1. 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.

     

  2. Improving access to information in Europe: everyone’s a lottery winner

    We’re delighted to announce that we’ve received funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation that will help us extend our work on Freedom of Information in Europe.

    The Foundation uses proceeds from the country’s lottery sales to help fund projects that support democracy and freedom of speech, as one of three areas where they believe they can help bring about long term positive change to the world.

    The connection is particularly apt, as it was in Sweden that the world’s first FOI law was passed in 1766. From that beginning grew a worldwide good: since then, access to information has been recognised as a fundamental right by the European Court of Human Rights, and has been adopted in countries around the globe.

    Matched up

    In May 2019 we received funding from Adessium Foundation for a three-year project to increase access to online FOI tools across Europe. The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.

    Now this new match funding will allow us to dig further and build better within the main elements of the project, which are:

    • To help partners to launch new FOI sites in the Netherlands, France (already completed) and another jurisdiction (coming soon).
    • To upgrade existing sites to include the Alaveteli Pro functionality: AskTheEU already has this and five others will gain it shortly. By 2022 there’ll be 13 Alaveteli sites in Europe, 10 of which will have Pro.
    • To improve the Alaveteli Pro software with new features that’ll make it a more powerful tool for investigations and campaigns (so far we’ve worked on exporting data from batch requests and enabling users to add links to news stories).
    • To support journalist and campaigning organisations to use Alaveteli tools as part of their investigations (such as Privacy International’s use of FOI in their investigation into surveillance technologies used by police in the UK).
    • To monitor government compliance with FOI, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Get involved

    Now we can spread the goodness even further, so we’re planning to run some online training/learning activities around using Alaveteli tools as part of an investigation or campaign. If your work would benefit from this, and you live in an EU country with an Alaveteli Pro site, do get in touch.

    We’re also keen to partner with membership-based news or campaign organisations to run more pilot projects using our new Projects feature. If you have a project that could benefit from contributors helping to extract and analyse data from FOI responses, let us know.

    And finally: we’ll soon be starting to gather data about FOI compliance in different EU countries. If this is something that could benefit your work, register your interest and we’ll keep you posted.

    Image: Jonathan Brinkhorst 

  3. Introducing WhatDoTheyKnow Projects

    With the aim of making large scale Freedom of Information investigations easier for community newsrooms and campaigning organisations, we’ve spent the first half of 2020 developing collaboration tools for WhatDoTheyKnow to speed up and bring others into the FOI management process.

    In an initial pilot, 17 contributors saved a journalist 6.5 hours by taking on half of the work of managing responses to requests.

    We’re actively looking to partner with membership-driven news organisations or impactful campaign groups to run further pilot projects to help refine the features. If that’s you, please get in touch.

    FOI can be hard without dedicated tools

    We know FOI can be hard work, especially when you make large batch requests that return a huge amount of data.

    While our Pro tools make life easier, much of the work simply involves triaging whether you got a response or just an automated acknowledgement, and whether the authority actually released the information you requested.

    After that, you then need to sift through various different formats of data, different understandings of the questions, and follow up with clarifications.

    All this comes before you can start analysing the data to build up a narrative for a story.

    A compelling membership proposition

    News organisations are increasingly looking for sustainability by offering memberships – where you pay a monthly fee to support the organisation – instead of relying on advertising revenue to support themselves.

    Memberships are still a relatively unproven and unexplored area, and organisations are still in the process of discovery over what makes someone want to pay for their news output. Is it just being able to read the stories, or do people want more involvement?

    There’s evidence to suggest that members do want to get more involved.

    Crowdsourcing some of the work of the FOI process from the membership presents an opportunity to help take some of the load off journalists, while also bringing members into the reporting process so that they value the final output more.

    Many hands make light work

    With this new functionality, once you’ve made your requests – either individually or as part of a batch – they can be added to a Project. Contributors can then be invited to the project where they are briefed on what the project is about and the tasks they can help with.

    Screenshot of Project Homepage

    Helping to classifying responses

    When you’re making FOI requests, each response to each request needs to be read to establish whether the authority has provided the information asked for – a process that is difficult to automate, given the huge variety of language that can be deployed by authorities. With large batch requests this can be a time-consuming process.

