MySociety: Congress, Please Learn from Brits re Internet

Graphic found at Utah Valley State College's site.

Amanda Adams (email) at OMB Watch's advocacy blog alerted to me to staff writer Elizabeth Brotherton's (email) July 12 Roll Call article, "E-mail Overloads Hill," which refers to Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy, a July 11, 2005 report by the Congressional Management Foundation.

Roll Call is a paid site, but you can read the article on ELibrary, which is available for any Virginia public library card holder through FindItVirginia.com. LexisNexis has it too--many college libraries make this available to the public--for instance Roanoke College and Virginia Tech in our area.

Actually, Brotherton fails to mention that the Foundation has been publishing reports for over six years. See E-Mail Overload in Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis – March 19, 2001 . She also fails to provide a link to the project overview for upcoming research: Communicating with Congress.

So if this is a crisis, the solution seems to be coming pretty slowly. And the solution suggested of writing individual letters rather than participating in mass mailings won't help much unless it just serves to reduce the number of people contacting their members of Congress. I know. I always write an individual letter and the web forms for submitting them are pretty useless.

Instead try the direct address. To find it, click on your state at this directory and if you can't find the address for anything but a form, I'd suggest you use this directory. Click on your state and then click on the link in the left hand column for the legislator you wish to contact to find the member and staff. Then use the following protocol to write directly to their email addresses (try a google search to confirm):

Of course, a phone call always works best, but that takes money, except when an organization is sponsoring a tollfree number.

And the worst part? It looks like any solution will be hard to manage as there are no economies of scale, since each member's office the CMF notes, operates as a separate small business. In comparison, Great Britian has MySociety.org, a UK Citizens Online Democracy project founded by Tom Steinberg (email) with help from programmers and volunteers, which builds websites for the civic and community arenas and educates the public and voluntary sectors how to most efficiently use the internet to improve their lives. The organization was touched on in an article in the July 6 LA Times, "Open government, the Internet way: Barack Obama and others want to use the Web to fuel citizen participation," by Ronald Brownstein.

MySociety operates the following sites which CMF should be looking at:

  • HearFromYourMP.com (21st November 2005)--encourages and enables MPs to run email lists and to allow constituents to discuss ideas in a way which doesn't bombard MPs with email. 5000 people had signed up before it was even launched.
  • WriteToThem.com (14th February 2005)--lets users enter a postcode to learn the local representatives and who to contact for which reasons. An award winner within 12 weeks of launching, WriteToThem.com sent 5,000 messages in its first month of operation.
  • TheyWorkForYou.com ( launched 6th June 2004)-- provides a searchable, annotatable version of what is said in Parliament, as well as useful pages providing clear, non-biased information on a range of different measures of activities by MPs. Originally built by volunteers while mySociety was getting started, it is now part of mySociety.

The group also built a civil service commissioned site for the Prime Minister that should be of interest:

  • E-Petitions (14th November 2006 )--allows the public to petition about any issue. Highly robust and load-tolerant, it is also available as open source code for reuse elsewhere.

Tom Steinberg says he doesn't like

A world in which the likelihood of an issue being acted on depends on how well it flukes a position in the news cycle.

The current notion of 'a public debate', and suspects it is largely synonymous with "an issue on which at least one columnist from each national newspaper has vented their prejudices".

Gerrymandering, earmarks and un-capped electoral spending.

MySociety is currently working on:
  • Freedom of Information Filer and Archive--to help people make Freedom of Information requests from different parts of government and archive the responses on the web. Fnding from one of Joseph Rowntree's trusts (yes, the dead chocolate mogul; eat lots of chocolate, it'll help mySociety's successors in the 22nd century).

Here are some other sites the group operates:

  • PledgeBank.com (13th June 2005 )--lets users create pledges which say "I'll do something, but only if x number of other people will do something. For instance, "I'll clean up the river, but only if 5 other local people will pledge to come and help."
  • NotApathetic.com (7th April 2005 )--permitted people planning not to vote in the UK General Election on May 5th 2005 to tell the world why.
  • FixMyStreet (7th March 2007) --report, view, or discuss local problems such as graffiti, broken paving, or street lighting. In collaboration with the Young Foundation.
If you want to volunteer, look here for what's needed. When you click on the "#" by a task, you are linked to a form to express your interest in that task.