Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.
Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.
I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.
In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).
It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.
To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.
After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.
Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.
Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.
Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.
This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.
In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.
Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.
When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.
It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.
In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.
The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.
Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).
I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.
I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.
The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.
An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.
Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.
In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.
The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.
The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.
This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.
A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.
That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”
Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.
On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.
The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:
A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.
– so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.
Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.
He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.
There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.
The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.
Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.
Educating, campaigning, sharing
The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.
If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.
When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.
Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.
How it works
Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.
When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.
But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.
Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.
Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.
All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.
WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.
People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.
Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.
If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.
International emergency aid charity Médecins Sans Frontiers are one of the biggest purchasers of medicine worldwide, and naturally it’s important that the drugs they buy are cost-effective. Where possible, they choose generics—white label medicines that contain the same ingredients even if they don’t carry the well-known brand names: think ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘Nurofen’ or ‘Anadin’.
But when a specific medicine is only available as a patented product from a big drugs company and with an equally big price tag attached, MSF, like everyone else, has little choice but to pay.
Curiously, this turned out to be a problem that can be solved, in part, through good web design. Here’s the story.
Obviously, drugs companies have an interest in keeping their medicines under patent. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.
MSF’s online project, the Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for helping people challenge medicine patents. PODB helps groups around the world to find each other and work on cases together, and to share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits which may help others in future oppositions.
The site was already up, running and functional, and the concept was sound. But it wasn’t attracting much take-up. On analysis, it became clear that this was because there was no focused experience on the site, encouraging users towards the core interactions which would power the whole concept of collaborating and sharing knowledge.
Where design came in
MSF asked us to suggest improvements that would enable groups to communicate about specific cases, and to improve the sense of community. Our solutions will add intuitive user paths that lead people to existing opposition cases and the information they need, then encourage them to join in by placing discussions and information about contributors on the page.
It’s crucial for MSF that the project reaches its full potential, and with the in-depth design changes we’ve suggested, and have now been asked to implement, we know it will.
You can read more about how we approached this project in our latest case study, over at the mySociety Services website.
That was the question that sparked our latest project, an online interactive tool for the Money Advice Service. The Car Costs Calculator, built by mySociety, allows you to see outgoings at a glance, and compare one second-hand model against another.
The Money Advice Service helps people manage their money. It does this directly through its free and impartial advice service, and by working in partnership with other organisations to help people make the most of their money.
It is an independent service, set up by government, which proactively offers advice and services to help people with the big financial commitments in their lives.
The proposed tool was to be part of a wider, content-driven campaign about the process of buying a car, the possible pitfalls of doing so, the financial implications, and the best ways to save money.
The costs of car ownership aren’t always apparent until you’re up and running – and that’s not helpful when you’re browsing the second-hand car ads.
The Car Costs Calculator gives potential buyers a clearer understanding of exactly what outgoings are associated with each make and model of car.
Several factors make up the costs of running a car: fuel, servicing and maintenance, vehicle tax, annual insurance, and the likely annual depreciation. Before making the decision to commit to what is, for many people, one of the largest outgoings in their monthly budget, it pays to have a full understanding of all of these costs.
We needed to build a tool that could present this complex data, simply and clearly. It made sense to model it on the sort of comparison service that we’re all familiar with from online electronics retailers – that way, most users would have an intuitive understanding of how to access the data.
Before we started work, the Money Advice Service gamely answered all our many questions, allowing us to create a collaborative scoping and feasibility document.
This, together with clear guidance on the branding and house style, was indicative of what was to come – open communication, with frequent meetings and calls throughout the entire build.
We worked to our preferred Agile method. This approach allows for the overall build to be divided into small chunks, each of which is presented to, and tested by, the client on a regular basis: feedback can then be incorporated into the next sprint.
The tool was given plenty of use and testing by the Money Advice Service stakeholders at every stage, and their comments were a valuable resource for our developers.
We also benefited from the client’s in-depth understanding of their audience. With their help, we drew up user stories, including characteristics and motivations, so that we knew we were all on the same page and could really focus on the tool’s users.
While the build went smoothly, we did encounter one issue. It just happened that the Money Advice Service had only recently introduced new styles across its website, and mySociety was the first third-party supplier to use them.
As it turned out, they weren’t entirely pinned down, meaning that some finished pieces of design needed to be re-done as the project neared completion.
Remember all that communication we talked about above? This is where it came in really useful, and we got there in the end.
The Car Cost Calculator launched in July, fitting into the Money Advice Service’s wider campaign on financial advice about buying, selling and running a car.
Both sides are pleased with this innovative tool that gives buyers such a simple route to the financial information they need to make an informed decision.
For the Money Advice Service, the project represents what every client would like to see: “low input, high output”. That is to say, for a relatively low overhead, they have provided the UK with an online tool that will make a real difference.
