Is All Openness Local?

Following our report on FOI and local government in England, we have had some interesting reflections on how FOI works elsewhere.  One of the really interesting points concerns how users are often focused on ‘local’ access to issues that are of importance to them. High profile expenses stories aside, FOI is actually about making a difference at the level of your own street or ‘micro-politics’ as someone wiser than me called it. Could this also be the way for new Open Data innovations such as fix my street?

Here’s the FOI (or FOIL) view from New York state:

‘Our FOI law (known by many as “FOIL”) has been in effect since 1974, and this office was created as part of the law.  There are approximately 100 state agencies, but more important to most residents are the thousands of local government agencies, i.e., counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and the like.  Most residents have little connection with federal agencies in their daily lives and rarely have occasion to seek records under the federal FOIA.  A few have relationships with and a need to gain access to records of state agencies.  But everyone has a need at some point to seek information from local government, perhaps in relation to an environmental issue, building code and land use issues, the assessment of homes and other real property, the means by which taxpayers’ dollars are used or allocated by school districts, the qualifications of teachers and other public employees, the effectiveness of law enforcement functions – – the possibilities are endless.

We have also found, in general, that the smaller the unit of government, the more likely it is to be open.  In short, there is direct accountability. Most residents here, in the capital city of Albany, would recognize the Mayor walking down the street.  Few would recognize their congressman.

In short, despite the focus on Washington and the federal FOI Act, I believe that a local access to information law,  such as the 50 separate state FOI laws in the US, or a law of general application that includes local government within its coverage, is of primary significance and utility to the average person.  Further, for reasons suggested earlier, local government officials are more likely to comply with law and to be accountable that those higher up in the governmental chain of command.’

See http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/ for more information, reports and analysis

Town Hall Transparency?

Our new report on FOI and local government concludes that the FOI Act has made councils more open and transparent. Each year more and more questions have been asked with request numbers rising from around 60,000 a year in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010.

Underneath the media headlines about senior officials’ salaries,  investments and the cost of dying, FOI is being used more quietly, day-to-day, by the public to find out about things that matter to them; allotments, parking, speed bumps etc., as you can see in these records of requests  here and  here (this one also lists requesters by type). Businesses are using it to keep one step ahead of the competition and national and local pressure groups are making FOI requests on all sorts of topics from zoo licences to libraries. It may even have helped to uncover a murder.

Some councils are more open and more at ease with FOI than others. A few have resisted and played games. Many are concerned it’s being ‘abused’ by businesses and journalists. Most of all officials are worried about how they will cope with rising request numbers with fewer resources.

Since January 2011 councils have published all their spending over £500 on their websites (see here). The government hopes this will give transparency an extra push and also motivate ‘armchair auditors’ to check where and how councils are spending and misspending our money. The response has been mixed. Some councils have had no interest in their data, while elsewhere local newspapers have exposed controversial spending on string quartets or libraries , as have a  few national newspapers . One official said the benefits are internal, as it has allowed councillors to understand their own budgets.

FOI and Open Data are working more and more closely with new online innovations, that allow data to be ‘mashed’ and sifted, and hyper local sites that serve as a platform for residents to talk about local issues. However, it remains to be seen if new technology and further local government reform helps or FOI or if it will be undermined by dwindling resources’.

FOI and local government in 2010: The experience of local authorities in England

The Constitution Unit has just published its report on English local authorities’ experiences complying with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) throughout 2010.  The report aimed to gain an understanding of the numbers and types of requests local authorities received throughout 2010, the problems they encountered with compliance and their thoughts about different aspects of FOI.  The study used a web-based survey of local authorities’ FOI practitioners.  Of the 353 local authorities in England, practitioners from 104 (or 29%) gave substantive responses to the survey.  Key findings include:

