1. The need to repower democracy

    Over the past year whilst we’ve been rocked and rolled by the pandemic along with the rest of the world, we’ve been spending some time thinking about where we’re going as an organisation and what we should be focusing on in the future. Alongside establishing the foundations of our climate programme we have been working on redefining the core principles around democracy and power that inform what we do.

    This is the first of three posts where I wanted to get a bunch of this thinking out in the wild so we can start to get some feedback as we incorporate this into our day to day work.

    Where we started was by defining our why, how and what:

    Why: We believe people can and want to work together to build a fairer society – the web can help do this at scale.

    How: Our role is to repower democracy: using our digital and data skills to put more power in more people’s hands.

    What: We work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.

    We’ll unpack those in a moment, but before we get too far into looking forward it’s worth looking back to mySociety’s beginnings.

    Where we started

    In 2003, when the internet still had a shiny new glow, it was viewed by many as the saviour of democracy (and much else besides). Sadly, this vision was more common amongst developers and democracy wonks than those in positions of power, and even today genuine democratic participation is limited. Government still doesn’t really know how to respond when people do want to get involved.

    Outside the halls of government, it was becoming clear that the real potential of the internet was not just in propping up existing power structures, but in driving much more radical change. Industries and institutions were being revolutionised – people were able to self-organise and form new communities around the ideas they cared about.

    A different model of democracy and society was possible.

    It’s useful to refer back to an article by one of our former trustees James Crabtree from 2003, Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy which was one of our founding inspirations. It translated this challenge to the political sphere, providing the spark for the group, led by Tom Steinberg, from which mySociety emerged.

    The mySociety project

    The mySociety project was animated by a series of shared questions:

    • What if technology enabled people to come together and help one another meet civic challenges?
    • How might the internet transform civic life and what might a transformed democracy look like?
    • How might we create digital spaces and tools which people would want to use?

    That original group of volunteers and friends has grown into an organisation capable of exploring these questions in the UK and around the world for millions of people.

    By bootstrapping our work over the years, we’ve shown how people could and would contribute to a democratic society – given the opportunities, tools and spaces – and demonstrated an alternative vision to that provided by mainstream government, quickly building services that worked.

    We’ve enabled the fixing of streets, the freeing of information, the accountability of parliamentarians. We gave ordinary people more of the tools they needed to participate in more everyday democracy.

    We have so much to be proud of. But our work is not finished and our fundamental belief remains unchanged – that people want to work together to build a better, fairer future — and that technology can be harnessed to help do this.

    Today’s problem: dual crises of democracy and climate

    At the time of writing we’ve just come to the end of COP26 in Glasgow; which depending on your point of view was either another wholly underwhelming summit, where promises and commitments fell woefully short of what is necessary… OR it was an important snapshot of the current challenges facing each nation and a stepping stone in their journey towards making the necessary changes.

    Either way, the crisis of the climate continues to be fuelled by the crisis of democracy — in its current form our democratic experience is just not up to the task of responding to the emergency.

    The need for change across the whole of society is urgent, but it needs unprecedentedly bold leadership to build the consensus for necessary changes to happen. The scale and nature of the action required is really daunting.

    With power concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than equitably shared throughout society, today’s model of decision-making fails to take into account what’s good for people, the planet and society as a whole.

    From our perspective, representative democracy in its current form is proving inadequate to the task. In the UK our voting system is flawed and unrepresentative; often distant and unaccountable politicians work within a system that has resulted in polarisation, cynical division and disenchantment. What’s more our core democratic institutions are actively under attack by people who seek to undermine their effectiveness still further.

    It’s not a lack of science that’s driving the climate crisis, it’s a lack of democracy.

    We need a new democratic settlement — one that recognises the shortcomings of the current approach and seeks to put more power in more people’s hands.

    It must be a repowered democracy that allows us to be better at taking decisions together — locally, regionally, nationally and internationally — reducing and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change effectively, and supporting transparent and accountable decision-making.

    Combatting the climate crisis demands that we reconsider every aspect of the way we live our lives: the way we work, the way we travel, how we build and heat our homes – nothing short of imagining an entirely new form of society.

    We need to collectively address these demands in the face of decades of predatory delay from established institutions and corporations, all the time beset by wilful and skilful misinformation, with leaders incapable or unwilling to advocate for how we can all gain from urgently reimagining our lifestyles and communities. The poor health of our democracy increases the risk of further delay at best, and a further erosion of our liberty at worst.

    Repowering democracy

    Repowering democracy means finding new and better ways to collectively tackle the problems in ways that work for society as a whole; creating space and permission for our leaders and politicians to make the difficult decisions that will be needed in years to come with our full support and participation.

    Repowering democracy means improving the legitimacy, effectiveness and resilience of representative democracy so that it is better capable of incorporating, supporting and embracing the outcomes of participatory democracy — creating the conditions for citizen and community power to thrive and flourish.

