We’re looking for a Delivery Manager to join our new Climate programme.
Last year, we added Climate to mySociety’s existing programmes of Transparency, Democracy and Community — you can read more about our activity in this area here.
We dived in to the programme with work to support the UK’s national Climate Assembly; close on the heels of that has come our project to collect and share the Climate Action Plans of every local council across the country, a service that we’ve now launched at data.climateemergency.uk.
The Climate Action Plans site allows citizens to see what their own council is doing around carbon reduction, and simply by making the plans public and searchable, all in one place, it opens up a multitude of opportunities for councils to learn from one another.
The service is in its early stages. We already have feedback from early users that it’s useful in its current form — but there’s lots more we want to do with it, and it stands as a good signifier of the plans we have for our Climate programme over the next few years.
Now we want to expand on this use of data, and increase our outreach to key stakeholders such as climate action groups, councils, journalists and researchers to help accelerate and improve action on climate at the local level, where it is estimated that 30% of the progress towards net zero can be made.
Thanks to funding from Quadrature Climate Foundation, we’re now in the process of scoping this work and scaling up our team: if you’re interested in being part of what looks like it’s going to be some of the most rewarding and crucial work mySociety has been involved in to date, do check out our current job vacancy for a Delivery Manager.
We’ll also be looking for a Network and Outreach Coordinator soon, so sign up for our Jobs mailout right at the foot of this page if you’d like to know when that vacancy goes live.
Image: Vadim Kaipov
London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If you’re living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, your reports will drop directly into the council’s own systems.
In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:
- Fly tipping
- Street cleaning
So, visitors to Hyde Park can report overflowing dog poo bins. Commuters coming through Victoria Station can let the authorities know about graffiti.
And may we suggest that Westminster’s best known residents are welcome to report, should the view from the palace ever be marred by an unswept Mall.
Everyone — royalty, the political ruling class, the humble citizen and even tourists from far flung places — can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to log in through the council’s My Westminster portal.
Especially for Westminster
As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features, and the integration with the My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on, was a vital requirement.
mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams
The two systems working together like this means that for those already signed up to My Westminster, only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order.
Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.
“Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.
“mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.”
Testing with the people that matter
Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.
Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.
We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.
Hounslow is the latest borough to adopt FixMyStreet Pro, adding to the ever-growing share of Greater London councils who have chosen the service as their main street reporting interface.
As with other Pro integrations, citizens can now make reports via the Hounslow website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way they’ll display on both sites, and will drop directly into the council’s case management system — in this case, Confirm.
It’s part of a dual contract with contractors Ringway that operates the highways contract on behalf of the London Borough of Hounslow: watch this space for the other council implementation going live soon on the Isle of Wight.
In fact, this installation has involved a seamless transfer which minimised the impact on council staff; everything was handled through Ringway, including user testing via their network of volunteer ‘Lay Assessors’.
Thanks to a lot of previous experience with Confirm, it’s all proven very straightforward from our point of view. The whole system was up and running in just two weeks, something of a record for FixMyStreet Pro implementation — and a great illustration of just how quickly councils can get going and start to see real change in their customer interface with FixMyStreet Pro if everything is in place.
Rob Gillespie, Ringway’s Regional Director, agrees: “I have been impressed with the level of engagement and simplicity of this change. The team behind FixMyStreet has supported our team to develop a service that I believe will be a real game-changer for the industry. Our aim was to improve the accessibility of our highway services, and improve the connectivity between customers and our operational teams. This partnership has really delivered on these expectations.”
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 councils in England.
Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.
The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.
In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.
Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.
One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:
I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.
We are glad that the service was of help.
If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.
Against conventional wisdom, we’ve just published the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online, where it’s easy for anyone to access.
When we were putting this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.
We didn’t get very far, though — it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.
Why so open?
We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.
First, because it helps our clients. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.
We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our existing customers, as well as for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.
This way, staff only need bookmark the documentation page, and they’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of the manual.
There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.
We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.
So, if you’re from a council yourself (or if you’re just curious) please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it of interest, and that it might cast some light on what makes FixMyStreet Pro different from other offerings in the field.
