opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


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Donald Trump: Openness, Secrecy and Lies

Read my new article on the Openness, Secrecy and Lies of Donald Trump for PDP, inspired by being stuck in airport with only ‘Fire and Fury’ for company. It explains how Trump manages to be both secretive and open at the same time and also mentions the wonderfully named ‘the Barbara Streisand Effect’  Donald Trump – the secretly open President – Ben Worthy (Freedom of Information)-1. 

If you are interested, you can see some other pieces on Trump by me on Medium here  https://medium.com/@benjaminjworthy

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Write Me A Letter: 10 thoughts on the Prime Minister’s letter on Openness and Data

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Theresa May is a keeper of secrets, by inclination, style and force of habit. So the publication of a letter urging her government to open up may come as a bit of a surprise, along with a seeming openness push. This is especially the case this week, when the government is making the DUP’s money secrets more, not less, opaque. But is the letter less than the sum of its parts? What does it all mean? Here’s 10 quick thoughts…

  1. It’s all very David Cameron-a letter not a speech, an article or launch. My suspicion is a letter is designed to make it look like you’ve done something (‘I’ve written them a letter! What more do you want?’) (Cameron wrote one in 2010 then another to tax havens in 2013).

 

  1. What standing does a letter have? Do you have to do it? Should you take notice of an (undated) private minute from the Prime Minister? Can it be safely ignored? I’d guess ‘not much’, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

 

  1. The ‘next stage’ actually sounds very 2010-2011.

 

  1. It’s released on a Friday, one week before Christmas on a heavy EU news week (though aren’t they all now?).

 

  1. There’s a reprimand that ‘a small number’ of departments have fallen behind. It seems more than that as ‘Departments have become less transparent since 2010 and have not consistently fulfilled their requirements’. According the IFG the rot set in, ironically, in 2010 but has got worse recently. I think May should focus on whoever was in charge of the Home Office 2010-2016, as they seem to have been one of the worst performers in terms of FOI.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 1. It has a pretty tepid tone. It reads a bit more like a forced Christmas thank you letter than a ringing call to arms for openness.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 2. It talks of a strange, vague thing called ‘online transparency’ that seems somewhere between open data and openness. And, as many people have pointed out, it’s a pdf. That’s neither transparent or useful, in ‘online’ terms.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 3. No mention of FOI despite an ongoing FOI consultation (launched in late November).

 

  1. It’s not re-launching or pushing any new policy. One would expect a Prime Minister to perhaps use the letter to push, for example, gender pay transparency (not going too well) or even anti-corruption.

 

  1. Highlighting civil service sickness and absence data first seems slightly out of place-is this designed for ‘lazy sickie (Remoaner) civil servants’ headlines?

 


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Does FOI Create A Chilling Effect? Evidence from the UK

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Michael Gove got caught doing it. Now ‘family members / senior advisers’ Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been found using private emails with another four senior White House staff, including Steve Bannon, also alleged to do the same in what CNN calls a colossal blind spot. But is there really a ‘chilling effect’ on records because of FOI? Does an new Act lead to people not writing things down, using the phone and private emails more and ‘emptying out the archives’?

The negative effect of FOI on policy is a long story, going back to the 1980s in Australia when it was feared FOI would lead to ‘hidden filing’ or ‘post-it-note’ cultures In the UK, Tony Blair claimed in 2010 that FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions, concluding the law was

not practical for government…if you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations…if those conversations then are put out in a published form …you are going to be very cautious. (Guardian 1/9/2010)

David Cameron also hinted that it was disrupting decision-making and was, as he put it, ‘furring up the arteries of government’. Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell claimed it had ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer three isolated examples-two hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations. The claim is also regularly made at local government level. The current UK Information Commissioner, herself an archivist, is taking it sufficiently seriously to push a new legal duty to record.

But is it really happening?

There has been plenty of high profile examples. There’s also some good evidence from Sweden, home of the world’s first FOI –ish law in 1766, that there is what they label an ‘empty archives phenomena’.

But whether it’s happening wholesale across government is another matter. The UK Justice Committee looked into it 2012 but ‘was not able to conclude, with any certainty that a chilling effect has resulted from the FOI Act’. The Chairman of the 2015-2016 UK independent review, that looked into chilling as part of its remit, chairman concluded that he ‘struggled to find is actually cases, clear cut cases, where a lot of information has been released and discussions of the kind … have been damaging’. Research at central government found there was concern and isolated instances but no general trend and for local government there appears to be a few exceptional cases but nothing systematic. Just to make it more complex, in Scotland and England there was some evidence of a positive professionalising effect where staff kept better, more professional records because of FOI. Our own studies found that many officials were more concerned with the consequences of not having a record if their superiors or, even worse, a judge came looking for it.

There are two problems with finding out if any chilling really is happening. The first is the difficulty of proving or disproving it. There’s lots of anecdote but not much hard evidence. By its nature it is very difficult as proving it means proving a negative (i.e. something didn’t happen), and means asking people to admit unprofessional conduct. One study found many comments were jokes or light hearted quips.

