They Vote For You – Why isn’t there a policy on that?

Make a new policy

Firstly, thank you for visiting They Vote For You! We currently have over a hundred policies that you can use to explore how your representatives vote on particular issues. But what if something’s missing that you really care about? And why isn’t it there already?

Here are three possible reasons why we may not have your issue right now:

Maybe no one thought to create it yet

Anyone can create a policy on They Vote For You – including you! Or you can send us a suggestion. Right now we’re actually on the hunt for new policy ideas and would love to hear from you.

So if you do have a burning issue you think should be on the site – no matter how big or small – please let us know via email, Twitter or Facebook by Monday 22 August 2016, before our new Parliament begins sitting.

Maybe there aren’t any divisions on that topic

Divisions

In our Federal Parliament, only formal votes (known as divisions) are officially recorded. These are votes where our politicians divide themselves into two groups on either side of the chamber: one side for the Yes (‘Aye’) voters; and one side for the No voters. Each politician’s name is recorded along with how they voted. We use this data on They Vote For You.

Unfortunately, most votes in Parliament take place ‘on the voices’, which is when our politicians shout ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ and the group shouting the loudest wins. During these votes, no names are recorded so there’s no way to tell how each politician is voting without watching them all closely. With no official data on these votes, we can’t include them on They Vote For You.

We think this is a serious problem and have raised the issue in a recent parliamentary inquiry, arguing that citizens can’t properly hold their representatives to account without their entire voting record. Unfortunately, this is how things stand at present.

Maybe our Federal Parliament doesn’t make laws on that issue

Aus. Const.

Australia has a federal system, which means that some issues are the responsibility of our Federal Government, like higher education and security, and some are the responsibility of our various State Governments, like primary and secondary education and health. The Australian Constitution lists what areas the Federal Government can make laws on and everything else falls under state responsibility.

Occasionally the Federal Government does make laws on state issues, but only if it gets permission to do so from our State Governments – which isn’t easy.

You won’t find any policies on They Vote For You on funding hospitals or building more state schools, because our hospitals and state schools are controlled by our states.

But since our federal system is complicated, don’t let it stop you from making suggestions! Even our politicians get mixed up sometimes and try to make laws outside of their areas of responsibility.

 

So suggest away! We look forward to hearing from you.

 

Edit 04-08-2016:

It’s quite rare for the Federal Government to actually pass laws on subjects outside of their areas of responsibility (as defined by the Constitution), but the issue does come up occasionally. One of the cases that budding constitutional lawyers have to study on this issue is Murphyores v Commonwealth (1976) 136 CLR 1, a High Court case that looked at the limits of our Federal Government’s trade and commerce power.

 

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They Vote For You – What new policies would you like to see?

Policies

They Vote For You now has over one hundred policies to help us keep track of how our representatives are voting on our behalf! They range from whether to have a Royal Commission into banking to whether to legalise same-sex marriage, and you can find them all on your representative’s voting record. For example, here’s a snapshot of our Prime Minister’s record:

Malcolm Turnbull's voting record

We’re very pleased with our current crop of policies – and we hope you are too! – but there are still many subjects that our Parliament has voted on that haven’t yet to make it onto our site. And we’d like to do something about that before our newly (re-)elected MPs and Senators fly into Canberra for their first sitting day.

Tell us what you care about

We want you to get involved and let us know what new policies you’d like to see on They Vote For You. You can do this by:

  1. Jotting down the issues that matter most to you;
  2. Looking up your current representative’s voting record;
  3. Reading through the policies they voted on to check if all the issues that matter most to you are included; and
  4. If any are missing, letting us know via email, Twitter or Facebook before our new Parliament’s first sitting day on Monday 22 August 2016.

I’ll be online each Thursday and available to chat over Twitter and Facebook, so please feel free to join me then to discuss potential policy ideas.

When did you say their first sitting day was?

2016 Sitting calendar Jul-Dec

The parliamentary sitting calendar hasn’t been updated yet, so we don’t actually know when the first sitting day of our new Parliament will be. However, our guess is that  it will be some time after the beginning of the Spring parliamentary season, which starts in late August.

