The Hansard Society have just published a report entitled MPs Online: Connecting with Constituents. I’m only going to talk about one part, the part that mentions the mySociety project WriteToThem in a section on MPs’ use of email.
We’re surprised and disappointed to see our methodology for collecting data on how well MPs respond to constituency mail being called “unreliable”, especially from a paper that makes a number of simple mistakes of its own in just a few lines on one page.
- On page 5, they state that WriteToThem has been “tracking responsiveness to emails via their website for three years”. Most importantly for the theme of the report, we don’t just send emails – we send faxes to a number of MPs (and other representatives) who do not accept or want messages via email.
- The figures given for survey responses in the table are backwards; 2007 and 2005’s figures should be interchanged – how could we get more survey responses than messages (again, not necessarily emails) sent? 🙂
- They claim there is “no quantification of the response categories provided” – the raw data used to automatically generate these categories is given in the adjacent column (“very high” simply means a response percentage of 80% or more, for example; our code is all open source).
- We exclude MPs with very small sample sizes, and take a range of steps to make sure the data is not abused.
- We have four years of statistics now, not three; our stats for 2008 were published nearly six months ago.
The Hansard Society, to the best of my knowledge, never got in touch with us to request any clarification or ask about our data or methodology, which we would have been more than happy to supply.
mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to appear simple and straightforward to users. That appearance belies the fact that behind the scenes a significant amount of effort goes into making sure both those making freedom of information requests and those answering them have a positive experience of the site. While the site is almost entirely automated sometimes human involvement is necessary. This article highlights those key “edge cases” which are dealt with by the staff and volunteers who make up the WhatDoTheyKnow team.
In the last year 15,233 freedom of information requests have been made via WhatDoTheyKnow.
444 messages on 360 requests (2.3%) had to be manually placed on the correct request as a result of authorities not sending replies to the email address given. The errors are introduced as authorities apparently manually transcribe email addresses from incoming email into correspondence management systems. There have been suggestions some may even print out and scan-in emails into such systems. WhatDoTheyKnow’s code has been improved in light of experience, common errors are now detected automatically and in many cases the system suggests which request the message was intended to be directed to.
In terms of outgoing messages just 52 (0.3%) requests over the course of the year were marked as receiving an error message in response and users marked 94 (0.6%) as requiring administrator attention. These are generally either transient errors which simply require a message to be resent or prompt us to check and update the contact details we hold for a particular organisation. Regularly there are problems with authority’s spam filters and we have to encourage them to change the way their filters are set up to allow messages from WhatDoTheyKnow.com through.
119 (0.8%) requests were at some point marked as “Handled by Post”. In many of these cases users eventually persuaded authorities to release the information in electronic form. Where information is supplied outside the site users can add annotations describing the information released, then can link to copies of the data they have posted online, or as has been done in respect of 14 requests (0.1% of the total, 11% of those handled by post) they can supply the information to WhatDoTheyKnow to upload manually. When the site was being designed there was a worry that authorities would reply to many requests by post. This has not occurred, in part perhaps because the freedom of information act contains a provision (section 11) requiring the requestor’s preferred means of communication to be used where it is reasonable. A requestor using an @whatdotheyknow email address is clearly expressing a preference for a reply to be made electronically via the site.
One of the major challenges facing the site is keeping it operating in the face of the UK’s libel laws. Unlike in other countries, such as the US, we cannot publish statements on our users’ behalf without taking the risk of being sued for libel ourselves. Even simply republishing FOI responses from public authorities is not without risk in the UK. While we don’t actively police the site a lot of administrator time is taken up dealing with cases where potentially libelous or defamatory comments have been brought to our attention. Cases can be very complicated and involve a great deal of correspondence. mySociety is lucky to have the services of a specialist internet and technology barrister with expertise in libel who provides his services free of charge. We try and act in such a way as to maximise transparency while ensuring that the existence of WhatDoTheyKnow and mySociety are not threatened by legal risks.
