Local Government

Feb 12

Argyll and Bute Council should come clean over online “spy accounts”

Argyll and Bute Council - 'Spy' social media accounts

Did Argyll and Bute Council set up “spy accounts” under false names on social media sites to monitor local activist groups? The question has been raised after this story in The Herald reported that one delegate at a local government communications conference claimed that Argyll and Bute’s communications manager made that claim during her conference presentation.

But there is a signficant lack of clarity over what has actually happened. Until the facts are established, debating the ethical implications of a particular course of action is premature.

Three explanations of Argyll and Bute’s activities have been given by various people and the truth may be something else entirely.

1. According to an unnamed source in the Herald’s story, the council used bogus accounts to directly monitor critics and opponents:

[T]here was a sense of shock in the room when [the communications manager] described how she set up fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spy on people and groups who oppose the council.

From a professional public relations point of view, it is really poor behaviour. You may not like what taxpayers are saying about you online, but you can’t pretend to be one of them in order to find out what they are saying.

Other professional communicators in the room were very uncomfortable about it – not only is it unethical, it was a strange thing to tell other people about.

2. In the same Herald story, Gary McGrow of the Scottish Health Council, who also attended the conference, suggests that the purpose of the activity was to learn more about how people communicate and organise online but not directly to collect specific information about opponents’ activities:

I did ask whether this was ethical, but I don’t think it was being used for those purposes. It was being called a spy account, but what it really is is a dummy account.

A lot of public-sector organisations are struggling with the use of social media. What she was trying to do was find out how other people were using it, as a project, with a name not linked to the council. I don’t have any concerns about it now.

3. Nick Hill of the Public Sector Web Network, who organised the conference, advances a third explanation: There was no activity by the council to set up accounts under false names but the council collected information from its own staff who were already using social media personally in an informal and voluntary way. Mr Hill does not report whether the aim of this activity was to gain greater understanding of social media in general or to collect specific information about local residents’ groups.

The phrase ‘spy accounts’ was featured in the presentation in speech marks deliberately as they referred informally to individuals  referring back what they’d seen elsewhere voluntarily rather than some dastardly plot. The phrase was given deliberate context in the conference.

Argyll and Bute Council has issued a general denial of any covert activity in the Herald story without specifying precisely what it has done and why:

Argyll and Bute Council does not use and does not condone the use of covert social media accounts. The council does use social media as a valuable way to engage with communities.

Argyll and Bute Council needs to act immediately to clarify this situation. Without the full facts of their activities it is impossible to make a judgement about whether the council has acted ethically and whether any changes of policy or practice need to be made.

We need to know:

  • What was the aim of Argyll and Bute’s social media project? Was it to learn about social media processes generally, to monitor specific groups or individuals, or both? Or something else?
  • Who contributed information to this project?
  • Did the council set up social media accounts specifically for this project or related activities? If so, it should publish the names and URLs of those accounts.
  • Did the council join any online groups which cannot be read without membership? If so, which groups? During which time period did the council read those groups?
  • If the council joined any online groups, did it participate in them by writing comments? If so, when and where?
  • What information was collected by this project? Unless there is an overriding reason of privacy or data protection, that information should now be published.

It’s certainly possible that Argyll and Bute’s activities online are entirely above board and defensible. Thus far all we have is conflicting claims and a lack of substantial facts. Let’s get the full story and have a much needed discussion about ethical social media behaviour in light of it.

UPDATE at 14:34 on 12 Feb 2012:

This story in the Herald, which I hadn’t seen when I wrote the post above, gives the communications manager’s own explanation of the “spy accounts”. Jo Smith says:

It was about trying to create a separate account different from your normal one that you have holiday photographs on. ‘Spy account’ was shorthand for it being another identity, to take you into a place that you wouldn’t be comfortable using your main account. I’m sure people do this all the time.

My online activity in my private life is private. You separate the professional from the personal and keep those two things separate. That is why many people post and say ‘this isn’t my employers’ opinion’. There are no rules here.

According to the Herald, Ms Smith did not want to discuss which groups she had accessed using these accounts. It is also unclear what information was collected through this activity, how it was used, and whether it was known to her colleagues and employer.




Nov 11

How to make government IT simpler

Many people talk about simpler government IT but why doesn’t it happen? It’s because keeping things simple is one of the hardest things you can do, especially in an organisation that’s not wired for that kind of thinking. This is compounded when you’re dealing with suppliers that are also kitchen-sink thinkers. In general suppliers think that they can get more business and make more money by providing more stuff. Usually they’re right because most customers see the supposed advantages more than the costs of overblown software and systems.

“What’s so hard about being simple?” could easy fill a book but there are a few common factors:

  • People don’t realise that when you add something you take something away. Your increase in literal functionality gets traded off against clarity, ease of use, ease of learning and user satisfaction.
  • People find it hard to make decisions. Tell your children that they can have 30 Christmas presents and they’ll happily start writing lists. Tell them that they can have only one — within reason, anything — and they’ll probably hate you forever. It’s so much easier to throw in the kitchen sink than think through what you really need.
  • You can’t predict the future. Trying to anticipate hypothetical future needs is a great way to buy a ton of junk that you don’t need now and won’t ever need. But if your procurement process is lengthy and cumbersome and you’re going to have to live with a new system for several years it’s tempting to grab everything you can because you know you won’t have a chance to do it later.

For corporate IT I’d recommend:

  • Start small. Purchase or build the minimum system you need to meet your current needs and build it up from there when necessary and not before.
  • Choose or build modular systems that can be extended when necessary rather than having to throw out the whole system and trade up.
  • Use systems that can talk to each other. Follow the Unix philosophy of systems that do one thing well and can easily be combined with other systems to produce toolchains and capabilities that are much greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Streamline procurement. Build in preferences for small systems and short-term contracts. Try to make it as cheap as possible to change your mind and to trade up when future needs change rather than forcing people to stick with systems that no longer suit them.
  • Hire some good developers (Hi!). Many useful small systems can be quickly and cheaply built in-house in far less time and for far less money than buying a commercial product. When that system needs a small change you can quickly and cheaply just make it rather than being at the mercy of an external supplier to do it. They could take months or they might not be interested in doing it at all.

This post started life as a comment at We Love Local Government.

Sep 11

How to fix council news

Too long, too dull and far too pleased with itself. Little more than an exercise in vanity publishing. Irrelevant to the vast majority of people.

The complaints are numerous but at least you come here to read my blog not to find out when it’s bin day.

What about council news?

Followers of the gospel of top tasks don’t have much time for it. People rarely visit their council’s website to read the news. They’ve got something much more specific in mind, whether it’s applying for a school place or renewing their library books. News probably doesn’t make it into the top 100 tasks on a council website let alone the top 20. Why not drop it?

While there are a few exceptions like Brent, it’s hard to deny that the average council news page is a complete snorefest.

What’s this? 400 words on a benefit fraud case that didn’t even result in a prison sentence, complete with lengthy quotations from the magistrate and the lead councillor.

Now here’s 700 words on an upgrade to the council’s IT system that won’t be noticed by a single resident.

And how about a story about the trade price of recycled paper that almost wholly comprises quotations from councillors?

This is all worthy stuff and doubtless of interest to someone but it’s nothing that the average resident can do anything about. It’s never going to be the talk of the town or even get a mention at the dinner table.

But mixed in among these anaesthetic reports are things that residents care about and might even need to know: local events, major planning projects that will cause disruption, changes to bin day.

Sadly this useful information is presented, like the rest, in a turgid press release style. Residents are asked to plough through a huge slab of words that’s hard to scan for the essential details. The text is laden with contrived quotations from people no-one knows that rarely do anything more than state the obvious. It finishes without a call to action. It’s a wonder that anyone bothers at all.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Council news matters but it needs to be given to the right people at the right time and in a way that makes sense to them.

I reject the idea that council websites should focus on premeditated customer journeys to the exclusion of everything else. While there’s often too little focus on the customer’s intended task at the moment and far too much clutter and distraction on the average council website, we don’t want to swing too far the other way. There’s room for a few tips and nuggets of info that the customer didn’t come for as long as it’s not overdone.

So how do we fix it?

Social media is an important part of the mix. People might not go to their council website to read news but they’re happy to sign up in their thousands to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that bring the news to them. Councils that take the trouble to understand the strengths and limitations of each social site and adapt their style accordingly do best. Recycling your RSS news headlines through Twitterfeed is so 2010.