Try it out
Whether or not you’re in the market for a second-hand car, it’s still fun to try out – have a go with the tool here.
Need something similar? We can build it for you.Image credit: Allen Watkin (cc)
It’s known for being one of the cleanest and most efficient cities on earth – but even Zürich suffers from potholes and graffiti.
Zürich’s residents can now report infrastructure faults via their city council’s own dedicated installation of the FixMyStreet platform: Züri wie neu, which translates as ‘Zürich: Good As New’.
For Zürich, it’s a new online channel for its infrastructure reports. Meanwhile, for mySociety it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography.
We spoke to GIS Project Managers Tobias Brunner and André Graf about the process of installation, and whether or not the launch has been a success.
How it all began
“The project came about as the result of a government competition,” explains Tobias. “Through the eZürich vision, they solicited ideas that would help the city use ICT (Information and Communications Technology).
“FixMyZürich, as the idea was initially presented, was one of the top three suggestions. It clearly matched the competition’s stated aims of increasing transparency and modernising communication channels. Plus there was a strong likelihood that it would also increase civic participation and improve the image of the council – wins all round.”
But Switzerland has a reputation throughout the world for being spotless and efficient – and could Zürich, which ranks second in the world for high standard of living, really have any problems to report?
There was definitely a fear that the service would barely be used. Only after launch would they see whether that fear was justified.
Prior to this, Zürich didn’t have an online channel for infrastructure fault reporting: citizens had to use phone, email, or even fax if they wanted to tell the council about a problem in their community. So it was high time for modernisation. eZürich’s winning entry had mentioned the UK platform FixMyStreet, and so Zürich was well aware of mySociety’s custom software.
They assessed other systems. But a number of factors led to the decision to go with FixMyStreet, rather than either buying a different option, or building a system themselves.
Firstly, says Tobias, “It’s simple! And after the design revamp, it looks stunning.” And then, “mySociety was able to adapt the software to our specific needs, which is very customer-friendly.” And finally, “mySociety has a lot of experience in the field, which also persuaded senior council decision-makers.”
Adapting to Zürich’s needs
To complicate matters, each department had its own incident management system – and in fact they still do. In order to get the pilot scheme up and running, Züri wie neu has had to be a standalone system, although eventually the dots will be connected and a unified system will be introduced.
Anyone familiar with the original version of FixMyStreet will immediately notice one big difference with Züri wie neu – the maps. They’re satellite, unlike the Ordnance Survey maps that our UK users know and love.
“People are used to Google Maps,” says Tobias. “We have nice orthophotos [aerial photographs that are geometrically corrected to show uniform distances]. This way, people can view more details, like trees or landmarks, and therefore will hopefully be able to better locate their problem”.
There are less obvious differences, too. For example, users of the original UK FixMyStreet are required to confirm their reports by clicking on an email link. In Zürich, not so. In fact, all reports are verified on the council side: “We didn’t want to let any reports slip by!” That’s admirable commitment.
With mySociety in one country, and our clients in another, there was always going to be a degree of collaboration from a distance. For mySociety, this isn’t so unusual: many of us work from home habitually, and we have all the tools in place for co-coding, shared documentation, and instant communication.
All the same, there were several additional keys to making sure the process went smoothly:
“A lot of email contact and feedback. Feedback from mySociety was really swift – way faster than what we’re used to from Swiss companies!”
And it was invaluable that there were two face to face meetings at crucial points in the development process. Here’s how it went, according to Tobias:
“First, a lot of talk with council members and other responsible people. Then, even more talks!”
“After that, we provided firm requirements for mySociety to implement. There was a lot of testing throughout. And we provided detailed feedback to mySociety about each implementation sprint.”
The process was not entirely without challenges: for example, we needed to build the accompanying app from scratch, which of course added to development time. And Tobias reckons that another face to face meeting would have been useful, especially as regards the app.
Züri wie neu attracted a real blaze of publicity – clearly, this was an idea whose time had come in Switzerland.
“The media went crazy. Every newspaper in Zürich reported the story. Even European television picked it up. Even now, a month after the launch, the media is still covering us”.
Of course, the outcomes are the important part. We saw at the beginning that Zürich’s main aim was to increase transparency and modernise communication channels. We are sure that all councils are also keen to cut costs and increase efficiency.
In the first month after launch, there were 600-900 reports. Zürich’s population is approximately 400,000: comparable to Reading in the UK, and somewhere between Leicester and Bristol. Zürich’s report rate is way in excess of what we see in any of those cities – but it’s early days for this project, and we expect the number of reports to settle down somewhat as the launch publicity subsides.
It’s interesting to hear that Tobias and André reckon the users of the website are ‘new customers’ – people who never would have been in touch before. You can argue whether that creates extra work, or increases efficiency as more faults are reported that would never previously have been fixed.
