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Research on Open Data and Transparency


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The Impact of data on the public during the COVID pandemic: Evidence to PACAC

The Impact of data on the public during the COVID pandemic

Ben Worthy and Stefani Langehennig

The generalised findings come from background research on data use for our current Leverhulme funded project examining how the public and others use new data sources and tools to scrutinise Westminster and follow what MPs and Peers do.

       Summary

  • Tracing how the public receive, use, or interpret data is complex, especially when it comes from so many sources, and data are contested and changing.
  • Data can be accessed directly, through the public looking at raw data, or indirectly, through intermediaries.
  • Data are often shaped by the narrative or narratives that accompany it.
  • The levels of openness the public expect or perceive are shaped by the political context, as well as a range of underyling expectations and beliefs, such as pre-existing levels of trust in government.
  • Data has a real-world policy impact and, in COVID, is crucial in shaping support or scepticism, and low understanding has been linked ‘vaccine hesitance’ or reduced following of guidance[1]
  1. The Complexity of data
  1. Almost all the data around COVID is complex, contestable and prone to error, for experts and the wider public. Even data on death rates have provoked discussion, controversy, and revision[2].
    1. The political context and narratives that surround the raw data shape what impact it has. As David Spiegelhalter has argued, while statisticians are ‘pedantically cautious…a lot of meaning has been imbued by people who want the numbers to support their argument’[3]
    1. This has been particular the case for politicians, who ‘love to throw around lots of big numbers, showing pretty graphs’ which creates a sometimes inaccurate and misleading “number theatre”.[4] Data are rarely looked at in isolation, but often merge with key events and narratives.[5]
  • What sources are the public using?
  • . As an example of direct use, the COVID-19 dashboard reports that‘it currently has over 300,000 unique users every day, and five million hits a week’. There are a small group monitoring the site each day ‘at 4pm, when we update the data’ with ‘around 10,000 people…online refreshing the page to see the latest totals’. How those monitoring then use the data is varied, as ‘users tell us they are even using the dashboard to make decisions about whether they should go on holiday to a certain area, visit a friend or get their hair cut’.[6]
    • The traditional media appear to be the main source for indirect data. Indirectly, according to OFCOM survey the public is regularly seeing COVID news, with  ‘more than eight in ten people (83%)…accessing news about Covid-19 at least once a day (vs. 99% in week one)’.
    • Social media and other sources are important, especially for younger users: For those ‘aged 16-24 were just as likely to recall seeing or hearing scientific information on COVID-19 on social media (44%) as through traditional broadcast media (45%)’.
    • Emphasis on formal and structured sources may overlook the effects and reach of secondary sources e.g. gossip, informal sources, or messaging[7] .There is some evidence, for example, of the public sourcing data directly from scientific journals.[8]
    • What is important is how the medium can shape what is seen. Depending on the sources, data may be seen in different ways, in raw form, as part of a story or ‘unbundled’ in a single tweet or message[9].

Misinformation

  • The COVID-19 pandemic ‘has unfolded alongside what the Director-General of the World Health Organization has termed an “infodemic” of misinformation’[10]This can be perpetuated by social media but is also amplified by the mainstream media and politicians.
    • One recent study found that ‘higher trust in scientist and higher numerical literacy’ were ‘associated with lower susceptibility to misinformation’[11]
    • According to the Ofcom survey in September 2020 ‘27% of respondents say they have come across false or misleading information about Covid-19 in the last week; there has been a gradual decrease from a peak of 50% in weeks three and five and from 46% in week one’.
    • Nevertheless, as Dr Dora Olivia-Vocal points out, misinformation is a feature of pandemics. It requires a combination of ‘trust and truth’ and ‘takes time, patience, and a long-term campaign’ to fight it[12]

One US study found that, while misinformation makes up a small amount of overall data, it can be amplified by the mainstream media and public figures[13]. It concluded that ‘the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation “infodemic”[14]

  • What do the Public Understand?
  • For data to have an effect it requires repetition and multiple reinforcement, and is often short-term in its impact[15]. Interpretation and understanding are frequently tied to prevailing narratives or high-profile events.
    • At an individual level, public response is shaped by ‘hazard and outrage’, as one study defines it. Emotional factors that shape understanding ‘include catastrophic potential, familiarity, understanding, scientific uncertainty, personal control, voluntariness, trust in institutions, and media attention’[16]
    • The Ofcom survey of September 2020 asked whether respondents agreed with the statement “I feel confident that I understand the statistics and data used to provide the number of coronavirus cases”. Just over half (52%) of respondents agreed with the statement and 22% disagreed. Male respondents were more likely (57%) than female respondents (47%) to agree with the statement.[18]
  • How open is the government being?
  • Public perceptions of how open or secret a government can be are often nuanced and shaped by various expectations and pre-existing views. One survey of government found some recognition of the need to keep thing secret and respect privacy[19]. Respondents argued that the government had to balance transparency with the need to avoid “panic”, “hysteria” or “civil unrest”, to ensure message simplicity, or simply because “scientifically, no one really knows what the ‘truth’ is yet”. However, some perspectives were linked to assessments of the government’s track record before Covid.
    • There were concerns around (i) how evidence used to make decisions (ii) ‘the balance of science against political or economic considerations’ and (iii) a belief that – ‘herd immunity’ was a hidden aim.
    • Certain data gaps can be seen where there is pressure from various groups for greater openness. These included
      • Decision-making advice and independence: Discussion on the independence and transparency of scientific advice -centring on the SAGE committee-effect of which seen in September publication on circuit breaking[20]
      • Resilience and readiness: Use of transparency mechanisms such as FOI to open up the findings of Operation Cygnus
      • Contracts and outsourcing: Use of judicial review to open the findings of Operation Cygnus or paying of contracts for Track and Trace
      • Debates have also opened elsewhere on everything from Algorithm transparency following the A-level and GCSE controversy to, perhaps most importantly, around personal privacy and data.
  • Data and Trust
  • Transparency has often been a key to building trust and legitimacy. The two exists in mutually reinforcing or worsening relationship, and the effect of data may depend on the levels of trust and vice versa.
    • The difficult for COVID is that the multiple sources have different levels of trust. It appears that scientists remain supported and trusted[21]. Major broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky have consistently been the most common source of such information (for 59%). They are also among the most trusted sources.[22]
    • Politician were initially aided by ‘rally around the flag’ effect [23].  This has now faded and greater scepticism. There was a fall in trust in politicians after March-April and a large drop again in April-May[24]. By September 2020 detailed study concluded that ‘citizens granted the government considerable trust at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but that has started to fray in response to perceived confusion and mismanagement.’[25] Key events that may have shaped data include concerns over the timing of the lockdown and PPE shortages.
  • What should happen with data post-Covid?
  • Data is crucial in linking to support for vaccines or following guidance[26] A survey by the Open knowledge Foundation offered some potential pointers:
  • 97% believe it is important that COVID-19 data is openly available for people to check
  • 67% believe all COVID-19 related research and data should be made open for anyone to use freely
  • 64% are now more likely to listen expert advice from qualified scientists and researchers
  • 63% believe a government data strategy would have helped in the fight against COVID-19[27].

