Hashtag Scrutiny

This is the third blog post in a series I have been writing in my role on the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. It may help to quickly scan the previous two (as with the legislation post, I will scatter kittens and nice things throughout, as I write loads):

Hashtag Democracy

Hashtag legislation

We are currently calling for evidence on scrutiny’s role in democracy, I shall remind you of how to do this at the end of this post. Earlier this month the commission met to hear from people (witnesses) who gave us more detailed background based on their knowledge. Specifically we were supposed to be talking about:

  • Select Committees
  • Examples from other countries
  • Open data
  • Information from government
  • Parliamentary Monitoring Organisations (PMOs)
  • KPIs for MPs

But actually the conversation we ended up having was much more fundamental than that, and this I thought would be useful to share with you.

Parliament’s role and government’s role

Very few people, in fact it is probably so few it may as well be none except those who work in it, know the difference between the role of Parliament and the role of Government (indeed the difference between Government and government). Knowing that Parliament’s role is to scrutinise the work of the Government, and that we (citizens in a democracy) can in turn scrutinise the work of Parliament is a fact lost on most of the population of this country.

{kitten break}










So when you start to look at the vital part scrutiny must play in democracy – and the enhanced opportunities offered through digital tools, communities and reach – it is immediately confused by having to assume that no one will really know where to start, nor do many of them want to.

Research conducted by the Hansard Society paints a gloomy view of engagement and enthusiasm for politics. On the 30th April 2014 they will publish their 11th Audit of Political Engagement, should you wish to interrogate some findings for yourself, but it pretty much rides out what you would expect:

  • few people want to be involved in decision-making
  • parliament should take responsibility for enabling those who do, as well as reaching those who can’t be bothered, (but would if they knew there was something being decided on that they actually care about)
  • the language of Parliament is alienating: whips, select committees etc
  • the older people get the more interested they are in politics and law; conversely the older they are right now, the less digitally engaged they are

So really this is going to be much more about outreach than making channels available to those battering the doors down to find a way in.


The social media led communities of the digital world are once again the game-changers – and what we are hearing over and again is that when online communities are actively sought out for engagement with a specific topic, the response and engagement is immediate, relevant and useful to everyone involved. Bit of a No S**t S******k moment, right? Seems obvious…

Parliament is already doing some of this, we have seen small scale projects having great success, but with very limited resource applied to them, they have a digital outreach team and all sorts of disparate stuff the Speaker detailed last year when he announced this Commission in a speech to the Hansard Society:

Digital democracy should thus be seen as the complementary counterpart of the outreach efforts which I have spent much of my four years as Speaker seeking to promote. It is a form of in-reach, encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result. Historically, in-reach has largely consisted of voting once every four or five years. For representative democracy to thrive it has to evolve and there has to be a step change improvement in its responsiveness to the electorate and the country at large.

{flowers from the Eden Project break}











In a sort of earnest, and perhaps wishful, fashion he later went on to state:

If we get this right, then the Speaker’s Commission would provide a blueprint for action covering, among other topics, ways to bring to the heart of our democracy the things that really matter to our citizens – how to put right grievances, how to turn law-making into something that really involves the people who will be affected – and not just a conversation between interest groups and political parties – and much more that we have yet to discover.

So far so “Yes”, obviously, yet it seems the more we dig, the more basic it is – digital is not the solution to a broken process, a cry screeched far too many times into the echo chamber, but never more apt here. The challenges are mighty, resources are few and the real action needs to be around sharing in the world where people are communing around topics (on and offline). Then in turn ensuring that this engagement, once won, has the opportunity to add value.

Engagement, digital or otherwise, that turns out to be pointless to the person dedicating their time and energy is not only an expensive waste of time, it will also actively damage any further attempts to garner feedback or opinion. Worse, it will create an environment of suspicion and distrust, further damaging the vestige of democracy.

Red Pill/Blue Pill

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus, The Matrix

I seem to be using this quote a lot recently, so apologies to those who may read more than one thing I write (although I know this post has been LABORIOUS… sorry! But it is so important to share this cogitating with you all)…

For the Digital Democracy Commission I see the Red pill/Blue pill choice to be:

Blue: Use the opportunity to shine a big fat mirror at the issues and walk away – wake up next year and carry on. No further damage done, nothing broken, also nothing fixed.

