FixMyStreet.com has always tried to make it as simple as possible to report a street problem. When we built FixMyStreet for Councils, we wanted to simplify things for local authority employees too.
So, as well as offering the option to integrate with council back-end systems, we also put together this nifty dashboard (right – click to see full-size). It’s one of several extra features councils get when they purchase the FixMyStreet for Councils package.
What do councils need?
- At-a-glance statistics, for all kinds of reporting. Perhaps the local newspaper have asked how many potholes have been fixed this year, or internal staff need a report on which types of problem are most rapidly fixed.
The top half of the dashboard allows for this sort of analysis. The drop-down category list means you can filter the view to show one category of problem – say, fly tipping – or all of them. Results are shown across a variety of timeframes.
FixMyStreet for Councils allows councils to designate their own progress statuses, beyond our standard ‘fixed’ and ‘open’. So, in this case, the statuses include ‘in progress’, ‘planned’, ‘investigating’, etc. Each of these is shown separately.
- A realistic picture of how long it takes to deal with issues. The ‘average time to council marking as fixed’ is a great measure of just how much time it is taking to get reports resolved.
Perhaps just as important, though, is the ‘average time to first council state change’ – that could just mean the report has been acknowledged, or that its status has changed to ‘under investigation’ – but these are still valuable mileposts for keeping residents informed of progress.
- Quick access to problems, as they’re reported. At the foot of the dashboard, there are links to all problems reported within the council boundaries.
There’s an option to filter them by any of the statuses, as above.
- Access for multiple people, in different locations. The dashboard is web-based, so it can be accessed by any employee with internet access – or several at once.
- But at the same time, complete security. It’s password-protected, so it’s only accessible to those who have been granted access.
- A responsive provider. mySociety believe that the launch of new software is only the beginning of the story.
When people start using new products, they often do so in surprising ways. They often ask for features that would never have occurred to us, and indeed might never have previously occurred to them.
We will remain in active development, of the dashboard, and of FixMyStreet for Councils as a whole. We’ll be soliciting feedback, and listening to it very carefully.
The FixMyStreet for Councils dashboard is only available to councils as part of our FixMyStreet for Councils package – find out more here.
Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.
More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.
How do you know where to start?
Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?
Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.
What are your users trying to do?
So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:
- Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
- Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
- Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
- Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.
If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.
Talking to service managers
Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.
The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.
With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.
This is the third of our recent series of Open311 blog posts: we started by explaining why we think Open311 is a good idea, and then we described in a non-techie way how Open311 works. In this post we’ll introduce our proposed extension to Open311, and show how we use it in FixMyStreet.
The crux of our suggested improvement is this: normal people want to know what has happened to their problem, and Open311 currently isn’t good enough at telling them whether or not it has been dealt with. To be more specific, our additions are all about reports’ status change, by which we mean something like this:
I just totally fixed it.
That’s robot-311 from the previous post, if you’ve dropped in here without reading the previous posts. Once again we’re blurring the distinction between client and user (the girl you’ll see below) a little, to make things simpler to follow.
Every month in the UK, thousands of problems are reported on www.fixmystreet.com and, moments later, sent on to the councils who will fix them. Here’s what happens with a problem report for something like a pothole or a flickering streetlight:
- You create the report on FixMyStreet.
- FixMyStreet sends that report to the right department at the right council.
- That body puts it into its own back-end system.
- Later, when the council fixes the problem, FixMyStreet is updated, and everyone knows it’s fixed.
On the face of it, you might think we need only care about 1 and 2. But really, FixMyStreet isn’t just about dispatching reports, it’s about helping to get things like potholes actually fixed. And neither citizens nor local governments benefit if work gets done but nobody finds out about it – which is part 4 on the list above.
What do we mean by “status change”?
The example at the top of the page shows the robot effectively changing a problem’s status to “fixed”.
Actually, statuses can be simple, such as either OPEN or CLOSED, or more detailed, such as “under investigation”, “crew has been dispatched”, “fixed”, and so on. But since we’re only concerned here with the status changing, that specific vocabulary deployed doesn’t really matter – it can be anything.
In situations where FixMyStreet is not integrated with council systems (i.e we just send email problem reports) FixMyStreet problems still frequently get marked as fixed, because anyone can change the status of a report just by visiting the page and clicking the button. Obviously, though, we prefer to have FixMyStreet directly connected to the local government back-end databases, so that news of a fixed report can be automatically bubbled from the back-office up into FixMyStreet and out onto the net.
And here’s where the problem lies: Open311 doesn’t quite support this business of getting problem updates from the back office out to the public. So first, we’ll show you how it can be done today, using Open311, and we’ll explain why this isn’t a good option. Then we’ll show our preferred solution, which we’ve proposed as an extension.
Looking at everything just to spot one change (bad)
One way to notice if any problems’ statuses have changed is to use Open311 to ask for every single service request, and see if any of them have a different status since the last time you checked.
Tell me all the service requests you’ve ever received
request 981276 the pothole on the corner by Carpenter Street is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
request 988765 the pothole by bus stop on Nigut Road is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
request 998610 gaping hole at the end of Sarlacc Road is now OPEN (the pothole fell through)
request 765533 where the street was cracked outside Taffey’s Snake Pit is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
. . .
continues for thousands of requests
Um, OK. Now I’ll look at all these and see if any have changed since I last asked *sigh*
Obviously there are some problems with this. Even though Open311 lets you ask for quite specific service requests, you have to ask for all of them, because by definition you don’t know which ones might have changed. Remember, too, that problems can potentially change status more than once, so just because it’s been marked as CLOSED once doesn’t mean it won’t become OPEN again later. This exchange is very wasteful, very slow and ultimately (with enough reports) may become de facto impossible.
Asking for just the changes (good)
So here’s a better way of doing it. We’ve actually been doing this for some months, and now seems the time to share.
The client asks the server for just the updates on a regular basis, so any requests that have recently changed get updated on FixMyStreet automatically, usually just a few minutes later.
Have you changed the status of any of service requests today?
Yes, request 981276 was CLOSED at 3 o’clock (I filled in the pothole)
Or, more practically for keeping FixMyStreet up to date:
Have you changed the status of any of service requests in the last 15 minutes?
This is handled by our extension to Open311,
GET Service Request Updates. There’s also an optional equivalent call for putting updates into the server (
POST Service Request Update), which would apply if the client changed the status after the service request had been submitted.
Note that the server identifies the problem with its own reference (that is,
981276 is the council’s reference, not a FixMyStreet ID, for example). This is important because not all these requests necessarily came from this particular client. Remember that all service requests are available through the Open311
GET Service Requests call anyway (as shown above). So the server doesn’t send each service request back in its entirety: just its ID, the new status, when it changed, and a brief description.
In practice the client wouldn’t usually ask for “today”. In fact, we typically send a request asking for any updates in the last 15 minutes, and then at the end of the day ask for the whole day’s updates, just to check none were missed.
The technical bit
From a client’s point of view, this is simply an extra call like others in the Open311 API. So it’s just a request over HTTP(S) for XML (or JSON, if required).
We deliberately make the client poll the server for updates and pull them in, rather than expecting the server to push updates out. This frees the server from any obligation to track which clients (for there may be more than just one) care about which updates. The requests themselves are sent with unique IDs, allocated by the server, so the client can dismiss duplicates. It’s also robust in the event of connection failures, so if there are timeouts or retry logic, that’s for the clients to worry about, not the server. Basically, this is all to make it as light on the server as possible: the only real issue is that it must be able to provide a list of updates. This usually means adding a trigger to the database, so that when a problem’s status is updated a record of that update is automatically created. It’s the table of those “service request update” records that incoming requests are really querying.
We have published our own recommendation of this mechanism, which FixMyStreet already implements, alongside the FixMyStreet codebase.
Is that it?
Yup, that’s it.
