Tag Archive for GLA

FOI and the Olympics

FOI Man recalls how the successful Olympic and Paralympic Games bid affected the management of FOI requests at the Greater London Authority.

This coming Friday the London 2012 Olympic Games open. And it seems like only yesterday that my jaw dropped open as, surrounded by similarly dumbfounded GLA staff gathered in the London Assembly chamber of City Hall,  I heard Jacques Rogge utter the name of our capital city instead of the expected “Paris”.

City Hall staff applaud success of London bid for Games

City Hall staff applaud the naming of London as Host City for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games on 6 July 2005

The successful 2012 bid created a whole new challenge from an FOI perspective. Firstly, as with anything that attracts media coverage, it resulted in a significant volume of additional FOI requests which had to be handled within existing resources (both in my team and the team responsible for coordinating the GLA’s involvement in the Games’ planning). Secondly, the politics of FOI handling became more complex. It was always complicated negotiating the rather odd configuration of the GLA and its associated bodies. But the Olympics meant that several Government departments and agencies, on occasion local authorities, LOCOG and, as we’ll see, the IOC itself, could have a stake in the way that the GLA responded to a request.

To give credit to my former colleagues in the Olympic team, who were under immense pressure from various quarters all of the time, they were unfailingly polite and managed to look pleased to see me, even when we were discussing the most difficult FOI requests.

One request in particular sticks in my mind, especially in light of more recent controversy over the Games. It was a request for copies of the Olympic Technical Manuals. The manuals form part of the Host City Contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), setting out the requirements imposed by the IOC on the host city. They are updated after every Games to take into account lessons learnt. There’s a lot to them as they cover every aspect of Games management that you could possibly think of – one set filled two photocopying paper boxes. And I had to read them from cover to cover. They were largely very dull. They did give me the first hint of the level of commercialism involved – with significant detail on how much floor space should be given to McDonalds outlets in the Olympic Village, for example. And for those concerned about restrictions on branding imposed by LOCOG, one manual specifically covers Brand Protection.

My view at the time was that, save for a few details of concern from a security perspective, the manuals should all be disclosed. But the decision was taken to withhold them in their entirety.

The issue, as so often in circumstances where information subject to a request has been provided by a third party, was not so much that anyone at the GLA had any strong opinion, but that our Olympic partners – especially LOCOG – were strongly against disclosure. With a long way to go before the Games, there was concern over damaging the Mayor’s relationship with LOCOG in particular.

The requester asked for an internal review. Further discussions were had with LOCOG and we even consulted the IOC. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the IOC insisted – in strong terms – that the manuals should not be disclosed. As ever, their letter failed to provide useful details such as what harm would arise from disclosure aside from the fact that it would incur their displeasure. Following further debate, the internal reviewer upheld the decision to withhold the manuals.

Our determined requester pursued his request to the Information Commissioner. And when the Commissioner came knocking at my door, I spoke to LOCOG again. It was clear that the lawyers at LOCOG had no understanding of the obligations that public bodies – which they, of course, are not one of – are under in a country that has freedom of information laws. They appeared affronted to be even asked to explain what their concerns were, let alone to be asked to consider disclosure of the manuals themselves. My conversations with the Commissioner’s staff were difficult, not least because I entirely disagreed with the line my own organisation was taking. That’s a tricky situation for an FOI Officer to find themselves in. And the lack of cooperation from LOCOG didn’t help.

Sometime after my (entirely unrelated) departure from the GLA, I assume that the Commissioner gave the GLA an ultimatum, as despite the fact that there is no decision notice on the ICO website, the GLA eventually disclosed the manuals, save for, you guessed it, a few redactions to mitigate security concerns. Thanks to the Games Monitor website, you can now read the manuals for yourself.

I tell this story as firstly it is a topical but useful case study of the life cycle of a difficult FOI request within a public body, especially one where there are strong external interests involved. And secondly, it demonstrates that the Olympic movement has, at least at times, failed to grasp the implications of the fact that more and more nations who might host Olympic and Paralympic Games have laws that require those nations’ public bodies to operate transparently.

Of course, the last summer Games were held in Beijing, and I’m sure that inconvenient freedoms were not a problem in China. But surely the Games should reflect the best of the host nation – and in this country, freedom of speech and the right to hold public authorities to account are amongst our proudest attributes. Anybody seeking to do business in this country – whether it be putting on an event such as the Olympics, or running a bank – should accept that or be sent packing. And our politicians and leaders should be very clear about that in their dealings with multinational organisations of all kinds.

Despite these reservations, and other concerns that have been raised about the Olympic and Paralympic Games and their impact on London over the last few years, I remain excited about the next few weeks. A little disillusioned, yes, but maybe that’s a natural consequence of living in the host city. But I’m still proud of the fact that the city I make my home in has been chosen to host the Games, and convinced that we’ll do a great job of it, a few niggles aside.

And perhaps, just perhaps, one of the legacies of these Games might be a realisation that the reputation of the Olympic movement could actually be enhanced through greater openness and accountability. Maybe the Rio 2016 organisers will receive a manual entitled Transparency and Accountability? That would be worth a medal for someone.

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