[1]

[2] Even death https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2020/08/12/behind-the-headlines-counting-covid-19-deaths/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/31/politicians-covid-19-statistics-statisticians

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/31/politicians-covid-19-statistics-statisticians

[5] See https://ukandeu.ac.uk/public-trust-and-covid-19/

[6] Data dashboard https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/04/the-covid-19-dashboard-bringing-together-data-and-statistics-in-one-place/

[7] See Birchall 2012.

[8] See https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ukri-research-how-has-covid-19-affected-trust-scientists

[9] Jungherr et al

[10] Quoted from See Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.Cornell working paper https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Evanega-et-al-Coronavirus-misinformation-submitted_07_23_20.pdf

[11] Roozenbeek Jon, Schneider Claudia R., Dryhurst Sarah, Kerr John, Freeman Alexandra L. J., Recchia Gabriel, van der Bles Anne Marthe and van der Linden Sander 2020Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the worldR. Soc. open sci.7201199

http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.201199

[12] see How can we fight bad information about health?

28 MAY 2020 | DR. DORA-OLIVIA VICOL https://fullfact.org/blog/2020/may/health-misinformation/

[13] See Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.Cornell working paper https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Evanega-et-al-Coronavirus-misinformation-submitted_07_23_20.pdf

[14] See Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.Cornell working paper

[15] see Jungerr et al (2020).

[16] See Kristen M C Malecki, Julie A Keating, Nasia Safdar, Crisis Communication and Public Perception of COVID-19 Risk in the Era of Social Media, Clinical Infectious Diseases, ciaa758,

[17] See Podkul, A., Vittert, L., Tranter, S., & Alduncin, A. (2020). The Coronavirus Exponential: A Preliminary Investigation into the Public’s Understanding. Harvard Data Science Review. https://doi.org/10.1162/99608f92.fec69745 https://hdsr.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/imsfxwvi/release/1

[18] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/tv-radio-and-on-demand/news-media/coronavirus-news-consumption-attitudes-behaviour

[19] Trust and Transparency in times of Crisis: Results from an Online Survey During the First Wave (April 2020) of the COVID-19 Epidemic in the UK

[20] https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2020/06/16/nyasha-weinberg-and-claudia-pagliari-covid-19-reveals-the-need-to-review-the-transparency-and-independence-of-scientific-advice/

[21] See https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ukri-research-how-has-covid-19-affected-trust-scientists

[22] See https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ukri-research-how-has-covid-19-affected-trust-scientists

[23] See Jennings, W et al (2020) UK in a Changing Europe, ‘Will getting Brexit done restore political trust?’ https://ukandeu.ac.uk/government-losing-trust-over-handling-of-covid-19-and-potentially-brexit-new-academic-report-finds/

[24] https://www.opinium.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Opinium-Political-Report-1st-April.pdf  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/01/public-trust-in-uk-government-over-coronavirus-falls-sharply

[25] See Jennings, W et al (2020) UK in a Changing Europe, ‘Will getting Brexit done restore political trust?’ https://ukandeu.ac.uk/government-losing-trust-over-handling-of-covid-19-and-potentially-brexit-new-academic-report-finds/

[26] See Roozenbeek Jon, Schneider Claudia R., Dryhurst Sarah, Kerr John, Freeman Alexandra L. J., Recchia Gabriel, van der Bles Anne Marthe and van der Linden Sander 2020 Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the worldR. Soc. open sci.7201199

http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.201199

[27] May 2020 https://okfn.org/about/press/releases/brits-demand-openness-government-tackling-coronavirus-new-opinion-poll/


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Who’s asking the Commons? Requests to the House of Commons

To celebrate international Right to Know day, here’s some work in progress. As part of our project we have analysed 4 years of FOI requests to the House of Commons. Here’s what we found. This is very much a work in progress…

Just to note, I coded these in an open way, using the information available from the request log, which can be quite brief. Also, just because it’s requested doesn’t mean it isn’t already available.Certain areas are already published e.g. data on Pests and spending on Christmas events, as you can see here.

Overview

  • Most requests are ‘institutional’ as oppose to about members, and most requests are ‘micro-political’ and focused in a ‘narrow’ way. The requests that focus on members are more about ‘groups’ of members than ‘individuals’.
Total requests  2305
Institution  1515
Group  293
Individual  157
Speaker/Deputy  84
N/A (but not clear in some of these cases with section 21 or section 14 used)  184
  • Many of the issues raised are inspired by controversy already in the media (such as expenses, bullying).
  • Some high profile institutions or people within the Commons also attract attention e.g. the Office of the Speaker attracts considerable numbers of requests, possibly because of the controversial nature of the speaker himself at the time (John Bercow).
  • Requests about law-making or policy are less rare than the Lords, though again there is focus on certain specific laws.
  • The requests around ‘process’ concern expenses, lobbying and other activities.
  • Many requests inspired by, and reinforce, ‘elitist’ style narratives and the idea of the privileged nature of MPs e.g. finance, expenses etc
  • Certain series of topics are often getting at something wider:
    • Requests about passes are about access/lobbying
    • Requests about alcohol about elitism/behaviour (see the one on sales of alcohol before one of the meaningful votes)
    • Requests about complaints are about bullying
    • Website visits are about inappropriate behaviour