Red: Be bloody brave, lay out that blue print to citizen re-engagement in democratic process, but ensure that it is written in stone that this goes hand in hand with revision of process through Parliament and Government – so that engaged people really can change the world.

{Chief Librarian break}











(This is John Pullinger, the legend photo accreditation at the end of my post on democracy)

How can you get involved?

I promised I would let you know how to get involved with all this, should you fancy. Here is a very lazy copy paste of the information on the Commission web pages:

These are the issues we would like to hear your views on:

  • The role of technology in helping Parliament and other agencies to scrutinise the work of government
  • The role of technology in helping citizens to scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament
  • The nature and format of information and data about Parliament and government that is published online

It’s not necessary to respond to all of these. Feel free to concentrate on the issues you think are most important, or which you have most to say on.

We will publish evidence submitted on this site: please let us know if there is a reason you would prefer to submit evidence privately.

How to have your say

Contributions by email from everyone and in any format is welcome: videos, blog posts as well as more formal notes.


Whilst it would help us to have received evidence on digital scrutiny by the end of May, we recognise that the themes overlap and you may prefer to cover two or more themes in a single response at any point over the next few months. We will shortly be publishing a single call for evidence covering our last three themes.

Further information

Until next time… bai :)


What’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

So three years in to data.gov.uk and the inaugural National Hack the Government Day and now there is a tick box exercise to “run a hack day”… please… someone… anyone?

Open data is not about hack days and running one does not achieve “engagement with the developer community”.


I met Liz Azyan today. Someone whom I have been aware of for the last few years: blogs great stuff, is principled and keeps herself gainfully employed with a plethora of socially ethical social media support (if you know what I mean).

I was blindsided by her, she is awesome and I think really trying her damnedest to do the right thing in an environment that she totally understands, but with a community she is less accustomed to – yet. Watch this space, and government data geeks: I urge you to chat to her if you get a chance.

One of the questions she asked me today was: What is the next challenge for open government data? So thank you Liz for the inspiration for this blog post, it got me thinking about something I have not thought about much, recently.

The environment

Government has opened up quite a bit of data through data.gov.uk, and has encouraged engagement with keen developers who have been hankering after such information for years.

Industry too has embraced Open, with a small number of notable businesses throwing open their data doors, with good results. I wrote a post about this, I shan’t repeat myself and bore you.

APIs are being released almost every day – developer information overload has maxed out, and now we risk lethal developer apathy.

Developers have attended hack days, meetings in Whitehall – indeed many of them have joined AlphaGov. This is all fabulous; but not scalable to the extreme that the open data dream promises.

The challenge

Making it all work.

It’s all very well having developers working away with this data, but if government is not ready for it, it’s a waste of time.

Take just one example: two incredibly talented developers worked together over the course of a weekend hack last year, coding through the night to create a notification engine for the government Tell Us Once programme. It worked, it would have saved oodles of time and bucketloads of cash – but government was simply unable to implement it. This is one simplified example of 100s of apps created by Rewired State hack days alone, and there are many others.

Now, if you can imagine for a minute being a developer, donating your time – granted, sometimes the hack days are paid, but always weekends away from family – year on year creating apps that would help government and citizens. Solving problems time and time again – quick example, every year the Young Rewired State coders create apps to help them define safe routes to school/friends. Year on year we showcase these to the Home Office – nothing happens. Still no government supported/approved app to meet this obviously critical need.

Why would you bother?

Open data? Awesome, and we are making tracks.

Open Government? HARD, and we are not banging on that door yet.

The reality

The developers who work on government data often do so either out of personal frustration, or a genuine commitment to making the world a little bit better.

Rarely can they reach an audience that would benefit from their app/widget/website on their own and in their spare time, at least not without considerable support. Nor are they doing this for profit, so they are not going to get investor cash.

Helping government do its work better is not a good proposition for your typical angel or VC – the target is government; and only government can utilise the genius that they are being offered.

Lots of tiny arrows

Right now lots of tiny arrows are rained on the government portals day on day, by an increasingly disparate and desolate group of extremely talented people.

Is there any success anywhere? No. Well unless you count the oft-reported GovSpark created by Issy in Young Rewired State 2010, curated by a plethora of supportive geeks and designers and some financial and hosting support from The Stationery Office. But that was a ‘nice to have’ addition to a Prime Ministerial commitment. It was not a revolutionary way to interact with central or local government.

So what’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

Forget the data.

Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government.

Do that, and only that.

And when you have done that – then engage the developers again around your open data through hack days, geek advisory boards or whatever means you can.

Until then, let them have a break. They’ll still be there if you do this. If you don’t, they won’t.

And that is ridiculous.

Also, please don’t insist people ‘do hack days’ for you. Here’s the point of a hack day.

So… I think I might have solved half of Mike’s problems

Probably not, but quickly to explain the title: it is simply that my old boss Mike Bracken has just been announced as government’s new exec  digital director. So he has quite a big job on his hands – and as it happens, I was driving back from the docs and trying to solve an annoyance when this was announced so – although I had a bit of an inkling, I did miss the actual announcement. However, that’s beside the point…

Whilst I was missing the big news of the day I was irritated because the doctor’s surgery I belong to finally scraped itself into this Internet era by having a website that *does something*: lets you book your appointments and manage hospital stuff etc etc. However, you have to go into the surgery to get a code in order to go home and then sign up. This code was one of many printed out in advance, and when I asked for it I was just handed it by a mouthingly apologetic secretary who was on the phone.

On my slightly irritated way home I was trying to work out why they had such an annoying system. Surely it’s not really necessary to make people come into the surgery to get this code, especially as they are not doing anything to check that I am a patient when they give me said code. This was the only possible reason I could think of for making people do such a thing.

Then I thought, well actually, they probably didn’t know what they wanted when they commissioned the new shiny website that actually *does* something. Without sounding horribly, horribly -ist, the practice managers are all ladies of a certain age and the docs are so massively busy I doubt they had anything to do with it. I suspect that they told a web company a version of what they wanted and were sold something that would have been acceptable in the 90s.

This lead me to think, perhaps the NHS should centrally design a booking system for all surgeries and roll this out – before quickly remembering my decade in the public sector and realising the enormity and insanity of that proposal.

So instead, would a very clever thing be that the NHS/some government body (er Mike?) instead take the time to write up a requirements doc for a surgery website? This would not cost the earth to produce, could be posted on a central site and whenever a surgery in the UK decides that the time has come to have an online booking service, they simply print off the requirements doc and then they can select their web builders of choice from local talent.

I mean, surely the requirements are always going to be the same? Every surgery has patients, doctors and nurses and a finite number of things that can be achieved online that are common across the piece. Of course, a clever requirements doc would be written so that the site can have plug-ins and widgets that can be addded at very little cost for those occasional anomalies.

This may well create a small slew of businesses who become adept at finding and delivering against these requirements, prices would vary naturally, but would settle at somewhere reasonable, so that businesses can make a little profit and the public purse is not swindled.

Then I thought, I wonder how many other common businesses across government could benefit from this.

It’s one way isn’t it? I can’t see the down side, can you?

PS Mike Bracken’s appointment is extremely good for government people and for the digital dreams of the public sector. I hope you all look after him.


Updated on 23rd Feb 2012 to recognise government changes

Frustration is never a good reason to write a blog post, nor a knee-jerk reaction to something that has happened in your day – something that I am sure you will see I have learned during the course of my scribing here (and some seriously random posts in my early blogging years, sorry about that). So please believe me when I say that this is not a rash post, it has been a long time in the making.

It is the age old fannying about all day doing the distracting stuff that demands immediate attention, then lobbing the stuff on the ‘to do’ list to the next person down the line making the most noise about it: I think it is time that someone said: developers are no longer the 5pmers, willing to deliver for a 9am deadline.

The average view of developers and open data (from within government) is that:

1. developers work for free/very little because they are so driven

2. developers will do anything for early access to data

3. developers will do anything for kudos

None of the above statements are true. I can name perhaps two people who may fall into one or two of the above categories, but I know no one who actually fits all three. So let’s start from there.

What developers have been saying for the last decade or so, is that there is a better way. It is:

  • cheaper than outsourced IT and CMS contracts
  • faster and more agile
  • diverse and inclusive

The blockers are:

  • closed public data
  • procurement
  • change

Developers are indeed talented, and worthy of enormous academic respect – such as people reserve for scientists or those people on CSI. And yes, there are some developers who are so excited and driven by their talent that they will more than happily talk for hours, or work for a while – for free – explaining why they love their subject and how they could revolutionise the way the world works. Just as there are those who know how to code and do that as a day job, are brilliant and talented but it is a job and no more, and those who push and grow their talent to become super-developers, world-renowned futurologists and/or billionaires.

There are back end developers, front end developers, php, ruby, c++,  java, perl, (a list of programming languages are here), some are dedicated to open source and open standards, some are quite happy working with bespoke software – most write their own; some use agile programming and scrum mastery, others don’t; some fight the fight – most, to be fair, won’t.

Not only are developers talented, they are also human. I know it may seem facile to point this out, but they have relationships, own homes, or rent; eat food, not just vegetables they have dug up from their gardens – all of this costs them the same as it costs the rest of the world. Taking a girlfriend or boyfriend out for a ‘show off’ supper/date costs a developer as much as it does a politician, doctor or plasterer.

The only difference is that it has taken the world a little while to listen to what they have been saying for many years now:

developers can redesign the way the world works – they can make it cheaper and more sustainable

So developers have been working effectively as jobbing actors, working the poles whilst waiting for the world to realise what they had to offer.

A few have hit the headlines/Hollywood, but let’s face it – not many. For those who were determined not to waste any more of the worlds’ collective cash or resources – much of their spare time has been spent, in recent years, lobbying for open data and standards, fighting for a way to prove that they had the algorithm, the app, the simple interface – a new way of doing things that would not cost lots of noughts, or lives, but would revolutionise the way the world operates its business: government, corporate and social business. (But just because it did not cost lots of noughts cannot dis-count making lots of noughts, and for some developers making money is paramount; in as much as for others it is irrelevant – that’s not the point…)

To discount the revolution in open government data and standards over the last few years would be ridiculous – it has taken a massive amount of work and dedication from an increasingly broad community – but it has not reached a tipping point yet.

For a while, in 2009, there was a brief moment of illumination, in my opinion, where world governments in particular woke up to the reality of what had been glaringly obvious to the militant dev (as well as the jobbing dev, to be fair) and the studious few who were truly looking for future solutions to today’s problems.

Open data meant a new rich seam of renewable resource, upon which not only could there be built scrutiny and accountability in democracy – but also small businesses could grow, entrepreneurs could flourish, investors could be wooed – tech-cities could be born out of dead olympiad space, internally companies could revolutionise process design and service delivery – the whispered word was agile and it all suddenly seemed possible. At a cost to no one, seriously, no one. (Oh except perhaps those who had been exploiting an antiquated system for years, meh).

Until it all went a little bit wrong.

Somewhere, somehow, here in the UK, amongst the rise of the Coalition and loss of the tech manifestos – torn up in the aftermath of a hung Parliament – an ethos has risen based on the fact that developers will solve all the problems that can be resolved through technology – for free, for love.

What do you mean, you can’t?

Let me just be clear: there is a better way, it is not free, but it is massively better! R&D through hack days is a very valuable thing indeed, of course :) (see Rewired State, we are doing some good stuff but we are a very small cog in a very large change machine) but actually delivering what developers have been talking about for the last few year takes time, money and talent.

Developers need to live, and actually the world needs to woo them. To romance a developer you need to be willing to listen and willing to pay where they say it is fundamental to invest – feel free to get a second/third opinion – in fact I suspect they would demand it. But for now, please remember that:

  • developers have accommodation that costs money – not data
  • developers love open data but mainly to show *you* what you are missing
  • developers will help – but don’t take the p***

Disclaimer: I run Rewired State

Young Rewired State – it happened

Young Rewired State is now over. The good news: 16 applications/websites were developed enough for presentation (within a weekend, with roughly 12 real time hours of dedicated work) <- that is pretty impressive. The projects will be uploaded here: http://www.rewiredstate.org/projects (and most are, the apps developed by the 15 to 18 year olds are from ‘how’s my train‘ onwards, no need to separate them on the site yet).

We diverged the Rewired State *thing* into a second event for young people, simply because we were curious, what would a different age group do? This curiosity built into something else when we found, through talking about the concept, that there were a few useful things that could happen:

  1. government wants to bridge the gap with young people, (by ‘government’ I mean both civil service and politicians)
  2. there are some scarily good coders, scientists and statisticians out there – and they are aged 15 – 18
  3. someone needs to boot someone else in order to make the connection

We’re quite good at that.

The event happened – and you can follow #youngrewiredstate on twitter or !yrs on identi.ca to catch the tweets over the weekend (and prob after) or google *young rewired state* for the blog/tech press coverage.

Lessons learned

  1. the society that we live in does not start at 18
  2. we had a grand aim to *get young people to engage each other*, simply meaning give the tools and information and see what happens – in fact, the frustrations addressed the basic frustrations of life that government could solve (*for example* by giving up the data and letting the talented/passionate make it less horrendous to *for example* wait for a bus)

Interesting things and the most important things to note

  • our message is harsh but the reality is that government departments, ministers and civil servants took time (Sunday afternoon) out to come and see what young people were taking their own weekends doing to try to help/make better things
  • this event happened, as in we could afford to do it, because we were sponsored <- and a greater percentage of our sponsors were government (costs were food, travel, accommodation <- for the 15 to 18 yr olds outside London, server, printing)
  • there were three girls (out of 50) this was not for lack of trying, Dan Morris and I spent a painful three weeks on the hunt for more girl geeks aged 15 to 18 (something needs to be looked at there, but…)
  • Directgov are brave – we got funding from Directgov, and they sent a judge: Mike Hoban, and their directgov Innovate man: Brian Hoadley, proving their support and proving that they are listening <- this is good. We dedicated our one donated prize (an X-Box) to a recasting of the Directgov homepage, just to see what young people did with it. The reality was that they had little exposure and we have a raft of free feedback plus a few redesigns (here’s the winning one http://twitpic.com/f09io)
  • the catalyst effect of #youngrewiredstate means that all we do is chuck a rock in the pool; but we do it with friends, colleagues, communities, Ministers and civil servants and see what happens
  • we can inspire, Julia Chander from DFID (who already is doing awesome stuff in the social innovation space but really struggling with data, as in ‘what do you need?’) blogged her first post <- super chuffed about that

We can all see the 15-18 yr olds did what they signed up to do <- so much so that they were up and working, ahead of their mentors, on day #2 and perhaps ahead of the RS and Google people.

Government and the industry signed up also and has to be applauded for stepping wholly up to the plate.

It’s super hard to make these practical connections. Everyone is there for differing reasons, but the same goal: let’s make stuff better (we can worry about the *how* afterwards). A fact that is pondered in the Public Strategy blog.

Update: two blog posts that really round the weekend up for me are: from one of our *rather clever* mentors: Christian Heilmann’s and one of the 15-18 year olds who was involved in the dev: TFHell Jordan Hatch.

Young Rewired State

It’s this weekend and I will be blogging about it next week. But if you want to follow the action then the hashtag is #youngrewiredstate (so tweets will be short!) also #yrs, for the bleeding edge amongst you the identica link is here http://identi.ca/group/youngrewiredstate and one of our young developers is live blogging here http://www.scribblelive.com/Event/Rewired_State


There have been two publications this week that have caught my attention, and I have been a bit surprised by the lack of reaction to them. The first was from the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit, entitled Power in people’s hands: learning from the world’s best public services and the second from the Lords Information Committee on creating connections between people and Parliament.