We often talk about how FixMyStreet Pro can integrate directly with council’s existing systems, and how doing so can help councils be more efficient — but what exactly does that mean in practice?
Let’s take a look at our two most recent FixMyStreet Pro installations. Both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils use the same asset management system, Confirm, and it gives us a great example of how FixMyStreet Pro’s ability to ‘communicate’ with such systems will make everything a whole lot easier for residents and for council staff, even with two very different types of local authority.
Saving time and effort
FixMyStreet has always provided the resident with an easy interface through which to file a street report. For many councils, however, such reports arrive in an email inbox and then have to be forwarded to the right location or typed into the council’s CRM, all adding to the sum total of time and effort dedicated to each report.
Now, using the Confirm API, Bucks and B&NES councils can access and work on FixMyStreet reports through Confirm’s standard ‘inspector module’, removing any need for this extra step.
Optionally, the information flow can go both ways, and indeed this is the case for both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils. What this means is that for example, when an issue has been inspected and council staff change its status (perhaps from ‘report received’ to ‘repair underway’), this status change will be passed back to FixMyStreet, automatically syncing with the site, and notifying the report-maker with the update — again removing another mundane task from customer services staff.
If a highways inspector should come across a new issue while they are out and about on their rounds, they can raise an issue in Confirm just as they always would have. But now, that will also create a report on FixMyStreet which residents can view, keeping everyone up to date and ensuring that reports aren’t made about issues that the council already know about.
FixMyStreet Pro also allows for council administrators to create template responses — an invaluable timesaver when responding to one of the more common situations such as “issue identified and prioritised” or “issue now fixed and closed”. While Confirm also has its own template responses, FixMyStreet Pro offers more flexibility, as the same template can be reused across multiple report categories and status types. Buckinghamshire really saw the benefit of this: they were able to reduce the number of templates in use from around 450 to 46.
Assets such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies can be pulled through from Confirm and overlaid on the map. This makes it significantly easier for both residents and staff to locate and report issue, speeding up the issue resolution time — we’ll be delving more deeply into this in our next blog post, with a few more technical details for those who are interested.
Residents in these areas can make reports on the councils’ own websites, where they’ll find FixMyStreet as the street fault interface — or through the main FixMyStreet website and app. Whichever you choose, your reports will be published in all three places.
So far, so convenient for residents — but behind the scenes, there’s lots more going on that improves the efficiency of the whole fault-fixing cycle.
Both councils are users of the Confirm CRM system, with which FixMyStreet Pro can now be fully integrated. What that means in practice is that when you make a report, it drops directly into the council’s existing workflows, with no need for someone in the middle to retype or redirect your report.
Council staff can use the best of both systems’ useful tools for shortlisting, inspecting and updating the status of your issues — and when a report has been progressed to the next stage of the fixing cycle, you’ll be automatically kept up to date both by email, and with messages posted directly to your report page.
In another advance, both councils are now displaying assets such as bins, trees and adopted highways in context-sensitive areas of the report-making journey, so it’s easy to identify exactly which one you’re talking about when you make your report. That saves time for you, and for the council when they go out to fix it .
If you’re interested in the technical details, we’ll have more about both Confirm integration and asset layers in future blog posts.
This is part II in a series of blog posts about our work with Hackney Council to conduct a discovery and prototyping project to improve the public-facing parts of information request processes. Read the first part here.
With our experience of running WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli, we’re big believers in the importance of information transparency laws in our democratic system. But at the same time, we understand the operational challenges of meeting the statutory requirements of these laws for public bodies.
The challenges of dealing with information requests
While many local authorities have dedicated information governance staff whose job it is to manage requests, finding and compiling the information is often done by hard-pressed staff within services, fitting in information-related work around their core responsibilities.
Requesters sometimes have the expectation that information is all carefully organised in a few databases, ready to be aggregated and extracted at the click of a button. In reality, the degree to which information is well-organised varies a lot between services in a council and between different councils, often because of procurement decisions and departmental priorities stretching back many years.
