1. FixMyStreet: “Why doesn’t every council use this?”

    We were recently invited to the LGA annual conference to exhibit FixMyStreet for Councils in Nesta’s Innovation Zone along with a lot of interesting social enterprises.

    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).

    [iframe src=”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/23841090″ width=”427″ height=”356″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:1px solid #CCC;border-width:1px 1px 0;margin-bottom:5px” allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen]

    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.

  2. A smooth ride for FixMyStreet Oxfordshire

    Oxford April by Tejvan Pettinger

    We were really pleased by this report on BBC Oxfordshire this morning.

    Oxfordshire County Council is one of the local authorities who have integrated FixMyStreet into their own website. We’re delighted to see what a success it’s been for them: over 15,000 potholes fixed since its installation in March.

    We can’t take any credit for the actual repairs, of course, but we like to think that FixMyStreet’s easy interface has simplified the reporting process for the people of Oxfordshire. Read more about FixMyStreet  For Councils here.

     

    Photo by Tejvan Pettinger (CC)

  3. Unofficial Transcripts: mySociety is seeking councillors, council officers, local activists and hyperlocal bloggers interested in Hansards at the local level

    One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.

    This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.

    No Local Hansards

    Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.

    At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.

    We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.

    The State of the Art Still Needs You

    First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.

    We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.

    But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.

    It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable

    Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.

    Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.

    Get in touch

    The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.

    And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.

  4. Barnet Council and their use of Pledgebank

    How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?

    Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.

    Barnet also use another mySociety tool – Pledgebank – and Chris explained how it helps them within the Barnet communities.

    Turning complaints into action

    Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkon

     

    “We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.

    “One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.

    “Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.

    “That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’,  it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.

    “A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.

    “One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.

    Tapping into community interest

    Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?

    “I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.

    “With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.

    Adopt-a-street

    Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray

    What else have you done with Pledgebank?

    “We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.

    “So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.

    A challenge for the marketing department

    “It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.

    “One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.

    “The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.

    “It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”

    Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth

    Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes.

    If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.

    Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.

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

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

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

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

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

    Linking to explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

  6. How did we work out the survey questions?

    As you may know, TheyWorkForYou are conducting a survey of candidates for Parliament.

    Quite a few people have been asking how we worked out the questions. There are two parts to this, one local and one national.

    Local questions

    We used the power of volunteers.

    Thousands of DemocracyClub members were asked to suggest local issues in there area. These were then edited by other volunteers, to have consistent grammar, and be worded as statements to agree/disagree with, and filtered to remove national issues. The full criteria and examples are available.

    You can view the issues for any constituency on the DemocracyClub site. They are in the “local questions” tab.

    We’ve ended up with local issues for about 85% of constituencies. They’re really interesting and high quality, and quite unique for a national survey.

    Thank you to all the volunteers who helped make this happen!

    National questions

    This was hard, because we felt that asking more than 15 questions would make the survey too long. We also wanted to be sure it was non-partisan.

    We convened a panel of judges, either from mySociety/Democracy Club or with professional experience in policy, and from across the political spectrum. They were:

    • James Crabtree, chair of judges, trustee of mySociety, journalist for Prospect magazine
    • Tim Green, Democracy club developer, Physics student, Cambridge University.
    • Michael Hallsworth, senior researcher, Institute for Government.
    • Will Davies, sociologist at University of Oxford, has worked for left of centre policy think tanks such as IPPR and Demos.
    • Andrew Tucker, researcher at Birkbeck, worked for Liberal Democrats from 1996-2000.
    • Robert McIlveen, research fellow, Environment and Energy unit at Policy Exchange, did PhD on Conservative party election strategy.

    They met at the offices of the Institute for Government, and had a 3 hour judging session on 29th March 2010. They were asked to think of 8-15 questions, with multiple choice answers, which could usefully be answered both by members of the public and prospective candidates for national office.

    To ensure maximum transparency, the discussions of the judges were recorded. You can download the recordings in two parts: part 1, part 2 (2 hours, 20 mins total).

    Details of the broad framework the judges operated under are given by the chair of judges, James Crabtree, a trustee of mySociety, in the opening to the recordings.

    Please do ask any questions in the comments below.

  7. TheyWorkForYou election survey – A message for people who work for the political parties

    The following is a message that we’d like to see emailed around within political parties of all stripes. If you work for a party, or know anyone who does, please send it along:

    ———-

    Hi there,

    TheyWorkForYou.com has sent online surveys to nearly 3000 candidates across the UK, including most of your party’s candidates. If you don’t know it, TheyWorkForYou is probably the largest politician transparency website in the UK, with about 3m visitors last year.

    The survey we’ve sent is a rigorously neutral attempt to clarify candidates positions on many of the biggest issues at the election. It is also a long-term document – the data that comes from candidate responses will be viewed millions of times between now and the general election after this one. It also contains both local and national questions.

