Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Freedom of Information: Who Gets What?


Below are some extracts from the Institute for Government’s 2014 Whitehall Monitor. You can see the full graphs and details here.

Who Gets What Requests?

MoJ received the most requests in 2014 Q2, closely followed by DWP. DWP went from one of a cluster of departments with the most requests to the clear frontrunner until a decline in the last quarter, while MoJ emerged from that cluster at the start of 2013.

HO and HMT have seen declines in requests since early 2013. DWP and DH both saw a spike in requests in 2012 Q1, DH nearly trebling its previous number.
It is possible that the increases in requests for specific departments are due to major (and controversial) reforms in those departments. Many requests are submitted by individuals about themselves – for example, to check how something will affect them or the status of a claim.

Who Peforms Best and Worst?

Bodies subject to FoI requests are required to respond within 20 working days. The Wales Office responded to all of its 23 requests ‘in time’ in 2014 Q2, closely followed by DH (488 out of 490), while DCLG was the worst performer in early 2014 but still responded on time to 80% of requests.

Who Witholds Most?

The departments responsible for the Government’s transparency agenda (CO) and FoI policy (MoJ) are among those with the highest percentage of requests where the relevant information is fully withheld and not provided to the applicant at all.
Figures since 2010 show FCO has granted only a small number of requests in full, while DfT has consistently provided full responses.
DH’s full disclosure rate plummeted in 2012 Q1 (when its number of requests spiked), while DfE’s has dropped from 82% in 2010 Q2 to 59% in 2014 Q2. HMRC, which had the highest percentage of fully withheld requests in the most recent quarter, fell from a full disclosure rate of 49% in 2010 Q2 to 27% in 2014 Q2

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Who Will Win in 2015?


1945-election-posterNot about Open Data but an interesting talk about the uncertainties in the UK 2015 General Election

Peter Kellner, expert pollster and President of YouGov, spoke to the Centre for British Politics and Public life last Wednesday. You can see some of YouGov’s latest polls here.

His talk is on a podcast here.

Peter spoke of how influential polls could be. He gave the example of the YouGov poll run by the Sun in August 2013 before proposed military intervention in Syria in 2013. This polling had a real impact on the subsequent debate and may have contributed to the narrow defeat of the vote on military action (or to put it more precisely, on the government motion).

Public opinion can also be fickle-see the changes here in public opinion over the War in Iraq and the fluctuation in the ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ column between 2002 and 2007 . The public can also get it wrong (see how mistaken we are about everything here). Peter spoke about the need for leadership and the fact that a leader’s job is to sometimes to tell people they are wrong. Immigration is good example-see this gap between perceptions and reality.

So how about the big question-who will win in 2015? In brief, it isn’t clear. Most elections are decided not by switches to Labour-Conservative but by undecided and Liberal-Democrat voters. However, for 2015 there is not one but, as Peter put it, 3 wildcards.

Wildcard 1: How will the Liberal Democrats do? We do not know whether or to what extent Liberal Democrats will suffer (or not) for being in government. Previous election results were based on Liberal Democrats as a ’third party’ and a ‘protest vote’. How many seats will they lose from their 57? Will they be down to 30? 20? Or will their famously efficient ground organisation machine save them? This analysis concludes ‘there are so many possibilities, you can make up your own mind what it all means’.

Wildcard 2 How will UKIP do? This is less about what seats they may capture-possibly 10 but more likely 4 to 6. More importantly, how may Labour versus Conservative seats will they throw in a particular direction? Here the number may be many more (see this blog by our own Eric Kaufmann and this analysis of UKIP support)

Wildcard 3: How will the Scottish National Party do? A recent YouGov poll gave the SNP an astonishing 19 point lead in Scotland, enough to capture 31 seats from Labour. Even if this does not happen, the SNP could capture enough of them to deprive Ed Miliband of victory. This is indeed Labour’s Scottish nightmare.

So these three wildcards may well shape who wins or loses, without mentioning even more complications such as the Greens, now polling higher than the Liberal-Democrats. The most likely result is some sort of ‘messy coalition’ made up of various parties of one combination or another. One thing is sure, as Peter puts it here, ‘Those days of decisive, first-past-the-post election outcomes might be over, at least for the time being’.

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The Tax Transparency Letter: Three Quick Questions


George Osborne has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ by offering to every house a detailed breakdown of where our tax goes-a kind of annual Where Does My Money Go[1] through our letter box. You can see some examples on the Treasury Flickr site here.

The Chancellor called it ‘a revolution in transparency and it will show how hardworking taxpayers have to pay for what governments spend’. It has been criticised as biased and self-serving and, of course, is just one of many ways of presenting how money is spent.