Category 1: Institutional requests

  • The largest category is ‘HR’ but this goes from broad cross-institutional data on employment practices to questions around representation (ethnicity or gender of staff or members) to controversy or specific complaints e.g. NDAs, bullying, complaints that reflects back on MPs. This played into the recent row around MPs doing unconscious bias training.
  • The ‘process’ of rules or how things function goes from the small and minor (room booking) to major (how to remove the speaker).
  • Select committees are confidential but there’s a focused interest on certain witnesses or pieces of evidence, as well as potentially revealing/controversial correspondence.
  • On laws and law-making, requests are often specific or historical but can be sensitive e.g. on Royal Assent (see FOI and pocket veto controversy) or wider importance e.g. requests for failed PMBs.
  • Costs again cover a very wide area with a focus on catering (this category also rolls in spending, which is often on bars etc).
  • Requests for correspondence often seem to be hunting or trawling for controversy or sensitivity e.g. Trump, EU Ref etc. This was especially the case in 2019 with request for correspondence between speaker and clerks over Grieve amendment and amendment to Brexit Agreement (both s.34). Number of sensitive areas including ‘table office and MPs’.
CategoryNumberExamples
HR141Wages, representation, 4 on the bullying hotline 2 on compensation
Procedures124From small scale (e.g. Room booking, guidance for new MPs) to larger issues on PMQs and motions to remove Speaker.
Select Committees109Proceedings, particular evidence or correspondence with groups or bodies
Law and legislation97Often very specific e.g. copies of text of the Act of Union, Folkestone Harbour Act 1992. Some more political, such as delays to laws because of Brexit, failed PMBs or bills being ‘filibustered’-2 on royal assent.
Costs83From WQs to pest control. 7 on restoration, 4 serjeant at arms, 4 uniforms 1 vellum, 1 on answering PQs to MPs, 5 catering and also on specific schemes and events e.g. vote 100 celebrations
Correspondence78Communications with Table office and MPs, Black Rod and Mayor of London, MPs over EU ref result to Pokemon Go. Especially in 2019 with request for correspondence between speaker and clerks over Grieve amendment…and amendment to Brexit Agreement (both s.34).
Complainst44Bullying, catering to anti-Catholicism
Spending43Includes 10 on alcohol consumption
Passes39Revoked, refused and 4 on sponsored by political parties. 9 on passes held by ex/former MPs
Petitions/E-petitions33From numbers/statistics and staff to specific petitions and incidents
Catering33Includes complainst
Websites33Blocked, pornographic but also Brexit?
Alcohol33Spending by MPs, alcohol, cost and alcohol consumed before/after ‘meaningful vote’
FOI27inc section 36, asking about request and four about section 34 and operation [NB section 34 is House of Commons unique exclusion power for requests that potentially undermine privilege]
APPG23Specific groups, lists and minutes-one on complaints?
Contracts22R and R or IT to stationary
Bullying174 bullying, 13 hotline, staff complaints etc
Clerks13

PCS12Requests about investigations by the Standards Commissioner

Sensitive/protected areas are the focus of some requests, including

  • APPGs which are often linked to lobbying but are partially transparent now
  • Certain parts of internal correspondence e.g. Table office  and MPs, Clerk and Speaker
  • Select Committees
  • Clerks
  • Law-making e.g. royal assent

Category 2: Groups of MPs

  • Voting is the biggest category-despite being proactively available on other sites. Though some are ‘political’ and Brexit there are 2 on animal rights, Leveson and others less so.
  • The focus on expenses and bills carry an ‘ethical’ angle-and the media run ‘bar bills’ and ‘debts’ stories.
  • There are a series of representation questions- four on Scottish’ MPs as a group. There’s also a stream of requests on MPs identity more broadly e.g. nationality and ‘languages’.
  • There are some requests on political parties i.e. 2 on parties use ‘short money’ and SNP travel
  • A small number encroach very much on private issues e.g. MPs with a disability, schooling of children.
CategoryNumberNotes
Voted/voting21Includes voting on article 50, Brexit deal and a pay rise. One on Conservative leadership contest and one on MPs who ‘voted against wishes of constituents’.  
Cost14From taxi use to written questions
Expenses9In EU referendum, SNP MPs and repayment
Bills (as in money)6bills unpaid/oustanding debts
Private6Includes education background of MPs, disability, suicide, on  ‘detachment of earning orders for child maintenance against salaries’ and on schools attended by children
Groups   6Membership of the ERG, Friends of Israel and Conservative Way Forward
Criminal records5MPs with criminal convictions
Family/family members5Family employed
Meetings5 
Representation41 on Scottish MPs representing Welsh and English constituencies, 1 on female MPs since 1959, 1 on BAME and female MPs, 1 North East MPs,
Nationality/ID 7on nationality Birth place and language spoken
Language classes4 
Party5On Labour and SNP short money spending, on business interests of Conservative MPs, SNP expenses, SNP travel
Background   3MPs with previous career in legal, emergency services, armed services
Misconduct3‘breaching Nolan principles or breaking oath’, defend against charges using PP
Constituency33 running regular surgeries, rules and procedures
Passes3inc 1 parters 1 spoeses
Legislative activity,32 inquiry to HoC library, WQs
Viewed Brexit studies statements2Note: these were the Brexit impact studies-turned out very few viewed them
Whips2Briefings to MPs and whips influencing votes
Scottish44 including travel

Interestingly some of this data is already published such as on MPs taking language courses , former MPs with passes or on so-called ‘short money’ (money for opposition parties).

These then become stories in interesting ways with, for example, stories that taxpayers ‘subsidise MPs’ hobbies’ in 2018 and in 2017. A few weeks ago a ruling by the ICO also dug deeper into ex-MPs passes, finding that they were used over 2,500 times.

