Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Lifting the Cloud? Donald Trump’s Secrecy Problem (part 2)

              (Cover of Time Magazine 18 May 2017)

Not all secrets are bad. Keeping secrets is part of what makes us who we are. As Sissela Bok pointed out, we want, expect and need some level of confidentiality in all sorts of areas of our life, from job interviews to juries.

Nor is the revealing of a secret necessarily bad for politicians. Revelations are not always damaging or destructive. Some can survive or even thrive after exposes. President Mitterrand shrugged of a series of damaging revelations from his past while Bill Clinton’s impeachment led to greater popularity. The danger for a politicians is when secrecy and exposure either reinforce commonly held (negative) perceptions about you (let’s call it the Cameron or Clinton effect) or makes you do stupid things (let’s call it the Nixon effect).

The Clinton/Cameron effect

In terms of the Clinton/Cameron effect, exposure hurts worst when it confirms what the public already knew rather than reveals something shocking. Bill Clinton was seen as a liar and a womaniser and the Lewinsky affair in 1996 told America probably what it knew (or should have known) already. Similarly Hilary’s email ‘scandal’ reinforced what many felt, namely that the Clinton’s were dishonest. David Cameron’s 2016 tangle over his tax affairs again reinforced the view that he was a super-rich elitist out of touch with the country-a revelation, according to Tim Shipman, that helped swing the Brexit referendum towards Leave.

For Donald Trump the latest wave of revelations about Russia and his tangled attempt to get out of it confirms a great deal that we already know. For example, what does his leaking of classified information tells us? Trump is utterly lacking in caution and possesses a truly astonishing talent for self-defeating actions. There’s an interesting side debate over how a President can simply declassify information at will but a more worrying discussion over how, in doing so, Trump may have now breached his oath of office. Taken together, his actions on the Russia scandal tell us something we know already: that Trump appears, by an objective measure, unfit to be President. And those close to him such as Jared Kuschner, are under deep suspicion. Even the T word now being bandied about.

The Nixon effect

The second effect is that the need to conceal leads to a series of mistakes that deepen the crisis. Think of David Cameron’s strange present tense denials or Clinton’s lying under oath. Even by the standards of an impulsive, inexperienced leader Trump’s response has been extraordinarily self-defeating. His every action, every tweet or comment sinks him deeper. As Nixon’s former Counsel pointed out, Trump’s actions are not those of someone innocent. Trump’s actions have probably taken him far into impeachment territory.

And now?

The question is what happens next. From one point of view the new special counsel could give Trump a respite. Perhaps a formal investigation will slow or stem the leaks that flow continually from, well, everywhere while? Could it be that the formal investigation gives everyone a break from Trump’s uncontrollably impulsive actions? For all the furore it’s unclear what power the counsel will have. More importantly for Trump the findings are secret.

In fact, though the Counsel’s investigation may be secret, its very secrecy makes it even more attractive and interesting. Any findings from the Counsel will not be leak proof and this administration has proved by far the leakiest in history. It is very unlikely any potential leaker or journalist could resist trying to get it. Nor will what the counsel discovers stay safe from Congress as their report can also be subpoenaed.

Gradually small pieces of a complex jigsaw are being gathered together. None of the small parts of the puzzle are wholly incriminating. It’s not even clear what the big secret is or if it even exists. But each is incriminating of something odd or not right. Elsewhere I wrote that Trump’s bizarre cover-up tactics meant there’d be so much smoke that the existence of any fire would become immaterial. Post-Comey it looks as though Trump is purposely starting bigger fires amid an already burning White House.

Now the talk of written evidence or captured conversations means there could be a detailed paper trail, as seen with Comey’s statement (some context here). Will Trump, a president created by virtual celebrity, fake news and ephemeral information, find his fate is sealed by formal documents and record trails? If the evidence doesn’t get him, the allegations and his impulsive responses probably will: Trump the self-incriminating president may well be Clintoned and Nixoned simultaneously.

