We’re aware that our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, has recently been used by a number of people as part of a campaign initiated on the Legal Feminist website, encouraging people to submit FOI requests to authorities who have undertaken the Stonewall Diversity Champions process. This usage has provoked some commentary online, and complaints to our support team.
Straight off, we should state that mySociety positively and passionately supports the rights to equality and freedom from harassment for Trans people and their allies.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s site policies prohibit posting information that is unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane.
But the issues that this use of our service has raised about what should and should not remain on the site are not straightforward. They present a challenge to our moderation policies, as we’ll explain in more detail.
First, here are the facts.
The post linked to above encourages people to request information from authorities who are Stonewall Diversity Champions.
Stonewall, for those who don’t know, grew out of the campaign against Section 28 in the 80s, and now describes one of its missions as to ‘work with institutions to create inclusive and accepting cultures, to ensure institutions understand and value the huge benefits brought to them by LGBT people, and to empower institutions as advocates and agents of positive change’.
This Legal Feminist campaign claims that forcing public bodies “to reveal the detail of their dealings with Stonewall” will have the effect of “putting some pressure on public bodies to withdraw from these schemes”.
As a result, several hundred FOI requests have been submitted to a large range of authorities through WhatDoTheyKnow.
How we moderate
We operate a reactive moderation policy on WhatDoTheyKnow and only respond to issues when they are brought to our attention, or we discover them ourselves through the operation of the service.
It’s unusual for us to know the motivation of people who use WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FOI requests. The site is, like the FOI Act, open to everyone (so long as they abide by our house rules).
One of the core principles of the FOI Act is “Applicant Blindness”. The ICO’s guidance states:
In most cases, authorities should consider FOI and EIR requests without reference to the identity or motives of the requester. Their focus should be on whether the information is suitable for disclosure into the public domain, rather than the effects of providing the information to the individual requester.
We often see requests being made on our service which appear to be pursuing aims that we may agree or disagree with as an organisation, or as individuals; however, we want our service to be open to, and used by, as broad a range of people as possible. We don’t want to just provide a service to those who share our view of the world.
Should these requests be removed?
Our volunteer user support team has been asked to respond to complaints that the FOI requests made as part of Legal Feminist’s campaign are vexatious, hateful and should be removed — and our support team has been striving to approach these complaints in the same way that they approach other complaints about the usage of our service.
As a charity, one of our objectives is to help citizens find out the information that they are entitled to have under the law.
As per our house rules, where requests that are unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane are drawn to our attention, we will take action. We will also often remove or redact material that is extraneous to the FOI request itself, if it is vexatious or falls foul of our house rules.
In this case we reviewed two aspects of these requests to determine whether they contravened our house rules or contained vexatious or extraneous material – the body of the requests themselves and also the request titles, which each include a campaign hashtag.
On careful consideration, we determined that the requests themselves do not fall into any of those categories, being requests for information, sent to a number of relevant authorities.
We are satisfied that they are sufficiently focused as FOI requests, and appear to have a serious purpose, in that they have the aim of obtaining information from public bodies.
Once the requests had been made, the authorities began to respond and to release the information sought, if they hold it, as they are (broadly) required to do by law within 20 working days. As per WhatDoTheyKnow’s functions, these responses are also published on the site for all to access.
The requests have resulted in large amounts of information about how Stonewall works with public bodies being made easily available online. We believe that our site has a role to play in making that information available to everyone, enabling informed debate.
Considering the request titles, we determined that the inclusion of a campaign hashtag in the title is extraneous to the purpose of requesting information from public bodies and at odds with the sufficiently focused nature of the requests – seeking to bring pressure on public authorities rather than simply focusing on the requirements of a clear request for information.
For the reasons listed above, we have determined that these requests can remain on the site; however, we have removed the extraneous campaign hashtag from the title of each request.
Campaigning activity on our site
Whilst we very much support campaigners making use of their rights under FOI through our service, as per our current policies, WhatDoTheyKnow is not a platform for promoting those campaigns or a particular point of view. In other instances where our attention is drawn to extraneous material in correspondence we remove it, and we have taken the same approach here.
Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel
It’s not often that we recruit directly into our senior management team at mySociety, so we’re excited about the opportunity to find the right person to become our Finance and Commercial Director.
Could that person be you?
This is an exciting opportunity to shape the development of an entrepreneurial not for profit group, looking to develop new business models for supporting and working with the public sector. You’ll help us develop our programmes, and deliver actionable forward facing forecasts and financial information into the hands of key staff and our boards as we seek fresh business opportunities.
As Finance and Commercial Director, you’ll have direct responsibility for financial management, commercial strategy, and reporting across the group; balancing the needs of an effective charity delivering measurable impact, and a high-performing public sector commercial business delivering innovative services profitably and effectively.
And you’ll be working directly with me to lead our finance and commercial activity across the group internally, as well as helping us shape our business and organisation externally.
This role will straddle both our charity mySociety, and our trading subsidiary SocietyWorks. As such, the right candidate is going to need the entrepreneurial experience and commercial zeal needed to support a fast growing software product business, along with an understanding of how charitable funding works and the particular challenges that come with balancing restricted and unrestricted funding, juggling multiple delivery approaches to a variety of civil society and government actors.
We recognise that whoever takes on this position is likely to have more or less experience on either the charitable or commercial side – so openness to learning on the job is going to be really important.
You can see all of the specific details on the role and responsibilities in the Finance and Commercial Director Job Description. And to get a better understanding of the qualities we’re looking for, check the Finance and Commercial Director Person Specification.
So if you are interested in applying, or know someone who is perfect for this role please get in touch or send them this post.
This is also a rare opportunity for us to increase the diversity of our senior team and we welcome applications from all suitably skilled and experienced people and particularly from candidates from Black and minority backgrounds. We’d also support applications from those seeking part-time or flexible working arrangements.
As this role is a vitally important and strategic one for us we’ve taken the unusual step of working with a recruitment consultant to help us out – we’re asking candidates to apply directly to Simon Bascombe at Harris Hill by Monday 3rd May – full details of how to apply are in the Job Description.
Image: Micheile Henderson
On 18 January we received a letter from Robert Largan MP regarding our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. He requested that we ‘correct a misrepresentation’ in the way that the site displays how he and his fellow MPs have voted on measures to prevent climate change:
The letter was co-signed by around 50 members of his party, and identified three votes not currently included in our climate change vote calculations, with the request that they be taken into account on their voting records pages.
This was not an unusual message: we often receive emails from MPs to TheyWorkForYou, asking us to explain or reconsider the data we publish on them — and the most common subject is the voting records pages.
The only differences with this letter were that Mr Largan had gathered the support of so many other MPs; and that it was covered in the press and shared on Twitter quite a few days before we actually had receipt of it.
So we’ve treated it in the same way that we would any other, but given the amount of exposure the issue has already had, we thought we’d also share our considered response here. We’re glad to have this opportunity to illustrate how we run the site, and the judgements that we have to make in order to run the fairest, most factual service we can.
Image: UK Parliament
After a relatively lengthy search for a new Chair for the board of Trustees of mySociety, we are very excited to announce that Catherine Brown was appointed at our AGM on the 6th of July.
Catherine is a hugely experienced non-executive and executive Director; she was formerly Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency and currently holds a clutch of board posts, including at Hubbub, Natural Resources Wales, the Legal Services Board and the British Science Association.
She joins our charitable board at an exciting time, as like all civil society organisations we are learning how to adapt to a new normal, with new challenges around the pandemic and the climate crisis, and long running questions over how we secure sustainable funding for our work today and the issues we choose to face tomorrow.
Catherine has been inspiring, thoughtful and knowledgeable in all of the meetings she has had with our board and team so far, and I’m very much looking forward to working with her closely over the next few years.
A goodbye and a thank you
The appointment of a new Chair sees our original Chair James Cronin stepping down. It’s a big change, as he has been involved with the organisation since its official inception back in 2003.