Category 3: Individual MPs

  • Focused on expenses as the largest issue, despite being available already via IPSA (see this great interactive map).
  • Legislative activity encompasses a broad range of actives
  • Constituent/constituency requests, despite being protected under FOI, cover a series of focused issues.
CategoryNumberNotes
Expenses15 
Legislative activity11Voting (one in general and one voting to leave), if signed EDM, name taken off EDM 2, PMB 1 and withdrawal from SC 1, WQs submitted 3, amendments to govt legislation tabled
Interests8inc financial and 2 x register and 1 golf club membership
PCS6 
Room bookings5booking for specific events
Complaints5 
Constituent4On correspondence,  mail out cost on FOI
Vote/voting4 inc on cooper bill
Investigation3 
Constituency2On file destruction and details on constituency
Travel2 
Breach of standards or behaviour2 
Investigation3 
Names of staff3 
Private5If have a  panic room, date of birth, diary inc work log outlook calendar

Speaker

  • Number of FOI requests about the speaker [nb is it because he had been particularly controversial]?
  • Largest number over correspondence (both trawling and looking at sensitive issues within Westminster) and was as advice and briefings
  • Controversy over bullying-see NDAs and Complaints
CategoryNumberNotes
Correspondence248 of which relating to MPs
Complaints8 
Spending7 
Costs6 
Travel4 
Advice/briefings4 
expenses3 
NDAs2 
Police2 
Art2 
FOI 341 
Speaker views and statements on leaving the EU 1  1 

Requests withheld under S34 to protect Parliamentary privilege (certificate signed by the Speaker)

S34 used 107 times (sometimes in conjunction with others).

  • Correspondence about amendment to Brexit Agreement                                                                                                                             
  • Correspondence between Speaker & Clerks about ‘Grieve’ amendment                                                                                                                 
  • Legal advice to Speaker on Grieve amendment                                                                                 
  • Speaker & Clerk communication about amendments
  • Inc investigations and SCs.


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New paper: ‘More than a decade in the making: A study of the implementation of India’s Right to Information Act’.

what_is_rti

More than a decade in the making: A study of the implementation of India’s Right to Information Act 

Authors: Jeannine E.RellyaMd. FazleRabbibMeghnaSabharwalbRajdeepPakanaticEthan H.Schwalbed

Abstract

India’s progressive Right to Information Act (RTIA) is a global model. The RTIA was adopted a decade and a half ago to serve as a check on corruption and to advance democracy, citizen equity and public accountability. Little primary research has been conducted on the implementation of the RTIA. This research employs a socio-political and technocratic framework to study influences on RTIA implementation over time from the citizen requester ‘demand-side’ and the governmental ‘supply-side’ from an institutional development process perspective.

Our constructivist approach utilizes in-depth semi-structured interviews from frequent information requesters and information commissioners (N = 114) and a new dataset of a random stratified sample of information commissioner decisions for release of information under the RTIA (N = 500). We found that political will, bureaucratic culture, and societal activism and engagement were the strongest overarching socio-political factors impacting implementation. Socio-political subfactors that appeared weak or wanting in the RTI regime were leadership, oversight, coordination, positive workplace incentives, reflexivity, and public information officer communication style with citizen requesters. Technocratic constraints, directly influenced by socio-political factors that impact implementation, included follow-through on administrative policies and rules, capacity building, monitoring, oversight, and sanctions.

This study found that technocratic factors included in the institutional design of RTI legislation may not be sufficient for short-term institutional change in cultures of bureaucratic secrecy. However, coalitions of citizens, civil society organizations, media, engaged public officials, and interested politicians can drive a transparency agenda in a country when political will and bureaucratic leadership are weak.

 

Highlights

-Technocratic factors embedded in the Indian Right-to-Information Act may be insufficient for bureaucratic change.

-Right-to-Information coalitions can drive a transparency agenda in a country when political will and bureaucratic leadership are weak.

-Professionalizing information-access public sector work requires training and incentives – resources beyond mere political commitment.

 

Relly, J. E., Rabbi, M. F., Sabharwal, M., Pakanati, R., & Schwalbe, E. H. (2020). More than a decade in the making: A study of the implementation of India’s Right to Information Act. World Development136, 105088. see the paper here .

Image from RTI wiki


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How data-driven democracy both helps and hinders politics

parliament_maurice

Much data relating to parliament is now being collected and made available for anyone to access. Does this monitoring mean more democracy? Ben Worthy and Stefani Langehennig argue that the resulting numbers often lack context and so feed into subjective narratives. If you have used Parliament data, please help with the project survey here.

We live in a data-driven democracy, never more than now. Our eyes are locked on graphs, measures and comparisons, and an unending stream of data offers ways of making sense of and quantifying the political world around us. Yet our faith in the ‘transparency of numbers’ might be misplaced. Layers of biases, uncertainties and inequalities lurk beneath the clarity they offer.

One target of this data-gathering is Westminster, which is what our new Leverhume Trust project looks at. The project combines analysis of media stories and social media with case studies and surveys to map out who is using all of this data and what impact it is having, both on those being watched and those doing the watching.

You can now easily measure, analyse and compare what MPs and peers are doing. For any curious citizen, there is now a whole raft of data sources about how elected and unelected members vote, how they use their expenses, or what they do or don’t do outside their political role. Postcode look ups, where you can find which way your MP went in key votes, are now a regular feature. New sites analyse and update members ‘expenses and register of interests data.

The data creates a set of benchmarks and measures, and a kind of ecosystem of political monitoring. They are often used as a shortcut to tell us about individual politicians we don’t know, and to get a sense of where they stand, or stood, on various issues. It creates a trail of accountability that can come to haunt politicians, as seen recently with controversy over who voted against pay rises for the public sector in 2017. It also opens up the group dynamics of blocs of MPs and can tell us, for example, who blocked Brexit (not who you think).

But how much transparency does it really offer? The first problem is that numbers over-simplify a complicated world. Quantification, measures and numbers offer us the illusion of certainty. Voting for or against something can be far from simple. The website that provides this data itself warns that ‘bit more subjectivity comes into play’ in interpreting voting decisions. Take Huw Merriman’s explanation of the contortions members faced in the Brexit vote in April 2019:

I passionately believe that we have to follow the 2016 referendum result, even though I voted remain. I voted for the triggering of article 50, to keep no deal on the table, against a second referendum and against a long delay to our exit date. My voting record in Parliament reflects the will of the British people…anything else would lead to huge mistrust in our political system.

Much of what MPs do is hidden or very difficult to quantify. There is no comparable data, for example, on how many constituency surgeries MPs hold, and we can only see on social media or the local press what they do in their communities. Even in Westminster, valuable work in committees or bending ministerial ears is necessarily out of sight.

