1. Easy fault-reporting for East Sussex and Hart

    Winding Road (Ditchling Road, Hollingbury) by Dominic Alves

    Residents of East Sussex County Council and Hart District Council can now report potholes, broken street lights, and other local issues, simply and speedily. The two local authorities are the latest to integrate FixMyStreet onto their own websites.

    Whether reports – and subsequent updates – are made on the councils’ websites, or within their boundaries on FixMyStreet.com, they will be published on both the council site and FixMyStreet.

    FixMyStreet is a proven aid to channel shift, moving report-making online, to save time and money for both residents and councils. Hart and East Sussex’s adoption of the software is just one strand of their ‘digital by default’ approach to transactional services.

    If you’re from a council, and would like to find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils, everything you need to know is here.

    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)
  2. Brighton and Hove City Council launch new FOI system in aim to become more transparent

    You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.

    mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.

    Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.

    Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.

    Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us.  With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.

     BrightonCouncil FOI system

     

    The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety. 

     

    Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.

    The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.

    We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.

    Why did you decide to implement the new system?

    JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.

    We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.

    How does it work?

    JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.

    Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.

    What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?

    JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.

    Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?

    JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.

    Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.

    Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?

    JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.

    Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?

    JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.

    N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.  
    ————————————
    Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
  3. Why the FixMyStreet homepage asks one easy question

    Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.

    FixMyStreet home page location box screenshot

     

    The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.

    We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.

    How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.

    So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map. You see other problems, already reported so maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there and we won’t have wasted any of your time making you tell us about it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.

    And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.

    Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern e-commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.

    This post was written by mySociety developer Dave Whiteland, and first published on our DIY mySociety blog.

  4. FixMyStreet for Councils: the dashboard

    FixMyStreet.com has always tried to make it as simple as possible to report a street problem. When we built FixMyStreet for Councils, we wanted to simplify things for local authority employees too.

    FixMyStreet for Councils: dashboard So, as well as offering the option to integrate with council back-end systems, we also put together this nifty dashboard (right – click to see full-size). It’s one of several extra features councils get when they purchase the FixMyStreet for Councils package.

    What do councils need?

    •  At-a-glance statistics, for all kinds of reporting. Perhaps the local newspaper have asked how many potholes have been fixed this year, or internal staff need a report on which types of problem are most rapidly fixed.

    The top half of the dashboard allows for this sort of analysis. The drop-down category list means you can filter the view to show one category of problem – say, fly tipping – or all of them. Results are shown across a variety of timeframes.

    FixMyStreet for Councils allows councils to designate their own progress statuses, beyond our standard ‘fixed’ and ‘open’.  So, in this case, the statuses include ‘in progress’, ‘planned’, ‘investigating’, etc. Each of these is shown separately.

    • A realistic picture of how long it takes to deal with issues. The ‘average time to council marking as fixed’ is a great measure of just how much time it is taking to get reports resolved.

    Perhaps just as important, though, is the ‘average time to first council state change’ – that could just mean the report has been acknowledged, or that its status has changed to ‘under investigation’ – but these are still valuable mileposts for keeping residents informed of progress.

    FixMyStreet for Councils dashboard---lower-half
    • Quick access to problems, as they’re reported. At the foot of the dashboard, there are links to all problems reported within the council boundaries.

    There’s an option to filter them by any of the statuses, as above.

    • Access for multiple people, in different locations. The dashboard is web-based, so it can be accessed by any employee with internet access – or several at once.
    • But at the same time, complete security. It’s password-protected, so it’s only accessible to those who have been granted access.
    • A responsive provider. mySociety believe that the launch of new software is only the beginning of the story.

    When people start using new products, they often do so in surprising ways. They often ask for features that would never have occurred to us, and indeed might never have previously occurred to them.

    We will remain in active development, of the dashboard, and of FixMyStreet for Councils as a whole. We’ll be soliciting feedback, and listening to it very carefully.

