A month ago we wrote a blog post looking for outside researchers to do some research to keep our climate work well rooted in the evidence base. The goal of this first piece of work is to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change.
After a really strong set of applications, we are delighted that we’ll be working with Tom Sasse on this project. Tom is an associate director at the Institute for Government and is taking this work on in a freelance capacity.
As he starts on this research, he’s interested in any material (especially that may be off the beaten path) that could be relevant to that question. He can be reached on Twitter or through email at email@example.com.
We’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned from this process to make improvements to both the application process, and the design of our future research briefs. If you’re interested in hearing about those future calls for proposals, you can join the mailing list.
Today, Climate Emergency UK launches the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, an assessment of every UK council’s Climate Action Plan against several criteria of excellence.
mySociety provided technical support for the Scorecards project, which used data from CAPE which was then marked against Climate Emergency UK’s scrupulous Action Plans checklist, created with advice from Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth. You can read about CEUK’s methodology here (and we recommend you do; it really helps one understand the scale of what they’ve pulled off here).
Our support for this project reflects the overarching mission of mySociety’s Climate programme, in making it easier for citizens to understand and engage with their local authorities’ actions in the face of the climate emergency; and the mission of the organisation as a whole in providing data and digital tools for meaningful citizen to government engagement.
Climate Action Plans are often long, complex documents. The Scorecards project helps residents, who may not be experts, to understand where their council is planning well and where there is still work to be done. It gives them a way to see how good their council’s preparation is in the context of the country as a whole, and understand what could be, but is not, in their local climate plan.
But another important aim of the Scorecards project is to benefit councils. Local authorities can now see how their Climate Action Plan compares to those of other similar authorities, and to learn from those councils who have scored better in specific areas. They should be able to see potential for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and improvement that perhaps weren’t immediately visible before this data was publicly available.
We were happy to provide support to this project because we’ve seen how meticulous CEUK’s scoring process has been at every step of the way. They’ve trained up an incredible cohort of dedicated volunteers, who dug into the work because they believed in doing something tangible for the good of the environment. They’ve sought feedback on the first round of marking from councils, folding in the right of reply to a second round; and they’ve worked to a double auditing process.
Meanwhile, mySociety’s input has been in two areas: help with technical development, and help in refining methodology. We were keen to ensure that the Scorecards were genuinely helpful to citizens and councils alike, rather than being a tool for mud-slinging. It’s a fact that councils are underfunded, managing multiple priorities, and dealing with a pandemic while trying to tackle their responsibilities in the face of the climate emergency.
We see public climate action plans as part of the conversation between citizens and government about how we can tackle this crisis together. Any public plan can be a starting point for discussion where we hope that councils and citizens will both ask themselves, ‘What can we do to improve this situation?’ For the fifth of UK local councils still have not published plans to tackle climate change, that conversation has yet to begin.
As part of this thinking, it was important for the design to make comparisons that are fair, and give useful contrasts to users in the public and in local government. Each council is compared only to those which have similar responsibilities. For example, district councils are grouped together and can be seen in the context of one another; and so can unitary councils, but you can’t compare a unitary council with a district council.
Within each of these groups, we’ve provided options to drill down further. We’ve made it easy to compare councils in the same region, the same political control, with similar urban/rural balance, or deprivation profile. We hope this tool is helpful for everyone in making useful comparisons, and for councils in helping them learn from their similar counterparts.
That’s it! In short: we hope you’ll learn from the Scorecard project, and we hope you’ll pass it on to others who might do so, too.
Image: Max Williams
Another productive month for the Climate team: Climate Emergency UK’s launch of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards project is very close. We’ve been providing them with technical help, designing and building the website, and it’ll all finally come to life very soon.
I’m happy to mention that this is my first contribution to mySociety’s blog. Hi everyone, I’m Lucas, one of the recent acquisitions on the Design team, and I’ve been working on the design and front-end aspects of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards for the past few months.
Without further ado, let’s see what we’ve been up to this month.
Council Climate Plan Scorecards
We have some exciting news regarding the Climate Scorecards. The CEUK team has led their teams of motivated, trained volunteers and consulted with local authorities to complete the right to reply followed by the second marking process. We’re now super close to launch.
CEUK have also been busy securing press coverage – it looks like at least one major national will be carrying the story in detail, and there’ll be a co-ordinated effort, again, made possible by those amazing volunteers – to ensure that regional press know the stories around their local councils’ scores, too.
Ideally this website will reach as many people as possible, hopefully then inspiring them to take further actions to combat climate change, encourage more communicative councils, and thereby strengthen local communities.