(See part one here)


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FOI U-turn: Is the Government Getting Cold Feet?

U-turn-permitted-croppedIs the government, like so many others before it, considering a u-turn on FOI reform? According to the Sun it seems the  answer is yes. The Sun editorial quotes a ‘ senior Tory minister’ as saying ‘nobody in the Government wants to touch this now, it’s a very hot political potato’ and points out that the government itself has failed to present any evidence to the Commission. So why the cold feet?

  • Civil society has marshalled a large array of bodies and groups, as seen with 140 signatory letter earlier this year and is (presumably) responsible for the majority of the 30,000 submissions to the Commission.
  • Parliamentary arithmetic: there is opposition to FOI reform not only from Labour (who has launched its own review) and the SNP but the so called ‘Runnymeade Tories’, a group of up to 12 or so libertarian Conservative backbenchers. Should some of the changes require primary legislation, or even secondary change such as a statutory instrument (a touchy subject these days), David Davies speculated that it ‘may also have dawned on ministers is that they are have no majority to do this in either the Commons or the Lords’. Conservative Home, seen as the voice of the grassroots of the Conservative party, is also opposed to any change-and is actually pressuring to extend the Act.
  • Media opposition to change: papers from the Sun to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have joined the opposition, with the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre making a personal intervention.

For a party with a working majority of 17 in the Commons, no majority in an already unrully House of Lords and a Prime Minister committed to lead the most open government in the world, it’s beginning to seem that FOI reform simply isn’t worth the candle. The symbolic damage sustained by cutting back on FOI will do the government far more harm than good with some of their core constituencies in the party and media. The great 2015-2016 pushback may join a long list of other attempts that (almost) all failed: 

  • Introduce fees or change the cost limits (2006)
  • Remove Parliament (2007)
  • Removal of Monarch and Heir and exempt Cabinet documents (2010)
  • Clampdown on ‘industrial users’ (2012-2013)

That may not, however, stop other bodies trying to get out of FOI…


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Analysis of the Draft Italian Freedom of Information Law


See the Italian Draft Freedom of Information law here

Here is my analysis:


The legislation is clear, succinct and well-constructed. Particularly noteworthy are:

  • A strong and clear purpose clause at the outset, emphasising the importance of transparency to the workings of Italian democracy and access to information as a right. This is important in sending a signal to those working with the legislation of its importance and can also play a part in determining later legal rulings
  • The law is wide in applicability including a variety of public bodies and entities providing a public service.
  • There are clearly expressed exemptions and a public interest test mechanism.
  • There is a good oversight regime located in an already established body.
  • Importantly there is a clear sensitivity to data protection and privacy.

Thoughts on the Proposed Legislation

The Request

  • The request can normally be made by anyone with a valid email address.
  • The draft law states a ‘name and address’ but that could be clarified to explain it does not mean a residential place (i.e. home) but simply an email.
  • Some thought could be given to the form of requests, as the UK also now allows requests via social media-see page 22 of this guidance from the UK Information Commissioner.

The Appeal System

  • The appeal timelines may prove difficult to work in practice. The draft law gives a rather short time limit of 30 days. All FOI regimes are affected by delay and appeal systems particularly so. The danger with such a timeframe is that delay will build up and slow down the system with a detrimental effect on confidence.
  • Across different FOI regimes there is discussion as to whether any appeal body dealing with FOI should either (i) work closely with (ii) be the same body as that which oversees Data Protection appeals. Many appeals and complex requests concern the interaction/tension between the two principles.
  • There is also an issue of who the appeal system reports to e.g. is it government or the legislature. This may lend a body independence politically and help in terms of resources.

Duty to help and assist see UK

  • One very basic but helpful feature of an FOI law can be a statutory duty on authorities to assist requesters with their questions i.e. to help. See below for an example from the UK law where a body must ‘advise and assist’ e.g. in how to refine a request:

‘16 Duty to provide advice and assistance.

(1)It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it.

