Filing cabinet

Aberdeen City Council – open data – none the wiser

Introduction

As I wrote in a previous ODI blog post in the middle of August,  I was alerted to the fact that Aberdeen City Council were on the point not only of cancelling their own open data programme but also withdrawing from the Scottish Cities Alliance’s national programme for all seven Scottish Cities.

Setting aside my own personal and professional historic attachment to this work to date, I was concerned about this on many levels: as a local citizen who wants to see Aberdeen flourish, as a tax payer, and as an Open Data activist,

Some informal digging disclosed that while the decision to cancel the project had effectively been taken, a ‘review’ was being used as a smokescreen behind which the decision could be ratified.

As I wrote before, in order to understand what was going on, I raised two FOI requests on 12th and on 13th August.

I posted links to my blog post on Twitter, and on Linked In which drew quite a bit of attention. I also emailed councillor Douglas Lumsden, the Convenor of the Policy And Resources Committee at Aberdeen City Council, to ask why the council was considering stopping their open data programme and withdrawing from the national programme of 7 cities.

The Requests

The gist of my first FOI enquiry was:

I understand that a project review is to take place of Aberdeen City Council’s participation in the national programme led by Scottish Cities Alliance to improve (in this case) the provision of open data for the city of Aberdeen. This programme is sometimes referred to as The Data Cluster.

Can you please tell me:

a) the date, format, and criteria to be used in that review
b) the job titles, and previous experience in working with Open Data, of those who are to carry out the review, and
c) if the review is already concluded at the time of processing of this FOI request, the outcome of the review

Please also send me:

1) A copy of the Project initiation Document for Aberdeen for this project,
2) Copies of each of the Work package descriptors for Aberdeen’s participation in the project

The second was

Further to my request of yesterday’s date …. please provide me with

a) a copy of all correspondence, meeting agendas, meeting minutes, notes or other records pertaining to Aberdeen CC’s participation in the SCA’s open data project (whether between officers, managers, elected members, external partners or others) from 16th June 2017 to date

b) any requests for legal advice or legal review of ACC position in relation to the programme

c) a copy of any project documentation which shows ACC’s legal obligation in regards to the programme – such as signed letters of commitment, minutes of agreement, memorandum of understanding, contracts or similar

Responses

The first response I had was from councillor Lumsden on 16th August who wrote:

Open Data is a key component of the Council’s digital programme. The Council is currently working to align all its digital programmes, which include the Open Data initiative to ensure we get best value for money and meet the needs of our citizens. We will confirm the delivery dates of the Open Data initiative in the autumn once we have completed the review of our digital programme.

So not cancelling just pausing to make sure that our approach is correct and any contracts that we commit to provide value for the city.

That was fairly unequivocal – the programme would not be cancelled.

While that provided some optimism that sense would prevail, there was no clarity of the format of the review now how the council would measure the Open Data project would deliver “best value for money and meets the needs of citizens” but the FOI request would disclose that, wouldn’t it?

What Happened Then?

On 11 September I received a response to the first enquiry.

The highlights were :

  • There is no specific Open Data project review, however, there has been discussion around the future of the project within the context of the wider Health-check of all IT related projects
  • ACC is unable to provide information on the date, format, and criteria to be used in an Open Data review as it is not held by ACC.
  • ACC is unable to provide  information on the job titles, and previous experience in working with Open Data, of those who are to carry out the review as it is not held by ACC.
  • And, to the request “if the review is already concluded at the time of processing of this FOI request, the outcome of the review” – “There is no specific Open Data review”

Odd that they didn’t know / hold the details of the review and who would conduct it. They did send me redacted copies of the Project Initiation Document, and the descriptor of Work Package 4 (both of which I had written myself in my earlier capacity but of which I did not have copies).

On the same date I also received a response  to my second request. Having asked for copies of all emails, correspondence etc. relating to ACC’s participation in the Scottish Cities Alliance programme, I was told that this would cost too much to assemble.

I also asked for two other things: requests for legal advice in relation to the OD programme, (to which the reply was – yes, this was sought on 21/07/17) and copies of any documents showing ACC’s legal obligation in relation to the national programme.

They identified two docs in relation to the latter which they were seeking approval to release. So, another positive there.

Next steps

On 19th Sept I requested a review of the response to the first request. I wrote:

If there “has been discussion around the future of the project” where are the notes of that? Who was involved in those discussions?