    Projects creates a pool of responses that need classifying that contributors can work through to take some of the onus off the project owner.

    2up of Project Classify page

    Contributors read the original FOI request and latest response, and then classify its current status appropriately. This doesn’t take much specialist understanding of FOI, so it’s a really easy way to get lots of people to help out.

    Helping to extract data

    In larger FOI investigations requesters are usually looking to build up a dataset so that they can compare responses from different authorities.

    This usually involves lots of spreadsheets, copy & paste, and hours of hard work.

    Projects provides dedicated tools to help build this dataset by creating a pool of requests that contributors can extract data points from using structured forms.

    Allowing contributors to help build up a dataset that will be used for real-life reporting and research helps them feel more directly involved and connected to the organisation, hopefully adding value to the membership proposition.

    Screenshot of Project Extract page

    Project owners are then able to download the crowdsourced dataset to investigate, using their analysis tools of choice.

    Screenshot of downloaded Dataset

    What we learned from our pilot

    In our pilot project contributors took on 50% of the classification tasks, accounting for 57% of the 14.8 hours overall spent classifying, saving the journalist around 6.5 hours of the administrative work required before she could start reviewing the data releases. This is a clear indication that crowdsourcing key parts of the FOI investigation process can save a significant amount of time.

    The journalist we worked with was enthusiastic about using the Projects interface again in the future, even if she wouldn’t be inviting external contributors. She expressed that it would be ideal to collaborate with interns to help sift through classifications and responses.

    With an 82% conversion rate from joining to taking action and nearly 40% of contributors returning for more than one session there’s clearly an appetite from contributors to get involved and help out. The contributors we interviewed understood that by helping with menial tasks, they were allowing the journalist more time to focus on work which required specialist expertise.

    A potential for global benefit

    Through the Nesta Future News Fund we worked with openDemocracy to design and develop WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to support this collaboration, and ran a pilot collaborative project made up from a batch of over 800 FOI requests.

    Projects is of course built into Alaveteli – the platform that powers WhatDoTheyKnow and many other FOI sites around the world, so it’s not just going to be of use in the UK, but for every jurisdiction where an Alaveteli site is utilising the Pro add-on.

    Image: Duy Pham

  4. FOI and COVID-19: an update

    While the UK begins the process of trying to return to some kind of normality after lockdown, full access to information must also be restored.

    Back in April, we put out a blog post examining the state of Freedom of Information during the covid-19 crisis, looking at the UK and more broadly across the world. State-sanctioned delays were seen almost universally.

    While we understood the difficulties faced by authorities redeploying staff members to the frontline, we said then that the right to information was perhaps more vital than ever. In times of national crisis, transparency is crucial both for retaining trust in our leaders and for keeping check on their activities.

    WhatDoTheyKnow users have been asking pertinent questions about the pandemic, from requests for data on the number of cases in prisons and care homes, to the basis on which decisions about the national response strategy have been made. Potential students want to know about universities’ plans for the coming year; citizens are asking about measures put in place by their councils to encourage social distancing. And meanwhile, of course, requests for non-coronavirus-related topics are equally pressing: who’s keeping an eye on Brexit, or making sure the climate crisis doesn’t slip off the agenda for example?

    The state of play

    We’ve been linking to that initial post from the top of WhatDoTheyKnow, so that people making requests could get some background to the delays they might be experiencing.

    But since then the global situation has moved on, and so have some aspects of FOI provision. At the time of writing:

    • The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is still stating that they “will not be penalising public authorities for prioritising other areas or adapting their usual approach during this extraordinary period.” Therefore, UK public authorities may still delay their requests without penalty. Read more on the ICO website.
    • The Scottish Information Commissioner had previously introduced overseen a change that permitted [see below for clarification] a longer period in which authorities might respond to requests, but on 27 May a reversal came into effect and the period returned to its standard 20-day deadline. However, there is still an acknowledgement that the pandemic, and indeed their own previous relaxation of the required timescales, may have a knock on effect to requests made before that date. See full details here.

