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.
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!
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.
Here’s a heads-up for those in local government who have a special interest in digital services. Tom, Director of mySociety, will be speaking at two forthcoming events.
LGA annual conference
Wednesday 27th June 2012, Birmingham
What do Digital by Default, the Government Digital Service and the open data agenda mean for local government?
The two key changes to the direction of government IT policy in the last two years have been the rise of open data, and the adoption of digital by default as a core goal. Both agendas were born centrally, and confusion about their meaning, motives and consequences has been rife in local government. mySociety’s director Tom Steinberg, who had a ringside seat in the development of these policies, will discuss the history and trajectory of these significant policy agendas.
Wednesday 27th June 2012
8:00 – 9:00 Breakfast briefing
Room 1, Meetingspace at 11 Brindleyplace, Birmingham
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Building Perfect Council Websites conference
Thursday 12th July 2012, Birmingham
How to become an internet-native council
Twenty years after the invention of the web, many councils and other public bodies are still only just starting to become ‘internet native’. In his talk Tom will talk about the management, attitude and structural changes that this transition entails, and will offer tips for overcoming the barriers.
Thursday 12th July 2012
09:45 – 10:30 Opening plenary
National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham
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We’d love to see you at either of these events – and we’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about mySociety, too.
If you’d like to keep up to date with the interesting ideas and technologies from mySociety, you can sign up to our local government mailing list here. We’ll send updates a few times a year and will never spam you.
Top image credit: Kevin Dooley.
Today we launch FixMyStreet for Councils, our street issue reporting software designed for council websites and built in consultation with a wide variety of local authorities across the UK. FixMyStreet for Councils enables local authorities to deal more cheaply and efficiently with street problem reports.
Our national FixMyStreet.com site has operated since 2007, helping people easily and quickly report issues to the council and see what issues have already been reported in their area. We knew we’d done something right when councils began to enquire about incorporating FixMyStreet into their own websites. These local authorities recognised the system’s usability and the benefits of putting reports online, saving their residents and themselves time and reducing duplicate reports.
FixMyStreet for Councils is our response to this interest. It was built with input from different types of council – large, small, rural, urban – to see how we could put their requirements at the heart of the system while still prioritising their residents’ needs.
FixMyStreet for Councils offers:
- A branded cloud service seamlessly branded to reflect each council website’s look and feel;
- Customisable front-end: councils can include their own wording, add new problem categories that are relevant to them and get rid of the ones that aren’t;
- Mobile reporting options including mobile web pages and iPhone and Android apps with council’s branding;
- A dashboard for council employees, allowing them to see, at a glance, which problems have been fixed and which are still outstanding;
- Integration with the national FixMyStreet.com site – all issues reported on the council’s website are reflected on FixmyStreet.com, and vice-versa;
- Optionally, full integration with existing CRM or fault management systems.
FixMyStreet for Councils evolved from custom installations we created for several local authorities, including the London Borough of Barnet, who pioneered the software in January 2010. Chris Palmer, the Assistant Director of Communications at Barnet, says it has “made the council far more open, transparent and responsive”. For an insight into the impact of FixMyStreet on Barnet’s relationship with its community, read our case study.
Our launch comes in response to a growing need in councils. Across the country there’s an impetus to shift services online. It’s easier for people to engage with their council digitally, and it really improves the quality of their transactions. Plus it saves money – and as we know, councils are cutting budgets where they can in the current climate.
SOCITM’s 2011 Channel Value Benchmarking survey underlines just how wide the cost gap can be. It reckons to £8.62 per face-to-face visit, £2.83 per phone call, and just £0.15 per visit to a council website.
We’ve put a lot of thought into this launch and our hope is that it will be as beneficial for citizens as it is for the councils we built it for – after all, making services more efficient and saving them money is good for all of us.
- FixMyStreet puts reports online for everyone to see, cutting down on duplicate reports
- Back-end integration saves ‘re-keying’ time, when staff members are typing details into the council database
- In the long run, FixMyStreet can increase citizen engagement, giving residents an enhanced feeling of empowerment, and a desire to safeguard the community
- FixMyStreet for Councils is economically priced, and includes all hosting and maintenance, so it doesn’t place a burden on council IT staff
- Residents become useful informers: Chris Palmer of Barnet Council describes FixMyStreet users as “our eyes and ears on the ground”
Cost benefits aside, there’s an increasing desire from all of us to do things on the go, simply and quickly. We see it in the private sector, and we’re beginning to expect it in the public sector, too.
For an insight into how FixMyStreet for Councils has altered the London Borough of Barnet’s relationship with its community, read our case study here.
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.
Back in November 2006 we launched Number 10’s petitions website. We were pretty proud of the usability-centred site we built – we can still lay a pretty good claim to it being one of the biggest democracy sites (measured in terms of people transacting) that the world’s ever seen.
Over 12 million signatures had been added to petitions by the time the site was switched off after the 2010 general election. We were particularly proud of developing a system that was highly load-tolerant: we once survived over 20,000 people signing within a single hour, all whilst running on a pair of cheap little servers. That performance on so little hardware was down to the raw brilliance represented by a coding team made up of Francis Irving, Matthew Somerville, and the late, great Chris Lightfoot.
