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.
 

BFM TV
Show Hide image

Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

0800 7318496