The design for the social media infographics has been approved, ready to be used and shared on Twitter and Facebook on the launch date. We want users to share their council’s score and celebrate those councils who have performed well in the different sections and, of course, in the overall scores.
The Scorecards design process
I started three months ago at mySociety as a Front-end/Developer to work and provide support across the wide range of projects we manage — but the Council Climate Plan Scorecards was the first big project that I had to design from scratch.
From the beginning, it’s been an interesting experience, getting to know key stakeholders such as CEUK, understanding their requirements for the Scorecards website and at the same time, getting familiar with mySociety’s procedures and processes.
When we started the design process, there was an idea, a concept, a “something” we wanted to achieve. That was enough to allow us to create the Scorecards’ grey wireframe model: not so good looking, but a great help and an efficient way to understand how users will interact with the tables, while also checking whether we’d planned all the right components for the website.
At this stage, Zarino and I were focusing primarily on the usability aspect of the site. With feedback from the team and CEUK, we were able to improve those wireframes and give them some light and colour, for a better representation of what the final experience would look like. At this point, we were still working on some of the components and improving the user interface and the usability side of things, especially for the tables and filters.
Weekly design/comms meetings helped us achieve the design we have now, and served as a basis for the front-end development of the website, while we could also keep up to speed on getting the word out about the launch.
And so, here we are today, about to launch the climate scorecards project. Let’s not forget to mention the amazing help from Struan on development, Zarino on design and Alex on methodology/number crunching.
Who’s got an idea?
The Climate team has started the new year recharged and ready to explore new ideas on how to maximise the impact of our work.
Zarino and Louise came up with the idea of exploring several promising ideas that we’ve had sitting in our Hopper, our list of ideas that have been sitting in the backlog waiting for the team to add some magic. This will happen via ‘rapid prototyping’ weeks – “six weeks to change the world”, as Louise put it.
The process we are developing leans heavily on Google Ventures’ sprint design process – albeit it will in all likelihood be collaborating to develop ideas rather than taking our solutions to partners / the ‘market’. In some weeks we might spend some time building rough versions of what they might look like, which then enable us to make decisions about whether they have the ‘legs’ to go further; in others it’ll be a looser exploration.
We’re aware that not all ideas will fit a prototyping approach, and we’re also keen to make sure those are given equal chance at implementation, so this isn’t the only way for ideas to be considered. But our first prototyping weeks are pencilled into the diary for this spring: watch this space for more progress.
We discussed several exciting new initiatives, some related to procurement, useful data for climate justice and tech action and finally, a pledge system to strengthen local communities.
Some more great news this month, around the research commissioning process we outlined in last month’s notes: bids for our first commission (“Public understanding of local authorities and climate”) closed last week. We’re glad to say that there are some really good submissions.
The team will review these in the coming days, and we’re also looking forward to releasing the next two commissions on “public pressure and local authorities” and “how local authorities make decisions around climate”.
That’s it for this month! Lots going on.
Image: Emiliana Hall
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
We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.
This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.
On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.
We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.
And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.
We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.
City Hall in London is a spiral-shaped building that some say resembles a snail.
The same could not be said for the speakers at TICTeC Local, the conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology for communities and local government, which took place on the building’s top floor last Friday. These proactive people move fast and get things done!
Surrounded by a wraparound view of the Thames and Tower Bridge, we heard from a selection of folk with hands-on experience of using technology at the local or community level. See the full agenda here, where you’ll also find links to the collaborative notes that were taken during each session.
Here’s a brief run-down of the presentations and discussions.
mySociety research: evidence and impact
Our own Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, kicked things off with a call for research-based decisions when it comes to attractive new forms of engagement such as the current trend towards Citizens’ Assemblies. As always, it’s important to assess what ensures good results and what can go wrong, so that we can ensure the outcomes are desirable.
What role can digital technologies play in citizen participation?
This panel comprised four people who are very well-equipped to speak on the subject in hand: Miriam Levin from DCMS, Eva O’Brien of FutureGov, Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, and Tim Hughes of Involve.
Beginning with a look at the role of digital technologies and a nod to those which are working well in citizen participation, conversation soon turned to the ways in which Citizens’ Assemblies can deliver less than desirable results — and, just as importantly, how to avoid that.
Data changes everything: informed public services
In this session, two speakers brought two very different stories to the table. First, James Maddison of the Open Data Institute presented the toolkit which the ODI has produced to help public services through the process of generating, sharing and using more open data. The rainbow-hued toolkit itself can be found here.