So let’s see how many new policies we can create by Monday 22 August 2016

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

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Adding your local councillors to PlanningAlerts

You may have heard that you can now use PlanningAlerts to discuss development applications with your local councillors. With over 5,000 councillors in Australia just gathering the data is a big job. We’ve already done that for about half the councils we currently cover but we need your help to collect the rest.

Photographs of all the Perth councillors

Your local councillors. If you live in Perth, that is.

How to contribute councillor information

The first time you do this you’ll need about 30 minutes. After that it usually takes about 15 minutes per council but some councils make the information very difficult to find (or don’t publish it at all!) so it’s different each time. You don’t need to be a programmer but you will need fairly good computer and internet skills (if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have those skills).

Find a council we don’t cover

The first step is to find a council we don’t already have data for. We’re keeping this list on a GitHub issue. On that page you’ll see a bunch of councils that don’t have ticks – those are the ones we still need data for.

Find the data and add it to the spreadsheet

All the data that powers this project is kept in a Google Sheet that anyone can edit. It’s already been pre-populated with a lot of data from scrapers (on morph.io, of course) but there’s often key details, like the councillors’ email address, that we don’t yet have. There’s a spreadsheet tab for each state so select that first, then search the spreadsheet for the name of the council you’re adding.

The next step is to find the council web page that contains all the councillor details, like this one for Perth, then copy them into the spreadsheet. Here’s a full list of the columns you can fill out. Some are essential, some are important, and some just nice-to-have. It’s important that the data is accurate so make sure you double-check it as you add it in.

Essential

name – The name of the councillor

email – Their unique email address (not a generic one for the council)

id – This is automatically generated so just leave it as is

council – This is the council name, it’s probably pre-populated

Important

image – URL to a photo of the councillor

party – The councillor’s political party. This is often available on Wikipedia but not the council’s own website.

source – URL where you got this information

Nice-to-have

ward – Councils are typically divided into wards, which does this councillor represent?

council_website – URL of the council

start_date – Date this councillor came into service

executive – Is this person a Mayor or deputy Mayor? We don’t currently display this but it could be used for other things

phone_mobile – Another field we don’t currently use but have been collecting anyway

That’s It!

Well, not quite – we’ve still got a few things to do to import it into PlanningAlerts so just shoot us an email and we’ll get started. Now you can give yourself a pat on the back…before you keep on gathering data for another council, of course ;)

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Matthew’s back: Improving the stability and scalability of the morph.io platform

Merry-Go-Round

I’m very happy to be back at the Foundation for a little stint now to get my hands dirty on some coding, something I haven’t had any opportunity to do over the last year. It’s funny how you can miss these things!

As you might have noticed, I’ve been away from working on morph.io and being part of OpenAustralia Foundation for the last 12 months, with 10 of those with me working at the Digital Transformation Office (DTO). It’s been an amazing experience working at the DTO, a crazy rollercoaster ride, and I’ve learned heaps. It was an extremely difficult decision to move on but ultimately I think the right one for me.

Morph.io, OpenAustralia Foundation’s scraping platform, used by civic technology organisations from around the world and thousands of individuals to scrape around a million web pages per week, started as an experiment.

We didn’t really know whether it would work. Would people want to use it? Would it attract a community? Would members of the community be willing and able to support the platform financially?

We knew we needed something like morph.io to help us build and maintain planningalerts.org.au but we really didn’t know if it was worth making it something that a much broader group of people could use.

So, when I started working on morph.io I built it using the tech equivalent of double-sided sticky tape, brown paper and a pair of scissors. Build it in the simplest possible way to get going and prove (or disprove) the concept as quickly as possible. This is a cornerstone of lean.

