Checking up on your goals

Julian and I made an entertaining list of goals, and now I’m going to check back on how we did. We made them in mid-2003, just after discovering that Public Whip was an idea that might just take off. Amazingly, we’ve actually accomplished some of them, although many are left still to do.

  1. Visit the House of Commons, have a tour by a clerk. Success. We’ve got a few contacts in Parliament now (although see below), and I’ve even had high tea in the famous members tea room.
  2. Appear on the Today programme. Success. Well OK, not quite. It was Today in Parliament, but probably a more substantial and useful discussion than could be had on the Today programme.
  3. Have Public Whip information make a significant contribution to an NGO’s campaign (for example, provide a lead to a particular story or angle which gets lots of publicity, or causes serious embarressment to an MP or the government). Failure. Disappointing one this, although the goal was a bit optimistic. I know that lots of NGOs use our websites, and they benefit from them, just not in as concrete a way as the goal would like. I also know that our sites could be a lot more useful to NGOs, something we need to work on.
  4. Have at least one MP in fear that our parsing and analysing will soon reveal something that they would not like the public to know. Success. Although we haven’t specifically done this, MPs have changed their behaviour (see the leader article also) because of our websites. That is fear; fear that their political opponents will use our measures of apparent laziness against them. Whether it’s a good thing to encourage MPs to intervene once in each a debate is another question. We need to work on how to highlight metrics we care about, and get MPs to really feel they are being watched by the public.
  5. Cause (either by being hired, or by provoking them to do it) the House of Commons to provide structured data in a machine-readable format on their website. Failure. However, we’ve made lots of progress. We’ve talked to people in parliaments (from Scotland to Africa) about structured data, and the idea is inescapably out there. The UK parliament is working on it, although any change like this will take a long time in such a complicated organisation. Help and encourage them if you can!
  6. Be courted by a lobbying services company, and refuse to work for them unless all newly produced work continues to be open source, with no special dual licensing. Success. At first they agreed to work with us, and pay to improve the parser for everyone, and which they would also use internally. In the end they bottled out, and went for a proprietary solution. This was partly because of fear of contributing to an open system, but also because the proprietary solution was lighter, less powerful, cheaper, and more suited to their needs. In other words, our stuff was too high quality, and not customised enough.
  7. Get a contract from the Guardian to integrate Public Whip into their website. Success. Not quite the Guardian, but instead Channel 4.
  8. By 2005 General Election have the facility on the website for reports by subject, people tick their issues, tells them how their MP voted on them. Tells them how each political party voted on these issues. Success. We made an election quiz which did almost exactly that, and was mildly popular. Although it’s probably broken now (old postcode databases, it gets exhausting).
  9. Over the next 5 years, create a noticeably higher rebellion rate, that we can graph. Failed. We could plot a graph now, and it would show an increased rebellion rate. Unfortunately though, we have to give credit to the quality of the policies the government is proposing, rather than to a powerful Public Whip flexing its muscles.
  10. Go on field trip to National Informatics Centre in India. Any offers?

So, 6/10. Good, but must try harder!

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