A year into our Climate programme, with two digital services targeted at local climate action under our belts, I’ve been taking the opportunity to reflect on the reasons we started the programme, and how it connects to our mission as an organisation. The Climate programme’s anniversary also coincides with the point at which I’m picking up the role of Chief Executive, with more responsibility to explore—with our team and trustees—where we can best contribute in future.
Is mySociety pivoting to climate now?
When we developed the programme, we had a lot of conversations about whether this represented a pivot for us as an organisation, away from our core practice areas of Democracy, Transparency and Community.
To me, the answer is clear. We aren’t pivoting towards climate change; we’re recognising that, in the words of Paddy Loughman, climate is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. And that includes the story of democracy which has at its heart the question “how can we live together?”.
The climate crisis puts into sharp focus all the questions we already face about how democracy can work at the scale, speed and complexity we need it to in the modern world. It is no coincidence that climate has been the topic that has brought democratic innovations like citizens assemblies and place-based commissions to the UK. With the wicked problem of a changing climate as the setting, all organisations should be considering what role they can play through their work.
In terms of our work, “no longer the story but the setting in which stories happen” is also a way of thinking of the transformative effect the internet has had on all our lives. We don’t talk so much about digital democracy as we did in the era when mySociety was founded, partly because the digital part now goes without saying for so many people.
mySociety began its life as an exploration of the ways in which digital technology could allow democratic participation to flourish. Our history has been one of experimentation, of using digital services to ask ‘what if?’ TheyWorkForYou is a response to the question ‘What if there were better ways for people to get information about the decisions that are being made on their behalf?’ WhatDoTheyKnow is a response to the question ‘What if asking questions of those in power were completely normalised?’ Millions of people’s lives are improved by these engines of democratic access each year.
As the climate crisis brings urgent new challenges for the ways we make decisions, we think our unique contribution to the response to that crisis is in exploring the beneficial role digital services can play at the intersection of climate and democracy. That is the heart of our climate programme.
So what are we doing?
There are many threads to pull on here, and we’ve started with local democratic response. Partly because a third of the UK’s emissions are under the influence of local government and the communities they serve, but also because literally starting where you are is a reasonable response both to the complexity of what we do about climate as individuals and how we might engage as citizens in a modern democracy. Climate action is a local problem – it’s just a local problem everywhere.
When individual change and systemic change need to feed upon each other, there are many needs that digital services can play a part in responding to, such as:
- better information about the scale of the problem and what government and institutions are and could be doing
- better information about local communities and the complexity and difference of modern lives as we make the huge transition ahead
- opportunities for people to come together to act and to make fair decisions for current and future generations
- faster feedback loops between these elements, so that many different organisations and individuals can coordinate
It’s especially exciting for me to be reflecting on these opportunities at a point where we’re starting a series of experiments we’re calling ‘prototyping weeks’, working in the open and with others, to continue to ask ‘what if?’ and see where digital services might help bridge the gaps. We’ll be talking more about this over the next few months, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us.
This blog post inspired in part by the essays in Addressing the Climate Crisis – Local action in theory and practice, edited by Candice Howarth, Matthew Lane and Amanda Slevin
Image: Sheffield at Sunset by Benjamin Elliot
Back in December 2020, we blogged about how we track mySociety’s carbon footprint in order to understand our impact and to monitor whether climate policies we’ve implemented are having the desired effect of reducing our emissions.
In that blog post, we said: ‘having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended [carbon] offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate the carbon we produce’. As you can tell from the title of this blog post, we’ve now settled on a different approach, for the time being at least!
After many discussions within our Climate Action Group, we’ve decided for now to purchase carbon offsets from atmosfair.
This blog post aims to explain why we’ve made the decision (for now) to offset all mySociety’s carbon emissions, and how we’re doing it. This is part of our policy of talking openly about our climate actions, in the hope that these types of conversations become more normal and widespread in our sector and beyond — and that we can all learn from each other.
Doing something is better than doing nothing
It’s important to emphasise that our main priority is to reduce mySociety’s carbon footprint, and as you can see over on our Environmental Policy, we’ve set in place various strategies to do this. However, it’s undeniable that our work still produces carbon emissions, and by its very nature, no matter how much we succeed in minimising them, inevitably will continue to do so at some degree.
We don’t want to shrug and say that there’s nothing we can do about these emissions, and we want to emphasise that carbon has a cost, so mySociety’s Climate Action Group (a internal policy group comprising around six staff members) has been (and still is!) on a bit of a learning journey about what to do.
We spent quite a bit of time discussing the pros and cons of offsetting as a concept, and exploring other avenues we could take — more about which, below — and it was beginning to feel like we were letting perfect be the enemy of any progress whatsoever.
