1. Screening for conflicts of interests in ownership data

    Header image: Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

    mySociety and SpendNetwork have been working on a project for the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) Global Digital Marketplace Programme and the Prosperity Fund Global Anti-Corruption programme, led by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), around beneficial ownership in public procurement. This is one of a series of posts about that work

    A key corruption risk in public procurement is that officials or politicians successfully direct contracts to companies that they control or benefit from.

    Understanding who the beneficial owners of these companies are is one half of preventing this; the other is knowing more about the people who shouldn’t benefit, such as politically exposed persons (PEPs) or those involved in the procurement process.

    The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) defines politically exposed people as “individuals who are, or have been, entrusted with prominent public functions and their family members and close associates”. This is a flexible definition, varying by country as to which roles should be included and how far their associations should be seen as connected. That said, typically the term will be understood as  limited to senior roles, while procurement processes might actually suffer from conflicts of interest from less senior procurement officials (PO) who are more directly involved.

    Solving this problem is hard. Data sources exist to help with the issue but are not complete in themselves. A good general principle is designing a process that makes it more likely that conflicts of interest will be detected, using tools and datasets to increase scrutiny, without relying on it as an all encompassing solution.

    The problem

    In an ideal world, analysts would simply match a list of beneficial owners against a list of politically exposed persons. Any overlap would say if a PEP is benefiting from a government contract. Unfortunately, each step in this process is far from simple.

    Previous blog posts have detailed the problems in creating a list of beneficial ownership, and politically exposed persons represent a similar challenge.  The UNCAC definition is a good definition for investigators, but to create disclosure requirements it needs to be translated into a concrete local understanding of which roles are covered.

    Where there is a clear definition, or even a list of roles that it covers (as may already exist for tracking asset disclosures), this requires a system of tracking and updating changes in those roles. Up to date lists should have a mechanism for adding new PEPs with  reasonable speed after they take office, but also need to act as an archive for information about former office holders for pursuing retrospective investigations.

    The more comprehensive the dataset (for instance, covering multiple countries, or sub-national significant figures), the higher the costs of maintenance and the greater the risk the list will fall out of date. Procurement officials (POs) are unlikely to be tracked by existing approaches to identifying PEPs in a country and will need new approaches. In South Africa, civil servants are prohibited by law from being a  beneficiary of the procurement process, creating a very large list of people to exclude.

    The other side of the problem is that where an up-to-date and comprehensive list of excluded persons exists, you have to be able to match it against your list of owners. This runs into the problem of data matching. Name matching is error prone and while information of office holders is often public (and so a list can be maintained without special privileges), these public lists are less likely to include the unique IDs essential to easy matching of individuals.

    As the Financial Action Task Force (FAFT) put it:

    Inconsistent transliterations and spellings of names affect the ability of financial institutions and DNFBPs to match names in general. Scrubbing customer databases for matches against commercial databases may result in many false positives if such databases contain insufficient or inadequate identifier information. This increases the risk of missing true matches and requires additional resources to separate false positives from true matches.

    However, while the problem is hard, partial and incomplete solutions have value.

    PEP databases and matching tools

    While FATF says that the use of databases is not sufficient to comply with their requirements, they are still a useful tool that can speed up work. Commercial databases exist, often aimed at assisting regulatory compliance in banks,  such as SmartSearch, Accuity and BAE systems Watch List Management system. There is also a variety of open data sources available, with OCCRP gathering a set of datasets on individual sanctions together as a dataset in aleph.  Some of these have approaches to name matching built in. For instance, ComplyAdvantage has a PEP database with a fuzzy matching search that can be accessed through an API.

    There is a wide selection of open source tools available to help with name reconciliation, such as Elasticsearch, OpenRefine, and Dedupe.io (a service built around a free python library). When people have entries in multiple national databases, different transliterations of their names can be recorded. OCCRP has developed a list of ‘synonames’ (soundalike) names that help address this, but reconciling individuals based on name remains a difficult problem.

    These databases will not cover procurement officers, and require additional data creation and maintenance work in a country. However, as these people are state employees, there is the prospect of tying into existing HR or payroll systems to automate generating the list, and also having access to more sensitive personal identifiers such as identity or tax numbers.

