A few words on the Guardian

Obviously it’s always great when any paper gives mySociety coverage – it helps get the word about our services out and helps more people get things done that help their lives.

However, today’s look at mySociety’s 5 years in the Guardian makes a few claims I think it’s important to challenge, so instead of writing to the readers editor I thought I’d just seize the power of Citizen Media(TM) to note them here.

First, has the No10 petitions site had “little notable impact” on government policy? Given that that project appears almost single handedly to have bounced Parliament into developing an online petitioning system and devoting debate time to major petitions, I’d say that it certainly has had some impact. But there is indeed a bigger problem of pointing at No10 petitions and going “That one changed policy.” It’s a problem of two halves: scale, and deniability.¬† Governments almost never acknowledge that they were forced into anything, ever. Policy announcements are almost always framed as if the right course of action was being followed all along. So apart from the fact that I don’t know how one could possibly assess the impacts of so many thousands of petitions without a huge research project, I would expect that even those that do have in impact will still usually be denied by the government, even when shifting policy. I would encourage No10 and the whole of Government to take a look at directly challenging this culture, and employ someone whose job it is to find out which petitions are having an impact, and shout about them in plain English.

Second, the majority of mySociety’s sites are programmed by staff and contractors, not volunteers. The volunteers are super-essential to mySociety running every day, but the sheer size of some of our projects makes it unlikely a volunteer could have built them without giving up their day job for many months. This needs mentioning to explain why it matters if our finances are precarious!

Next – do councils find FixMyStreet an irritation or an asset? Well, last time we did a count a few weeks ago, we had 4 complaining emails from councils, and 62 supportive ones, with several linking directly to us. As for the Customer Relationship Management at councils, we’d be delighted to send reports straight into their databases without going via email first, it’s just that only one council has set up such an interface so far. I hope that FixMyStreet can put pressure on councils and their suppliers to build a small number of standardised interfaces for the good of everyone. And yes, we are building FixMyStreet for iPhone and Android, and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to build UIs for any other phones.

There – hope that doesn’t come across as too ungrateful to Michael Cross et al. See you at the next birthday party, I hope!

Update: I also meant to mention that I’ve never been a ‘Downing Street Insider’. I was a junior civil servant in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which is not in Downing Street and more loosely affiliated than the name might suggest.

4 Comments

  1. Tom, I think you and I know fine well that the Petitions site has had a significant impact, regardless of what the Guardian says. It’s a cultural challenge, not just to No10, but to the whole of government. Taking the obvious example, would road taxing have been ditched without the online petition? Maybe, maybe not. But the online service did its bit, unquestionably.

    The part about admitting its effect is more tricky. Almost by definition, a petition is telling government ‘you’re wrong’: either something it’s done, or something it hasn’t done. Governments (of any colour) don’t have a habit of holding their hands up.

    Gordon Brown’s recruitment of ‘goats’ does show some willingness to accept that outsiders might know better. So does ShowUsABetterWay. These are small steps, which have yet to destroy the adversarial political culture, but at least they are steps in the right direction.

  2. I find the Guardian is always quite pessimistic about how efficacious social protest is. 8.9 million signatures, even to the most embittered campaigner is respectable, and surely the Downing street boys, twisting their ties around their fingers about their every move, will sit up and take notice when there is that kind of presence on the web.

    A petition has always had invisible results, but it does affect policy. Did Amnesty Internationals petition about the 45 day holding period influence the rejection of that particular bill? Let’s keep up some sort of faith …

  3. Tom – if there are factual points you think need correction (like the “insider” phrase) then you should email reader@guardian.co.uk – seriously: then you can describe how you think it should be.

    On the petitions thing, interesting point. I’ve got someone working on a piece about whether online petitions (of all stripes) ever achieve *anything*. It’s quite hard to find evidence in its favour, though examples are very welcome.