This January, Climate Emergency UK published the Council Climate Plan Scorecards. As the name suggests, we only looked at plans and strategies that councils have published in order to mark their progress. Now that we’re looking at action, we’ve had to expand the data sources we use to include more strategies, national data, and freedom of information (FOI) requests. 

Here we want to shine a light on FOI requests and how we decided to use them in the scorecards.

What is an FOI request?

Let’s start with the basics. In 2000 the U.K. Government passed the Freedom of Information Act, which gave the public the right to request information from public authorities including governmental departments, local authorities, the NHS, schools and police forces. This was followed by other acts such as Scotland’s Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002) and the Environmental Information Regulations Act (2004) which are broadly intended to do the same thing.

These acts allow people like you and me to access information about the activities of public authorities. They are based on the principle that ‘openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state’ and ‘unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making’. You can write to or email any public authority in the U.K. requesting access to official information and unless there is a legal justifiable reason to refuse the request the authority must send you the information they hold within 20 days.

You can learn more about FOI requests and your rights on the Information Commissioner’s Office here or the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Office here.

The benefits of FOI requests

First and foremost, the reason that we decided to use FOI requests was that the information we needed to answer some questions was not available in any other way. The Council Climate Action Scorecards are an accountability tool, and so it was important to find a way to answer questions with information that councils hold but don’t make public, and to do so in a way that is comparable across all councils. FOI requests, with their standardised processes and underlying values of openness and accountability, fit the bill perfectly.

We will be submitting the FOI requests using WhatDoTheyKnow, a site developed and maintained by our partner organisation mySociety, who also work with us on the Council Climate Action Scorecards. WhatDoTheyKnow allows us to make bulk FOI requests to a type of council, but it also means that we can make all correspondence including the information we requested openly available online. When we publish the results, the public will be able to see the raw data we used as evidence for the questions marked using an FOI request, which will hopefully also prevent campaigners from submitting the same requests.

There is one final upside to submitting FOI requests through WhatDoTheyKnow. It will allow us to work with volunteers to respond and mark the responses to our requests. This is a massive project and CE UK employs just three staff, so we rely on the work of volunteers to be successful. If you are interested in Freedom Of Information Requests and would like to volunteer to do this work, please fill in this volunteer form here

Reducing negative impacts

We know that FOI requests are a useful and important tool, and that using WhatDoTheyKnow allows us to make our interactions with councils fully transparent. However, we also acknowledge that there are some downsides to using this method.

One of those drawbacks is that FOI requests must follow a process which can be expensive and time consuming for councils. This impact could be more significant for smaller, less resourced councils, who handle fewer FOI requests and have less infrastructure than larger councils.

We take the responsibility to not waste local councils time seriously, so we have worked to cut down the number of FOI requests we make as much as possible, by finding alternate sources of information where possible. For example, we removed an FOI request about planning permission for renewable energy projects when we found a dataset that the government had compiled of all the energy projects and their planning permission status. We significantly reduced the number of FOI requests, as well as cutting several sub questions. We have also slimmed down the requests as much as possible, so that we are very specific about the information we are requesting. We tested and adapted the FOI requests on a small number of councils, to make sure they were as efficient as possible.

Another concern that council climate officers raised was that all FOI requests about climate issues are referred to them, regardless of whether it is in their remit. We know how busy council officers can be, and we don’t want to take up their time speaking to other departments to get information. To reduce this risk, we will be grouping FOI requests based on department, and suggesting which department might be best placed to answer it. For example, the questions that relate to staff numbers and whether certain staff positions like biodiversity planning officers and retrofit officers exist will be grouped together with a suggestion that they should be sent to the councils’ HR department. Internal council structures vary so it may not always be the right place to send the request for your council, but the suggestion should help information officers identify where it should go.

The final measure we have taken to reduce the impact of our FOI requests on councils is that we have already shared the FOI requests that we intend to send in January. If capacity is a concern for your council, they can start gathering the information to respond to the FOI request now, so as to spread out the workload over a longer period of time.We have done this following this suggestion from a council officer, so thank them for suggesting this!

Context is key

I hope that this blog has been useful for understanding more about why and how we will use freedom of information requests. I wanted to finish by acknowledging one last suggestion that we heard from council officers during the consultations. This was that we should meet with or send voluntary forms to councils rather than requesting information using FOI requests, because FOI requests do not include the local context. 

The Council Climate Action Scorecards will be an incredibly useful tool, but they have their limitations – they score action that all councils can take but by their nature can’t score actions that are specific to one council, and they can’t give all of the local context to that council. This is also true of the FOI requests we are asking. For example, councils that have recently changed political control may receive scores that are more indicative of the previous administration’s work than their work, or they might currently employ fewer climate officers due to a previous financial crisis. However, councils and campaigners alike will know far more than us about the local context, and the Scorecards will hopefully encourage that conversation.

What CE UK can do is provide a national context that we don’t have right now. Is the sector as a whole reducing carbon emissions at the rate it needs to, and what do national Governments need to provide to enable faster action? Are some councils lagging behind others, and what are the successful councils doing that your council could also do? These are the kinds of questions that a national context to council climate action can answer, and FOI requests are a vital part of that picture. 

Hannah Jewell, Campaigns and Policy Officer at CE UK

This blog is part of a series of blog posts for the launch of the Council Climate Action Scorecards 2023 draft methodology. You can read the draft methodology here, and the other blogs we have prepared here.