Category Archives: e-democ / e-gov

Openness & Transparency: What the Green council has achieved so far

As we approach the one year mark for the Green administration’s term in office, I’d like to reflect on where we are with advancing the cause of openness and transparency in everything Brighton & Hove City Council does as it’s one of my Cabinet responsibilities.

Here’s the run down:

  • The Council has adopted the Open Government Licence as its default license for all publications. This means our work can be re-used by others around the world without cost or permission being needed. It is a licence compatible with Creative Commons and Open Data Commons licenses.
  • By default the Council is now publishing information in more detail than before. This is an ongoing process of changes in internal culture and practices. With the 2012/13 budget setting process far greater detail on every aspect of the proposals was published, earlier than ever before.
  • We are in process of procuring a new Public Sector Network jointly with partner public sector bodies. This network will be platform agnostic and will link with the networks of other councils in the South East region to allow us to jointly procure and run IT services.
  • We are working with MySociety to adapt their WhatDoTheyKnow system to support a better workflow for Freedom of Information requests, and proactive publishing of everything we release.
  • We are publishing increasing amounts of open data, in open formats, including map data  for councils services and assets.
  • Council rules and protocols have been significantly amended to now allow re-use of meeting webcasts, to allow use of mobile devices in meetings and to permit audio recordings of meetings.
  • The Council is now using open source software in some areas, for example OpenOffice for some teams. We are seeking to phase out the current blanket, long term Microsoft licensing arrangements we inherited in favour of more cost effective, open and service appropriate packages.
  • This May we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to move to a committee system of decision making. This will involve councillors of all parties and provide a more open way for decisions to be debated and voted on.

There’s still plenty more to do, much more data to open and we could be more systematic in how we do that. There’s lots to do with our software and in progressing cultural change. We’re also working with our webcasting provider to move to a more cross-platform video solution that enables people to access meeting webcasts on a greater array of devices.

Let me know your thoughts on progress so far and what more we could be doing next.

 

Links 9-8-10

  • Some super slides (well worth reviewing in full, links below) from leading computer security experts presented at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s workshop in Washington DC on however overseas citizens should vote. Choice quotes below. (via Ian Brown and FIPR)

Prof. David Wagner (UC Berkeley):
http://csrc.nist.gov/groups/ST/UOCAVA/2010/Presentations/WAGNER_UOCAVA2010.pdf

It is not technologically feasible today to make Internet voting safe against attack.
Operating an Internet voting system safely requires expertise and money way beyond what election officials are likely to have.
There is no known way to audit Internet voting. UOCAVA votes might fall “under a cloud of suspicion.”

Prof. Ron Rivest (MIT):
http://csrc.nist.gov/groups/ST/UOCAVA/2010/Presentations/RIVEST_2010-08-05-uocava.pdf

Remote voting is trade-off between franchise and risk
The risks of “internet voting” more than negate any possible benefits from an increase in franchise
Unsupervised remote voting vulnerable to vote-selling, bribery, and coercion.
We may view internet voting as voting on a contraption consisting of a collection of [...] puzzle boxes, all connected by untraceable wires to every possible adversary on the planet.

We do not currently have the technology to make internet voting secure (and may never).
We can’t make such technology appear by wishful thinking, just trying hard, making analogies with other fields, or running pilots.
It is imprudent (irresponsible?) to assume that determined effort by adversaries can’t defeat security objectives of internet voting.
“What are best practices for internet voting?” to me sounds like “Pleash jush help me inshert the key in the lock, (hic), and I’ll be on my way…”

Every councillor in the UK should have this…

MySociety continue to lead by blazing example with the release of their iPhone app for FixMyStreet. Every councillor should get this now as it would make life so much easier — often I have a roll full of iPhone snaps of things I want to pass on to officers. Unfortunately I think I'm the only Brighton & Hove Councillor with an iPhone, though I know of at least one iPod Touch owner from another party. Most councillors have council-provided Blackberries with cameras but I'm not sure the pain of developing for the Blackberry platform is something MySociety's volunteers can bear!