(2)Any public authority which, in relation to the provision of advice or assistance in any case, conforms with the code of practice under section 45 is to be taken to comply with the duty imposed by subsection (1) in relation to that case.

Pro-Active Publication

  • The draft law contains some interesting ideas on pro-active publication and how it can be promoted. The republication idea here is a good one.
  • Evidence from different systems points to ‘Publication Schemes’ (i.e. mandated searchable lists of available documents displayed by each public body) as being rather outdated and rarely used by the public.
  • One more promising feature are ‘disclosure logs’ whereby all previous requests and answers are listed and can be searched publically (also useful for the public body to be able to search for answers to repeat requests). Here is an example from the UK Ministry of Justice and this one from local government body Coventry City council which has a breakdown of topics and a search engine.
  • Many countries are also adopting central online portals for FOI-see the US central FOI computer system e.g. US FOIA portal or Mexican Federal tracking system.

Coverage of the Act: Covering new bodies

  • Many laws contain a power for Ministers to add new bodies to the legislation as they are created-see here for the section of the UK law
  • One body frequently discussed is Parliament. Many legislatures are partially covered for ‘administrative’ aspects of their work while the more party political aspects of their work and other confidential areas (e.g. correspondence between constituents and Members, the private work of committees) are restricted. In the UK the Speakers of both Chambers are given an exemption power to cover Parliamentary privilege (that is actually rarely used).
  • The President /Quirinale should also be covered. There may be a similar need to cover some potentially sensitive correspondence as happens elsewhere.
  • Other bodies of note include the police and health authorities.

Coverage of the Act: Private Bodies

  • This a key area as privatisation and public-private partnerships mean private companies carry out more and more public work.
  • Some FOI regimes actually cover of private bodies-both the Nigerian and South African laws cover private entities in certain situations. It is not clear how effective these parts of the legislation are or if they have significantly opened up private bodies.
  • India has a different approach where you can use the Act to find out if the government is investigating a particular body, and access the information that way- see this blog for a discussion.
  • The Irish FOI Act can potentially cover any body in receipt of ‘substantial’ funding from government.
  • UK has currently opted for the insertion of standard transparency clauses in contracts with providers. There are numerous other options-see this discussion document from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Oversight/Implementation [including thoughts on once the law is passed]

  • Separate from the appeal system, there is a need for a body to oversee implementation, particularly in the early years to promote the Act and ensure standards.
  • In New Zealand there was a specific body, the ‘Information Authority’, external to government that promoted the Act and provided guidance and information that was then disbanded after 5 years.
  • The UK had a body within the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs called the Information Clearing House that was more practical and dealt with compliance, requests across government and maintaining standards. Again, this was disbanded after a number of years.
  • It is important that public bodies maintain and publish statistics on use of the Act and requests made to them for monitoring purposes and to get a sense of how the Act is working.
  • A further important factor is to ensure political support, to persuade and create compliance, and gathering of evidence to offset concerns/anxiety among government. Frequently there are
    • Concerns over resource costs (often a camouflage for a political discussion-see this paper from Ireland and this from the UK Constitution Unit)
    • Concerns over decision-making and procedures (well protected decision-making exemptions/exclusions are the answer)
    • Concerns over ‘abuse’ (this is often centred on ‘vexatious’ requesters and journalists but here statistics and positive examples can help)
  • Publicity is important in raising awareness among the public and encouraging use-the Scottish Information Commissioner ran a series of TV advertisements to encourage use and India has a state run TV show on its Right to Information Act.
  • Legislation can also usefully be reviewed by Parliamentary Committees at certain intervals once the law is in place. In the UK, for example, a Parliamentary Select Committee reviewed the Act one year on and there was further detailed post-legislative scrutiny in 2012.

Further Links

  • Analysis of the Italian law by the Centre for Law and Democracy here
  • UK Post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee in 2012 see here.
  • Analysis of a number of older FOI regimes from 1999 based on the UK’s draft FOI see here.

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Which online tools can really help you decide how to vote?


