Last year Dave Whiteland wrote about our first experience of using design thinking in creating the specification for a Freedom of Information Project in South Africa.
For those of you unfamiliar with the design thinking approach, it is worth me providing a little context (borrowing heavily from Dave’s text).
The design thinking way
Traditionally mySociety has built international digital projects by working closely with our local partner to define a specification. We then build to this specification and seek to continually improve it . We perform usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. The problem is that much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.
Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.
Our commitment to the process
mySociety is dedicated to maximizing the impact of its projects by tailoring solutions to the local context. As part of this, we have committed to only carrying out new large-scale international digital projects where we can follow these design principles. One challenge with this approach is that, unlike traditional projects, we are unable to provide funders with a clear description of what the project will deliver. At the start of the process the tools that will be built and the processes and infrastructure that will surround them are unclear. Furthermore, all this prototyping and piloting adds to the time these projects take to complete.
In Making All Voices Count we were incredibly fortunate to find a funder who was not only undeterred by these concerns but actively appreciated the value of the approach. Earlier this year they awarded us a scaling grant to work for a two-year period on a Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
On the ground in Liberia
Last week the project team met up in Monrovia to start the design process. Our partners on the project are the iLab Liberia and Public Works at Stanford, an offshoot of the d.school which focuses on applying design thinking to governance in the developing world. The staff working on the project are Luther Jeke, Carter Draper and Teemu Ropponen (Ilab); Jenny Stefanotti (Stanford); and Paul Lenz, Dave Whiteland and Jen Bramley (mySociety).
So what does this actually entail? Briefly, it first involves meeting with a large range of different stakeholders, users and potential users and building up an understanding of their current behaviours, their needs, challenges and perspectives. We interviewed more than 20 people, including the Information Minister, the Independent Information Commissioner, investigative journalists, Public Information Officers, FOI NGOs and community groups.
Each day we would break down our notes from these interviews into things said, thought, done or felt, and group them by type of stakeholder. This is a very active and visual process, resulting in sheets of paper being covered in hundreds of Post-It notes.
In working through this process it became clear to us that there were a number of common issues. Firstly, while the FOI law in Liberia is legally very strong, in practice adherence is pretty poor – partially due to simple process failures, and perhaps sometimes due to willful avoidance. Secondly, despite significant resources being invested in “sensitising” (educating) citizens about the law, very few FOI requests have ever been made by individual “average” citizens; rather they have been submitted by NGOs, journalists and activist groups. These two finding might not be hugely surprising, but others were perhaps less obvious. For example, almost without exception, the Public Information Officers that we met were deeply proud of their work and wished the FOI law was used more; even though the law allows for electronic or phone call requests to be made in reality each request must be hand-delivered, hard copy, and a receipt obtained; finally, even skilled and experienced investigative journalists can end up spending years chasing requests through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that takes advantage of the requester’s ignorance of the detail of the law.
The next stage, that we are really only just starting, is to identify some approaches that might address these issues, and then to find a way to attempt to prototype the solutions. To save time and cost and in order to enable maximum flexibility these prototypes often take a “Wizard of Oz” approach – human intervention in lieu of building a technical platform to trial. An example would be rather than building an SMS gateway that interfaces with a computer system the prototype relies upon a person simply receiving the SMS on their phone and typing it into a form.
The week was incredibly intense and rewarding driven by Jenny’s fantastic energy in overseeing the whole process, and the great commitment and engagement from the iLab team – particularly given the developing situation with Ebola while we were there.
Freedom of Information: really?
You might ask: given the infrastructure, income and health challenges facing Liberia , does FOI really matter? Is it perhaps a right to be addressed when more essential needs have been met? Are people even worried about being able to request information from their representatives, due to the other factors at play?
I can make no more compelling case in response than one that was made to me by one of our interviewees:
“Liberia went to war over the mismanagement of natural resources in our country. FOI can help hold people to account and stop it happening again”
[Warning – the following is an exceedingly dull blog post but important for accountability]
We’re writing this post today because we’ve made a mistake. It’s not a mistake that will matter to many people, but because (rightly) our accounts are public, anyone looking at those that we just filed this week will see that we’ve admitted we made some mistakes in previous accounts.