In the last year there have been only seven significant cases where requests have been hidden from public view on the site due to concerns relating to potential libel and defamation. Three of those cases have involved groups of twenty or so requests made by the same one or two users. While actual number of requests we have had to hide is around 70 (0.4% of the total) even this small fraction overstates the situation due to the repetition of the same potentially libellous accusations and comments in different requests. In all cases we have kept as much information up on the site as possible. Our policy with respect to all requests to remove information from the site is that we only take down information in exceptional circumstances; generally only when the law requires us to do so.
Sometimes people accidentally post personal information to the site; for example they make a request which is not a Freedom of Information request but a subject access request under the Data Protection Act. We are happy to remove such requests. On occasion we get requests from both our users and public sector employees asking us to remove their names from the site. As we are trying to build up a FOI archive we are very reluctant to remove information from the site, our policy is only to remove names in exceptional circumstances. Often information, such as an out of office reply, which a public body or civil servant considers irrelevant and asks to be removed is in fact critical to the correspondence thread and timeline of a response.
Copyright and Control of Information Released
The fact information is subject to copyright and restrictions on re-use does not exempt it from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (though there is a closely related exemption relating to “commercial interest”). Occasionally public bodies will offer to reply to a request, but in order to deter wider dissemination of the material they will refuse to reply via WhatDoTheyKnow.com. Southampton University have released information in protected PDF documents and the House of Commons has refused to release information via WhatDoTheyKnow.com which it has said it would be prepared to send to an individual directly.
Mantaining and Expanding The List of Authorities
WhatDoTheyKnow lists around 3,000 public authorities, there is a regular turnover of changes in contact details. Our coverage, while large, is not comprehensive so we have requests to add bodies such as parish councils, schools, and doctors surgeries which we have not yet attempted to add in a systemic manner based on official sources of information.
We have also had to carefully consider what we do when for handling the various situations where an authority becomes defunct and its responsibilities are taken over by another body for example as a result of reorganisations of local government and the creation and merging of government departments.
Providing Advice and Assistance
The team at WhatDoTheyKnow.com often provide advice to users. We encourage users to keep their requests focused so as to reduce the chance of any problems due to libel or requests being classed vexatious. On occasion we suggest appropriate authorities for users to direct requests to, provide advice to those unhappy with the response to their request, and answer a broad range of other queries as they arise such as if particular bodies are subject to the act or not. Increasingly we link to authority’s publication schemes which are intended to let people know what information an authority has and how it can be accessed.
Lastly, like all websites which allow people to post content online WhatDoTheyKnow.com occasionally suffers from spam in various forms. Most is dealt with automatically but some has to be removed by hand. With spam, like the other aspects of running the site, the site’s code and processes are constantly being developed and improved to reduce the fraction of cases requiring any manual intervention.
This article was prompted in part by a team in New Zealand considering launching their own version on the site asking us what’s involved.
Statistics were recently released on the performance of UK central government departments with respect to their handling of freedom of information requests. The latest figures are for the second quarter of 2009. We have been able to use these to calculate the fraction of all requests which are made via mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
- 13.1% of all FOI requests to “Departments of State” in the second quarter of 2009 were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com. In absolute terms this was 753 out of 5769 requests; this is up from 8.5% in the first quarter of 2009.
- 32.3% of FOI requests to the Home Office (which includes the UKBA and the IPS) were made via WhatDoTheyKnow in the second quarter of 2009. In absolute terms this was 206 out of 638 requests.
- The latest figures show that in twelve of the UK’s twenty-one Departments of State more than 10% of FOI requests were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.
What these statistics mean is that an ever increasing fraction of the information released in response to freedom of information requests is being archived and made publicly available by WhatDoTheyKnow.com. Hopefully this will reduce the number of duplicate requests being submitted and ensure the information released is made available to the widest possible audience which in-turn should increase the chances it is acted on.