  • Based on answers given by the 104 participating practitioners, the total estimated number of FOI/EIR requests received by local authorities in 2010 is 197,737. This is 33,229 (or 20%) more requests than we estimate were made in 2009.
  • A total cost of £31.6 million (an average of £159.80 per request) was estimated based on multiplying the average number of hours spent on a request, the total number of requests and the £25 per hour standard rate in dealing with an FOI request. Cost has therefore steadily fallen since 2008, showing an increase in efficiency in dealing with requests. It should however be noted that it is relatively difficult to generate an accurate estimate considering both the comparatively small sample and wide spread around the average time spent on a request.  Interestingly, some local authorities (such as Rotherham Borough Council) have taken to including the cost of handling a particular request upon supplying the information to the requester.
  • All council types improved their performance with regard to answering requests within the 20 day limit, despite the fact that requests are increasing in number.
  • With regard to amount of information disclosed following a request, slightly more were answered in full in 2010 (79.1%) compared to 2009 (78%).  However there are wide differences amongst council types.  In line with this, the number of requests where no information has been released has decreased, though again, there are wide differences across council types.
  • Opinion was divided over the impact of the £500 spending publication rule introduced by the coalition government.

“Extra work and virtually no benefits – for residents, businesses or the Council!”

“It’s a springboard to further regular disclosures, with a bit of luck.”

  • Financial information continues to be the most frequently requested, as has been the case since 2008.
  • According to respondents, the general public generate most requests, contradicting Tony Blair’s publicised regret that FOI is used not by “the people”, but predominantly by journalists.  However, it is difficult to be certain of exactly who is making use of FOI as most councils fail to record this.
  • Respondents identified a few main problems with compliance: requests, requesters, lack of resources, and the cooperation of management or service departments.  This is a similar list to that of the 2009 report.

“Increased number of requests with less resources available to deal with them”

“Receiving information from holders and communication of requests from departments”

  • When asked about positive effects of the Act, the most frequently given answers were: the development of more open, transparent, and accountable authority, improvements to records management, and general improvements to the organisation.

You can read the full report here.

£500 Online Publication: What’s Going On?

David Cameron has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ based upon Open Data and online publication. As part of this, since January 2011 all local authorities in England (with one exception) have begun publishing online details of all their spending over £500. What is this supposed to achieve? According to the government, many things. Publishing online will make local authorities more transparent, less wasteful and will help the public understand where its money goes. It will also give developers the opportunity to create new applications. Most of all, it will give power back to the people, enabling an army of armchair auditors to hold government to account.

What do we know? One survey of 168 local authorities found that 17 per cent felt the online publication had been ‘very successful’, 13 per cent felt it had been ‘somewhat’ successful, 17 per cent ‘good in theory but not in practice’ and 23 per cent did not know. So what of the benefits? 38 per cent felt it had increased transparency, 25 per cent accountability and 13 per cent trust. Only 3 per cent felt it increased participation or social and commercial value.

Our own study found similar variation. Some local authorities had experienced very little interest in the new data with one recording ‘180 visits and one FOI request’ in 3 months and another experiencing local media interest in ‘electricity and phone bills’ which had quickly ‘settled down’. Elsewhere there were higher levels of interest in the data, particularly from the local press and some ‘small use by trade unions’. Local media stories have highlighted odd spending on training, consultants and crematoria. Others pointed to internal benefits, with officials and politicians now able to better understand their own authority’s spending.

There has been, as of yet, little sign of the army of armchair auditors. In June Eric Pickles praised a group of bloggers who held to account the flagship Conservative authority over its contractual procedures. Other sites have sprung up with names such as ‘armchairs auditor’, and ‘reluctant armchair auditor’ but the latter wrote in the Guardian that the data was ‘not yet’ of good enough quality. There are difficulties around finding out who is accountable and knowing what mechanisms to use, whether to pass information to the media or the authority itself.

It has led to a growing number of new sites that help quickly and simply analyse the spending data, such as ‘Spotlight on Spend’ and ‘Openly Local’. The latter site is an open source site containing 168 local authorities’ spending data, attracting around a 1000 unique visitors a day, including businesses and local politicians. These sites allow you to quickly examine and compare authorities by payments, providers and make sit easy to benchmark. Many feel the future lies here.

It’s still very early days to say if it has succeeded or failed. The new online publication will make government more transparent and the parallel publication of salaries and contracts. It is unlikely to lead to very much ‘armchair auditing’ from the public, as most people won’t have the time or the patience to scroll through long excel sheets, but NGOs and journalists will find it useful. The area to watch will be the ‘local’ initiatives and hyper local sites. It is here, on their doorsteps, where the new information may make a real difference.

