1. Parents for Inclusive Education are on a mission — with the help of FOI

    How do you bring about systemic change within structures that are embedded into the national culture? That’s a big question, but it’s one that users of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow are often tussling with.

    One place to start is with data that helps you map the current state of affairs, and FOI can be the perfect medium for getting hold of that. When we spoke to Jack Russell from Parents for Inclusive Education (PfIE), a grassroots organisation of primary school parents in Northern Ireland, he explained the value of data very well: “it means you can start a conversation”.

    So, what are PfIE trying to achieve?

    “We came together because we want to see a more inclusive primary education for every child” – and they’re starting with religious education.

    “We realised that, for many parents, there was a lack of clarity around how RE is delivered in Northern Ireland, and what rights parents have in this area.”

    PfIE wanted to gather data on who comes into schools to deliver RE lessons, collective worship and assemblies. Their aim was to achieve an accurate, representative picture of practices across Northern Ireland, as opposed to their baseline assumptions which, as they admit, had up until then been based on anecdotal evidence.

    From small beginnings

    And so began a large-scale FOI project — although initially the team had much more modest plans: 

    “At first, we were only going to contact our own schools to ask them who was given access and how this was communicated. 

    “But then we realised that other parents might want to be informed about these practices at their schools — and they were entitled to answers too. So we decided to send a Freedom of Information request to every publicly funded primary school in Northern Ireland, apart from special schools: that was 772 in total.”

    The organisation had some tech expertise amongst its members, and, as they explained, at first it seemed that WhatDoTheyKnow wouldn’t quite be suitable for their needs:

    “One of our team — Laura — had successfully used WhatDoTheyKnow in the past to query hospitals about their waitlist times for outpatient appointments, so she suggested using it. But after some initial research, we decided not to, as we’d wanted to include attachments and links in our requests. 

    “I’d written a script to batch send them all, but it turned out that these were heavily spam filtered by the schools’ email server, so we fell back on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “I’m really glad we did, as the fact that all correspondence will be public is a huge plus for us.”

    Managing batch FOI requests

    So, how did PfIE manage their 772 FOI requests? They signed up for our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which is designed specifically to help keep track of large batches like this, and also allows users to keep their requests and responses private until they’re ready to release their findings.

    “We focused our questions around two areas: first, access: which churches and religious organisations were being given access to schools, and how that access was managed via processes and/or controls; and secondly communication: whether and how parents were made aware of religious visitors; and were informed about the options to withdraw their children from religious practices.

    “We asked 14 questions in total, some of which were yes/no or multiple choice, others which required free-form answers.”

    FOI allows the request-maker to specify the format they’d like to receive their responses in, which can save a lot of data-cleansing further down the line. As Jack acknowledges,”we received submissions back from schools in varied formats, including Word and PDF attachments, and also as plain or rich text email replies.”

    It was all useful, though. “The data we collected provides us with an objective, fully representative sample — we had a 99% reply rate — to gain an accurate understanding of RE practices in Northern Ireland primary schools. 

    “We understand this response level to be unprecedented, according to academics we’ve spoken to who have conducted similar research. Our project is primarily focused on making data transparently available to parents, so from this perspective the 99% number is hugely encouraging. It also means that any aggregate conclusions we draw are as close to being unbiased as possible — we actually have a response rate that is higher than the NI Census 2021 (97%) which people were legally required to complete.”

    Tenacious in the face of challenges

    Getting to this gratifying result wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Jack explained the issues they encountered along the way:

    “Some schools initially mistrusted the FOI request email that came through WhatDoTheyKnow, and didn’t know whether they had to reply. However, a couple of weeks after we sent the request out, the Northern Irish Education Authority issued guidance instructing schools to reply, providing an information document and template response.”

    In any large batch of FOI requests there will be a variety of levels of response, and PfIE came across this too. 

    “There were non-responses, partial responses and responses with an incorrect understanding of the question. Our first technique to remedy these was by following up via WhatDoTheyKnow, which provided alerts and tools which made this very easy to do — another reason I’m very glad we went with the platform!”

    Fortunately, the FOI Act has a provision for dealing with non-responders: referring them to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    “For persistent non-repliers, we contacted the ICO, who very diligently helped us further encourage schools to respond.

    “But several of the schools that responded late, following an ICO decision notice, sent their responses to our own email account, meaning that the responses didn’t appear on WhatDoTheyKnow. The team at WhatDoTheyKnow were very helpful in adding these: I sent through several batches of .eml files and they made sure they appeared within the conversation.”

    On a mission

    So how will PfIE be sharing their findings? They are launching a report today, On A Mission, with an event at Stormont. They’ve also created an online map to help people explore the data.

    But they’re not stopping there: “After releasing the findings of our report, we plan to create resources and a set of best practices for schools to achieve a more inclusive RE experience for all students. We also plan to engage and empower parents, hopefully promoting a sense of transparency and open dialogue between the school and parental community.

    “Beyond this, we have several other plans to empower parents, increase transparency and improve the education system in Northern Ireland”.

    And that’s how you start to make change

    PfIE have used the mechanism available to them to produce exactly the outcome they were after.

    “The tools provided by mySociety, together with help from the ICO in chasing up the late responders, and the cooperation of the NI Education Authority in doing the same have been invaluable in achieving this level of response,” says Jack.

    “We would definitely recommend WhatDoTheyKnow. The tools have been really useful in managing a large scale request, and the fact that all correspondence will be publicly searchable and visible is invaluable: it adds a great deal of credibility to our research by effectively underwriting our findings with an auditable trail of evidence. 

    “And on top of this, the team have been super-helpful and a pleasure to work with! “

    We’re glad to have been of service. Thanks very much to Jack for talking us through the project. If you’d like to know more, visit the PfIE website, where you can also sign up to their newsletter to be kept informed.

