Today the Government launched a new website called “Your Freedom” – designed for members of the public to suggest repeals or modifications of laws they find restrictive or bureaucratic. The name’s a little misguided from the start – after all, laws can be used to guarantee and enforce freedoms as well as restrict them, so merely repealing a law does not necessarily entail “freedom”. But let’s let that pass.
This could have been a nice idea; crowdsourcing opinions from ordinary citizens and the wider public away from the professional lobbyists or niche activists and giving them a more coherent and representative voice. It could be used to take a hard look at some of the laws that people have found restrictive over the years, whether they be anti-terror laws, anti-smoking or anti-foxhunting (for the sake of this analysis, I’m deliberately being neutral on what I think of these respective matters). Instead, it’s so vague and generalised that it’s become “a massive dickhead magnet” (© Justin) within hours of opening.
The submission form (login required) doesn’t ask for specifics on which laws or regulations should be looked at, but rather “ideas”, which renders it near-pointless. The questions for the form fields are so vague – “What is your idea?” and “Why is your idea important?” that you could literally put anything there. The moderation policy implies they operate post-moderation – i.e. no moderation – with little or no prescreening at all.
The result is that any old shit can get in, and it does. Even if those ideas are proposing adding more new laws, rather than taking them away – such as Restrict Immigration which turns into a rambling stream of barely-consciousness:
… Schools cannot cope with the amount of children who speak different languages and it is holding back our children’s education. The same with gypsies. If this is a life style they choose, fine. Contribute to the tax pot or do not expect use of public services. Why should taxpayers provide taxis for their children to attend schools etc. Ridiculous.
The ideas look like something that’s fallen off the back of Have Your Say. In fact actually if you look at the relevant HYS page you’ll see exactly that – people spelling out just how they want the government to enforce their own petty prejudices rather than reform what we have. Let’s look at the comments beneath:
Prison meant to be for punishment, but the so called Human Rightists…
Ok enough. Next…
My proposal would be for a new law…
Oh, fuck off.
So, what can we learn from this? First off, design your site better. If you want people to propose changes to laws, then make the users think about those laws when submitting. There should be a mandatory field asking them to specify which acts or regulations they would want to change – e.g. “Terrorism Act 2000”. Anyone who just writes “laws about immigrunts“, or doesn’t put a proper name for the law, or the year, filter it out.
(This has a beneficial side-effect – with a bit of fuzzy parsing, we could include a link to the relevant law on OPSI in the proposal so we can look up the more relevant section, and it also makes finding related proposals on the same law easy, a sort of auto-tagging).
Secondly, pre-moderate. If a proposed change is totally incompatible with our international obligations, say if some idiot wants to get rid of all human rights legislation or leave the EU or scrap the NHS, the moderation team should have the sanity and bravery to filter it out. Anything badly spelt, in all caps, copy & pasted from The Chap or proposing repealing murder, bin it. This is not an issue of denying freedom of speech – the green ink brigade are free to write wherever they like – but of keeping the site a proper and sensible civic space. If you want to get the most out of an online community, you have to keep it in good order.
Thirdly, delete duplicates and employ an algorithm to suggest duplicates to a user before they post – look at the number of duplicates for repealing the Digital Economy Act (though you’d think geeks especially would check for dupes before posting). Having five posts all call for the same thing dilutes the popularity of all of them, and leads to incoherent arguments for their repeal, weakening it further.
The shame is that here and there on the site there are constructively-argued ideas to help fix parts of our legislation that are inefficient or restrictive – for example CRB checks, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or financial risk for small entrepreneurs (not that I agree with any of these, just that these were examples that look properly thought-out and considered at the very least).
As it stands, the site will end up as a total mess – in fact it’s well on the way there already. When it comes to closing the site down, I bet the politicians will take one look at all the “ban human rights act it give free school meals for wearing a burka” posts, shrug their shoulders and say that “the citizens have spoken, but it’s utter rubbish – they had their chance and they blew it”. No, the government who have blown it – they had their chance to make a valuable public resource, but we’ve instead got another poorly-designed, poorly-maintained failure.