Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?
Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.
This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.
If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.
“The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.”
And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.
Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.
The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.
And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.
This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.
This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.
So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?
Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).
It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.
The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.
Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.
Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”
Divide and conquer
So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”
And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”
So things were looking positive — and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”
Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:
(Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)
We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.
Along with several other transparency organisations, we’ve cosigned a letter from Open Government Network, adding our voice to the message of concern at the UK government’s failure to meet its own targets as laid out in the National Action Plan for Open Government — and calling for it to get back on track before the next Action Plan is released in September.
The UK was one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition launched in 2011 with a commitment for participating governments to work with civil society groups and the public towards ‘ambitious and radical’ improvements in transparency, accountability and democracy. Yet the organisation has now placed the UK under review for poor outcomes in open government.
The National Action Plans (NAPs) are the mechanism by which targets are set — supposedly in consultation with participating NGOs — on a cyclical basis; these are then assessed independently through mid- and end-term reports.
Clearly the aims and vision underpinning the OGP are very much in line with mySociety’s own missions and values, and we were commissioned last year to author the end-term design report to check how effective, and inclusive, the 2019-2021 NAP has been.
It was this report which brought to light just where, and to what degree, the government has fallen short of the required standards for public involvement, failing to liaise and take on board recommendations from civil society — and which has led to the OGP adding the UK to its watch list, putting us alongside eight other countries including Greece, Israel and Malawi.
Consultation and co-design of the UK Action Plan with civil society, a prerequisite of the mechanism, has been lacking: for example well-evidenced suggestions for improvements to Freedom of Information have been unacknowledged and unadopted. As the government heads towards the next Action Plan, due for September, there are no signs of improved engagement.
The letter asks the UK government to commit to four points to put it back on track as a leading partner in the network, including a review of previous unmet commitments to see why they were not met and whether they can be included in the new NAP. The letter also appeals for a timely publication of the next NAP, before which urgent meetings with civil society stakeholders need to be held, and the actions that arise from them implemented.
The current NAP expires in September 2021, and we, along with our civil society colleagues, implore the UK government to commit to speedy and meaningful engagement on developing high quality and effective open governance. This is especially vital for civil society and the public as a whole to be sufficiently informed to hold our government to account, now more than ever, as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and development as an isolated trading entity outside of the EU.
Image: Timo Wielink
On 26 – 27 of June, scholars and practitioners from all over the world will be meeting in Rio de Janeiro for the 6th Global Conference on Transparency Research. The conference focuses on measuring transparency, exploring how this can be achieved, what the barriers are, whether metrics are useful, and how current interventions are shaping transparency around the world.
mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul will be attending, and will be presenting some of mySociety’s recent research into the transparency of parliamentary information in sub-Saharan Africa. Examining transparency through a digital lens, this research broke new ground in understanding how digital tools are shaping parliamentary transparency in sub-Saharan Africa, and how barriers to transparency are affecting how citizens engage with public institutions. You can read the full report here.
Rebecca will be speaking at 4pm on Thursday 27 June, so please do come along and say hello. She says, “Transparency, digital and citizen engagement are core themes of our research at mySociety, and we love to talk to other people working in these areas. Meeting new people and sharing ideas are the best parts of any conference, so do grab me for a chat if you are attending.”
If you are unable to join Rebecca in Rio, but you are interested in talking research, we’re always happy to receive email. And keep your eyes peeled for our TICTeC conference announcement for April 2020. We will be opening our Call for Papers in early September.
Image: Jaime Spaniol
Since 2015, mySociety have collected and shared open data on the world’s politicians via the EveryPolitician project.
And while we receive emails from across the world pretty much on a weekly basis, asking us to update a dataset, we still can’t say exactly who uses the EveryPolitician data, and for what purpose.
This is largely because we want to place as few barriers as possible to using the data. Asking folk to fill in a form or register with us before they access data which we believe ought to be free and accessible? Well, that would be counter to the whole concept of Open Data.
This fascinating read shares the results of their analysis of the UK’s Persons of Significant Control Register (PSC) in which Global Witness used EveryPolitician data to see if there are politicians who are also beneficial owners of a company registered to the UK.
- An automated system for red-flagging companies
- A visual tool for exploring the PSC register and other associated public interest datasets
The red flagging tool can be used to uncover higher risk entries, which do not indicate any wrongdoing but could be in need of further investigation… such as the 390 companies that have company officers or beneficial owners who are politicians elected to national legislatures, either in the UK or in another country.
The report also highlights some of the challenges faced by Companies House that prevent the register from fulfilling its full potential to help in fighting crime and corruption. We recommend a full read: you’ll find it here.