     

    Image: Priscilla Du Preez

  2. Council Climate Action scorecards support climate officers

    Lucie Bolton took the position of Climate Strategy Officer at Rother District Council in 2022. Since then, she’s found the Council Climate Action Scorecards project an invaluable support for her work. 

    Hearing this, we were of course keen to find out more — so we asked Lucie to share her journey, from brand new climate officer to now, a couple of years on, with a refreshed strategy and action plan in place.

    “The council had declared a Climate Emergency in September 2019, going on to adopt their Environment Strategy in 2020”, explains Lucie, “But the pandemic and staff changes meant the production of a Climate Action Plan was delayed. That’s not to say climate action wasn’t taking place, but there were no KPIs, and it wasn’t fully embedded across the organisation.”

    “Scorecards helped us reimagine both our content and project design.”

    Post pandemic, recognising a need for a more concerted approach, the council employed two new staff: Lucie as Climate Strategy Officer, plus a new Climate Project Officer.

    “I was brought in to refresh the Environment Strategy — which was renamed the Climate Strategy — and to develop and deliver the Climate Action Plan.”

    While Lucie had highly relevant experience in her background, the council context was new for her: 

    “I came from an environmental NGO, where I was involved with developing strategies, but I hadn’t developed a Climate Strategy for a local authority before. 

    “I performed the usual strategy development activities — gap analysis, evidence base and so on — and when I was looking at best practices across the sector, I came across the Council Climate Plan Scorecards.”

    The Climate Plan Scorecards, released in 2022, were the precursor to the Climate Action Scorecards. They scrutinised every UK council’s action plans, marking them to a wide set of criteria. 

    “This was a fantastic resource for me,” says Lucie, “as I was able to see what good looks like and what we should be aiming for. 

    “I used the Scorecards to look at neighbouring authorities, authorities with similar emissions, demographics et cetera. Along with other resources like the UK100 Powers in Place report, it helped me shape the Rother District Council Climate Strategy. 

    “I was also able to reach out to different authorities and speak to their Climate Officers, which was useful.”

    In 2023, the Council Climate Action Scorecards were launched, providing Lucie with still more invaluable data.

    “I found the methodology particularly useful for developing Rother District Council’s Climate Action Plan. It was also useful to benchmark against, to see what we have already achieved and where we could do better”. 

    “This was a fantastic resource for me, as I was able to see what good looks like and what we should be aiming for.”

    “Overall, the results were useful in demonstrating to colleagues the sort of things we could be doing and what our neighbouring authorities were doing.”

    Rother District Council adopted the refreshed Climate Strategy and Climate Action Plan in December 2023, and Lucie continues to dip into the Scorecards.

    “I am now using them regularly in the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. For example, we have an action to eliminate pesticide usage in the council’s grounds maintenance. Using the Scorecards, I can quickly find examples of other councils who have already done this, and access the information I need through the evidence links.

    “I’m really pleased to hear there will be another round of council scoring. I think Rother District Council will score better thanks to the action we have taken since the first round of scoring, though I am concerned the timeframe will mean some significant activities will still be in progress. Our new Local Plan, for example, is aiming to be ambitious and align with our 2030 target, but is unlikely to be ready to be examined in that round.”

    Thanks very much to Lucie for sharing her story. We hope it inspires other Climate Officers to explore how the Scorecards project can aid them in their work.

    Image: Chris McAuley (CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  3. Foodbanks and TheyWorkForYou alerts

    Give Food is an independent UK charity, founded in early 2020. They run the only national public database of UK foodbanks, and provide an up-to-date index of what goods each one is asking to be donated. 

    Founder Jason Cartwright spoke to us about how Give Food makes use of TheyWorkForYou’s email alerts — and we were pleased to discover that mySociety has helped shape their offerings in other ways, too. 

    Find a foodbank near you

    The Give Food website performs a number of related functions, as Jason explains: “We help members of the public understand that there are foodbanks around them, then give them tools to donate the items that are needed or to take political action.”

    Put in your postcode and you’ll be shown a list and a map of all the foodbanks near you. If you click on one of them, you’ll see what they need, what they already have plenty of, and where you can drop donations — or in some cases, how you can purchase goods online and have them delivered directly to the foodbank.

    “We aim to help local organisations address the immediate and critical needs created by food insecurity, but the wider ultimate aim is to not exist at all, as we believe that foodbanks should not be required in our country.”

    Turning alert emails into action

    As this suggests, Give Food is not just a middleman between citizens and foodbanks, but also acts as a political campaigning organisation. So where do the TheyWorkForYou alerts come in? 

    “We use them heavily,” says Jason, “basically to inform ourselves of what is being discussed by lawmakers around our cause.

    “We’re only small, but larger charities in our field are experts at engaging the public and politicians to achieve the same aims as us, and regularly directly influence policy. 

    “TheyWorkForYou alerts allow us to see, almost in real time, which of the approaches they are using are cutting through to being discussed in Parliament and national/city assemblies.

    “We use the information about how conversation around our cause is going to influence how we approach our advertising, site usability and copy — all of which allows our users to maximise their political action.

    “For instance, as a simple example, the current cost of living crisis, especially energy bills, is having a profound effect on foodbanks. Seeing this being discussed by politicians we were able to quickly change our advertising keywords and also reflect the current conversation in the form email our users can send to their MP.”

    Open source code

    It’s great to hear of such a direct connection between our output and a charity’s ability to act. And, as it turned out, the alerts aren’t the only benefit that Give Food have gained from mySociety.

    One more useful function of the Give Food website is that you can sign up to receive an email when your local foodbank needs supplies. This isn’t powered by our code, but Jason tells us that it was modelled on TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system. 

