Making the most of Freedom of Information

I spent time on Friday sharing some of my experiences of using Freedom of Information with members of the Campaign Forum.

It’s a group of campaigners from across the sector that get together every quarter to share learning from their campaigns and hear from outside speakers.

I’ve always believed that it’s an under utilised tool for our campaigning, and if used well can help us to access invaluable information that allows our campaigns to be more effective.

It was encouraging to hear that many of the organisations present had made us of Freedom of Information in their campaigning work.

One good recent example of this approach was by Scope who worked with Demos to put together this interactive map of cuts to disability services across England and Wales.

As well as sharing a brief introduction to using Freedom of Information, drawing on the materials from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, I also shared a few top tips for making the most from it;

My tips were;

Be specific – That it’s very easy to have requests rejected because they’re asking for too much information, and as a result fall foul of the set limits that authorities have for ‘checking whether it holds the information, finding and extracting the information’. To avoid this, you need to be specific with what you’re requesting, and make use of time scales, titles of specific organisations/campaigns or locations to help to refine your asks.

I also shared the advice that Chris Coltrane had shared at the Netroots conference, that if you find that your request is rejected because they’ve calculated that it’ll cost too much to find, ask them how they’ve come to that calculation.

Be patient – Under law you’re meant to get a response within 20 working days, but it often seems that the deadline slips. Make sure you keep a good record of what you’ve requested and when, and follow-up once the 20 days have passed.

Ask for advice – That ‘ve found that Freedom of Information officers have often been very helpful it helping to access the information I’ve been looking for, and that you can make it easy for them to get in touch with you by providing a phone number with your request.

It takes time – If you’re an organisations planning to use the information in a media report or similar, don’t expect to have it all together in under a month. Plan well ahead and realise that the process of requesting the data itself is as time-consuming as processing the data afterwards! Campaigners present shared how they’d found it to be a really good project to involve interns in.

Request the data format – This is a lesson that I’m learning the hard way, from not doing so in my last round of request. I’ve got the information back in a whole range of formats, including pdfs which are incredibly hard to extract data from. You can specify the format that you want the information in, and the authority is required to comply with your preference so long as that is reasonably practicable.

You don’t have to justify why you want the information – But I suggested if you are worried about how requesting the information might impact a relationship with an official you can always do so in a personal capacity or work with a colleague to request it.

And the useful advice from the group;

Test out your request – A couple of campaigners spoke of how when they’ve been using Freedom of Information for large-scale requests they’ve tested out the request they’re making with a few friendly FoI Officers first to check that its understandable.

Get the Information Commissioner involved – One campaign spoke of how they’d still not heard back from some local authorities after a number of months and had as a result got the Information Commissioner involved. It’s a good reminder that there is recourse available if you’re not happy with the initial response.

I’ll keep an eye out for good uses of Freedom of Information by campaigns. What tips would you add, or what questions do you have? 

Advertisements

Three great campaign innovations from ONE

Three really nice campaigning innovations from the ONE Campaign that I’ve come across in the last few weeks.

1 – The ONE Campaign App
Only available in the US, the iPhone app allows those who download it to stay in touch with the , access key information, connect with staff and take action. If anything it looks like the app is asking users to do much, but I love the feature that allows you to phone your Representative or Senator (complete with a script if you’re not so confident), as well as the integration that makes it easy to share the latest petition with their friends.

I’m sure the challenge of any app is to ensure that users go back to it regularly, but given the massive growth in the use of smartphones over the last few years I’m surprised that more organisations haven’t invested in similar technology.

2 – The DATA Report as an eBook
Another first? I’m not aware of other organisations that have made their flagship policy report available like this, but it makes so much sense to develop it given the environmental benefits and also the cost of sending hundreds of copies to policy makers. Be great to see more policy reports available like this.

3 – TweetNumber10
I’ve highlighted this before, but its such a great website and a really simple user experience. Just a few clicks and you’ve sent a tweet to Number 10. While its interesting that they ‘only’ persuaded 5,000 people to take action, compared to the tens of thousands that normally sign their online actions, I’m sure we’ll see lots more organisations using a similar approach.

Looking beyond the usual corporate suspects

I was struck by this comment in a great post by David Ritter on campaigning trends that corporates need to be ready to respond to in the coming year;

NGOs are increasingly looking beyond the usual corporate suspects for campaign targets.

Ritter goes on to cite the example of ‘the global management consultancy McKinsey has been targeted by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation for its ‘bad influence’ on deforestation. In McKinsey’s case – and to be brutally frank – for a global management consultancy that makes its living telling other people what to do, they’ve made a real mess out of how they have responded to being a campaign target.