The second problem is that objective numbers lead to subjective judgment. Data makes lists and comparisons easy – almost too easy. Any benchmark risks slipping from describing something to making a moral judgement about it. Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record either proves he was ‘on the right side of history’ or would ‘make Thatcher proud’, depending on your taste. Data on expenses can tell us who is the ‘worst abuser’ or who claimed the least (22p for a banana, before you ask). But what is a good level of expenses use and what does that tell us? Even the public sector pay vote is more complex than it looks and, as Full Fact pointed out ‘needs some context’ as did the £10,000 pay rise that was for office costs.

The judgment itself is skewed. Female MPs suffered more from the expenses crisis. The Sun had to apologise to one female MP on its list of ‘lazy’ MPs. The House of Commons was concerned that well-off MPs could afford not to claim any expenses, while less wealthy had to – and risk criticism. Even more complex is the House of Lords, where everything the data reveals is bound up in the slow-burn question of the ‘other places’ legitimacy, role and reform.

The final problem is that these measures become ‘Engines of Anxiety‘ for those being watched, who then react accordingly. Can you game the numbers? It’s often said Written Question numbers shot up when TheyWorkForYou used it as measure of activity. Nick De Bois MP pointed out how speaking in the House was done:

Sometimes…so you can enlighten constituents on your position on any given issue. Either that, or because it’s not a good thing to have against your name ‘Below-average number of speeches in the House of Commons’ on that pesky ‘They Work for You’ website, which relentlessly measures how active you are in the chamber.

The danger is that these new tools help and hinder politics, a problem of numbers versus narrative. Taken together, this data creates a kind of continuous scrutiny, which constantly expands. Beyond expenses you can see, for example, which former MPs still have Parliamentary passes or even if someone with a Parliament IP address has made changes to Wikipedia.

The numbers help the public to know and understand more, more simply and make it easier to hold politicians to account. Yet the numbers themselves are trapped in a narrative, a familiar story of expenses, interests and black and white views. The danger is that our new data-driven democracy reinforces an age-old tale about politicians.

_________________

Note: the project on which the above draws is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. If you have used Parliament data, please help with the project survey here.

Originally published on the LSE Policy and Politics blog here


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Is there A Chilling Effect? Lessons from RHI Inquiry

Stormont_Parliamentary_Building_01

One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that FOI laws could create an incentive to hide instead of open up. Could the presence of such laws lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? The particular concern is that openness laws might empty out the official record, so that meetings go un-minuted, conversations go unrecorded and that important audit trails simply disappear. Even where it goes on, this so-called ‘Chilling Effect’ is notoriously hard to prove.

This was one of the many concerns coming out of the RHI scandal. Back in March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service admitted that ‘the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution’ and mentioned FOI specifically as a factor.

The report itself now offers some more interesting detail as to what ‘chilling effect’ happened and, more importantly, why. Chapter 52 looks at this, with the most important reflections coming from David Sterling, Head of the Civil Service. He, and others, make it clear repeatedly that minutes and records were always kept in accordance with the official guidance. Or, at least, almost always:

“Now, on occasions, there would be discussions between Minister and officials that may not be minuted, but I think my view would always be that the ultimate decision needs to be reflected in a submission so there’s a clear record of what considerations the Minister took and what the final decision was and why it was taken.”

Stirling made it clear that ‘during the long period of direct rule in Northern Ireland, there would have been pretty firm adherence to the Guidance’. However, this then changed. He ‘explained that an unwritten custom and practice had developed over recent years’ where some gaps appeared and practices slipped. This change seems to be quite recent, and is dated to around 2008, when power came back to Northern Ireland.

According to Stirling, there’s a few arguments as to why this slippage over records happened. It’s worth unravelling them. Here’s argument one, the ‘safe space’:

…but Ministers like to have space, safe space, where they can consider difficult things, think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded. A feature of the devolved Administration here has been that the two main parties have been sensitive to criticism, and I think that it’s in that context that, as a Senior Civil Service, we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis that it is safer sometimes not to have a record that, for example, might be released under freedom of information which shows that things that might have been considered unpopular were being considered.”

So this was about ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and the political sensitivity of not being seen, known or proved to have said anything too controversial. This is rather a classic one, with the phrase ‘safe space’ dating back at least to discussion over Officials Secrets Act reform in the 1970s. Here, interestingly, the chilling is directly linked to the possibility of an FOI.

Argument two, what I’ll call the ‘waste of time’ doctrine, then drifts away from FOI towards a point about processes, and is really about how decision-making processes actually work. When ‘questioned further about his reference to the Freedom of Information Act, and asked whether there was a conscious decision to reduce minuting and “dumb down” the routine practice, Mr Sterling said’:

“The absence of routine minuting of all meetings with Minister, that wasn’t a conscious dumbing-down at all. I think it’s largely a reflection of just the changed circumstances in which we were working. So, for example, again I drew a distinction with, or the contrast with, working in direct rule, where you wouldn’t have seen your Minister very often. Now, you were in much more regular daily contact with Minister and adviser, and I would’ve encouraged openness between Minister, adviser and officials….My view was that you get more efficient policy development if policy teams are talking to the special adviser and, indeed, the Minister, at a very early stage in the policy development process. You know, there’s no greater waste of time than a policy team going away, dreaming up some great policy idea, sending in a 20-page submission, and the Minister says, “This is nonsense. I can’t run with this.” So, we did have a much more fluid involvement and engagement between Minister and adviser, and I think that’s a good thing. But I think one of the consequences of that is it becomes more difficult to apply the rigid disciplines of minuting every meeting.”

Argument three, the ‘quick word’, then drifts a little bit further still, to being a point about informality and relationships. Here ‘Mr Sterling said that the pace of day-to-day life had increased exponentially since 2008… civil servant might have been called up at short notice for a “quick word” or the civil servant might have asked the Private Secretary for a “quick word” with the Minister’.

So what we have is a series of bundled up arguments. Working backwards, there’s the reasonably innocent idea that it’s hard to decide when a meeting is a meeting or when it’s a quick word in the corridor. There’s another one, reasonable-ish, that time shouldn’t be wasted assembling big outlandish ideas that won’t fly. These are a bit of a problem because they muddy the waters ‘the Inquiry pointed out that ‘with an unwritten custom…it might become very difficult for an individual to decide where the boundary might lie as to when a minute should be recorded and when not’.