    Finally, there’s one more important way in which we’ve influenced Give Food: “Our code and data is all open source, and that decision was 100% influenced by mySociety’s open ethos.

    “Our data is used by governments, councils, universities, supermarkets, political parties, hundreds of national & local news websites, apps, plus other charities including food banks and food bank networks themselves,” says Jason, proving that when data is set free, it can be used in a multitude of different and useful tools.

    If you’re a developer and you think Give Food’s data or code might be useful to you, start on their API page

    Thanks very much to Jason for talking to us: it’s a joy to discover the many and varied ways in which TheyWorkForYou alerts are helping others to make a difference.

    Image: FeydHuxtable (CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  4. The Climate and Ecology Bill is gaining traction – with the help of WriteToThem

    You might know our WriteToThem service as an easy way to contact your representatives – which it definitely is! But did you realise that it’s also doing heavier lifting, helping proposed legislation gain support in Parliament?

    We’ve already seen how Power for People have mobilised their supporters this way: and Zero Hour is also running a successful campaign around a draft Bill. 

    zero hour logoZero Hour’s campaign centres around the Climate and Ecology Bill, in which they lay out a comprehensive and joined-up approach to the climate and nature emergency. A cornerstone of their strategy relies on getting their supporters to contact their representatives and ask them for their backing. 

    We asked Amy McDonnell, co-Director of Zero Hour to give us a bit more background and to explain the thinking behind the Bill. 

    Amy explained, “It’s the only current or proposed legislation that tackles the interconnected nature-climate emergency together.

    “We formed the campaign to provide a pathway to getting cross-party support for a legislative solution that will ensure that the UK delivers a science-led, people-powered plan on biodiversity and climate.”

    We were interested to know more about how rallying individuals can pave the way to change. 

    Amy told us, “We’ve always depended on our grassroots movement. MPs really care about what their constituents think, and writing to them is incredibly impactful. Moving forwards, we know that we can only win with people on the ground by turbocharging our activity in Parliament.”

    So how did they make the decision to bring WriteToThem onto their website? 

    “We knew that we needed an integrated tool on our site. The WriteToThem tool was key, as we recognise that people’s priorities are stretched and time is precious. So we used WriteToThem to ensure that supporters could contact the MP where they live with the click of a button. 

    “This has been incredibly effective, with thousands of our supporters asking their MPs to support the Climate and Ecology Bill. Having the mechanism to write to MPs with ease has been crucial to the success of the campaign to date, providing insightful responses and opening opportunities for our team to have engaging conversations with members of all political parties on how we can all work together to create an integrated strategy to tackle nature-climate emergency together.”

    WriteToThem doesn’t allow for mass, identical messages from users, and we were curious to know whether that had created any kind of challenge. Quite the reverse, as it turns out:

    We’ve found that fewer, personalised messages are a lot more impactful than thousands of standard emails, which can easily be blocked and ignored.

    “Our approach has always been to maximise not just the action taken by our supporters, but critically the impact that our supporters can make. Through providing guidance on how to personalise messages, we can avoid emails being dismissed or reaching spam folders.”

    And that has a knock-on effect on the way campaigners feel about taking action. 

    “The effectiveness is leading to visible progress, and that’s critical in ensuring that subsequent supporters see there’s a point in taking action on the campaign. So, we created the tool in a way that allows them to craft a personal messages about why the CE Bill can deliver a prosperous, nature-rich UK, that benefits nature, jobs and health for all, in their own words — and it will go directly to the right representative.

    “We know this has proven fruitful, as we commonly get meaningful responses from MPs which move the campaign forward — they can create an opportunity for further conversation about meeting our shared objectives on climate and nature.” 

    And WriteToThem helps in other fundamental ways, too:

    “It reduces the barrier of users having to search for their MP’s details and contact them in a more manual way. It saves supporters time. 

    “We knew mySociety was a very reputable and trustworthy organisation that could deliver the reliability we required in providing functional tools to best engage with the political system and felt the tool was a perfect match to get the engagement we were seeking from the campaign. The choice to use WriteToThem has been instrumental in the success of our campaign.”

    So would they recommend it to other campaigns looking to follow a similar model?

    “Absolutely. We would wholeheartedly recommend campaigns utilise WriteToThem as it’s a reliable and convenient tool for ensuring your campaign is not only seen by a maximum number of representatives but also vitally providing engaged responses. 

    “We can say without question that the tool increased the frequency of our supporters contacting MPs. This has provided invaluable leverage; opened doors and raising the profile of the CE Bill for us to build support which now stretches across all major parties.”

    Indeed, support now comes from 132 MPs, 40 Peers, the Mayor of London, 240 local councils, 192 scientists and 500 organisations — you can find Zero Hour’s full list of supporters here.

    “Frequently when we call MPs’ offices about events, briefings and other matters, office staff mention they have received numerous emails on the Climate and Ecology Bill, and that is a testament to the power of the WriteToThem tool, as MP’s have a large number of competing campaigns and prioritises in their inboxes daily. So, if you are looking for a way to easily connect supporters with their MP to increase awareness and engagement on key campaigns, it’s very effective.”

    Well, we couldn’t hope for much more than that! We’re very glad to have helped underpin such an essential campaign.

    If you’d like to find out more, head to zerohour.uk. And if you feel inspired to write to your MP about the Climate & Ecology Bill, you can do so here

    For those who would like to be kept up to date with all Zero Hour’s activities, the best way is to sign up as a supporter.

     

     

     —

    Image: Nuno Vasco Rodrigues / Climate Visuals Countdown (CC by-nc-nd 4.0)

  5. WhatDoTheyKnow and the Post Office Horizon scandal

    “Freedom Of Information. Three harmless words.”