So when atmosfair was recommended to us as “historically the most responsible and environmentally conscious provider of offset credits” — their projects are verified by both the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism and Gold Standard — we decided to offset with them for now, while still actively exploring other options.
According to atmosfair, the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations requires considerably more from carbon-offsetting projects than the Gold Standard, including written consent to the project from the government of the host country, liable auditors, on-site audits of each individual project, and recurring audits of each project by an elected body of representatives with equal rights from industrialised and developing countries (the CDM Executive Board).
This additional level of scrutiny on their projects resolved some of the doubts we’d had around offsetting, giving us that extra confidence to purchase from them. Nonetheless, as we’ve previously said we know this is not a perfect solution and we will review our decision on offsetting every year at a minimum, as well as continually keeping an eye out for news articles and innovations in the area.
When we come to review our decision to offset next year, we will take into account whether companies include representatives from the Global South on their board or executive team.
We think this representation is important when implementing offsetting projects directly in the region, as is the practice of many offsetting companies. We have written to atmosfair to ask them if they are considering diversifying their board and/or executive team, and we’re keen to learn about Global South-led carbon offsetting/removal organisations we could support in future.
The winding path to our decision
Over the last year, we considered a few different options for mitigating the carbon our activities produce, including: donating to high impact projects for climate change action; paying for trees to be planted; investing in local community energy organisations in the UK; and purchasing carbon offsets from non-profit certified providers.
What we’ve realised about mitigating carbon is that there really isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution and every idea/scheme seems to have its controversies or counterarguments that, if you’re not climate change experts, are pretty difficult to assess and view comparatively. However, as a group we felt that trying to do something to mitigate our carbon is still better than doing nothing.
- When it came to donating to high impact projects for climate change action, we learned that even organisations like the NewClimate Institute are still figuring out which projects are the most beneficial to support, and we haven’t felt confident enough in their efficacy to support projects that are still very new.
- As for paying for trees to be planted, we’d heard from a few sources that it’s not as effective as other offsetting projects, and takes longer for benefits to arise.
- We loved the idea of investing in local community energy projects in the UK, but as a charity ourselves there are strict legal requirements we must meet when investing charity money, and as a small organisation we don’t currently have the resources to administer that without letting other aspects of our work suffer.
- We had initially decided last year to offset by purchasing credits directly from Gold Standard, but after hearing from investigative journalists at the Dataharvest conference that Gold Standard projects are potentially not reviewed as well as they could be, we decided to have a rethink.
So atmosfair it is for now – which, along with all the safeguards mentioned above, also has the additional appeal of being a nonprofit, like us.
To reiterate, just because we’ve chosen to offset in this way for now, doesn’t mean we will do so forever. On that note, we’re really keen to hear from others about if/how they are mitigating their carbon emissions, so please do get in touch if you have any thoughts you’d like to share. The latest idea we’ve heard of is carbon budgeting, and if you know anything about it we would love to chat.
Image: DFID (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)
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 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.
Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva
What’s in a name? Well for mySociety, quite a lot actually.
Which is why we’re excited to announce that mySociety will now be known as… mySociety.
Confused? Let me explain.
mySociety was founded on the belief that things are better when we work together, when people understand how decisions are made, and how they might contribute to better decisions leading to better lives for all of us.
We believe in helping people be active citizens, able to contribute to their communities and hold their elected officials to account – all in all we believe in society, and the role of citizens to participate and have their voices heard. Put that all together, and the name mySociety makes perfect sense.
Just as we help people be active citizens, so do those citizens together make society.
Those of you with a keen sense of civic tech history may know that our charity until recently wasn’t in fact legally known as mySociety – rather its registered name was UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD), whose sole project was mySociety.
This has been the case since the original group was formed way back in 1996, and later reformed after a dormant period in 2003 by a new generation of trustees and volunteers, many of whom had previously worked together on independent online democratic projects such as FaxYourMP.
Over the last 17 years mySociety has continued to operate and improve our core UK services; TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet. We’ve vastly expanded our international reach with versions of our services running in at least 40 countries and we help better understand how technology can benefit civil society through our original research and our international TICTeC events.
The next few years will see us continue to help active citizens play their role in combatting the biggest challenges facing society: the climate crisis needs active citizens, recovering from the pandemic needs active citizens, being anti-racist needs active citizens.
Image: Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka
Back in January, we announced that the climate would be mySociety’s main focus this year.
A few months on, how are we doing with that?
One easy way to check is our new Climate page on the mySociety website, where we’re listing projects as they launch. Meanwhile, here’s a quick rundown as of now.
In a practical piece of support for the environment, we created the digital platform for Climate Assembly UK.
This citizens’ assembly was run by Involve and Sortition Foundation, with mySociety handling the online element – which became increasingly important during the lockdown.