Secondly, Georges Clement of JustFix in New York told the inspiring tale of how data empowered millions of tenants who were living in conditions considered deficient even by the city’s own definition. Simply by sharing data on who owned buildings (something often deliberately obscured by landlords) the organisation enabled joint campaigns, group litigation and the ranking of the ‘worst evictor’ landlords. This work led to New York’s City Mayor introducing a law that guarantees legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction.
Click to engage: creating active citizens through digital technologies
In this session we heard experiences from two sides of the pond: Tammy Esteves of Troy University Alabama ran through examples of local digital projects across the US, especially relating to disaster/emergency management; while Joe Mitchell from the UK’s Democracy Club explained the difficulties in measuring the impact of the work they do: making sure people are informed prior to elections.
Earlier actions & better connections: technology combatting social problems
Giselle Cory and Lucy Rimmington of DataKind explained how the organisation, which benefits greatly from data scientist volunteers, had used machine learning to help a Huddersfield foodbank identify which of its clients were likely to benefit most from early intervention by other services.
In the second half of the session, Chris Hildrey outlined the work of Proxy Address, a system for giving a stable address to people facing or experiencing homelessness, and thus removing barriers in processes such as applying for jobs, opening a bank account or claiming benefits. One interesting piece of information was that, out of superstition, many streets in the UK have no number 13, with Birmingham being the city most likely to omit it.
Showing the way: support with the digital transformation process
Laura Payten from Government Digital Service (GDS) gave an overview of how local government pay can be used locally; while Richard Smith and Sam Whitlock from Hackney Council and Mirabai Galati of Croydon demonstrated the benefits of councils working together, especially in getting user insight and sharing evidence. They introduced a nascent user research repository that has great potential for local government across the country.
Better foresight: Civic Tech for the urban planners
Jonathan Pichot from NYC Planning Labs talked about the app they have produced to help automate environmental impact analyses in New York City. It’s had great impact: agency staff now spend 50% less time checking environmental analyses, saving city agencies $200,000 since 2018.
mySociety’s researcher Alex Parsons explored some of the findings about how different groups use FixMyStreet in different ways, which can be read as a blog series here on our own site.
Bringing the citizens in: Civic Tech for engagement and participation
Jo Corfield and Joe Wills from the Centre for London talked about how the city’s wasted spaces can be used in a ‘meanwhile’ context (often also known as ‘pop-up’ initiatives) for the community. The thinktank’s research looked at 51 such spaces and came up with recommendations for maximising the benefits of this phenomenon.
Then Gail Ramster of the Royal College of Art and Mike Saunders from Commonplace gave an overview of the digital tools they’d used in two projects to try and engage citizens. When there are big changes on the horizon, such as the introduction of autonomous vehicles, how can digital technologies help ensure that everyone in the community has a voice for their hopes, fears and interests? And what does being involved in an engagement process actually do to one’s stance on an issue?
Taking back control: why community power matters to our economy and society and what gets in its way
Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power To Change, gave an inspirational keynote about the power of community ownership, with examples including a bakery in Anfield, training on home building in Bristol, and an energy company on the Isle of Wight. But she explained that in England the policy around shared ownership is not yet robust enough (in Scotland it is much better) as is demonstrated by the high rate of Assets of Community Value that are registered but which never make it into the community.
So you’ve declared a climate emergency. Now what?
The final panel looked at the very real issues facing those in authorities who have taken up Extinction Rebellion’s challenge and declared a climate emergency. How does that translate into fast real-world action in the sometimes slow-moving world of local government?
Sian Berry from Camden Council, Emily Tulloh from FutureGov, Trewin Restorick of Hubbub and Alasdair Roxburgh from Friends of the Earth were able to share their experiences, and a final question on what gave each speaker hope for the future ensured that we ended the day without feeling too overwhelmed.
Thanks are due
A special thanks to Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, who welcomed us to his very special workplace; and to his assistant Davina who helped so much in setting things up. Thanks too, to all the staff at City Hall, who were without exception helpful and positive.
Further thanks, of course, to our thoughtful and inspiring speakers, for sharing your experience and knowledge, and to attendees for making TICTeC local a place for debate and collaboration.
Slides, photos and the notes from each session can all now be found on the TICTeC website, so go and have a browse.
We’re pleased to announce the schedule for TICTeC Local 2019, our one-day conference that focuses directly on the use and impacts of Civic Tech in communities and local government. If this sounds good to you, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.
Join us on 1st November at London’s City Hall to discuss how digital tools can help local government and communities to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiencies, and combat social and environmental problems. TICTeC events are unique in that they emphasise the research behind digital platforms and tools, not just showcasing the tools themselves.