    Where the intention is to release the list publicly (such as Mexico’s planned SESNA datasets of public servants involved in procurement, and those who are sanctioned), the identity fragment approach could be used to aid reconciliation with other datasets without releasing this personal information.

    Where unique IDs can be established for both sides of the process, this makes lookups far more efficient. Where they can’t, the process should be designed to be more likely to create false positives than negatives that can then be further investigated. This also raises the importance of how the overall system is designed. While automated screenings can be built into tools for procurers decided between contracts, enhanced scrutiny of contract winners is less time consuming than screening all those who sign up to a supplier portal.

    Representing the data

    While the data standard that has most use in beneficial ownership is the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard (BODS), this is not the most appropriate format for PEP data.

    Currently where this data exists it is in a variety of CSV or JSON based formats. The ideal scenario is that PEP information is published in a common standard, so that multiple data sources can be easily combined in an analysis tool.

    A good candidate for this is the Popolo data standard. This is a standard designed to hold information about elected politicians and legislatures, which makes it useful for holding lists of PEPs. It can store information on when particular people hold particular offices, allowing it to act as a repository of older information for comparisons several years after the fact, as well as having the ability to store multiple names and identifiers that might aid reconciliation.

    mySociety’s(currently paused) EveryPolitician project uses this standard, which makes it useful as a source of global PEP information (it is used in, for instance, Global Witness’s investigation of the UK Persons of Significant Control dataset). The standard was also used by the Sinar Project’s Telus tool in Malaysia as a repository of PEP information.  FATF recommend that countries should compile a list of domestic positions/functions that are considered prominent public functions to aid determinations of whether a particular person holds a PEP-qualifying role. This could also similarly be released in Popolo format, using just the Post structure.

    Alternatively, where the process is less of a lookup between two lists, and more an investigation of individuals who are beneficial owners, BODS has an optional field saying whether and if so, why someone qualifies as a politically exposed person. This could be collected as part of a verification process, with information reviewed for relevance by decision makers.

    See all posts in this series.

  2. Collecting and making use of beneficial ownership data

    Header image: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

    mySociety and SpendNetwork have been working on a project for the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) Global Digital Marketplace Programme and the Prosperity Fund Global Anti-Corruption programme, led by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), around beneficial ownership in public procurement. This is one of a series of posts about that work

    There are three steps to working with beneficial ownership data: collection, verification and analysis. These three areas interact – how and when data is collected affects how viable different methods of verification are, and both of these in turn affect what forms of analysis are possible.

    While collection of beneficial ownership data does not have to be part of the procurement process, (for example, if there is already a national register) requirements for bidding or winning public contracts are good pressure points to require disclosure. The following diagram shows a bird’s eye view of how ownership data (green lines) might be collected by different government agencies as part of the corporate lifecycle and the government contracting process (click for more detail).

    Where ownership data fits in the company lifecycle and contracting process

    In an ideal world, beneficial ownership information would be available and accurate at all of these points. But realistically, choices must be made over when and where to introduce beneficial ownership data collection and how to resource verification. Such choices will have an effect on the scale and timeliness of the data collected, however, as we can explore with the following diagram:

    Potential ownership collection points

    For instance, if a goal is to check for bidding cartels in the process of judging the bid, this information can be collected at any point: when companies are formed; when they register as a supplier; or when they make a bid. If companies submit multiple bids, it reduces duplication if information is collected sooner. However, this also increases the potential time between submission and analysis, and so requires an update process to avoid information becoming out of date.

    Collecting at different points also makes a difference to the size of the database. Each successive capture point is collecting a smaller sample of organisations. This affects analysis in two ways: scope and accuracy. The more companies covered in the dataset, the more forms of analysis become possible. If you have only collected information on bid winners, you cannot investigate bidding cartels. If your collection only includes the beneficial ownership of registered suppliers, you cannot identify the ‘sibling’ entities (which are not in the direct ownership chain of a company, but are owned by the same owners)  in a corporate structure that might contain hidden debts.

    While collecting data about more companies does not inherently make data more inaccurate, there is an indirect effect in that collecting more information raises the overall cost of verification.  Collecting information about all companies creates a much larger dataset to verify than just those who win contracts. If verification resources are not increased accordingly, the dataset will have a much larger scope, but be less accurate, and so the resulting analysis may be less useful.