Working with Hackney Council
We’re part way through our project with Hackney Council that Mark wrote about a few weeks ago, helping them redesign the public-facing parts of their FOI and Subject Access Request (SAR) services, so we’ve seen these challenges up close. We’ve also seen how they can be made even trickier by legacy IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.
— Rob Miller (@RobMiller31) February 28, 2018
At our ‘show and tell’ last week with Hackney, we shared findings from some of the research we’ve done, along with early prototypes of potential new FOI and SAR submission forms, both created collaboratively with Hackney Council staff.
Prototyping with the GDS toolkit
We decided to go straight from sketches to HTML-based prototypes for this project. We thought that moving in-browser with real interactive elements would make it easier to test out some of the more complicated interactions and conditional workflow of the SAR process in particular.
Prototyping is about quickly testing hypotheses, and not getting bogged down in implementation details. So it was a pleasure to use the GDS frontend toolkit to build our prototypes. Not only did the GOV.UK toolkit help us build something relatively rich in just a few days, but it also meant we benefited from GDS’s previous work on design patterns developed for exactly this kind of context.
Using public information to reduce FOI requests
When submitting a request via WhatDoTheyKnow, users are automatically shown previously submitted requests that might answer their question, and we know that almost 10% of requesters have a look at these suggestions in more detail.
As you can see here, we took this pattern from WhatDoTheyKnow, and enhanced it further in our FOI prototype.
Now, as well as prompting with previous FOI responses from a disclosure log that we’re hoping to build, we also want to include relevant links to other topical or frequently requested information, drawn from other data sources within the council.
If we can get this to work well, we think it could have a number of benefits:
- Helping the person submitting the FOI get their answer more quickly
- Reducing the number of requests that would otherwise have been sent to the council
- Encouraging more proactive, structured publishing of data by the council.
It’s this last point which we’re really interested in, longer term. We think using a common sense technology approach to highlight possible answers to FOI requests before they are made will get people answers more quickly, reduce the burden on responders, and reinforce efforts to proactively release commonly requested data leading to real transparency benefits.
We’ve been doing usability testing of these prototypes over the last few days, and will be looking very closely at whether our assumptions here stand up to scrutiny.
Reducing back and forth around SARs
Given our background, we’re inevitably very interested in the FOI component of this project, but the Subject Access Request component is no less important. And while there’s none of the same opportunity for pre-emptively answering people’s requests, there’s plenty of scope for making the submission process a lot smoother.
A valid FOI is just a written request and some contact details, but the information needed for a SAR to be valid is much greater and more complicated. For example, along with the specifics of the request, a solicitor asking for personal information on behalf of a parent and their 16-year old child would have to provide proof of ID and address for both family members, a letter of consent from the child, and a letter of authority from the parent, confirming that the solicitor is acting for them. Even the most straightforward SAR calls for the handling of personal data and confirmation of the requestor’s identity and address.
Given all this complexity, it’s easy for there to be a lot of back and forth at the start of a SAR: clarifying a request, asking for documents, arranging receipt of documents, and so on.
We’re hoping to build something that makes it much clearer to the person making the request what they’ll need to do, thereby taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the team managing the requests.
The sketch above was our first crack at something that could handle (most of) this complexity, and we’ve made a number of changes since then as our understanding of it all has increased.
Recruiting representative users to test SAR submission has proved challenging and wasn’t helped by the Beast from the East rearing its snow-covered head. But we changed tack and successfully ran some guerilla testing in Hackney’s service centre last week, and we’re hoping to do further testing later in the project that has more chance of benefiting from contacts cultivated by individual services.
Changing the conversation
The conversation around information requests often focuses on the burden of responding. And although the number of information requests local authorities receive is unlikely to decrease any time soon, we’re hoping that through our collaboration with Hackney, we can make handling them a whole lot easier.
If we do it well, we think we could eliminate a lot of the process issues created by poorly-designed legacy systems, while baking in a fundamentally more open and transparent way of operating that has the potential to benefit both citizen and state alike.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail—or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work—then please get in touch at email@example.com.
Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards