“Your Freedom” is a failure. How to make it better

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.

36 thoughts on ““Your Freedom” is a failure. How to make it better

  1. …or what MySociety were working towards with the government and with their initiatives like Fix My Street and They Vote For You. There is an infrastructure for this dialogue in place but it’s presumably too tainted by the past to be useful to the coalition. Let’s also not forget that the Freedom Bill is to be introduced to replace the Human Rights Act and with this initiative looks like it will create the same sort of ugly patchwork that Criminal Justice Acts used to be.

  2. Some of the technical issues suggested would’ve been addressed by deploying something like a branded UserVoice (cost $500/mo I think).

    Ironically, government rules prevent that sort of thing… (data transfer outside EU, copious security regs etc).

  3. [Spoiler – I also put this on the New Humanist blog]

    Of course, the truth that dare not speak its name is that platforms like this give voice to that great number of people who get their views in bite-sized snacks fed to them via an agenda-led media & political PR system. That’s not democracy, and, even if were purified, whose to say that the democratic consensus would be right. I reckon that a sufficiently large majority for it to be a problem only ever think in a parochial way and can’t really be trusted – although this may sound smug, or patronising, at least it has the advantage of being non-naive.
    I’m with Socrates – let’s have a benevolent meritocracy. With AC Grayling as chair :)

  4. It’s an improvement on the http://www.yourbudgetresponse.co.uk failure…

    Yes it could have been executed better but it’s a start, don’t rant about it not being perfect first time, asking for ideas, and providing an opportunity for people to communicate is a good in concept, and will likely improve over time.

    I’m no expert on websites, but it won’t be hard to look at the database the suggestions are stored on and post filler the junk out, pre filtering is simply daft as it would be called censorship in this context.

    Merging duplicates is will be necessary but shockingly after matching them up your add the votes…

    Also, if you’ve got ideas on how to improve the site post them there! My first though was why didn’t they just use a commercial available solution like uservoice an then build round that, but don’t dam a good concept within hours of a 1st attempt.

  5. not to mention that the site is so sluggish that anyone attempting to go through and rate a significant number of proposals will give up in disgust well before losing interest in the content.

  6. Is it just me that squirms a little in the heart whenever anyone designates something they’ve made as “your”/”my” thing? Me thinks the label doth protest too much. Is the freedom of the intended site audience totally separate to the freedom of its creators?

    Names are always more interesting than the thing itself…

  7. I know it’s less exciting that ranting about how rubbish they are (which undoubtedly they are ;-) how about helping to fix it.

    There is a button to report “Inappropriate” ideas. How about encouraging people to use it? It wouldn’t take too much for a cadre of sane largely impartial people to reveal themselves by tagging the more mental ideas, with justifications.

    Something like the Advogato trust metric would probably help.

    The admins could then use that input to flush the insanity out, without giving the impression of censorship.

  8. This seems to be to be an elitist view of the site and its purpose.

    Those who can spell and who know the names and content of the many laws on the statute books already have plenty of ways of accessing the powers that be.

    The rest of the population have as much right to have their voices heard.

  9. Well, it’s only day one. Maybe it’ll get better with all this lovely feedback. Good test of whether feedback works, and whether anyone is listening.

  10. I think this analysis of the site’s flaws is spot-on. In particular, it breaks the golden rule of public consultations, which any civil servant who has been involved in drafting them could tell you: you need to have specific questions if you want to get specific answers. It does ask specific questions on the front page (at least, it asks three big strategic questions) but then completely ignores them on the submission form. You get what you ask for, and at the moment the site is asking for anything and everything.

    And there is an inherent tension between conducting what is essentially a highly technical consultation about the UK’s legal and regulatory framework, and asking every member of the public for their views on that framework. It’s not that people without legal expertise have nothing to contribute to this consultation – they have lots to add, potentially – but as you say the site doesn’t make it easy for someone without that expertise to frame their comments in a way that is relevant.

    The site could easily give you a way of accessing OPSI to look up the relevant legislation, or a query form to e-mail officials in the relevant department some questions before you then submit your response. It could easily ask you to name the relevant piece of legislation, and if you don’t know, give you space to describe the situation or outcome you are trying to see changed. The site could easily allow you to colloborate with other users on a submission so you can ask those with relevant expertise for advice.

    What’s most interesting, though, and not clear as yet, is how the submisions will be sifted. Are there teams of legal advisers and policy officials in each department who will be assigned these to sift them on their merits? Will there be independent expert assessors instead or as well? Will Ministers see all the submissions unmediated, or an edited selection chosen by others? A great deal of how much of an impact this has will depend on what happens after the website is closed to submissions.

  11. Thank you all for your comments – if I’d known this post would have got a response I’d have proofread it beforehand ;)

    @Simon Not sure what you mean by tainted by the past – MySociety did go out of their way to be politically neutral, and if anything Tom Steinberg’s role with the Conservatives should have been a factor for involving them more.

    @Josh Rules on data protection do sadly restrict many US-based services (this wasn’t always the case – I remember MI5 outsourcing email signups to a US provider that didn’t even use HTTPS for the forms). Additionally rules on approved providers etc. mean that quick turn-arounds from firms best suited to the task are impossible unless those firms are on the roster.

    @davidh I do still believe in democracy, but democracy needs informed and considered debate – which Have Your Say is not, it’s firing off a rant about your latest bugbear or prejudice with no thought to consequences.

    @William @Philip @Nate As much as I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think this site is in beta or intended to be gradually improved and built on. Also I didn’t think it worth posting my suggestions to the site as they would be off-topic and further clutter. Marking as inappropriate should be done, yes, although the site was so slow on day one it proved rather difficult when I tried – when traffic has calmed down I’ll go through again.