    This does raise the question as to when the ICO foresees a return to business as usual. Of course, each authority will have its own experiences and challenges, with varying reasons for maintaining or removing an expectation of delayed responses. But they are guided by the regulator, and while the ICO continues to excuse lengthened response times, authorities may not hurry to do any different.

    UPDATE: A representative from the Scottish Commissioner’s Office contacted us with the following clarification:

    The changes in timescales under the FOI (Scotland) Act came about because the Scottish Parliament passed emergency legislation to change the timescales – they were not introduced by the Commissioner. Our position prior to the change in the law was set out in a statement we issued, and our comments, including concerns raised, on the legislation when it was introduced can be read here.

    We’ve also sought to emphasise the importance of the duty to respond promptly, even during the period when the deadlines were extended, as set out in our guidance for requesting information during the pandemic. We think it’s important that requesters know their rights, and the right to a prompt response (not just one within 20/60 working days) is something that has remained consistent for FOI users throughout the pandemic.

    Time to restore oversight

    It’s unquestionably a time of great uncertainty for us all, with many returning to some semblance of normality while still unsure whether the much anticipated second peak is on the horizon. But given a national policy of this staged return, should the ICO not, like its Scottish counterpart, be encouraging authorities to do the same?

    One compelling reason is hinted at by the Scottish Commissioner’s own caveat: that the longer the deadlines are allowed to extend, the more of a backlog will build up, causing further delays down the line.

    We’d encourage authorities everywhere to re-examine any laxity they may have introduced at the start of lockdown, and to continue to do so regularly: is it still genuinely necessary now that staff may have been moved back from the covid-19 frontline?

    And we’d urge them to treat the need for a timely, efficient FOI service as one of the top priorities during this uncertain period.

    Image: Andrea Piacquadio

  5. Who’s checking your Facebook profile?

    If you were putting in a claim for benefits, challenging an accusation in court or phoning in sick to your employer, would you expect your local authority to be checking your social media presence?

    How do you think a stranger might assess you as a parent, were they to skim over any public posts on your Facebook page? If you’ve been on a protest recently, would you be comfortable knowing that your local council was combing through any photos you’ve shared?

    A Freedom of Information investigation by Privacy International, using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, has discovered that a significant number of local authorities — 62.5% of those responding to their FOI requests — habitually monitor citizens’ Facebook or other social media profiles to gather intelligence.

    What’s more, the majority have no policy in place or measurement of how often and to what extent these investigations occur.

    If this concerns you, the first thing you should do is check that your social media privacy controls are up to date. Then you might like to go and read Privacy International’s full report, as well as checking how (or whether) your own local authority has responded to their requests for information.

    And finally, you can join Privacy International’s call for stronger guidelines from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

    Just… maybe think twice about putting it in a public Facebook post?

    We’re only joking, of course. Or half joking.

    Issues like this need to be shared far and wide. But as Privacy International point out, there are already sobering instances from abroad of threats to those following anti-government accounts. With so many completely unexpected changes to the status quo recently, can we say for certain that it could never happen here?

    Image: John Schnobrich

     

  6. Learn everything you need to know about FOI, online

    Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.

    Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money —  and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.

    And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.

    The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.

    We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.

    Image: ConvertKit

  7. WhatDoTheyKnow in Wikidata

    We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:

    Andy has imported the IDs of every authority listed on our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow into Mix’n’match, a tool for helping to link a dataset with existing Wikidata entities. Once a match has been made, the URL of the body’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is available as one of its identifiers (specifically, P8167).

    This means that anyone running a project that utilises Wikidata will have the option to include WhatDoTheyKnow data in their site or app.

    Andy says, “Wikidata acts as a hub for all sorts of databases and identifier systems. For example, it can be the only way of linking (programmatically, in the linked data sense) an MP’s official parliamentary record to their IMDb entry. I do a lot of work making that happen. As a regular and satisfied user of WhatDoTheyKnow, it appealed to me to add that site’s 24.5K listings of UK public bodies to the mix.”

    The best-known site relying on Wikidata is of course Wikipedia, so in theory it would now be feasible, say, to include a template that automatically pulled the relevant WhatDoTheyKnow link into Wikipedia articles about authorities, or to build a browser extension that provided those links when the user visited such articles.

    It would also be possible for us to pull information back the other way, so for example we might consider importing the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page for a body and using it within the introduction, as a way of providing context.

    The matching of WhatDoTheyKnow authorities confirms which Wikidata URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) relates to each, meaning that these can now be used in “sameAs” metadata headers, scehma.org markup, etc. We think this might have a beneficial effect on the way search engines treat our pages in the future — something we’ll be keeping an eye on to check if that’s true.

    Additionally, this works as a nice proof of concept that we can potentially recommend to other Alaveteli sites around the world, given that the Wikidata project is, of course, international.

    But first, the bodies need to be checked with the Mix’n’match tool. At the time of writing, 1,302 bodies have been resolved, and can be seen here. Anyone is welcome to help by confirming more matches: just log in with a Wikimedia account.

    Thanks to Andy for this initiative — it’s great to see the potential of our data being widened in one fell swoop.

    There has already been a mutual benefit to this linking. WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Matt has been able to use examples of failed matches to find cases where our database needed to be brought up to date with name changes. At the same time, Andy says it has helped him and his fellow Wikidata volunteers to create new items about councils and other bodies that were in WhatDoTheyKnow but not Wikidata.

    Richard, also one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s volunteer team, says, “I’ve often thought there’s a lot of overlap between what we do on WhatDoTheyKnow and what Wikipedia volunteers are doing — we’re both maintaining lists of public bodies — so any tools for closer collaboration are great.”


    Image: Carl Nenzen Loven

  8. Using FOI to protect social housing and council property

    Freedom of Information was one tool used in a coordinated campaign to prevent a council from selling off a large part of its property portfolio — including many social housing homes.

    Councils, strapped for cash during austerity, have been looking for other ways to raise revenue. As we saw from The Bureau Local’s sold from under you investigation, that has often meant selling off public land and property.

    But that can only be done once — the asset, and the benefits from it, are then gone. And when the properties in question are homes, there’s a significant human cost too.

    The Stop Haringey Development Vehicle campaign (SHDV) successfully prevented a property deal that would have brought about the demolition of some of the borough’s biggest housing estates so that the land could be redeveloped for enormous profits.

    The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.

    It was a campaign that gained press attention and community support. It went as far as court, with substantial legal costs covered through crowdfunding.

    Hilary Adams told us how SHDV used our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, not just to send FOI requests but also to comb through the requests that were already published on the site to see what previously-released information might be useful.

    Haringey’s plan

    Back in 2017 Haringey council planned to set up what is known as a Joint Venture Vehicle — basically, a business arrangement between a number of parties — with Lendlease, an Australian multinational property developer.

    Hilary tells us, “The deal was widely advertised as having the potential future value of £2 billion. Half the property would have been given to Lendlease, everything to be owned 50/50. The company was not expected to pay, but rather would have borrowed money to use to develop the land, then sell many of the new properties.

    “The first part of this plan would have included the transfer of Northumberland Park Housing Estate, one of the largest in Haringey, along with many other smaller estates and individual social housing properties.

    “Those properties would have been demolished and replaced with largely private housing with reduced tenancy protections for any remaining social housing tenants.”

    But the council had not foreseen the degree to which the community would fight for their homes, and for the right to be included in major decisions that affected their borough.

    Community reactions

    Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.

    Hilary says, “This was a broad-based opposition, both from members of political parties and many other local individuals in the community.

    “We feared, with good reason, that much of the social housing would be lost in this process. The sale would have, on day one, included the whole of the Commercial Portfolio of the council which amounted to a value of many millions. It also included the majority of council offices and other properties.

    “The second part of the plan would have included Broadwater Farm estate, another very large social housing estate, with a view to demolition and redevelopment with mostly private housing.”

    As well as the potential loss of countless homes, with no promise of rehousing within the borough, the plan was being implemented with very little scrutiny.

    The councils’ assessment reports were not publicly shared — and the only consultation held was an informal survey at a fun day, asking whether people supported ‘better quality housing’. Of course, most said yes!