    The FixMyStreet for Councils dashboard is only available to councils as part of our FixMyStreet for Councils package – find out more here.

  5. How to identify local government services for digital transformation

    Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.

    More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.

    How do you know where to start?

    Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?

    Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.

    What are your users trying to do?

    So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:

    • Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
    • Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
    • Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
    • Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.

    If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.

    Talking to service managers

    Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.

    Decision time

    The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.

    With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.

  6. Open311: Extended

    This is the third of our recent series of Open311 blog posts: we started by explaining why we think Open311 is a good idea, and then we described in a non-techie way how Open311 works. In this post we’ll introduce our proposed extension to Open311, and show how we use it in FixMyStreet.

    The crux of our suggested improvement is this: normal people want to know what has happened to their problem, and Open311 currently isn’t good enough at telling them whether or not it has been dealt with. To be more specific, our additions are all about reports’ status change, by which we mean something like this:

    That pothole?

    I just totally fixed it.

    That’s robot-311 from the previous post, if you’ve dropped in here without reading the previous posts. Once again we’re blurring the distinction between client and user (the girl you’ll see below) a little, to make things simpler to follow.

    Create→send→fix→update

    Every month in the UK, thousands of problems are reported on www.fixmystreet.com and, moments later, sent on to the councils who will fix them. Here’s what happens with a problem report for something like a pothole or a flickering streetlight:

    1. You create the report on FixMyStreet.
    2. FixMyStreet sends that report to the right department at the right council.
    3. That body puts it into its own back-end system.
    4. Later, when the council fixes the problem, FixMyStreet is updated, and everyone knows it’s fixed.

    On the face of it, you might think we need only care about 1 and 2. But really, FixMyStreet isn’t just about dispatching reports, it’s about helping to get things like potholes actually fixed. And neither citizens nor local governments benefit if work gets done but nobody finds out about it – which is part 4 on the list above.

    What do we mean by “status change”?

    The example at the top of the page shows the robot effectively changing a problem’s status to “fixed”.

    Actually, statuses can be simple, such as either OPEN or CLOSED, or more detailed, such as “under investigation”, “crew has been dispatched”, “fixed”, and so on. But since we’re only concerned here with the status changing, that specific vocabulary deployed doesn’t really matter – it can be anything.

    In situations where FixMyStreet is not integrated with council systems (i.e we just send email problem reports) FixMyStreet problems still frequently get marked as fixed, because anyone can change the status of a report just by visiting the page and clicking the button.  Obviously, though, we prefer to have FixMyStreet directly connected to the local government back-end databases, so that news of a fixed report can be automatically bubbled from the back-office up into FixMyStreet and out onto the net.

    And here’s where the problem lies: Open311 doesn’t quite support this business of getting problem updates from the back office out to the public. So first, we’ll show you how it can be done today, using Open311, and we’ll explain why this isn’t a good option. Then we’ll show our preferred solution, which we’ve proposed as an extension.

    Looking at everything just to spot one change (bad)

    One way to notice if any problems’ statuses have changed is to use Open311 to ask for every single service request, and see if any of them have a different status since the last time you checked.

    Tell me all the service requests you’ve ever received

    OK:

    request 981276 the pothole on the corner by Carpenter Street is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)

    request 988765 the pothole by bus stop on Nigut Road is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)

    request 998610 gaping hole at the end of Sarlacc Road is now OPEN (the pothole fell through)

    request 765533 where the street was cracked outside Taffey’s Snake Pit is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)

    . . .

    continues for thousands of requests

    Um, OK. Now I’ll look at all these and see if any have changed since I last asked *sigh*

    Obviously there are some problems with this. Even though Open311 lets you ask for quite specific service requests, you have to ask for all of them, because by definition you don’t know which ones might have changed. Remember, too, that problems can potentially change status more than once, so just because it’s been marked as CLOSED once doesn’t mean it won’t become OPEN again later. This exchange is very wasteful, very slow and ultimately (with enough reports) may become de facto impossible.

