MySociety or WhySociety?

Great coverage of the E-Democracy 06 conference by David Wilcox over on his Designing for Civil Society blog. Of most interest to me was the following "Not just e-democracy, new democracy says MySociety founder" post. This includes:

"Once you have managed to achieve the funding for tools, fix the bugs,
get people interested it’s time, says Tom [Steinberg, founder of MySociety], to reflect on what changes
we might want to see in the system, as well as in policies. What should
we be pushing for, and what are the dangers in doing that? After the
rush to practical solutions, it’s time for some theory.

Put around the other way "what could be the wrong philosophy of
representative democracy that would lead to us all building and
spending time on tools that were actually unhelpful".

Tom wants people who are building sites in the e-democracy field
to start talking about what sort of democracy they are building those
tools for."

Interesting this, and it obviously follows on from something that Matthew Taylor said earlier in the conference, namely:

"The Internet, said Matthew, had helped people to mobilise. It offers
new methods of search and exposure. But does it yet really help people
engage with dilemmas and challenges, and work their way through to
conclusions? He presented that challenge to developers and advocates of
e-democracy tools."

It is very similar to what I said to Francis Irving (one of the MySociety crowd, who did and then has had significant involvement in their other projects) when we were speaking together at an event in Wales. I basically said that the use of technology had to be driven by social need, that it was a ‘failure’ if it was driven by the desires/interests of the designers, rather than the needs of the users, that the use of new tech must be grounded in the organisation’s values, and that people shouldn’t overestimate (or underestimate) what technology can achieve.

Nothing very groundbreaking or controversial there….though I did then go on to say that I felt the challenge was not developing new tools but translating internet activity to real-world action; I then added that it was perhaps instructive to note that one of the primary successes of Pledgebank was the establishment of a digital rights organisation….so was that really reaching new people, extending democracy etc, or are these sites mostly being used by internet-savvy, Guardian-reading middle-class types? [NB – I should say that I would put myself squarely in that bracket, and think all of the sites are exceptionally well-built and useful….for me].

Now this may be unfair, and I have been a champion of all their sites in the past (particularly via the Global Ideas Bank and Blog + our Social Innovation Awards) and recommend and use them regularly, but certainly what Tom and Matthew say above would tend to support that view: they are great tools, but are they really changing anything? To our students at the SSE, they are just another useful resource to take advantage of, but it is their action, commitment and focus to change things in the real world that will make a long-lasting difference.

Now I don’t think Tom has ever overclaimed what these sites they can do, but their "sexiness" to the media and to the political establishment (which is Tom’s background as a policy wonk) has perhaps led to this situation. There seems to be a stepping back in that statement above (i.e. we don’t need more tools without really thinking about whether they are needed, and what changes they will make; and what, ultimately, this is all aiming towards). Indeed, surely the subtext of what Tom says above is that they rushed to develop stuff without thinking about why they were doing it. Even the most action-prone social entrepreneurs usually know their objectives and goals before they rush headlong into delivery….

These are amazing and incredibly useful tools for information, for campaigning, for communication, for accountability and so on. But it’s important we have them in context, which is why the statements above are welcome.


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5 thoughts on “MySociety or WhySociety?

  1. Thanks for the mention. After editing the two posts I reflected more on the connection, and posted this to the e-democracy list
    where there may be further discussion
    I wish I had managed to capture a conversation between Matthew (No 10 Strategy adviser) and Tom on whether MySpace would build the deliberative tools Matthew is looking for. Or whether Matthew in his new job at the RSA would host a discussion on the new political philosophy Tom is exploring. Did the conversation takes place, I wonder? 😉