I just wanted to ask a few quick questions about the wider hopes for what the policy may do.

1.What Will the Public Think?

How people take in information is rather nuanced and complicated-more so that the rather simple ‘information=understanding’ chain that is presumed. Voters often display a negativity bias-as this paper explains they often punish poor performance but do not ‘reward good’. There are also delay effects as people think about things afterwards. How information is processed relates to our expectations and pre-dispositions-there was not a huge loss in trust in MPs during the expenses scandal because few trusted them beforehand.

2.Will They Trust What They Read?

There is low trust in politics, as we know (the headline here says it all). We may be rather cynical about leaflets and other political literature. There is also a lack of faith in statistics-interestingly, one of the key issues around the 2015 General Election is the public simply not feeling the economic growth they are told is taking place. The Treasury and HMRC may also not be the most popular or trusted of organisations-see these recent headlines here.

3. Will it Change Behaviour?

Finally, will this information change behaviour, particularly how an individual votes? Voting is a black box. One thing we do know is that information does not always play the role it could-again the MPs’ expenses is a good example. Despite clear evidence, voters did not or could not act on poor behaviour. This great paper explains how the public like having the opportunity to know more but may prefer others to do the research or accountability for them.

So the idea that we will read, judge and act is over-simplifying considerably what actually goes on. And this is all dependent on whether people actually read it.

[1] Enter your salary to see where your tax goes

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People Power: The Right to Information Act in India 2005-2013


India has now become, as Alasdair Roberts described it, a laboratory for studies of transparency. You can find out more about India’s development of RTI in Prashant Sharma’s great work here and his new book here.

Recently, RAAG/CES published a very comprehensive new report examining the impact of RTI in India 2011-2013 (following on from their previous one in 2008/2009). These studies are extremely important not only for their findings but their methodology and research approach, which includes a whole series of interviews, focus groups and requests. Below are a few of the many interesting findings-the full report is available here.

  • Users in India were overwhelming male (over 90 %) and urban (Raag/NCPRI 2009, 8).
  • Requesters are often professionals (61% coming from government or private sector) with only 3% from the unemployed.
  • There may be a somewhat different picture in the countryside where ‘a significant proportion’ of RTI requests come from ‘historically marginalised and weak groups’ including those below the poverty line or of a low caste.
  • However, rural requesters make up only 14 % of all requesters, despite representing 70% of India’s population (Raag/CES 2014, 61).
  • Numerous studies expressed concern at low levels of awareness of the existence of the legislation (Roberts 2010: Raag/NCPRI 2009). This does not mean benefits do not reach other groups but may shape the aims and emphasis of requests, and leave the system reliant on certain activists to push rights.
  • While 16 % of RTI requests are overtly aimed at expressing grievances many more are ‘disguised’ versions of the same thing (Raag/CES 2014, 2).
  • This spreading ‘politicised use’ cover food provision, pollution and in some cases, life or death issues of access to resources.
  • It is a ‘weapon of last resort’ for ‘failed governance’ (Raag/CEs 2014, 51-52).

Here’s some very brief comparisons with India and the UK (based on my own statistics and few guestimates):

Use of access to information legislation in India and the UK

India UK[1]
Estimated number of requests filed 2011-2012 2.3, 000,000 150,000
Estimated user groups Public and NGOs/Sangathans (and business?) Public, NGOs, media and business
‘Typical’ requester Male, middle class, urban Male, middle class, middle aged
High profile releases Commonwealth Games scandal 2010 MPs’ Expenses scandal 2009
Focus of requests Local and regional government Local government (70-80%)

(CHRI 2013a: Raag/NCPRI 2009: Hazell et al 2010: Worthy et al 2011)


Calland, Richard and Kristina Bentley (2013) ‘The Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives: Freedom of Information’ Development Policy Review, 2013, 31 (S1): s69-s87

CHRI (2013) The Use of Right to Information Laws in India: A Rapid Study Based on the Annual Reports of Information Commissions (2011‐12). Delhi: CHRI

Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group and Centre for Equity Studies (Raag/CES) (2014) Peoples’ Monitoring of the RTI Regime in India 2011-13. New Delhi: NCPRI see here

Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (Raag/NCPRI) (2009) Safeguarding the Right to Information – Report of the People’s RTI Assessment 2008. New Delhi: NCPRI see here

Roberts, Alasdair. (2010). ‘A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act’. Public Administration Review 70 (6), 925–933 see here

Sharma, P. (2014). Democracy and Transparency in the Indian State: The Making of the Right to Information Act. Routledge see here





[1] This is calculated through MOJ (2012a) statistics on use for central government of for that year added to estimated local government requests from the Constitution Unit survey of 2010 (with 20% added to estimate increase).