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.
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.
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 parties — a figure which includes 128 Conservatives — along 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.
Once again it’s time for our monthly roundup of what the Climate team has been doing in the last, er, two months. Plenty to write about at least.
First on the list is another milestone in the journey towards Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Action Scorecards – the start of the Right of Reply process. All the marking of councils’ climate actions has been completed by CEUK’s small army of volunteers, and now it’s over to councils to have a look at the results and provide any feedback. We’ve also pulled in the data from Freedom of Information requests which was gathered using our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform so they can check that over too.
A second launch is the Local Intelligence Hub project we’ve been working on with The Climate Coalition, to help climate campaigners across the UK wrangle climate related data. There was a bunch of work in the run up to this to improve how we were displaying information on the map to make it more accessible, plus adding yet more data. Now that TCC members have access to this we’ll be gathering feedback to decide on future work, as well as adding more data, before a full public launch.
Meanwhile, our Neighbourhood Warmth project with partners Dark Matter Labs has been moving gently but steadily forward. We’ve been meeting with organisations in our three chosen pilot areas, and fleshing out some basic content and design before we put together a very minimal working alpha, to test out with real neighbours on real streets. We’ve been thinking critically about some of our initial ideas on how to connect people interested in making energy saving improvements to their home, and have broadened out our definition of “neighbourhood” from people on the same street to people nearby – to capitalise on the connections people might have across a slightly wider local area. Alongside this we’ve been working out how we’re going to get this in front of users to gather feedback once we have something to show. You can read more about this in our first set of Neighbourhood Warmth monthnotes.
We’ve also had an update on what our second Innovations in Climate Tech grantee has been up to.
Finally, with the spring new councils have bloomed which means updating CAPE to include these new councils, and to guide people looking at the old councils to their replacements.
Image: Olli Kilpi
As we move into the season of the falling leaves, we look back on the activities that fell in September.
Most importantly we welcomed Alexander to the team, doubling both our developer count and the number of people on the team named Alex.
Events dear boy, events
We ran an event! About Climate Tech! It seemed to go quite well. There’s lots of detail in the blog post and links so you can rewatch people from Wiltshire to Copenhagen talking about how they used technology to help with everything from green roofs to community consultation.
The post also contains details of our follow up event about the small grants (£5,000) we have available for local councils and partners for trialling ideas for tackling climate change.
Internally we spent a bit of time thinking about how we might use some futures scenarios to test out our plans and explore any unspoken assumptions we might have about the way the world works. Failing that we could always use said scenarios to help run a creative writing workshop on dystopian fiction.
The work goes on
We have come to the end of our prototyping weeks and we’re now starting to look at exploring some of them in more detail. The focus at the moment is on home energy, procurement and our most recent prototyping work with The Climate Coalition.
On the home energy front, Siôn has been continuing to speak to potential partners in the area while we work out the best way to turn this work into something concrete. If encouraging local communities to come together and improve the energy efficiency of their homes sounds interesting to you then get in touch.
Wasting no time, Alexander has been unknotting procurement and contracts data in order to turn our Contract Countdown prototype into something a little more functional. We’re still at an early stage with this, trying to work out if it’s practical to keep the data current. We’ll also be looking to show the more useful version to some potential users to see if it’s a service that has value.
Finally, we started work with The Climate Coalition on a beta of a tool to help them corral a range of data to more effectively help climate groups with campaigning. So far we’ve largely been talking about what data is both useful and available, and how to link it all up.
In non-prototyping work we’ve continued to chat to Climate Emergency UK about next year’s follow up to the Council Climate Plan Scorecards. This is very much in the planning stage at the moment.
Previously in blog posts
One of the side effects of our work on Climate is we’ve gathered a lot of data which we’d like more people to use. Alex wrote both about the data we have and also the process we use to gather and publish it. The first of these is of interest to anyone who would like some nice data, while the second is considerably more technical.
Speaking of people using our data, Myf published the latest in our series of case studies on how people are doing just that. This month it’s the turn of the Brighton Peace and Environment centre who’ve been using CAPE and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards to help with visualising council’s progress towards their Net Zero targets.
As ever, if you’ve used any of our data we’d love to hear from you. It helps us with both prioritising future work as well as when talking to current and potential funders.
If you’d like this sort of thing in your inbox then you can sign up to our monthly climate newsletter by clicking the subscribe link at the top right of that page.
Image: Mott Rodeheaver