This article appeared in the Local Government Chronicle

To Be Or Not To Be: Will FOI be Extended?

Should the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) be extended to include private bodies doing public work? The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) argued it should in a recent report on PFI projects:

Transparency on the full costs and benefits of PFI projects to both the public and private sectors has been obscured… commercial confidentiality should not restrict the ability of the public, Parliament and decision makers to access information. Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services.

This is not the first time the PAC has called for private companies to be subject to FOI. In July it recommended that Network Rail, currently outside of FOI, should be covered. Nor are they alone. The Local Public Data Panel, a group of experts overseeing transparency and Open Data reformed across local government, warned of an erosion of public access due to the contracting out of services: Public rights of access to information should not disappear as a result of increasingly porous boundaries between public and private bodies delivering services.’

Extending coverage to private companies running public services, such as rail or road providers, is on the face of it logical and popular.  However, the devil lies in the detail and in the persuading of companies to do it, particularly now. But, while politicians prevaricate, some information is creeping out by the back door.

Most laws cover only information held by authorities, which can include some information held about work done by private bodies. Many companies are happy to provide information but not all, as our research on FOI and local government shows. Yet, willing or not, FOI only reaches so far and large ‘gaps’ in transparency appear with, for example, public prisons covered by FOI laws but private prisons not. Big society reforms and more contracting out of public services raises the possibility that these gaps will widen further.

Only one FOI law in the world currently wholly covers private bodies, South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000, though it’s not clear if or how it works. The Indian Right to Information Act 2005 also extends to previously public utility bodies now in private hands, though this was due to a ruling by its appeal body rather than by government action.

In the UK, Gordon Brown was the first to suggest extension of FOI to private providers in 2007. After several years of consideration it was decided to cautiously extend it to only a limited number of bodies. In 2010, the issue of extension surfaced again when new Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg aired the possibility that FOI could cover a wide variety of new bodies from Network Rail to utility companies. The Conservatives had also pressured the previous government to cover the nationalised bank Northern Rock.

Meanwhile, over the border in Scotland, the Scottish government began to consult on its own extension to selection of private bodies under its separate FOI Act. Again, following a long process, the final decision was to not do so.

Why have so few governments tried to extend coverage? As theUKand Scottish experience shows, even discussing extension can be a time consuming business, requiring a great deal of consultation and consideration.

More importantly, the arguments against extending FOI can be persuasive ones. Businesses argue that they can’t afford it (‘it’s too expensive’) and don’t need to (‘it’s unnecessary as we publish most of this already’). Here is the list of reasons for not extending FOI cited by the Scottish government, which would probably be enough to give even the most pro-openness politician pause for thought:

‘No compelling evidence of a problem or of unmet demand for information.

Wide concern about the potential resource implications and administrative burden of extension – particularly in the current economic climate

Most contracts stipulate co-operation between contractor and authority regarding information requests. Extension to contractors could be deemed to be a ‘discriminatory change in law’ – with costs passed to the public sector

Potential issues arising from differing regimes operating within theUK– including competitive disadvantage

Concerns that coverage would impact on private business engaging with the public sector and that resulting costs would be passed on to public authorities

That extension would be contrary to Scottish Government’s aim of reducing unnecessary regulation’

Interestingly, other developments and innovations may mean some level of transparency, through FOI and now Open Data reforms, may slowly ‘creep up’ on private companies. In Ireland, for example, it was recently decided that the Ango-Irish bank could be subject to Environmental Information Regulation requests (an equivalent FOI for environmental matters). In the UK the Ministry of Defence has begun ‘naming and shaming’ apparently poorly performing contractors. At local government level, one high profile joint venture between IBM and a set of public bodies has explicitly committed itself to FOI and many authorities are determined to make FOI access part of future contracts. In parallel, sites such as Openly Local allow the public to find out more about, for example, councils and their suppliers.

This ‘creep’ is no replacement for full FOI coverage but the whole issue of extension leaves politicians in a dilemma. They wish to hand the public more power to hold public services to account but are reluctant to upset business or add any regulatory burden, especially now. Will the onward move of transparency and Open Data leave them with no choice?

