The two days leading up to election day are a hugely important time for less politically-obsessive voters. The parties know that a lot of people are only starting to seriously think how to vote today and tomorrow, and TheyWorkForYou saw its biggest spike ever the day before the election, way back in 2005.
This means it’s a super-important time to get trustworthy, non-partisan information in front of as many people as possible. And you can help by doing the following simple things:
1. Go to your constituency page on the TheyWorkForYou Election Quiz and take a good look at the answers. Is there anything surprising in the answers? Has anyone failed to respond who really shouldn’t? Is there anything funny in the responses? Make a couple of notes about what you think are the most interesting findings.
2. If you know the name of your local papers or radio stations, try to Google for the email or phone number of the news desk. If you don’t know the names, try sticking the name of your nearest town into a media database like this, to get a phone number or email address.
3. If possible, you should start your pitch by phoning rather than emailing. If you get a phone number for a news desk, give them a bell and say that you’re a volunteer from “The country’s largest non-partisan election information project”, and ask for the email of a specific person who might be interested in a story about what local candidates are saying.
4. Once you have an email address of a specific journalist, compose a locally specific email for them, along the following lines:
I’m a resident of Z constituency, and this election I’ve been one of 6000 volunteers helping to build an unprecedented project to get candidates across the country to go on the record, in conjunction with the website TheyWorkForYou.com. It’s a strictly non-partisan project, aimed at giving voters a really clear, spin-free view of what their candidates stand for. I’d really appreciate it if you could give it some coverage before election day.
In my constituency, N candidates have completed our survey. From this we can see some quite interesting things, namely:
* Candidate A thinks…
* Candidate B thinks…
Would you be so kind as to print a story encouraging people to check our their candidates via TheyWorkForYou.com, and mentioning some of the highlights I’ve included?
all the best,
Your name, email, phone”
5. An hour after you send the email through, give the journalist a call back to see if they need any more help.
6. If you do this, please leave us a comment on this post so we know who’s had a go!
Thank you for helping spread some non-partisan information this election time, and enjoy the election…
In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.
Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.
This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:
- Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
- Working out how to contact them.
- Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
- Developing a balanced set of national issues.
- Sending the candidates surveys, and chasing them up.
The Volunteer Army
This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green, and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg. Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.
What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government) and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).
In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.
We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.
Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.
The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.
It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.
I must admit that I’m pretty happy to announce mySociety’s plans to build our first major new non-comercial website since WhatDoTheyKnow.com launched in 2008. Late in 2010 we plan to launch FixMyTransport , a site focussed on connecting and empowering people who share transport problems of different kinds. The fantabulous Louise Crow will be lead developer.
Crucially, we at mySociety are under no illusions that it is an order of magnitude more difficult to get a new ticket machine in your station than it is to get your local council to fill a pothole (FixMyStreet surveys report 2371 problems fixed in the last month alone). The difficulty of achieving even minor changes to transport services and infrastructure is why we are simultaneously announcing our plan to build FixMyTransport on top of a major new back end system called Project Fosbury.
Project Fosbury is about helping people get over difficult obstacles. It is a modular platform for breaking down a complicated civic task into pieces which can then be allocated to one or more people. So someone asking their council to change the timing on some traffic lights might be allocated the tasks of:
- Writing to their councillors
- Obtaining local policy on traffic light timings from the council
- Getting people to join a mini-campaign group
- Videoing the problem
- Sending a letter to a local newspaper
Each task will ultimately be carried out entirely within a joined up infrastructure, each module being built to mySociety’s habitually stringent rule that “it must be easy and satisfying to someone who’s never engaged politically before”. We will work to create incentive structures, peer pressure, and hopefully a sense of fun. There will be a single public home page for each mini campaign, showing recent activities on the site, as well as integrating with external social media. We hope to repeat the FixMyStreet phenomena where some ‘insoluble’ problems suddenly become soluble once they’re in the public domain.
Now for the credit where it is due. mySociety’s sysadmin Keith Garrett suggested FixMyTransport back in January 2008.
The actual mechanics of breaking the problem into pieces (the idea that became Project Fosbury) came from a wide discussion at our retreat, with excellent suggestions coming particularly from Richard Pope. But the more general idea that the Internet hasn’t yet produced a really good system for bringing people together to solve everyday problems (as opposed to chat, or win the US presidency) came from numerous Call for Proposals submissions, including ones from Mark W, Rob Shorrock, Peter Silverman, Mahmood Choudhury and more.
mySociety will be building this site using money donated by people like you, profits from commercial projects, and any specific funding we can raise around it. If you know of anyone or any organisation that you think might like to support FixMyTransport or Project Fosbury, please do get in touch.
Go straight to the 2009 Call for Proposals
Do you have a ‘mySocietyish’ idea that you’d like to see become reality? Is there something radical about the sites we already run that should change? Do you have any smart ideas about helping more people to benefit from the services we already offer? Or would you just like to read and comment on ideas submitted by other people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we’d like you to submit your idea to our 2009 Call for Proposals (built for us by Richard Pope). We’ve run these twice before in 2003 and 2006, resulting in the launch and success of sites such as WriteToThem and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Just as on previous occasions we’ll pick a winner and some runners up, but also just as before we can only promise to do our best – we don’t have the resources to solemnly promise to build the winner, whatever it might be.
