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.
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Back in March, we flagged up the ‘batch request’ feature we’d been working on for the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. Batch requests are now switched on for every WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscriber, by default.
Batch enables users to send the same Freedom of Information request to several bodies at once, and we spent a substantial amount of time building and testing it because we wanted to be confident that the feature wouldn’t be abused — or if it was, that we could catch irregular behaviour.
Part of that testing has involved making the feature available to a limited number of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscribers, and loosely monitoring how it was used. We’re glad to say that during this four-month period, the activity was all acceptable.
However, we also realised that we should tighten up our terms and conditions to reflect our expectations around usage of Batch, and add some advice to our Help pages about making responsible and effective requests, both of which we’ve now done. We’ve also added some automatic notifications that will alert the team when multiple batch requests are made, so that we can check that everything is in order.
If you think Batch might be useful in your own work or campaigning, and you’d like to find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, you can do that here.
Image: Ankush Minda
Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.
And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.
But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.
If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.
Image: Gaelle Marcel
Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).
These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.
DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.
We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.
What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?
Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.
LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.
How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?
Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.
We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.
The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.
We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.
We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.
Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.
In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.
We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.
We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.
This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.
Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.
What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.
We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?
Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.
Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.
There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:
- In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
- LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
- The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.
What’s next for the campaign?
Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.
We have been collaborating with the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:
Objections to LOBO loans across the UK
We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.
This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.
A citizen debt audit in Newham
Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of its LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.
How can people get involved?
Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.
If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.
The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.
To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.
NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.
Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.
Image: Raw Pixel
Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.
Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.
I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.
In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).
It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.
To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.
After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.
Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.
Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.
Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.
This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.
In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.
Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.
When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.
It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.
In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.
The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.
Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).
I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.
I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.
The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.
Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.
As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.
New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.
A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:
As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.
No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.
As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.
Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.
I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.
You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards
To help us mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary, we asked volunteers, supporters and users to tell us which Freedom of Information requests from the site’s first ten years particularly stuck in their minds.
The result was an eclectic mix of stories that really show the breadth of how WhatDoTheyKnow has been used. They have very little in common — unless you count the imagination and tenacity of those using FOI to try to uncover significant information.
Doug Paulley, WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer
A exposé that helped bring in the living wage for carers
Doug is one of the team of volunteers who give up their time to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, using their experience and knowledge of FOI to moderate the site, give users guidance, and help set policy. Doug is also an extremely active user of FOI, having used the act to uncover many examples of discrimination and malpractice over the years.
He highlights the story of a care home talking the talk, but very much failing to walk the walk when it came to paying its staff the living wage.
“The exposure brought about by FOI played a significant part in the campaign for Leonard Cheshire, care home operator with 2,100 residents, to significantly increase carers’ wages to (just short of) the voluntary living wage. Journalist Heather Mills covered the story in Private Eye.” Read the whole story here.
Owen Blacker, mySociety trustee
Missing historic information on Cold War targets
Owen co-founded FaxYourMP, the earliest version of mySociety’s WriteToThem, and has been an important part of the organisation ever since — he’s now one of our trustees and a non-executive director. He recalls the building and launch of WhatDoTheyKnow and indeed was one of its earliest registered users.
Owen particularly remembers a pass-the-parcel like series of FOI requests in which he was handed from one organisation to another:
“I went round in circles trying to find out some Cold War information that nobody claims to know any more. In 1980, the entire Civil Service, nationwide, ran a dry run of a Cold War nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, called Operation Square Leg. I’m slightly concerned that we spent a lot of money planning the civil contingencies of a Cold War attack — a sensible things to do, arguably — but no longer know where we were expecting to be hit or at what megatonnage.” Owen links to the requests from this blog post.
Will Perrin, Indigo Trust
Safer streets and better data handling
Will is not only a trustee at Indigo, supporting mySociety’s work with parliamentary monitoring organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, but he’s also a trustee of London’s King’s Cross Community Projects. Indeed Kings Cross — a locality in which Will has a personal stake, with a long record of community action — is the subject of two of the three FOI requests he singled out:
First was the Kings Cross Walkability audit which revealed just how hostile to pedestrians the area was back in 2008. At the time, Will wrote in his blog: “Crossing the road in Kings Cross is a nightmare and now we have an official report commissioned by TfL that sets it out in black and white.”
Today he recalls its impact: “This document underpinned the police taking a corporate manslaughter case against TfL to the Criminal Prosecution Service with regard to a cyclist’s death in 2011. The case did not proceed but was instrumental in changing TfL’s attitude to cyclists’ rights.
“Then this request revealed a massive overspend by Network Rail in refurbishing its own offices at Kings Cross”.
Finally, Will’s third choice of request had wider implications for the country as a whole:
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealing that there was no governance system in place for the Automatic Numberplate Recognition System (ANPR) and the existence of Met’s ‘Olympic Data Feed‘ led to a new governance system being instilled; some 2 billion records were deleted along with the introduction of a vastly reduced retention period.” Annotations at the foot of this request give a little more background.
Matthew Somerville, mySociety developer
A long-standing pillar of mySociety’s development team, Matthew wrote the core code behind many of mySociety’s most notable websites and tools, including FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou. He spends his working days coding for mySociety’s useful tools, and much of his free time coding his own useful tools, if his website is anything to go by. What was his most memorable FOI request?
“It was a request asking Royal Mail for information about all their postboxes, made by Tom Taylor. I had to write a crowd-sourcing tool to locate them, as the information provided included street name but no actual location; they then (from another FOI request a few years later) released the co-ordinates as well.”
The data is mapped here. Why is this request significant?
“I’m not sure it’s really significant, but I do get plenty of people telling me they’ve used the site, and it’s something Royal Mail never got around to providing (even though that was their reasoning for refusing to release it)…”
So there we are: a handful of the 458,219 requests that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed to date. There are so many stories around FOI requests: each of them represents someone’s burning question; many of them result in a response that’s important, or fascinating, or historic. And that’s what makes WhatDoTheyKnow so rewarding to work on.