    FOI as a campaign tool

    One of Hilary’s contributions to the campaign was in the assessment of information released through existing FOI requests, and in the putting in of new requests to fill the data gaps.

    “I attended a meeting where a local councillor spoke about the plans for the HDV.  She had recently been elected and was horrified by what she had discovered.

    “Once the campaign had started up, it was this same councillor that suggested I should use your site to coordinate the questions we might need to ask. I became the lead on this part of the campaign, although it was not my only area of work.”

    How FOI helped  

    “The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.

    An FOI response can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.

    “I took responsibility for collating information that was already on your site and pertinent to us, and also for working out what further questions remained that we might need to ask.

    “We had a team issuing the requests, and I kept track of all the responses. That information was all collated and summarised by me and several reports compiled for use with both our media contacts and for our legal challenge.

    “Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.  As I am sure you can imagine, even with the site it was a gigantic task and I spent more hours of my life than I would have liked reading some of the most boring and irrelevant responses!”

    At this point, we must nod towards our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which was in development at the time — but which would definitely help any future campaign with the donkey work of a mass FOI project.

    What was uncovered

    Hilary continues: “With diligence some gems of information came to light, some of which was already in the public domain — that often feels like it is hidden in plain sight and so our questions led to documents we otherwise might not have thought to consider.

    “One element which came up repeatedly, and which helped to sway public opinion was the regularity with which meetings were held, yet no records were kept.

    “I eventually collated all of these together, showing a pattern that led us to believe there was a degree of secrecy at play. Public money and resources were being disposed of yet much of the supposedly transparent decision making was anything but.

    “Another influential element revealed via FOI was that the property developers were meeting regularly with not only key council officials, but other significant public bodies. These meetings were officially consultative, yet clearly the minutes showed them making important decisions as to how Tottenham should be redeveloped. No representatives of local residents or small and medium local business had any equivalent access to the public authorities in this way with all the direct and indirect influence implied.

    “And while councillors were verbally assuring the community that social housing was protected, in reality the paperwork showed commitment only to 31% affordable homes — a very different concept to actual social housing at council rents, which were not secured in the plan. In Haringey there were something like 10,000 on the waiting list, and we could find no evidence, despite verbal assurances, as to how anybody would eventually be housed.

    “We also found repeated examples of large amounts of public money being given to developers who would later make significant profits.

    “All of this resonated strongly in the community and was fuel to the fire of the campaign both from a media and public opinion perspective.”

    Publicity for the campaign

    Freedom of Information also came into its own by providing the basis for press coverage.

    “We received significant media interest, and the ongoing information we were getting was useful, as new information would act as a focus for a fresh round of media attention.

    “I put together a compilation of FOI responses in the hope that by saving journalists work, we would encourage attention on the issues that caused us most concern.

    “Each new revelation that we were able to publicise had the effect of building opposition to the scheme and strengthened the campaign against it. We developed a good relationship with a Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, who took a personal and long term interest in the issue.

    “In this article, for example, he makes direct reference to something we discovered via FOI: the existence of a shadow board, consisting of council officers and an elected councillor, which was set up prior to the council agreeing formally to the HDV with Lendlease.

    “This is a good example of how facts can be hidden in plain sight. Nobody opposed to the HDV had been aware of this until it was revealed in an FOI response. It had been included in one line of a 650 page council report, but few people read every document.

    “As this article reveals, this was only one of many vast collections of documents relating to the HDV. In that context, well placed questions can shed light on otherwise hidden corners.

    “Naturally we needed to read all the documentation, and there were a few people involved in the campaign who would do so. An FOI response, however, can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.”

    FOI contributing to the court case

    “Just as with the journalists, I compiled a summary of the FOI responses we felt were most useful, and this was used by the legal team in their preparation.

    Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.

    “We lost the legal case, but the one element found in our favour was that the council had failed in their duty to consult.

    “That information had been confirmed by FOI requests, by virtue of the limited response. They had been unable to provide much detail in relation to consultation, thus proving that nothing meaningful had taken place.

