Why our intern was out for the count: the quality of democratic data

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In advance of the LGiU and Democracy Club’s Out for the Count project, we asked our intern Roshni Mistry to check on the quality of democratic information offered on council websites that we thought were holding local elections. What she found was no surprise to us, but quantified the lack of clear democratic information on many council websites. Out for the Count is aiming to provide the first open data set of election returns to ward level for the 5 May English local elections by crowdsourcing the data, find out how you can help.

I’m Roshni, and I’m LGiU’s new Policy and Public Affairs intern. As my first week was drawing to a close I was tasked with trawling through 126 council websites to see how easily accessible their local elections and councillor information is. As an intern, I could provide a outsider’s view on the transparency of democratic information on council websites. My first thoughts were: “Oh great this is a straightforward simple task. How hard can it be to find out basic information like when a councillor’s seat is up for election!?”

Around three council websites in it quickly dawned on me that this information was going to be much harder to locate than I originally thought. To give you an idea as to the level of my frustration half way through this process- I found myself calling for a mandatory centrally imposed basic council website template to be implemented as soon as possible! (This is contrary to the fact that I am now working for a organisation which promotes localism and this is an ideal which I believe is very important to improve democracy in the UK!)

I have outlined below the main pieces of information I was looking for:

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1. Councillor information and re-election date

Generally it was very easy to locate basic information about local councillors.

People are given the chance to search for their councillor alphabetically, by ward and political party. Whilst almost all the council websites I went through provided information as to when the councillor was elected, it became very difficult to locate when their seat would be up for election. In the case of one council website, I was presented with vast streams of information as to what the councillor does in their spare time, in this instance fell walking, but not when their seat would be up for election. In general I think councillor information can be improved by:

  • Clearly stating when their seats are up for election
  • Expressing what issues are important to that councillor and if they are campaigning for anything specific

2. When local elections are taking place

On the whole, most local authorities acknowledged that there were upcoming local elections. Some councils provided lists of which seats are up for election and how you can register to vote. I found that when councils had provided this information it was much easier to locate specifically which councillor’s seats were up for election. However, in some rare instances I found council websites without any information pertaining to upcoming local elections. I found this quite worrying as Local Elections are on the 5th May!

3. The political make up of the council

The political make up was the hardest piece of information I had to locate. I found myself spending large quantities of time trying to find out which political party was actually running the council. Frustratingly, even when I could find the overall seat breakdown, it was very rare to find a single sentence which explained what the seat breakdown meant in terms of who actually runs the council. This is not so much a problem when there is a clear winner, however many councils are run in coalition due to no political party having a clear majority. In this instance it should be clearly stated that the council is run in coalition. This information is vital as the political make up of the council determines how the local authority is run. It’s almost like council websites ignore the fact that local government is political.

Overall, whilst this task was annoyingly difficult, it was definitely worthwhile. And not only because I got a tour of the country from the comfort of my own laptop. It opened my eyes to the differing levels of information available on local elections. There appears to be a clear postcode lottery when it comes to how good your local council is at presenting its democratic information. With greater devolution to be given to local authorities it is in the interest of the public that these websites improve. If not for the public then for the sanity of the next researcher who is tasked to assess 126 council websites!

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Photo Credit: JenGallardo via Compfight cc

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