Another great example of this approach, has been the campaigning that Sum Of Us have been doing toward the corporates that support the work of the Heartland Institute, a US think tank that has spent millions promoting climate scepticism.

The online movement has  focused on those corporates that fund the foundation and seen a number respond as a result putting real pressure on the ongoing funding of the Institute. It’s a great campaign, using an innovative approach which exposing the large sums that corporates spend rather than simply opposing the activities of the Institute, which would likely be futile.

I think campaigners could learn from both examples. What other examples of  campaigning beyond the usual corporate suspects have impressed you?

Learning from Stop the Pipeline campaign

The Stop the Keystone pipeline campaign is one that may have passed many in the UK by but in the US its resulted in a huge victory for environmental campaigners.

In brief, the campaign was looking to halt the construction of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada across the Midwest of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. You can read more about the pipeline here, and a few weeks ago President Obama announced that he wasn’t approving the go ahead of the pipeline.

It’s a real success for the campaign despite the fact that the campaign believes it was outspent by approx. $60m to $1m by the oil companies behind the pipeline, and research has shown that spokespeople for the pipeline were much more likely to be featured in the media. Although those involved are keen to point out that the fight isn’t over.

One of the most striking tactics that the campaign used was a fortnight of action in Washington DC where over 1,000 people were arrested for taking part in illegal sit-ins. Watching some of the films from August are incredibly inspiring and moving but in many ways these actions were the culmination of over 2+ years of campaigning.

On Thursday, I joined a ‘Debrief’ organised the New Organizing Institute which featured speakers from a number of the organisations that had been involved in the campaign. It was a thought-provoking session, and I came away reflecting on the following lessons learnt from the campaign.

1 – The importance trusted leaders – One of the speakers, spoke about the importance of bringing Bill McKibben into the campaign. McKibben is the founder of 350.org and was one of the first to write about climate change for a general audience over 20 years ago. The speaker suggested that his involvement changed the dynamic of the campaign, as he was perceived by many as a trusted leader who brought credibility to the urgency of the campaign message.

It’s a reminder that as well as friends and family who remain the best ‘messengers’ for any issue, some authority sources can be incredibly powerful at mobilising a group of individuals. Who are these in our movements?

2 – They called for a bold action – Bill McKibben is clear that the arrests outside the White House was a key tool in moving the campaign from a local one in the states effected to a national one. The called for a bold action, for activists to do something very real and something powerful.

Social media was used to mobilise people to attend the sit-ins in Washington. Many of those who got arrested had not done so before, and the photos and visuals helped to define the issue – make it a visually compelling action, while running the event over two weeks helped to create a political drama that draws out the story, providing an ongoing story that reporters could focus on.

Watching the films from the fortnight you get an incredible sense of a community amongst those involved in the campaign.

3 – Building locally and ahead of time – Although the peak of the campaigns activities appears to have been in August, listening to speakers from both the Energy Action Coalition and Sierra Club, it’s clear that important work that was done over many years to build campaigning activities in local communities.

In the case of the Energy Action Coalition starting on campuses during the Bush administration, knowing that their would be a day when a group of trained and mobilised young people would be needed. While for the Sierra Club it was going to communities in Nebraska and other effected states, talking to people, sharing stories and mobilising them as part of the campaign, long before the attention was focused on Washington DC.

4 – Using political donors and volunteers – The campaign realised that they couldn’t counter the influence of the significant financial donations that the energy industry makes to elected officials in the US, but they could mobilise the tens of thousands of individuals who had made small donation to, and in many cases worked for the Obama campaign in 2008.

Using this tactics they were able to demonstrate the level of concerns amongst a critical ‘base’ that the president needs to re-engage ahead of the 2012 elections. Meetings at regional offices of ‘Organizing for America’, the Presidents election organisation, as part of a Obama Check Up Day also helped to demonstrate this. Although, we don’t have a similar culture of politician donations in the UK, I can still see opportunities in approaching an issue in this way.

5 – Collaboration and coalition – This wasn’t simply an outsider campaign strategy, the coalition was an especially broad one, with insider meetings happening with the White House at the same time that people were getting arrested outside. The campaign was able to bring together environmental groups, alongside farming groups (whose land was threatened by the pipeline), First-Nation communities, unions and other.

