Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?
The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.
We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.
We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.
Back in April, we hosted the fourth edition of our research conference The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Lisbon, Portugal.
We were thrilled to bring together 150 leaders in the field from 29 countries to take stock of the civic technology research landscape and to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using technology for social good.
62 speakers from 19 countries covered topics such as: responsible technology; accountability keywords; blockchain; fact-checking; service delivery; bridging the civic tech research divide; working with governments; impact measurement; open contracting; amongst many, many others. Thank you to everyone involved for sharing your experiences and research.
If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), do check out the TICTeC website to see videos of all conference sessions, interviews with delegates, photos, and slides where available.
As a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:
Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.
Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.
Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.
We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.
So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.
We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).
A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!
From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).
We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.
One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.
After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.
We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).
A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.
Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.
During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).
A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.
We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.
So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.
We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!
Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)
mySociety services produce a lot of useful (and interesting!) data. Over the years we’ve often made components or the results of mySociety services available through APIs (like our MapIt service) or as open data to download (such as our EveryPolitician data).
What we haven’t been good at is showing you the full breadth of what we have available, or how component parts can be used together. Sometimes we find users of one aspect of mySociety data being unaware of other relevant datasets.
To fix this problem, we’ve created a new data portal – data.mysociety.org – to bring all the data we publish into one place. From the politicians of Albania to data about all ministerial and parliamentary roles UK MPs have held, everything can be found on one site.
Our research team will also use this site to publish supplementary materials to papers and blog posts that might be of use to others (such as a lookup table for the different codes used for UK Local Authorities). So we plan to keep adding data whenever we can!
Every now and then, we in the mySociety research team are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to explore specific themes in civic participation, in partnership with some of the leading philanthropic bodies in our field. Last year, we worked with the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network to examine Participatory Budgeting. These organisations were keen to explore where there might be opportunities for the Participatory Budgeting field to be supported or developed, and alongside academic experts Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty and Michael Touchton, the mySociety research team conducted a wide-ranging review of some of the key questions surrounding Participatory Budgeting, and interviewed a number of practitioners and global experts.
You can read the full report here.
One of the truly fascinating things about the spread of Participatory Budgeting over the last 30 years is how it has evolved, mutated and emerged in almost all corners of the world. The model conceived in Porto Alegre 30 years ago is very different from the implementations of Participatory Budgeting operational today in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Projects and frameworks for participation must evolve with changing attitudes, must be culturally appropriate, and must work within the resources available. However, the very reasons that implementing bodies have for doing Participatory Budgeting have also changed.
While many practitioners view Participatory Budgeting as a very process based activity, there are many differing opinions on what it is actually structured to achieve. In Brazil, this model was developed as a new political offering to build a fundamentally redistributive programme, allowing citizens with the greatest need to input into real-world budgeting solutions to leverage funding into the poorest neighbourhoods. This concept of redistribution has, based on our research, appeared to have waned in the majority of places, with the focus of Participatory Budgeting now firmly upon the commonly accepted ideal of broad citizen participation, with the merit assigned to the act and volume of participation by the general populace in local budgeting.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this shift in focus, but it does raise questions around scale, legitimacy and programme outcomes. What are institutions really trying to achieve when implementing Participatory Budgeting? Is it redistribution, is it genuine participation, or is it the appearance of genuine participation? And is there any desired outcome beyond having citizens participate? Is the high cost of engaging the most disadvantaged citizens offset by the educational benefits of small-scale Participatory Budgeting exercises? Do implementers want these programmes to be large scale but relatively ‘light touch’? And if so, does that devalue the process of participation or exclude disadvantaged citizens or minorities? Is it right that those citizens able to mobilise support and votes for specific projects are most likely to be from comparatively wealthy and educated sections of society? Does the scaling potential of digital Participatory Budgeting platforms gentrify the process? And what is the point of investing in exercises such as Participatory Budgeting when the political and bureaucratic institutions overseeing them are evidently corrupting or subverting the process?
This research project was incredibly compelling, and while we reluctantly concluded the project with more questions than answers, we hope that these points will focus the international Participatory Budgeting community towards genuine development that will benefit all of the many hard-working and dedicated practitioners around the world.
Image: Chris Slupski
We’re really looking forward to heading out to Lisbon in April, for our fourth Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) — and you will be too, once you hear who our keynote speakers are!