Over the last year, morph.io has definitely experienced growing pains. More and more people have been joining, running more and more scrapers. This is a good problem to have! However, when things go wrong on the platform they tend to go pretty badly wrong. All at once the job queue gets backed up, the io and cpu of the server gets pegged and we all too easily run out of disk space. It takes a lot of effort to recover from those situations. It doesn’t impact users beyond their scrapers taking a long time to start or run or in the worst situations the site running slowly, but it doesn’t help people trust the platform.

All the time that we’re firefighting problems on the morph.io server, the less time we have for developing new features.

So, with that in mind I’m spending the next month or two focusing on improving the underlying stability and scalability of the morph.io platform. Here’s the list (brought together from existing issues on Github) of what I’m planning to work on.

It’s going to be a busy month or two for morph.io, so please stay tuned for updates.

If you have stability or scalability things you particularly would like to see addressed soon then get in touch.

Posted in Announcement, Development, Morph | 1 Response

Setting sail for the second half of 2016

A couple of weeks ago we had our third planning session for 2016. These quarterly planning sessions allow us to reflect on the work we’ve been doing and make any adjustments we need during the year. This post is a little update on what we discussed and what we’ll be working on from July through September.

We spent a lot of the day talking about the big picture – where our work sits in the broader goals of the Foundation. Once we got down to the details we essentially agreed with the plan we’d already formulated. That’s a reassuring sign that the work we did earlier in the year to map out a plan was pretty on the mark.

The main difference is that we’re ahead of schedule with our Ask Your Councillors project. It’s already launched and we’re just wrapping up a few things on the project. That means we’ve got an extra month up our sleeves so we’re going to move everything forward a month. We’ll work out what we do with the extra month at our next planning session at the end of September.

A photograph of our Q3 schedule on the wall.

We’ve made our quarterly schedule more functional but the appearance could use some work ;) We can now add new things easily though and we’ve already added lots since this picture was taken.

July through August

Right To Know

Instead of needing to work on Ask Your Councillors all July we can now devote most of the month to starting our major work on Right To Know. This will keep us busy all through July and August. With Luke away for all of July we may keep working on this project into September, just ahead of International Right To Know day!

Our Right To Know work has already kicked off yesterday with a design workshop involving Kat and Henare. At this session we worked out the broad goals for the project (increase the number and effectiveness of requests and build the Right To Know community) and started to talk about how we’re going to approach the project.

One of the most important aspects of the project is communicating to people and getting them to use it. While we’ve had our fair share of experience with this it’s really important so we’re looking to get an expert in. We hope to share more details about this soon.

Growing the team

During this year we’ve talked about hiring another full-time person but we haven’t put a lot of active effort into it. In August when Kat, Luke, and Henare are around we’re going to revisit it and decide if we want to dedicate time to this. If we do we’ll be actively searching for a woman to join our team full-time.

September

PlanningAlerts supporters

In September we’ll be able to start work on this project early. You can read about it in our last planning update.

That’s it for this update, keep an eye out for the next one in October.

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Ask Your Local Councillors

PlanningAlerts makes it easy to impact what happens to your local buildings, parks, streets, and infrastructure. Over the last 7 years almost 40,000 people have signed up for alerts and thousands of you have made official comments on development applications for everyone to see.

But there are more ways to impact what gets built and knocked down. There are people at the council whose job is to understand their community and advocate for people like you who care about it. These people are your local councillors and they work for you.

If you want to help shape how your community changes then these are great people to talk to. They can make sure you’re heard at council meetings, find and request information for you, help you organise locals around the issues that matter, and much more. These are powerful ways to have a direct impact—but working with your councillors hasn’t been part of PlanningAlerts … until now.

Start a conversation

You can now easily ask your local councillors about a development application you care about in PlanningAlerts. This is a new feature that we’ve worked hard to make as simple as possible for you.

Image of the councillors you can write to on a page in PlanningAlerts

A list of local councillors on a development application in PlanningAlerts Moreland City Council

People living in over 70 council areas around Australia will now see an option to write to their local councillors in PlanningAlerts. Since we switched this feature on, dozens of people have used it and councillors from across Australia have responded.

A local councillor’s reply to someones message in PlanningAlerts.

