A 2018 government report indicated that across western democracies, voter turnout and trust in politics has steadily declined since the 1950s. Trust in the government to put the needs of the nation first – at 38 percent in 1986 – was floundering around 17 percent in 2013.
Could civic tech help to alter the relationship between citizens and state, by making political engagement as easy as swiping an app? MySociety is a charity that works in the area of civic action, providing open source digital tools to leverage engagement, as well as producing a great amount of data and research in this area.
Globally, there are versions of mySociety’s services in about 40 countries – much of this is making use of the open source software created by the organisation. On the parliamentary side, they proactively work with government bodies in Sub Saharan Africa, including Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda.
The charity has been around for 15 years, evolving from a rag-tag band of volunteers and activists into the structured and well-established body that it is today. Current chief executive Mark Cridge took over from original founder Tom Steinberg in 2015.
Cridge was formerly a founder of digital advertising agency Glue London before becoming increasingly enmeshed in progressive politics.
“I’d become involved with environmental politics like the Green Party,” says Cridge. “And as you can imagine, running a global advertising agency and being a member of the Green Party – these two things became increasingly impossible to reconcile.”
Following this, he worked as a senior advisor at Blue State Digital, the team responsible for the digital strategy deployed in President Obama’s electoral campaigns, before accepting the job at mySociety.
Right now, the group has three major services that are available to the public for free. The longest running, WhatDoTheyKnow, helps members of the public make freedom of information (FOI) requests and browse requests made by other people. This service hints at the ideological roots of the charity.
“The FOI services were really driven by the kind of activist nature of the original volunteers and trustees,” says Cridge. “The FOI act was somewhat under threat and they were able to put together a service which allows anyone to make an FOI request to any public body in the UK.”
Now, 15 percent of all FOI request in the UK are made using the service, and that rises to a third for some central government bodies. The service processed about half a million FOI requests last year.
On the other side of the equation, mySociety also work with public bodies and helps them supply information in response to FOI requests. “We’re really looking at the whole value chain of access to information and trying to improve the whole process,” says Cridge.
FixMyStreet is another of the group’s services, which allows residents to quickly and easily report an issue in their local communities that is sent directly to the council. Right now, this seemingly simple task can quickly become mired in the sprawling, bureaucratic and opaque systems constituting local government.
You might be faced with a perplexing array of different bodies with different responsibilities at different levels (City Council, might also confusingly be called the District, Borough, County or even Parish Council).
Antiquated technologies might require you to enter information through a non-user friendly site, or make a phone call instead. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many complaints are abandoned before being logged. FixMyStreet on the other hand lets residents make complaints without knowing which particular faction of local council is responsible.
Finally, mySociety offers TheyWorkForYou, a service which helps citizens keep track of how their MP is voting in parliament, which can be sorted by issues the user finds important. On the site, you simply need to input your address and you’ll be presented with your MP as well as a record on how they voted on recent issues. This may be more revolutionary than it sounds based upon research showing most residents of the UK don’t even know the name of their MP. If you don’t like what you see, you can immediately jump to another mySociety site, WriteToThem, which allows you to quickly send your MP a letter about a topic important to you.
Collectively, mySociety’s services are used by 11 million people every year.
Cridge sees civic tech as an important tool for democracy. Recent research mySociety carried out in partnership with the New Citizenship Project supports this.
“The research found that when someone considers themselves as a citizen, they’re more likely to volunteer in a local community to support others, which leads to kind of stronger, more resilient communities overall,” says Cridge.
“So that process of helping people consider themselves citizens, and giving them the tools and resources to get actively involved in their local democracy or community – we see that as really powerful and especially important in the current political climate where trust and traditional political processes is really under pressure.”
One of the great insights to emerge from the civic tech movement is perhaps that community-led projects where individuals are given a voice attract much greater levels of engagement than general elections that can feel far removed from daily life.
This is mirrored in findings from early neighbourhood planning legislation that is currently being rolled out in England and Wales. So far, these local referenda are attracting much higher turnout rates than local elections, according to Cridge.
However, mySociety’s research in the area of civic tech offers surfaces provisos to unbounded positivity. “Unsurprisingly, we found that if you adopt civic technology and just apply it to an existing power structure, you will not change who uses it,” says Cridge. The charity’s preliminary research found that FixMyStreet, for all its potential cross-demographic appeal was still being used most often by older white males.
“Because older white men are comfortable picking up the phone to government and complaining about something,” says Cridge. “So don’t be surprised when you create a new channel for that to happen, you just shift over the same group of people.”
He says that in order to counter this effect, it’s important to partner with groups constituted of under-represented members of a community, and by working on awareness and making it easy for people to get involved. They’ve also partnered with local councils to try to encourage uptake more evenly spread across different demographic groups.
The charity carries out AB testing on its services to determine how different demographic groups respond to them, and it has also conducted research showing that the nature and volume of reporting changes in areas of deprivation.
For most of the services, there also exists a ‘pro’ version that can be deployed by organisations. For example, the pro version of FixMyStreet is geared towards local councils and helps them respond to complaints, integrating with current council systems.
“How can we take the excellent user experience found in Fix My Street itself that use it to help councils, who are obviously under a huge amount of financial pressure? Reducing the cost of their call centres, for instance,” says Cridge of the the charity’s push into the B2B sector.
This push is part of the drive to expand the commercial remit of the company at the same time as its charitable arm. Formerly, the group’s funding had mostly come from large US charitable bodies such as the Omidyar Network and the Hewlett Foundation.
However, when Cridge joined mySociety, only three more years of funding were guaranteed from Omidyar, so much of his role has been ensuring steady income from other sources. This has led the group to foster a burgeoning govtech business through strengthening partnerships with local government.
“On the charitable side, it’s citizen focused, and on the commercial side, it’s a bit more govtech focused,” explains Cridge.
They’ve also partnered with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on various projects, for example helping the latter to develop a central register of planning permissions.
He says this has precipitated a changing approach within the organisation: “We’ve moved from the original foundation of being more volunteer-led and ‘let’s do this thing because it’s cool’, towards something that’s more ‘where is the real impact here, where and what type of outcomes we’re trying to develop?’.”
The product journey is now informed by rigorous research and interviews with various stakeholders.
But is civic tech an area that the UK government itself should be leading on? Cridge says that at present, the government is more focused on developing govtech that is used in government, for example, improving government services within various central apartments. In fact, Cridge says that the Government Digital Service is headed up by former mySociety employees.
They’ve also partnered with MHCLG on a new initiative – Fix the Plumbing – which is targeted at helping local authorities collaborate together better on basic technology initiatives. “You often find your 400 local authorities are all developing 400 different versions of the same service when they can save a lot of money just by using things that already exist,” explains Cridge.
He says that govtech is more understood than civic tech.
“But the really critical aspect that we see is that because the work we do comes from the perspective of the citizen first, that gives it a whole different dimension,” he adds. “If we’re trying to support those participatory democracy activities, then starting from the citizen is probably a pretty good place.”