Drumroll please… as we introduce:
Martha Lane Fox
Martha is the founder and executive chair of Doteveryone, a think tank fighting for a fairer internet. She co-founded Europe’s largest travel and leisure website, lastminute.com, with Brent Hoberman in 1998; they took it public in 2000 and sold it in 2005. In 2007 she founded her own charitable foundation Antigens and also serves as a Patron of AbilityNet, Reprieve, Camfed and Just for Kids Law.
Martha was appointed as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in March 2013, and was appointed Chancellor of the Open University in March 2014. In 2015 she joined the board of the Creative Industries Federation, the Scale up institute and the Open Data Institute, and became a member of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy in 2017.
She is a non-executive director at the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and in April 2016 was appointed as a non executive director of Twitter. She also co-founded and chairs LuckyVoice, the chain that’s revolutionising the karaoke industry in the UK.
Professor Jonathan Fox
Jonathan is a Professor at the American University’s School of International Service, focusing on the relationship between citizen participation, transparency and accountability, from both scholarly and practitioner perspectives.
He has carried out extensive research in rural Mexico, and with Latino immigrant organisations in the US, conducting dialogue with a wide range of public interest groups, grassroots organisations, development agencies, private foundations and government policymakers. Jonathan’s current project? He’s launching a new “action-research incubator” at SIS: the Accountability Research Center.
Here at mySociety, Johnathan’s research work has always been an inspiration. If you’re not familiar with his work we can recommend a short reading list:
- The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability (2007)
- Social Accountability – what does the evidence really say? (2015)
- When does ICT-enabled citizen voice lead to government responsiveness? (2015)
And if you’d like to read more about Jonathan and his work, you can visit his blog.
Fancy speaking at TICTeC? There’s still time to apply
Our Call for Papers is open until 2nd February, so do submit a proposal if you’d like to join Martha and Jonathan on the bill.
We’re looking for session proposals that focus on the specific impacts of Civic Technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested.
We will prioritise proposals that can demonstrate data or evidence of how Civic Technology has been impactful in some way. We encourage presentations that examine negative results as well as research evidencing positive outcomes!
So if you have research to share, then do submit your proposal here.
If your work touches on Civic Technology and open government, and you need a fast-track to understanding what works and what doesn’t, you’ll want to join us in Lisbon. Previous attendees attest that time spent with others in the sector has been every bit as useful as the conference itself — we make sure there’s plenty of time in the evenings for socialising. Roll that in with the lovely location, and you have a package that’s both professionally rewarding, and a lot of fun too. Register to attend here.
Early bird tickets are available until 9th March, which provide a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets.
Past TICTeCs have sold out, so do make sure you book in early!
How many Freedom of Information requests are sent through WhatDoTheyKnow as compared to those made directly to public bodies? Our new mini-site lets you explore Cabinet Office statistics in comparison to numbers from WhatDoTheyKnow.
Every quarter, the Cabinet Office releases Freedom of Information stats for a collection of central government ministries, departments and agencies. This provides a good benchmark for understanding how requests made from WhatDoTheyKnow relate to requests made through other routes. Back in 2010 we ran several blog posts about this, though we haven’t released any comparisons in recent years — and we’re now making up for lost time.
In 2016, WhatDoTheyKnow was the source of 17.14% of requests to audited public bodies. On the other hand, most WhatDoTheyKnow requests (88.51%) went to public bodies that the Cabinet Office figures don’t cover.
One interesting conclusion from this is that most FOI activity in the UK is not immediately visible from the official statistics. You can read more about what we learned from the numbers, or explore the data for yourself on the mini-site.
Image: Jerry Kiesewetter (Unsplash)
It’s official: TICTeC 2018, our fourth conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Lisbon, Portugal, on 18 and 19 April 2018.
Stick that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.
TICTeC is known for its unique focus on the impacts of Civic Technologies: it’s a safe place to examine what works, what doesn’t, and how best to measure that. And the culture of TICTeC — where funders mix with practitioners, activists converse with researchers, small NGOs get as much attention as the big players — tends to create new sparks: partnerships, ideas, synergies and friendships.
Call for Papers now open
If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop, please submit your proposals now. You have until 2nd February 2018.
If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact email@example.com for more information.
Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.
In June this year, a Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was appointed. Submissions of written evidence were invited, and of course, this being very much our area, we felt the need to contribute.
Our written evidence is a fairly quick read. Nonetheless we hope that it gets the essential points across, drawing on our experience in what works and what doesn’t in technology for civic engagement.
You can view all the submissions the inquiry received on the Parliament website. The committee will report their findings by the end of March next year.
Well, what an amazing few days in Taipei!
— Julia Kloiber (@j_kloiber) September 11, 2017