A local councillor’s reply to someones message in PlanningAlerts.

Lots of people do currently write to local councillors about planning, but these conversations all happen in private.

In PlanningAlerts the full exchange is public. You can share and discuss what is (or isn’t) said, and hold the people you’ve elected responsible for their action. Everyone can benefit from your questions and the work councillors do to respond. People who’ve never taken the step to make contact themselves can see how easy it is and how helpful councillors can be.

A handful of brilliant volunteers have collected councillors’ contact details for 70 of the 150 councils in PlanningAlerts (thank you Pip, Daniel and Katska!). Let us know if your council is missing and we’ll prioritise making this new feature available to you. If you’d like to help collect local councillor information, please contact us—we’d love your help to make this available to everyone.

Now it’s time to put your councillors to work for you through PlanningAlerts.

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Picking a focus for the final push on our current major project

A couple of weeks ago Kat and I spent some time working out how best to spend the remaining time on our latest major project: helping people impact local planning by making it easy for them to write to their local councillors through PlanningAlerts. I thought it would be useful for our team, and anyone following from home, to document the decisions we made and how we got there.

When we started the project last year, we worked to deploy a functional system into PlanningAlerts as early as possible. This means that we’ve been able to see people, from all around Australia, writing to their councillors using PlanningAlerts for months. Many of them have even gotten a reply.

This year we’ve been making our system work more smoothly and with as little intervention from us as possible (remember we’ve got 5 other projects to develop and maintain). Our remaining core tasks are to load in more councillors for people in more areas to write to, and to announce the project. After we complete work on this we probably won’t come back to it for some time–we’ll be working on our other projects. We’ve currently got a little extra time to spend, so we want to make the most of it for the people who use PlanningAlerts.

To work out what we should focus on Kat and I did a mini, adapted Design Sprint. We were both happy with the result, and would like to experiment with the process more.

Design Sprints

A Design Sprints is a 5 day process for asking and answering important design questions, developing ideas and questioning assumptions. It was developed and formalised by Google Ventures. We drew on Google Ventures helpful resources and also Thoughtbot’s writing about the way they use Design Sprints.

Google Ventures describe a Design Sprint as:

a “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more—packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use … On Monday, you’ll map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a high-fidelity prototype. And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans.

We’re always keen to experiment with new approaches, and Kat and I both like the traditional Design Thinking approach of expanding with ideas then contract towards a solution. We both also have a capacity to go on tangents so were also attracted to the aggressive scheduling and blunt questions in the Design Sprint process.

However, working out what’s the most important thing to do with the remaining hours of a project isn’t a great fit for a Design Sprint. As I understand, they’re more commonly used to kick projects off. We weren’t looking to prototype a new solution, but refine the existing one in the ways that will be most helpful to people. We also didn’t have a facilitator. Usually a 5-10 person group goes through the process; we had just the two of us. Blocking out 5 days didn’t fit our availability either.

Working within our context, we did a rough two and a half day sprint that went through the first two formal Design Sprint days. These first days involve focusing on the deeper problem and generating new ideas. We didn’t need the final three stages to diverge on a single solution, prototype and test it. We wanted to be pointed to a bunch of small iterations on our existing solution. The major question we wanted to answer was, ‘how might help people make a bigger impact on local planning through the process of writing to their local councillors in PlanningAlerts’.

We worked through the Design Sprint checklists for the two days (Monday and Tuesday), sometimes sticking to the times, sometimes discussing more if we thought it was worth it. Some of the most useful bits we found were:

Choosing a focus

There are so many good ideas or things to fix in any project. Deciding what to work on with the time available is the hard part. We firstly revisited the goals of the project and thought about the different futures that PlanningAlerts could help push us towards.

We came back to the simple idea of people working together to lead planning in their area, and that PlanningAlerts could help push us, “from a antagonistic planning process to a cooperative and collaborative one”.