    This inaccuracy may have a higher effect on fraud/anti-corruption analysis than its overall incidence in the dataset. This is because while some errors will be accidental, some will have been deliberately introduced to disguise ownership. Analysis that is only possible with large amounts of data may not even really be possible if the database is not supported by a strong verification system.

    To provide two different models, the UK’s Persons of Significant Control (PSC) register requires declarations as part of a company’s annual statement. With a few exceptions, it includes all companies registered in the UK. This data is submitted by the company without verification, as examining suspicious statements is a resource intensive problem across the entire jurisdiction (see the recent Global Witness report for a description of the verification problems in the UK PSC register).

    The Slovakian Register of public sector partners (RPVS) requires beneficial ownership information be submitted only before a high value contract is awarded and so has a much narrower scope. However, there is a much stronger verification process, with third parties (generally legal offices) submitting the information and the process they used to reach it, with an in-country individual held legally responsible for the accuracy of the data. Methods and useful concepts in the verification process are explored in more detail in an OpenOwnership briefing.

    Depending on the specifics, smaller databases (with verification) may lead to more basic—but more accurate—analysis. The calculation made in Slovakia for instance, is that there is less need for using data as part of the procurement process if the post-award checks are very good, because raising the chances of being caught raises the costs of cheating. On the other hand, this is then missing out on the prospect of identification of cartels. Disclosures may be accurate while the procurement process is still distorted.

    Each expansion in the number of companies included does not expand the process in the same ways. While smaller registers may be cheaper to verify, new forms of analysis may open up with small increases in size. For instance, if the overall number of companies participating in bids is not much larger than those winning bids, the additional compliance costs may be negligible and allow the possibility of cartel analysis.

    See all posts in this series.

  3. What is beneficial ownership?

    Header image: Omar Flores on Unsplash

    mySociety and SpendNetwork have been working on a project for the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) Global Digital Marketplace Programme and the Prosperity Fund Global Anti-Corruption programme, led by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), around beneficial ownership in public procurement. This is one of a series of posts about that work

    The idea of beneficial ownership is meant to address the problem that the official directors and board of a company may be different from the true owner or controller.

    Without knowing the true owners of a business, you cannot understand who benefits from or controls its activities. In a procurement context, without beneficial ownership information about suppliers, it can be difficult to detect organised corruption or conflicts of interest.  Greater knowledge of ownership and control can give greater insight into supply chains and product quality. In the case of government contracts, collecting and using beneficial ownership data can have a very real impact on ensuring state funding is directed towards legitimate, high quality services and infrastructure for citizens.

    Someone may not even be an ‘owner’ in the sense of having a significant proportion of shares to have ‘control’ over it. They might own no shares but still exercise control through a right to appoint board members. In most cases they would still be considered beneficial owners of the company.

    Where this becomes interesting is when companies are owned not just by ‘natural’ (real) people, but also by other companies. For some companies, this can result in long chains of ownership, with many levels of companies owning other companies. But sooner or later, all ownership chains must terminate in real people, not corporate entities – those people are the beneficial owners.

    Tools for visualising beneficial ownership structures are still quite varied, but most attempt to represent ownership as a network, with companies and people as nodes:

    Diagram showing connections between companies and their eventual beneficial owners

    An alternative approach is to think about only the ultimate owners in a chain. This can be particularly useful when you need to make quick decisions about who owns or benefits from a given company, regardless of how many ‘steps’ they are removed from the company itself:

    Diagram showing the same network, but with ownership information displayed seperately

    Perfect vs practical definitions

    A broad definition of beneficial ownership (such as ‘deriving significant benefit from or having control over a company‘) is useful for an investigator trying to understand whether specific individuals can be said to be beneficial owners of an organisation. It is less useful when an organisation is being asked to declare who their beneficial owners are. This requires concrete disclosure requirements that may approach, but are likely to fall short of a broad definition. For instance, it might be decided that stockholders who have more than 25% of voting rights qualify for disclosure. In the terminology used by the World Bank/STAR Puppet Masters report, this is a “formal” rather than “substantive” approach to understanding the beneficial ownership of companies.

    When talking about beneficial ownership, it is important to keep in mind this distinction between the concept of a beneficial owner and the inherently imperfect ways of identifying them. Better management of procurement risks means knowing more about who benefits from a company receiving a contract. But on the other side, the people hoping to subvert the process will want to maintain secret ownership ties in order to control or benefit from the company.