This extension is in addition to the Open311 specification — it doesn’t break existing implementations in any way. Obviously this means FixMyStreet’s Open311 implementation is compatible with existing Open311 servers. But we hope that others working on Open311 systems will consider our extension so that clients are kept better informed of the status of the problems being fixed.
Why are statuses so important that it is worth extending the Open311 spec?
mySociety didn’t originally build FixMyStreet because we wanted to get potholes fixed. We built it because we wanted nervous, politically inexperienced people to know what it felt like to ask the government to do something, and to be successful at that. We wanted to give people the buzz of feeling like they have a bit of power in this world, even if the most tiny amount.
If the government fixes a problem and the citizen doesn’t find out it’s a double loss. The citizen becomes disillusioned and weakened, and the government doesn’t get the credit it is due. Everyone loses. We think that Open311 is a key mechanism for making large numbers of people feel that the government does respond to their needs. It just needs a bit of an upgrade to do it better. We hope very much that the wider community tests and endorses our extensions, and it can be folded in to the next official version of the Open311 standard.
In the previous blog post we explained why we think Open311 is a good idea. In this post we’ll explain what it actually does.
Open311 is very simple, but because it’s fundamentally a technical thing it’s usually explained from a technical point of view. So this post describes what Open311 does without the nerdy language (but with some nerdy references for good measure). At the end there’s a round-up of the terms so you can see how it fits in with the actual specification.
We’re using an unusual example here — a blue cat stuck up a tree — to show how applicable Open311 is to a wide range of problems. Or, to put it another way, this is not just about potholes.
So… someone has a problem they want to report (for this discussion, she’s using a service like FixMyStreet).
There’s one place where that report needs to be sent (in the UK, that’s your council). That administrative body (the council) almost certainly has a database full of problems which only their staff can access.
I have a problem :–(
I fix problems!
In this example, FixMyStreet is an Open311 client and the council is an Open311 server. The server is available over HTTP(S), so the client can access it, and the server itself connects to the council’s database. In reality it’s a little bit more complicated than that (for now we’ll ignore clients that implement only part of Open311, multiple servers, and decent security around these connections), but that is the gist of it.
Although it’s not technically correct to confuse the client with the user, or the server with the council, it makes things a lot easier to see it this way, so we’ll use those terms throughout.
To start things off, the client can ask the server: what services do you provide?
Until the client has asked the server what problems it can fix, it can’t sensibly request any of them.
What services do you offer?
POT: fix potholes
TELE: clean public teleports
PET: get pets down from trees
JET: renew jetpack licenses …
FixMyStreet can use the response it gets from such a service discovery to offer different categories to people reporting problems. We actually put them into the drop-down menu that appears on the report-a-problem page.
In the Open311 API, this is handled by
GET Service List. Each service has its own
service_code which the client must use when requesting it. Note that these services and their codes are decided by the server; they are not defined by the Open311 specification. This means that service discovery can easily fit around whatever services the council already offers. The list of services can (and does) vary widely from one council to the next.
Some services require specific information when they are requested. For example, it might be important to know how deep a pothole is, but it’s not relevant for a streetlight repair.
Tell me more about the PET service!
I can get pets down from trees, but when you request the service, you *must* tell me what kind of animal the pet is, OK?
In the Open311 API, this is handled by the
GET Service Definition method. It’s not necessary for a simple Open311 implementation. In fact, it only makes sense if the service discovery explicitly told the client to ask about the extra details, which the server does by adding
metadata="true" to its response for a given service.
Requesting a service
This is where it gets useful. The client can request a service: this really means they can report a problem to the server for the body to deal with. Some submissions can be automatically rejected:
My hoverboots are broken :–( I need BOOT service!
404: Bzzzt error! I don’t fix hoverboots (use service discovery to see what I *do* fix)
Hey! Blueblue is up a tree! I need PET service (for cats)!
400: error! You forgot to tell me where it is.
If the report is in good order, it will be accepted into the system. Open311 insists that every problem has a location. In practice this is usually the exact position, coordinates on planet Earth, of the pin that the reporter placed on the map in the client application (in this case FixMyStreet.com).