We also noted down the simple phrase “public interest planning”, and the ordinary idea that local councillors should be accountable for their decisions to the people who elect them. We thought that “public interest planning” would only come when the people who experience the impacts of planning decisions work together to improve their local areas. This is because to fix some of the big things pushing us away from this future, current planning legislation for example, will be very hard for individuals to change alone.

“How might we …”

We reviewed observations from interviews we’d done with both PlanningAlerts users and local councillors. We used this as our ‘ask the experts’ Design Sprint session. One of the interesting things we pulled out was that when people successfully impact a local planning decision, they often have some kind of direct relationship with their councillors. We thought that one of the most important things this new feature of PlanningAlerts could do is seed and help develop these relationships with many more people.

During all this we noted down “How might we ..” questions. These are open ended ideas for what we want to focus our design efforts on. Some of the questions were:

  • “How might we help councillors better represent people’s interests?”
  • “How might we help people organise around a DA or specific issue?”
  • “How might we help councillors better understand community concern?”
  • “How might we hear from more diverse voices through PlanningAlerts?”
  • “How might we help people continue their discussions with councillors?”
  • “How might we help people communicate their community’s values?”
  • “How might we help people help each other? (Right To Know style)?”
  • “How might we get concerned locals to a council meeting?”
  • “How might help people see if their actions made an impact?”
  • “How might we change the planning rules to match people’s expectations?”
  • “How might we make PlanningAlerts a safe space?”
  • “How might we reduce abusive comments?”
  • “How might we help people see what is influencing local planning?”

We decided that our focus should be to find ways to answer this question:

How might we build a sense of responsibility for local planning decisions in people and their councillors

We think that if more people gain a sense of responsibility for their local environment, then they’re more likely to take the steps to organise and build the relationships to really impact it. Without this sense of responsibility, it’s hard to imagine how they might do this–and how many of the other questions we thought of might be approached.

With this focus in mind we did the sketching session to explore some ideas for solutions. We also went through our existing user flow in PlanningAlerts and created new issues where we thought there could be an opportunity to build that sense of responsibility. We also went through existing GitHub issues and assigned them to our WriteToCouncillors Beyond MVP Milestone.

Using the results

Some of the changes we thought could make the biggest impact are to the text in the PlanningAlerts interface that frames the whole process of learning about DAs and commenting. These short bits of text, like the way we suggest people make a comment on an application in the alert emails and on a DA page, are seen and read by thousands of people every day. If we can seed a sense of responsibility through the text, we can make a big impact over time.

After all this time talking, we wanted to just get in and start making these improvements and really define what “fostering a sense of responsibility” looked like. We’ve started by iterating on the design on the comment form where people select a councillor to write to.

We thought it was currently looking bureaucratic and uninviting. If the councillors seem approachable, people will be more likely to comment and feel good about building that relationship. We made a big first step last week by redesigning the way councillors appear.

The next steps are working through the remaining issues and identifying more opportunities to build a sense of responsibility as we wrap up work on this project. Overall we found our heavily adapted, mini-Design Sprint process useful. It was great to work through the whole idea of this major project with Kat and really think about the impact we want and how to get there. I’m excited about seeding and building up a sense of responsibility for local planning through the experience of using PlanningAlerts.

If you’re using the Design Sprint idea in a civic hacking context we’d love to hear how it went for you.

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At the Edges of Art, Technology and Democracy

This is a guest post by the fantastic Alexandra Crosby, co-founder of Fontyard in Marrickville. Alexandra joined us at our recent Hackfest at their space and made thoughtful contributions to the group redesigning street development application notices.

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. (permacultureprinciples.com).

Edges are important. Multiple ecosystems at an edge, for example, can exchange resources, increase productivity, and generate unique species producing a transition zone.

For those of us working at the edge of cultural systems, the same is true. We generate distinctive projects, ideas, interactions, languages and spaces that make sense to other edge dwellers.

The OpenAustralia Foundation is working on projects and activities on the edges of democracy and technology, where citizens experiment, cross-pollinate, tinker and develop innovative ideas. Because of their attitude to play, their interaction with others, and the intermingling of ideas and practices from different fields, these edges, like their ecological counterparts, are special places indeed.

