The Hansard Society have just published a report entitled MPs Online: Connecting with Constituents. I’m only going to talk about one part, the part that mentions the mySociety project WriteToThem in a section on MPs’ use of email.
We’re surprised and disappointed to see our methodology for collecting data on how well MPs respond to constituency mail being called “unreliable”, especially from a paper that makes a number of simple mistakes of its own in just a few lines on one page.
- On page 5, they state that WriteToThem has been “tracking responsiveness to emails via their website for three years”. Most importantly for the theme of the report, we don’t just send emails – we send faxes to a number of MPs (and other representatives) who do not accept or want messages via email.
- The figures given for survey responses in the table are backwards; 2007 and 2005′s figures should be interchanged – how could we get more survey responses than messages (again, not necessarily emails) sent?
- They claim there is “no quantification of the response categories provided” – the raw data used to automatically generate these categories is given in the adjacent column (“very high” simply means a response percentage of 80% or more, for example; our code is all open source).
- We exclude MPs with very small sample sizes, and take a range of steps to make sure the data is not abused.
- We have four years of statistics now, not three; our stats for 2008 were published nearly six months ago.
The Hansard Society, to the best of my knowledge, never got in touch with us to request any clarification or ask about our data or methodology, which we would have been more than happy to supply.
Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.
As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.
An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.
As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate for Streatham has a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?
Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.
Do you have a ‘mySocietyish’ idea that you’d like to see become reality? Is there something radical about the sites we already run that should change? Do you have any smart ideas about helping more people to benefit from the services we already offer? Or would you just like to read and comment on ideas submitted by other people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we’d like you to submit your idea to our 2009 Call for Proposals (built for us by Richard Pope). We’ve run these twice before in 2003 and 2006, resulting in the launch and success of sites such as WriteToThem and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Just as on previous occasions we’ll pick a winner and some runners up, but also just as before we can only promise to do our best – we don’t have the resources to solemnly promise to build the winner, whatever it might be.
What We’re Looking For (or, an insight into the mySociety mindset)
The characteristics of the winning and runner up ideas are highly likely to include one or more of the following factors. Don’t try and include all of them, that’d be silly
- They have to involve the Internet. We don’t do clay modelling.
- They will capitalise on one or more things that the Internet does really well, better than offline or other forms. WhatDoTheyKnow, for example, seizes on the fact that email can be simultaneously published and rerouted – a simple but critical insight.
- They will either be a whole new website idea, or a smart and impactful modification of something we already do.
- They will be ideas that have clear social, civic or democratic benefits that are really easy to explain to the least political person you know, even if the technology behind them is fiendishly complicated.
- They will have some characteristic that will widely spread the word that the service exists, or that other mySociety services exist.
- They will offer brilliant value for money, even if they’re expensive to build in the first instance.
- They will be genuinely new ideas
- They won’t contain the phrase ‘social media’
We might well change these guidelines a bit as the first responses come in. The call will stay open until September 15th, and we’ll hope to announce the winners in early October.
So what are you waiting for – check out the 2009 Call for Proposals
They could perhaps have picked a better day, as it was quite serious – at the stroke of midnight on the 1st of April, 37 district councils and 7 county councils in England ceased to exist, replaced by 9 new unitary authorities. This means people in Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Chesire, and Bedfordshire only have one principal local authority to deal with now. The Wikipedia article on the changes has more information on the background to this change.
Obviously this meant some work for WriteToThem and FixMyStreet, both of which require up-to-date local council information. Our database of voting areas, MaPit, has “generations”, so we can keep old areas around for various historical purposes. So firstly, I created a new generation and updated all the areas that weren’t affected to the new generation. Next, six of the new unitary authorities (all the counties except Cheshire and Bedfordshire, plus Bedford) share their boundaries and wards with the coterminous councils they’re replacing, so for them it was a simple matter of updating those councils to be unitary authorities.
That left Bedfordshire and Cheshire. I created areas for the three new councils (Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East, and Central Bedfordshire), and transferred across the relevant wards from the old county councils – basically a manual process of working out the list of correct ward IDs. april2009-update.sql has the gory SQL details if you care.