A Bang or a Whimper? £500 Publication

The government’s transparency revolution continues with the recent announcement of a consultation on next steps. One of its flagship policies has been the publication of all local authority spending over £500 which will allow us all to become ‘armchair auditors’ to hold our local authorities to account and hunt out waste. So how it is working?

Up until now, the effect seems to be uneven. Some authorities we have spoken to have had little interest from anyone. They think the public are simply not interested in the raw data. Others have reported an initial spike in interest from the local media which then dropped off when ‘nothing interesting’ was revealed.

Local authorities elsewhere have had much heaver use by the opposition, local journalists and, increasingly, trade unions. The regional media have highlighted odd spending, from string quartets in Kent to a particularly large hot pot in Manchester. Other officials feel the benefits are internal, as members and officials better understand their own budgets, previously a mystery to everyone except accountants. It doesn’t appear to have led to more FOI requests as some officers feared.

There are, as the government admitted in its new consultation, a number of problems. Poor data quality and inconsistency makes it difficult for the data to be used or re-used. Some authorities IT systems simply aren’t designed to put out information in the way the government want. Officials are also worried that, in tough times, the low level of the £500 threshold will feed existing prejudices that local government is ‘wasteful’. At least, some have argued, the audit regulations give plenty of context rather than isolated facts.

There has been little sign yet of the ‘army of armchair auditors’ the government hopes will comb through the data. We would expect to see lots of newspaper stories of residents or groups taking on their authorities and holding their leaders to account with this information. A few recently made a splash in Barnett. Mr Pickles himself has carried the war to the enemy, using FOI against the one council that has refused to publish its spending. There are a few websites with names such as ‘armchair auditor’ or ‘reluctant armchair auditor’, but they have not yet spread and the reluctant auditor complained in the Guardian that the data lacked the quality and context to be useful. Overall, we haven’t yet seen a groundswell of ‘active’ citizens questioning and probing their local authorities.

So will it improve? The government is determined to push on and create a new right to data, make information ‘open by default’ and encourage new innovation. They have recognised some of the difficulties and suggested that all new IT systems be designed for ease of publication, and committed to creating a new set of ‘standards’ to ensure consistency and a new right to data.

One key area to keep an eye on are the new sites, such as Openly Local, which allow information to be compared and analysed easily and quickly in all sorts of ways. The rapidly growing number of hyper local sites may also start using the data. It may be here, following the example of the local’ and ‘street-level’ experiments in the US, that some of the really interesting number crunching will happen.

This is a longer version of an article published in the Local Government Chronicle

Town Hall Tango: what’s been happening in local government

One of the things we found out about FOI is that it never settles down. Although it becomes part and parcel of operations it always has the potential to highlight new issues or kick up a fuss-it can liberate, muck-rake or simply cause a headache. Just to show you, I wanted to look at some of the interesting developments around our town and city halls over the past few weeks.

There has been some old fashioned digging using FOI that sheds some new light on topical events and liberates all sorts of information. One activist has opened up councils investment of pension funds in the tobacco industry. Others have highlighted authorities’ lack of defence against cyber intrusion  and lack of registered managers at care homes.

There has been a nice symmetry of ‘political’ requests involving unions. The GMB trade union used FOI to find out about how many staff are choosing to opt out of pensions. The Conservatives, at the same time, have been busy calculating how much tax payers have spent ‘keeping’ Union representatives in local authorities.  We can expect to see many more of these.

It isn’t just the subjects that FOI exposes. FOI and openness can itself cause controversy and headaches for politicians. In Liverpool there was alleged manipulation of requests to a journalist. At Kirklees council the ongoing controversy around a council leader allegedly interfering in responses is now subject of an internal investigation. Birmingham council has decided to that its first debate on the riots will be held in secret to avoid ‘grandstanding’. One disgruntled councillor in Scotland linked FOI to phone hacking, expressing the concern that the lack of illegal methods of accessing information will lead to more requests. The Computer weekly has alleged that a computer company has ‘gagged’ Bristol City council and refused to allow it to publish contact details.

And finally, is this the sound of chickens coming home to roost? One of the hopes for the new publication of local government spending is that it will lead to an arm of armchair auditors (though some have their doubts). Eric Pickles publicly praised one group of local activists, despite the fact it was a flagship Tory council that was being ‘audited’ by bloggers including the wonderfully named Mrs Angry.