    The Post Office Horizon scandal serves as a prime example of how, when official channels have failed, determined investigators can eventually unpick the truth and ensure that justice is served.  

    Horizon, the computerised system on which sub-postmasters were required to balance their tills, was riddled with technical faults that led to inaccurate accounting. These faults could be exacerbated by technicians undertaking remote access without the knowledge of staff, overnight. But incompetence and denials from the top — even as far as government — meant that the blame fell on innocent sub-postmasters. 

    Justice has been a long time coming. Staff were subject to fines and even unfair imprisonment; families and friendships were destroyed. Years of diversions and cover-ups have now finally come to light, as you may have seen in the extensive media stories.

    One person who has been persistent in uncovering the details of the case over the years is Eleanor Shaikh, who has used WhatDoTheyKnow extensively in the pursuit of truth — you can see her requests here

    We asked Eleanor to tell us more about her ongoing work in this area, starting with why she got involved: in response, she pointed us towards a letter on Nick Wallis’ Post Office Scandal website.

    It begins: “I learned of the Post Office Horizon scandal through being a regular customer at my local post office in Farncombe, Surrey. My ex-Sub-Postmaster, Chirag Sidhpura, was hit by an alleged £57,000 shortfall in October 2017 and it did not take long to see that his case belonged to a more widespread and disturbing pattern.” 

    She goes on to explain, “I have seen first hand the silent devastation that this scandal has wrought upon three generations of this decent, hard-working family.” You can read the full letter here.

    Findings through FOI

    Freedom of Information has been a very effective mechanism for many of those involved in this investigation — a cover-up like this is a perfect demonstration of why we need the rights it confers. 

    As Eleanor explains, Over the years, a number of campaigners and journalists have turned to FOI as a tool for obtaining more information and joining the dots of this vast but well-concealed miscarriage of justice. Chipping away at the cover-up was one small way that outsiders could assist Sub-Postmasters on their long road to the truth, exoneration and redress.”

    Eleanor’s 150+ requests have led to some significant findings. She started off with a curiosity about how much had been known, but not publicly shared, by government.

    My initial focus was on what government knew of Horizon’s flaws”, she says; “how responsibly it monitored the unfolding scandal, and what was the extent of its involvement in the group litigation.

    “The FOI disclosures I received suggested that central government was not as oblivious to events as it would have us believe; the heavy redactions on these reports themselves bore witness to the fear of reputational damage to the department to which the documents alluded.”

    As time went on, Eleanor started uncovering more and more salient facts:

    “Probably the two most significant documents I’ve been able to unearth have been the 2016 Swift Review and an undated Post Office Security Team Compliance Document.

    “The review would seem to have suggested a moment of alignment when both government and the Post Office were committed to investigating Horizon issues beyond all doubt. 

    “It took seven months to receive a response, but disclosure was made by both parties along with requested email correspondence which showed that the PO’s CEO, Paula Vennells, was aware that the review was being undertaken in 2015 but that the PO Chair, Tim Parker, declined to share its findings with the Post Office Board even as the spectre of litigation loomed in 2016. 

    “This was despite the review’s strong warnings that miscarriages of justice might have taken place, its clear identification of Horizon’s fundamental operational problems and an acknowledgment of the possibility of remote access.” 

    These were all crucial details in understanding the full picture, and fed into news coverage of the scandal. There was also something Eleanor hadn’t been specifically looking for that recently made headline news.

    While requesting information on the way in which the Post Office monitored its investigations, Eleanor happened across something rather shocking:

    “What was disclosed was a document which used deeply offensive racial identification codes, so inflammatory that it attracted widespread media coverage.” You can see, for example, the BBC’s coverage of this revelation here.

    “Thanks to the WhatDoTheyKnow website, once it caught the attention of social media, any journalist could get instant access to the original document.”

    FOI was necessary 

    One thing that this investigation highlights is that the checks and balances built into our justice system are sometimes inadequate. The Horizon case was examined in High Court, and  has been the subject of two governmental inquiries, one of which is ongoing. But it is citizen reporters using their Right to Information that have filled some of the gaps.

    “Despite much crucial information having been released into the public domain during the 2018-19 High Court litigation, many details of the scandal remained hidden”, explains Eleanor. 

    “The BEIS Select Committee Inquiry, which heard evidence from early 2020, afforded a brief window of opportunity. But its independent work was abandoned soon after it began when the Department for BEIS (now DBT) put in place its own inquiry.

    “The Government was adamant that this inquiry would not have statutory powers, meaning it had no authority to command witnesses to give evidence, nor powers to demand the disclosure of documents. Moreover BEIS could keep its own failures of oversight beyond public scrutiny by restricting the scope of the inquiry. 

    “At this moment there was a very real danger that the true depths and extent of the scandal might never reach public consciousness and that those who’d facilitated the miscarriage of justice may never be identified.

    “Ministers and Whitehall officials were attempting to shield themselves from scrutiny and to diffuse an information time-bomb by behaving as if it wasn’t there. But questions needed answers and if the government was refusing to launch a full public inquiry in 2020, then it had to be inquiry by FOI.

    WhatDoTheyKnow played a part

    We asked Eleanor how integral WhatDoTheyKnow was to her investigation. 

    “The WhatDoTheyKnow website proved itself to be an invaluable resource. Through its gateway, information and correspondence with authorities is released directly into the public domain in a way which is both transparent and accessible to all; that’s really important in the context of the Horizon scandal.

    “Disclosures are easily accessed by others and can be shared on social media. WhatDoTheyKnow has enabled intrepid journalists who follow the scandal — such as Nick Wallis, Karl Flinders and Tony Collins — to extend the reach of any new and significant information.” 