A number of speakers highlighted the importance of this, while recognising the challenges of holding it together, especially around the issue of the  ‘jobs and growth’ agenda that is critical to many in light of the economic crisis . Weekly coordination meetings were held, but interestingly the campaign appears to have remained a ‘loose coalition’ as opposed to a tightly and more formally constituted one.

The 350.org folk have also written their reflections which are well worth a read.

What are the OccupyLondon protests teaching us?

Now in its fourth week, the OccupyLondon protests outside of St Paul’s Cathedral have been able to keep their cause in the media for such a sustained period of time, something many other campaigns fail to do.

While this was certainly helped by the mess that the Church of England made over it decision to close the Cathedral in the first week of the protest, I’m sure that the name recognition of the protest across the UK will be high.

Combine that with the rise of Occupy movements across the world, I’m in Washington DC this week and passed an OccupyDC in the city today, I think it’s legitimate to say that we’re seeing the birthing of a new campaigning movement, and with its emergence, a challenge to some of the assumptions about campaign structures that have guided more traditional organisations.

1 – Campaigns Needs Leaders

The OccupyLondon protests have spokesman but not leaders; they’ve adopted a non-hierarchical which means that decisions are made by a General Assembly which gathers each and every day to reach agreement by consensus. So far, even the media haven’t been able to bestow the title of ‘leader’ upon an individual associated with the protest.

The approach they’re taking of course isn’t an entirely new one, it’s been used by other campaigning movements, like Climate Camp, in recent years but it brings into focus one of the key questions I think that campaigns are facing at the moment, do campaigns need leaders?

Some would argue that a strong central leader or leaders is essential to a campaign’s success, for example Ann Pettifor who lead the Jubilee Debt Campaign writes in Cutting the Diamond ‘Contrary to the views of many in not-for-profit organisations, I believe that sound leadership is fundamental to successful public advocacy

Going on to contrast the Jubilee 2000 campaign which had a tight hierarchical leadership structure with a single clear message, to that of the climate change movement, which is made up of ‘thousands of small and large well-meaning organisations stumbled leaderless, disunited, and without a clear achievable ‘ask’ into the United Nations Copenhagen process’.

At the moment OccupyLondon are demonstrating that it’s possible to take a different approach and run a high-profile campaign. If this public profile can be sustained without a smaller group of identifiable leaders coming to the public conscience it could be seen as another blow for those who hold the position that campaigns can only succeed with a strong leader (or leaders) at their heart.

2 – Campaigns Need Clear and Concise Asks

One of the things I found striking from the first few days of the protest, was the lack of an apparent clear set of campaign asks coming out from the protesters, indeed a number of media outlets had to resort to pieces speculating on ‘what do the campaigners want’.

After a couple of days this statement was released from the General Assembly, but it still lacks the ‘elevator pitch’ that many campaigns rest upon, but is this needed?

This was a theme that Adrian Lovett, Director of ONE in Europe picked up upon in an excellent debate on The World Tonight last month, when he suggested that ‘the two things that a campaign needs is that its got to describe the destination that it want to get to, the world the campaigns want to create in as vivid as way as possible, but if that’s hard to get to some of the steps along the way’. For me, it doesn’t feel as the OccupyLondon movement has that at present, and I wonder if that’s hindering the movement growing.

I’m struck for example that movements like 38 Degrees don’t appear to have mobilised their supporters behind it, despite many of the aims of the movement being in keeping with its ‘progressive agenda’. Is this because they’re not able to reduce the demands of the movement to a concise and communicable few lines that will translate well into an email?

What do you think? Do you agree that campaigns need leaders? Does OccupyLondon need a clear ask to succeed?

UpdateThird Sector has an article about how charities could learn from the OccupyLondon communication approach.

What we can learn from the Robin Hood Tax campaign

The Robin Hood Tax campaign has used a range of new and innovative tactics that other campaign coalitions could learn from. 

I suspect that you’ll be hearing a lot about the Robin Hood Tax in the coming week. The campaign has a great opportunity to succeed when G20 leaders meeting in France at the start of November, while the ongoing #OccupyLSE protests have increased the level of debate about what’s stopping the UK government implementing the tax.

I’ve highlighted before that the campaign has produced some fantastic campaign videos, but a few other tactics that I’ve seen the campaign use stand out.

Innovation Day – Back in the summer, the organisers behind the campaign opened up the planning process to anyone who wanted to come along and attend its Innovation Day. The day was hosted in London and facilitated by a team involved in the campaign. It’s great to see a campaign ‘open-source’ its planning process in this way, inviting supporters to help to shape the direction and contribute their ideas. The day ended up producing two ‘concepts’ that supporters were invited to provide further feedback on and get involved in. I’m not sure what happened next, but it’d be good to see more invite committed supporters to get involved like this.

Fundraising for adverts – The campaign isn’t the first to invite supporters to make small contributions towards advertising or other campaign activities, but by using it the Robin Hood Tax campaign has highlighted a growing trend by campaigning organisations – asking for small donations for specific items of spending.
You can see the strengths in the idea with PayPal it’s easy for people to donate, and micro donations of £1-£3 don’t feel like an enormous cost to an individual. My only concern with this approach is that is doesn’t help to communicate the less visible costs of a campaign (producing a policy report, paying for staff, etc). We need to ensure that we’re encouraging people to commit to long-term support for campaigning organisations as well.

Gone after the vested interest – Often in campaigning I think we’re guilty of not spending enough time thinking about the forces and organisations who don’t want our campaigns to succeed. We campaign under a belief that if our arguments are ‘right’ then we’ll succeed. The RHT campaign was clearly aware this wouldn’t be the case when it came to heavy resistances from the financial sector, and it’s been good to see how the Robin Hood Tax hasn’t been afraid to highlight the ideological and financial links between the current government and the bankers.

Exemplary use of a expertsBill Nighy has been an inspired choice as a spokesperson for the campaign. He’s been active in the campaign for the last year, appears on TV to talk about why we need a RHT, writes op-ed pieces and turns up at events. Unlike other celebrities he appears committed for the long-haul of the campaign.
It’s also been good to see how the campaign has used Economists, like getting over 1,000 to sign a letter ahead to G20 financial minister and more recently Jeffery Sachs writing to the UK Chancellor, to counter the financial voices that say that a FTT can’t work.

What else has impressed you about the Robin Hood Tax campaign? What hasn’t worked so well? 

What makes a successful demonstration?

Ensuring you are clear about your objectives is vital if you plan to organise a successful public mobilisation event.

A late night drive back from Manchester after being involved in ‘Bearing Witness‘, a mobilisation which saw 1000+ supporters of Tearfund, Christian Aid and CAFOD march through the streets of the city ahead of the Conservative Party Conference, to call on the government to achieve its commitment to be the ‘greenest ever’ got me thinking about what makes a successful public mobilisation event.

For me, before embarking on organising a demonstration, rally or similar event that will see large numbers of supporters gathering in one place, you have to be confident that the event will achieve at least 2 of the following objective.

Political – The event will have a direct impact on presenting another policy position to those decision makers the campaign is trying to influence. This could be through a ‘mass lobby’ event where supporters meet face-to-face with MPs or other key decision makers, or a march/demonstration that is of such a size that it’ll get covered in the media or seen as it causes peaceful disruption in the area its targeting are working.

Personally, I’m sceptical about the impact that many marches that take places around Whitehall at a weekend have, because the majority of those who need to be influenced aren’t around and don’t get covered in the media. One way to overcome this is to invite politicians to speak to address those attending but negotiations to do this can be delicate to arrange to say the least!

Media – Too often the event and message from the event don’t get covered by the media. Sadly the majority of traditional marches go unnoticed by all but those attended, and even then those that attended can often feel unmotivated that the event didn’t get picked up. Bearing Witness was fortunate to get picked up by Sky News cameras looking for evidence of demonstrations happening around the Conservative Party Conference.

There are way of making a march more likely to get media coverage, for example involving high-profile individuals, but unless there is a threat of violence they don’t seem to get noticed. One way of to overcome this is to ensure that the event is linked to a political hook that the media will be wanting to cover because a march can provide good footage to demonstrate opposition, but the timings of this can often be difficult to predict.

Education – Events can be useful ways of bringing together dedicated supporters to a cause and equip them with further information about the issue and plans. At Bearing Witness, the agencies involved put on well attended training afternoons as a way of doing this, which allowed supporters to learn more about the climate change issue the campaign was focusing on and further actions that they could take. I’ve also seen this done well at Mass Lobby events where supporters spend time being briefed before going out to lobby their MPs.

Energising supporter – Marches can breathe life into campaigns and provide a focal point to mobilise lapsed and new supporters to get involved again. For example, the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh back in 2005 helped to mobilise lots of new supporters who wanted to attend the event. Although it’s a high barrier to entry ask, if packaged right I think it can help to recruit new supporters (and energise lapsed supporters), as well as helping campaigners who might feel isolated that they’re part of a bigger movement.

What objectives would you select? Should we ever organise marches or demonstrations just for the sake of marching?