    There are 6000+ volunteers now nagging non-responsive candidates. You can help your party improve its responsiveness rating, here, by passing on the word that TheyWorkForYou’s survey is not push-polling, not single issue, not short-termist.

    Please help us by passing on the message that TheyWorkForYou will be one of the main ways that new MPs from all parties (and none) will be scrutinised and neither we nor new MPs want to start our relationship with a “refused to go on the record” badge on their pages.

    If you are a candidate, and you want to do the survey, check your email for TheyWorkForYou (no spaces). If you don’t have it, drop a mail to developers@democracyclub.org.uk and it’ll be sent along shortly.

    many thanks,

    The staff and volunteers at TheyWorkForYou and Democracy Club

  8. Constituency boundaries at the next election

    Constituency boundaries are changing at the next general election in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. After some amount of fiddling (I’ll go into technical details in another post, but it wasn’t as easy as just importing some shapefiles), as a slightly early Christmas present, TheyWorkForYou now has a section where you can enter your postcode to find out what constituency you are currently in, and what constituency you will be voting in at the election, along with maps of before and after:

    http://www.theyworkforyou.com/boundaries/

    This service is also available through the TheyWorkForYou API. This is a facility we have been asked for frequently, more so as we approach the forthcoming election; the large amount of boundary changes have led to confusion from our users and elsewhere, so this will hopefully prove useful.

    One site that will need the boundaries before the election is DemocracyClub – join to help make this coming election the most transparent ever!

    Side effects of the above process include updated council boundaries, so those councils on WriteToThem that we’ve had switched off since May due to lack of boundary data are now back; a more up-to-date postcode dataset; and the beginnings of parish council support (as in they’re now in the database, but the front-end doesn’t know what to do with them yet).

    I hope you all have a happy Christmas and New Year.

  9. Engaging constituents – you’re doing it wrong!

    In an earlier post, I compared one of mySociety’s sites to another with very similar functionality which had been commissioned by a group of councils, and concluded that mySociety were living up to their aim of “showing the public sector how to use the internet most efficiently to improve lives”.

    This week, Paul Clark MP (Gillingham, also Minister for Transport) announced, on Twitter no less, that he was working on “[his] version of FixMyStreet”, and requested feedback about the site.

    Tweet by Paul Clark MP about his new website LetsGetItSorted.com

    There are numerous things here to be applauded, not least that an MP is using several new media channels to engage in conversation with his constituents. However, the same question as before comes to mind – is this site going to do anything new, or anything better, than the mySociety site that it replicates?

    Perhaps it will target a wider range of reports than FixMyStreet; perhaps users will feel more comfortable using the familiar Google Maps, if that’s what the developers plump for; time will tell.

    FixMyStreet.comFor what it’s worth, I can’t escape the feeling that a prominent link to FixMyStreet – like the one to the left – would fulfill the needs of both the provider and the users of PaulClarkMP.co.uk, and would take a tiny fraction of the time to implement, but I look forward to being proved wrong.

    Still, at least Mr Clark cites FixMyStreet as the example he’s trying to emulate, rather than Medway Council’s own website.

  10. Avoid exhausting train journeys!

    Last week I gave my first presentation by video conference. It was to the intriguing Circus Foundation, who are running a series of workshops on new democracy. It came about because I was a bit busy and tired to travel from Cambridge into London. Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, suggested that I present over the Internet.

    We used Skype audio and video, combined with GoToMeeting so my laptop screen was visible on a projector to an audience in London. Apparently my voice was boomed round the room. It was a slightly odd experience, more like speaking on the radio. However, I had a good serendipitous one to one chat while we were setting up, with Jonathan Gray from OKFN.

    I was asked to give a quick overview of mySociety, as a few people in the audience hadn’t heard of us, and also to talk about how I saw the future of democracy. I talked about three of our sites, and what I’d like to see in each area in 10 years time.

    • TheyWorkForYou opens up access to conventional, representational democracy, between and during elections. In 10 years time, I asked for Parliament to publish all information about its work in a structured way, as hinted at in our Free Our Bills campaign. So it is much easier for everyone to help make new laws better.
    • FixMyStreet is local control of the things people care about, a very practical democracy. In 10 years time I’d like to see all councils running their internal systems (planning, tree preservation orders… everything that isn’t about individuals) in public, so everyone can see and be reassured about what is being done, why and where.
    • WhatDoTheyKnow shows the deep interest that there is by the public in the functioning of all areas of government. In 10 years time, I’d like to see document management systems in wide use by public authorities that publish all documents by default. Only if overridden for national security or data protection reasons would they be hidden.

    Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, has written up the workshop.

    Downsides of the video conferencing were that I couldn’t hear others speak, as they didn’t have the audio equipment. I had to take questions via Charles. This meant I also couldn’t participate in the rest of the evening, or easily generally chat to people. All very solvable problems, with a small amount of extra effort – Charles is going to work on it for another time.

    Of course this also all saves on carbon emissions (cheekily, taking off my mySociety hat for a moment, sign up to help lobby about that).