At the edge of democracy?

oaf

Democracy is at the core of OAF’s purpose but their activities are not at the core of our democratic system in Australia. OAF works at this edge of democracy, the participatory edge, and is richer in diversity and more dynamic than its core, inviting a shift in everyday practices and in the way collaboration happens. Without claiming to be in a position outside the current democractic system, OAF demands the transparency of that system, directing the organisation away from the corruption and confusion of that system and offering us all a clear way to be involved in generating alternatives.

The core of democracy can seem rotten on a daily basis. In NSW we are experiencing the logic of efficiency replace our democratically elected local councils with hand picked administrators; at a national scale the rigorous and peer reviewed selection systems of the Australia Council for the Arts replaced with private and closed deals to allocate arts funding; a federal election this year that seems void of political debate, despite global allegations of Australia’s human rights abuses. But these decisions are not made at the edges. At the edges, we keep meeting, questioning, tinkering, arguing, hacking and growing.

When the arts sector panicked at the cuts to funding in 2015, the seeds of Frontyard were sown. In just a few months, those involved found ourselves operating at the edge of the sector, ‘artists and non-artists’ we tried to explain on our tag lines, asking questions about the future that were generated by the contact of different intellectual and creative ecosystems.

Mapping Edges

Walking is always a good way to map edges. OAF’s Henare Degan walked into Frontyard the first day we were open to the public. We shared stories and a few weeks later, OAF was in residence in our GetaroomA.

I joined the community hackfest in April, hoping to try a bit of coding. Five minutes in, I realised that I had been too ambitious, and that, like any language, I would need to spend a lot of time on this one. As well as ‘scraping’, which I was prepared for, there was a lot of ‘cleaning up’, ‘forking’ and ‘cloning’, ‘pen testing’, and ‘installing bundles’, which made it clear I was a little out of my depth. So I logged into slackchat, and I watched and listened and marveled. I learned that ruby, which is also used for twitter, is magic and that pdfs are where good data goes to die. By 5pm, Henare was able to state that 8.5 million people could now access government data because of the day’s scraping improvements.

Away from the data hackers, in the ‘design’ room, I joined a group working on the redesign of the DA notices. The task was deceptively simple: to more clearly communicate a publicly displayed DA. That is what designer Pat Armstrong is doing in the picture below. But because of the way OAF works, and the culture of Hackfests, there were more questions than there were answers. Wrapped up in our decisions about wording, fonts, colours and borders, were a spectrum of questions about the role of the DA process in increasing the agency of residents to make decisions about their neighbourhoods. While it seemed like a good idea for DAs to be obvious and all information to be made as available as possible, considering the problem from multiple perspectives opened up the possibility that in doing so we could be shutting down diverse lifestyles, unconventional configurations of households, and creative alternatives to developer-led densification.

jane pat

After lunch, I took a small group on a walk I had done during my own Frontyard residency with Ilaria Vanni as Mapping Edges. The idea of Mapping Edges (#mappingedges) is to experiment with research methods, inspired by permaculture, and the possibilities of applying permaculture design principles to a variety of contexts, generating possibilities of intervention to create sustainable, abundant and stable systems.

kat

We found an abundance of food growing at the edges of residential blocks, in alleyways and verges, and on makeshift trellises. This urban farming presents physical evidence of communication between neighbours that may run much deeper than the reading of and responding to DA notices. How can these conversations be harnessed to generate a democratic system for development that is less adversarial and more generative? How can hacking and growing work together?

Along with dragon fruit, lemons, grapevines, olives and bananas, we found a strange looking plant and nobody from our little group knew what it was.

luffa-webluffa2

A week later, on another walk in another part of my neighbourhood, I found out it was luffa, also called the dishcloth gourd in Asia because they are used for scrubbing pots.

If I approach what happened that day through the lens of the eleventh permaculture design principle, which calls for an appreciation of the marginal and the edge, Frontyard and OAF make a lot of sense. As written elsewhere, the edge in permaculture is not a boundary on the periphery of a design, but a site of interconnection, hybridity and exchange, that produces adaptable and different possibilities.

