Tag Archive for Transport for London

Number crunching: Who’s better – Boris or Ken? Only one way to find out…

FOI Man looks at what FOI performance statistics tell us about the attitudes to openness of the rival Mayoral candidates in London

Even if you’re not a Londoner (and I wasn’t always), and possibly even if you don’t live in the UK, you are probably aware of the colourful personalities that have inhabited the ‘glass testicle’ (or motorbike helmet if you’re of a more gentle disposition) as London’s Mayor.

For 8 years, City Hall was the domain of Ken Livingstone, who before its abolition in 1986, had been the Leader of the previous pan-London authority, the Greater London Council (GLC). He claimed credit for increases in police numbers in the capital, improvements to the transport infrastructure, and winning the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games for London.

Many were surprised when a combination of voter fatigue, corruption allegations and a backlash from the outer borough residents saw him fall to the eccentric but charismatic figure of Boris Johnson in 2008. Boris claims to have cut staff numbers across the GLA Group, is proud of the city-wide ‘Boris-Bikes’ scheme that has been introduced by his administration, and has used London as the guinea pig for many of the ideas that the Coalition Government has begun to roll out nationally in the last year. In particular, he claimed to be bringing in a new transparency to City Hall.

So is Boris really more transparent than Ken? Some of his initiatives are undoubtedly a move in the right direction. Two years before Eric Pickles took on local authorities and insisted that they published all expenditure over £500, the GLA was publishing its expenditure over £1,000 (radical at the time). You can now access that data, together with much else, in the pioneering London Datastore.

It’s probably a little unfair though to compare this with Ken’s record. Nobody published datasets until very recently, and there was little pressure to publish all expenditure until Boris’s campaign team came up with it. So points to Boris for keeping up with (and slightly ahead of ) the Jones’s on pro-active disclosure. But the GLA (especially City Hall) was always rather good at pro-active disclosure on its website – it’s just the methods that have changed.

A fairer fight can be based on FOI statistics. Who is quicker at answering requests? How ready are they to use an exemption? Courtesy of a WhatDoTheyKnow requester, the figures for 2007 to 2010, and the GLA’s internal request log, can now be found online (links below so you can do your own analysis).

A caveat. I’m not a statistician, so don’t expect too much from this analysis – it’s just my impression gained from playing around with the numbers. But what do I think the figures tell us?

Well, London’s journalists regularly complain about the speed of response to FOI requests from the GLA. So has that got worse or better since Boris’s election in May 2008?

First thing to say is that the GLA Group consists of five main bodies. There is the Greater London Authority (GLA) at the centre, which supports the Mayor and the London Assembly on a day to day basis. Then there is Transport for London (TfL), the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA – which oversees the Metropolitan Police Service, what we know as ‘The Met’), the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) and finally the London Development Agency (LDA – which used to be known as ‘the Mayor’s piggy bank’ and is being abolished as we speak as part of the Government cuts).

Across the Group (excluding TfL), it may surprise you to hear that there has been little change over the last four years in the speed of responses. Approximately 14% of requests are answered later than 20 working days. And that was the same in Ken’s last full year (2007). It also should be borne in mind that this performance has been maintained in the face of rising volumes of requests, and job cuts. In 2007, the whole group received 1,662 requests. By 2010 that had risen to 2,807.

One glaring exception stands out. It is no surprise that TfL were investigated by the Information Commissioner for their performance. In 2007, only 17% of requests were answered late (still a significant figure). In Boris’s first full year of 2009, 35% of requests to TfL were answered late. The situation is clearly improving from more recent figures, but it remains a mystery as to why there was such a sharp rise in the rate of late responses following Boris’s election.

So what about use of exemptions? Well, again, proportionally, not much has changed across the group as a whole. The exception, this time, is the GLA itself at City Hall. In 2007, exemptions were only used in 6% of cases. This has risen in every year since and in 2010 15% of requests were fully or partially refused. The GLA’s detailed log indicates which exemptions were used, and this suggests a rise in the use of exemptions for commercial and policy information. To be fair, the biggest rise has been in the use of the section 40 personal information exemption, which could well just be the entirely reasonable redaction of private individuals’ names and contact details.

So, on balance, there’s not much between Boris and Ken on FOI and openness. And that’s not to be sniffed at in the light of rising volumes of requests and cuts to staff answering them. But the figures do perhaps suggest some worrying trends, in punctuality and use of exemptions, in the first half of Boris’s first term of office.

Here are the links to the WhatDoTheyKnow data – see what you can make of it.

GLA FOI statistics

GLA FOI Log

TfL FOI statistics

LDA FOI statistics (watch out for their exemption stats – I think they’ve provided total numbers of exemptions used as opposed to numbers of requests where exemptions were used, which is a subtle, but important, difference)

LFEPA FOI statistics

MPA FOI statistics

 

A million answers from TfL

Yesterday there was some discussion on Twitter about a request made to Transport for London (TfL) through WhatDoTheyKnow. People were asking if TfL’s response was compliant with FOI.

The request related to the Barclay’s Cycle Hire Scheme running in London. Earlier in the year, the Mayor of London and TfL (of which he is Chair), had boasted of 1 million journeys made on hired bicycles through the Scheme. The requester congratulated them on this and asked for data on each of the million journeys.

A month later, the response from TfL arrived informing the requester that the data would shortly be made available in their online repository, which would require the requester to register. To give him a flavour, the response included data on 100 journeys.

To cut a long story short, the requester was not happy and has asked for an internal review. So was the response from TfL compliant, and if not, how should they have answered?

In short, and from a purely technical point of view, no. The response didn’t provide the information asked for, and nor did it explain which exemptions were being applied.

It sounds to me like a classic case of a senior manager in TfL having difficulty with the practicalities of FOI and suggesting a response in the hope that the requester would go away until they’d been able to work out how to make the data available. On the plus side, TfL clearly were looking at making the data available online (and have now done so), so it’s not that they are just trying to be secretive . So how should they have answered?

The most likely reason that they were not able to provide the information (and this is alluded to in the response)  is that  supplying the data would cost too much. After all, a million records is a lot of data, and there may be serious technical difficulties in transmitting that data. It may cost more than £450 (the cost limit for locating, retrieving, and extracting data under FOI) to employ a consultant to find a way to do that. If this was the case, they should have explained this in their response.

The other alternative that I would have gone for is the exemption at section 22 (future publication). If you’re going to publish information in the future, as TfL indicated they were going to, and don’t feel able to make it available now, that would seem to be a reasonable approach. It is subject to a public interest test, but the fact that the information would be available very soon, and the likely cost to the public purse of providing it sooner would seem fairly persuasive arguments against immediate disclosure.

There’s obviously a separate issue about requiring users to access data via a site which requires registration. But once the information is made available, you could use section 21 (otherwise accessible) to refuse the request and point to the data repository. It’s likely this would satisfy the Information Commissioner unless there was a significant charge or the requester was able to demonstrate some reason why this didn’t satisfy their needs.

I sympathise with TfL – 1 million lines of data could well be difficult to provide via email (one could even speculate that if it had been disclosed via WDTK it might have caused problems for the WDTK website and/or users who tried to download it). But they could certainly have come up with a better answer than the one they gave.