Meanwhile, feedback from Zürich residents has been overwhelmingly positive. Zürich council themselves are pleased: their next step is to look into adapting the FixMyStreet system so that it can be used by internal departments too, and, significantly, they are in discussion with other councils across Switzerland.
The final analysis
Would André and Tobias recommend FixMyStreet to other councils, including those abroad?
“mySociety were great. They were always very kind, and they brought a large amount of input from their previous experience. We’d definitely recommend them.
“Working in different countries turned out not to be a problem – so long as someone in your organisation speaks English. But I would definitely say that meetings are vital.
“As an extra plus point, you also gain knowledge about English culture – comic shops, real ale, all that sort of thing!”
We’re not going to guarantee a crash course in comics and beer, but we can promise a street fault reporting system that will suit your needs. Get in touch to find out more.
Photo by Clemens v. Vogelsang (CC)
If you’re searching for a new home, give Mapumental Property a try. lt narrows property results down, only showing you houses that fall within a decent commute time from the places you visit regularly – like work, school, or the shops. Here, have a go – it’s fun.
Irritation is the mother of invention
Several years ago, some of our colleagues were looking for a house to rent.
They weren’t set on a particular town. There were two important factors: that it was within a reasonable commute from central London, where they frequently attended meetings; and that the rent was affordable.
Faced with these requirements, most of us would sift through property sites and cross-reference the listings manually with public transport information. It’s rather time-consuming, and slightly irritating, but hey-ho, it has to be done.
But mySociety is in the business of building useful web tools, so when something irritates us like this, we look to see if we can solve the problem through the magic of code. In a stroke of good timing, it was at just around this time that the Department for Transport approached us to ask us to work with their public transport data – and Mapumental was conceived.
The key was to combine Ordnance Survey postcodes with the DfT’s data about journey times, NPTDR (National Public Transport Data Repository). This data set takes a ‘snapshot’ of every public transport journey in Great Britain for a selected week in October each year.
Sounds simple? The process was not without its challenges. Prime among them was the problem of displaying map tiles, plus the vast quantities of transport data, within a reasonable amount of time, no matter which postcode or zoom level the user chose. As we know, a ‘reasonable amount of time’ for a page to load is a metric which is forever shrinking.
By 2006, we had created Mapumental’s first iteration. Users could input a postcode and see all areas of the country that could be reached by public transport, divided into coloured travel-time bands. In 2009, Francis Irving, the mySociety coder behind Mapumental’s early endeavours, explained the technology he’d used. It was Flash-dependent, and a few years later, developer Duncan wrote about some of the technical hurdles he overcame replacing the Flash elements, in view of the rise of the iPhone, which famously doesn’t ‘do’ Flash.
Hoorah! Now our colleagues could type in a central London postcode and see everywhere that fell within a 40-minute journey from there. It wasn’t long before we added median house price data, too.
Beauty is in the eye of the crowd
We even added a ‘scenicness’ rating: if the beauty of your surroundings was important to you, you could rule out anywhere below a certain level of attractiveness.
How did we assess how scenic every area in the UK is? By crowdsourcing the information – our ScenicOrNot website displays a random photograph from every square mile of the British isles, inviting people to rate them. It is surprisingly compulsive.
A showcase tool
Mapumental may have been born from our own needs, but we knew from the beginning that it would have wider applications. It has always been the sort of project that got people excited, once they saw it in action.
We wanted to show how elegantly Mapumental can handle all kinds of data, starting with houses for sale and rent – so we developed Mapumental Property. It’s not intended as a serious competitor to the giant property websites out there. Rather, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing demonstration of Mapumental’s strengths.
In this case, the data is from the property website Zoopla, and you can narrow it down to show rental or sales property within your chosen price bands and commute distances. You can even add multiple destination points, so that households of two or more people can find their optimum location.
But Mapumental is not just about property: swap out that Zoopla layer, and you could put in anything else you can imagine – hospital locations, supermarkets, schools, job vacancies… you name it.
The beauty of Mapumental is that now we’ve done the really hard part, incorporating new data layers is relatively simple. Recent work for the Fire Protection Association and the Welsh Government, among others, has shown its versatility.
Now how about you?
We believe that Mapumental’s possibilities are pretty much endless. Have you got an unloved, difficult-to-navigate dataset that Mapumental could breathe new life into? Or would your stakeholders benefit from being able to see your data displayed on a map? Let us know.
How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?
Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.
Barnet also use another mySociety tool – Pledgebank – and Chris explained how it helps them within the Barnet communities.
Turning complaints into action
“We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.
“One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.
“Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.
“That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’, it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.
“A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.
“One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.
Tapping into community interest
Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?