What We’re Looking For (or, an insight into the mySociety mindset)
The characteristics of the winning and runner up ideas are highly likely to include one or more of the following factors. Don’t try and include all of them, that’d be silly 🙂
- They have to involve the Internet. We don’t do clay modelling.
- They will capitalise on one or more things that the Internet does really well, better than offline or other forms. WhatDoTheyKnow, for example, seizes on the fact that email can be simultaneously published and rerouted – a simple but critical insight.
- They will either be a whole new website idea, or a smart and impactful modification of something we already do.
- They will be ideas that have clear social, civic or democratic benefits that are really easy to explain to the least political person you know, even if the technology behind them is fiendishly complicated.
- They will have some characteristic that will widely spread the word that the service exists, or that other mySociety services exist.
- They will offer brilliant value for money, even if they’re expensive to build in the first instance.
- They will be genuinely new ideas
- They won’t contain the phrase ‘social media’
We might well change these guidelines a bit as the first responses come in. The call will stay open until September 15th, and we’ll hope to announce the winners in early October.
So what are you waiting for – check out the 2009 Call for Proposals
A few days ago mySociety asked the known possible candidates for Speaker to endorse 3 principles relating to making Parliament more transparent on the Internet.
We’ve now had endorsements which you can read on the individual pages of Sir George Young, Sir Menzies Campbell, Frank Field, Tony Wright and Sir Alan Beith , which until Parmijit Dhanda declared this morning, represented endorsement by 50% of the possible field. We also just recieved a typically frank and interrogative phonecall from Ann Widdecombe, who will be writing a formal response soon.
So, come on, John Bercow, Alan Haselhurst, Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, and Chris Mullin. What’s holding up your replies? The days counter on your pages is telling the world how quick you are to respond…
Update: 11 June – John Bercow has now endorsed, and we’ve written to Margaret Beckett and Parmjit Dhanda, who’ve just declared their candidacies.
Update 2: Chris Mullin has told us he is ‘not a candidate’.
Update 3: Sir Alan Haselhurst has also endorsed.
Update 4 – Speaker Election Day: And Sir Michael Lord endorses too.
In less than 24 hours we’ve seen the first reply to our emails asking possible Speaker candidates to endorse our three principles. It is from Sir George Young – we’re looking forward to seeing the responses from the others that we wrote to.
Sir George is broadly supportive, which is great, and we’ve printed his reply in full on his own TheyWorkForYou MP page.
In the mean time, please do write to your MP and ask them to ensure that whoever they vote for, it is a candidate who has endorsed mySociety’s three simple principles, You really can have an impact on this issue: MPs are desperate to be seen to be acting for their constituents right now.
NB mySociety is strictly non-partisan and non-party aligned. We want all candidates from all parties to endorse these principles, and we have ensured that none of the wording of the principles leans towards any particular party or set of beliefs not connected to transparency in the modern age.
mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.
1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.
2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.
3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.
We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.
(NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)
mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.
Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.
Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.
The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.
That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.
- ‘Comfortable Research’ by Joel Bedford (Creative Commons)
I (Tom, mySociety’s director) am planning to write a book over the next 6-12 months, which I hope will set out a mySocietyish vision for practical steps to a better democracy in the UK.
As I’ve got a lot of day to day mySociety-running to do, there’s no way I can take the time needed to do all the primary research for such a project myself. So this post is a job advert for an internship to help me with this project.
An ideal intern would have roughly this skillset:
- Experience as a researcher, preferably in history or politics
- A pretty good understanding of the Internet
- Great telephone skills for wheedling information out of people who need sweet talking
- Good information organising skills, to keep everything found in a nice, easy to use way
- Able to put in at least 2 days a week for at least two months, starting ASAP.
- A willingness to work with other researcher(s)
I’m not snobbish about academic qualifications, or even about type of training or degree, but I do need proof a candidate knows how to get off their own arse to find out interesting things. I’m also easy about age and location. If you know a smart 50-something investment banker who’s just been laid off, I’d be happy to talk to them.
It is an internship, not a paid job, although as with all mySociety volunteering posts it comes with free food, a chance to sleep on Francis’ sofa, the likelihood of meeting lots of fascinating and well connected people, plus all sorts of other perks (TBD).
If you know anyone who might be interested, please send them the link to this post. And even if you don’t, suggestions for how to spread the word about this ad are very welcome.
7,000 members on the Facebook group, over 93% of MPs contacted. Lots of news coverage: BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, Times. John Mann MP makes a good point in a letter to the Guardian: “Few of my constituents care about the detail of how I spend their money as long as I do a good job, but nearly all of them care that they have the right to find out if they really feel the need to.”
Tom has updated the main blog post with a quote from President Obama’s speech that I thought was worth repeating, on why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment: “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
If you haven’t already, do write to your MP, and pick up the phone and call your local radio and TV news stations to let them know about this.
We’ve been shown or seen a few responses from MPs, after people wrote to them, saying that they are worried about their addresses being made public. If this is their main barrier to voting No on Thursday, they have nothing to worry about: they voted to exclude their residential addresses (and expenses on security, and future/regular travel) from the Freedom of Information Act in July 2008.
In fact, one of the reasons it is costing so much money to collate and edit these expenses is staff have been going through and making sure precisely that such information would not be released.
It is sad that MPs don’t seem to know what the law is, and I hope someone will stand up in the debate on Thursday and make this point.