1. Scoring councils’ climate action: how FOI is helping

    Last year, mySociety provided technical support to Climate Emergency UK (CE UK) for their Council Climate Scorecards project, which marked every UK local authority’s climate action plan across 78 different areas. The resulting data made clear where plans were adequate, and where there was still work to do. It has informed campaigns, researchers, news stories and councils themselves, as well as feeding into government-level policy.

    But plans are one thing, and putting them into action is quite another — not to mention, rather more crucial. So this year, CE UK have set themselves the task of scoring councils on the progress they’ve made on climate action.

    To do so, they’ll be using many of the same methods they put to such good effect in the Action Plan Scorecards: they’re currently assembling teams of volunteers (want to get involved? See the end of this post) that they’ll train up with the research skills needed to scrutinise such a huge body of data accurately and with a good understanding of the issues at hand.

    Scoring the plans may have seemed like a big task, but at least they are documents which were  — to a greater or lesser extent — possible to find online. Action, of course, happens in the real world, so some different methods are required. 

    CE UK’s methodology for the Action Scorecards can be seen in detail here; it relies not just on the councils’ own reporting, but on a number of different documents and news reports. And where the information can’t easily be found in the public arena, they’ll be submitting Freedom of Information requests.

    Of course, this is an area in which we at mySociety have long experience, so our Transparency team is helping out. CE UK will be using our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send the large batches of FOI requests and manage the responses; once the Action Scorecards are launched, the data will, of course, be made public for everyone to access.

    With our help, the requests have been refined to provide minimum disruption to busy council officers; at the same time, we hope that these requests, which are all for information that really should be available — energy standards for council-operated housing, for example, or numbers of staff members in climate-related roles — will encourage more proactive publication of data, so that it won’t need to be requested in future years.

    We’ve also been able to advise CE UK on forming good FOI requests that will surface the required information.

    Because of CE UK’s training strategy, we’re delighted that this knowledge will be passed on to their cohorts of volunteers, effectively informing a new tranche of citizens on how and why to use FOI responsibly.  They’ll be helping to classify the responses and compile useful datasets through our early-stage FOI collaboration tool.

    We’re proud to be supporting this important work from a climate perspective, too: councils have a crucial role to play in cutting emissions, and there’s an obvious public interest in how they go about doing so — how they allocate public funds, how effective their interventions are, and whether they are on track to reach carbon zero by their self-set deadlines.

    All in all, the small team at CE UK have embarked on a massive but vital task. Can it be done? Their approach, as always is: there’s only one way to find out, and that is to try it!

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    If you’re interested in helping out, there’s still time to apply to be a volunteer — closing date is this Thursday though, so hurry! You’ll be working from home, trained up via online webinars and then helping to collect data as part of this huge effort. Sounds good? More details are here.