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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What is “kompromat” and how does it work?

The Russian art of blackmail has historically been used as an effective political weapon.

When the heads of America’s intelligence agencies informed President-elect Donald J. Trump last week that Russia might have collected compromising personal material on him, the possibility was raised that he could be a victim of a time-honored Russian intelligence tactic known as “kompromat.”

The explosive allegations contained in an unverified and salacious  report prepared by a former British intelligence operative as opposition political research against Trump, have now been made public. The allegations remain unverified, and without corroboration from someone inside Putin’s inner circle, their veracity is unlikely to ever be proven.

The accusations contained in the report, published in full by Buzzfeed, are extraordinary. They include allegations that  the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting Trump for at least five years,” and that Russian spies exploited the president-elect’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gather compromising material. According to the report, Russian intelligence has sufficient material on Trump to blackmail him but have agreed not to use it as leverage due to the “high levels of voluntary co-operation forthcoming from his team.”

The Kremlin has denied the claim it has kompromat — a Russian word literally meaning “compromising material” — on Trump. According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry called the accusations that Russia has collected material on the president-elect that it could use for political leverage against him “mind-boggling nonsense” and “outrageous drivel.”  At a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also denied the claims and denounced publication of the allegations as “fake news.”

Kompromat has become a part of the political culture in Russia. Nearly everyone within Russia’s business and political elite has at one time or another collected and stored potentially compromising material on their political opponents for future use. Kompromat can be real or fabricated, and generally involves drugs, prostitutes, sexual escapades, sleazy business deals, illicit financial schemes, or embezzlement.

During the Cold War, the use of kompromat was a favoured tactic by the KGB. Hotel rooms across the Soviet Union were bugged and fitted with tiny cameras to surreptitiously record illicit dalliances between western politicians, journalists, businessmen and KGB-hired prostitutes.

More recently, Russian intelligence and political officials have used kompromat to settle scores or to discredit government critics. Kompromat thrived in the 1990s during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of intelligence personnel suddenly found themselves without a job. Skilled in information warfare and looking for work, they offered their expertise in political blackmail and character assassination to anyone who could pay.

In 1999, Yury Skuratov, at the time Russia’s prosecutor general, was the victim of kompromat after he started investigating corruption inside the Kremlin. He was forced to resign after a grainy tape featuring a man resembling Skuratov in bed with two prostitutes was broadcast on national television. The head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, held a press conference claiming that the man caught on tape was indeed Skuratov. The FSB chief at the time just happened to be the now President Vladimir Putin. With Skuratov’s resignation, the corruption investigation ended.

While kompromat is an old trick, it has taken on a different and at times more sinister twist in the cyberspace age. To silence and discredit opponents, Russian cyber warriors have planted child pornography on the computers of Kremlin critics. Cyber attacks have become a favored political weapon to use against government opponents. They are hard to trace, giving the Kremlin plausible deniability.

Kompromat can be an effective political weapon. Faced with the destruction of their lives, marriages, reputations, and careers, victims often have little choice but to capitulate to blackmail and intimidation.

If Russia did actually have kompromat against Trump, would it use it? The United States and its Western allies no doubt have their own compromising material on members of the Kremlin’s inner circle and perhaps even on Putin himself, such as the scope of his financial and business interests in Russia and the size of his personal fortune.

Perhaps we are entering an era of “Mutually Assured Kompromat Destruction,” and we will never learn what, if anything, the Kremlin has on Trump.

Richard Maher is a research fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies