Starting to look at websites which belong to public bodies does feel a bit like looking under a stone and realising that while it’s shiny on top it can be all muddy and dirty underneath.
Firstly, hats off to Lisburn City Council.
When informed about the missing minutes and bad links quite quickly published most of the misplaced minutes online and fixed the erring pages. Just 24 March and a special meeting of the full council on 18 April remain absent.
Someone suggested taking a look Magherafelt District Council’s website.
“It is intended, as far as possible, to make material available on the Magherafelt District Council website on an ongoing basis ...”
Later, it goes to on state
“Although the Council has an operational website, which includes partial disclosure of information regarding Elected Members (refer to Classes of Information – page 9), the website has not yet been upgraded to accommodate requests for information governed by the Publication Scheme.”
But more than six years on, a reasonable ratepayer might have expected the council to have upgraded?
Unfortunately I can’t find much evidence of some of the classes of information (ie, document types) being available online. Council minutes seem to be available as photocopies, but not kept for online browsing.
To my untrained – and perhaps ill-informed eye – this seems to fly in the face of both the Council’s own ambition (stated six years ago) to make information available online, and also the Information Commissioner’s Office’s “model publication scheme that all public sector organisations should have adopted from 1 January 2009”. The ICO’s scheme states
“Where it is within the capability of a public authority, information will be provided on a website. Where it is impracticable to make information available on a website or when an individual does not wish to access the information by the website, a public authority will indicate how information can be obtained by other means and provide it by those means.”
And the ICO’s specific “examples of the kinds of information that we would expect district councils in Northern Ireland to provide in order to meet their commitments under the model publication scheme” seems miles away from what Magherafelt say they provide. Nothing about most recent election results, no timetable of council meetings, no register of councillors’ interests.
I’d be very surprised if Magherafelt District Council didn’t hold much of this information, and if asked I’m sure they’ll willingly supply it. But they do seem to be falling short of the ICO’s guidance that
“authorities should look to provide as much information as possible on a routine basis.”
Oh, and emailing them last night on their published enquiry address was useless as the messages were bouncing!
The following message to
was undeliverable.The reason for the problem:
5.1.0 - Unknown address error 550-'5.1.1
is not a valid mailbox'
Status: 5.0.0 (permanent failure)
Remote-MTA: dns; [126.96.36.199]
Diagnostic-Code: smtp; 5.1.0 - Unknown address error 550-'5.1.1
is not a valid mailbox' (delivery attempts: 0)
They hadn’t updated their homepage to announce the public meeting in August; had only half the 2008 minutes published and none of the 2009 ones; their link to a calendar of meetings was broken; and they have the wrong phone number on their How to ask questions page.
Flicking through other regional DPP sites, some seemed to be a better state.
To be fair, Lisburn DPP did reply very quickly to my email pointing out the issues and the local DPP Manager explained that the Northern Ireland Policing Board host the DPPs’ websites and are in the process of updating them. However, at the moment “there have been unavoidable delays in the process”. The good news is that “it is due to go 'live' by the end of the week”.
But the lack of minutes for such a long time does seem to run against the (April 2008) DPP Code of Practice, in particular section 7.4 which expects
Reports of Meetings in Public
... Not later than 7 working days after the report of the meeting in public of a DPP has been formally ratified, the report must be available on the DPP website.
While public attendance of Lisburn DPP meetings is still high when compared with other districts, the total attendance did fall by more than a third between 2007/8 and 2008/9. So communications in general may not be working ... or else 2007/8 had some particularly well attended meetings.
So is any of this important? Obviously to many people it’s not, as if they’d asked earlier, much of the information might not available and not missing. But doesn’t that point to a lack of engagement by society in the (very many) public bodies that help administer and monitor its affairs?
While Northern Ireland councils may be unwilling to make large scale improvements in the face of imminent changes to their number and distribution, now is a good time to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly.
To me, it seems that it’s all very well having central guidance and thought through best practice. But if public bodies on the ground don’t follow the advice, then it’s the public at large who are less well informed about what is being done on their behalf, or inconvenienced in not being able to quickly find out.