Creating Technology for Social Change

Tom Steinberg of MySociety Tricks Us into Active Citizenry


Tom Steinberg, founder of, spoke at the Lab today. MySociety is an amazing project based in the UK, which has built a slew of sites that help people report problems with and gain service from their local and national government. As their website says, “Using our services, 200,000 people have written to their MP for the first time, over 65,000 potholes and other broken things have been fixed, over 120,000 people get emailed about things that happen in Parliament, and at least 77 tiny hats have been knitted for charity.”

mySociety Group Photo

Tom is one of the smartest thinkers about digital tools and civic engagement, and we’re lucky to have him on one of his rare visits to the States. He’ll be giving a short talk, engaging in an interview with me, and then a Q&A with the audience. Please join us on Thursday, 5pm in the 3rd floor atrium for a great discussion with a fascinating thinker and builder.

Most people know Tom as the parent of Great Britain’s best open government site; Ethan knows him as the guy you can only get to come places accessible by rail. Tonight’s appearance clearly means that the cross-Atlantic railway is up and running.

On the surface, Tom looks like an extraordinary software developer, amazing community leader, and someone who’s done an amazing job making the UK government more open and transparent. But Ethan knows that he’s actually a deeply subversive individual: He’s trying to persuade people to actually be informed and engaged citizens, sometimes without them realizing it. For those of us working to achieve similar levels of civic engagement in a US context, there’s a lot we can learn from Tom’s work.

Legally speaking, MySociety is a charity (nonprofit for US folks). The staff is ⅔ volunteers, and they are what Google calls an engineering-led firm, meaning it’s run by the geeks. MySociety’s lived on the border of tech geek and policy wonks. MySociety gets 50% of their money from generous organizations like OSI and 50% as a commercial enterprise

How do you do civic engagement without saying you’re doing it? A common theme in MySociety’s projects is that the platforms achieve civic ends without outright talking about them.

Tom starts with WriteToThem, where you can begin correspondence with your representatives regardless of whether you know who, exactly, that is. You just type in your postcode (Nathan used to live in CB2 1TP) and see the contact information for your local councillors, Members of Parliament, and members of European Parliament. The site also offers advice on who to contact.

Members of Parliament have asked Tom why he stands between representatives and voters, and the reason is that only ~40% of citizens in Britain can even name their representatives. Because there’s always an appetite to reach one’s elected officials, the site remains popular despite being relatively spartan.

A key metric MySociety tracks is, “Have you ever done something like this before?” They’re keen to engage citizens who haven’t otherwise been engaged.

We move on to WhatDoTheyKnow, which was built to help citizens easily make Freedom of Information requests. By archiving the correspondence between requesters and the government, they are able to make the released information public. The site has enabled 115,000 FOI requests, three times as much traffic as

The ratio of people making requests to people looking at requests is about 1:20. Many of us want to piggyback on the requests others have made. How do they leverage this self interest for the public good? On What Do They Know, MySociety is able to share the results with a public. For On Write To them, MySociety is able to survey citizens about their access to government. The consumerist theme still results in actions with both direct and indirect civic impact.

Tom compares this to a turbo booster, which sits beside an engine in a car. The Freedom of Information law was originally passed with an assumption that requests would be private. MySociety’s tool has made the requests public and further enhanced the existing law.

FixMyStreet allows citizens to report potholes and broken streetlights, resulting in a lovely database of broken things. He shows us an example from the site, something when a member of the public claims is unsafe for cyclists. Tom says that FixMyStreet is not actually about smoother roads. It’s about introducing people to the concept that they can ask the government for something and, sometimes, get a response. It pushes people who have never even begun to see themselves as citizens to begin the process, even at a moderate level. No one’s born a heavily-engaged political expert. Everyone has some formative experience where they are pushed into caring about governance.

Tom critiques FixMyStreet’s ability to escalate citizen involvement beyond mere pothole-spotting. A more recent experiment with this vision, FixMyTransport, gently nudges interested citizens to a campaign page, where they’re provided with tools to recruit others and interact with transportation system experts. FixMyTransport radicalizes someone sitting on a leaky bus into a campaigner for public transportation (“Euston, we have a problem.”).