Only forty-three central government bodies have their freedom of information performance monitored centrally. This is a tiny fraction of the three thousand or so bodies currently listed by WhatDoTheyKnow.
The volunteer team behind our Freedom of Information (FOI) site WhatDoTheyKnow.com, has used statistics released by the Ministry of Justice to discover the proportion of all FOI requests being made via the site.
They found that in the first quarter of 2009, 8.5% of all requests made to central government departments were made using WhatDoTheyKnow. In absolute terms that was 514 of 6019 requests.
The breakdown by department is given in the below table. Notably, one in five FOI requests to the Home Office (122 of 643) were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.
WDTK = WhatDoTheyKnow; Source for total FOI request statistics : Statistics for Q1 2009 (released on the 25th of June 2009); Extended table covering all monitored bodies available.
The Ministry of Justice only monitors, and provides statistics on, 44 bodies’ compliance with the Freedom of Information Act; WhatDoTheyKnow currently lists 2910. We cover a wide range of local bodies including Primary Care Trusts, Local Councils and the Police. There is no national monitoring of how many FOI requests are made to such bodies, or how well they perform when responding to requests.
If you want to see such performance statistics, please help categorise more of the responses made via the site. It can be quite addictive!
Thanks to Richard Taylor for doing this research – see his blog post for some more details, including some information about Scotland.
A few moments ago the team rolled out changes to our biggest and best known site, TheyWorkForYou.com meaning that every visitor to any page of the site will be greeted with a call to arms on the issue of some MPs voting this Thursday to conceal their expenses. And after the vote, we’ll be prominently publishing who voted which way – there should be a couple of million visitors at least before the next election.
Our explicit goal is to have a lot of constituents from around the country let their MPs know they won’t be impressed with a ‘yes’ vote or an abstention (the same thing in this case), and to build our Facebook group to the point where the mainstream media starts to take notice of this Net driven discontent.
Please do everything you can to get as many people as possible writing to their MPs and joining that Facebook group. We’re doing our bit – please do yours. Together we can stop the encouraging trend of more openness in our Parliament scrunching into reverse.
Matthew and I have been sitting next to each other today looking at the outputs of his lovely new custom built conversion tracking system, designed to ensure that the optimal number of users who just come to one of our services as a one off get signed up to something else longer lasting.
I’ve been banging on for ages about how government should seize on cross selling people who’ve just finished using one online service into using another of a more democratic nature, so it seems worth spelling out some of the lessons.
First, there’s some interesting data from the last few weeks, since our newest conversion tracking infrastructure has been running in its nice new format.
One of the adverts randomly served to users of WriteToThem (after they’ve finished sending their letter) encourages them to sign up to TheyWorkForYou email alerts – the service people use to get emailed whenever their MP speaks in Parliament. The advert features a slogan of encouragement, and a pre-populated email form containing the user’s email, and a ‘Subscribe me’ button. This advert was shown to 2328 users last month, of whom 676 became TheyWorkForYou email subscribers, which is a pretty cool 29.04% conversion rate. However, we also showed another advert for the same service, to the same WriteToThem users, which also had the same button and text, but which hid the form (and their address). That was shown to 2216 users of whom 390 signed up, a more modest 17.6%. So the impact of simply showing an email box with the users email address in it, versus hiding it, was worth 10% more users. Why? Go figure!
So now we’ve canned the advert that hides the address form, and instead we’re comparing two different adverts both of which feature the pre-populated signup form, but which use different words. It’s probably too early to judge, but the new ad appears to have a very similar conversion rate suggesting it might be hard to squeeze many more subscribers out of this page. We’ll keep trying though!