It is very helpful for us to demonstrate the uses of EveryPolitician data, both for our own research purposes and to enable us to secure the funding that allows us to go on providing this sort of service.
If you have or know of more examples of the data being used, please get in touch with me, Georgie. And if you value open, structured data on currently elected politicians, you should get involved with the Democratic Commons; this is a developing a community of individuals and organisations working to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, through the collaborative database Wikidata.
Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.
This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.
So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.
1. We do not have a political agenda
We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.
We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.
That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?
We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.
2. Our data is largely created by Parliament
We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.
Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.
TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.
In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.
3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines
Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.
It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.
4. But there are some things we have to do by hand
So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.
However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.
TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.
Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.
For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.
But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.
While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.
That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.
5. We are committed to transparency
Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.
We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.
(Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).
Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.
For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:
More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.
This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.
Which leads us to the next point:
6. We’re still working on it
Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.
One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.
When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.
7. Facts are facts
But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.
We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.
We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.
We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.
And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.
Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and — oh, what’s this? — “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.
As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.
8. We must be doing something right…
175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.
When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?
It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.
9. We’re open to discussion
We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.
As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.
But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.
10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding
Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.
Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.
Your donations keep our sites running.Donate now
You may know Dr Ben Goldacre from his ‘Bad Science’ and ‘Bad Pharma’ campaigns, which fight misinformation around medicine. Ben has just launched his latest project, the AllTrials Transparency Index — and mySociety helped with the website side of things.
The AllTrials campaign focuses around the fact that a shockingly large proportion of clinical trials do not have their results publicly published.
Not only does this devalue the time, goodwill and even potential risk put in by participants, but there are also issues around bias. Those trials published tend to be the ones which show positive results: if that doesn’t sound like such a terrible situation to you, try playing this game from the Economist magazine, which graphically depicts the problems with skewed coverage. At worst, such selective publication can be dangerous, or lead to poor choices from bodies making medical purchasing decisions.
Transparency and data visualisation are two areas where mySociety has a long history, and so it came to be that we fashioned the deceptively simple AllTrials Transparency Index site, on which anyone can browse the transparency index of the world’s major drug companies, and dive in deeper to the data to see how it was compiled. The source data is free for others to download too, so anyone can integrate it into other projects.
AllTrials are also tracking whether companies register new trials:
That’s the part that anyone can understand — and now, notes for the more technically-inclined who may be wondering how we took the data on each drugs company and presented it in a way that can be quickly and easily taken in.
This is an ongoing campaign with a commitment to future audits, so we wanted to make it easy for the AllTrials team to update the site and republish the source data each time they do.
It’s a static Jekyll site. We wrote a custom plug-in to parse a CSV and produce a page for each company within that CSV, as well as creating some summary data that feeds into the graphs on the front page.
This data is then pulled from the CSV, and D3 is employed to build the graphs and insert them into the generated pages.
The end result is a site that looks good and which can automatically update whenever the underlying data changes. We hope we’ll have played a small part in helping to ensure that it does — and for the better.
It’s a question which periodically arises from our users: why aren’t mySociety (and our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow) subject to the FOI Act?
We can see why this is an obvious question to ask. We run a site which makes it easier for people to uphold their right to information from governmental bodies. We are quick to criticise if we feel that those bodies are not adhering to the law. And if you don’t follow the standards you set for others, you’re a hypocrite, right?
But it’s also a question which fundamentally misunderstands the scope of the law, and the purpose of WhatDoTheyKnow. Since it came up again recently, we thought we’d answer it in a public blog post, so we can link here whenever it gets asked again in the future.
The recurring question
Here’s the question as it was posed in the comments to our recent post on proposed governmental FOI restrictions:
As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Well, what would you like to know?
We invited the commenter to ask us anything he would like to know, and he did so:
Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;
2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Here’s the answer
We responded as follows:
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”
The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.
For example, the development of all our projects1 is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.
Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/our parent organisation UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?’.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.
[Note that, as a charity, our accounts are audited and published in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.]
Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.
We can’t answer that bit, though
We were just about to provide the financial details asked for, when we realised that a couple of our contracts specifically forbade us from doing so.
Unlike us, the local authorities for whom we provide services are subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.
Here’s how we answered the final two questions, then:
a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.
At this juncture, we think it is worth mentioning that the costs for installing and maintaining FixMyStreet for Councils (which are laid out here) are very reasonable when compared to those charged by the giants in local government provision. Seven or eight times more reasonable in some cases.
Additionally, we encourage the use of the Open311 standard, which means that councils aren’t locked in to FixMyStreet forever, or solely. Once the Open311 endpoint is installed, other systems can easily connect.