Where they need to exist at all, news pages should be written in a friendly and accessible style. Drop the passive voice. Talk directly to your readers using “we” and “you”. If you want people to do something then prompt them with a call to action, don’t just make them aware of the opportunity. Pull all the vital details clear of the body text. Dates, places and contact details should stand alone at the top of the page. Above all keep it short.

Now put links to individual news pages everywhere they’re relevant. If you’re going to automate this, make sure your CMS will remove a link when it’s no longer needed. Don’t clutter your pages with links to closed consultations and events that have finished. Don’t bother at all with stories that residents can’t do anything about like personnel changes and aren’t-we-doing-great pieces. Keep it practical — news you can use.

Got an event for children? Link to it in the schools section. Business news should be on your business pages. Green news should be on your environment pages. An event in a park should be on the page for that park, among others. Far too many councils keep news in its own section and away from all the parts of the site that people actually read.

Save the press releases for journalists. Keep them in their own section. Don’t link to individual press releases from your home page. Don’t call them “News”.

If you write in an accessible style, focus on things that matter most to residents and mix links to news pages into relevant sections of your website your news will be read and heeded. Carry on as most councils do today and you might as well scrap it entirely.

See also:

Sep 11

Open data for everyday life

TfL Countdown board at bus stop

I’ve noticed two main motivations in the campaign for government open data.

Some people want to change the world. They want to reform government and create a new era of accountability through transparent public bodies.

And some people just want to find out when the next bus is due.

The two of these aren’t mutually exclusive and there’s a point at which they meet, but today I’m going to look at how open data can improve people’s everyday lives.

My interest in local government stems from my core motivations as a designer. We can put people on the Moon and build complex and elegant skyscrapers but why do so many people struggle through their daily lives? To paraphrase William Gibson, at what point does the future become evenly distributed? When do the rest of us Earthbound ground dwellers get a slice of the techno-pie?

Local councils touch so many aspects of our everyday activities. We can go for months without having any direct contact with a central government department. We can avoid pretty much any company we don’t like, though perhaps not all of them at once. But we can barely go a day without using a service provided by our local councils.

Councils collect our bins. They maintain our streets. They educate our children. They run our parks and public libraries and leisure centres. And once a month they send us the bill. Whatever you think about your own council or local government in general, they’re unavoidable. Making councils work better directly and immediately makes people’s lives better. Designers and technologists should be all over them.

But in as much as I think that councils should always be striving to provide better services and to provide better information and access to those services, I know that they can’t do it all by themselves. People’s needs are too diverse. Technology changes too quickly. Aspirations always outstrip the ability of councils to meet them. Try their very best with the budgets and resources available and it’s impossible to keep up let alone get ahead.

Open data offers councils the opportunity to tackle one part of the problem.

So when’s the next bus due?

If you live in London this is now a much easier question to answer.

TfL have just launched their Countdown website where you can look up bus arrival times. It’s the same data that appears on the red screens at some bus stops.

TfL Countdown mobile website screenshot

In fact, there are three Countdown websites. One for computers with “normal sized” screens, your typical PC or laptop. One for smartphones and other mobile devices. And one “accessible” site for people who have difficulty using conventional screens.

These three websites tell a story in themselves. A story of diverse needs and aspirations. About wanting to provide for everyone in every context and on every device while still trying to deliver the best user experience possible in each situation.

And these sites are good. TfL has put the effort in and succeeded.

But better still, TfL has built its websites in a smart way. All three sites draw data from the same source so there’s no need to access the underlying database directly in every app. Just build an API and pull the data from there.

That API is available for anyone to use (unofficially, at least). Just request the current bus arrivals data for any stop and you get the answer in a format you can use in your own apps.

So I built something that TfL probably never considered and would almost certainly never have got approved had they thought of it: a Unix command line utility for Countdown.

Why? Because I’m in a niche group. My aspirations (if not exactly my needs) are well outside the mainstream. Like a few hundred people in London but unlike just about everyone else, I spend nearly all day every day sitting at a computer with a Unix terminal window open.

So rather than visiting a website and clicking my way around, it’s much easier for me to type:


and get a response like this:

Stonecot Hill outside Metalcraft (50799)

93    Putney Bridge        5 min
413   Morden               12 min

Ash Road (50823)

93    North Cheam          3 min
413   Sutton Garage        9 min

A staggering 33 people have downloaded this software since I published it four days ago. That’s nearly nine people a day.