I need PET service (for cats)! Blueblue is stuck up the biggest tree in the park :–(
200: OK, got it… the unique ID for your request is now 981276
In the Open311 API, this is handled by
POST Service Request. You need an API key to do this, which simply means the server needs to know which client this is. Sometimes it makes sense for the server to have additional security such as IP address restriction, and login criteria that’s handled by the machines (not the user).
Listing known requests
The server doesn’t keep its reports secret: if asked, it will list them out. The client can ask for a specific report (using the ID that the server gave when the report was submitted, for example) or for a range of dates.
Did anyone ask you for help yesterday?
Yes, I got two requests:
request 981299: TELE dirty teleport at the cantina (I’m waiting for a new brush)
request 971723: POT pothole at the junction of Kirk and Solo (I filled it in)
In the Open311 API this is handled by
GET Service Request(s). The client can indicate which requests should be listed by specifying the required service request id, service code, start date, end date or status.
Does Open311 work?
Oh yes. On the Open311 website, you can see the growing list of places, organisations, and suppliers who are using it.
The technical bit
In a nutshell: Open311 responds to HTTP requests with XML data (and JSON, if it’s wanted). There’s no messing around with SOAP and failures are reported as the HTTP status code with details provided in the content body.
You can see the specification for Open311 (GeoReport v2). It doesn’t feature blue cats, but if you look at the XML examples you’ll be able to recognise the same interaction described here. And remember the specification is an open standard, which means anyone can (and, we think, should) implement it when connecting a client and server in order to request civic services.
In the next blog post we’ll look at how FixMyStreet uses Open311 to integrate with local council systems, and explain why we’re proposing, and utilising, some additions to the Open311 specification.
Illustrated especially for us by René Carbonell.
The Internet has thrown up a host of challenges for governments, large and small. Most people are familiar with the problems presented by issues like hacking, but there is another challenge which probably worries local governments just as much.
The challenge is this – how can a local government cheaply and efficiently cope with the fact that the public wants to request many services through a rapidly expanding plethora of different channels – phones, websites, email, apps, and Twitter? And how can it keep control of costs when new channels are being invented all the time?
The good news is there’s an answer that can prevent each new channel leading to ever-greater costs – a free technology called Open311. The bad news is not many people know it exists, let alone how to use it, or how it works.
In this post, and two more to follow, we’ll explain how Open311 can help governments (and citizens), how it functions, and what mySociety is doing to make Open311 work a bit better.
Background – the status quo
At mySociety, we’ve been running services for years that send messages of different kinds to government bodies, on behalf of our users. Since the very beginning we’ve always been keen that any public servant or politician who receives a message via one of our systems gets it in a familiar form that doesn’t require any special knowledge or training to read or reply to. That’s why for the first few years FixMyStreet sent all its problem reports via email, WhatDoTheyKnow sent all its FOI requests via email, and WriteToThem sent all its letters to politicians via email and fax (remember fax?).
However, despite the fact that reading and responding to emails doesn’t require governments to procure any new technology or any new skills, these days this approach can clearly be bettered. Today, an email report of a broken paving slab will typically be received by a public servant working in a call centre. This person will normally cut and paste text from the email into a new database, or into a new email, before dispatching it for someone else to consider, and action.
Now, imagine that instead of this, a problem report about a broken paving slab could be sent directly from a citizen and placed into the electronic to-do list for the local government team who fix paving slabs. This would do more than just cut costs – it would make it much easier for the citizen to get sent a notification when their problem is marked as ‘resolved’ in the official database.
This is not an original idea. The team at mySociety are not the only people who think that enabling citizens to directly slot requests, messages and problem reports into local government ‘to do’ databases is desirable. In the USA a group of civic minded technologists at OpenPlans were concerned by the same issue. They decided to do something about it – and they launched a project under the banner of Open311.
In the USA a number of cities have non-emergency government telephone helplines, accessible at the phone number 311. As a consequence ’311′ has come to refer to more than just a phone line – it has come to mean the entire process of handling service requests from citizens around a whole range of non-emergency issues, from garbage to noisy neighbours.