Ah, but we can help you access that information
b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.
Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:
Annual support fee charged for existing installation:
Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
New work done on existing installation:
Oxfordshire County Council
Warwickshire County Council
Zurich City Council
Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:
Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
So there you go: that’s how we answered this particular request for information. We hope that, in doing so, we’ve also cleared up a few points for others who have wondered the same thing.
1In fact, this should have read ‘nearly all our projects’. Internal codebases (eg for our organisational sites) and some commercial codebases (eg Mapumental) are private.
When we built FixMyStreet in 2006, our primary focus was to create a tool for citizens. We wanted to make it easy, quick, and effective to report street problems, even if the user had no prior knowledge of where their reports should go. And while the tool obviously had to work for the councils who were receiving reports, it never crossed our minds to research, or try to key into, prevailing council strategies.
But over the last few years, and to the benefit of both sides, council strategy has become strongly aligned with several of the qualities that FixMyStreet was founded on. The development of our specialised software, FixMyStreet for Councils, cemented that further, based, as it is, on consultation with local authorities.
If your current strategy focuses on any or all of the following points, then FixMyStreet is extremely well-positioned to help you.
UK local authorities are fully aware of the channel shift theory by now: put reporting online, make it self-service, and see efficiency rise while costs fall.
It sounds simple, but it hinges on one important factor – you have to get the reporting interface right. Otherwise, all those hassle-free online transactions turn into irate residents on the phone, seeking help.
On first impressions, many assume that FixMyStreet is just a public platform for grumbling – so it can be quite a surprise to discover that it often has the opposite effect. By allowing everyone to see what the problems are in their own community, it provides a platform for engagement, debate – and, sometimes, solutions.
FixMyStreet is a superb tool for councils who are looking for ways to encourage residents to take a stake in their own communities.
Any council web team worth its salt will be anxious to maximise usability across the website. FixMyStreet was designed with the user at its heart: from minimising the number of clicks it takes to make a report, to making sure that every step is as easy and comprehensible as possible.
Modern society is demanding transparency across a vast array of organisations, not least government. By putting a record of every report online, FixMyStreet helps you fulfil those demands. And there are side benefits, too.
First, FixMyStreet brings previously ‘hidden’ work into the open, allowing your residents to understand the degree and quantity of work you do on their behalf.
And second, having reports online allows citizens to see at a glance whether their problem has already been reported, thus cutting down on duplicates – and saving you time.
FixMyStreet is efficient when used on a desktop; it also works very easily on mobile devices, meaning that your residents help you crowd-source information. You’re effectively multiplying your inspection capabilities by a factor of hundreds, and your residents become your ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, as one of our client councils has said.
Find out more
Drop us a line now and we’ll get right back to you.
Image credit: Dennis Skley (cc)
At mySociety we like transparency – it’s baked into most of our projects.
TheyWorkForYou attempts to make it easier to find out what your MP has been doing in Parliament. WhatDoTheyKnow tries to make it easier to find out what’s going on inside other public bodies. FixMyStreet and the upcoming FixMyTransport also use transparency to help get problems resolved.
We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.
Transparency can be useful because it means people outside an organisation can make critical, constructive suggestions about how you can improve, and it lowers the odds that people in one part of your own organisation will be ignorant of the activities of people in other parts.
We were not highly prescriptive in our instructions, and we certainly didn’t ask Tobias to ‘discover’ pre-determined findings. All we did was ask Tobias to find out who was coming to the sites, what they were doing, and whether or not the sites could be considered to be succeeding. We didn’t do it for a PR stunt: we did it so we could learn from our mistakes, and so that we could share those learnings with others who might benefit.
His detailed, quantitative analysis holds the sites up to mySociety’s own stated aims, for the first time. And we’ve published both documents, in full, below.
Swings and Roundabouts
It was great to discover that we have, indeed, attained some of our goals by running these sites. For example, one of the reasons we set up TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem was to make representatives accessible to people who were newcomers to the democratic process. It was therefore heartening to read that 60% of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35. These figures and many more are available within these highly readable papers – Tobias did a terrific job in gathering and analysing a huge amount of data, and then making it easy to understand.
These reports are rich with data, from how visitor numbers boomed during the MPs’ expenses scandal to which MPs most people sign up to receive alerts about. You can also read how a budget airline almost brought a site to its knees in 2007; what part Joanna Lumley plays in our history; and how many visits to TheyWorkForYou actually come from within Parliament itself.
TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have inspired many people around the world to set up similar (and not so similar) sites inspired by the vision of using the Internet to lower barriers to democracy. However, until now we’ve never seen a really clear-eyed assessment of what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
If you’re at all interested in using the Internet to engage people with democratic systems, Tobias Escher’s excellent research papers will make a compelling read. Thank you Toby!
