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.
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.
When we built FixMyStreet in 2006, our primary focus was to create a tool for citizens. We wanted to make it easy, quick, and effective to report street problems, even if the user had no prior knowledge of where their reports should go. And while the tool obviously had to work for the councils who were receiving reports, it never crossed our minds to research, or try to key into, prevailing council strategies.
But over the last few years, and to the benefit of both sides, council strategy has become strongly aligned with several of the qualities that FixMyStreet was founded on. The development of our specialised software, FixMyStreet for Councils, cemented that further, based, as it is, on consultation with local authorities.
If your current strategy focuses on any or all of the following points, then FixMyStreet is extremely well-positioned to help you.
UK local authorities are fully aware of the channel shift theory by now: put reporting online, make it self-service, and see efficiency rise while costs fall.
It sounds simple, but it hinges on one important factor – you have to get the reporting interface right. Otherwise, all those hassle-free online transactions turn into irate residents on the phone, seeking help.
On first impressions, many assume that FixMyStreet is just a public platform for grumbling – so it can be quite a surprise to discover that it often has the opposite effect. By allowing everyone to see what the problems are in their own community, it provides a platform for engagement, debate – and, sometimes, solutions.
FixMyStreet is a superb tool for councils who are looking for ways to encourage residents to take a stake in their own communities.
Any council web team worth its salt will be anxious to maximise usability across the website. FixMyStreet was designed with the user at its heart: from minimising the number of clicks it takes to make a report, to making sure that every step is as easy and comprehensible as possible.
Modern society is demanding transparency across a vast array of organisations, not least government. By putting a record of every report online, FixMyStreet helps you fulfil those demands. And there are side benefits, too.
First, FixMyStreet brings previously ‘hidden’ work into the open, allowing your residents to understand the degree and quantity of work you do on their behalf.
And second, having reports online allows citizens to see at a glance whether their problem has already been reported, thus cutting down on duplicates – and saving you time.
FixMyStreet is efficient when used on a desktop; it also works very easily on mobile devices, meaning that your residents help you crowd-source information. You’re effectively multiplying your inspection capabilities by a factor of hundreds, and your residents become your ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, as one of our client councils has said.
Find out more
Drop us a line now and we’ll get right back to you.
Image credit: Dennis Skley (cc)
At one memorable point, we each had the opportunity to pitch to the surrounding crowds. Having to drum up interest from people passing through made me feel somewhat like a travelling salesman, but I channelled my semi-theatrical background and that seemed to do the trick.
As one councillor said to me incredulously: “Why doesn’t every council use this?” If you’d like to see what inspired such a comment, here’s my presentation (click through and scroll to the bottom of the page if you’d like to see the accompanying notes, too).
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We’ll be putting all our presentations, of every kind, on our Slideshare account from now on, so do subscribe if that’s of interest. Just click the orange ‘follow’ button on that page.
It’s known for being one of the cleanest and most efficient cities on earth – but even Zürich suffers from potholes and graffiti.
Zürich’s residents can now report infrastructure faults via their city council’s own dedicated installation of the FixMyStreet platform: Züri wie neu, which translates as ‘Zürich: Good As New’.
For Zürich, it’s a new online channel for its infrastructure reports. Meanwhile, for mySociety it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography.
We spoke to GIS Project Managers Tobias Brunner and André Graf about the process of installation, and whether or not the launch has been a success.
How it all began
“The project came about as the result of a government competition,” explains Tobias. “Through the eZürich vision, they solicited ideas that would help the city use ICT (Information and Communications Technology).
“FixMyZürich, as the idea was initially presented, was one of the top three suggestions. It clearly matched the competition’s stated aims of increasing transparency and modernising communication channels. Plus there was a strong likelihood that it would also increase civic participation and improve the image of the council – wins all round.”
But Switzerland has a reputation throughout the world for being spotless and efficient – and could Zürich, which ranks second in the world for high standard of living, really have any problems to report?
There was definitely a fear that the service would barely be used. Only after launch would they see whether that fear was justified.
Prior to this, Zürich didn’t have an online channel for infrastructure fault reporting: citizens had to use phone, email, or even fax if they wanted to tell the council about a problem in their community. So it was high time for modernisation. eZürich’s winning entry had mentioned the UK platform FixMyStreet, and so Zürich was well aware of mySociety’s custom software.
