HearFromYourMP: a little piece of mySociety history

HearFromYourMP homepage

It’ll shortly be the end of the line for HearFromYourMP, so let’s take a little time to look back on why we made it, and what we learned along the way.

HearFromYourMP was one of mySociety’s earliest projects, launched in November 2005. As we said back then, we wanted to “improve long term relationships between MPs and constituents by giving both an easy, trusted way of discussing local issues”.

In other words, it was, like many a mySociety project, an attempt to break down the barriers between the ordinary citizen and their elected representatives—even if, as with a large percentage of the population, they didn’t know who those representatives were.

But why?

You may be wondering why the world needed such a thing. Did MPs really need a way to talk to constituents? After all, that’s one of their key duties, and surely one that they’d already got down pat.

To really understand the context into which HearFromYourMP was born, you have to consider that this was fairly early in the history of the internet. Twitter hadn’t been invented, and Facebook was just for US college students. It certainly wasn’t a given that every MP would have a website,  and it was more than likely that they contacted their constituents on paper rather than via email.

HearFromYourMP, among other things, acted as a gentle way to encourage MPs to join the 21st century, or, as it was known back then, (cue futurist music) cyberspace.

Here’s the clever bit

One of HearFromYourMP’s strong points was the ingenious way in which it encouraged MPs to commit to its use. When a user visited the homepage, they saw this message:

If you enter your details, we’ll add you to a queue of other people in your constituency. When enough have signed up, your MP will get sent an email. It’ll say “25 of your constituents would like to hear what you’re up to. Hit reply to let them know”. If they don’t reply, nothing will happen, until your MP gets a further email which says there are now 50, then 75, 100, 150 — until it is nonsensical not to reply and start talking.

And 5,701 users did just that, even before the official site launch.

In other words, HearFromYourMP gathered a ready audience first, rather than assuming that we needed every MP to be on there before we could open it to the general public, which might have been the conventional way of doing things.

And even though there was no compulsion for MPs to sign up—beyond that niggling email in their inbox, telling them that people were waiting to hear from them—they did. By January 2007, there were almost 100 MPs on board.

“That’s one sixth in a year, and I’d be surprised if any other new technology has been taken up at that rate,”

said mySociety Director Tom Steinberg at the time, in an interview with the Guardian. And, talking now about constituents, of which, by that time, 28,000 had signed up:

“At this rate, in two to three years’ time, there will be as many people signed up to hear from their MP as are signed up members of the Lib Dems.”

Apparently the Liberal Democrat membership currently stands at 44,576 while, as I write, admittedly some five years beyond that two to three year forecast, there are 230,455 constituents registered on HearFromYourMP.

This kind of usage of ‘the crowd’ went on to become a bit of a mySociety hallmark, and something that you can see to a greater or lesser extent in most of our following projects.

Two-way traffic

Newsletters tend to be a one-way conversation, with the MP broadcasting the wonderful things he or she has done lately.

Conversely, HearFromYourMP was built to encourage debate: users could respond to the mail-outs. Everything remained accountable, since the conversations were published on the site for anyone to read. To prevent abuse, users could only comment on an MP’s message if they were signed up to receive mails within that MP’s constituency.

To the present day

Today, as we have seen, over 230,000 people are signed up to hear from their MPs. Over half of all MPs have used the service to send out a newsletter.

Meanwhile, 78% of the UK population can’t name their representative in Parliament*.

Nonetheless, we’re confident that our decision to close HearFromYourMP is the right one. People can still use our other sites, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, to discover who their MP is.

And once they’ve found out, there are now many channels via which an MP can engage with their constituents—some, like Twitter and Facebook, where exchanges can be held in public.

We’ll be sorry to see HearFromYourMP go, but we’re glad that it played the part it did. Thank you to all its users, whether you’re a constituent or an MP.

*Hansard Society Audit of Public Engagement 2013 (PDF)

1 Comment