    Closing the gaps in knowledge with additional beneficial ownership disclosure addresses the current state of evasion, but not how dishonest actors will react to new requirements. Introducing new requirements will address some amount of fraud and corruption, but also creates a strong incentive to find new ways to conceal conflicts of interests. This arms race dynamic means there is no one ‘good’ formal definition of beneficial ownership, but a number of different criteria that need to react to the practices of concealment in evidence in a country at a particular time.

    As such, the best way to think about the long term impact of beneficial ownership on public procurement is not as a silver bullet, but as a tightening net. Future escalations may involve changed definitions, or improving the means by which information is validated. Underlying tools and standards need to be flexible to a range of national contexts, as well as a potential for change over time.

    Beneficial ownership is part of a solution to several different problems

    Several different frameworks promoted by inter-governmental bodies or international transparency/anti-corruption groups push towards more collection of beneficial ownership information.

    The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) required as part of their 2016 standard that all participating countries mandate the disclosure of beneficial owners within extractive industries (oil, coal, gas, mineral extraction), and recommend publication in public registers or through the country EITI report.

    The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 2012 recommendations include the importance for financial institutions of discovering the beneficial owner as part of customer due diligence when establishing a new business relationship, and apply enhanced diligence if a beneficial owner is also a politically exposed person (PEP). While not calling for an open register, they do recommend that there are timely forms of accessing accurate beneficial ownership available for ‘competent authorities’.

    The Open Government Partnership (OGP) supports the Beneficial Ownership Leadership Group with the aims of strengthening disclosure requirements and verification processes,  supporting a common data standard and allowing public access to enable citizen monitoring. Over 40 countries (including Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia) have incorporated commitments related to beneficial ownership transparency in their OGP plan.

    On the practical side of how international ownership data should be processed and stored, OpenOwnership is an organisation with the goal of making beneficial ownership data more widely available through technical development, partnerships and research. They are the key developers of the BODS data standard and host a global open registry of beneficial ownership data.

    More directly related to public procurement, as part of their COVID-19 response, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has asked countries requesting emergency assistance to make commitments to publish information on the contracts with and the beneficial owners of companies benefiting from the emergency funds.

    Ownership in public procurement

    The problem beneficial ownership data can address in public procurement is corruption or subversion of the procurement process, but it also has a bearing on procurement efficiencies, risk profiling and enactment of preferential procurement policies.

    Making beneficial ownership data available to procurement officers helps them discriminate between bidders for work in a current procurement process. For instance, a problem described by several interviewees in our research on this area is bidding cartels. This is where multiple bidders (who are in reality controlled by the same owner) coordinate to drive up the price and raise the chances of winning. Knowing more information about the ownership of the companies in this bidding cartel would make it easier to detect.

    Better visibility of who is benefiting from public procurement contracts can be beneficial even when companies are behaving perfectly within rules. Entirely legitimately, a set of apparently independent companies may have won many bids. However, in reality these are part of a broader group with a set of common owners. Beneficial ownership data can make it easier to understand the connections between these companies (either because chains of corporate ownership have been revealed, or the final owners directly revealed). This can allow identification of where procurement contracts are ultimately flowing. Where beneficial ownership data is broadly available for organisations, this also allows identification of other businesses in which owners have an interest. This can be used to risk profile broader corporate structures.

    Explicitly collecting the data required to catch violations of existing rules can also create a chilling effect, by making potential bad actors aware of the scrutiny that may be given to the information, especially if combined with more effective enforcement. A government official (elected or otherwise) with power over the procurement process may have significant involvement in a company bidding for a contract, but this fact would be undeclared and invisible on official paperwork. Greater visibility of the beneficial owners of these companies leaves fewer places to hide, and raises the risk of detection and costs of attempting to subvert the process.

    See all posts in this series.

     

  4. Parliamentary votes during COVID-19

    Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.

    We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.

    The old normal

    Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.

    MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.

    This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.

    Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.

    And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.

    A digital revolution — and a roll back

    There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.

    MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.

    But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.

    The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.

    Proxy voting is the wrong approach

    While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.

    There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.

    This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).

    As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.

    While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.

    In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.

    But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.

    Portraying MPs fairly

    Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.

    Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:

    • We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
    • We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
    • In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.

    mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.

    Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.

     

     

    Who could vote when?

    Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting
    11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave
    2 June – 4 June Parental leave Physically present
    5 June-9 June Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present
    10th June- Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present

     

    Image: First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus 22/04/2020 by UK Parliament

  5. Citizens assemblies are back, in handbook form

    Last year, mySociety worked as part of a consortium to deliver three local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. This was as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, which was a joint project between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The goal was to trial new ways of involving citizens in local decision making. Alongside Involve, the Democratic Society and the RSA we investigated how digital tools and methods could be used as part of deliberative processes. 

    As one of the final parts of this programme, the RSA has published a handbook about what we learned, and case studies of each of the assemblies:

    The RSA have also blogged about the handbook.

    mySociety’s part in this project was primarily to investigate how best to use digital tools to complement an in-person citizens’ assembly. We published this as two sets of guidance:

    The first is a practical exploration into what materials are best to prepare and show on a website for a citizens’ assembly; the second looks at how tools can be used to bring evidence and external contributions into the debate, without diluting the representative nature of how participants were selected.  

    The handbook also describes an approach we helped with at the assembly in Test Valley. Discussions at pre-evidence sessions were recorded in argument maps for reference during the event. 

    This thinking has led into our work on the UK’s climate assembly helping proceedings, evidence and outputs to be transparent and available to everyone who is interested. 

    Since that project, for fairly obvious reasons, many organisations that previously focused on offline deliberation are now looking to pivot rapidly into how to run online deliberation. Involve has a good guide as to the range of tools and approaches that can be useful.

    We are continuing to research and think about how citizens can be more integral to decision making, and what the appropriate role of technology is in making this happen. You can subscribe to our research newsletter to hear more: 

  6. Digital technology and trust

    The House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has released its report: Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust

    mySociety submitted written evidence last year, and our Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, gave evidence in February 2020.

    The recommendations can be seen online, but we were pleased to see a point taken up from our friends at Democracy Club, that there should be more open data about elections, candidates and polling stations so focus can be on providing that information to citizens rather than sourcing it. 

    This recommendation in particular reflects mySociety thinking:

    Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.

    Through our research and practical work in the last few years, we have been concerned with finding the appropriate place for technology in addressing problems. 

    Digital solutions have enormous potential to scale cheaply (and have powerful uses in democratic transparency), but also have uneven engagement and require different skill sets to manage. Where digital tools allow more efficiency, this should enable resources to be redirected towards improving the overall quality of the exercise. 

    As we argued last year when we were looking at digital tools and democratic participation:

    Where using a tool can bring down other costs, those funds can be redeployed towards outreach and other real world activities to broaden participation. The use of digital tools must be understood as part of the whole system, which involves gauging not just what the tool does, but the effort and time it can free up to address other priorities.

    The problem of citizens and communities being excluded from the political process will rarely be fixed by a digital tool alone, but when correctly aligned with democratic efforts to involve people in decision making,  they can be a powerful part of the solution. 

    Photo credit: Photo by Ciel Cheng on Unsplash

  7. Black Lives Matter: educating ourselves

    Black Lives Matter.

    The protests in the US and subsequently the UK are finally forcing those of us who don’t face racism daily to confront the inherent biases, unfairness and systemic racism that exists here in the UK. The toppling of statues, the renaming of streets and an increasing willingness to listen and learn are a start, but there is so much more to do.

    mySociety’s work has always been about understanding where power lies and how to enhance people’s abilities to hold that power to account and call out injustice. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors and all Black people who have experienced systemic and institutional discrimination.

    We recognise that the injustices perpetrated by the current system and institutions, built on centuries of racial injustice and colonial violence, disproportionately impact those from Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. It is only right, therefore, that we reflect upon where we’re falling short in our support of these communities and what we might do to better as an organisation and as a sector to change those dynamics.

    Starting with ourselves

    Technology reinforces structural inequality by actively equipping state institutions to deliver unjust outcomes more efficiently, e.g. by wilfully enabling state surveillance (knowing that people of colour are disproportionately affected by this) while civil society and civic tech have failed to open up channels for engagement that work better for marginalised groups and aren’t primarily on the terms of extant powerful institutions.