Beyond these individual sites, Tom’s concerned with the parts that are still missing from the civic ecosystem:

  1. Packages and hosted services for platforms like the ones described above that make it easy for anyone around the world to install and host. People have copied into a wide variety of localized services in countries around the world. Tom’s pleased that the idea has been copied, but is frustrated by the amount of energy and money wasted by duplicative efforts.
  2. Not very much money has been spent on researching “the ladder of escalation.” It’s a miraculous thing when someone who’s never done anything civic before has taken a first step. What do we do to help that person take a second step? Often, the effort of getting a system built makes it difficult for organisations to run experiments to develop ladders and funnels for civic participation.
  3. There’s a lack of single-purpose civic organizing tools. PledgeBank was an initial success, where you could pledge to take an action if a given number of other people promised to do the same. KickStarter, five years later, focused the idea on creative projects, and had far more success. Tom would like to see domain-specific tools built to make it incredibly easy for a user to get up and running in creating a civic service like a Neighborhood watch. Tom believes that tailor-built platforms with strong user experiences can greatly increase the number of citizens getting engaged.
  4. We lack a platform-agnostic map of local social communities. Groups are siloed on Facebook and Yahoo! Groups and other platforms, or in the dark matter of the internet in private emails. How do we find these groups that exist around the globe? If we could pull relevant groups from an API, we could encourage individuals to get in touch with each other about the things they care about, taking them to that second step of participation.

    One of the great unresolved questions of civic technology is, how can the internet help people build better bonds within their local communities? Tom sees a map of these groups as a potentially great solution to this question that has not yet been tried. Can we bridge a concern for rubbish on one’s street to involvement on a community mailing list?

  5. E-commerce marketers understand that the last page of a transaction is valuable real estate, in terms of conversions. Government does not. Why not, after paying your taxes, be provided a link to see where that money’s going?

Ethan promises to guide us through Tom’s subversive strategies. He brings up the FOI site, WhatDoTheyKnow, and the fact that it has three times as much traffic as The dominant theory of change in US efforts to improve government relies on greater transparency. We assume the government knows everything, and that if only that information got out, Woodward and Bernstein style, everything would be better. Are we barking up the wrong tree?

Tom, who has advised UK transparency initiatives, thinks that while transparency can help us attack corruption, that is only one purpose that transparency has.

Ethan brings up new methods of collecting civic data, like StreetBump, by the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which measures street smoothness with accelorometer data from peoples’ phones. MySociety, meanwhile, asks people to stand up with a problem and manually enter it into a website.

Tom thinks that civic charities rely on weak impact metrics. They’re scouring academic papers to determine how to come up with better metrics for the societal challenges they’re working on. He has endless anecdotal evidence from his users, often in the form of emails, that MySociety’s sites are making an impact, but, as a social scientist, he’s more concerned with statistically significant measures.

Ethan asks Tom why MySociety hasn’t focused on legislation and representation. We can see government as service delivery: smooth streets, working lights, and a reply to my angry emails. That’s one relationship we have with government. Another version of our relationship is for policies to reflect our personal beliefs. Is there an overlap between these two?

MySociety hasn’t focused on WriteMyLaws-type sites. One reason is that they learned, with PledgeBank, not to pose too general a challenge to users. So MySociety tries to focus on the intersection between service delivery and democracy. Governments often assume a clear division between these two. Service delivery is what happens with your family and in the hospital; politics is what happens on the television. But there are moments where people care about a thing because they have got to care about it– you have just paid for a license, would you like to be part of the debate about whether a license should exist?

Ethan asks Tom, is there a point at which governments stand up and say, “I’m going to do this before Steiny does this. Let’s make this crossover from service provisioning to democratic involvement.” Is MySociety putting itself out of business?

Tom thinks that it’s only partially possible to do that. There are some things that government won’t ever do– not because they can’t get technology. Rather, there are some things which they culturally or legally won’t and can’t do. For example, parliament sites can never say “this person voted against the Iraq War”– not just because it’s difficult, but because politicians will never allow it.

David Quinn, a PhD candidate in architecture, mentions that MySociety’s projects tend to focus on short-term issues. How do we cultivate and support with longer-term collective public vision?

Tom answers that when MySociety started in 2003, the buzzword was e-democracy. There was a great feeling that democratic processes themselves would be shaken up by technology. The focus was on deliberation technologies. What they didn’t realise is that assembly and voting systems change about every hundred years, in the societies that change quickly. But the timeframe for those things is epic. Because MySociety is not a research organisation, over time they did less of that and focused more on the near term. Tom shares one idea: why don’t we ask people to explain why they voted that way? That wasn’t convenient for paper, but we could do this with electronic voting. When will this happen? “After I’m dead.”