“I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.
“With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.
What else have you done with Pledgebank?
“We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.
“So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.
A challenge for the marketing department
“It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.
“One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.
“The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.
“It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”
Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes.
If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.
Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
The London Borough of Barnet replaced online street issue reporting forms with FixMyStreet software on their website in January 2010. Our experience with Barnet and several other councils has led to creation of FixMyStreet for Councils, a tailored service designed for local authority websites. We interviewed Chris Palmer, the council’s Assistant Director of Communications, who is responsible for online engagement, about Barnet’s experiences with FixMyStreet, and how it fits with the council’s web strategy.
Barnet is a forward-looking council when it comes to using the web to engage people and help them interact with the council. What have been your key goals in this area?
Our general aim is to get the council out of people’s way, to give people direct access to services. We don’t want residents to feel like they have to go through a complex council process in order to get anything done – so removing process from the equation as much as removing council from the equation is our goal with online.
One of our challenges, as with many other councils, is that technology moves so quickly. Nowadays people expect great, highly-usable web tools as they get this in other sectors – so we need to look at how we continually refresh that relationship with our residents.
What were you looking to achieve with FixMyStreet – and have you been successful?
Rather than putting you through a “customer service process”, FixMyStreet gives you a clear idea of what’s happening, allows you to contact your council from standing in the middle of the street with your phone, and gets you a quick response.
It has worked incredibly well. We launched at a time when a lot of people were worried about the state of the roads. So FixMyStreet was an excellent tool to allow people to feel like they were taking part, rather than just grumbling that there’s a pothole and the council hasn’t filled it. So it’s making people slightly more active citizens rather than passive grumblers. And that’s very important and quite empowering for people.
Why did you choose to have a map-based solution, as opposed to forms which are the more traditional approach to reporting?
For us, there’s two things, and one goes back to how we’ve worked with mySociety. FixMyStreet’s ease and mobility was a real seller for us.
The fact that somebody contacts their council while standing in the street is very important to us. Residents appreciate that it’s the council who comes and fills the pothole, but they don’t necessarily want to know the details of the process. So the more we can strip out that process and get them straight to the issue, the better.
What was the impact of FixMyStreet on the council’s engagement with residents?
I suspect that if you look at the figures, there hasn’t been a huge increase, because most of our online contact is about where schools are, standard things you’d expect.
But what it has done is make the council far more open and transparent and more responsive. Generally, people’s perception of the council is that stuff goes in and you never hear again. At the same time the council never hears back either once we’ve fixed the problem. FixMyStreet enables the reporter to go back, and to say ‘that’s sorted; we’re done’.
We get Facebook comments, we get tweets saying ‘I reported flytipping to Barnet Council – that mattress was gone the following day’. And that kind of stuff is gratifying.
This sort of transparency is relatively new in local government. What was your experience with FixMyStreet?
We welcome transparency and here it has been entirely positive. I haven’t seen any particular grumbling around FixMyStreet itself. Grumbles tend to come through other media. FixMyStreet appears to be a medium for reporting rather than complaining, and that’s what we’ve found such a positive experience about it.
Before now, we’ve tended to regard almost any contact as a complaint – say somebody’s rung the council up and reported that a lightbulb in a streetlight isn’t working. In fact, it’s an entirely positive relationship with a resident. A resident has seen something in the street isn’t working, they inform the council and we’ll go and fix it. So I think it rather changes our relationship with residents – it makes them our eyes and ears on the ground .
More recently Barnet took the next step and created a direct link with the council’s CRM and FixMyStreet. What was the idea behind that?
The council has invested in an infrastructure – we’re interested in seeing if we can move to a service where not only does somebody report something, but we can tell them the processes of being fixed.
So in an ideal world we could tell somebody “Thank you for reporting this” – “It’ll be fixed tomorrow” – “It’s now been fixed”.
We’re still some way off that, but it’s that move to a greater transparency. I’m a great believer that in communications, just telling somebody what’s going to happen next, is very important to building a good relationship with the resident.
How was mySociety as a partner to work with?
Challenging, but in a good way. The strength of mySociety is that you bring new ideas and approaches. mySociety did a review of some of the old screens we had in customer services, where the information we were presenting on screens to the people answering the phones was over complex, and mySociety helped us to strip out that complexity.
Another lesson from the work we’ve done with mySociety has been about the importance of making the information that we and our public sector partners hold more easily available to the community.
It’s a very different relationship from most of our suppliers, in that there isn’t a product in a box. Because of the nature of the things we’ve done, it’s been quite testing – you’ve pushed us in one way, we’ve pushed you another way – we’ve worked together – which is both the opportunity and the pain of innovation.
That’s a good thing in terms of the people we’ve worked with in mySociety – we’ve had an incredibly positive relationship.