    This is exacerbated by representation in civic tech which suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields that we’re part of: with usually white leadership and staff, most tech roles held by men, and limited opportunities for progression for those from BAME communities. The challenges of this narrow representation in our field are very clearly laid out by Decolonizing Civic Tech.

    Having spent the past few years successfully improving gender equality within our own team but with less success in improving our ethnic diversity, we are well aware that changing the make-up of an organisation does not happen of its own accord; it requires intention and purpose – we’ll only have more Black colleagues by actually hiring them.

    Changing the composition of our teams to become more diverse is not an overnight job and we have to start from where we are. That means making explicit commitments to actively tackle racism in our organisation and the wider sector, advertise for new roles to ensure that they reach prospective Black candidates and the role and organisation is seen as attractive to work in, creating leadership opportunities for Black colleagues, and providing support for training and career progression where we can.

    Something we can make progress on more immediately is how we can best help shift power within our sector, and without assuming this is what is needed explore what appetite exists for establishing more cross sector communities to provide support and mentorship between Black colleagues within different civic tech organisations and the wider field.

    Where we are falling short

    Five years ago we released our report on ‘Who benefits from Civic Technology’ which looked at the inherent biases in who was more likely to make use of our services; in the UK they tended to be older, usually white and usually male – basically those already comfortable dealing with public officials, in public, and with an expectation that their requests would be dealt with in a timely manner.

    Since then not enough has changed.

    Internationally all of the successful work we have done has been carried out in partnership, with local groups who understand their community, the political situation, how best to operate and run their services.

    We identified this partnership approach as being the key way that we could better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they could benefit more marginalised communities. Despite a few exceptions we simply haven’t made enough progress on this.

    So with each new project we will redouble our efforts to listen to and collaborate with those groups and individuals drawn from these communities to better understand how we might change our approach where needed, make services that work for those who most need them, or just get out of the way and support others when it’s not our place to help. We’re committed to reporting back on progress against this in our research programme.

    Educating ourselves

    As a team and individuals we recognise that it’s up to us to educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist. Like many others, we’re sharing books and articles to read so that we all better understand the issues and recognise what we need to do to change.

    From our internal discussions we’ve made clear that it’s okay to be uncertain of how to react or what to say – but it’s even better to learn from each other. This is not just the work of a few blog posts or the occasional meeting – it’s about understanding how we normalise anti-racism within our day to day work, to adapt our approach and working methods where required.

    We’ll consider the language we use to describe what we do, how we might better use the funds, access and what influence we have to raise up and introduce Black voices within our sector and the communities that we serve.

    And where we get it wrong along the way we’ll try to fix it and make it right.

    On a personal note

    As a senior leader within a civil society organisation I’m not unusual in being a middle-aged white man.

    One thing I do understand is that the job of leadership is to help create the conditions for your team to succeed and do their best work in the right way. This applies equally with the need to create a more diverse team and culture, especially when all the research suggests that more diverse teams are more successful in their goals and impact.

    So whilst I hold a position of responsibility it’s on me to cede that held space to others as we find and support new leaders to take our work forward – which is ultimately what I’ll be held accountable for in the future.

    And if you like me are looking for a good place to begin, this post by Salma Patel: ‘White senior leaders: 12 practical things you can do this week to create a supportive culture for your Black/BAME colleagues’ is a very useful starting point.

    Image: Sam Pearson (CC by-nc-sa)

     

  8. Can you believe we’ve reached Peak Pothole Day already?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    I saw a comment on Twitter the other month along the lines of: “is civic tech too boring? It’s dominated by reporting potholes to councils”.

    As someone working in civic tech I find this terribly unfair because civic tech is about so much more than that! For instance, we also report dog poo to councils. 

    But it’s certainly true that there are a lot of potholes involved. It’s the largest use of FixMyStreet, representing a quarter of all reports. People have submitted over 361,000 reports and over 54,000 photos of potholes. As a result, while the FixMyStreet database represents a fraction of all potholes, it represents one of the largest datasets of pothole reports covering the whole country. 

    And while it’s easy to think of potholes as the obsession of people pointing at roads in local papers, they are a serious problem. There are a lot of them, they appear everywhere, cause problems on roads when people try to avoid them, and damage when they don’t.  For cyclists, potholes can be fatal

    Given that, what does FixMyStreet data tell us about potholes?