To the ears of some American public servants the name ‘Open311′ consequently conjures up an image of a better, nicer more ‘open’ way of handling such non-emergency requests from citizens.
So what is Open311?
Beyond a brand, what is Open311? The answer is simple: Open311 is standardised way for computers to report problems (like potholes or fallen trees) to the computers run by the bodies that can fix them (like local governments or city departments). It’s an open standard that was started by the lovely people at OpenPlans, and which is now slowly iterating with the help of people inside and outside of governments.
In other words, Open311 is the mechanism through which citizens can slot their service requests directly into the computerised ‘to do’ lists of local government staff, and the way they those citizens can get back progress updates more quickly and easily.
Why is an Open Standard a good thing?
An open standard is just a way of communicating that anyone can implement it, without paying any money for permission to use the technology. The good thing about open standards is that once several technology systems start using the same ones, different systems from different manufacturers can talk to each other. When you phone someone else’s telephone, you are using an open standard – this means you don’t have to have the same brand of phone as the person at the other end.
What this means for a government is that if you can make your database of pothole reports speak to the outside world using Open311 then you don’t have to worry if reports are coming from two, ten or a thousands different websites or apps. You just run one system and it copes with all of them. This is not actually a new idea at all – local government call centres don’t worry what telephone network people are phoning from, or what brand of phone they are using.
However, it is a new idea in the realm of government IT systems for storing things like pothole repair requests, or school-admission applications. Traditionally these systems have not been set up to speak a common language with the outside world. Unfortunately, this failure to speak a common language has not always been by accident. Unscrupulous suppliers will sometimes intentionally set up systems so that the government has to pay extra money if they want any new channels to be added. Using Open311 is both a way to lower your future costs, and a way to make sure your current supplier can’t lock you into expensive upgrades.
Isn’t opening our systems to the outside a security nightmare?
Open311 is not about opening up private data, such as exposing the home addresses of vulnerable children. Open311 can be configured to open up government systems where that is appropriate, and everything that needs to stay private will stay private. There are no fundamental security problems to using an Open311 system.
Is this just about pothole reports?
No. Open311 isn’t limited to street-fixing services like FixMyStreet, even though that kind of problem is where Open311 started. As more and more public bodies offer their services online, they all face the same problem of spiralling costs as the public demands access through more and more diverse channels. In the future it should be possible to renew parking licenses, pay local taxes and do other complex transactions via Open311. But for today we encourage everyone interested to start at the simpler end of the scale.
How does mySociety use Open311?
When a local government anywhere in the world contracts mySociety to deliver a version of FixMyStreet for them (like Bromley, Barnet and Stevenage ) we recommend Open311.
We will still happily connect FixMyStreet to systems that don’t use Open311, but we always explain to clients that Open311 is the most desirable way of connecting their new FixMyStreet deployment with their current problem databases. We even offer lower prices to governments who use Open311.
We offer lower prices this partly because our costs go down, but also because we want to leave local governments with street-fault reporting systems that can connect not just to FixMyStreet, but to any new services in this area that emerge in the future. If Google maps or Twitter suddenly add street fault reporting, why should the local governments have to pay more money to handle those problems, when it could get them for free using Open311?
In short, we see Open311 as a solid foundation for building local government services without locking our clients into a relationship with mySociety as suppliers. In future we will also recommend the use of Open311 for services like ‘Please send me a new recycling bin’, ‘Please tell me what jobs you have open’ and ‘Please answer this FOI request’.
In the next post we’ll cover how Open311 works in a bit more detail (but still as clearly as we can), and in a third post we’ll explain how our work with FixMyStreet for Councils has led us to propose some improvements to the Open311 standard.
Photo by Rupert Ganzer (CC)
One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.
This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.
No Local Hansards
Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.
At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.
We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.
The State of the Art Still Needs You
First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.
We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.
But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.
It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable
Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.
Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.
Get in touch
The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.
And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.
Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.
How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?
Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.