    Asking for just the changes (good)

    So here’s a better way of doing it. We’ve actually been doing this for some months, and now seems the time to share.

    The client asks the server for just the updates on a regular basis, so any requests that have recently changed get updated on FixMyStreet automatically, usually just a few minutes later.

    Have you changed the status of any of service requests today?

    Yes, request 981276 was CLOSED at 3 o’clock (I filled in the pothole)

    Or, more practically for keeping FixMyStreet up to date:

    Have you changed the status of any of service requests in the last 15 minutes?

    Nope.

    This is handled by our extension to Open311, GET Service Request Updates. There’s also an optional equivalent call for putting updates into the server (POST Service Request Update), which would apply if the client changed the status after the service request had been submitted.

    Note that the server identifies the problem with its own reference (that is, 981276 is the council’s reference, not a FixMyStreet ID, for example). This is important because not all these requests necessarily came from this particular client. Remember that all service requests are available through the Open311 GET Service Requests call anyway (as shown above). So the server doesn’t send each service request back in its entirety: just its ID, the new status, when it changed, and a brief description.

    In practice the client wouldn’t usually ask for “today”. In fact, we typically send a request asking for any updates in the last 15 minutes, and then at the end of the day ask for the whole day’s updates, just to check none were missed.

    The technical bit

    From a client’s point of view, this is simply an extra call like others in the Open311 API. So it’s just a request over HTTP(S) for XML (or JSON, if required).

    We deliberately make the client poll the server for updates and pull them in, rather than expecting the server to push updates out. This frees the server from any obligation to track which clients (for there may be more than just one) care about which updates. The requests themselves are sent with unique IDs, allocated by the server, so the client can dismiss duplicates. It’s also robust in the event of connection failures, so if there are timeouts or retry logic, that’s for the clients to worry about, not the server. Basically, this is all to make it as light on the server as possible: the only real issue is that it must be able to provide a list of updates. This usually means adding a trigger to the database, so that when a problem’s status is updated a record of that update is automatically created. It’s the table of those “service request update” records that incoming requests are really querying.

    We have published our own recommendation of this mechanism, which FixMyStreet already implements, alongside the FixMyStreet codebase.

    Is that it?

    Yup, that’s it.

    This extension is in addition to the Open311 specification — it doesn’t break existing implementations in any way. Obviously this means FixMyStreet’s Open311 implementation is compatible with existing Open311 servers. But we hope that others working on Open311 systems will consider our extension so that clients are kept better informed of the status of the problems being fixed.

    Why are statuses so important that it is worth extending the Open311 spec?

    mySociety didn’t originally build FixMyStreet because we wanted to get potholes fixed. We built it because we wanted nervous, politically inexperienced people to know what it felt like to ask the government to do something, and to be successful at that. We wanted to give people the buzz of feeling like they have a bit of power in this world, even if the most tiny amount.

    If the government fixes a problem and the citizen doesn’t find out it’s a double loss. The citizen becomes disillusioned and weakened, and the government doesn’t get the credit it is due. Everyone loses. We think that Open311 is a key mechanism for making large numbers of people feel that the government does respond to their needs. It just needs a bit of an upgrade to do it better. We hope very much that the wider community tests and endorses our extensions, and it can be folded in to the next official version of the Open311 standard.

  7. Governments don’t have websites: Governments are websites

    Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?

    At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.

    But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.

    Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.

    Vanishing Act

    The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.

    Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?

    Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?

    Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.

    Heartless Bourgeois Pig

    Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.

    I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.

    And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.

    But…

    The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.

    To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.

    Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.

    This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility.  As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?

    It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.

    Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future

    I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.

    The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.

    The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.

    Getting digital people to the top table

    The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.

    Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?

    The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plugwe can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.