But hidden among these understandable points, in argument one, is the claim that politicians don’t record what’s discussed because they might be unpopular or a problem.  This is a very serious democratic issue. It undermines the spirit and point of FOI, and the right of access that it creates. If there’s no record then there’s no accountability and no proof.

The report also asks how widespread this all is. Mr Sterling ‘emphasised that it was important not to draw conclusions as to the general practice from this particular scheme’. However, the use of the words like ‘unwritten custom and practice’, ‘developed’ and ‘habit’ indicate this is something that has spread, or is at least spreading. The fact that no one queried the non-existence of minutes could be another sign that this was common. The report itself concluded that ‘there can be little doubt but that such approaches became more frequent after devolution’ with at least two key meetings ‘of 14 June 2011, as well as the conversation relating to the Ofgem warning with regard to cost controls in June 2012’ taking place. It flags up at least one more such problematic area, the ‘Bioscience and Technology Institute project’ (considered further in chapter 55).

Stepping back, what we see in Belfast is part of a more worrying trend. Examples have been springing up of resistance and avoidance from Edinburgh to Washington. It seems there’s a group of officials on Pennsylvania Avenue who are sellotaping Trump’s shredded documents back together. In 2018, the Scottish Information Commissioner concluded that the Scottish executive had engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics [with] requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. In 2012 Michael Gove using a private email address for public business (as urged by his then advisor Dominic Cummings). The conclusion is a depressing one. A chilling seems to be happening, and it is going on at the very top of government.

 


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Light and Shadows: The RHI Scandal and the Temptations of Secrecy

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Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if it’s done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then advisor Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in “deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons”. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a Select Committee in 2012 concluded there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam Macbride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns “the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy”. However, the FAQ goes on, “how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern”. You can see the background here and a timeline.

Put simply, the ‘tiering’ system, controls and review in place in the Westminster version of the RHI law were removed when it was applied to Northern Ireland in 2012. This helped create a system of perverse incentives whereby fuel cost less than the subsidy.

What was trumpeted as a popular policy was actually one running out of control, based on some very questionable assumptions as to who would pay. Though by no means all those signed up gamed the system, non-domestic properties could potentially do so and there was a rush to sign up. The cost could be around an estimated £700m over 20 years. Rumours spread of biomass boilers being run 24 hours day in hotels, and poultry farms with windows and doors open. The policy was allowed to run for far too long, despite whistleblowers trying in vain to warn all who would listen and growing evidence of its unintended and exorbitant consequences. It was then thrown into reverse in a panic before being partially (and poorly) covered up. In 2018 the scandal was subject to a 111 day inquiry. The final report is due soon.

Sam McBride’s new book reveals a complicated web of conspiracy, dysfunction and secrecy. The major concern is how bare the official record is. Official meetings were simply not recorded, with key meetings left purposely unminuted by both Sinn Fein and the DUP. In March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service admitted that “the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution”. The BBC quoted him as saying:

Ministers liked to have a safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded [and] the DUP and Sinn Féin were sensitive to criticism and in that context, senior civil servants had “got into the habit” of not recording all meetings.

He said this was done on the basis that it was sometimes “safer” not to have a record which might be released under Freedom of Information. Arlene Foster denied this happened.

Not only were there few official records, but a hidden, parallel decision-making system appeared to exist. Key decisions were made outside of official channels, via mobile texts and private or party emails (with a later refusal to give them up). Contacts with key stakeholders outside of government went either unrecorded or took place in very odd places, with one SPAD meeting, seemingly accidentally, one businessman who he spotted in a neighbouring field.  One advisor to Arlene Foster ‘had a system whereby he passed “political” messages to Mrs Foster on Post-It notes which were immediately binned and thus could not be released under FoI’. Because of this void where the record should be, we still can’t answer the central question: why were the checks and monitoring cut out of the legislation?

At the same time, there was also an extraordinary attitude to the circulation of what documents there were. One SPAD emailed confidential documents to their relatives. Anonymous tip off emails were sent to the press designed to put them off the scent. One Minister did not know his own official email address and, when asked to give it, gave one of his advisor’s unofficial party accounts.

As with most scandals, the cover-up then exacerbated the crime. Even when the policy was thrown into reverse, the internal investigation was done on the telephone, also seemingly to avoid a formal record. There was a long battle to release the list of RHI beneficiaries, finally released as a pdf.  A full, wide ranging inquiry was also fought against.

It’s not clear to what extent all of this behaviour was habit, sheer dysfunction or active conspiracy, and the truth, as the book shows, lies somewhere in-between. The ‘Spadocracy’ at Stormont had already led to advisors trying to block FOI requests.

Perhaps the key question is what good did it do? From one perspective the secrecy has given some politicians’ a plausible deniability, or at least a very thin veneer of it. There’s enough confusion and opacity not to be sure about exactly who did what, when and where.

If it was intended to provide full proof protection, it clearly hasn’t. The inquiry painstakingly pieced together witness statements, email trails (across different accounts) and messages. What has emerge so far has meant, as one analysis put it ‘RHI turning into a bonfire of the DUP’s reputation to do basic government.’

Nor could it be repeated under the new Stormont deal of January 2020. Page 12 of the deal commits to a raft of changes that include publishing details of Ministers’ meetings with external organisations, details of gifts and hospitality received by special advisers, and so on.

Alongside this, there will be a “robust, independent enforcement mechanism to deal with breaches of the Ministerial Code and related documents’ and ‘a dedicated sub-committee which will consider the findings of the RHI inquiry and propose further reforms”.

What’s more, the secrecy has also been deeply counter-productive. In our 2010 study of FOI in the UK, we found that officials generally feared the consequences of not having a record rather than having one. In Northern Ireland the record ‘void’ has left room for doubt and suspicion. While the lack of a record means politicians have been given some deniability, they can’t clear themselves either. If they can’t be found with a smoking gun, neither can they be truly exonerated.

 

Originally on the PQ blog here.


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How Well Do We Know Boris Johnson MP?

Johnson voting image

(Image from @svenshaw)

Stefani Langehennig and Ben Worthy

9 December 2019

MPs are now under the closest scrutiny, as their records, behaviour and actions are ruthlessly combed over. So what can we find out and what can it really tell us? Our new project looks at monitory democracy, the idea that a whole host of formal, informal and somewhere in-between bodies are scrutinising those in power, looking in particular at Westminster.