    The belief that animates mySociety is that the internet can shape a new politics where people solve their own problems together; not just make it easier to take part in existing politics.

    Fundamentally we believe people can — and want to — work together to build a fairer society.

    Repowering democracy demands that here at mySociety we reconsider our role in ways that help more people work together to build that fairer society:

    • We’ll seek to evolve our portfolio of existing services to become hubs of motivated and empowered community building and action; developing new models of action to directly address the most urgent crises facing society; and expand the ways we operate, bringing in new skills and expertise beyond our core tech, delivery and research staff.
    • We’ll look to adopt a model where we spend more time enabling participation and collaboration between people, communities and institutions — increasing participation and prising open institutions.
    • We’ll increasingly seek to support others to deliver more meaningful impact with our help; adopting our shared technology and open approach, convening and enabling new communities of practice.
    • We’ll help people understand and influence how decisions are made; not just provide better tools by which to choose and challenge politicians.

    In summary, we believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role will be to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy.

    Next: The three shifts we need to make as an organisation to better repower democracy.

    Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva

  2. We believe in the right to protest

    mySociety condemns the inclusion of new legislation against protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the second reading of which started on Monday and which continued to be debated and was then voted through last night.

    Clauses 54 to 60, amending the Public Order Act 1986, were added at short notice to a wide-ranging Bill and threaten to expand police powers with loosely written clauses that will allow almost any act of assembly or protest to be seen as breaking the law.

    The Bill now goes to the Committee stage stage for a clause by clause analysis which you’ll be able to follow on TheyWorkForYou. There is still time to send your comments to your MP before the proposals become law.

    A vital right within a democracy

    mySociety is a non-partisan organisation which gives people the tools they need to be active citizens. We strongly believe that in a thriving democracy, citizens must be able to hold their elected representatives to account. We recognise that public protest is a vital part of being an active citizen; a mechanism for making change and challenging those in power.

    When a single voice isn’t enough, a message can be amplified by marching on the streets with banners and megaphones — an entitlement that is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, codified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and which we believe to be of huge importance to the way that democracy functions.

    Protest doesn’t just block roads and display inconvenient dissent to governments. Protest is a means by which communities across the UK may discuss amongst themselves and come to agreement about what they believe in; what they will or will not stand for and the kind of country in which they want to live.

    It brings issues to the public discourse far from the cities in which a march or assembly takes place, and can result in nuanced discussions, changed minds, and ultimately, alterations to law that reflect this new consensus.

    Impact is the whole point

    With vague wording that allows for police to clamp down on any assembly (or indeed lone protester) that “may” cause disruption, this addition to the Bill extends maximum sentencing for public nuisance to ten years; and deters citizens from one of the important means of displaying dissatisfaction — all points that were brought up during the debate but which were ultimately discounted in the final division.

    Under this clause, a Senior Police Officer may “impose any conditions they consider necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”, reports the Good Law Project, also pointing out that “the very object of exercising the right to protest is to have impact.”

    Indeed, we can look back at a long history of instances where protest has done just that, from the abrupt withdrawal of the Poll Tax to the gradual change in law over gay rights.

    The Good Law Project is not alone in pointing out that the proposed amendments also give Home Secretaries (present and future) unrestricted powers to change the definition of ‘serious disruption’: they have a perhaps surprising ally in Theresa May:

    “It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”

    This provision was conceived during the pandemic and presented as a temporary measure that would allow the government to ensure that people did not endanger others by breaking lockdown rules. As many have pointed out, such simultaneously nebulous and sinister adjustments to police powers should not be written into law lightly, in a hurry, and without intense scrutiny from civil society.

    But it was added at short notice to the Bill along with other hurried restrictions and significant omissions which should be similarly subject to proper scrutiny.

    What you can do

    As this is the Second Reading, the Bill now undergoes its Committee and Reporting stages before being sent to the House of Lords. If the Lords want to propose amendments, it will return to the Commons for further debate. So there is still time to use our WriteToThem service to email your MP and tell them how important the right to protest is to you and to your community.

    If you’d like to really make sure your experiences and insights count, this joint committee is currently accepting input from ‘interested groups and individuals’.

    You can also add your name to the demand for a charter for Freedom of Assembly via this petition from Netpol.

    Ironically, there will be real-world protests too — indeed, these began outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday night and there have been smaller demonstrations across the UK. If you are taking part, please do be careful out there.

    Image: Steve Eason (CC by-nc/2.0)

  3. Are you spending too much time looking for data on UK Politicians?

    Forgive me if the title of this post makes us sound like a price comparison site — it’s just that if you are, mySociety is interested to hear from you.