Easter '08 E-Voting and E-counting Roundup

The last few weeks have seen a small flurry of e-voting and e-counting news in the UK. There's also been plenty going on over in the USA, Ed Felten's Freedom to Tinker remains the best way to keep up-to-date on those happenings. Back in the UK here's the latest:

  • Scotland
    The Scottish Government have published their response to the Gould Review of the May 2007 e-counted elections which the Open Rights Group also observed. I think the Scottish Government's response is a good one, not defensive and showing an openness to the recommendations I've not seen in similar Whitehall (London) responses. Of key interest is a (slightly ambivalent) willingness to abandon e-counting for Scottish Parliamentary elections, and a desire to de-couple local and parliamentary elections. Read the response

  • Postal Voting
    Judge Richard Mawrey has yet another election fraud case, and once again produces a superb sound-bite, this stating that postal voting is “lethal to the democratic process” making “wholesale electoral fraud both easy and profitable”. Mawrey had found a Tory councillor guilty of postal vote fraud, stripping them of their seat in Slough. Ian Brown has a nice little post on this, linking to coverage in The Times. John Morrison also is a voice of reason in a Commentisfree column. Anyone with any experience of the electoral systems knows how many weaknesses it has – it's an ongoing outrage that the Government allows this status-quo.

  • In Parliament
    Eric Pickles has asked a couple of good questions on e-voting and e-counting, here and here.

Did Council have a meeting?

This Thursday was Council Meeting day. It’s a long day…

I spent the morning working for Netmums and then went to meet with my colleagues on the Green Group of councillors at 2pm. In this ‘pre-meet’ we discuss the items on the agenda, many of which we will have already discussed to a greater or lesser extent at previous Group meetings and committee meetings. We don’t operate a whip system in the Green Group but usually we do come to a consensus on how we are going to vote, who is going to speak and if we want to contact councillors from other parties to explore a joint approach.

In many ways much of the most meaningful debate, learning and development of ideas happens in this group meeting. We’re with trusted colleagues and so we can openly explore thoughts, share what constituents have told us or what we think of reports.

By the time the Council meets at 4.30pm positions have generally been fixed, especially as the other parties use ‘whipping’ to fix how their members should vote. There can still be quite a good deal of political theatre – gesticulating, waving of papers, fake outrage, genuine outrage and good old fashioned point scoring. But sadly the debating doesn’t tend to change minds or votes and the procedural limitations make it difficult for any truly great oratory.

Worse still is that other than councillors and officers who have to be there, very few people are actually listening. After a break for dinner only three members of the public remained in the gallery on Thursday with there having been 15 at most. Published minutes are brief summaries and the local paper barely reports on the night’s events, if at all. So by the time we finished at 9.30pm we were tired but our debates, of variable quality no doubt, had really been for nobody’s benefit but our own. That’s not all together a bad thing – I’d rather see deliberation and debate between Council members, even without observers, than none at all.

But it would be much better if people could see and challenge what was happening. I firmly believe TheyWorkForYou.com, especially with it’s email alerts, is creating a renaissance in people’s engagement with Parliamentary debate not seen since the days of The Times publishing speeches from the floor verbatim. It’s having a far more profound impact, due to it’s searchability I think, than televising Parliament ever has had.

The Argus, Brighton & Hove’s local rag, used to print debates from council meetings, I’m told. Those days are long gone, but after years of requests by Greens we will soon have webcast meetings with archives provided online. I think that’s a start, but a mini TheyWorkForYou for each council would be even better. Residents could ask for email alerts whenever a council meeting debate touched on a personally important subject such as the Marina, communal bins or parking. That would be the kind of tool which would keep councillors on their toes and help keep interested citizens engaged with our local democracies. It’s something we should all be asking for.

Why can't I just type my postcode in…?

If you ever use a government site, particularly local government, and wonder why you couldn't have just entered your postcode to find your closest 'xyz' the answer is that Royal Mail want to charge too much for the right to use postal codes.

In other words one part of the Government, Royal Mail, is charging another part of Government, say your local authority, to make services more accessible for tax payers.

I'm sure that makes perfect sense to someone…

e-democracy is not direct democracy

The e-petition against road use charging in the UK has been in the news as it breaks the 1 million signature mark.

Coverage from The Times is particularly misleading:


An experiment in internet democracy, in which people were invited to place petitions on the No 10 website and vote for them by e-mail, has embarrassed ministers.

Internet democracy means nothing to me. I wonder whether it's fair to call the Number 10 e-petitions system an experiment as all it does is bring online an existing tradition of handing in petitions to the Prime Minister. Claiming that the petitions are voted for by email subtly misrepresents the site making it sound more Fame Academy and less like clipboards in the high-street type petitions. The MySociety team responsible say it better on the e-petitions FAQ:


One of the most popular proposals has been the creation of a 'sign against' mechanism, which would allow users to disagree with petitions. After much discussion, we have decided not to add this function.