James has been the bedrock of the board for this whole period and has skillfully supported the organisation through all the change, tumult and innovation that you might expect from a small, underfunded but wonderfully ambitious charity.
Before mySociety came into being he was involved with FaxYourMP (the earliest version of WriteToThem) and TheyWorkForYou which was later incorporated into mySociety. He is also a founding director of the Open Rights Group and is an advisory board member of the NO2ID campaign – and most importantly helps run a chocolate shop, which will be missed at major holidays.
James has been a great mentor to me personally: he has always been here for anything the organisation needs; has been hugely supportive as we transitioned from my predecessor Tom’s original directorship, and oversaw all the many changes in approach and focus we’ve implemented over the past five years.
So hello to Catherine – it’s going to be great working with you. And heartfelt thanks to James – you’ve been amazing and will be a hard act to follow.
Image: Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka
With the charity formally known as UK Citizens Online Democracy now officially known as mySociety it makes sense that we reconsider the name of our wholly owned commercial arm, which until recently was known as mySociety Ltd.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to the newly christened: SocietyWorks.
SocietyWorks reaffirms our belief in citizens and society, creates a related but distinct propostion from the charity mySociety, and introduces a practical and relevant descriptor for a provision of local authority services. We think it works.
We have decided that now is the time to simplify the way we talk about ourselves whilst providing greater clarity and a more meaningful brand for our commercial work, especially for our local government partners.
And with fear and uncertainty all around — the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the fabric of our communities at risk — we can’t think of a more important time to make the case that society works.
Over the coming months we’ll be rolling out the new name with the intent of it becoming an overall brand for our local government services. FixMyStreet Pro will remain the core product offered by SocietyWorks, with additional services including feature add-ons and standalone services sitting alongside. These will include new products which extend the capabilities of FixMyStreet relating to Waste, Environment, and other place based services.
We’re also incorporating our information and comms based services, initially by offering FOI Works as part of our local government suite.
You can find out more about these new services as they become available at SocietyWorks.org.
Image: Pierre Chatel Innocenti
What’s in a name? Well for mySociety, quite a lot actually.
Which is why we’re excited to announce that mySociety will now be known as… mySociety.
Confused? Let me explain.
mySociety was founded on the belief that things are better when we work together, when people understand how decisions are made, and how they might contribute to better decisions leading to better lives for all of us.
We believe in helping people be active citizens, able to contribute to their communities and hold their elected officials to account – all in all we believe in society, and the role of citizens to participate and have their voices heard. Put that all together, and the name mySociety makes perfect sense.
Just as we help people be active citizens, so do those citizens together make society.
Those of you with a keen sense of civic tech history may know that our charity until recently wasn’t in fact legally known as mySociety – rather its registered name was UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD), whose sole project was mySociety.
This has been the case since the original group was formed way back in 1996, and later reformed after a dormant period in 2003 by a new generation of trustees and volunteers, many of whom had previously worked together on independent online democratic projects such as FaxYourMP.
Over the last 17 years mySociety has continued to operate and improve our core UK services; TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet. We’ve vastly expanded our international reach with versions of our services running in at least 40 countries and we help better understand how technology can benefit civil society through our original research and our international TICTeC events.
The next few years will see us continue to help active citizens play their role in combatting the biggest challenges facing society: the climate crisis needs active citizens, recovering from the pandemic needs active citizens, being anti-racist needs active citizens.
Image: Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka
Black Lives Matter.
The protests in the US and subsequently the UK are finally forcing those of us who don’t face racism daily to confront the inherent biases, unfairness and systemic racism that exists here in the UK. The toppling of statues, the renaming of streets and an increasing willingness to listen and learn are a start, but there is so much more to do.
mySociety’s work has always been about understanding where power lies and how to enhance people’s abilities to hold that power to account and call out injustice. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors and all Black people who have experienced systemic and institutional discrimination.
We recognise that the injustices perpetrated by the current system and institutions, built on centuries of racial injustice and colonial violence, disproportionately impact those from Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. It is only right, therefore, that we reflect upon where we’re falling short in our support of these communities and what we might do to better as an organisation and as a sector to change those dynamics.