Second, it’s also very difficult to prove that any changes are a result of FOI. Isolating and disentangling FOI as the cause of the problem is almost impossible. Fear of leaks, the arrival of new technology, new decision-making styles and the key question of resources all influence how and if records are kept.  Concerns over the non-recording of information go back far into the past. As the Justice committee pointed out, the 2004 Butler report raised serious concerns over Tony Blair’s use informal meetings and ‘sofa government’ a year before FOI came into force.

The problem was rather wonderfully summed up during the UK independent review hearings when two ex-Home Secretaries, Michael Howard and Jack Straw, cross-questioned the ‘chilling claiming’ Lord O’Donnell, a former Head of the Civil Service:

LORD HOWARD: Do you have any direct experience of ministers avoiding putting things into writing in order to escape the provisions of the legislation?

LORD O’DONNELL: I mean, in a sense, how could I? Minister A phones Minister B on his mobile phone and I’m not involved in that process at all. That’s what I mean. The whole evidence thing you’re asking for is virtually impossible …

LORD HOWARD: Not at all. You might have suggested to a minister that a meeting’s necessary to discuss a particular decision and you might have been told, ‘No, I don’t think we need one’ and you might be able to form quite a good judgment that that was the reason why the meeting wasn’t taking place. Have you ever come across something like that?

LORD O’DONNELL: Yes, is the short answer, and yes, I’ve had occasions where – I mean, I think the area of contingency planning. You know, I think there are various reasons why ministers are very reluctant to commission planning for outcomes that they do not want to happen.

JACK STRAW: But is that directly related to FoI?

LORD O’DONNELL: That’s a combination of FoI and leaks, let’s be honest.

JACK STRAW: Yes, because I can recall in the early part of the 1997/2000 government, well before FoI was a serious prospect in people’s minds, that there were some ministers who were very reluctant to go in for contingency planning on any basis because they were just reluctant to. It was nothing to do with FoI. (Independent Commission on Freedom of Information 2016a, 84–86)

 

It is impossible to say if there is or is not an effect. It is likely there is some chilling at the margins and obviously much more skullduggery from politicians than we know of but it is not as widespread as some claim.

The difficulty is that the myth could become reality. If people believe it is happening, are they more likely to do it? The previous Information Commissioner warned that ‘if mandarins keep talking about a chilling effect, theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. But the reassuring thing is that, as with many conspiracies, getting caught can carry a high price-just ask Hillary Clinton.

Ben Worthy is a lecturer in politics based at Birkbeck College, University of London and is author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.

Post originally in the IRM Newsletter

 

 


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How Open is Britain in 2017 and Where Next? 28 September 2017 – 18:30:

How Open is Britain in 2017 and Where Next?

Starts 28 September 2017 – 18:30
Finishes 28 September 2017 – 20:00
Venue G15 Malet Street Building, Birkbeck College
Free entry; booking required

Event description

In the last decades British government and society has been opened up in all sorts of new ways. From the Freedom of information Act to Open Data and from surgeons’ performance rates to ownership of UK businesses, we know a great deal more about what is being done and spent in our name. New initiatives promise new openness about everything from gender pay gaps to executive bonuses. Exposés such as the MPs’ expenses scandal show what effect the new openness can have.

But how open is Britain? How well do these new systems of openness and streams of data work? Can they be avoided or turned to politicians’ advantage? This seminar asks a panel of experts to discuss how open Britain really is and to look to the future and ask, as Britain moves into the opaque world of the Brexit negotiations and faces new and uncertain post-EU world, how open will the new UK be?

Panel:

Martin Rosenbaum (Journalist, BBC)

Rosemary Agnew (Former Scottish Information Commissioner and now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman)

Professor Sarah Childs (Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College)

This event will be chaired by Dr Ben Worthy, whose book The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and Why Governments Pass Laws that Threaten Their Power was published in 2017.

Sign up here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-open-is-britain-in-2017-and-where-next-tickets-37457675917


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Gender Pay Gap Transparency: Will It Work?

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In July this year the BBC, with a bang and probably a muffled whimper, released details of its highest earners. It predictably provoked outrage at the overpaid but also, less predictably, re-ignited the debate on the gender pay gap. Political leaders were quick off the mark to condemn the stark gap between male and female presenters. Theresa May criticised the BBC for paying women less for doing the same job as men and Jeremy Corbyn suggested a pay cap.

How Big is the Gender Pay Gap in the UK?

Measuring the gap is tricky. Here’s a summary from the ONS of some of the key figures for the UK in 2016:

  • Average pay for full-time female employees was 9.4% lower than for full-time male employees (down from 17.4% in 1997).
  • The gap for all employees (full-time and part-time) has reduced from 19.3% in 2015 to 18.1% in 2016 (down from 27.5% in 1997).

So the gap is nearly 10% or 18% depending how you measure it. This FOI request shows how the gap has altered in the past decade or so in the UK. The pay gap is high, and higher than the UK, in many other parts of the EU, where the UK sits about seventh from the top: ‘across Member States, the gender pay gap varied by 21 percentage points, ranging from 5.5 % in Italy and Luxembourg to 26.9 % in Estonia’.  To get some sense of the scale of the problem, in 2015 ‘women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.3 % below those of men in the European Union (EU-28) and 16.8% in the euro area (EA-19)’.