Another thing we learned of interest was that monthly subscribers to email alerts on TheyWorkForYou were down year on year in the month before we added this new advertising & conversion tracking system, even though the total number of visitors were clearly up on the same month last year. This appears to suggest that two things are happening. First RSS is catching on, so some users who would previously have got email alerts are subscribing to RSS feeds instead. Second, it suggests that the TheyWorkForYou user audience might have been getting more saturated with regulars – proportionally fewer new users coming (although more visitors in absolute terms) so fewer people signing up to get alerts. The cross marketing and conversion tracking seems to have reversed that trend, which is awesome.
We also advertise several different services to people who just finish signing up to get email alerts on TheyWorkForYou itself. We’ve just noticed that a full 25% of people shown the advert to sign up for HearFromYourMP proceed to sign up. We’ve therefore just decided to dump other adverts shown on TheyWorkForYou (such as advertisements for other sorts of TheyWorkFor you email alert) and concentrate on just cross selling HearFromYourMP. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that by just advertising this one site from the completion page we should get an extra 10,000 subscribers to HearFromYourMP this year on top of the organic growth. Not bad for a few minutes analysis, and a number likely to make a fair few more MPs post messages to their patiently waiting constituents.
One last interesting thing (at least to me) is how some more demanding services are a much harder sell than others to users. So asking people to make new groups on GroupsNearYou.com or report a problem in a street on FixMyStreet tend to result in more traditional online marketing scale conversion rates of 0.1% to 2%. Still worth doing, and so we compare different versions of those ads too, to try and eke up those rates for these sites that arguably have more tangible, direct impacts on people and communities.
It will be a challenge for mySociety’s future to work out how to trade off impact against scale of service use – are 10 HearFromYourMP subscribers worth one pothole that doesn’t get fixed? Answers on a postcard…
The last few weeks, I’ve been breaking our normal tradition of launching things the minute they are made (Matthew usually does this in 5 minute long release cycles). This hasn’t been deliberate, just the two things were quite hard to actual check properly and get out the door.
The first was the new UKCOD site (the parent charity that runs mySociety). It took a while to finish after I set up the infrastructure, while the trustees wrote and approved all the content. Thanks very much to Ayesha and Sym for the design brilliance. Also thanks to Mediawiki (the Wikipedia software) which the site is based on – although it isn’t a wiki, it is configured so only UKCOD people can edit it. You can see just how much Mediawiki can be skinned and made to look like a normal site. It is a useful, simple CMS that lots of people already know how to use.
I’m really pleased the UKCOD site is now there. I (speaking personally) think it is super important that mySociety and UKCOD are transparent organisations, and that we should demonstrate openness by being open ourselves. If there is anything else you’d like to know, please do ask – and we’ll either tell you, or explain why we can’t or won’t do so.
The second is the WriteToThem 2006 statistics. Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone we’ve put them live yet – we’ll be doing publicity for it later in the week. Meanwhile have a look and send us any comments. This took ages to get out the door because I wanted to make sure the statistics were accurate, and presented in a way that wouldn’t be misleading. Let me know where I’ve failed.
Right, now off to singing…
98 MPs have now sent at least one message via HearFromYourMP. Who will be 100th? Should we tell them? Should we give them a prize? Will there be an auction style-frenzy at the end? Should I be thinking about more important things? Only one of these questions can be answered with any certainty.
Today is the first anniversary of the launch of HearFromYourMP.com. Whilst a bit lower profile than some of our other sites, being driven mainly by email, HearFromYourMP has had a very pleasing first year. Not only have over 25,000 people signed up across the UK, but perhaps more remarkably 84 MPs have used the service to talk with (not to) their constituents. That’s about one in five MPs asked making use within the first year, which we guess must be amongst the fastest adoptions of a new communications tool ever by parliamentarians.
The most important thing to remember about HearFromYourMP, though, is that it is designed to be there for the long haul, gently engaging with that 44% of WriteToThem users who have never written to a politician before and coaxing them into a slow but personal relationship with their representatives. And as a final thought, I note that the Liberal Democrats had 72,721 members in 2004: I wonder how long it will take this little birthday site to get there?