If “all ongoing projects and commitments are being examined” when was this one project examined? Ignoring the semantics of whether an examination is or is not a review, what was the nature of the examination? What was the outcome? Who conducted that examination?

If the project hasn’t yet been examined (or reviewed) when will that take place, what will the nature of that be, and who will do that?

The FOI team, as always stuck in the middle in these things (and trying to help citizens get the right information) responded:

“As you have requested additional information that is out-with the scope of your earlier request, we are treating this request as a new request.”

I wrote back on 20th Sept that I had not made a new request outwith the original scope. I had asked for a review.

I also wrote  that despite the council’s assertion that “there is no specific Open Data project review.” I had by then had it confirmed via the Council’s Twitter account that “the open data programme is currently under review.” which directly contradicted the earlier response.

On 26th September the FOI team wrote back to me:

There is no project review being undertaken by Aberdeen City Council into the Open Data Project. As there is no project review being undertaken by Aberdeen City Council, there is no recorded information in relation to a project review. This has been checked with the Information Manager and confirmed by the Head of IT and Transformation as per our standard FOI procedures.

To help explain this situation, we advised you that all projects are currently being captured by a Health Check. This is not a review. A project review is an assessment of the status of a project at a particular point in time, for example at the end of a particular phase. A Health Check is a learning opportunity, a quick glance at the status of a project to determine how well the project is performing in terms of its objectives, its accordance with procedure and company standards and to validate the case for the business, especially in times of significant change to that business, such as agreement to revise the entire structure of a local authority.

Note the emphasis in bold is mine.

Further they explained that

In an effort to help you receive the information you are interested in, we decided to revise your request to fit with our current situation. The request you made is now in relation to this Health Check and not a project review being undertaken by Aberdeen City Council into the Open Data Project. As such, it is a new request and must be treated as such.

If you would like us to undertake a review because you feel that there is a project review being undertaken by Aberdeen City Council into the Open Data Project, then we would be happy to do so but the criteria for the review would be, ‘Is there any information held by Aberdeen City Council regarding a project review into the Open Data Project?’.

It struck me that I was being penalised for not using the council’s terminology: i.e. it’s not a project review – it’s a health check.

I wrote back on 8th October  stating that I had asked for an FOI Review on 20th Sept and stating:

It is clear that that managers in ACC are being deliberately obstructive in this case by deciding on their own interpretation of “review”. By choosing to place a certain narrow construction on that and another on ‘health check’ they are using this as a means to delay a response to my enquiry by claiming that the nature of my inquiry has changed…….

What I want by this FOI request has never varied since I raised it in mid-August – i.e. what is the process of examination that the Open Data project is being put through, who is doing that etc. So this is not a new request.

I would respectfully ask that the FOI Review panel be convened, to put an end to this charade, and provide me with the information that I requested some 8 weeks ago.

The Current position

On 17th October, I received a response which said that there are two pieces of recorded information which fall under the scope of my request.

  1. An action note which they provided in redacted form, and

2) “an email which constitutes legal advice.” which was not provided as they claim exemptions: “It is considered by ACC that release of this information may allow the public to understand the background to any position ACC takes on this project. However, ACC believes that in this case the public interest lies in withholding information where disclosure could prejudice the position of ACC (and its legal adviser) in future negotiations.”

Interestingly no mention is made of whether the FOI Review which I sought had been conducted, or not. Since they do not say that no review took place, or that they declined my request for a review, I take it that one has been conducted.

The response goes on to say that “Has the Open Data project been examined as part of the wider Health Check? No, not yet.” and “If the Open Data project has not yet been examined as part of the wider Health Check, when will that take place (if recorded)? This has not been determined yet.”
The document which they have released has a number of actions noted on 27 July. The third of these begins “Immediate Review required whether Open Data project fits with Digital Strategy priorities for next 18mths and any contractual implications….” so, here we have, again. a reference to an immediate review to take place of the project between 31st July and 14 August.

And again “Update [someone – redacted] on review implications to ensure appropriate comms are in place to manage decisions [between] 3rd and 10th August” Astute readers will note that both of these actions would have been completed or almost complete by the time I raised the FOI request on 12th August.

But, bizarrely, the various responses received as part of this have repeatedly denied a review was taking, or has taken place. Councillor Lumsden’s email refers to a review, as does a Tweet from ACC, but the responses on 11th Sept and 26th Sept were at pains to say that no review is taking place – but, in the latter case that the OD project was, like all other IT projects subject to a ‘Health Check …. a quick glance’.

