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.
 

kerim44 at Wikimedia Commons
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The rise in hate crime reports is a dark sign of post-Brexit Britain

Xenophobic graffiti at a London Polish centre is one of many incidents being investigated by police following the referendum result.

Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London's leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint. 

“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I'll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”

The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public's decision on Friday to leave the European Union. 

Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”. 

For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens. 

Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it's obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.

She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.” 

When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”

Beyond Hammersmith

Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike. 

Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:

Facebook users have also collated reports in an album titled Worrying Signs:

Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.

HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.

The group notes that the referendum, cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.

Update 28/6/16: 

The National Police Chief's council has now released figures on the spike in hate crime reports following the referendum. Between Thursday and Sunday, 85 reports were sent to True Vision, a police-funded crime reporting service. During the same period four weeks ago, only 54 were sent - which constitutes a rise of 57 per cent. 

In a statement, Mark Hamilton, Assistant Chief Constable for the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Hate Crime, said police are "monitoring the situation closely". 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.