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Sharing public experiences

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A new site was launched last week allowing the public to post their experiences of using UK public services. The project is currently in the pilot stage, but has already received dozens of comments. It is funded by the Ministry of Justice through their Innovation Fund, and hosted by the non-profit advocacy group mySociety.

William Heath explained the idea of the project as being about basic ethnography, and capturing the ‘dispassionate raw description’ of services provided by the ‘Whitehall tribe’. He notes, however, that it is not suitable for all kinds of feedback and healthcare views should be directed towards PatientOpinion, while sites such as FixmyStreet are more appropriate for many services delivered by local councils.

The site explains that “Once experiences are submitted, we put them together with others, and pass them to our partners in Government, who will then look into them further.” While this is admirable, my view is that the success of this site will be based on the user generated comments created as responses to given experiences. To expect civil servants to investigate individual – or even groupwide experiences – is probably raising the bar for what can reasonably be achieved given the anonymous nature of the site. Nevertheless, it looks like an interesting project which will contribute to creating a more flexible and engaged dialog with those in Government. Ultimately, however, its success will depend on citizen participation and ensuring a lively and engaged community is established that is willing to provide suggestions and help to others based on their documented experiences.

Suggested additions

There are some nice features to the site e.g. RSS for new experiences, the Would it be better if functionality and the ability to rate comments. However, there are some more features which could be instigated to create a more community type feel to the site, and encourage repeat visitors:

  • Co-ordinate experiences based on topic headings e.g. Education, Small business, Jobs. Alternatively, allow users to tag their comments so a structure can emerge from the base of all experiences.
  • Try to encourage people to provide ideas on what they were expecting from their documented experience. Did they expect certain processes to be more efficient or transparent, and if so what would be their solutions. If we want to crowdsource public experiences, we should at the same time try to harness the collective knowledge of those same people. Those that experience the problems and inadequacies of services usually have a pretty good perspective on how things could be improved.
  • Provide links and tools for people to seek further help or guidance on their experience. Something simple like providing details of Directgov, public consultations or how to make a formal complaint to a specific council would be useful. A nice feature might be the ability to enter a postcode which would automatically allow me to create a complaint/express gratitude to my local council or department office e.g. similar to TheyWorkForYou.
  • Create a more community feel to the site by allowing people to create a profile if they wish. While the IntenseDebate extends the commenting functionality, some participants may want to provide details of their profile with their experience. This would provide greater gravitas and trust for individual experiences. The Getsatisfaction site allows for profiles to be easily created based on existing social platforms. These profiles could allow those with similar experiences to connect with one another, thus creating a more socially cohesive site.

This site could be a very useful and cathartic platform upon which people can document their first hand experiences with Government; a kind of tripadvisor for public services. It should, however, also be used as a mechanism upon which solutions can be formulated and discussed. Extra functionality or the addition of wiki type capabilities could enable a knowledge base to be developed. The experience of the public should be leveraged to generate ideas and suggestions to improve and build on the experiences of others. The site’s success will rest on whether the public can help themselves through collective action, rather than expecting assistance from ‘partners in Government’.

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