1. Become a mySociety board member

    Whilst election fever grips the UK, we’re seeking some new representatives of our own, to join our two company boards.

    We are inviting candidates to put themselves forward to become a Trustee of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy or as an independent Non-Executive Director of our commercial business mySociety Ltd.

    This is a unique opportunity to join a very smart group of board members in helping guide the development of the UK’s original civic tech agitator, as we plot out a course over the next few years.

    As our work has become increasingly global we would like to expand our charitable board with at least two additional trustees who can bring a combination of experience of international development, campaigning and research. If you’ve helped grow an organisation and have a good head for figures and legal matters, that would be of great benefit as well.

    On the commercial side we’re especially looking to expand our service provision to the public sector in the UK, and wish to appoint up to three new directors, who will ideally bring in some mix of experience from government, public sector, digital product development and importantly marketing and commercial skills. Again finance and legal expertise is appreciated, along with an entrepreneurial streak.

    There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.

    You can apply for the charitable Trustee role here, and the commercial Non-Exec Director role here.

    We’ll be accepting applications until 10am on Monday 6th June – but don’t leave it until the last minute to apply!

    Image courtesy of Shell Vacations Hospitality (please note this is not our real boardroom)

  2. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

  3. Open Standards Workshop on April 19th

    We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.

    We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).

    From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).

    We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.

    We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.

    Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.

    We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.

    If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.

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    Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT

  4. New grant, new commercial services

    Undertaking client work through our commercial subsidiary mySociety Services has been a vital part of our identity, and it provides an important source of additional revenue to complement our core grant funding.

    We’ve worked with numerous organisations that share our principles and focus on impact such as Médecins Sans Frontières, The Financial Conduct Authority, the NHS, and notably we produced the UK Parliamentary Digital Report which led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Digital Service.

    This is good work, but it’s meant we’ve had to support two teams, two marketing efforts and often had to juggle priorities with our charitable work.

    Our overall aim is to create impactful services that benefit as many people as possible. So rather than continue to spread ourselves too thinly, from now on we’re going to concentrate primarily on appropriate commercial services that sit alongside our three thematic areas of focus: Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities.

    We’re taking the first step today with the announcement of a new grant from the Google Digital News Initiative, for which we’re extremely grateful. We’ll be making use of the grant to develop a new toolset for journalists using Freedom of Information.

    In the next few weeks we’ll share more details on what for the moment we’ve codenamed Alaveteli Professional. Our intention is that this toolset will sit alongside as a companion service to our free FOI platform Alaveteli.org, and should it become viable we may offer a version as a commercial service through mySociety Ltd.

    In the interim we’ll be speaking to lots of users, especially journalists and campaigning organisations on their use of FOI. If you’re are interested in helping us shape this product, please get in touch with us at hello@mysociety.org and we’ll keep you up to date.

    This new approach will mean we can better develop complementary commercial services that fully realise their potential and better support our charitable aims and objectives.

  5. Four Simple Goals

    In my last post I described how we’re taking stock of where and how we’re delivering against our theory of change to give greater influence to citizens over those with power.

    Since starting at mySociety I’ve spent my time meeting lots of lovely people, getting to know the team, our funders, partners and peers and finding out how mySociety does what it does.

    One thing I have learned is that despite our British roots, the majority of our work is now international, and we work with wonderful partners in over 35 countries around the world, from Ukraine to South Africa, Liberia to Norway. In each case they tend to be activists, journalists and NGOs who are passionate about better government, citizen empowerment, and fighting corruption.

    Our success is defined by our partners’ success – so in order to best support our partners I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the practical steps we’re taking to consolidate what we already have and scale up what works.

     

    Four Simple Goals

    The core mission of mySociety remains the same: to invent and popularise websites and apps that enable citizens around the world to exert power over institutions and decision makers.

    We see the need to both ‘invent’ and ‘popularise’ digital tools as equally important – digital tools can be useful in developing new approaches to difficult problems, but we must ensure they are both widely used and actually enable citizens to be capable of demanding better.

    In order to best help our partners and to better understand the impact of our work we have four really simple goals that will direct our efforts over the next few years:

    1. Encourage more people
    to use our websites and apps
    in more countries

    2. Work with more partners
    to help them get better at
    using digital tools

    3. Prove what works and
    feed those learnings back into
    the wider community

    4. Take a lead role in
    making technology more useful
    to civil society

     

    Planning For Success

    In addition to running our successful UK sites TheyWorkForYou.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, WriteToThem.com and FixMyStreet.com, we’ll continue to work with our partners to improve our existing services, making them easier to deploy and better integrated together.

    We’ve recently established a quarterly call for new proposals for potential new partners who wish to set up new sites of their own from our roster of services (FOI, Parliaments and Elections, FixMyStreet). This helps inform potential partners of what’s involved before getting started, and helps us better target our resources and plan for success upfront.

    We’re also putting more effort into increasing the impact and usage of our existing sites and services, by providing targeted development support, training, direct funding and additional technical development. Helping to sustain each site through the difficult first year or two should be a major marker of success.

     

    Proving What Works

    One major thing that will change is putting our research much more front and centre to our work, in order to create a greater evidence base for the impacts of civic technology and ensuring we are able to talk about this widely and publicly.

    You’ll see us carry out much more inclusive and comparative impact research on the use of civic technology encompassing individual, socio-political and sector-specific factors.