They assessed other systems. But a number of factors led to the decision to go with FixMyStreet, rather than either buying a different option, or building a system themselves.
Firstly, says Tobias, “It’s simple! And after the design revamp, it looks stunning.” And then, “mySociety was able to adapt the software to our specific needs, which is very customer-friendly.” And finally, “mySociety has a lot of experience in the field, which also persuaded senior council decision-makers.”
Adapting to Zürich’s needs
To complicate matters, each department had its own incident management system – and in fact they still do. In order to get the pilot scheme up and running, Züri wie neu has had to be a standalone system, although eventually the dots will be connected and a unified system will be introduced.
Anyone familiar with the original version of FixMyStreet will immediately notice one big difference with Züri wie neu – the maps. They’re satellite, unlike the Ordnance Survey maps that our UK users know and love.
“People are used to Google Maps,” says Tobias. “We have nice orthophotos [aerial photographs that are geometrically corrected to show uniform distances]. This way, people can view more details, like trees or landmarks, and therefore will hopefully be able to better locate their problem”.
There are less obvious differences, too. For example, users of the original UK FixMyStreet are required to confirm their reports by clicking on an email link. In Zürich, not so. In fact, all reports are verified on the council side: “We didn’t want to let any reports slip by!” That’s admirable commitment.
With mySociety in one country, and our clients in another, there was always going to be a degree of collaboration from a distance. For mySociety, this isn’t so unusual: many of us work from home habitually, and we have all the tools in place for co-coding, shared documentation, and instant communication.
All the same, there were several additional keys to making sure the process went smoothly:
“A lot of email contact and feedback. Feedback from mySociety was really swift – way faster than what we’re used to from Swiss companies!”
And it was invaluable that there were two face to face meetings at crucial points in the development process. Here’s how it went, according to Tobias:
“First, a lot of talk with council members and other responsible people. Then, even more talks!”
“After that, we provided firm requirements for mySociety to implement. There was a lot of testing throughout. And we provided detailed feedback to mySociety about each implementation sprint.”
The process was not entirely without challenges: for example, we needed to build the accompanying app from scratch, which of course added to development time. And Tobias reckons that another face to face meeting would have been useful, especially as regards the app.
Züri wie neu attracted a real blaze of publicity – clearly, this was an idea whose time had come in Switzerland.
“The media went crazy. Every newspaper in Zürich reported the story. Even European television picked it up. Even now, a month after the launch, the media is still covering us”.
Of course, the outcomes are the important part. We saw at the beginning that Zürich’s main aim was to increase transparency and modernise communication channels. We are sure that all councils are also keen to cut costs and increase efficiency.
In the first month after launch, there were 600-900 reports. Zürich’s population is approximately 400,000: comparable to Reading in the UK, and somewhere between Leicester and Bristol. Zürich’s report rate is way in excess of what we see in any of those cities – but it’s early days for this project, and we expect the number of reports to settle down somewhat as the launch publicity subsides.
It’s interesting to hear that Tobias and André reckon the users of the website are ‘new customers’ – people who never would have been in touch before. You can argue whether that creates extra work, or increases efficiency as more faults are reported that would never previously have been fixed.
Meanwhile, feedback from Zürich residents has been overwhelmingly positive. Zürich council themselves are pleased: their next step is to look into adapting the FixMyStreet system so that it can be used by internal departments too, and, significantly, they are in discussion with other councils across Switzerland.
The final analysis
Would André and Tobias recommend FixMyStreet to other councils, including those abroad?
“mySociety were great. They were always very kind, and they brought a large amount of input from their previous experience. We’d definitely recommend them.
“Working in different countries turned out not to be a problem – so long as someone in your organisation speaks English. But I would definitely say that meetings are vital.
“As an extra plus point, you also gain knowledge about English culture – comic shops, real ale, all that sort of thing!”
We’re not going to guarantee a crash course in comics and beer, but we can promise a street fault reporting system that will suit your needs. Get in touch to find out more.
Photo by Clemens v. Vogelsang (CC)
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
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.
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:
- You create the report on FixMyStreet.
- FixMyStreet sends that report to the right department at the right council.
- That body puts it into its own back-end system.
- 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
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?
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,
981276is 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 Requestscall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 plug – we 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.
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.
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.
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.