Starting with ourselves
Technology reinforces structural inequality by actively equipping state institutions to deliver unjust outcomes more efficiently, e.g. by wilfully enabling state surveillance (knowing that people of colour are disproportionately affected by this) while civil society and civic tech have failed to open up channels for engagement that work better for marginalised groups and aren’t primarily on the terms of extant powerful institutions.
This is exacerbated by representation in civic tech which suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields that we’re part of: with usually white leadership and staff, most tech roles held by men, and limited opportunities for progression for those from BAME communities. The challenges of this narrow representation in our field are very clearly laid out by Decolonizing Civic Tech.
Having spent the past few years successfully improving gender equality within our own team but with less success in improving our ethnic diversity, we are well aware that changing the make-up of an organisation does not happen of its own accord; it requires intention and purpose – we’ll only have more Black colleagues by actually hiring them.
Changing the composition of our teams to become more diverse is not an overnight job and we have to start from where we are. That means making explicit commitments to actively tackle racism in our organisation and the wider sector, advertise for new roles to ensure that they reach prospective Black candidates and the role and organisation is seen as attractive to work in, creating leadership opportunities for Black colleagues, and providing support for training and career progression where we can.
Something we can make progress on more immediately is how we can best help shift power within our sector, and without assuming this is what is needed explore what appetite exists for establishing more cross sector communities to provide support and mentorship between Black colleagues within different civic tech organisations and the wider field.
Where we are falling short
Five years ago we released our report on ‘Who benefits from Civic Technology’ which looked at the inherent biases in who was more likely to make use of our services; in the UK they tended to be older, usually white and usually male – basically those already comfortable dealing with public officials, in public, and with an expectation that their requests would be dealt with in a timely manner.
Since then not enough has changed.
Internationally all of the successful work we have done has been carried out in partnership, with local groups who understand their community, the political situation, how best to operate and run their services.
We identified this partnership approach as being the key way that we could better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they could benefit more marginalised communities. Despite a few exceptions we simply haven’t made enough progress on this.
So with each new project we will redouble our efforts to listen to and collaborate with those groups and individuals drawn from these communities to better understand how we might change our approach where needed, make services that work for those who most need them, or just get out of the way and support others when it’s not our place to help. We’re committed to reporting back on progress against this in our research programme.
As a team and individuals we recognise that it’s up to us to educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist. Like many others, we’re sharing books and articles to read so that we all better understand the issues and recognise what we need to do to change.
From our internal discussions we’ve made clear that it’s okay to be uncertain of how to react or what to say – but it’s even better to learn from each other. This is not just the work of a few blog posts or the occasional meeting – it’s about understanding how we normalise anti-racism within our day to day work, to adapt our approach and working methods where required.
We’ll consider the language we use to describe what we do, how we might better use the funds, access and what influence we have to raise up and introduce Black voices within our sector and the communities that we serve.
And where we get it wrong along the way we’ll try to fix it and make it right.
On a personal note
As a senior leader within a civil society organisation I’m not unusual in being a middle-aged white man.
One thing I do understand is that the job of leadership is to help create the conditions for your team to succeed and do their best work in the right way. This applies equally with the need to create a more diverse team and culture, especially when all the research suggests that more diverse teams are more successful in their goals and impact.
So whilst I hold a position of responsibility it’s on me to cede that held space to others as we find and support new leaders to take our work forward – which is ultimately what I’ll be held accountable for in the future.
And if you like me are looking for a good place to begin, this post by Salma Patel: ‘White senior leaders: 12 practical things you can do this week to create a supportive culture for your Black/BAME colleagues’ is a very useful starting point.
Last month, we sent some of our newsletter subscribers an email to say that we’d noticed they weren’t opening our newsletters and, unless we heard otherwise, we’d be removing them from our mailing list.
A number of people replied to that email to say, ‘Actually, I do open your emails — I just have image loading turned off so you don’t track my activity’. This was a welcome reminder to examine our own practices.