  2. Hi there,
    Given that you say several nice things about me and mySociety above, you might be surprised that I actually disagree quite strongly with a major aspect of your interpretation of what I said.
    We did think quite strongly about what sorts of things mySociety sites should achieve, and if I had another chance I would not go back and suggest we spent more time in philsophical discussion before building a site like The goods we were seeking were simple and modest – easier contact with politicians, easier ways to keep up with what they’re doing and so on. Analysing why it is worth doing these things seems like asking “why should I send money to starving people with no food?” instead of reaching into your pocket.
    So, we focussed small – focussed on building sites which would give each person who used them something useful to their lives. There was no point in having wider democractic debates because the chance of influencing events above a certain magnitude seemed too small to worry about.
    But then, rather suddenly, it started to become obvious that whilst these sites aren’t exactly BBC1 sized yet, the sorts of impacts they were having were in some ways much more sustantial than we might have guessed. And all of a sudden we were in a situation where we need concrete answers to previously quite theoretical questions. For example:
    * “What is an MP actually supposed to do?”
    * “Do the public actually have any rights, other than voting, to expect than an MP will do what they ask?”
    * “What if Schumpeter and Weber are right? What if the only role of democracy is to kick out the incumbent leadership before they get too corrupt – are we flattering the politicians dangerously by giving them more exposure to their electorates?”
    * “Should a very large petition have a form of constitutional weight?”
    Most of these questions are quite old, and frequently thrased out around the seminar table. But few people have been faced with really *needing* answers before they can feel comfortable doing their day jobs, and that’s where we are now. It is also where other people who build successful tools in this area will be before they know it – which is why as a community of tool builders, we need to start arguing now.
    all the best,
    Tom Steinberg

  3. Hi Tom.
    Apologies if you think I’ve misinterpreted; obviously I wasn’t suggesting that the world would be better if you’d indulged in philosophical discussions and in-depth analysis before starting MySociety projects: as I say, we work with action-prone entrepreneurs ourselves who get on with things. And as I said several times, I’m a strong advocate of the sites you and your team have created, and believe them to be very useful tools (and for more focused than, say, the Global Ideas Bank…)
    But we both know that there is a disconnect between what happens online (in new tech / social software / e-democracy world) and what happens on the ground; Kevin Harris makes the same point in a comment on David Wilcox’s blog. The real changes will come when people driving change can harness and use these tools as part of a wider effort, surely.
    And if we’re talking about impacts, what are they: can we be clear and transparent about them? Can we put a measure on how much money Pledgebank has raised for causes / saved for government (taking attribution and deadweight into account)? Would £250,000 have been better invested elsewhere to change things on the ground? I have no idea (though I suspect not), but we have to ask the question, surely, just as all non-profits are asked to prove their impact/justify funding/investment. Then use it to refute what I say (probably inaccurately) about who the sites reach, and the real-world change they engender. Publish it on the site; total up the pledges; assess the demographics etc….I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong.
    Again, as I said, I don’t think you are responsible for some of the hype that has built up around this area, but I personally think it is a welcome debate. Can internet tools move beyond search, exposure and easier contact? Can they dovetail with those who are doing things not in front of their desks? How can they reach those they currently aren’t? How do they fit more widely in the spectrum of engagement, participative and democratic activity?

  4. Ahhh Nick,
    I can’t tell you how much I’d like to see some of this evaluation ourselves. I can throw around all the value for money statistics I like, but I have enough social science background to know that nothing I can say ought to be taken as proper evaluation, because I’m an interested party.
    However, having tried offering data and assistance to a few different people and organisations, nobody actually ever comes through with a proper offer to do evaluation. Everyone’s just always too busy with something else that has more funding attached. Could you do it? Or someone you know?
    all the best,

  5. Having just overseen a three-month evaluation of everything we’ve done since 1998, I sympathise…ultimately, we paid for people to do it independently (the New Economics Foundation as it turns out). I think there must be some money around to do research/evaluation on the impact of MySociety’s work. Either from specific funders, or built into other applications/proposals, or as a bespoke piece of research (ESRC?). Call it SROII (social return on internet investments), maybe, and package it up appropriately…
    I don’t know, but I think it would be very interesting….and help demonstrate the true value of the work (which as I’ve said, I think is substantial). Even just mapping what has been done in the field would be a worthwhile piece of work (what is there out there…not much, as far as I can see…Will Davies 2003 piece on social software and social capital? (pdf) Or maybe some governmental audit of their e-services might have some pointers?). I’ll keep an eye out for any suitable pots of cash…
    I’ll only sign off by saying that, reading back my original post, I think I could have phrased it better: when I wrote “without thinking about why they’re doing it”, I was thinking of the wider vision, I guess, rather than objectives of each project (which have always been clear and well-stated)….but maybe that didn’t come across. And WhySociety was meant to imply that you were moving to deliberation and debate, not to question your existence!
    Anyway, suffice to say that the work is inescapable. I was waiting for a plane from our Belfast SSE yesterday, and bought the New Statesman. And there you are: “A website that charts your MP’s performance is changing democracy”…