This has allowed for the publishing of information including a background to the assembly, agendas and livestreams of presentations, keeping the nation informed while the 110 assembly members learn, debate and vote.
When the covid-19 pandemic meant that the final weekend couldn’t run as normal, the project pivoted to a virtual assembly running over additional weekends.
Once it’s over and a final report has been produced, that will be available on the Climate Assembly site, too.
Tracking climate action
Many local councils in the UK have now declared a climate emergency, recognising the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action.
However, there is no one place where these can all be seen and assessed. And while the declarations are welcome, what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.
So, working closely with Friends of the Earth UK and other groups active in this space, we’re working towards a site that will allow campaigners, councils and members of the public to see what councils have said they’ll do about the climate emergency.
As a first step, we’re crowdsourcing a list of councils’ Climate Action plans. You can help by having a quick search for the ones that are missing.
Looking to ourselves
If we’re holding others up to scrutiny of course, we really need to also be making sure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce our own environmental impact.
So we’ve set up an internal Climate Action Group to research, report back, and recommend changes to company policy.
The first thing we did was start gathering data, so that we know our baseline carbon output for a year. That way, we have something to benchmark against and see if we’re making progress.
While travel is obviously halted for the moment, it has always been fairly extensive at mySociety. Here’s where we got to, to be picked up again if and when things return to normal:
- We agreed to join the Climate Perks scheme, which gives staff members additional days of paid leave if they use sustainable transport for their holidays.
- We drafted a policy around work-related travel, which must be for essential purposes only. Where a trip would be under a set number of hours, it must be by sustainable transport.
- We’ve agreed to carbon offset all flights that mySociety pays for (in practice, this means staff flights and the flights of TICTeC travel grantees). While recognising that offsetting isn’t the perfect solution, we’ll do this until we can find a better solution.
- Where flights are part of a project’s grant funding, we’ll include offsetting as a cost.
- We created TICTeC’s environmental policy.
Our other big area of concern is around hardware, from our own computer equipment to the server farms pumping out emissions on our behalf. In this area we’ve:
- Drafted policies that extend the expected lifespan of staff computers, and suggest sustainable ways to recycle or repurpose them when they’re no longer in use.
- Started researching our hosts’ environmental policies with the aim of considering these as equally important to cost when we decide whether to renew contracts or to take business elsewhere.
More widely, we’re ensuring that we make it clear to all suppliers that we’d like to know their environmental policies — and that these will be a key consideration when we choose who to go with. We believe that this simple step helps create a commercial imperative that companies make progress in this area.
Similarly, we intend to keep talking about this within our sector, so that it becomes a norm. Just now, it doesn’t feel right to be plotting out our travel plans for the year ahead, but we hope we’ll be able to share our thinking in plenty of detail soon.
Image: Andy Falconer
As Mark announced in his first blog post of 2020, we’re currently focusing our work on the climate crisis, with a particular emphasis on how those in power can be held to account over the world’s need to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
But you can’t start challenging others, of course, without ensuring that your own house is in order — which is why we have been working out what we, as an organisation, can be doing to minimise our own impact. A small Climate Action team within mySociety have taken on this task.
The first thing we realised was that it’s not as simple as it seems! It’s a big area; there’s not always consensus on what is genuinely impactful; and it’s easy to get taken up with the small details while losing site of the big picture.
Plus, one obvious hurdle was that we had no idea what our current carbon footprint looks like. That being so, how can we measure whether we are making improvements?
With all those things in mind, we decided on this approach:
- To first concentrate on just a few areas where we believe we’ll be able to make the biggest changes for the better; and
- To spend some time calculating our current carbon emissions in two areas that we know to be significant: that’s travel, and our web servers.
Oh, and one more thing…
We decided to talk about it.
Doing it in public
As you can tell from the above, we’re in no position yet to confidently announce what measures we’re putting in place to minimise our climate impact.
But we believe that by talking in public about our efforts to get to that point, we’ll be able to share what we find, learn from others, and — crucially — help normalise carbon reduction as a topic of conversation within our sector. We’re thinking about this; have you been too?
So over the course of a few blog posts we’ll share where we’ve got to so far, and where we still have questions, starting with a look at our travel.
We’d love it if you could let us know what you’ve been doing, as well, especially if you are a similar organisation to mySociety: small in size, mostly remote, working online with digital services, maybe running events and with some need for travel, both domestic and international.
Image: Markus Spiske
Just to finish off this collection of video clips from the Alaveteli conference, here are a couple featuring mySociety people. They were shot by Romina Colman.
First, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg, talking about what he hopes will happen as a result of the conference.
