UPDATE: If you approve of what we did this week, and what to help make sure we can still do it in the future, please pledge to support us: http://www.pledgebank.com/supportmysociety
The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!
In other words – we won!
This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.
Over 7000 people joined a Facebook group, they sent thousands of emails to over 90% of all MPs. Hundreds of thousands of people found out about the story by visiting TheyWorkForYou to find something they wanted to know, reading an email alert, or simply discovered what was going on whilst checking their Facebook or Twitter pages. Almost all of this happened, from nowhere, within 48 hours, putting enough pressure on Parliament to force change.
Make no mistake. This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.
Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way. Sign up to our news mailing list (box on the right) to get updates on what mySociety gets up to.
Update: WE WON! [the following is now for historical interest]
Uh oh. Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public has just paid £1m to get them all ready for publication, and even though the tax man expects citizens to do what MPs don’t have to. They buried the news on the day of the Heathrow runway announcement. This is heading in the diametric wrong direction from government openness.
You can help in the following three ways:
1. Please write to your MP about this www.WriteToThem.com – ask them to lobby against this concealment, and tell them that TheyWorkForYou will be permanently and prominently noting those MPs who took the opportunity to fight against this regressive move. The millions of constituents who will check this site before the next election will doutbtless be interested.
2. Join this facebook group and invite all your least political friends (plus your most political too). Send them personal mails, phone or text them. Encourage them to write to their politicians too.
3. Write to your local paper to tell them you’re angry, and ask them to ask their readers to do the above. mySociety’s never-finished site http://news.mysociety.org might be able to help you here.
NB. mySociety is strictly non-partisan, by mission and by ethics. However, when it looks like Parliament is about to take a huge step in the wrong direction on transparency, we’ve no problem at all with stepping up when changes happen that threaten both the public interest and the ongoing value of sites like TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Update: Every page on TheyWorkForYou, our biggest site, is now strongly encouraging people to join the protest.
Update: We’ve sailed past 1000 members to our Facebook group. Onward and upward!
Update: And now past 3000 members! Also, some MPs are claiming that they need to vote for this Order to protect their addresses, even though they already changed to law to do this. Doh!
Update: Now we’re past 6500, and our supporters have mailed their constituency MPs in over 90% of the constituencies in the UK. And rather helpfully, President Obama has just given us a concise explanation for MPs why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment:
“And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
TheyWorkForYou doesn’t currently include EDMs for a couple of reasons:
1. They’re clearly less important to what Parliament does than Bills and committees, and are way down the priorities list as a consequence. We’ve nearly finished the process of adding bill committees, but we need the help of everyone who can lend a hand to overcome the opposition of senior unelected officials to get Bills published in a way we and others can use. If you haven’t already, please join the Free Our Bills campaign.
2. We are very tightly constrained by the amount of money we have, and we barely have enough to keep the site running, let alone add every new feature requested.
3. We’re a bit wary about EDMs in general because they’re not tied to any actual power. But that’s a reason to warn and educate readers, not exclude them from the account of Parliament.
So, if you really want EDMs on TheyWorkForYou, then, there are two things you can do. The first is donate to our parent charity, UKCOD. The second is to push in every way you can to get Bills published in the way we’ve asked for. That means writing to your MP, or if you are an MP, asking the modernisation committee and the Leader’s office what they’re doing to push past internal opposition to get Bills done right.
NB. Interestingly, the internal opposition is so ill-informed that we have it in writing they they think that TheyWorkForYou already includes EDMs – doh!
My house mate just said that his friend, who is at sixth form college, just had a PSHE (personal, social and health education) lesson in which they studied the website TheyWorkForYou.com.
Apparently it is good and I should go to it.
A few weeks ago mySociety and Politik Digital held a small unconference in Berlin. The idea was to get together some of the best practioners building and running democracy websites across Europe, regardless of their size or status.
I’ll try to write this up more fully soon, but for the moment I wanted to share some email interviews I did with some of the participants after the event. The first is with Guglielmo Celata from the Italian group D.E.P.P. We first came across them a couple of years ago when they borrowed some code from PublicWhip.org.uk (the independent volunteer vote analysis project run by Julian Todd and mySociety senior developer Francis Irving) for their website OpenPolis.
Anyway, enough for the context – D.E.P.P have some great, boundary-pushing work coming up and I thought people in the English speaking community would want to know.
What is the organisation you work for?
The name of the Association is D.E.P.P., that stands for Electronic Democracy and Public Partecipation.