Mayo asks if Tom has seen any interesting examples of citizens stepping in autonomously before the government gets involved. Tom replies that he has seen experts stepping in on FixMyTransport to provide context and opinion on the underlying issues surrounding citizen complaints. The fundamental idea of citizens organizing to fix things has been raised many times, but the organizing tools needed to achieve this are missing.

Ethan asks, what happens if you do connect people to local communities to fix the pothole, is this the desired outcome? If the goal is to help people become civically engaged, are you excited about the possibility that people would fix things themselves? Or should people actually be holding government accountable?

Tom responds that he does feel torn about this, but since people haven’t built the tools yet, it doesn’t keep him up late at night.

Joshua Kauffman? Most of the platforms presented work within the understanding of a dichotomous view of citizen and government. What types of new horizontal civic engagement capacity might develop if we had the social context map Tom wished for in Missing Thing #4.

Tom replies that it’s clearly possible that we could end up with something new, but it usually boils down to groups of people willing to talk and work together to achieve things. We are seeing some new types of civic institution coming into existence.

Erhardt Graeff asks if MySociety’s success comes from its independence from government.

Tom shows us the TheyWorkForYou site, especially the vote profile page for politicians. If that were on an official site, 99% of the population would consider this dubious. Yet over 90% of people have said that they basically trust the information on this site — a remarkable number for political information. But for sites like FixMyTransport, might the government be able to do that? Tom also points out that on most MySociety sites, people don’t really know who they are. The sites just look trustworthy. On the more explicitly political things, it matters.

Ethan points out that there’s a 13% approval ratings for government and a sub 20% trust rating for newspapers. Is the UK in a similar situation? (Nathan notes that a recent YouGov poll shows that only

Tom points out that trust has sunk in the UK since the expenses scandal. Ethan points out that there’s a 13% approval ratings for government and a sub 20% trust rating for newspapers. Is the UK in a similar situation? (Nathan notes that the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey found that around 40% of Britons distrust politicians to act in the public interest, and that a May 2012 YouGov poll shows that only 23% of Britons approve of the government’s record to date).

Saul congratulates Tom on the brilliant names for his collection of sites. But how do you bootstrap civic engagement? A city councilor was elected on 800 votes in a city of over 21,000.

MySociety has looked for the pain points and targeted the bulk of citizens who aren’t even slightly political, and meets these people in that short window where that citizen feels unusually motivated to take action.

Chris Stone at the Harvard Kennedy School brings us back to the vertical hierarchy of government. Americans are obsessed with voting, Brits with expertise. What about sites that flip the relationship and allow citizens to provide expertise to the government?

Tom brings up the role of incentives. If there are paid experts to the government, what incentives would unpaid experts have? What causes someone to spontaneously sit down and write what is considered expert advice for the government? If we can pinpoint the moments and incentives that cause that to happen, we can build a service designed for exactly that. There are general purpose sites to do this, but none that are very focused.

Saul asks if Tom sees MySociety as the new newspaper?
Tom answers that MySociety supports and enables journalism and helps newspapers survive in a world with less money and lower profits, but he would never want someone to conclude that the world could survive with MySociety as its newspaper.

Becky Hurwitz of the Center for Civic Media asks how Tom gets communities to use the technology. His short answer? SEO. There are certain points in people’s lives where they think about doing something, and you should be there to give them the single easiest way to do it when they already want to. Content dominates on social media, but actions and services dominate on Google. When you want to book a train ticket, you don’t often start at Facebook.

An audience member visiting from the Bangalore Center for Internet and Society asks, “Do you capitalize on moments of crisis?” Tom replies that MySociety hasn’t had the resources to launch websites to capitalize on sudden moments, and that they put a lot of thought into a site before building and launching it. He wants to reach as many people as possible, and going after the entire UK transport system was one good way to do that. The British Transport System is a massive machine for creating pain points, in addition to moving people around.

Ethan asks how we do get more trust in government. Do we show where government works, or show where citizens have a hand on the lever? Tom says that when you get someone at their pain point, it could help to show that the system didn’t personally intervene to make their life unhappy, and it’s just one broken part of a generally broken system.