TICTeC Local is more than just a conference once a year: we want it to be a catalyst that helps more local councils and organisations think about and research the impacts of digital tools they are using, and to share this knowledge amongst their peers.
For six years now we have fostered a global network of civic tech researchers and practitioners via our Impacts of Civic Technology Conferences (TICTeC) – TICTeC Local allows us to bring some of that international experience to the local level and emphasise the importance of local digital innovations and researching their impacts.
Free public sector tickets
We have a set number of free tickets available for public sector attendees. These are limited to a maximum of two tickets per public sector organisation. If you work in the public sector and can commit to attending please choose the ‘Public Sector’ ticket option on Eventbrite.
We are delighted to be joined by many excellent speakers — here are just a few you can expect to hear from:
Chief Executive, Power to Change
Vidhya is the founding Chief Executive of Power to Change, the independent trust established in 2015 to support the growth of community businesses across England to create more prosperous and cohesive communities.
Head of Community Action and Giving at Office for Civil Society, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
The focus of Miriam’s 18 year career in central government, public, private and third sectors has been to develop and implement long-lasting, impactful community development strategies, focusing on how people can be involved in shaping the places where they live and take action on the things that matter to them.
Professor Graham Smith
Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD), Westminster University
Graham’s research interests are in democratic theory and practice (particularly participatory democratic institutions), climate and environmental politics and the third sector/social economy.
He is currently involved in a number of funded research projects, including Scholio (University of Connecticut), Participedia (SSHRC) and AssoDem (Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness). Recently completed projects include Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (ESRC) and Cherry-picking.
Executive Director, DataKind UK
Giselle oversees the running of DataKind UK, empowering the community of volunteers in their use of data for social good. After graduating in Maths and Physics, Giselle worked as a data scientist and public policy analyst in the UK Government, a national charity and think tanks, before returning to study a masters in Computational Journalism. Prior to joining the team at DataKind UK, Giselle was a longtime core volunteer. She believes that smart, responsible data collection and use can help the social sector tackle some of the UK’s biggest challenges – and change the world!
Lead User Researcher at #HackIT, Hackney Council
HackIT brings together the technology, digital and data teams of Hackney Council to support their residents and businesses, colleagues and partners.
Co-Founder, President, JustFix.nyc
Georges is a product manager and experienced nonprofit leader who specializes in partnerships, business operations, fundraising, and gathering research insights to inform digital product features.
JustFix.nyc builds technology for tenants and organisers fighting displacement, by following a community-driven approach to support New York’s housing justice movement.
Dr. Tammy Esteves
Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Troy University
Dr. Esteves is very active in the American Society for Public Administration, where she is on the board of the Section of Democracy and Social Justice, and is a past president of the Evergreen Chapter in Seattle. She primarily teaches Research Methods, Leadership in Public Administration, Ethics in Public Administration, eGovernance, and Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response. Her main research interest is the role of technology for building community, particularly in the areas of social media, crowdsourcing, and GIS.
Developer & Product Manager, NYC Planning Labs
Jonathan is a New York-based software developer and product manager with an enduring fascination of cities. He has worked for software companies and city governments, working to use technology to improve the way cities function and the lives of the people that live in them.
NYC Planning Labs believe better outcomes can be achieved using modern design and development practices along with open technology. They are civic technologists that help support the Department of City Planning’s mission.
Don’t miss TICTeC Local 2019
There’s more information about TICTeC Local on the main TICTeC website.
GCloud 11 is live: it’s the latest iteration of GOV.UK’s Digital Marketplace, making it easier for those in the public sector to find and procure cloud-based software services — including ours.
This time around there are two offerings from mySociety: FixMyStreet Pro, which has been on GCloud since 2017, and FOI for Councils, available via this channel for the first time.
Regular followers will be well aware that FixMyStreet Pro is a street fault reporting service which can integrate with any existing council system, offering great opportunities to cut costs and increase efficiency.
Meanwhile our FOI for Councils service streamlines authorities’ FOI workflows and reduces unnecessary requests, relieving the burden in what is often an overstretched resource.
The great benefit of GCloud from the public sector point of view is that suppliers come ready-verified, saving the time and inconvenience of going through the regular procurement process. All the information you need about the service is readily accessible, and then when you’ve made your decision it’s very simple to get things moving.
We’re pleased to offer these two services via GCloud — and will be equally happy to answer any questions you may have.
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.
Find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
Image: Daniel von Appen
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.
Image: Mark Longair (CC by-sa/2.0)