     

  8. Barnet Council and their use of Pledgebank

    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

    Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkon

     

    “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”.

    Adopt-a-street

    Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray

    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.”

    Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth

    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.

  9. Lichfield is the latest council to use FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet on the Lichfield District Council website

    Lichfield residents are the latest to enjoy FixMyStreet functionality on their council website.

    We’ve been working with Lichfield District Council to integrate FixMyStreet into their snazzy site design. The resulting interface echoes their purple and green colour scheme, and sits comfortably within their own page layouts.

    What happens to reports when councils include FixMyStreet for Councils on their website? There’s a two-way mirroring process. All reports made via the Lichfield website will also appear on the main FixMyStreet.com site. And all Lichfield reports made via FixMyStreet are published onto their website too. That way, we cut down on the possibility of duplicate reports, and Lichfield residents can use whichever site they prefer.

    So, Lichfeldians, there’s never been a better time to report that nagging problem on your street. Do let us know how you find it!

  10. Stop treating people like idiots: start connecting public service users to the tough decisions that shape them

    One of the most common grumbles heard within the political and governmental classes is that the public doesn’t understand the need for compromise.

    The argument goes something like this: left to themselves the public will vote for low tax and high public spending, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and collapse. The State of California is usually wheeled out as exhibit A here.

    Assuming that this is even true, I find it hard to blame the public for a general lack of awareness about the compromises involved in running a functional government.

    This is not because big budgets are complicated (although they are) but because most governments waste hundreds of thousands of opportunities a day to explain the nature of compromises. They waste them because they’re still thinking about the world from a paper-centric mindset.

    Linking to explanations

    My argument is this: key compromises or decisions should be linked to from the  points where people obtain a service, or at the points where they learn about one.   If my bins are only collected once a fortnight, the reason why should be one click away from the page that describes the collection times.

    Currently, in order to obtain an explanation for why a service functions as it does,  I’d probably have to pick up the phone to my local councillor, or use this handy service to make a few FOI requests. In terms of effort and clicks, these explanations describing why a service is like it is are so far away from the service itself that they might as well be on Mars.

    Here are some of the wasted opportunities to explain which I would like to see seized upon:

    • A “Why aren’t there more bin collections?” link on local government waste pages, linking through to an explanation about council budgets, what would have to be sacrificed to have more bin collections, and who made the decision to adopt the current compromise.
    • Updates by local governments on FixMyStreet that say “We’re not going to fix this problem because it wouldn’t be good value for money”, linking through to an appropriate analysis about money spent on street fixing, versus other things.
    • On the NHS’s ‘Choose and Book’ website, I’d like to see links saying “Why can’t I get an appointment sooner?” These would then be linked to data on NHS waiting lists, budget constraints and specific decisions that set the current availability.

    Obviously cynics out there will say that governments don’t want people to know that they can’t solve all the world’s ills – and that they want to preserve a mystique of omnipotence, so that people will be miserably grateful to them for the bounty bestowed. In this model, governments don’t offer explanations lest citizens see them as merely mortal, and boot them out.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but servile gratitude and illusions of infinite power doesn’t sound much like the current attitude to government from most people I know.  We live in politically disillusioned times where many people worry if the government can actually fix anything, never mind everything.

    If ever there was a time to start routinely explaining to citizens that government is a process of ceaseless compromises it is now, in the hard times. There are plenty of those around the world right now.

    I believe that citizens could be both more forgiving of governments, and more empowered to demand change if services were closely connected to explanations of why compromises have been made.  I think that the reason it hasn’t happened before isn’t really politics: it’s simply because it wouldn’t have been possible on paper. On paper you can’t link through to an animated narrative, or a set of votes, or a transcript of a key decision.  I think the main reason we don’t connect services with explanations is because governments haven’t really grokked the meaning of simple linking yet – not really.  I’m looking for the first government, national or local, willing to give it a shot.