Freedom of information and unusable data

Disclosure of data is all very well, but only if it is intelligible and reliable.

It seemed a simple enough request: grassroots campaigners asking a major national charity for information on any cuts to services in their area. The charity in question – Rethink Mental Illness, which runs around 400 services and support groups across the country – thought it sounded pretty straightforward, too, and its policy team swung into action to compile a nationwide picture. They contacted every local authority in England, making a Freedom of Information request for details of any changes to mental health spending in 2011/12, compared to 2010/11 .

Then things started to get a little complicated. Anyone who’s ever submitted a blanket FOI request to a group of respondents, whether local authorities, NHS trusts or police forces, probably won’t be surprised to hear that more than half of the councils - 53 per cent - didn’t provide the information requested. Some were able to refer the enquirers to online "budget books" containing the figures, others said that DCLG’s annual publication of the data it receives from all councils on their spending allocation would provide the answer. (Public bodies can legitimately refuse FOI requests if the information requested is scheduled for future publication. In this case, the DCLG release was three months away.)
 
So the charity recorded the responses they had received, extracted the data they were pointed towards, and waited for the DCLG publication of council spending breakdowns. When this came, they checked the data they’d been given by local authorities against that held centrally – and things moved from merely complicated to downright contradictory.
 
In only 14 out of 151 instances did the local authority FOI response produce figures that tallied with the DCLG figure. By contrast, more than double that number, 30, produced figures diverging by more than 10 per cent. Comparing spending in 2010/11 with that planned for 2011/12, Cheshire West and Chester's FOI response said it was increasing mental health spending by +25.7 per cent, when DCLG figures showed a cut of -14.3 per cent; Knowsley’s balance sheet says it is cutting by -1.5 per cent, whereas DCLG stats say they are increasing spending by +29.3 per cent; Croydon’s figures suggest a whopping increase of +62.9 per cent, but the DCLG puts that at a rather more modest +7.4 per cent.
 
Rethink queried those councils with the most divergent figures. Some offered explanations that are reasonable, but probably opaque to a layperson. Cheshire West and Chester, for example, said that their own figures were the "direct budget" for mental health services, whereas the DCLG revenue accounts give costs on a "statutory accounting basis". Others pointed to the inclusion or exclusion of services for the over-65s as a reason for discrepancies. Still others confessed to simple errors – while several more treated the request for clarification as a new FOI and are yet to respond.
 
But end result is that, more than a year on, experts within a major national charity are still completely in the dark about the spending changes they set out to map. "And if we, as a national charity with research and policy teams, can't get hold of the numbers," says Rethink Mental Illness’s CEO Paul Jenkins, "what chance do ordinary people have?"
 
Those who work with FOI requests day in, day out, are unsurprised by the charity’s lack of success. Iain Overton is director of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which frequently deploys Freedom of Information requests in its research.
 
"I have had FOIs rejected on spurious grounds, where a neighbouring PCT or council has happily handed over the data," says Overton. "I have seen government organisations do their utmost not to answer a simple question, such as 'How much does your chief executive earn?'
 
"And I have had FOI responses come through that contain a story, the facts of which are not challenged by the press officer when asked.  But when the story comes out, the same press officer goes to their local paper and says that facts are wrong."
 
This government has enthusiastically embraced the theory of open government, and is perceived by many as a global leader on these issues. Last month the United Kingdom became co-chair of the Open Government Partnership for a year-long term; and rights groups have applauded British efforts to improve transparency in countries receiving international aid.
 
But meaningful open government isn’t simply about the disclosure of data. It’s about whether that data is usable, reliable, and - surely it's not too much to ask? - intelligible. Rethink’s experience suggests that greater transparency needs to begin at home.

Read Rethink's report, Lost in Localism, here.
 

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The rise of anti-Semitism in Donald Trump's America

On Monday, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated. 

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in America. Since January alone, there have been 67 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centres in around 27 states around the country. On Monday, a Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri was desecrated, with over 100 headstones overturned. There has been a large increase in online anti-Semitic threats and hate speechSwastikas have been spray painted on the streets of New York.

Trump's poorly-executed "Muslim Ban" has closed the United States to people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. But the divisive "them" and "us" rhetoric of the White House has had repercussions for other groups as well. 

Jewish people have not explicitly been the focus of any kind of executive order (after complaints about his lack of action, Trump called anti-Semitism "horrible"). Nevertheless, the new administrations appears to be implicitly pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment.

Take, for example, the official White House tribute issued on Holocaust Memorial Day in January. It failed to directly mention Jewish people at all. Jewish groups, including those representing Republicans, criticised the omission. Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus defended the statement, saying: "I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people.”

Superficially, one could attribute this to ignorance. But how politicians phrase their words matters. It is a common tendency of anti-Semites to play down, ignore or reject the idea that the Holocaust was targeted at Jews. It is hard to believe that no one within the White House would have been aware of the kind of dog whistle this omission sent to the extreme right. 

That White House staff includes Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart, viewed widely as the online news outlet of the "alt right".

Timing also matters. The decision to shut US doors to Syrian and and Iraqi refugees was announced on Holocaust Memorial Day. The irony of an order singling people out for their faith wasn't lost on Jewish groups, who know all too well how many German Jews fleeing the Nazis were turned away from other shores. 

Trump's response time sent a message too. When a Hasidic Jewish reporter asked Trump about the growing anti-Semitism at his press conference on 16 February, he responded as if it was a personal attack, calling the question "very insulting" and telling him to sit down. Despite tweeting vociferously about Saturday Night Live and his daughter’s clothing line being dropped by a department store, Trump only managed to issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism on Tuesday.

David Samuels is a prominent Jewish writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He told me: "American Jews are threatened by rising anti-Semitism on both the right and left, which FBI statistics show to be more serious and more deadly than any animus directed towards Muslims or any other religious group.

"I feel sad that this is now my country, not because I am Jewish but because anti-Semitism is a degenerative thought-virus that makes people crazy by promising to explain everything that happens in the world with reference to a single prime mover - the Jews.

"Because anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and not a form of social prejudice, it is fatal to rational thinking, in a way that simple racial or religious prejudice - including prejudice against Jews - is not."

Whatever the intentions of the Trump administration, the reaction in the country at large shows it is playing with fire. Americans must hope that Trump, who has three Jewish grandchildren, will come to his senses and rid his support base of any who seek to use the presidency to infect the country with their diabolical ideology. 

Lola Adesioye is a British writer based in New York. Follow her @LolaAdesioye.