WriteToThem was now dealt with, but FixMyStreet needed a little more work. The councils that no longer existed had understandably disappeared from the all reports table, so I had to modify the function that fetches the list of councils to optionally return historical areas so they could be included. And lastly, FixMyStreet needs a way of mapping a point on a map to the relevant council. For this, it needs to know the area covered by a council, which was missing for the new authorities I’d manually created. Thankfully, each of the three new authorities are made up of the areas of either 2 or 3 district councils (e.g. Cheshire East is the area covered by Congleton, Macclesfield, and Crewe and Nantwich), so I just had to write a script that stuck those areas together to create the area of the new council. april2009-construct-new.pl. It all seems to work, and I’m sure our users will be in touch if it doesn’t
So goodbye to Alnwick, Bedfordshire, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Blyth Valley, Bridgnorth, Caradon, Carrick, Castle Morpeth, Cheshire, Chester, Chester-le-Street, Congleton, Crewe and Nantwich, Derwentside, Durham City, Easington, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Kennet, Kerrier, Macclesfield, Mid Bedfordshire, North Cornwall, North Shropshire, North Wiltshire, Oswestry, Penwith, Restormel, Salisbury (which is getting a new town council), Sedgefield, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Bedfordshire, South Shropshire, Teesdale, Tynedale, Vale Royal, Wansbeck, Wear Valley, and West Wiltshire. RIP.
New statistics, made by Francis, for your interest and elucidation. They’ll make their way onto TheyWorkForYou shortly.
Matthew and I have been sitting next to each other today looking at the outputs of his lovely new custom built conversion tracking system, designed to ensure that the optimal number of users who just come to one of our services as a one off get signed up to something else longer lasting.
I’ve been banging on for ages about how government should seize on cross selling people who’ve just finished using one online service into using another of a more democratic nature, so it seems worth spelling out some of the lessons.
First, there’s some interesting data from the last few weeks, since our newest conversion tracking infrastructure has been running in its nice new format.
One of the adverts randomly served to users of WriteToThem (after they’ve finished sending their letter) encourages them to sign up to TheyWorkForYou email alerts – the service people use to get emailed whenever their MP speaks in Parliament. The advert features a slogan of encouragement, and a pre-populated email form containing the user’s email, and a ‘Subscribe me’ button. This advert was shown to 2328 users last month, of whom 676 became TheyWorkForYou email subscribers, which is a pretty cool 29.04% conversion rate. However, we also showed another advert for the same service, to the same WriteToThem users, which also had the same button and text, but which hid the form (and their address). That was shown to 2216 users of whom 390 signed up, a more modest 17.6%. So the impact of simply showing an email box with the users email address in it, versus hiding it, was worth 10% more users. Why? Go figure!
So now we’ve canned the advert that hides the address form, and instead we’re comparing two different adverts both of which feature the pre-populated signup form, but which use different words. It’s probably too early to judge, but the new ad appears to have a very similar conversion rate suggesting it might be hard to squeeze many more subscribers out of this page. We’ll keep trying though!
Another thing we learned of interest was that monthly subscribers to email alerts on TheyWorkForYou were down year on year in the month before we added this new advertising & conversion tracking system, even though the total number of visitors were clearly up on the same month last year. This appears to suggest that two things are happening. First RSS is catching on, so some users who would previously have got email alerts are subscribing to RSS feeds instead. Second, it suggests that the TheyWorkForYou user audience might have been getting more saturated with regulars – proportionally fewer new users coming (although more visitors in absolute terms) so fewer people signing up to get alerts. The cross marketing and conversion tracking seems to have reversed that trend, which is awesome.
We also advertise several different services to people who just finish signing up to get email alerts on TheyWorkForYou itself. We’ve just noticed that a full 25% of people shown the advert to sign up for HearFromYourMP proceed to sign up. We’ve therefore just decided to dump other adverts shown on TheyWorkForYou (such as advertisements for other sorts of TheyWorkFor you email alert) and concentrate on just cross selling HearFromYourMP. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that by just advertising this one site from the completion page we should get an extra 10,000 subscribers to HearFromYourMP this year on top of the organic growth. Not bad for a few minutes analysis, and a number likely to make a fair few more MPs post messages to their patiently waiting constituents.
One last interesting thing (at least to me) is how some more demanding services are a much harder sell than others to users. So asking people to make new groups on GroupsNearYou.com or report a problem in a street on FixMyStreet tend to result in more traditional online marketing scale conversion rates of 0.1% to 2%. Still worth doing, and so we compare different versions of those ads too, to try and eke up those rates for these sites that arguably have more tangible, direct impacts on people and communities.
It will be a challenge for mySociety’s future to work out how to trade off impact against scale of service use – are 10 HearFromYourMP subscribers worth one pothole that doesn’t get fixed? Answers on a postcard…
I’m happy to say that with a lot of help from Francis and Matthew I’ve just rolled out a long-requested addition to WriteToThem. You can now use the site to write one message and send it to all your representatives in a multi-member constituency – so, for example, you can send a message to all your MEPs at once. A nice side project along the way has been getting the test suite for WriteToThem running happily on a mySociety server, and adding a few more tests. Run, tests, run! Good tests.