    @Tom To be fair (and having managed this from the other side), the load on the site on the first day was phenomenal and dealing with heavy spikes in usage is not easy.

    @Al I don’t think I am being elitist by thinking that people ought to research the laws they want to change, before proposing changing them – the alternative is to encourage ignorance rather than reason. Perhaps though, it may be hard for people to recall the exact law, so maybe there should be a section of the site that helps people find out – you select what aspect of life you are interested in, and it gives them a breakdown of the relevant laws to that situation – I’m thinking more the approachability of Directgov than the technical detail of OPSI. Less elitist now?

    @Nick Good points in that final paragraph. In the interests of open government, I think it would be great to have the minutes of the meetings that discuss the proposals from this site published. Not holding my breath though.

  12. The underlying problem is that this site seems to lack a period of invitation-only beta-testing, open to,say, anyone with credentials of working on a crowd-sourcing initiative such as a MySociety project or OpenStreetMap.

    Many of us could have predicted the problems you highlight, and more – such as the profile page, which does not allow the user to enter a biography, avatar or link; and fails to display a list of the suggestions, comments and votes by the subject.

  13. “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”.”

    I think you misunderstand – no one’s claiming that repealing any law entails freedom; rather the point is to repeal those laws that restrict freedoms. Specifically it asks:

    “Which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?”

    and “Repealing unnecessary laws”

    Nothing about repealing any kind of law whatsoever. So I think this is a good thing. There are people using the site to suggest ideas like scrapping the HRA, or bringing the death penalty back, but these can be dismissed on the grounds that they’re off-topic for what the site asks for. The Lib Dem idea of a “freedom bill” is much better than the Tory “Repeal bill”, precisely because the latter might entail repealing laws that give us rights and freedoms.

    It’s true that trying to screen out such laws that aren’t about repealing laws or giving freedoms from the start that might be better. On the other hand, I’d rather an open site than one where moderators can refuse an idea. There’s also the point that it would be vast amounts of work to moderate, with so much traffic on this site. The idea you link to has a rating of 3.3, with only 24 votes, which are both figures way down on the list (most good entries get at least 4). So in other words, it can easily be filtered out without having needed to pre-moderate it.

    I don’t disagree that improvements can be made. Getting people to think about what they’re proposing and argue their case is a good thing. But pre-moderation would have had it’s own problems, not to mention they may simply not have the resources with some many people using the site.

    Deleting duplicates isn’t so simple – people may make subtle but important different suggestions (e.g., some might call for a repeal, others might suggest various amendments). There needs to be a way to group together, or link to, similar entries, but simply deleting could be a bad idea. E.g., there are many submissions on drug laws, but many of these are suggesting different things.

    “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”

    At the moment, these kind of ideas have far lower ratings, so on the contrary, it shows the citizens have spoken sensibly.

    The site is far from perfect, but I’m not sure all these criticisms are fair.

  14. I think the biggest problem with the site is that it lacks a good metric by which to automatically judge what are the “best” or “most popular” ideas. Looking at the highest vote ratings has the flaw that as soon as an idea receives a single 4 or less vote, even if every other vote is 5, the average is below 5. So it’s beaten by an idea with all 5s, even if the latter idea only has a handful of votes. In practice, this means the rankings of highest votes will be dominated by large numbers of ideas with 5, that only had a very small number of people vote.

    Looking at total numbers of votes or comments gives an idea of “hot” topics, but this equally includes controversial and stupid ideas, that have had lots of people vote against them, or argue against them.

    Some kind of fuzzy criteria could work – e.g., if you asked for all the ideas that had at least say 100 votes, and an average of 4 or higher, you’d filter it down to a more sensible set of ideas that could be looked at more closely. (There’s no need to provide an exact ordering – I would hope this site is only being used to provide ideas to the Government, rather than them promising to repeal whatever comes out top.)

  15. Someone has done exactly what you describe:


    You are REQUIRED to specify the actual law you want repealed with a link to Parliament, and you are required to explain why.

    The Your Freedom site proves that this government is totally useless. If this task had been given to Direct Line Insurance or Tesco it would have been done better, with all the features you are describing.

    Government doesn’t work; Government is pure fail, and this is just another example of that.

  16. ….after all, laws can be used to guarantee and enforce freedoms as well as restrict them….

    No they can’t.

    By legislating for one group’s freedom, you restrict the freedom of another.

  17. Some valid and interesting criticisms of the design of the website, muddled in with your frustration that the great unwashed don’t hold the views that you think they ought to.

    Your argument that a post suggesting that the UK should leave the EU ought to be deleted because such an action is “totally incompatible with our international obligations” is a difficult one to sustain. Surely our international obligations are whatever we determine them to be? A citizen who wishes the UK to leave the EU may or may not be an “idiot”, but it is perfectly legitimate to hold such a view and to express it on a state website which is seeking views on restrictive or bureaucratic laws to repeal. Is it possible to reasonably hold the view that membership of the EU is restrictive or bureaucratic? Of course. Is it possible for laws to be passed or repealed which would cause the UK to leave the EU? Of course.

    Not your most liberal post, Chris!

  18. Many people are moronic nutcases, but why do you fell the need to hand-hold them to pretend otherwise. Thesae paople also vote. Would you like to hand-jold them in the ballot box? I read a comment upthread that it’s not real democracy, letting real people have opinions. And no, ideas are not forced into these people by the media, any more than your ideas are forced on us here.

    It’s also kinda ironic that this is coming from a blogger. Do you agree with the old-media ‘professional journalists’ whining about losing their gate-keeper status?

  19. I just read your earlier reply;

    I don’t think I am being elitist by thinking that people ought to research the laws they want to change, before proposing changing them…

    And agree. But I still think a full-of-crap site more accurately reflects and represents us :( and fixing that might just require a shed-load more legislation.

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