    A turning point

    “Thankfully”, continues Eleanor, “in June 2021 the inquiry was elevated to a statutory footing in response to ground-breaking rulings at the Court of Appeal. This was a turning point and teams of formidable lawyers set to work in supporting Sir Wyn Williams in his long-awaited public inquiry; the Chair now had the power to determine its scope of issues and assumed far greater powers to elicit the disclosure of evidence. 

    “But there was still a role for FOI research in areas which may lie beyond the inquiry’s remit or which haven’t yet come under its scrutiny.

    And FOI also had another significant, but unexpected outcome: 

    “One release prompted a review of the Post Office’s entire disclosure processes to the public inquiry. That a key document had never been passed to inquiry lawyers triggered a remedial disclosure exercise so significant that it resulted in the release of thousands more documents and a temporary suspension of the inquiry’s work. 

    “A single FOI disclosure triggered a wholly unforeseeable domino effect.”

    Three harmless words

    At the start of all this, Eleanor says, “FOI was an unfamiliar avenue for me.” Since then, she’s clearly become something of an expert, with FOI being a major part of her investigations.

    Reflecting on the rights that FOI confers, she says: “There is some irony that the Government which oversaw the launch of the doomed Horizon project in the late 1990s was at the same time drawing up legislation which granted our right to Freedom of Information. It’s poignant too that Tony Blair who decided that the flawed Horizon project must proceed at all costs, was at the same time doing all he could to delay the implementation of the FOI Act.

    “In his memoirs, Blair revealed his regret over the decision which gave the public the right to probe the Government’s shortcomings. He feared information would be weaponised by opponents:

    Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it…What I failed to realise is that we would also have our skeletons rattling around the cupboard…The Freedom of Information Act was then being debated in Cabinet Committee. It represented a quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny. Its consequences would be revolutionary; the power it handed to the tender mercy of the media was gigantic. We did it with care, but without foresight. Politicians are people and scandals will happen’.1

    “Thankfully, many individuals have been making full use of FOI to help prise the rattling skeletons of the Horizon scandal from their cupboard. Each disclosure adds to our understanding of how things went so deeply and disastrously wrong. And, as sub-postmasters continue to dig for information across their multiple battle fronts, long may FOI continue to make its small contribution to their uphill struggle for justice.”

    Many thanks to Eleanor for sharing this detailed account. You can read her findings on Horizon’s early years in her report Origins of a Disaster.

     —

    Image: Mark Percy (CC by-sa/2.0)

    1Quote from Blair’s memoirs Tony Blair The Journey Hutchinson, 2010, cited in an article The Blair Memoirs and FOI, also 2010 by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, accessed 10.10.23

  6. CE UK and mySociety are using people power and Freedom of Information to bring transparency to local climate action

    A story in this week’s Financial Times [paywalled] has brought the EPC ratings of council-owned properties into the public conversation. This story was based on data obtained through FOI requests as part of the Council Climate Action Scorecards project, which we’ve been working on in partnership with Climate Emergency UK (CE UK).

    What you can read in the FT is one story pulled from a wealth of data, but there’s more to come. Our WhatDoTheyKnow Projects tool allowed CE UK’s team of volunteers to conduct a nationwide survey of every council through well-placed FOI requests covering the use of renewable energy, plans for retrofitting, green skills training, road expansion and more. 

    The data they gathered has allowed for the understanding of councils’ action on a nationwide scale. This level of oversight has not previously been possible: as with so much about the Scorecards project, it is allowing councils to take more informed action on climate, and individuals to clearly understand what is being done.

    Why local action matters

    In the UK, it is estimated that around one third of carbon emissions are in some way under the influence of local authorities. 80% of UK councils have declared a ‘climate emergency’ to indicate they recognise the scale of the problem of climate change, and are in a position to take practical steps to be part of the solution. To help local authorities achieve the goals they set themselves (and to push them to go further), we need to engage with the plans that local authorities are making, and the actions they are starting to take. 

    In 2021, CE UK and mySociety worked together to produce the first Council Climate Plan Scorecards. CE UK’s upcoming launch is the second iteration of the Scorecards. It is much bigger and more ambitious in scope than the last: it scores not the plans, but the climate actions of every local authority in the UK. 

    FOI requests were just one part of the process. As well as giving CE UK access to WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, we developed a crowdsourcing tool for volunteers to use while marking across the 90+ datapoints collected for each council. 

    How do you score action?

    CE UK moved from scoring plans to scoring actions. That required new approaches to gathering the information. 

    The questions CEUK used in the new Scorecards are the result of a long and thorough process of research and refinement. Building on their own research and expertise, they conducted one-on-one consultations with approximately 80 organisations and sector-specific experts. An advisory group of environmental and local government experts provided further discussion and refinement, to help build a list of questions that would practically be possible to answer, and that would reveal important information about the climate actions of councils. 

    The aim was to identify areas where information was publicly accessible; but also where gaps existed, especially in operational matters that aren’t often made public. Additionally, CE UK wanted to investigate whether councils are truly implementing the actions outlined in their climate action plans, including aspects like lobbying for additional powers.

    Making use of Freedom of Information

    Freedom of Information laws means that a huge range of information held by public authorities (including local councils) can be requested by any person who asks. This provides a legal tool to create greater transparency where information is not being published proactively.

    For CE UK, the potential of FOI for the Scorecards project was clear – but there were concerns. In consultations with council staff, there was pushback regarding the use of FOI requests due to the potential time and financial burden on council officers who work on climate – with some requests for a more informal survey approach to be used. But the drawback of that would be making good data dependent on goodwill everywhere. FOI requests provided a way to make sure the scorecards were not just effective for councils who engaged with the process and provide an approach that was fair across the country. 

    To balance a process where they want to encourage positive engagement from councils, with one that works without that, CE UK’s approach was to plan out the most efficient and least burdensome use of FOI requests. 

