Parliamentary online petitions

So, online petitions for Parliament?

In an attempt to reduce what is seen as a disconnection between the public and parliament, ministers will ensure that the most popular petition on the government website Direct.gov.uk will be drafted as a bill. It is also planning to guarantee that petitions which reach a fixed level of support – most likely 100,000 signatures – will be guaranteed a Commons debate.

I haven’t read much online that is particularly in favour of this idea. I suspect it’s one that can be filed in the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ cupboard.

Glen Newey on the LRB blog is particularly scathing:

Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.

This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.

Paul Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary élan.

I’ve noticed that a few councils are now starting to go live with their own online petitioning systems, including my local council, South Holland District, with what looks like the MySociety system.

Not sure if any readers have experience of either using or administering such a system, and are keen to share them?

I spent many an unhappy hour moderating petitions on the Number 10 system, which was a generally very depressing experience, with the petitions submitted bearing a very direct correlation with the headline in the dailies Mail or Express that morning.

Social media skunkworks?

My good friend Robert Brook – one of the most active and entertaining people I follow on Twitter – was recently interviewed by Chris Dalby, and it was caught on video.

In it, Robert discusses the work he does at the UK Parliament as a ‘skunkworks’ – for those that don’t know, this is:

typically developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of innovation

Sounds like fun. The origin of the phrase is from Lockheed Martin, in case you are interested.

This way of fostering innovation and getting things done – by taking it under the radar – is an interesting one and something I have heard from others, who have spoken about organisations having a ‘splinter-cell’ for social media, or describing innovative web stuff being done as ‘black ops’.

It ties in with a lot of the stuff that Cisco’s Guido Jouret said at the Cisco Public Sector Summit that I covered late last year. Some of the things that can stife innovation in large organisations, said Guido, include:

  • too much money – projects lose focus
  • too much time – projects drift
  • too many people – not everyone believes in the project as much as they need to
  • too much love – people get too attached to failing projects and
  • too much hate – jealousy elsewhere in the organisation kills projects

As a result, innovation projects have limited budgets, timescales, small teams, spend a lot of time in ‘stealth mode’ (skunkworks?) and people on teams are kept close.

A lot of the good work that goes on in the public sector with the web happens on the quiet, guerilla style. If thing are really going to change, then this needs to stop and we need these projects out in the open, not to have people worried about talking about them openly.

However, that needs a culture shift and it might not happen soon. In the meantime, we need to get stuff done, and if it has to happen in a skunkworks style, then so be it.

6 days to stop MPs concealing their expenses

A quick repost of an important message on the MySociety blog:

Uh oh.  Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public hasjust 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.orgmight 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.

I’ve sent an email via WriteToThem to my local MP, James Plaice. Here’s the text I sent (mainly copied and pasted from other sources) – feel free to re-use it for your efforts:

I am writing to express my concern at the recent decision to conceal the details of MPs’ expenses. I do not understand why it is necessary for MP’s to be the only paid public officials who will not have to disclose the full details of their expenses and allowances.

After all, members of the Scottish Parliament have to declare all oftheir expenses – why does the British Parliament need to be different?

As my local MP, I hope you will be lobbying against this concealment and that you will also be of those enlightened MPs who, knowing that they have nothing to hide, are willing to publish the full details of their expenses anyway.

UK Parliament Launches Blog

The team behind the UK Parliament‘s website – which also includes accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and others – have launched a WordPress blog. The Purpose of the blog seems to be focusing on the development of the Parliament website, including the development of a number of social web services.

I’m subscribed to the feed, and have added it to Public Sector Bloggers too.