Points of View 28th September 2017

In the hot seat: Carole Ewart of Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland tells us why the network must focus on open data

by Paul Bradley

Today (28 September) is International Right to Know Day, so what better way to mark the occasion than to hear from the Convener of Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, Carole Ewart. I met up with Carole a few weeks back to hear her thoughts on access to information in Scotland and the role that Scotland’s Open Government Network can play in the future in securing more sources of information and data.

What got you interested in access to information?

I work on the delivery of human rights in Scotland and access to information underpins all human rights. It’s also a human right in itself, operating as a gateway for people to enjoy their rights. I believe that only when you have access to information can you form an opinion about the delivery of public services, understand whether your rights are being respected, exercise your freedom of expression rights and understand and enjoy your right to private family life. Also, I like to know how government operates. I like to understand the decision making process, know about who is doing what and what money is spent on what services, so we can understand how things can be done differently.

 Do you think attitudes towards access to information have improved over the last 10 years?

From the duty bearer’s perspective, I don’t think we are in a position to say so, but we can say that as a matter of fact that public servants must enforce the law. There are worrying signs that this isn’t happening. For example, a public authority will set up an Arms Length External Organisation (ALEO) to deliver public functions, and that ALEO may not be covered by The Freedom of Information Scotland Act (FoISA). We don’t know how many ALEOs there are in Scotland, which makes it difficult to insist each one is covered by FoISA.

From the right holder’s perspective, there is independent evidence that FoI is understood and supported by the public. The Scottish Information Commissioner has commissioned independent polling over the years and now public awareness of the right to ask for information is at 85% which is at its highest ever level.

 A desire for openness often competes with convenience – how do we counter this?

It is the law to be more open, that is what FoISA was designed to deliver: reactively in answering requests for information and proactively publishing information held and gathered.  It’s a pretty simple ask that if you hold public information then you should put it out there, and only keep back the very small amount that, for very sound, robust and accountable reasons, is required to be kept secret. So I think lots of information should be out there, but what we don’t have is any quantifiable assessment of how much of the information has already been released as a result of FoISA.

We spoke briefly about the priorities for the Open Government Network – what do you see those being and why?

The Open Government Network has got some very specific challenges, and that is to explain what it’s about and make people aware of its potential. We are all concerned about delivering public services better, making Scotland fairer and tackling real problems about poverty, poor housing, poor health and improving life chances. We need multi-sources of robust information and data so we can design better services that are fit for purpose and can make an impact.

What does “opening data” actually look like?

Well it’s a great, exciting opportunity. My concern is that we will only get the data that the government wants us to have and not necessarily the data that will be helpful. There are challenges for civil society organisations – they need to train staff so they can use open data to progress the agenda of their organisation, and also be willing to say that the data that is provided by government isn’t of any use. We need to find out if government collects certain data that is more relevant and, if they’re not collecting it, suggest it would be useful to collect it.

Does a lack of common standards in the collection and presentation of data prevent us from making the most of it? 

Well, yes, because it makes it more difficult to compare like with like. But it also goes to the culture – why isn’t there uniformity in gathering the data? There should be symmetry about what data is gathered. It’s also the definitions of data that’s a problem, because they can be different – it looks on the face of it that everyone’s collecting the data but then you realise it’s all different.

Publishing open data is not sufficient for open governments or open societies. How important is it for civil society to have a say in what data is captured and measured?

It’s very important because you’re on the front line. You know what the problems are, you know what the gaps are. I’ve spoken to civil servants in the past who have said that there is a concern that government and public sector doesn’t actually know what data government collects. Who is doing the audit? You go to some countries and they have an index of all the information and data they hold, and we don’t have that. We should have an index, so we know what the government publishes and what the gaps are.

Data literacy and digital literacy are vital components in making sure that data is useful. How does Scotland’s civil society rate when it comes to this?

I suppose there isn’t much evidence of civil society crunching a lot of numbers independently of government, and the ones that are doing it should promote it more and offer training to other organisations about how they go about it. It’s a capacity building issue as well as a profile building issue. Can the government make funding available for civil society organisations over the next five years to crunch the data?

Do people see the importance of having more access to data?

People understand it at many different levels. For example, there has been a lot of coverage recently about drug tests for cancer and how by understanding the data we’ve developed a cure. From that, people immediately says ‘that’s a good use of data’. But at the moment, we’re often told the data tells us about a problem, and we’re not often told that the data is leading to finding solutions. Campaigning organisations use data to highlight the problems, but it’s ignored because it’s an inconvenient truth.

Do we need to focus more on informing citizens in how to use sets of information, whether that’s analysing, visualising or presenting data?

I think people do use data, and it’s where very often FoI helps. Say a particular community is concerned their street bins aren’t being emptied often, and they don’t have the streets swept. They might want to make a FoI request to compare with another, neater community. They’re using data and FoI in a very local situation. Had the council put on its website that every area is entitled to a certain level of service, then people would understand the equality in the provision of service. People suspect it is an unequal service, and that is why data isn’t proactively published. So I think people do try to access information and data, but we’re not helping them sufficiently to access it, and there can be barriers at every stage.

What now for the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland and how can OpenGovScot members get involved?

The campaign is convening the next Scottish Public Information Forum (SPIF) on 28th September, and people are very welcome to come along. The meeting of SPIF after that is in January, and will be organised in conjunction with the National Union of Journalists. The 28th September is International Right to Know Day and we have secured a busy agenda with a range of speakers. We are committed to number of activities over the next few months around the motion of the Scottish Parliament that condemned the Scottish Government’s delivery of FoI rights, committing to post-legislative scrutiny of FoISA and to an independent enquiry. We’ll be encouraging your members to submit views to the Inquiry that’s set up.

For more information on CFoIS: go to https://www.cfoi.org.uk/scotland/ or email [email protected]

Thanks to Carole for speaking to Scotland’s Open Government Network. You too can become a member and contribute simply by clicking here — we’d love to see you join in the discussions on our forum! You can also reach me anytime at [email protected].