This vanishingly small audience represents a technological and organisational triumph. This isn’t one size fits all. It’s one size fits one if it needs to. It’s what Clay Shirky calls situated software — extreme customisation for the most niche tastes. It’s the information you need, when you need it, in the way that suits you best. It’s a tiny public service in a place where government wouldn’t dream to reach.

If the Unix command line is your thing you’re welcome to become the 34th user.

So those three websites that TfL created for their Countdown service aren’t overkill. They aren’t even covering all the bases. There are hundreds of different ways in which this data could be used in every conceivable context and through any imaginable technology, past, present or future. You could build it into other websites and apps. Put it on screens in shops or hospital waiting rooms. Print it out on till receipts. Run a flag up a flagpole when a bus is around the corner. Whether it’s a labour of love, a business opportunity or a way to improve something that already exists, you can make it. TfL has built the API and the mainstream web apps. The rest is up to you.

So that’s London buses. Some other UK towns and cities have got similar websites though I’m not sure whether they’ve got APIs yet. They need them.

What’s next?

Socitm has recently published its plans for its annual survey of council websites, Better Connected.

Better Connected 2012 will focus on top tasks, the most common things that people visit their council websites to do.

Socitm suggests that the top tasks are:

  • Apply for a council job
  • Comment on a planning application
  • Find winter gritting routes
  • Find rubbish collection day
  • Pay a parking fine
  • Pay council tax
  • Renew a library book
  • Find out about getting help at home
  • Find out school term dates
  • Find opening times for local swimming pool
  • Find records office opening hours

Socitm will be looking to see how well councils provide this information and these services on their own websites.

Councils should work to make all these things as easy as possible to do on their own websites.

But you shouldn’t need to visit your council’s website to do any of them if something else would suit you better.

An iPhone app. An app for a tablet computer that got withdrawn after two months on sale. A nicely formatted table on a leaflet.  A desktop or web widget. A little light flashing on your bin on the day it needs to be taken out. And not forgetting the Unix command line for the three dozen people that might use it.

As councils polish up the top tasks on their websites they should be building APIs for those services too, starting with the most popular and working their way down.

There’s more than one way to do it and there’s nothing better than doing it your own way. We need open data and APIs for everyday life. Councils have the ability to make it happen.

May 11

Council website adverts: A design perspective

Anyone can design a website, just like anyone can take a photograph. But good web design, like good photography, is really, really hard to do.

And the evidence is all around us. Most websites aren’t that great, even those from well-resourced organisations that can hire teams of people to work on them.

Council websites are just about the hardest kind of website to design. Councils are large organisations that deliver an extremely diverse range of services within a sensitive public/political context. And they have to serve the whole community, not just most of it. And so while it’s undeniably true that many if not most council sites have a long way to go before they realise their full potential, I have every sympathy for those who are trying to deliver such complex designs with often very limited resources.

Good design means getting the big ideas right and then sweating the details. These are both really tough jobs and you don’t have forever to do them.

You don’t need to be an extreme minimalist to understand that every time you add something to a website you take something away. You increase users’ cognitive load. You draw their eye. You displace other page elements, or if you’re adding pages, you add another item to your navigation and search results. It all adds up.

I’ve never seen a website that was improved by adverts.

Every great website has come about because people worked hard and smart at stopping it being crap. They had the balls to say “no” more often than they said “yes”. They trimmed out flabby content, sharpened up the writing, weren’t satisfied with second-rate images. Engineers worked to progressively trim fractions of a second from the page load times, tweaking the front-end code, the back-end application and the server infrastructure. Titles and headlines were rewritten. Everything was meticulously researched and tested.

It’s hard to see how slapping a couple of ad blocks on the page is going to make this job any easier. And it’s not like the average council website is so fast, clear and simple that it can afford to take any kind of usability hit.

Ah, but they do it in the private sector. Indeed they do.

And their websites are undeniably worse for it. Of course they’d rather not do it, but if selling ad space on your site is necessary to bring in essential revenue to run it, you don’t have a choice.

The best private sector sites running adverts are very different from council websites. Take The Guardian. Although this is a big and complex site, essentially all most visitors are doing is finding and reading news. That’s just a single task. Council sites have to support hundreds of tasks. And The Guardian has design and development resources several orders of magnitude greater than any council. All their content is produced by professional writers and photographers, too.

