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Access to data is more vital than ever to help decision making during the coronavirus crisis. The ODI – with funding from Luminate – is offering free support to make data, models and software as open as possible so more people can use it.

Here we speak to John Wood, Digital Manager at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), about its work surrounding the publication of workplace risk assessments during the pandemic, employer transparency, and how the ODI has been able to help them with the covidsecurecheck.uk service.

What was the TUC’s Covid-19 project about?

We want people to be able to get back to work with the confidence that they're getting back to work safely. So we've been working with the government on a lot of the responses to Covid-19, such as the furlough scheme. 

We were pleased that the government took up our recommendation to make risk assessments mandatory, but we were disappointed that they didn’t also make publication mandatory. They strengthened their language around publication by saying that all employers with over 50 employees should publish on their website, but they didn't put in a mechanism in place for collating and making that visible, as they did with gender pay gap reporting.

We were concerned that without transparency, employers would take the path of least resistance. Either they would not publish, in which case workers would be in the dark about whether or not they're going back to work on terms that are fair compared to others in the industry; or worse still, some employers might seek to avoid the whole process entirely. We wanted to crowdsource evidence of these risk assessments as much as we could. Are companies publishing? If so, what are they publishing? We want that information to be used by union workers, campaigners and journalists to understand how much employers are following government guidance, and whether there is good practice in getting back to work safely.

What exactly is mandatory for businesses with over 50 employees?

All employers with more than five members of staff have to complete Covid-19 workplace risk assessments. If you're a small firm, you don't have to publish but you can put up your blue sticker, as long as you've told your staff what the assessment said. If you're an employer with over 50 members of staff, the government says that you should publish the risk assessment on your website.

The ODI are keen for as much non-personal data as possible to be made as open as possible. Often however, the public sector finds it hard to ask a straightforward question of the private sector. It seems that the TUC has asked a direct, straightforward question of a whole range of organisations and businesses. With that framing, could you tell us how you went about the task?

We are still very much going about that task. The TUC is about to upload another data release through Octopub, and I think that will take us to about 250 records. Considering that there are over 40,000 medium and large companies out there, it’s just a start!

We are not complaining about employers’ lack of engagement just yet because we don't yet have a direct channel with them. Our best channel currently is working the union network. Unions have about six million members – about 25% of the workforce – and we've got about 120,000 workplace reps within those unions. Many of those get safety training for their government-recognised role of safety reps, where they have legal entitlements to check whether workplaces are running safely. That's quite a powerful additional tool that workers have, but it's only in the unionised workplaces. The majority of workplaces don’t have safety reps yet.

It's a tricky ask of the private sector because we're not asking them to provide access to a standard piece of data they already routinely gather. We’re asking them to have conducted this part of their responsibilities, and then share with us just the one piece of data for each company.

At the moment, we are getting our data in three ways. We've got an open call on the website where people can fill in the information about any company. It’s a fairly manual process, and we check these through before publishing. When we’re out of alpha we’d potentially like to use APIs to help with this. We're also getting a few companies reporting through that mechanism and submitting corrections because, even with a tiny dataset, it’s important that it’s not inaccurate. Because this process is so fast-moving, people are often reissuing versions of their risk assessments. We’re also regularly scanning Google for key phrases to help us find more. We are trying to see if this is something that could be useful on a larger scale - though at the moment it’s a bit chicken and egg.

Getting to about 250 records has helped us to better understand how this stuff is being reported. The alpha phase is helping us to find out about how companies are publishing. For example, we can now see that Bombardier has three factories with different setups in each. It has chosen to publish three different assessments. Whereas other companies might be producing one for the whole business, or different ones for different types of work, regardless of location. 

We are starting to look at how we take this into beta. What have we learned from the data? What do we have to do if we're going to make this data usable rather than just being a giant CSV file that people can't understand?

Could you explain how Octopub has been a useful tool?

We developed the idea for this project with a few colleagues and friends of ours. One of them is Richard Pope, who was part of the original Government Digital Service team. He is very interested in platforms, government data, and how to make real world use of it. Then we have Sam Jeffers, who runs a project called ‘Who targets me?’, which looks at transparency in advertising and politics. He is interested in the potential of transparency projects and has also worked a fair bit with us and with other unions in the past. 

They came to us with an idea around reporting on Covid-19 safety concerns, and we had separately been considering how to make the best of the government’s recently published risk assessment guidelines, so there was a good match of interests. Richard suggested we should investigate Octopub to see if it was a useful tool for us to be using in the project. This was naturally appealing to us – the idea of standardisation and open data is particularly interesting to us for two reasons.

The first is that, because we're still finding our way in this, it makes sense to look at where other people have been classifying corporate and economic data in the past – we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. So where could we look at other people's schemas? 

The second reason is that data is only useful if it's being used. And while we have an idea of how we would want to use this data ourselves, there's lots that it could do for unions at a local level – for example it can help aggregate data about good and bad practice, and ensure that the employers are not the only ones with the knowledge. But the return to work and getting there safely throughout the pandemic is such a big thing that there will be people who will undoubtedly have other uses for the data. Greater transparency of information about safety in the workplace can only be a good thing.

The idea of publishing and standardising our data was extremely attractive to us. But we hadn’t even thought of the many ways this data could be useful. Is it useful to pair it with localisation tools? Supposing you were running a jobs board, would you want to call in information about whether that company has gone back to work, and if so, would users like to look at their risk assessment before applying for a job with them? What if you wanted to find out about safety at a shop before leaving the house? Olivier at the ODI was able to give us lots of helpful examples that expanded how we thought about the potential for this.

Do you think this ask would have been impossible without the government’s backing?

Probably. The incentive to do something for a best practice reason is only going to work for better employers. Having the government guidance to publish is a useful stick to go with the carrot, but they could have made it so much more effective.

We aren’t passing off the website as government-owned – it has our colours and the TUC logo on it – but we’ve made it look quite like a GDS site on purpose.

This project is something that the government could do. The Government Digital Service has done some brilliant work during the pandemic, such as the implementation of the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme. That shows that they could have done something like this in their sleep, and it would be great if they had, so there's a slight nod in that this could fit into what the government does.

If you could pin down a call to action, what do you think it would be?

Ideally, we'd like every company to be following the government guidance and publishing their risk assessment on their website. If they do that, we’ll find a lot of them.

Proactively submitting it to the covidsecurecheck.uk website however, would be amazing. If you are a company who has done well in this and treats it seriously, then please put it in the system. This will only benefit you because you're at risk from competitors who are not treating safety seriously undercutting you, as they will be forcing employees back to work in worse conditions and not putting the effort in. That’s why transparency is so important.

Get involved

If you have data which could be used to help address Covid-19, data that you would like to make more open to help us to live in lockdown or help with the decisions needed to get societies moving again, please get in touch with us, and please follow and engage with the #OpenDataSavesLives community online.