The 2015 election has brought voters a plethora of helpful tools. Here’s how to use them. Away from the ground war in the streets and air war in the mainstream media, the 2015 election is, in many ways, an online affair. The parties are spending big on social media campaigns and even offering reward points to supporters for sharing content.

The election is also driving a whole new suite of online voting tools for voters.These new tools can help the electorate find out a great deal about an election, from basic information such as who is standing, to how your MP has voted and even the “power” of your vote. Here’s a selection of some of the top sites.

Who should I vote for?

Vote for Policies allows you to assess the policies of different parties “anonymously”. It offers you a list of policies in areas such as immigration, the economy or education, without telling you which party they belong to, and asks you to select which most applies to your views. It then tells you which party best reflects your answers.

A recent survey of the site found that 50% of users surveyed considered changing their vote after having used it – and a full 63% were surprised to discover which policy belonged to which party. And in the same vein, Who Gets My Vote offers a range of policies, one at a time, and asks if you agree or disagree with them.

If you’re looking for something with a little more local flavour, the crowdsourced database of 2015 candidates yournextmp offers a snapshot of everyone in your constituency who wants to be your MP and is running. It also contains links to their history in the area, Wikipedia mentions and their social media presence. It’s still under construction so keep checking.

Does my vote count?

Tools are also available to help you understand the local context of your vote too. The democratic dashboard tells you your local constituency results since 2005, to help you find out about how your party of choice has fared in the past before you cast your vote. It also includes information on the deprivation ranking of your local area and the amount being spent on campaigning there by different parties.

Perhaps most importantly, it also offers a voter power index, which explains how much your vote is worth. This tells me that my constituency is a fairly safe seat, so my vote has 0.29% (or a third) of the power of the one person one vote we are all supposed to have. This helps make the case for proportional representation, which is beginning to rumble again.

Are they worth my vote?

If you want to check up on how sitting MPs have performed during their time in Westminster, the famed TheyWorkforYou scrapes data on all sitting MPs. It can tell you how an MP has voted on issues that matter to you and what they have said in debates.

This site attracted record numbers at the 2010 election, including one in five users who said they had not previously engaged in politics. You could even cross reference what you find out on this site with the information available on public whip to see who voted the way you would like in the House of Commons.

And if you want to see if your local candidate is making promises they can’t keep or maybe playing fast and loose with the truth, you can use Full Fact to see if their policies bear any relation to reality. Further down the line, you might want to remember just what it was candidates were promising when you voted for them. Perhaps my favourite site for this is

This is an online notice board where users can upload images of election leaflets to record what their local candidates say they will do if elected. You can search for leaflets by party or by local area. It’s aiming for 10,000 leaflets uploaded by 7th May and has an archive of 6,000 from the last election. That’s a lot of information that could prove very useful for holding your elected representative to account over the course of the next parliament.

Will it work?

All these tools enable us to know far more about candidates, policies and, more generally, what they have been doing than ever before. They could make things messy, chaotic and unpredictable by challenging our long-held beliefs about the parties and the candidates. But they may also enable voters to become players in the political information cycle rather than just passive recipients of election spin.

With voters now more focused on single issues, these new sites give us a way of quickly finding out who has said and done what or who stands for what across many different issues. This time around, we won’t need to wait for a YouTube mash-up to know if the next Nick Clegg has u-turned.

This article was originally on the Conversation.



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What Do People Want To Know at This Election?

The Guardian’s data editor Alberto Nardelli says the top 10 most-Googled topics in the UK today are all about the election.

  1. Who should I vote for?
  2. Who are my local candidates?
  3. How do I vote?
  4. Where do I vote?
  5. Where is my polling station?
  6. What is the ‘who do I vote for’ quiz?
  7. What do I need to vote?
  8. Can I vote online?
  9. Who will win the election?
  10. Who can vote in the UK?

