interested in any material (especially that may be off the beaten path) that could be relevant to that question. He can be reached on Twitter or through email at email@example.com.
We’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned from this process to make improvements to both the application process, and the design of our future research briefs. If you’re interested in hearing about those future calls for proposals, you can join the mailing list.
- 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.
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.
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.
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