    Based on feedback from the advisory group, and trial runs to a small number of councils, they eliminated questions that were less important and useful, made more ‘yes/no’ or ‘single number’ responses, and learned where certain questions weren’t relevant to certain areas or groups of councils. 

    The subsequent FOI requests became more streamlined, and this resulted in quicker response times for the final requests than they had in the trial – as the information sought was more direct and concise.

    In the end, CE UK submitted a total of over 4,000 FOI requests to councils across the UK. The questions were divided into 11 categories, with some being specific to certain types of councils, such as district councils or combined authorities. The next stage was taking these 4,000 requests and getting them into a form that can be used for the scorecards. 

    Crowdsourcing and review process

    CE UK used WhatDoTheyKnow to manage their FOI request process. mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow acts as a public archive for requests – requests made through the site have the responses shown in public to bring more information into the open  – making it more discoverable by other people interested in the information, and reducing the need for duplicate requests being made. As of 2023, a million requests for information have been made through the site, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information being released. 

    A feature we are trialling with a range of organisations is WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, which integrates crowdsourcing tools into WhatDoTheyKnow, and allows the task of extracting information into a new dataset to be spread out. The goal is that this helps organisations be more ambitious in finding out information and helps people work together to create genuinely new and exciting datasets, that no single organisation has ever seen. 

    As CE UK’s approach already made heavy use of volunteers and crowdsourcing, this was a natural fit.  Alongside a wider group of 200 volunteers working on getting answers to the other questions, 15 volunteers specifically worked on the FOI requests. These volunteers were a mixture of people with prior experience or professional interest in FOI requests, campaigners well-versed in FOI processes, and individuals new to the concept but eager to engage in activism.

    After the crowdsourcing of FOI data was complete, it joined the rest of the data in the new tool mySociety had developed for helping volunteers crowdsource information for the Scorecards.  

    From here, councils were given access to the data collected about them and given a right of reply to correct any inaccuracies or point towards information not previously discovered or disclosed. The results of this process will then be reviewed to produce the final Scorecards data, which will be launched this month.

    But the Scorecards data will not be the only useful thing that will come out of this process. Because of how WhatDoTheyKnow was used, to see evidence supporting the final Scorecards, people will be able to click through and see the original responses, for instance, to see what councils have lobbied on support for their climate work. 

    Some of the FOIs are being used to construct datasets that have a broader impact, and here we come back to that FT story on the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings of council-owned houses. Building these new public datasets will be useful for councils to understand their own situation, and as we see with the news story, more broadly to understand the challenges ahead for local governments to meet net zero emissions goals. 

    Onwards

    The original Scorecards project has already been influential on how local governments understand their own plans, and how organisations like the UK’s Climate Change Committee understand the role and progress of local government in the challenges ahead. When the next generation of Scorecards is released, we hope that they continue to be useful in shaping and improving local government action around climate change.

    mySociety believes that digital technology can be used to help people participate more fully in democracy, make governments and societies more transparent, and bring communities together to address societal challenges.

    The Scorecards project showcases how the combination of digital tools, people power, and the right to information produces powerful results. We hope that the impact of this project can inspire and make possible similar approaches for other problems, or in other countries.

  7. WriteToThem supports local campaigning

    In Plymouth, a determined group is fighting to save trees from being cut down in the city centre. They’re called STRAW, an acronym for Save the TRees of Armada Way.

    A small and local campaign it may be, but we recently noticed that it was sending a significant number of people to our ‘contact your representatives’ site WriteToThem. Curiosity piqued, we got in touch to find out more.

    Ali from STRAW was glad to talk to us. “The campaign started last September”, she explained, “when I learned that Plymouth City Council planned to regenerate Armada Way, a wide pedestrianised area which was covered in trees and runs through the heart of the city. It’s an area I live near, and was very fond of.

    “It was clear that some of the trees would have to be cut down in order to implement the design, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this plan before, since it looked like it was definitely going ahead, and quite soon.”

    A campaign is born

    What do you do when you find out that an unwanted change is planned in your own neighbourhood? Gather other people who feel the same, and go on a fact-finding mission, that’s what!

    And indeed, Ali explains: “I realised that I had no power on my own, so I decided I’d try and find out if other people knew about the plan and whether they were happy about it. 

    “Not long after, we discovered it wasn’t the case that some trees would be felled in order for the council to realise their new design. It was 99% of the 137 trees! 

    “Most of them were healthy, and most had been planted in the 80s, so they were trees which people had a real connection to. They’d grown up with them. They were like a little green oasis from quite a harsh urban landscape – an urban forest.”

    Democracy in action

    Once these startling facts had been pinned down, the group needed to take action. Their website provides multiple opportunities for activism: posters you can print out, a chance to donate, a petition to sign, and facts about the trees. Oh, and that link to WriteToThem!

    “The campaign was really one of public awareness”, says Ali. “But we also asked the people of Plymouth to contact the decision-makers and let them know how they felt about what was planned, and that they were unhappy that they had not been consulted on it.

    “We figured that if enough people wrote, they would realise what a bad decision it was. Democracy in action!”

    First steps into politics

    Since it’s a local campaign, STRAW encourages supporters to contact their councillors rather than their MP. WriteToThem doesn’t need you to know who your reps are before you email them, which proved very useful. 

    “Many people had no idea who their councillors were, and had certainly never written to them before. If nothing else, the campaign has got a lot more people in Plymouth to pay attention to local politics,” says Ali. 

    “The thought of having to look up who your councillor is before writing to them is a real barrier for people. WriteToThem makes it so easy, I really think it made a difference.