It’s not a very exciting mistake – no money has been lost or misused – but we made some previous declarations about how money was accounted for inside mySociety that were wrong. And in the interests of complete transparency, we’ve written this post to explain how.
First off, it is probably worth explaining that mySociety is a project run by the charity UKCOD. UKCOD runs all of the not for profit sites that you see and use under the mySociety umbrella.
In order to fund the development and support of these not for profit sites we carry out commercial work from which we make profit. This commercial work is carried out by mySociety Ltd – a commercial trading company that is wholly owned by UKCOD.
The latest accounts
Yesterday UKCOD and mySociety Ltd submitted their accounts to Companies House (and, for UKCOD, to the Charity Commission) for the financial year ending 31st March 2010.
Anyone reading our accounts would notice two important points:
1) Both sets of accounts were several months latePRIOR YEAR ADJUSTMENT
2) In both sets of accounts the figures for the previous financial year 2008/09 have been restated, and a note has been added to the accounts which states for UKCOD:
In previous years, amounts of £136,274 received from the subsidiary, mySociety Limited, a company, were classed as donations from them. However, these amounts were for paying the VAT creditor and repayments to the parent for services provided by them. This has resulted in donations received (and consequently the net income) being overstated by £136,274, hence the need for the prior year adjustment.
Which leads to these questions:
1) Is the financial health of UKCOD/mySociety worse than previously reported?
2) Why are the accounts so late?
3) What does the adjustment note mean?
The answer to 1) is no, absolutely not – see below for more detail.
The answer to 2) is quite simply that discovering the errors that led to us writing the adjustment note resulted in a lot of extra work having to be carried out in order to ensure that the accounts are correct and the prior years are appropriately restated.
The answer to 3) is the next section.
Okay, so what does the adjustment note mean?
mySociety Ltd, our commercial arm, makes payments to the charity UKCOD to pay for the commercial development work carried out by UKCOD developers. In addition it makes payments to UKCOD to cover its share of the group VAT liability. Any surplus profit it makes is donated to UKCOD to support the not for profit work.
In previous years all of the payments made from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD had erroneously been reported as donations. So, for instance in a year when mySociety Ltd had paid £20,000 for VAT, £60,000 for development time and a £30,000 donation all £110,000 had been reported as a donation. The £80,000 for VAT and development had been noted, but treated as an unpaid debt owing from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD.
This had three results:
1) The surplus of UKCOD had been overstated.
2) The profit of mySociety Ltd had been under stated (or to be more precise, the loss it made was over stated).
3) A non-existent debt was reported as existing between mySociety Ltd and UKCOD.
This was, quite simply, a mistake that should have been picked up by both ourselves and our accountants. Sorry. It is embarrassing, but it does not alter the overall financial position of UKCOD/mySociety Ltd.
So what have we done about it?
1) We have reviewed our accounts and inter-company transactions for the last three years to ensure that we correctly apportion the payments between the two organizations.
2) For mySociety Ltd we have restated the profit and loss figures for the financial year 2008/09 and the creditor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
3) For UKCOD we have restated the surplus/deficit position for the financial year 2008/09 and the debtor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
4) We have sought independent legal advice and engaged a second firm of accountants with a charity specialism to review these changes. On the advice of accountants we haven’t resubmitted the accounts for any prior years as the above changes are sufficient to reflect the reporting correction. There is no increase in the tax liability of mySociety Ltd for prior years as result of these restatements.
5) We have already started work on the preparation of our 2010/11 accounts to ensure that they are delivered in a much more timely manner.
So to sum up
The net financial position of UKCOD and mySociety has not changed in any way. The accounts submitted yesterday have corrected the reporting errors of prior years so that both the starting and ending financial positions of the two organizations are correctly stated.
This is a fairly long and detailed post, but as an organization that champions transparency we felt that it was important to be as open and clear as possible about what has happened.
Paul Lenz, Head of Operations and Finance
Amandeep Rehlon, UKCOD Treasurer
Note [added 06.03.12]: We have modified this blog post to remove a single word, and replace it with one more appropriate to the topic.