    We’re hoping to hear from people who spend a lot of energy collating data on UK politicians — where you have to go through a process of collecting basic info like politicians’ names, parties, and the areas they represent, before you can even get to the real work of your project.  Specifically, we are interested in learning more about the impact this additional effort has on your work; the staff time it is costing your organisation, or the issues it creates in connecting citizens to their representatives.

    Recently, mySociety met with Democracy Club and Open Data Manchester to discuss the lack of open data on UK councillors, what could or should be done about it, and by whom. Sym from Democracy Club has brilliantly covered the who, what and how background to our meeting in a series of posts and I really recommend reading these.

    But first things first. We all recognised that before we travel too far down the road of planning something, we need to understand why.

    Why should there be open access to basic data on all of our elected representatives?

    Collectively, we agreed that the basic data on our elected representatives should be available as structured, consistent and reusable public information; who represents you at each level of government should be a public good and we believe that there is an obligation on authorities to ensure this information is made freely available in a structured way. The arts and sciences already recognise this concept of ‘commoning’; the same beliefs underpin mySociety advocating for a Democratic Commons. Plus, like Sym,  we agree that “access to good information is vital to a well-functioning democracy”.

    However, tangible examples are better than abstract beliefs, which is why we are interested in finding cases that demonstrate the potential social impact from opening up this data.

    We already know that:

    • Open Data Manchester spent a lot of time collating data on English Councillors so that they could match who local representatives with the most localised level of deprivation profile, a Lower Super Output area. ODM hope that “the dataset will add to the understanding of the local political landscape in England” and will allow for further enquiry where patterns of representation exist.
      Oh, here is Open Data Manchester’s beautiful visualisation of “The deprivation profile of each local authority (most deprived from the top left, down)  and the party with the most power”
    • We are aware of a number of charities that are independently gathering and maintaining basic data on politicians, a duplication of efforts and resource that could be better spent in other ways. And, that the cost of accessing Councillor Data is preventing some small charities running e-campaigns.
    • Organisations like Global Witness are using EveryPolitician data to spot potential corruption — but this data currently exists only at the national level, both for the UK and internationally.
    • And, we recognise that there are many commercial players in this space who provide complete and up to date data on politicians, which often includes more detailed biographical or political background. That’s not what we’re trying to replicate; instead, we all feel that there should be basic fundamental and up to date data on who our politicians are, freely available for anyone to use for any purpose.

    We would love to have more examples to add to this!  If you — or someone you know — has an idea for a piece of research or service that you could run if only this data existed, or spends time moaning about finding it, please get in touch with me, georgie@mysociety.org.

     

    P.S if you would like a copy of ODM data visualisation, it is available to buy/ download in A2 

    Photo by David Kennedy on Unsplash

  4. New (to us) media

    We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.

    New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.

    The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.

    Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.

    A video

    Recent funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust helped us to try initiatives that would help publicise TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem to younger people, like this animated video.

    A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!

    Leaflets and posters for schools

    We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.

    While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.

    We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).

    TheyWorkforYou leaflets for schools

    MPs’ outreach

    It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.

    Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.

    Outreach leaflet to MPs' offices

    We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.


    Top image: Thomas William

  5. FixMyDemocracy

    I’m Emily, a newer addition to the team here at mySociety. My current project is researching the effects of civic technology on US cities. mySociety is driven by a mission to develop useful tools for increasing people’s power, but we’re also increasingly seeking to understand what elements or conditions make these tools useful and effective — and our project in the US is an example of this work.

    This particular project, supported by Microsoft, will focus on the impact of government-led civic tech projects in cities. By studying five of these implementations in cities across the US, we’ll be able to provide some answers to the questions: What kinds of effects can government-led civic tech projects have? How do they affect their communities? How do they affect their own governance? The answers we get will inform our own work, and may also affect the work of other people who are asking similar questions.

    This project is fairly specific in the way that it operationalizes the concept of effects from civic technology, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the methodology in a future post. At a deeper level, and what ties this project to the overall mission of mySociety, is that it also asks the central question: What is it that makes civic technology effective?

    In my own mind, there’s a question even more fundamental than that: What is the intended effect of all of this work?

    This question brings us back to a very interesting conversation kicked off (on this very blog) by mySociety founder Tom Steinberg in the spring of 2013. Tom asked what we should call the sector of which mySociety is part. The ensuing posts naturally circled around the identification of like purposes across organizations–taxonomies of purpose–that would clarify the labelling of our sector. As Tom also pointed out, the label “civic tech” won. Although that was the clear winning answer to the question of “what are we?”, it did not fully satisfy the next-level question, which is “why are we?”

    That question is still in active debate. This weekend, I added another log on the campfire with a piece I published on Medium called “Debugging Democracy.” I invite you to go take a look, and respond with your own take on what it is we’re all doing here.

    Because just like a democracy can’t function without your participation, what’s the point of this conversation if you don’t add your two cents?

     

    Image: Stephen Melkisethian (CC)