    “However, we were deemed to be out of time and the court case fell. Having said this, we had never expected to win the whole campaign via the courts. Any win would have only meant that they would be required to amend the process — the law would never have stopped the entire plan. We did not doubt they had the legal right to do it: we simply felt that it was not in the best interests of the people of Haringey.

    “Our main aim was to delay the signing of the contact with Lendlease long enough that new councillors would be in place and they would vote against the scheme. Unless we had amassed enough information to convince the court to allow the case to be heard, we would not have gained that delay: while the result was awaited, the council were prevented from signing any contract.”

    Looking back and looking forward

    A new council was voted in with members more sympathetic to the cause; that council halted the HDV and the campaign was eventually won after two long hard years. But is that the end of it?

    Hilary reckons so, for now at least: “The nature and vast size of the proposed HDV scheme was unique, and unlikely to be attempted again in the next decade.

    “Yes, our campaign had a huge impact, but we think the whole scheme was in danger of collapsing anyway because it was such a bad idea. It had few guarantees of success, and there were many ways in which it could have failed without any intervention from ourselves.

    “However, that failure would only have become apparent long after the public land and properties had been privatised, after which we would simply never have got them back.”

    And while the campaign succeeded, we cannot be complacent.

    “The HDV was conceived in the context of current times. Regeneration in Haringey, and indeed the world, continues to be a hot issue — there’s an international movement to privatise public land, housing and resources.

    “But while the underlying issues remain, and regeneration remains a cover for what amounts to social cleansing, we do feel that our campaign contributed to some shift in the discourse around these issues.

    “We won, and that was a significant event that has inspired others to try to defend their areas and raised public awareness of all of the issues encapsulated within.”

    Hilary continues to campaign with FOI.

    “Currently I am involved with the Wards Corner Latin Village campaign and we are using WhatDoTheyKnow to seek information that might help in that struggle.

    “Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.”

    We’re very glad to be of use in these campaigns, and we wish Hilary the best of luck in future endeavours to preserve this pocket of North London.

    Image: Haringey Liberal democrats (CC by-nd/2.0)

  9. Exporting data from your batch FOI requests

    We’ve added a new functionality to the Alaveteli Pro codebase, allowing you to download a zip file containing all correspondence and attachments from a batch, and a spreadsheet (csv) to show the progress status of every request.

    Alaveteli Pro is our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information. If you’re UK-based, you’re probably most familiar with our local iteration WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — but don’t worry: when we talk about improvements to Alaveteli Pro, you can be sure they’re also part of the WhatDoTheyKnow toolkit.

    How to export

    You’ll find these tools at the foot of the batch container in the requests list.

    zip downloads of batch FOI requests

    Why data exports?

    Of course, we like to think Alaveteli Pro is a useful tool in its own right: there’s a lot you can do within the Pro interface, and it was built specifically to help you keep track of all your FOI activity in one place.

    But sometimes users want to use external tools – either because they’re just more familiar with them, or because they want to do something beyond the functionality we offer.

    Now there’s a simple way to get data out of Alaveteli, allowing you to analyse it with the tools of your choice, or perhaps send a progress report to a supervisor or editor.

    It’s part of a programme of work to support cross border journalism between European organisations, supported by Adessium Foundation, allowing us to refine and improve the codebase for the benefit of all Pro users.

    The technical bit

    Those with a bit of coding knowledge may be interested to hear how we approached the zip download functionality. mySociety developer Graeme explains:

    “With batch requests potentially going to as many as 500 different authorities, each request can receive several responses and attachments in return.

    “All these emails and files mean that compiling the zip for download could be a lengthy job and would normally cause the request to time out. So for this new feature we’re utilising file streaming to send chunks of the zip as they become available.

    “This means that the zip starts downloading immediately and you don’t have to sit watching and wondering whether anything is happening – you can see more and more data being transmitted.”

    We hope you find this new feature useful. Please do let us know how you’re using it and any feedback you may have.

    Image: Startup Stock Photos

     

  10. Freedom of Information and mental health in Higher Education staff

    In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.

    A follow-up report released today, Pressure Vessels II, updates and broadens the data, drawing from several FOI requests made on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.

    The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.

    “Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.

    Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”

    The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.

    The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.

    We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.

    Image: Nik Shuliahin