We’re also pleased that the popularity of the site led to the irresistible rise of the belief that the public should be able to petition the government via the internet. So even though our site was mothballed, Parliament and DirectGov have taken over the idea, and the commitment has been upped a notch, from ‘we’ll send a reply’ to ‘we’ll talk about it’. To be clear, we are not, nor have ever been a community interested in replacing representative democracy with direct democracy, but anything that can squeeze any drop of change from Parliament is worth a small celebration.
What’s most pleasing, though, is that we’ve been able to take the open source code built for Number 10, improve and expand upon it to develop a hosted petitions service for local councils around the country, or the rest of the world. And this is where we found the most important lesson for us: local petitions can be awesome, and despite the much smaller numbers of signatories involved, we’ve been more widely and frequently impressed by local petitions and responses than at the more glamorous national level. We’re particular fans of Hounslow Borough Council who have given positive and detailed feedback on all sorts of genuine local issues, as well as working hard to let local residents know that the service exists.
Just recently we launched a site to make it really easy to find local council petition websites, because there are hundreds hidden away (we built some; most are supplied by other vendors). If we could see anything result from today’s huge explosion of interest in online petitions, it would be that people might start to look local, and explore what petitions in their community could mean.
[Note, November 2014: Petition Your Council has now been retired]
Local petitions can be highly effective, and we think that making them easier to create is in the public interest. Many councils have petitions facilities buried deep within their websites, most often, very deeply. In fact it brings to mind Douglas Adams’ quote about important council documents being “on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard'”.
Our most recent mini-project is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to find your local council’s e-petitioning site, if they have one. PetitionYourCouncil.com (you’ll notice we stuck to our tried and tested format for site names, there) is a way of finding every council e-petitioning website we know about.
Our original motivation for building the site was that we, along with other suppliers, have supplied online e-petitioning sites to numerous councils ourselves – it’s one of the ways in which we fund our charitable activities. Having delivered these sites, we later noticed that many of them are left under-used and in some cases, not used at all: only because people don’t know about them. We hate to think of councils spending money on a splendid resource that could be improving democratic processes for their citizens – and those citizens never knowing that they exist. In particular, we owe Dave Briggs thanks for pushing us into action with this blog post.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, PetitionYourCouncil links to every council petitions site, not just the ones we made.
The site was built by mySociety developer Edmund von der Burg using Django, jQuery, Google maps and Mapit, and like most mySociety projects, it’s open source. There’s a bit more detail on the About page. Please do try it out, and let us know what you think.
Being strictly non-partisan mySociety has no official view on Wills & Kate, but we are unashamedly Pro People Having Parties. And recently we’ve been able to work on a project with Barnet council that has helped us make more of them.
Most councils want people to be able to have a street party if they want – I mean, who’s against a party? But closing a street has costs associated with it, and there’s no point in spending that money if the ‘Street Party Committee’ is actually just one person, and the party isn’t actually going to happen.
Tackling this particular problem seemed ideally suited to PledgeBank, which exists solely to make sure there are enough people signed up to make a particular activity worthwhile.
So after some custom hackery, here’s what happens if you live in Barnet and apply to run a street party for the Royal Wedding. First, you give your details. Then the council makes a pledge, and then emails it back to the applicant. All the pledges are of the same form, and read:
“Barnet Council will arrange free public liability insurance for a street party in [Your Street name] but only if 3 or more households will get involved.”
It is then the applicant’s task to get another couple of people (or more) to sign the pledge. Once the signers exceed the threshold, the council believes the party is bona fide and starts work. Simple.
And it works! There are 24 parties currently listed that have passed the threshold, so that’s 24 streets that are already good to go. There are another 27 that may succeed or fail, depending on their organiser’s motivation.
Strangely, though, our invitations haven’t arrived yet, but, you know… they probably got lost in the post (sniff).
We’ve been doing some work with Barnet Borough Council recently, such as a nice planning alerts tool. Simple, useful, well built stuff that meets an obvious need – exactly the sort of stuff we’re keen to work on with all our clients.
During our conversations with the officers at Barnet, it became apparent that one thing they were thinking about a lot was how to support all the people who want to have Royal Wedding street parties. The dilemma was pretty simple: they want people to have a good time, but each street party means closing a street to traffic and doing other things that take time and money. And this isn’t worth doing if it turns out the people on the street weren’t really up for it anyway.
Reducing a risk like this sounded like exactly the sort of problem that PledgeBank was built to tackle, so we’ve customized it a bit for this specific purpose, added a big, cheesy picture of the happy couple, and launched Barnet’s Royal Wedding Street Party page.
The mechanic is nice and simple – you tell the council who you are and what street you live on. They then send you a back link to a street-specific pledge that needs signing by people in three households. You pass this around your neighbours, get the signatures, and presto, Barnet will support your party.
Lovingly built by mySociety’s Dave Whiteland, this might not exactly be the biggest story in local government history. However I do think it’s a nice and surprisingly rare example of developing a small bit of policy that aligns just so with a new bit of technology. It’s not trying to ram a square technology peg into a round policy hole. I hope we get to work on more things like this in future.