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What Did People Want to Know During the Debates?

number 10

In the UK we have just had our one (and only) Leaders’ Debate involving seven of the UK’s main parties (Labour, Conservative, SNP, Liberal-Democrats, Party of Wales, The Greens and UKIP-though oddly excluding those from Northern Ireland). Here’s the top ten Google searches made during the debate, courtsey of Alberto Nardelli:

Google has been sharing with us the most googled questions through the debate. They were:

  1. Who is winning the leader’s debate?
  2. Who should I vote for?
  3. Who is Nigel Farage married to?
  4. What is a referendum?
  5. Where is Natalie Bennett from?
  6. Can I vote for the SNP?
  7. How do I register to vote?
  8. How tall is Nigel Farage?
  9. What is austerity?
  10. What does Plaid Cymru mean?


And the leaders in order of the popularity of their google search:

1. Leanne Wood

2. Nicola Sturgeon

3. Natalie Bennett

4. Ed Miliband

5. Nigel Farage

6. Nick Clegg

7. David Cameron

You can see analysis from the three way 2010 debate here and a very good article by Andrew Chadwick describing how social media has changed who has the power to shape such important ‘political events’, through opening up what he calls the political information cycle.

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‘Cash For Access’: Will Miliband’s Plans Work?

cash access

In the wake of the latest ‘Cash for Access’ revelation, Ed Miliband has committed to limit MPs outside earnings to £10,000 per year and introduce a ban on all second jobs. The Labour party will start tomorrow, using its opposition day to propose a bill on the subject. These proposals fit with a series of steps since the 1990s designed to open up and regulate this area as controversy has grown about extra earnings and work. But how will these latest changes impact on MPs and the public?

In terms of MPs, the two issues are whether the new proposals will be implemented and whether they will work. Implementing a ‘cap’ and (eventual) ban on outside earnings would represent an easy win for a new Labour government in 2015, a symbolic step that would have ‘signalling effect’ for the new government’s attitude towards such behaviour. On a more partisan level, it will hit Conservatives much harder than Labour. Research by the Guardian indicates that this would impact on 63, or 1 in 5, Conservative MPs who currently earn over £63,000 as against only 20, or 1 in 12, Labour MPs. You can see more numbers from the Telegraph here.

However, it all may depend on whether Ed Miliband has the numbers in the new House and what politics exists around the change. As Meg Russell pointed out, a number of things need to align for any reform of Parliament to happen – a mixture of a relevant crisis, political will and the right context. Remember David Cameron’s cutting down of the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

The second question for MPs is whether it will work. The reforms are part of a longer trajectory of change towards regulation and transparency. The danger of is that such change can drive poor activity into hard to reach places, away from publicity and into dark corners. It could also trigger other unwanted debate, such as around what MPs do with their time or, more disturbingly, Members getting a pay rise – new Prime Minister Miliband is not likely to want to propose bumping up salaries to £150,000.

What of the public? The new proposals are designed to help increase trust and put an end to lobbying scandals. One basic question is whether the public will notice. It is claimed that few even know the name of their MP, though recent research has challenged this. The public does support a complete ban on second jobs (see page 6 of this polling) and, as research by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley shows, they do not approve of wealthy MPs, objecting to both the ‘sums and the source’, with a particular dislike of directorships. Their experiment concluded that any sum of money earned while an MP, whether above or below the cap, is problematic.

Whether this will then increase public trust is a far bigger, and more complex, question. It may reduce the space or room for manoeuvre in this one area. However, hopes of ‘improving trust’ over-simplify how we think and process information – the MPs’ expenses scandal ‘confirmed’ to many that MPs were corrupt rather than ‘revealed’ it to them. Voters generally suffer from  a negativity bias and the continual string of ‘cash for…’ revelations are likely to have fed already deeply held views about UK politics. Nor will it end other sources of Parliamentary controversy, from the revolving door to the picking of leaves. So while it may help change behaviour, looking at the graph below, it appears unlikely any one thing can dramatically improve trust in MPs.

Worthy fig 1

Source: Ipsos Mori; House of Commons Library Research

The original is here