Take the example of Boris Johnson as an MP. In some ways, he’s a rather bad example, because as prime minister, there’s more scrutiny going on than your average MP, especially now. You can find out what gifts are given to PMs (this is May’s rather than Johnson’s, which are yet to be published) and who they’ve been meeting. But he’s also interesting because he seems somewhat averse to scrutiny, and is a good example of what different data can and can’t tell us about our elected politicians.

One obvious starting point for monitoring is Boris Johnson’s voting record. For MPs, it’s often used as a short-cut to get a sense of where they stand, their integrity, their honesty and what they may do in the future-see this comparison of Swinson, Corbyn and Johnson’s LGBT voting record. We can see where Johnson stood on some controversial issues: He voted strongly in support of Iraq war, and the hunting ban. He voted twice against May’s deal but backed it the third time around. Here’s a great example measuring up Johnson’s claim to have been against austerity to his record:

 Since returning as an MP in 2015, Johnson has consistently voted in support of austerity policies…He almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits [and] consistently voted for reducing central government funding for local authorities.

But this data doesn’t tell us the whole story. Johnson only backed May’s deal because he reached the ‘sad conclusion’ that he had to. He supported the Iraq War but later supported investigations into it, which points to a change of mind (or at least the appearance of one). He was also, especially in his early years, a notorious absentee from many votes.

A browse of an MPs’ registers of interests is illuminating. For Johnson, it shows us that actually, like Churchill, he has used his pen and earned from it. You can also see political donations and his links to the pro-Brexit JCB, who contributed to his campaign and gave him helicopter flights. We can’t again know everything, especially given Committee on Standards chastised Johnson for his ‘over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’ for which he seemed to profusely apologise. Rumours abound of money from elsewhere, especially Russia.

The more determined monitors could use FOI, one monitory tool that can open up the sometimes grey area between public and private life. It famously helped open up MPs’ expenses. It came bounding into the General Election campaign when Corbyn held up documents, obtained under the Act, seemingly showing the NHS was for sale.

For Johnson, the Act has been used retrospectively to look into his  past, with the Guardian checking his Mayoral diary for meetings with Jennifer Arcuri or who he lobbied over his famous Garden Bridge. There’s now a whole range of monitory bodies and investigations weighing in on his time as Mayor, some of which have been put on hold while the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigates itself.

Such data can reveal and hide what our elected representatives are doing, as Marie Le Conte points out here. It doesn’t tell us about some of the hidden influences on members, such as the huge over-bearing influence of party or the pull of sheer ambition. The data can be read in various ways: is Johnson’s voting record journey from centrist liberal to hard core-Brexit or is it the work of a zig-zagging opportunist? Does his register tell us that is he a successful entrepreneur and writer or someone who just breaks rules?

But data offers us the opportunity to more comprehensively track the activities of our lawmakers and the public’s reaction to these actions. For example, tracking the behaviour of backbenchers uncovers strategies that significantly impact the outcomes of Brexit deals, while social media data suggests that an increasingly polarised public has fuelled politically-defining moments such as Brexit, as well as the rise of Boris Johnson.

These data provide the public the opportunity to hold lawmakers accountable in ways not available before. But whether it does make a difference may very much depend on who is watching.

Our preliminary analysis of followers of @TheyWorkForYou offers a glimpse of the types of followers who track it. Of the more than 4,000 followers, approximately 79 percent are everyday citizens that are engaged in monitoring their lawmakers. While much smaller, more than 4 percent of MPs serving in Westminster engage in monitoring their own legislative actions, while around 7 percent of are academics, charities, and other non-political public organisations. Are the public swapping memes of their MPs’ voting records as they prepare to vote? Are academics crunching voting numbers? And why, exactly, are MPs monitoring themselves?

Stefani Langehennig and Ben Worthy are working on a Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Who is watching Parliament?’ looking at how new data sources and web platforms have made it easier to monitor Parliament and its members. Image credit: see http://www.svenshaw.com/ 


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11 thoughts on Donald Trump, Transparency and Records

Donald_Trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_Keystone_XL_and_Dakota_Access_pipelinesDonald Trump with several fellow white supremacist colleagues staff

(i) Donald Trump’s tweets are presidential records.

(ii) If they are records, are they then Impeachable Tweets? This article argues that ‘Trump’s admissions on social media alone provide enough material for Congress to remove him’.

(iii) There are a group of officials in the white house taping Trump’s documents back together. This is probably worth repeating in italics: There are a group of officials in the white house taping Trump’s documents back together. This ‘painstaking process; is apparently the ‘result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.” So ‘armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.”

(iv) FOIA is getting worse in terms of response, delay and blocking.

(v)FOIA is not popular: AG William Barr complained, in a rather bizarre speech (does he make others?), about the ‘harassment’ of questions and subpoenas about these sill questions about whether the president was making illegal deals to undermine US democracy:

The costs of this constant harassment are real.  For example, we all understand that confidential communications and a private, internal deliberative process are essential for all of our branches of government to properly function.  Congress and the Judiciary know this well, as both have taken great pains to shield their own internal communications from public inspection.

He went on to complain that letting the public ask what was happening stopped government doing valuable work for the public. The people were getting in the way of the people.

There is no FOIA for Congress or the Courts. Yet Congress has happily created a regime that allows the public to seek whatever documents it wants from the Executive Branch at the same time that individual congressional committees spend their days trying to publicize the Executive’s internal decisional process. That process cannot function properly if it is public, nor is it productive to have our government devoting enormous resources to squabbling about what becomes public and when, rather than doing the work of the people.

(vi) FOIA is not popular part 2: Some hugely experienced officials and diplomats were assigned to FOIA duties as punishment and retaliation for their work with Obama, according to this IG report:

In two of the other four cases the IG investigated, career civil servants (“employees two and three”) alleged that Trump administration officials retaliated against them for their supposed ties to the previous administration and its policies. They did so by assigning them to rote administrative work reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests despite their extensive foreign policy experience and the utility they could have provided to a policy office.

(vii) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 1: emails have revealed Pompeo-Giuliani contacts. Everyone is being dragged into the vortex.

(viii) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 2: Watchdog Property of the People used FOIA to expose the fact that there were ‘about $138,000 in Department of Defense payments to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties, over $1,700 in General Services Administration payments to the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and other Trump properties’. These payments ‘are strong evidence of Trump’s violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause, and they belong in any forthcoming articles of impeachment’.