    “We saw it a bit like a protest. Rather than blocking the streets, we filled councillors’ inboxes with passionate messages – not to be vexatious but to show our strength of feeling. We heard that Plymouth City Council have never had anywhere like the amount of correspondence as they had on this issue. We didn’t get many responses but we knew we’d got our message over.”

    An ongoing campaign

    STRAW had a significant initial success: “In November, at a council meeting, the council passed a motion to pause the project to review it, to determine whether any more trees could be worked into the design. 

    “This was two months before we presented them our petition, and was directly as a result of their being inundated with emails!”

    But unfortunately, there was a huge setback when the plan went ahead regardless. 

    Chopped down trees in front of a fenced off area in Armada Way, Plymouth

    “We’re now in a legal case with the council over the way the Armada Way project has been handled,” says Ali, “and we are fighting to save the 20 trees which weren’t cut down in March as a result of a last minute injunction we managed to obtain.”

    Sad news, but it’s great to hear they’re still fighting on. and Ali reckons that even if STRAW didn’t achieve everything it had hoped for, their actions have still had a net positive effect. 

    “We’re hoping that the campaign will mean that there’s better public consultation in the future. We’ve demonstrated that local people really do care about how their city looks; they want a voice and they care about urban trees and the many benefits mature urban trees bring. 

    “We’d like the council to better consult not only with local people but local stakeholder groups and local experts, most of whom have been overlooked in recent years.”

    Trees matter

    There’s been a growing understanding of the importance of trees within the urban landscape, and particularly in the context of the climate emergency.

    They provide useful shade as the temperature rises; they decrease carbon, help mitigate flooding, increase biodiversity by providing homes for insects, birds and other creatures; and of course they simply make harsh city streets seem more appealing. A tree provides a natural place under which to place a table and chair, for example, reclaiming street use for people rather than traffic.

    Dark Matter Labs has produced this graphic to explain these benefits and more. See more in their Trees As Infrastructure project.

    a graphic showing how trees can reduce noise levels, improve wellbeing, decrease crime levels and reduce carbon among many other benefits.

    Image by Dark Matter Labs; click to see bigger

    A tool for campaigners

    With all this in mind, small neighbourhood campaigns to preserve trees seem all the more vital, and we’re pleased that our services can help. Would Ali recommend that others use WriteToThem as part of their campaigning toolkit?

    “Absolutely. WriteToThem really is so useful; it’s a wonderful tool. 

    “And if you’re campaigning about a situation that lots of people feel passionately about, it can only help if we make our elected officials aware of how we feel.”

    Many thanks to Ali for sharing STRAW’s story. If you’d like to get involved, you can find out more on their website.

     

  8. Litter pickers are powered by a little neighbourhood pride… and FixMyStreet

    If you’re a litter picker – someone who goes out with binbags, gloves and a general determination to clean up your local area – then clearly you have a well-developed sense of pride in your neighbourhood.

    Little wonder, then, that many litter pickers use FixMyStreet as they go about their voluntary clean-ups. We love to see it — and we like it even more when they give a shoutout to the service on social media!

    This cheery bunch are the Kings Heath and Brandwood Litter Pickers, who quite honestly manage to make hard toil look like a fun social event. Indeed, they do often follow up their work cleaning up the streets with a cuppa and a chat.

    Kim Hudson, the pink-haired lady in that first picture, tweeted to say that not only had they filled seven binbags in a recent outing, but they’d used FixMyStreet to report five instances of fly tipping, broken paving and drain covers. Looks like they’re not averse to a few guerrilla tactics too…

    Tweet from Parks Community UK: "Awesome work, thank you all! Those poppies are so cheerful." Self-seeded? Response from Kim: "Ahem… maybe…. You wouldn’t prosecute a cute 87yr old for ‘Guerilla tactical wildflower bombing would you?"

    We messaged Kim, and she told us, “The Kings Heath & Brandwood Litter Pickers operate in south Birmingham. 

    “We meet every Sunday at 10, and we also support other local groups if they have a grotspot. I am known as the Dawberry Fields Fairy and have been known to litter-pick in my tutu!” Kim also told us to get in touch with the group’s founder, Andrea Quigley, if we needed more details — so we did! 

    Andrea explained the how group began: “It started about four years ago. My daughter was working in Spain and, returning one Christmas, was appalled at the litter on the streets. Spain is much cleaner. So, with a friend, we started the group”.

    Their grabbers, gloves, hoops, high viz vests and other equipment are funded by Kings Heath Business Improvement District, and Birmingham City Council provide the bags.

    It’s all very well organised: “Our members adopt roads and when they join say how many hours they are prepared to do each month. 

    “Some members just adopt their own streets; others do more. Only about ten of us meet on Sundays, but the group as a whole has about 65 members who just get on with it in their locality.”

    And how does FixMyStreet fit in?

    “We regularly use FixMyStreet to log issues — usually fly tipping — and it’s extremely useful and easy to use. 

    “In the email I send to new members, I always suggest they use FixMyStreet to report issues with the council. I think our team has made a difference to the area and the community and as we use FixMyStreet, that has too.”

    We’re really glad to be playing a part in this endeavour. We also enjoyed hearing about the logistics of the group – and the fun side – from Kim and Andrea. 

    If your neighbourhood could do with a clean-up, perhaps you’ll take inspiration from the Kings Heath and Brandwood posse, and get a group of litter pickers together. Sounds like the ideal social activity: a bit of physical exertion, a sociable chat, cleaner streets for everyone – oh, and the chance to wear a tutu if you’d like.

    Who knew litter picking could be so much fun!

    A litter picker in a field of long, yellow grass, posing with their grabber out and one foot in the air
  9. Mass mobilisation of supporters with WriteToThem

    Power for People would like to see a transformation in the way we provide energy in this country – by removing barriers to small-scale renewable energy schemes, owned and run by people in their local communities. 

