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.
 

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.