…and do come back and tell us what you found interesting.
We hope to publish two evaluation reports like this at the start of each new year from now on. Next year’s sites will probably be FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Do get in touch if you’d like to input!
[Warning – the following is an exceedingly dull blog post but important for accountability]
We’re writing this post today because we’ve made a mistake. It’s not a mistake that will matter to many people, but because (rightly) our accounts are public, anyone looking at those that we just filed this week will see that we’ve admitted we made some mistakes in previous accounts.
It’s not a very exciting mistake – no money has been lost or misused – but we made some previous declarations about how money was accounted for inside mySociety that were wrong. And in the interests of complete transparency, we’ve written this post to explain how.
First off, it is probably worth explaining that mySociety is a project run by the charity UKCOD. UKCOD runs all of the not for profit sites that you see and use under the mySociety umbrella.
In order to fund the development and support of these not for profit sites we carry out commercial work from which we make profit. This commercial work is carried out by mySociety Ltd – a commercial trading company that is wholly owned by UKCOD.
The latest accounts
Yesterday UKCOD and mySociety Ltd submitted their accounts to Companies House (and, for UKCOD, to the Charity Commission) for the financial year ending 31st March 2010.
Anyone reading our accounts would notice two important points:
1) Both sets of accounts were several months latePRIOR YEAR ADJUSTMENT
2) In both sets of accounts the figures for the previous financial year 2008/09 have been restated, and a note has been added to the accounts which states for UKCOD:
In previous years, amounts of £136,274 received from the subsidiary, mySociety Limited, a company, were classed as donations from them. However, these amounts were for paying the VAT creditor and repayments to the parent for services provided by them. This has resulted in donations received (and consequently the net income) being overstated by £136,274, hence the need for the prior year adjustment.
Which leads to these questions:
1) Is the financial health of UKCOD/mySociety worse than previously reported?
2) Why are the accounts so late?
3) What does the adjustment note mean?
The answer to 1) is no, absolutely not – see below for more detail.
The answer to 2) is quite simply that discovering the errors that led to us writing the adjustment note resulted in a lot of extra work having to be carried out in order to ensure that the accounts are correct and the prior years are appropriately restated.
The answer to 3) is the next section.
Okay, so what does the adjustment note mean?
mySociety Ltd, our commercial arm, makes payments to the charity UKCOD to pay for the commercial development work carried out by UKCOD developers. In addition it makes payments to UKCOD to cover its share of the group VAT liability. Any surplus profit it makes is donated to UKCOD to support the not for profit work.
In previous years all of the payments made from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD had erroneously been reported as donations. So, for instance in a year when mySociety Ltd had paid £20,000 for VAT, £60,000 for development time and a £30,000 donation all £110,000 had been reported as a donation. The £80,000 for VAT and development had been noted, but treated as an unpaid debt owing from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD.
This had three results:
1) The surplus of UKCOD had been overstated.
2) The profit of mySociety Ltd had been under stated (or to be more precise, the loss it made was over stated).
3) A non-existent debt was reported as existing between mySociety Ltd and UKCOD.
This was, quite simply, a mistake that should have been picked up by both ourselves and our accountants. Sorry. It is embarrassing, but it does not alter the overall financial position of UKCOD/mySociety Ltd.
So what have we done about it?
1) We have reviewed our accounts and inter-company transactions for the last three years to ensure that we correctly apportion the payments between the two organizations.
2) For mySociety Ltd we have restated the profit and loss figures for the financial year 2008/09 and the creditor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
3) For UKCOD we have restated the surplus/deficit position for the financial year 2008/09 and the debtor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
4) We have sought independent legal advice and engaged a second firm of accountants with a charity specialism to review these changes. On the advice of accountants we haven’t resubmitted the accounts for any prior years as the above changes are sufficient to reflect the reporting correction. There is no increase in the tax liability of mySociety Ltd for prior years as result of these restatements.
5) We have already started work on the preparation of our 2010/11 accounts to ensure that they are delivered in a much more timely manner.
So to sum up
The net financial position of UKCOD and mySociety has not changed in any way. The accounts submitted yesterday have corrected the reporting errors of prior years so that both the starting and ending financial positions of the two organizations are correctly stated.
This is a fairly long and detailed post, but as an organization that champions transparency we felt that it was important to be as open and clear as possible about what has happened.
Paul Lenz, Head of Operations and Finance
Amandeep Rehlon, UKCOD Treasurer
Note [added 06.03.12]: We have modified this blog post to remove a single word, and replace it with one more appropriate to the topic.