(viv) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 3: it has also opened up Trump’s real estate dealings.

(x) And I haven’t yet mentioned his tax returns that were subject to a new law in California (now struck down) and now await the verdict of the Supreme Court.

(xi) Or the fact that several members of his own family have been accused of evading records laws by using private emails. Including Stephen Miller, whose earlier email habits consisted of firing off far-right talking points.


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Evidence to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee

 

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You can watch me giving evidence to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee hearing on post-legislative scrutiny of the #FOI (Scotland) Act with Prof kevin_dunion, Dr karen McCullagh, alistair_sloan and Prof Colin Reid

https://www.scottishparliament.tv/meeting/public-audit-and-post-legislative-scrutiny-committee-october-3-2019


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Monitoring, Democracy and Citizens: Some thoughts

SWinson

 

Over the last decade a host of new formal and informal ‘political observatories’ watch and hold government to account (Schudson 2010). It has been argued that ‘scores of power-scrutinising and power-checking mechanisms’ create a ‘monitory democracy’, a ‘continuous surveillance’ by formal and informal bodies (watchdogs or observatories) which ‘keep arbitrary power on its toes…taming its excesses and evils’ (Keane 2018, 14).

These new ‘power-monitoring institutions’ draw on a growing armoury of low cost transparency tools (Schudson 2015, Keane 2009, Welzel and Dalton 2016). They range from formal, legal openness regulations all the way to the ‘radical transparency’ or ‘vigilantism’ of WikiLeaks. They can be general or targeted, sector-specific or body-specific. Some parts of the new system are made up of formal oversight bodies such as auditors or inspectors while others, such as Open Data, offer structured means of accessing government information and data. Others are more dynamic and less controlled instruments, from social media to mass leaks. Together these bodies form part of the ‘unending, never finished public business of scrutinising and restraining power’ (Keane 2018, 18).

Though it is has been created piecemeal since 1945, such monitoring has taken on a new force in the last few decades, powered by the growth of networks and the information revolution. Whether it is a new layer ‘atop’ the old institutions of representative democracy, exists in parallel or supplants it is unclear (Keane 2009: 2018). Keane argues that such monitoring replaces the ‘hollowed out’ older institutions and party systems and offers a new means  of checking power, over and above the static and limited accountability created by elections (see Mansbridge 2009).

The full effect of these hybrid formal and informal oversight bodies is to create a ‘permanent’ and ‘continuous’ oversight of government (see Hooghe, M., & Dejaeghere 2007; Schudson 2015, 237). They are closely related to Rosanvallon’s (2008) conceptions around ‘counter-democracy’ and the use of tools of ‘prevention’, ‘oversight’ and ‘judgement’ to counter institutional power.

Whether such activity is positive or negative remains a matter of some dispute, as does the question of whether such action merely ‘monitors’ government or becomes a true locus of ‘counter-availing’ democratic power. It is based around a series of assumptions around how institutions, and those monitoring and monitored behave, including the need for clear institutional narratives and relative civic agreement (Graves 2017).

Questions and issues for the project

Theory

The concept of monitory democracy is rather unclear and undeveloped in number of ways. First, for monitory democracy to have an effect requires a certain set of behaviours from those monitored. In terms of legislatures and MPs, their behaviour has always been ‘quasi performative’ and open (Pitkin 1974). The presentation of the ‘self’ has always been a ‘promissory note’ whereby members ‘stockpile explaining ammunition’ (Fenno 1978, 142). Voting data, for example, has always been a cause of concern for members of legislatures, who fear what a few well informed voters obsessed with an issue could do (Fenno 1978). So the new data may mean a greater loss of control, especially if it easier to access, but the effect may not be so different from the past. It also depends very much on who does or does not use this data. A member would be far more concerned if members of the local party or very strong supporters were critical than, for example opponents in the local area (Fenno 1978). Similarly, media exposes of ‘rebellion’ could cut-either way.

Second, the exact outcomes are rather hazy-labelled as a kind of continuous ‘accountability’, through exposure or anticipated reactions, as well as the creation of ‘humility’ and limits on political behaviour (Keane 2018). There has also been some challenge to the idea it is ‘continuous’ but instead is only ‘good enough’ (see Lucas 2017). It may also have the opposite effect, especially with a complex body like Westminster. As Strathern (2000) argues, ‘visibility conceals’ for example, the ‘real facts’ of how an organisation functions, such as relationships, networks, skills and ‘invisible processes’ (314). Monitoring can also, by Keane’s admission, cause ‘conflict’, delegitimise and be used to ‘muck rake’ (see Keane 2013).

Monitory democracy seeks scrutiny, restraint and accountability, but there may be a long and weak link between them. If monitoring has taken place how does it then turn into something that restrains? Much depends on if those tools exists or work. To bring about accountability, restraint or change at Westminster monitoring must lead to, for example, shifts in voting patterns, attempted removal by parties or through recall laws. In fact, two of the three uses of the new UK Recall Act 2015 were driven by a ‘monitorial’ exposure of expenses and register of interests respectively, while one MP’s voting record was mention formally at least in one local party attempt to remove them (Dominic Grieve). In this sense, monitor democracy is not so remote from central democratic ideas of (i) anticipatory (ii) reactive (iii) exposure and appears tangled up in older forms of representation (Weale 2004).

Third, one major area left unclear is the central idea of representation-what does the rise of monitory democracy, used potentially by unrepresentative groups, mean for who, or how an institution represents? Does monitory democracy mobilise too much bias?

An alternative approach that could be used is to conceptualise monitorial democracy more broadly as producing and exposing new lines of democratic conflict and new spirals of battles, mobilising and involvement (Schattschneider 1960). Conflict is inherent in democracy. The heart of this conflict is the ‘long standing struggle between the competing tendencies towards privatising and socialising of conflict’ (Schattschneider 1960, 7). Attempts at exposure or closure ‘creates a chain reaction’ with a ‘fight is difficult to contain’ as different sides famously ‘mobilise bias’ (Schattschneider 1960, 2). Monitory democracy does this far more quickly than in the past, and opens up new areas to scrutiny and conflict. Looking at it through this lens should allow a wider view of the positive and negative impact.