    How many potholes are reported through FixMyStreet?

    Up to the end of 2019 there have been 423,736 potholes or road surface defects reported through FixMyStreet (either .com or a cobrand), with 90,000 reported in 2019. Working from a rough figure of 675,000 actual pothole reports a year, this is around 13% of all potholes reported in the UK. 

    A feature of reports to FixMyStreet  is that, while the majority of reports are made by men, there are different ratios in different kinds of reports and categories are often gendered in terms of reporters. Deriving the gender of the reporter from their name, potholes and road surface defects are mostly reported by men, and disproportionately more than the site in general. 

    As explored in a previous post, this isn’t an essential gender difference but is likely to result from men having far more cause to encounter potholes. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women

    People who report potholes are more likely to have reported multiple problems than other reports. Most pothole reports are made by people who have reported multiple reports and represent a smaller proportion of single report users than other report types.  

    When are potholes reported?

    Potholes tend to be reported during the day, but disproportionately compared to other requests around the evening commute. The chart below shows the distribution of reports by time of day, where green indicates the number of reports is higher than the general distribution of FixMyStreet data. 

    While potholes are associated most with the start of the year, they occur in smaller numbers all year long. The number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet peaks on the 28th February. 

    Where are potholes reported?

    While reports in FixMyStreet are less likely to be made in less deprived areas in general, this effect is larger for potholes:

    This effect is driven more by reporting being lower than usual in more deprived areas than especially high in less deprived areas:

    This pattern was generally similar for the Income and Employment domains of deprivation. This does not necessarily mean there are more actual potholes in these areas, but possibly that people in areas with higher income and levels of employment are more likely to report them. 

    Examining reports using the deprivation subdomain that measures difficulty accessing services (GPs, supermarkets, etc) shows a different pattern, where a disproportionate amount of pothole reports are made in areas with the least access to services

    The access to services measures in Scotland and Wales also reflect that the least accessible places have  a large number of pothole reports compared to the general dataset:

     

    The area with the worst access to services (typically a measure of distance to services) has a disproportionate amount of total pothole reports on FixMyStreet. This doesn’t necessarily indicate this is where most of the potholes actually are, but more remote, less traffic-ed potholes will rank lower in risk-based calculation than those on busier roads, and hence may go longer without fix, and make a report on FixMyStreet more likely.

    Repeat potholes

    Fixing potholes is a never-ending task, as they are an inevitable result of erosion of roads over time. That said, poor repairs will make the return of a pothole more inevitable than it might be. The issue isn’t just that  the same pothole returns: if a pothole initially formed because the road surface was poor, others are likely to form in the same area too. 

    Looking at reports on FixMyStreet up to the end of 2016, for 3% of potholes a new pothole was later reported within 10m between six months and two years after it was first reported (with an average time lag of 15 months). Expanding that ratio to a 20m radius, 7% of potholes had a new pothole reported in the same time range. 

    While FixMyStreet’s data on potholes is far from universal, the geographical range gives us better scope than any single local authority’s data to see how reporting of potholes relates to social factors. You can examine this data yourself, on our geographic export, which gives counts of different categories of report by LSOA. 

    Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

  9. Who uses WhatDoTheyKnow?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    When people make their first Freedom of Information request using WhatDoTheyKnow they are sent an email two weeks later, asking them to complete a survey.  This survey has been running from 2012 and in that time has received 6,861 replies. Because this is an optional survey and not a requirement of making a request, this is a small proportion of the number of first time requesters in that time (around 3-4%).  This response rate reflects that the survey is currently quite long and asks questions that, while more useful when the service was new, are now less helpful in understanding its ongoing impact. 

    As it’s unclear how representative this sample is of requesters of WhatDoTheyKnow, the overall results shouldn’t be read as authoritative of the user base. What is more interesting is how different groups of respondents use the site in different ways. The data from the surveys has been added to the explorer minisite, a research tool that uses chi-square tests to examine if there is a statistically significant difference in the distribution of responses.

    Survey demographics

    Looking at the overall picture, the average age of respondents is around 45-54. 