We are now 12 weeks after the action note called for an Immediate Review of the project – and yet there is still a blanket denial that a review has / was / will take place. And apparently while a review is not taking place, a health check (aka ‘a quick glance’) has not yet been conducted. How long does a quick glance take?

The Second FOI Request

I also received a response on 17th October to my second request.

ACC had responded on 11th September that the cost of responding would be too high as “many staff across the Council have been involved in the open data project during the time period you are interested in. We have estimated that there are at least 38 Officers who are likely to hold information relevant to your request.”

So, I refined my enquiry to “restrict the scope to those officers employed in the Corporate Governance / OCE directorates and who are still in ACC employment.”

The response which I have now receieved is utterly baffling. It begins “There have been two emails which fall within the scope of your request” yet no email is produced. The second of the two of these referred to appears to be the same “email which constitutes legal advice” as is mentioned in the response to the first FOI request above.

But the first? Well, there is no email provided – just the same Action Note that was provided in response to the first request. And the comments make it clear that they are referring to that note, not to an email.

So, to be clear, we’ve gone from ‘we estimate that at least 38 officers are likely to hold information’ to there are only two emails in existence about the open data project – and we’re going to refuse one, and ignore the other.

It would appear that there is not a single email to/from the project officer, the Information Manager, the Head of Service, Finance, Legal, the acting director, the new interim head of service, whichever people who are doing the review / health check or anyone else. This is hardly credible.

And what about other “meeting agendas, meeting minutes, notes or other records” which I asked for – are there none?

And what happened to my request for “a copy of any project documentation which shows ACC’s legal obligation in regards to the programme – such as signed letters of commitment, minutes of agreement, memorandum of understanding, contracts or similar.” According to the 11th Sept response from ACC “We are currently seeking approval to issue these documents to you.”

Since when, there has been silence.

So where are we now? A summary.

FOI request one

I’ve previously had confirmation by email from a councillor and then a Tweet from ACC that the Open Data project was to be reviewed. Now in a disclosed action note we now have confirmation that a review of the Open Data project has been ordered (as of 27th July) to be completed by mid-August. Yet we don’t know the context of that note – who ordered it and for what purpose.

And we still have had no indication of the format, date, method or personnel involved in the review. Has it happened? What was the outcome?

More significantly, why are ACC so insistent on denying that a review is happening.  What do they hope to achieve by saying that the project will be subject to a health check? Regardless of the nomenclature how can they say that they still don’t know who has / will carry out the review? If there was an urgency in July for a review to be completed within 2 weeks, how can it not yet have happened?

What is the context of the action note produced?

FOI request two

If ACC were so concerned about the amount of correspondence, agendas, minutes, notes or other records that would have to be provided, why – on narrowing the search – were only two emails turned up? And while one email has been withheld, why has the second not been disclosed. Are they saying that there are no other records have been created or maintained at all about the Open Data project?

What happened to my request for “a copy of any project documentation which shows ACC’s legal obligation in regards to the programme – such as signed letters of commitment, minutes of agreement, memorandum of understanding, contracts or similar.”  This request is still outstanding.

My next steps will be

  • Re. the first FOI request, on the basis that I asked weeks ago for an internal review – and the response is silent on this  I take it that one was conducted and so I can take this straight to the ICO to appeal. [UPDATE (21/10/17) I’ve been advised that a subsequent response was sent a day later (18/10) to say that a FOI Review Panel was convened and upheld the original decision:  see this. So I will lodge an appeal with the ICO. ] I will reference the second request in that appeal for completeness – as the two are inextricably linked, although I can’t appeal the latter at present. I am intrigued what the ICO will make of this case.
  • Re. the second FOI request, I will ask for an internal review on the basis that ACC have failed to produce virtually anything of substance – except for an action note which contradicts their own long-held position on this. An email is mentioned but not produced. Similarly they have failed to produce the docs which they were seeking permission to disclose as far back as 11th Sept.

The Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002 places legal obligations on the authority to comply with the terms of the act. It would appear that some senior managers in the authority have not taken these obligations at all seriously. So, I am also going to write a letter of complaint to the Chief Executive and ask that this be investigated properly.

Ian Watt
20 Oct 2017

Posted in FOI, ODIAberdeen, open data and tagged , .