The rationale is this: “e-petitions” is designed essentially as a modern equivalent of the traditional petitions presented at the door of No.10. It enables people to put their views to the Prime Minister. It is not intended to be a form of quasi-referendum or unrepresentative opinion poll (professional polls use special techniques to ensure balanced samples). With a “vote against” function, that is what it would effectively become.

Tracking vehicles to charge them is a pretty hare-brained idea unlikely to be implemented successfully by government. It also strikes me as pointless as road use is already charged for through fuel tax. Without delivering green, affordable, reliable transport alternatives first pricing people off the road seem pointless.

Whatever the merits of the petition's case, 1 million signatures do not miraculously have the power to swing policy. They merely record that 1.6% of our population disagree with how the policy was portrayed by those promoting the petition. Of course this is more than most petitions ever receive, yet still it's a tiny proportion of our peoples.

Naturally the government needs to weigh up the political implications of the mobilisation of feeling those signatures represent. The e-democracy tools enabled people to sign up to the petition quickly and easily. It would have been much harder to achieve so many signatures offline. In fact, rightly or wrongly, I would wager that the government would see more weight in 1 million signatures collected traditionally than online.

Part of the problem lies in expectations. I saw an email promoting the petition which claimed that the government would be legally forced to drop the policy if 750,000 signatures were received. The petitions are not legally binding in any way at all – the government isn't even obliged to respond to them. But if citizens build up hopes and expectations beyond reality then they are setting themselves up for disappointment and possibly will become less likely to participate in the future.

I would hate a great system like the e-petitions site end up unintentionally switching people off democratic participation. Campaigning organisations need to be responsible about the expectations and hope they express when asking for help. We can't count on that though, so the e-petitions site needs to be clearer that e-democracy isn't direct democracy.

Links: 18-11-2006

Lots happening in the UK identity management sphere at the moment.

  • The Guardian: UK RFID chipped passports cracked
    No surprise at all following the German experience that the UK passport has been cracked very easily. Come on, the key is written in the passport! NO2ID have understandably pounced on this. The Register also pile in with their usual style.

  • ID Cards Petition
    The ever wonderful MySociety have launched the Number 10 online petitions system with a bang. Lots of weird and wonderful petitions but given the news above I think we should be signing this ID Cards petition, don't you?

  • The Register: Man uses MP3 player to hack ATM
    For all those people who claim the banking system is secure and hold it up as an example: This link is for you.

Gaming Democracy

I've been cutting back our military spending, reducing our air pollution and increasing car taxes recently. No, thankfully I've not been elected to any position of power – I've been trying out Democracy, an incredible simulation that lets you run a country, or try to.

Call it “Edutainment” or a strategy game, Democracy is a really sophisticated and rich simulation which uses a neural net to perform its calculations. You play the Prime Minister (or President depending on the country you pick) and have to balance the budget, introduce or cancel policies and respond to events outside your control while keeping the diverse populace content enough to vote for you at the next election. Easy, right? Wrong.

Democracy game quote
The game is packed with pithy quotes from politicans. Like this erm… soundbite from Tony.

It's fun and very difficult, even on the easy setting! It's a superb learning tool which helps us all realise the hard choices and less than ideal compromises politicians are forced to make. It's a fantastic tool for all those aspiring politicians out there.

I boldly slashed defence spending only to be rocked by a terrorist attack in our capital. Cutting back on road building won me the fervent support of the greenies, but with 3 times as many motorists out there I was bleeding popularity points. Plus my renewable energy subsidies pollution controls were unbalancing the national budget. Yikes.

Democracy game tax
I decided against an Internet Tax in the end – thank goodness

The range of policies available is already good but even so the game developer has released instructions on how to modify the game to add new policies and other tweaks. The game also auto-updates with new policies and events direct from the developer.

Is this e-democracy? Perhaps not as it's just a simulation, though budget simulator games have been used in the UK e-democracy pilots to educate voters about the challenges their councils face. Either way I think it's a fantastic piece of software and wonderfully engaging for the political junkie in me. What's more the clear and approachable way in which policies, budgets and voters groups are presented should be inspirational for many future e-democracy applications.

Democracy, by Positech Games is available for Windows and Mac at a cost of £12.49 or $22.95. A free demo is available online for both platforms.