Go Where Government Won’t

Mistake #7: Undue reverence

Many of the sites built by organisations like mySociety could be built by the public sector. TheyWorkForYou could be created by Parliament itself. WhatDoTheyKnow could be run by the Information Commissioner. Local councils could have their own FixMyStreets.

I’m not entirely convinced that they necessarily should do this — I have a lot of sympathy for the idea1 that government should simply release their data, and leave the actual site-building to the private or third sectors, saving gazillions of dollars in the process. But either way, I think that a fun and useful thing to do when building such sites is to push the boundaries somewhat. As we’ve already discussed, governments are usually forced to reflect current reality, but even within those realms, they generally approach everything in a conservative2 manner, assume a high degree of deference to the state and/or politicians, and steer clear of anything that might be considered disrespectful, irreverent, or even humorous.

You, on the other hand, do not need to be so constrained. One of my favourite examples is on TheyWorkForYou, in the section which deals with written answers to Parliamentary Questions. As well as being able to leave annotations, users also get to vote on whether or not the minister has actually answered the question or, as is a key skill of most politicians, simply avoided it (see an example).

Even if Parliament were to produce a much more useful official site, it’s very unlikely that they’re ever going to ask visitors questions like “Is this avoiding the question?” or “Do you think we’re lying?”. So whilst we’re doing the job for them, we may as well poke the beast just that little bit more.

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  1. see “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology for an extended discussion of this []
  2. i.e. conventional, not Conservative []
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