    If you haven’t already read our latest research paper ‘Who Benefits From Civic Technology?’ then please do have a look. This is an important first step in laying down the case for impact, being honest about where more work is required and focusing our efforts to create a greater evidence base for civic technology as a whole.

    Our long-term aim is to establish a global hub for impact research, and assist more civic tech organisations to assess and improve the impact of their own work. To this end we’ll be hosting our next TICTeC – The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, in Barcelona on the 27th and 28th of April next year.

    This will be an important opportunity to share and discuss research findings and key challenges from across the sector and we hope to see many of you there in person.

     

    Where We Go Next

    Over the past decade, through a process of experimentation, consultation and measurement, mySociety have created a portfolio of popular, proven online services, used by over 10 million people each year.

    This is an amazing legacy to take on.

    Over the next decade I hope that we’ll continue this work, and seek to further establish mySociety as one of the leading international civic technology institutions, providing much-needed global leadership and inspiration in our sector – if we could come to be seen as having a similar impact to that of an Article 19 or Human Rights Watch in our own field, then I think that will be a pretty good measure of success.

    For the moment we’ll continue to focus on the practical steps we need to take in order to improve and build upon what we already have, but I’m excited about the plans we have for the future and I’ll share more details on what we have in store in the weeks to come.

     

    Image: Rachel Pasch (CC)

  6. Why We Do What We Do

    Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.

    Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.

    What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:

    Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.

    Simply put, this is our cause.

     

    Our Theory Of Change

    Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.

    Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.

    Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.

    Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.

     

    Freedom of Information

    FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.

    Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.

    Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.

     

    Parliaments and Elections

    The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.

    We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.

    Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.

    In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.

     

    Local Issue Reporting

    FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.

    The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.

    We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.

    Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.

     

    Scaling Up

    For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.

    There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.

    What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.

    I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.


    Image: Morgan Schmorgan (CC)

  7. Hello, I’m mySociety’s new CEO

    Back in March, mySociety’s founder Tom Steinberg, announced that he would step down.

    Today, I’m pleased to announce that later this month I will be taking over the reins as Tom’s successor. I’m Mark Cridge, and I guess I should start by introducing myself.

    I’ve had a diverse 20-year career doing digital things. Most recently I was chief operating officer with the lovely folks at BERG, a London-based technology and design consultancy many of you might know. For the past year I was a senior advisor at Blue State Digital in London, the team responsible for the digital strategy used in President Obama’s electoral campaigns.

    I began my career back in 1996 in a small web design agency in Birmingham, before setting up glue London, a digital advertising agency, going on to become global managing director of Isobar, following glue’s acquisition in 2005. I originally studied Architecture before realising that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and that the internet held more immediate attractions.

    I’m genuinely excited to take what I’ve learned over my time to date, and to apply it to help build on Tom’s achievements as mySociety’s founder — by creating even more digital tools that make a difference to the lives of citizens in Britain and around the world.

    What I’ll be focusing on

    mySociety’s mission is unchanged: we exist to invent and popularise new digital tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers.

    As CEO I plan to focus on mySociety’s users, partners and volunteers both in the UK and in dozens of countries internationally, where we now conduct the great majority of our work.

    My initial priorities will be to ensure that mySociety’s existing sites keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of civic technologies, whilst also thinking through where we can move into new and exciting areas.

    I want to make a new push to ensure that charities, activists and journalists around the world are able to run successful, high profile sites of their own, powered by mySociety’s open source technologies.

    We will also be building up our research team over the next few years, to ensure that we are providing tools and services that have genuine impact, which we ourselves are able to measure.

    All of which will build towards a reaffirmation of mySociety’s place as a key player within the global civic technology movement.

    Making this all possible

    Of course, all of this is possible only thanks to the generous support of our many funders — and needless to say we are always looking for more, if you think you can help then please do let me know. In particular, I will be spending a good deal of time delivering the three-year vision we developed with our friends at the Omidyar Network, with whom we announced a major $3.6m funding partnership earlier this year.

    That said, one of mySociety’s great assets is that we are not entirely reliant on donor funding, so I will also retain our strong focus on helping our commercial clients — from UK local councils and charities to global technology giants — to serve their own users better, by working with mySociety Commercial Services.

    All in all, I am indebted to Tom for leaving mySociety with sound finances and a world-class team of developers, both of which will be invaluable in helping me to take the organisation to the next level over its second decade.

    I am also grateful to Tom and mySociety’s trustees for putting their trust in me. I’ve been an admirer of mySociety, and a user of its sites, for many years. It is a great privilege to be appointed as CEO.

    I will be spending the next few months with the team as we plot and plan the next phase of our development which you can read more about here on this blog in the coming months. So if any of this sounds interesting to you then please get in touch.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Mark

    And Tom says…

    A big welcome to Mark!

    I am excited that someone with so much digital experience has come along to guide mySociety in our second decade. We’ve always been an unusual social enterprise in that while we have a social mission, we also operate a first class software development and design team in-house. With Mark on board we will retain and grow that digital credibility, whilst focusing ever more deeply on the needs of our international partners, our UK clients, and growing our research capacity so that we know what is (and isn’t) working.

    I am looking forward to spending the next month brain-dumping to Mark, before I slip quietly out the door in early August.

    It’s an exciting time for mySociety, and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating Mark’s arrival!