    They’ve written draft legislation — the Local Electricity Bill — and are currently campaigning for it to be made law. Since our TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem services are an integral part of their campaign, we were keen to find out more.

    Power For People’s Corinna Miller was happy to help, firstly by explaining what drives the campaign: “We’re in the midst of an energy price crisis. It’s never been more obvious that we need cheap, clean, home-produced energy.”

    And their vision is one of a sweeping change to the UK’s energy provision. Right now, provision is limited to a few big monopolies with profits disappearing into shareholders’ pockets; Power for People advocate clearing the path for small sustainable energy projects, with profits that would stay local.

    “There’s such huge potential in our cities, towns and villages, for growth in small-scale renewable energy generation – especially by local groups that would provide cheaper, greener power and distribute the benefits across their local communities.

    “But at the moment, such schemes only generate 0.5% of the UK’s electricity – largely due to the prohibitive costs they face in accessing local markets.” 

    So how do mySociety’s services fit into their campaign? It’s down to Power For People’s belief that mass mobilisation can bring change — and that all links back to the experience of their Director Steve Shaw, says Corinna. 

    “In 15 years working both at environmental NGOs and as a freelancer, Steve worked on campaigns that were instrumental in getting new laws passed – like the Household Waste Recycling Act, bringing in the doorstep recycling collection that all our homes now have; and the Climate Change Act, setting a legally binding target for the government to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — which has resulted in almost all of the UK’s coal power stations closing and the building of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms.

    “These were great successes, and one thing Steve learned from them was that grassroots focused campaigns, mobilising tens or hundreds of thousands of people to lobby their MPs at the constituency level, when done in a coordinated way over a long-term arc, are extremely effective.”

    And of course, to help people contact those MPs, what better than free web services like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem? 

    Power for People’s website first sends you to TheyWorkForYou to find out who your MP is, then provides a list to check against and discover whether or not they already support the Local Electricity Bill.

    Once you know what their stance is, you’re in a far better position to write a persuasive message to your MP, says Corinna, and WriteToThem is the final step on that path. 

    “We wanted to streamline the communication process so each supporter didn’t feel like they had to do too much extra work. Whether an individual has contacted their MP before or not, offering them a tool to help easily find and write to them, all in one place, felt like the best solution to get people to take action in support of the campaign. 

    “WriteToThem has a wonderfully streamlined system that people trust and we have found people take effective action with this tool.”

     WriteToThem doesn’t allow for copy and pasted messages, and Corinna says she finds they’re often blocked by MPs’ servers in any case. “Instead, we direct people to helpful facts that they can share with their local leaders — and we give them bespoke advice when they receive a response. 

    “We highly encourage back-and-forth communication, so that the MP understands that the campaign is not going to go away until action is taken at a parliamentary level. People care about this issue, and we want MPs to know that.” 

    It sounds like everything’s working nicely for Power For People, who say that their Bill already has the support of 322 MPs from all partiesa figure which includes 128 Conservativesalong with 110 local authorities and county councils. 

    “Our main call to action continues to be for people to write to their MP, which is why WriteToThem is such a key tool for us. Helping streamline the communication process and helping people write to their local leaders has been vital to the success of the campaign so far.”

    And so, what advice would they give to other organisations considering using WriteToThem for their own campaigns?

    “Definitely help people curate their own message to their MP, by being specific to their constituency. This requires a bit more time speaking to your supporters but it’s worth it to get an MP interested in what you are calling for. Be specific. Try to keep each email short and polite, with a single request for the MP.”  

    Many thanks to Corinna for sharing such interesting background details to the campaign. If you’d like to learn more about Power for People and get involved, visit their website.  

    Meanwhile, if you’re running a campaign yourself and think it might benefit from WriteToThem’s free service, there’s lots of useful information here.

    Image: Chelsea

  10. FixMyStreet: a useful tool for councillors

    At FixMyStreet there’s nothing we like better than to see….well, streets being fixed!

    And we especially like it when people share a couple of good ‘before and after’ photos. It proves the system is working, and also helps more people discover FixMyStreet and understand what it can do.

    Here’s one that we spotted recently. First the Oxfordshire Cycling Network posted a delighted tweet to show that a path had been repaired –

    Tweet with a photo to show a nicely repaired join between cycle path and road

    – upon which, Oxford city councillor Anna Railton replied to say she’d reported it on FixMyStreet, with an image of how it had been previously:

    Photo of a cycle path joining the main road with a big rut/puddle where the two join

    We were interested to hear more about how a councillor uses FixMyStreet, so we asked Anna, who said: “I use it quite a lot. The location plus photo combination, and the fact you don’t have to work out where to send it, is invaluable.

    “It’s very good in two (or more) tier authorities where I don’t always have direct access to the right officers.”

    Anna’s right when she says that FixMyStreet routes reports to the right authority to deal with them: even if you live in an area that has, say, a city council and a county council, it knows which one deals with which types of issue — and sends your reports to National Highways where appropriate, too.

    But councillors don’t have to do all the hard work themselves: everyone in the area can also, of course, report anything that needs putting right, giving the council the benefit of many eyes on the ground as people go about their daily business. 

    “I do plug it a lot with residents!” says Anna.

    Councillors can also find the FixMyStreet local alerts very handy in their work. This free service sends you an email every time a new report is made within a defined area. 

    Not only can they see what new issues are being reported, but over time they can also get a good overview of what problems are most common, or recurring. One option is to sign up for all reports within a specific ward, which is ideal for councillors — or anyone who’s interested in their own neighbourhood.

    Thanks very much to Anna for letting us know how she uses FixMyStreet: we hope we can help bring many more smooth rides for the cyclists of Oxfordshire.