So councils have the challenge of producing some of the most complex websites imaginable. But they also have the advantage that they’re funded to do that. They don’t need to raise revenue through the site itself. They can concentrate their resources on producing the absolutely best user experience possible without having to shill for a few pennies on the side.

Councils should fight for every inch of quality on their websites. Adverts are a completely unnecessary and harmful distraction from the real task at hand. Make your site great and the benefits will far exceed any cash you can drum up by encouraging people to click away from it.

May 11

Complaint to Nottingham City Council about Google AdSense adverts

Bankruptcy advert on Nottingham City Council's website

I am very unhappy with some of the adverts that you are running on your website. Many of them are directly exploiting poor people such as the advert for “claim bankruptcy” that I found in your advice and benefits section today. (Click image above for full size view)

I wrote about this issue over a year ago and it’s also been featured on The Guardian’s website.

When are you going to stop running adverts that harm your residents and the council itself?

Apr 11

Boris says bye-bye to indie Boris Bikes developers

Barclays Cycle Hire app iTunes screenshot

9 May 2011: Some of my assumptions in this post are wrong so please read it in the context of Emer Coleman’s comment below.

Courted, used and discarded in less than a year. That’s Boris’s and Transport for London’s attitude towards independent app developers for the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme.

Let’s take it from the beginning.

A month before TfL launched their new cycle hire scheme, Boris was very keen to get independent developers on board. Why? Some deep commitment to digital diversity or small government doing what it does best and leaving the rest to the market?

Not really. Just that in 2010 if you’re launching a public cycle hire scheme in a major world city you need an app. And there wasn’t any budget allocated for one so the open data line was expedient.

Let’s hear some of the bull from back in June 2010:

In build up to the launch of the Mayor’s Barclays Cycle Hire scheme on 30 July, Transport for London (TfL) has relaxed its terms and conditions to allow commercial use of official data – opening the door for developers to provide accurate and reliable information about the hundreds of locations where hire cycles will be available, smart routes around town or proximity of docking stations to Tube stations and places of interest.

Of course this wasn’t actually true anyway. TfL didn’t release any live machine-readable data about bike or dock availability at that point. In fact, they still haven’t.

More bull from TfL:

Independently produced apps will complement the wealth of information that TfL is already generating to keep users up to speed about the scheme.

So what happened? Indie developers got on board only to find that they had to screen scrape data from TfL’s web map, the only publicly-available source of data. No real API, no service level standards, no support. And very often crap data.

The incident where TfL’s map started serving up data from the Montreal cycle hire scheme being just one case in point.

The indies have muddled through, producing some good apps that very often have been held back by poor and unreliable data. When it comes to realtime information services, your app is only as good as your data.

People have invested time and money in these apps, largely in the hope that TfL would see them right soon enough.

All the while, developers have been pressing TfL for a real API. The story has always been that it’s coming… one day.

I think it’s reasonable to say that indie developers have made a big contribution towards Barclays Cycle Hire’s success. There aren’t unlimited bikes and you need to be able to find them. It’s handy to have a timer to help manage the costs. And you need a map on the go just to find the docking stations. You need an app.

TfL have been happy to take the credit for the indie cycle hire app and analysis work that they’ve done next to nothing to support.

And now we get the final confirmation of where TfL really stands on indie developers and open data: This week Barclays launched official iPhone and Android apps for the scheme.

These free apps (with all of Barclays/TfL’s marketing support behind them) wipe out the largest markets for indie apps at a stroke.


Moreover, Barclays own apps will doubtless be using a private API to which they have privileged access. So their apps get good quality data while everyone else struggles along with the leftovers.

I’m told, unofficially, that an official cycle hire API is coming soon. But I’ve heard that story before.

When it comes — if it comes — it’ll be useful for the people doing data analysis and building cycle hire data into novel apps and games like Chromaroma.

But for the mass market — indie developers making and selling standard find a bike/dock apps — TfL just doesn’t need you any more.

The parallels with Twitter’s attitude to its API are clear: Having built a successful service on the back of indie developers’ labour, it’s now time to take the good stuff in house and reap the rewards. At least Twitter provided a proper API.

The question remains: Who’s driving Barclays Cycle Hire, Barclays or the mayor?

Perhaps the clue’s in the name.