And below is Seb Bacon, Lead Developer of the Alaveteli Platform, explaining how the project began:
Phew! Do you feel like you were there yet? If you’ve been inspired by the examples and advice from transparency hackers and activists around the world, you may be thinking about building your own Alaveteli site. Why not join our mailing list and introduce yourself? After all, if you’ve watched these videos, you’ll already be familiar with many of the people on the list!
We asked mySociety’s Director, Tom Steinberg, a few questions. His answers help to explain DIY mySociety: what it is, why we created it, and who it’s for.
Can you briefly explain DIY mySociety?
DIY mySociety is the over-arching name for mySociety’s goal of making it really easy to set up versions of the websites we run, in countries, cities and regions around the world.
DIY mySociety consists of writings, software and face-to-face meetings that are all about helping people to get websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, FixMyStreet.com and TheyWorkForYou.com running wherever they are wanted, and customised to do the widely varying jobs that are required.
mySociety is a British institution and your sites deal with British politics. What is the motivation for this initiative?
mySociety started as a British NGO, a small group of staff and volunteers who built websites to help people in Britain become more powerful.
Over the last eight years we built a range of sites that worked in Britain, and that people around the world saw and wanted to copy. For a long time mySociety didn’t take many active steps to help other people, but in the last three years we’ve started working seriously to help people around the world.
Now we at mySociety think of ourselves as more of a global organisation, and we have friends with mySociety-inspired projects on every continent. But we’ve still not really done all we can to help people successfully run sites like those which we pioneered, and DIY mySociety is all about showing our intention to get really good at helping other people.
But there are already lots of mySociety-type sites in the world – do people really need your help?
Whilst there has been a huge explosion of digital democracy and transparency tools, there are still a huge number of countries, almost certainly a majority, where no such tools exist at all.
Even more serious than this is that we have seen people build copies of our tools without an understanding of the cultural or technical complexities that lie behind their surfaces. These sites normally struggle and frequently die as a consequence.
We believe that despite the massive variance between countries, almost everywhere probably has problems and needs that can be supported by some kinds of good quality democratic or transparency related web tools.
We want to help people to understand what they need to do to have the best shot to make something that will work where they are.
Surely, different countries have such different political systems that you can’t possibly offer ‘one size fits all’ codebases?
If you look at all the different websites out there that are like TheyWorkForYou.com (our parliamentary monitoring site) you will find that they are almost all built on different codebases – barely two projects share any code at all.
This is, in my view, an appalling waste of time, money and knowledge about what works.
Of course countries vary, and Parliaments most definitely do. But think how widely the companies vary that use Microsoft Office to carry out their work: almost every business in the rich world uses them, no matter what they do.
Good enough tools for monitoring parliaments will be customisable for widely varying parliaments, and they will save everyone involved precious time and money that can be spend on pushing for changes that matter.
What exactly can DIY mySociety offer?
We offer four kinds of service which we hope will be of use to people around the world.
- General knowledge – via this blog, Twitter and our project homepages
- Someone to ask questions to – in general, or on one of the specific projects
- Guides to read – currently on Alaveteli, FixMyStreet Platform and TheyWorkForYou
- Code to install and reuse
Who is it for?
We want to help anyone, anywhere who thinks that mySociety-style democracy or transparency websites (and apps) might make a positive difference where they are.
We’re setting things up so that we can be just as much help to a completely non-technical amateur as we are to a seasoned technical professional.
What should I do first if I’m interested in setting up a site like one of yours?
If you already know which project is right for you, join the appropriate mailing list and say hello [see links to the right of this page].
If you don’t know which project might be most appropriate for you, drop us an email and we can talk it through with you.
How can I help spread the word?
The most valuable thing you can do is tell us what you want to know, or what you think other people want to know. That way we can work more effectively to help people understand how we can help.
Image by Mark Hillary, used with thanks.
I would like to start my presence on this blog with a small explanation why I am here. After few months of silence of this blog – and quite a lot of work elsewhere;) – it has been decided that you should have more insights into the work of MySociety in the region, as well as news on the projects we are currently supporting. I will do my best to stay in touch with the representatives of those projects, as well as follow Tony’s travels and experiences to be able to share it all with you here, on this blog.
I have to say that it is a great privilege for me to get involved in this particular space, as I have been following the work of MySociety in the UK and in the Central and Eastern Europe with admiration. During my research, combined with work for Technology for Transparency Network in our region I came across many brilliant initiatives! But I also realised the importance of communication and co-operation between projects and people. This blog is just another way to enhance it.
The insights and the inspiration combined with practical, honest approach to everything he does, Tony has introduced me to some really amazing people, good tools and intriguing ideas – so I really hope that by researching, liaising with our projects and communicating here with you I will be able to do the same.
I am really happy to be here and looking forward to your feedback, your ideas and your conversations too!