It’s a relatively small group of people (four) who work on e-partecipation projects with local administrations (the municipality of Rome and the Regione Lazio, for examples). We also have an self-financed project, named Openpolis, to map politicians, their charges, their declarations, both at a national and at a local level. More on this later.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
We have a project named eDem 1.0 which has been so far installed twice: municipiopartecipato.it focuses in enabling e-participation of local communities on the “participatory budget”; and edem-regione on the budget of the Regione Lazio (the link points to an alpha version).
I think the participatory budget for the local community is far more interesting. The site shows a list of issues categorized by theme and territory. Registered users can vote up issues and make them emerge as important. Issues are created by the users. Users can also create proposals related to issues and vote them. The integration with Google Maps, allows user to see how issues and proposals distribute in their territory; it makes the user interface immediate (and of course makes the site sooo stylish).
The proposals emerging as the most voted are approved and follow a workflow to be actually financed and implemented.
Online activities and offline physical assemblies (which exist), are linked together by a group of paid people, called enablers. They take care of moderating both offline and online activities, too.
The other project has almost the same features, but applied to the budget document of the Regione Lazio. Of course, the issues here are not created by the citizens, being the chapters (or sections) of the official budget document. The citizens can create and rate proposals, but such proposals are never going to be implemented.
This happens a lot, administrators are intersted in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and€ of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.
Can you tell us about your next site, the one you showed us in Berlin?
Openpolis is a project to gather informations on our political class and make them transparent. How they vote once elected, what laws they propose, their charges in institution, political parties and private organisations, public declarations, financial interests, judicial positions etc. The aim of the project is to revive the bond between the citizens and their representatives. We would like to give individuals or organized group of citizens, a set of tools to enable them to perform lobbying activities.
We want to work both at a national level and at a very local level, and to do this we plan to allow users to create part of the content on the site, and hope this way to create communities, wiki-style.
However, the site is not a wiki, since content has to be well-structured; we want to export statistics and make analysis on data added by users.
You are planning to combine information gathered from formal sources, and submitted by users. Can you tell us where you’re getting the formal information from, and how you are going to handle the information submitted by users?
We have different levels, and correspondingly different sources. At a national level, we are harvesting the official web sites of the Camera and Senato (the two houses of national representatives) and the web site of European Parliament. At local levels we rely on official biographical data from the Ministero degli Interni (Interior Ministry). We double check politician’s data for the 20 major cities in italy, but of course can’t possibly dream of doing that for the 109 provinces and 8100 municipalities.
For data on charges, declarations, financial interests and judicial positions, and for a complete double check on details and biographical data, we plan to leverage the community of users. The more users, the more data and verification.
Of course, data inserted by the users must be always connected to sources (i.e a web link, a reference to a book, an article in a newspaper, or a radio or television program). Data will be verified by moderators, and the community of moderators will grow on trust basis (using a karma-based system, so that when a subscribed user reach a certain treshold of trust, he is proposed as moderator to the board of administrators). We all know that this part is a real challenge and that handling a community online is a daunting task, but, hey, let’s try.
Users can be banned and content can be censored (after publishing), but any banning or censorship will be performed transparently, so that anyone, in any moment will be able to know the reason why a user was banned.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
We actually have not yet started, but we do plan on receiving a lot of such claims. Of course we are trying to create something that the politicians should use, as well, so the most interested and active users should be the politician themselves.
Are there any other features of your site that you think are unusual or unique?
We plan to release an API, in order to make integration of our data and analysis possible directly from other web applications. Starting from RSS feed, to a proper API, it should be possible to integrate pieces of our applications directly into people’s blog or other similar applications.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Well, of course the TheyWorkForYou project was a real kick off, we just thought: “wow, we have to do that here in Italy!” Then I really appreciate the work at GovTrack.us, especially from the technical standpoint, for the innovative way of using RDF and the Semantic Web approach.
Here in Italy, a project I forgot to mention in Berlin is: http://fainotizia.radioradicale.it.
FaiNotizia means Make Your Own News, it’s a project by Radio Radicale, an historical radio broadcast of the Italian Radical Party. It provides one of the first citizens journalism website in Italy and we plan to integrate with them in the future.
Do you use the law to help you get information? If so, how have you gone about it, and what have you obtained?
We haven’t so far, every information that we gathered was publicly available, we just wrote tons of parser code.
We plan to push the release of data on financial interests and judicial positions, though. Those data are public, but poorly accessible (no electronic format, no scanning, phtos or copies possible). This will require some legal actions or some fantasy to get them. We’ll see.
So there we are. If you’ve any further questions or clarifications, just post a comment here and I’ll update this post with Guglielmo’s help.