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Prototyping better development notices at the OpenAustralia Hackfest

Last month, the OpenAustralia Foundation ran a Hackfest, at the end of their two week-long residency at Frontyard in Marrickville.

On the day, a group of us decided to take a look at the notices posted at properties with proposed development applications. You’ll have seen them before: they’re often bright green, tied to fences, and looking a bit worse-for-wear from the weather.

DAsOnExhibition

We started by reviewing a huge photo library of notices collected by Luke over several months. It was clear from the start that there was room for improvement: the proposed building changes were unclear from many of the notices, and there wasn’t a simple way to find out more information. In addition, many of the notices didn’t offer an obvious way for interested people to offer their view.

Matthew asked why it wouldn’t just be possible to have two big buttons next to a planning application notice, allowing passers-by to vote for or against it. The idea resonated and, whilst we didn’t have a spare Arduino to hand, we thought the idea of encouraging on-the-spot participation was worthwhile.

We had a look on PlanningAlerts and found a planning application for a property two blocks away. Naturally, we then took a walk around the neighbourhood to see what was going on, but a read of the notice did not leave us any wiser about the proposed changes. Returning back to Frontyard, we looked up the plans, and uncovered that the development would actually extend the house with an extra floor.

We decided to try prototyping a new development notice that would explain these changes in a clearer way. We added simplified diagrams to show the before and after state. We also added QR codes to allow passers-by to jump straight to registering their view online. Behind the scenes, we built a simple Ruby web application that tracks votes.

DANoticePrint

DAAppView

DAAppView2

We were really happy with where we got to by the end of the day. There’s a few ideas that would be great to explore further, like extending PlanningAlerts so that users can add extra information explaining the changes in an application, or making a service to let users print their own ‘alternative’ notices.

(As an aside, we tried to do a real test run, placing our new development notice alongside the existing one. Unfortunately, it didn’t last more than an hour.)

I enjoyed taking part in the Hackfest: it was great to work through these problems together with people from so many different backgrounds – artists, technologists and experts on democracy. There was a welcoming atmosphere and, best of all, we finished the day with some of Marrickville’s great Vietnamese food.

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Our response to the ‘Electronic voting in the House of Representatives’ Report

Report Response 1 - Report

Back in March, we submitted our views to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure’s inquiry into electronic voting. And their Final Report is out now!

Our submission outlined the benefits that electronic voting could bring by creating a fuller voting record, which increases accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, the Committee didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, the entire Final Report can be summarised by just one of its sentences:

“The House would not need to significantly change its practices and procedures in order implement electronic voting, if it did not wish to do so.” (paragraph 2.21)

And in case you’re wondering: no, the House does not wish to do so.

What were the Committee’s conclusions?

The Committee was Chaired by Liberal MP Andrew Southcott and followed on from an earlier 2013 inquiry into electronic voting chaired by former Labor MP Geoff Lyons. While that earlier inquiry concluded against introducing electronic voting, this inquiry supported it – so long as it didn’t change current voting procedure too much.

The Final Report concluded that if electronic voting were introduced:

  • the House should continue to physically divide to the left and right of the Chair during divisions (or formal votes);
  • there would not have to be any more divisions than normal; and
  • the Chair should keep the ability to stop a division when there are four or fewer MPs on either side (indeed, the Committee said in paragraph 3.5 that the Chair “must retain” that ability).

One of the “significant benefits of electronic voting” is the increased speed that results could be published (paragraph 2.12 to 2.16). However, keeping current voting procedure relatively unchanged means that any time saved by electronic voting would be modest (paragraphs 2.7 to 2.11).

What about our submission?

In our submission to this inquiry, the OpenAustralia Foundation proposed that electronic voting should be used by the House to ensure that all or most votes can be taken by division (which means they are officially recorded) rather than ‘on the voices’. We argued that this:

“will resolve a major gap in the current counting and reporting procedures by allowing the House to produce a fuller voting record. This record will be used by Australians to hold their MPs accountable, and will become an important historical record of MPs’ contribution to our democracy. Without this level of accountability, our democracy remains open to abuse by politicians who say one thing to their electorate but vote quite differently within Parliament.”

