How MPs can use digital tools to be more effective

Tech Policy

10 ways MPs could do better with digital

17 Jun , 2016  

My first insight into how politicians use technology took place 14 years ago.

I had just begun my career as a parliamentary assistant to an MP. Arriving at the local constituency office on my first day, the first order of business was to be trained up on BlueChip, the constituent database used by Conservative associations at the time. The office manager suggested that I familiarise myself with the tool by looking up the records of people I knew well. The results were perplexing. According to BlueChip, my parents weren’t married (my mother was devastated when I relayed this information that evening), my next door neighbour (a plumber) was a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, and I was of ‘unknown gender’.

Obama-style profiling it was not.

Things were little better when I moved to the House of Commons office. Only I had a computer – the MP worked with pen, paper and dictaphone. We replied to emails by sending an acknowledgement postcard, and then a letter, through the post. And hours of my time each day were spent staring wistfully into the middle distance over an overheating photocopier to ensure we had paper copies of every piece of correspondence.

Yet our office was a technological powerhouse compared with the MP across the corridor. I recall the parliamentary ICT team doing the rounds one day to install a new software update. Entering the neighbouring MP’s office, they carefully removed his computer from a cupboard, booted it up for the first time, ran the update, before carefully packing it away in the cupboard again.

I found myself reflecting on these experiences when I recently met with the small group of digital mentors who have been selected by Martha Lane Fox’s Doteveryone to help four MPs (Yvette Cooper, Matt Warman, Calum Kerr and Norman Lamb) make greater use of digital. (Read the team’s blog here.) It made me start thinking about how I would try to organise an MP’s office differently with all the digital (and mostly free or low cost) tools that are now available. Below is my first stab at a list.

[Two quick caveats: first, the list below is not an endorsement of any specific product or tool – more what they can do. These are just ones I happen to know. Second, MPs’ offices would need to check that any cloud-based tool handles and stores personal data in accordance with all relevant data legislation.]

Let’s start with what the constituents see.

The website

1 – Analyse and improve the website. Many MPs’ websites are – how to be polite about this? – poor. A whole separate blog post could be written about the litany of errors that our elected representatives commit through their official online presence. Lack of mobile optimisation, poor font sizing, and confusing flash screens abound. Thankfully, there are a number of free tools that can scan sites and provide a helpful list of everything that needs improving, from Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to security. Hubspot’s website grader is a good place to start. The following links show Hubspot’s detailed assessment of the websites of: Yvette Cooper (score: 74/100), Matt Warman (score: 47/100), Calum Kerr (score: 47/100), and Norman Lamb (score: 69/100).

2 – Publish casework statistics online. Chi Onwurah MP has led the way in being transparent about the casework she deals with each month. Her website shows summary details of the number of items of correspondence that relate to particular issues (see example from March 2016). No digital wizardry required for this – a simple spreadsheet and pie chart does the trick.

3 – Include sign-up forms to be notified on specific issues. Tools like MailChimp have made it incredibly easy to create simple sign-up forms for newsletters and notifications, complete with double opt-in confirmations. MPs could embed one or more sign-up forms on their websites so that constituents can request to be notified about the issues they care about most. They could also make their voting record more easily accessible to their constituents by linking to their profile on MySociety’s TheyWorkForYou (or using the API). See this example for Yvette Cooper.

4 – Add maps showing the MP’s visits/surgeries. MPs’ websites are full of stories of schools they have visited, businesses they have toured and events they have opened. Why not show the range of their visits with a map? Matt Warman MP does this nicely on his site. Other MPs wishing to replicate this approach might wish to check out BatchGeo – a simple tool that allows anyone to upload location data (postcode, grid reference, address, etc.) and plot them on a map that can be embedded on a website.

5 – Enable constituents to book surgery time online. There are dozens of online scheduling tools that enable individuals and organisations to advertise available meeting slots. Why not use them to reduce admin for MPs’ surgeries? My current favourite is Calendly. MPs could set the time parameters for when they were willing to meet constituents and for how long. Calendly creates an online booking form that constituents could use to book their preferred slot, always checking against the MP’s calendar to avoid clashes. As an added bonus, Calendly sends personalised confirmations and reminders to both the MP and the constituent to avoid no-shows.

Behind the scenes

6 – Get the right CRM. In keeping with my main mantra about digital public services, it’s not enough to have slick new website if all it does is cue up the same outdated processes behind the scenes. Having a highly effective customer/constituent relationship management system makes all the difference. I don’t see any reason why MPs can’t make use of some of the best off-the-shelf systems in the business. Salesforce would be just one example that could handle casework, all constituent contacts, as well as providing real time statistics. CiviCRM is a non-profit and open source (though not as advanced) alternative worth considering. While on the subject of internal processes, MPs have come unstuck before on the issue of expenses. Why not ensure there’s an audit trail of all spending by using a platform like Expensify that can take a photo of a receipt and send all the data to their CRM?

7 – Plot their own data. I previously mentioned using a tool like BatchGeo to add maps to MPs’ websites. But why shouldn’t their offices use digital maps for their own internal use? For example, they could plot data on the location of constituents’ reporting particular issues. If all complaints about, say, struggling to see a GP came from the same area of the constituency, it might identify issues before they become more serious. Having maps of key problems could also put MPs in a stronger position when they raise issues on their constituents’ behalf with other organisations.

Social media

Images of Rochester and bacon sandwiches may be enough to make any politician think twice before tweeting in haste. But there are ways for them to be effective using social media without descending to the levels of @realDonaldTrump.

8 – Use social media to converse not preach. Around 560 MPs have a Twitter account (view them here). But they use them with varying degrees of success. Too many fall into the commonplace traps (shared by many other individuals and organisations – myself included) of treating social media as a broadcast platform instead of using it as a conversation tool. Many tweet in the third person, highlighting the fact that it is not they but an assistant who is running the account. Beyond getting the basics right, MPs might like to consider using the platform in more ambitious ways, such as Boris Johnson’s #AskBoris virtual town hall Q&A sessions when he was Mayor of London. Tools like Buffer or Twittercounter could help them post at the best time and analyse what types of tweet have most impact. Meanwhile Fan Page Karma would help them analyse their own and their competitors’ performance on Facebook.

9 – Listen to social media. MPs shouldn’t just use social media to speak – they should listen as well. Hootsuite is useful for viewing social media activity related to specific keywords. The One Million Tweet Map or Twitter Trends Map would let them see what people are tweeting about in their constituencies.

Digital democracy

10 – Experiment with digital democracy tools. Nesta has been working with a group of organisations and individuals across Europe to design, build and test a range of digital democracy tools as part of an EU-funded initiative called D-Cent (Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies). The tools created during that programme can notify citizens when there is activity on issues they care about, engage them in collaborative policymaking, and even create blockchain-based reward systems for civic participation (to name just a few). MPs should explore the full toolkit and see which might work for them.    

That’s 10 ideas for starters. What have I missed? I’d love to hear your suggestions for additions and improvements to the list.

Find me on Twitter.

(Thank you to: Anna De Pulford, Guy Levin and John Midgley for their contributions.)

Image Credit: Pixabay, CC0 license

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