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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US election 2016: Trump threatens to deny democracy

When asked if he would accept the result of the election, the reality TV star said that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

During this insane bad-acid-trip of an election campaign I have overused the phrase “let that sink in.”

There have been at least two dozen moments in the last 18 months which I have felt warranted a moment of horrified contemplation, a moment to sit and internalise the insanity of what is happening. That time a candidate for president brought up his penis size in a primary election debate, for one.

But there was a debate last night, and one of the protagonists threatened to undermine democracy in the United States of America, which throws the rest of this bizarre campaign into stark relief.

It was the third and final clash between an experienced if arguably politically problematic former senator and secretary of state – Hillary Clinton –  and a reality TV star accused of a growing number of sexual assaults – Donald Trump – but the tone and content of the debate mattered less than what the latter said at one key, illuminating moment.

That statement was this: asked if he would accept the result of the election, Donald Trump said that he was going to “look at it at the time,” and that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, you have responded correctly. The candidate for the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, declined to uphold the most fundamental keystone of American democracy, which is to say, the peaceful transition of power.

Let that sink in. Let it sit; let it brew like hot, stewed tea.

This election has been historic in a vast number of ways, most important of which is that it will be, if current polling is to be believed, the election which will bring America's first female president to the White House, almost a century after women's suffrage was enabled by the 19th amendment to the constitution in August 1920.

If the last near-century for women in America has been a journey inexorably towards this moment, slowly chipping away at glass ceiling after glass ceiling, like the progression of some hellish video game, then Donald Trump is as fitting a final boss as it could be possible to imagine.

For Trump, this third and final debate in Las Vegas was do-or-die. His challenge was near-insurmountable for even a person with a first-class intellect, which Trump does not appear to possess, to face. First, he needed to speak in such a way as to defend his indefensible outbursts about women, not to mention the increasing number of allegations of actual sexual assault, claims backstopped by his own on-tape boasting of theoretical sexual assault released last month.

This, he failed to do, alleging instead that the growing number of sexual assault allegations against him are being fabricated and orchestrated by Clinton's campaign, which he called “sleazy”, at one point to actual laughs from the debate audience.

But he also needed to reach out to moderates, voters outside his base, voters who are not electrified by dog-whistle racism and lumbering misogyny. He tried to do this, using the Wikileaks dump of emails between Democratic party operators as a weapon. But that weapon is fatally limited, because ultimately not much is in the Wikileaks email dumps, really, except some slightly bitchy snark of the kind anyone on earth's emails would have and one hell of a recipe for risotto.

In the debate, moderator Chris Wallace admirably held the candidates to a largely more substantive, policy-driven debate than the two previous offerings – a fact made all the more notable considering that he was the only moderator of the three debates to come from Fox News – and predictably Trump floundered in the area of policy, choosing instead to fall back on old favourites like his lean-into-the-mic trick, which he used at one point to mutter “nasty woman” at Clinton like she'd just cut him off in traffic.

Trump was more subdued than the bombastic lummox to which the American media-consuming public have become accustomed, as if his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had dropped a couple of Xanax into his glass of water before he went on stage. He even successfully managed to grasp at some actual Republican talking-points – abortion, most notably – like a puppy who has been semi-successfully trained not to make a mess on the carpet.

He also hit his own favourite campaign notes, especially his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but ultimately his intrinsic Donald Trumpiness couldn't stop itself from blazing through.

Remember the Republican primary debate when Trump refused to say that he would accept the party's nominee if it wasn't him? Well, he did it again: except this time, the pledge he refused to take wasn't an internal party matter; it was two centuries of American democratic tradition chucked out of the window like a spent cigarette. A pledge to potentially ignore the result of an election, given teeth by weeks of paranoiac ramblings about voter fraud and rigged election systems, setting America up for civil unrest and catastrophe, driving wedges into the cracks of a national discourse already strained with unprecedented polarisation and spite.

Let it, for what is hopefully just one final time, sink in.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.