    There were more than double the number of male respondents as female respondents. 17% of respondents said they had a disability. Disability is a broad category where self-identification can vary, which makes comparison to national figures difficult. However in 2011, 8.5% of the population of England and Wales were ‘limited a lot’ in their daily life as a result of a health problem of disability, while 9.3% were ‘limited a little’. This suggests that use of WhatDoTheyKnow is not broadly different  from the national picture – however this could be disguising variation within different kinds of disability. 

    There is a good spread of income ranges among respondents — but the average respondent has a greater income than the UK median of around £28,000.

    43% of respondents were working full time, 10% were working part time and 21% were retired. A majority (57%) were university educated. 

    On ethnicity, most respondents declared ‘British’ or ‘English’. 16% were part of a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) group. Because of the small number of responses over a large range of ethnicities, a second ‘reduced’ option was created by grouping responses that just presents BAME/Not BAME/NA. This would make general trends statistically detectable, but may also disguise trends when different ethnic groups have effects in different directions. 

    Over time there is a small number of trends. There is a slow rise in the number of female respondents – from 24% to 33% in 2019. There was statistically a larger proportion of BAME respondents in  2015 and 2016 (19-20%) and fewer in 2012-13 (13%). The number of respondents with disabilities does not show any significant differences between years.

    Authority type

    BAME respondents are more likely to write to Education, Central Government and Other than the general dataset, and less likely to write to health, local government, emergency services, military services, and media and culture.  BAME survey respondents make up 5% of requests to media and culture and 29% of education respondents. 

    Female respondents are more likely than male respondents to write to education and health authorities than the general dataset, and are less likely to write to emergency services, media and culture, transport, and military and security services. Female survey respondents make up 14% of requests to military and security services, and 40% to education. 

    Respondents with disabilities are more likely to write to health-related authorities and the emergency services than the general dataset, and less likely to write to transport and education. Respondents with disabilities make up 9% of requests to education authorities and 26% for health authorities.

    Retired respondents are more likely to write to environment-related and local authorities, and less likely to write to central government and education. Retired respondents make up 7% of requests to education authorities to 33% for environment-related authorities . 

    Reversing the lens to look at one type of authority, respondents writing to education authorities are more likely than the general dataset to be female (but still majority male) and more likely to be part of a BAME group (but still majority white). They are more likely to be below the age of 24 and less likely to be above 55 than the general dataset and (related to that) more likely to be in education and less likely to be retired. 

    Message concern

    46% of respondents said they were writing on behalf of ‘all people in the community’. This group was more likely to be retired, less likely to be part of BAME group, but more likely to be part of a community group (but not a political group alone). 

    20% said they were writing on behalf of themselves/family as well as similar people. 

    14% said they were writing on behalf of all people — this group was slightly more likely to be earning less than 12,500, have excellent internet access, and more likely to be involved in political activity (less likely to be part of a community group), to have made FOI requests before, and to make lots of FOI requests.  

    13% said they were writing on behalf of themselves or family. This group has a spread on age, but is more likely to be older than 75 (and less likely to be 45-54) than the general dataset. 46% are still university educated, but this is less than the general dataset and this group is more likely to be have secondary or technical college qualifications, and slightly likely to be part of a BAME group than the general dataset (while still majority not BAME). This group is more likely to not be involved in groups or to previously have made requests.

    Previous FOI use

    The profile of a user who had never made a request before using the site is in many respects similar to other users. This group contains slightly more 25-34 year olds and those in full time education. They are more likely to be making requests where the information is mostly relevant for themselves/family or people similar and more likely to not be involved in community or political groups.

    What’s next?

    While this survey has found some interesting things about our users, it’s currently overly-long and has a much lower response rate than some of our comparable surveys. We’re looking at the best way of modernising the questions and survey platform to replace this survey, while maintaining continuity with some of the trends identified above. 

    Photo by Shawn Ang on Unsplash

  10. TICTeC 2020: schedule now online

    We’re delighted to announce the schedule for TICTeC 2020, our two-day conference that focuses on the use and impacts of Civic Tech around the world. If this sounds good to you, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.

    Thanks to our sponsors, TICTeC is returning for its sixth year and this time will be held in Reykjavik on 24th and 25th March 2020. Councils in Iceland are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on policies, expenditure and projects, so TICTeC 2020 will be a really unique occasion to hear about these, as well as many other innovations from across the world.

    You can find out all about TICTeC over on the event’s website, and get a flavour of what Iceland is like as a place to visit in this video: