Monthly Archives: February 2005

representation

Some questions. What are the names of your local councillors? What about your MP? Your MEPs? If you have a complaint about your local hospital closing, which of `them should you contact? Or if you want to mention the great teaching in your local school? Or campaign about dropping Third World debt? Or just moan about the state of your pavements?

If you breezed through that interrogation, chances are that what follows won’t be of much interest to you. For the rest of us though, today sees the test launch of WriteToThem.com, which should make life easier for all of us. If you visit the site, and enter your postcode, you’ll see a list of all your elected representatives, and crucially, what their responsibilities are. You type your full address, and your message, and your chosen representative is then faxed or emailed what you have to say. It’s almost ridiculously simple to use.

Why is this important? Well, apart from being incredibly handy, I think it’s got a part to play in connecting people with those that represent them. We hear a lot about low turnouts at elections, and general apathy when it comes to politics. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that most people simply don’t know who their representatives are, let alone how to contact them.

More than that, it takes politics down to an understandable, local level. You may feel distant – I certainly do – when A.N. Other Minister stands up in the House of Commons and spews forth a string of incomprehensible statements. But our local MP, our local councillor – those are individuals that we, or the people around us, chose to represent us. And it’s only fair that we should have an easy method of getting in touch with them.

So what can you do? Well, use the site. Let its creators know how it all went. And generally spread the word (the full press release is here, including a quote from – woo – Brian Eno).

But if you’d like to get more involved, you can. WriteToThem.com is only one of five projects that are to be launched by MySociety.org. This ad-hoc group includes some of the people behind the Wibsite front-paged Public Whip, and their projects for the future are even more adventurous than WriteToThem.com. Want a site to make it even simpler to give something away to charity? Or want to make sure that your joint efforts go that little bit further to helping a cause? Well, that’s all on the way. If you want to see it a little bit sooner, join their mailing lists, and if you’re a PHP wizard, they’d love to hear from you.

‘But I’m outside the UK’, you wail. ‘That flashy e-democracy website might be fine for you lot, but…’ Help might be at hand here too. If you’ve got the know-how, it’s actually pretty easy to use what’s been developed for WriteToThem.com, and adapt it for your own country. Here’s how. What are you waiting for?

Right. I’m off to work now, and I’ll expect the mailing list to be bulging by the time I come back…

release

Rhys’ note: For fairly obvious reasons, Tom Steinberg’s mobile number doesn’t appear here. If you’re a bona fide journalist and you want it, drop him or myself an email.

PRESS RELEASE

SUBJECT: WriteToThem.com {Launching Monday) allows British Citizens to write to any of their elected representatives, from MPs to councillors, easily and for free.

Date: Monday 14th February 2004 – EMBARGOED UNTIL MONDAY 1AM

Contact: Tom Steinberg – 07xxx xxxxxx – tom@mysociety.org

What it Does

mySociety is pleased to announce the beta launch of WriteToThem.com [ http://www.writetothem.com ]. WriteToThem.com allows any British citizen to discover the identity of and then send a message to any of their elected representatives, for free.

When a user visits the site, they enter a postcode, after which they are shown a list of their elected representatives, along with their various remits. WriteToThem covers Councillors, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament, Welsh and London assembly members, and members of the Scottish Parliament. The service then faxes or emails the representatives accordingly. The focus on ultra-usability keeps the skill, time and hassle required to an absolute minimum.

The Goal

Much is written about the reasons why democracy appears to be in trouble. mySociety believes that one of the simplest explanations is that it isn’t easy enough for citizens to get in touch with their elected representatives. Most people don’t know who their councillors, or MEPs, or MPs are, let alone how to get in touch with them.

FaxYourMP proved over several years that if you provide a simple, attractive system that is trusted by both citizens and representatives, you will successfully build better connections between the electorate and the elected. 60% of people using FaxYourMP reported that they’d never contacted their MPs before.

WriteToThem.com takes this to a new level by connecting citizens with those crucial but less-well-known representatives; politicians who often have far more power over the issues they really care about than just their MPs.

mySociety

mySociety is a charitable project founded by former policy analyst Tom Steinberg, in conjunction with the grassroots community of volunteers who built FaxYourMP. It’s mission is to build sites that deliver simple, tangible benefits to citizens at very low cost per person helped. Tom was inspired by the success of the hugely popular and multi-award winning volunteer run FaxYourMP.com. He was especially influenced by the principles it embodied, but frustrated by what he saw as a failure in the voluntary and public sectors to understand why this site was so
useful, so popular, and so well loved.

He launched mySociety with a call for ideas and proposal from the public in October 2003. In March 2004 mySociety was awarded funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-innovations fund (see below), and in September 2004 development started on WriteToThem.com, the successor to FaxYourMP.com

mySociety is the project of registered charity UKCOD.

Public-Voluntary Partnership

mySociety has been funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-Innovation’s Fund, through a partnership with West Sussex County Council. The purpose of the e-Innovation funds is “To encourage practical examples of new and innovative approaches to joined up working, effective service delivery and community engagement.” By partnering with mySociety ODPM has tapped into the rich vein of grassroots civic programming, combining the reach and the resources of government with the specialist skills and established reputation of sites like FaxYourMP.com and TheyWorkForYou.com. mySociety will be producing four more projects from e-innovations funding over the next few months.

Other Support

mySociety is extremely grateful to Government Evaluations [ http://www.goveval.com/ ], a company which gathers and sells contact data on elected and unelected officials across UK government. GovEval has sponsored WriteToThem with free provision of data, and we are
hugely grateful for this support.

Quotes

Brian Eno, Musician & Thinker:

“Politicians bewail the apathy of voters, but fail to address the reason: people don’t feel engaged in their government, and don’t feel empowered to alter anything that it does in their name. Since this engagement and empowerment is the fundamental precondition of democracy, this is a serious deficit.

Tools such as these address this issue by bringing government right into your living room and onto your monitor. They encourage engagement, and they encourage the formation of active communities of interest. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the future of democracy might come to depend on them.”

Richard Allan MP, Member for Sheffield Hallam:

“Well-designed, easy to use, comprehensive and fit for purpose – WriteToThem is everything a good website should be, and will I am sure form an important block in building links between people and their representatives.”

Roland Mezulis, Chief e-Government Strategist, West Sussex County Council:

“The partnership between West Sussex County Council and mySociety looks like it will be very fruitful and enable us to develop solutions that will allow closer community engagement and open new channels for communication. WriteToThem is the first example of a series of innovative approaches that the partnership will sponsor and that will offer new ideas for local authorities to support sustainable local communities.”

Stephen Coleman, Professor of e-Democracy, Oxford Internet Institute:

“Representative democracies in the digital age need new communication tools and ways of facilitating interactive communication. WriteToThem is a perfect example of such a simple democratic tool.”

Contact: Tom Steinberg – 07xxx xxxxxx – tom@mysociety.org

carthion

The weblog discovery of my week has been Holl Garthion fy Mhen Ynghyd (lit. trans: All the Rubbish from My Head, Together – who says Welsh isn’t a compact language?), a photo weblog with various pictures from in and around Swansea. An inventive photographer who manages to capture some scrumptious scenes. Worth a look even if you don’t live in this city.