Power in people’s hands

This is a very interesting report, driven by the fact that there is just not a great deal of money about and a recognition that the way out of any recession is innovation. This is good news for everyone, it means we are going to get creative. Liam Byrne MP writes the foreword and says that ‘in the next decade we need to be radical about power; realistic about money; and relentless on innovation’. The report has shown that there is a worldwide shift of power from the State to the citizen, but what excites me most is that Mr Byrne has picked out freedom of information and data to be the UK’s pièce de résistance : ‘We aim to be world leaders in making information on services accessible’. OK his words are not quite so dramatic, but in Ministerial speak that is quite a statement, the stall he has set out is the information one – and that is a huge win for the UK. We have a wealth of entrepreneurial and geek talent ready and willing to take such information and help create services that work at hyper-local and individual level. (You might just have to trust me on this one).

I suggest you skim read the whole report, but I am just going to cut and paste the bits that jumped out for me below if you need further convincing:

Overall, the importance of public services is likely to grow rather than diminish. For example, sources of increasing wealth creation – such as the emerging low-carbon, life science and pharmaceutical, and digital industries – will create new opportunities. But every person, and the country as a whole, will only have the potential to benefit fully if they have access to excellent schools, training and employment services.

… stepping up the drive to improve value for money by taking hard decisions on priorities as needs change, redesigning services, sharing assets better and cutting bureaucracy.

And for you working in local government and devolved: more exciting news, this does recognise you are the front-liners:

In considering lessons, it is also important to recognise that the public services that are covered in this study are delivered by the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and by local authorities. It will be for these bodies to consider the most appropriate insights. At a time of necessary innovation, however, the best organisations look outward – for practices which can be replicated and to spark new ideas and challenge existing ways of thinking.

Here is the bit that interests me most, Chapter Two expands and I recommend that you read all of it if the following interests you slightly:

Empowering citizens in the information age

A revolution in the use and re-use of information on public services is being stimulated by new online technologies, giving the potential to empower citizens to hold services to account far more easily than in the past. The leading-edge systems, such as StateoftheUSA.org and data.gov, are not only disseminating information rapidly. They are also breaking down government monopolies on information presentation and use by making it easy for people to analyse information themselves. At the same time, blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools are enabling citizens to get more deeply involved in validating information and collectively making decisions. In Cologne, for example, participatory budgeting uses new technology to give citizens a stronger voice over how public money is spent.

The shift required for governments to enable such changes is cultural as much as technical. It is no coincidence that American public services have been at the forefront of these changes,  for they already had an understanding that all government information should be in the public domain. Government should, however, do more than just liberate information. The global leaders will be those who invest in ensuring that information is high-quality and balanced, can be shared through common standards and facilitates joint working by professionals and citizens.

Fascinated yet? Whole report here.

So Cabinet Office is saying it needs to get revolutionary on us… and now Parliament, specifically the House of Lords, agrees. For those of you not clear about the role of Parliament and the role of the Cabinet, let me grab some explanations for you: can’t use my own words as I may explain it wrong, so forgive the use of even more quotes.

The Cabinet Office aims to ensure that the Government delivers its priorities. It does this by supporting collective consideration of key issues by Cabinet and its Ministerial Committees, and by working with departments to modernise and co-ordinate government, aiming at excellence in policy making and responsive, high quality public services.

Parliament is an essential part of UK politics. Its main roles are:

  • Examining and challenging the work of the government (scrutiny)
  • Debating and passing all laws (legislation)
  • Enabling the government to raise taxes

*more detail on Parliament here

And so the fact that the House of Lords has come to a similar conclusion about its own work is equally as important.

Creating connections between people and Parliament

The report has been written by the Information Committee which ‘considers the House’s information and communications services’. The report has the tagline: are the Lords listening; and if you read my explanation of the difference between Parliament and Cabinet then perhaps it is important to us that they are. The report is in such an easy to use format that it negates the need for me to pull out the interesting bits. Go and read it here it seriously is a very important report. You could just read Chapters 3 and 4 if like me you are most interested in communication and data, but I don’t recommend it (read it all!).



And of course, always the best bit, the list of recommendations:


Especially good is this one:

We recommend that information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords (including Bills, Hansard, transcripts of public committee meetings, evidence submitted to committees, committee reports, records of divisions, expenses and the register of Lords’ interests) should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data.

I am not sure that I need to conclude this post other than to say I hope that I have helped you find two very interesting reports! And apologies if I bored you…


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