Such responses triggered a conversation within mySociety, resulting in a session at our team meeting last week, with the upshot being a decision to turn off personally identifiable tracking on all our newsletters.
We’ll be able to see how many people visit our blog posts from the newsletter, but that’s all — we won’t be able to associate visits with particular accounts, nor will we know how many of the views are from repeat visits rather than different users.
This decision reflects mySociety’s position as an organisation concerned about matters of privacy and also feels like it’s part of a wider movement within our sector: we’re not the only ones having this conversation.
But why did you track opens at all?
The obvious question, given this statement, is why mySociety were tracking activity in the first place.
Partly tracking was in place to help manage the financial cost of our newsletters. We use Mailchimp, whose costing structure is based on how many subscribers you have at any one time: you pay more for each subscriber even if they are not active.
Sending an email to people who hadn’t opened — or who appeared not to have opened — our emails for over a year was a way of cutting the costs of holding a large database on Mailchimp, and you can only do that if you know who they are.
For purposes of understanding the impact of our communications, too, it is helpful to be able to see how many people have opened a mailout, what stories have been clicked on, and which have not.
However, this can be done in a way that doesn’t intrude on the users’ privacy – and, as mySociety team members posited during our team meeting, a cost saving on our side doesn’t justify infringing on privacy.
Mailchimp’s defaults assume that you want as much information in as granular a form as possible, but they do give you the option to turn tracking off.
As far as we can see, one has to remember to do this each time a mailout is sent, but we’ll also be contacting Mailchimp to ask them if the relevant boxes could be unchecked by default, or managed at a global level.
So from now on
After our team discussion, we’ve made the immediate decision to turn all tracking off on our newsletters. Thank you if you were one of the people whose feedback spurred us to have this conversation and arrive at this decision.
And if you’d like to subscribe to our newsletters, you can do so here.
Image: Jehyun Sung
If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.
In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.
You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.
We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.
You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.
When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.
One focus, one reason
We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.
We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.
We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.
And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.
So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.
We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.
Before the summer we began the search for new Trustees and Non-Executive Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards. As we enter Autumn I’m very pleased to be able to share the fruits of our search with a clutch of lovely and talented new board members.
For our mySociety Ltd board which oversees our commercial and product development work we are pleased to welcome three new Directors:
Steve is Director of Strategy and Innovation at the Government of Jersey, turning emerging theory of open policy making, participatory design and digital government into practice. Previously at Stockport Council, and as Chair of the GM Connect programme for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority he is a leading thinker on all things Local Government.
Ade is no stranger to mySociety and has been a supporter of our work since her time leading the Government Digital Service’s Data Infrastructure programme. Currently a data strategist at Cloudera Fast Forward Labs, she will help us consider the wider application and impact of ethical data use across our range of services.
Cam is a Director of Green Angel Syndicate, a network of angel investors funding early stage technology businesses which fight against the climate crisis, and for the sustainable use of resources. He’ll help advise on the further development of our SaaS products, with a particular interest in shaping our response to climate change.
We welcome two new Trustees to our charity board for UK Citizens Online Democracy, who are responsible for the strategic direction and sustainability of the whole organisation:
Julia is a Senior Transparency Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, advising parliaments and political parties on accountability, transparency and the rule of law. She works closely with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) on enhancing the role of civil society in public policy making and government oversight.
Kate is currently Private Secretary to the Chief Executive of the Civil Service & Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, where she works on EU Exit and Civil Service HR. Previously working in the Cities and Local Growth Unit at BEIS and before that at the Design Council and CABE, she brings invaluable insights around Government and public policy.
In addition to Owen Blacker who stepped down after an amazing 17 years of involvement with mySociety, we also say goodbye as a Trustee to Nanjira Sambuli. Both stepped down at our AGM in July. Immense thanks to both for their support and service.
Our search for a new Chair of UKCOD will continue over the next couple of months as we speak to candidates, and we expect to make additional board appointments during 2020.
Photo header image by Jakub Kapusnak