Barnet also use another mySociety tool – Pledgebank – and Chris explained how it helps them within the Barnet communities. Barnet Pledgebank can be seen here.
Turning complaints into action
“We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.
“One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.
“Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.
“That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’, it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.
“A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.
“One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.
Tapping into community interest
Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?
“I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.
“With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.
What else have you done with Pledgebank?
“We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.
“So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.
A challenge for the marketing department
“It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.
“One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.
“The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.
“It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”
Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes. See how Barnet are using Pledgebank on their website.
If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.
Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Lichfield residents are the latest to enjoy FixMyStreet functionality on their council website.
We’ve been working with Lichfield District Council to integrate FixMyStreet into their snazzy site design. The resulting interface echoes their purple and green colour scheme, and sits comfortably within their own page layouts.
What happens to reports when councils include FixMyStreet for Councils on their website? There’s a two-way mirroring process. All reports made via the Lichfield website will also appear on the main FixMyStreet.com site. And all Lichfield reports made via FixMyStreet are published onto their website too. That way, we cut down on the possibility of duplicate reports, and Lichfield residents can use whichever site they prefer.
So, Lichfeldians, there’s never been a better time to report that nagging problem on your street. Do let us know how you find it!
One of the most common grumbles heard within the political and governmental classes is that the public doesn’t understand the need for compromise.
The argument goes something like this: left to themselves the public will vote for low tax and high public spending, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and collapse. The State of California is usually wheeled out as exhibit A here.
Assuming that this is even true, I find it hard to blame the public for a general lack of awareness about the compromises involved in running a functional government.
This is not because big budgets are complicated (although they are) but because most governments waste hundreds of thousands of opportunities a day to explain the nature of compromises. They waste them because they’re still thinking about the world from a paper-centric mindset.
Linking to explanations
My argument is this: key compromises or decisions should be linked to from the points where people obtain a service, or at the points where they learn about one. If my bins are only collected once a fortnight, the reason why should be one click away from the page that describes the collection times.
Currently, in order to obtain an explanation for why a service functions as it does, I’d probably have to pick up the phone to my local councillor, or use this handy service to make a few FOI requests. In terms of effort and clicks, these explanations describing why a service is like it is are so far away from the service itself that they might as well be on Mars.
Here are some of the wasted opportunities to explain which I would like to see seized upon:
- A “Why aren’t there more bin collections?” link on local government waste pages, linking through to an explanation about council budgets, what would have to be sacrificed to have more bin collections, and who made the decision to adopt the current compromise.
- Updates by local governments on FixMyStreet that say “We’re not going to fix this problem because it wouldn’t be good value for money”, linking through to an appropriate analysis about money spent on street fixing, versus other things.
- On the NHS’s ‘Choose and Book’ website, I’d like to see links saying “Why can’t I get an appointment sooner?” These would then be linked to data on NHS waiting lists, budget constraints and specific decisions that set the current availability.
Obviously cynics out there will say that governments don’t want people to know that they can’t solve all the world’s ills – and that they want to preserve a mystique of omnipotence, so that people will be miserably grateful to them for the bounty bestowed. In this model, governments don’t offer explanations lest citizens see them as merely mortal, and boot them out.
Now, I don’t know about you, but servile gratitude and illusions of infinite power doesn’t sound much like the current attitude to government from most people I know. We live in politically disillusioned times where many people worry if the government can actually fix anything, never mind everything.
If ever there was a time to start routinely explaining to citizens that government is a process of ceaseless compromises it is now, in the hard times. There are plenty of those around the world right now.
I believe that citizens could be both more forgiving of governments, and more empowered to demand change if services were closely connected to explanations of why compromises have been made. I think that the reason it hasn’t happened before isn’t really politics: it’s simply because it wouldn’t have been possible on paper. On paper you can’t link through to an animated narrative, or a set of votes, or a transcript of a key decision. I think the main reason we don’t connect services with explanations is because governments haven’t really grokked the meaning of simple linking yet – not really. I’m looking for the first government, national or local, willing to give it a shot.