The Committee disagreed, concluding that:

“All decisions of the House, whether a division is called or not, are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings. Therefore the Committee considers that there is sufficient transparency for votes that are taken on the voices.” (paragraph 3.13)

What does “sufficient transparency” look like?

To find out what this “sufficient transparency” looks like,  I’ve decided to see if I can use Votes and Proceedings to find out how my MP voted on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015. The main idea of this bill was to remove the Australian citizenship of a dual national in certain situations, including if they fight for or serve a terrorist organisation (read more in the bills digest and ABC News). This marked a fundamental change in how citizenship was treated in our country and yet the bill passed through the House of Representatives without any divisions being recorded – all votes were ‘on the voices’.

When I enter the Votes and Proceedings website, I’m greeted with this screen of sitting dates:

Report Response 2 - Votes and Proceedings screen

So to use this site, I’ll first need to look up the date my bill was debated. Since I’ve been playing around on the Parliament’s website for a while now, I know that every bill has a homepage that includes the relevant dates. I find my bill’s homepage and see it was debated over four days in the House of Representatives. Since I’m interested in all the votes that may have happened on this bill, I start from the first day of debate. But it turns out that there were no votes until the fourth and final day. The entry in Votes and Proceedings about these votes looks like this:

Report Response 3 - The votes

Luckily for me, I speak almost fluent parliamentary jargon, so I know that this record means that three MPs shouted “NO!” when asked if they agreed with the bill’s main idea (known as giving the bill a second reading):

The House divided and only Mr Bandt, Ms McGowan and Mr Wilkie voting “No”, the Deputy Speaker (Mr Mitchell) declared the question resolved in the affirmative.

Those same three MPs then shouted “NO!” again when asked if the bill should be agreed to after being amended by the Government. The record does not say if anyone shouted “NO!” when asked if they wanted to pass the bill (which is known as giving the bill a third reading). This seems a little strange as I can’t see those three dissenting MPs suddenly shouting “AYE!” after all that previous objection. Did they give up at that point and say nothing?

My MP wasn’t one of those three dissenters, so I’m still no closer to finding out how they voted. With no list of who was in the Chamber when these votes ‘on the voices’ took place, I have no way of knowing whether my MP was even in the room! After all, our representatives’ attendance levels vary greatly: from 100% attendance to just 7.3% (Clive Palmer). Perhaps the Committee who wrote this Final Report on electronic voting believes that we have the time to sit and watch our MP in Parliament all day in a situation like this. Does that sound like “sufficient transparency” to you?

Two standards of transparency?

After concluding that “there is sufficient transparency for votes that are taken on the voices” (paragraph 3.13), the Committee then considered the importance of transparency for votes taken by division. They wrote:

“Votes taken by division are votes where there is significant dissent from the majority view of the House and it is of the upmost importance that there is transparency around these decisions. Electronic voting has the potential to further enhance the transparency of division results and their speed of publication.” (paragraph 3.14)

Does this mean that the Committee believe that transparency is only of great importance when there is “significant dissent” in the Chamber? And that, where there isn’t significant dissent, transparency only need be “sufficient”? If so, that would be troubling indeed. Not least because several of the most controversial bills in terms of public opinion attract very little dissent in the Chamber of the House of Representatives – like the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 mentioned above.

Other controversial votes that passed through the House of Representatives ‘on the voices’ (and therefore, without significant dissent), include:

Compare those issues to the following list which did generate enough dissent for the House to vote by division rather than ‘on the voices’:

We can’t see any clear difference in the level of importance between the two lists as both touch on important issues that should be debated.

So our question to the Standing Committee on Procedure is this: why aren’t all these subjects worthy of the same level of transparency?

Posted in OpenAustralia Foundation, They Vote For You | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
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