Gender pay

So what’s being done?

Something, finally. Successive governments have been determined to open up gender pay. Gender pay transparency is actually a Labour policy from long ago in 2010. Theresa May’s sound and fury has been heard before. Back in 2010 a certain Theresa May, writing in the Guardian no less, already claimed she was ‘clearing a path towards equal pay’ in 2010.What she forgot to say was that the Conservative-Liberal coalition she was part of didn’t actually engage the requirement to publish gender pay, contained in section 78 of (Labour’s) Equality Act of 2010. They wished to pursue a ‘voluntary scheme.’ Alas, few volunteered. Four years into the scheme only 4 companies had reported.

David Cameron, in a second wind of revolutionary ardour, committed to engage mandatory reporting (5 years after not doing so). This would ‘eradicate gender pay inequality’. All companies over 250 employees would have to publish the data. As of April 2017 companies have a year to produce the data and a written statement explaining, if there is a gap, what action will be taken. After 2018 organisations not publishing will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The light of transparency will, it is hoped, end pay inequality.

How’s it going so far?

Although a number of companies have been voluntarily publishing the data, as of May 2017 only 7 companies had reported. An email from the GEO from July informed me there were now 26 and, according to a spreadsheet on data.gov.uk, there are now 40.

That’s from an estimated 7,000 companies with 250 or more employees. On a very generous rounding up, that means only 0.57% companies have reported. At this rate, if the Equalities and Human Rights Commission must send out notices next April, they’d better fire up the old email wizard or buy plenty of stamps.

There is also concern over the coverage of the policy, as this paper argued:

Only around 6000…of the 4.7 million businesses in the UK have more than 250 employees. Thus, around 59% of employees would be unaffected by the provisions if reintroduced in their current form.

The government calculated that the pay gap reporting would cover 34% of businesses with a further 12% covered by regulations for public bodies, meaning ‘approximately 8,500 employers, with over 15 million employees’ would be opened up.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee argued that the data needed to be broken down by age and status, and applied to companies with less than 100 employees-moving to 50 in the next two years (the government argued smaller businesses may find it ‘difficult to comply due to system constraints’). May appeared to promise further action on gender pay before the General Election and there was a mention of more data in the manifesto but, like much in that doomed document, we’ll probably never know what, if anything, was intended.

What will publication do?

On a practical level much may depend on how the data is published and who accesses or uses it. Underneath this is a serious question for all transparency policies: what exactly will publication do? While opening up such data is useful, measuring gender inequality is highly complex and a ‘moving target’ and is caught within wider issues of female representation in public life, professions and boardrooms. There is a long way between publishing data on a problem and ‘eradicating’ it.

In the case of the BBC, the controversy has led to a letter and high profile lobbying but will it lead to real change? Tony Hall has set a deadline for action (2020) and promised representation and consultation. Now FT journalists may strike over it and Sheryl Sandburg has weighed in.

The former Secretary of State for Equalities spoke of how publication of gender pay gaps would have benefits in terms of ‘transparency, concentrating the mind and helping people make employment decisions’, all of which are either a bit tautological (transparency will make everything more transparent) or vague. More worryingly, a survey for the Young Women’s Trust found that many business were unconvinced ‘44 per cent of those making hiring decisions say the measure introduced last April will not lead to any change in pay levels’. In the 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded that pay publication focuses attention on the issue but is not a solution: ‘It will be a useful stimulus to action but it is not a silver bullet’ and recommended that ‘the government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting’.

As the committee put it, openness is ‘a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself’. It is hoped that publication could drive up pay and standards-though the evidence of what publishing pay generally does is rather mixed (publishing executive pay appears to push overall pay up not down). Companies could be embarrassed into action but could, equally, ignore it, wait for the storm to blow over or kick it to the long grass with a consultation.

As with all sorts of openness, mandating publicity is only the start. Gender pay data must not sit on a spreadsheet but needs to wielded, repeated and find a place as a staple, symbolic benchmark-and become, like the ‘scores on doors’ restaurant star rating, a mark of quality or reason to avoid.

Images from UK government equality report and EU gender pay gap pages

 


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Prime minister of secrets: The short, closed premiership of Theresa May

Theresa May will be remembered as a prime minister who liked to keep things hidden. What’s less often commented on is how her obssession with secrecy explains why everything went so badly wrong….

Some claimed that Theresa May would be different. As home secretary she opened up police stop and search data, extended FOI to the Police Federation, and championed anti-corruption. Unlike Andrea Leadsom, she even published her own tax returns.

Sceptics told another story. In the Home Office, May was much keener on opening up her enemies than herself. She had a tendency to information control and secrecy and liked to work with a closed circle of trusted advisors, letting nothing out. Cameron’s likening of May to a submarine in the Brexit campaign, disappearing when trouble brewed, could be applied to her whole Home Office career. She sought to hide Border Force cuts from parliament in 2016 and, more famously, deflected blame onto officials in 2011 during a career threatening crisis.

It was these habits she took with her to No.10.

See the rest of the piece here on politics.co. uk