Does your street feel safe? Would you like to change something in your neighbourhood? Is there enough for young people to do?
All basic questions, but how many local councillors have the time to put these issues to their constituents? A new web app aims to make it easier for councillors and council officers to talk to residents – and it’s all based around a series of simple questions.
Now, just a year after VoXup was created in a north London pub, Camden Council is using it to consult residents on its budget proposals. One of VoXup’s creators, Peter Lewis, hit upon the idea after meeting an MP and being reminded of how hard it can be to get involved in decision-making.
“I asked him how I got involved in this kind of thing,” he recalls, “and his first answer was: ‘Which party do you want to join?’ That felt like the wrong answer. There ought to be a way of getting involved in what happens in your local area without immediately going for the jugular of party politics. “I had an idea to make this connection between people who live in a place and people who make decisions about that place, and to make taking part in that rewarding and relevant. It quickly became obvious that in order to do that, you had to provide a service that was not only for residents, but was also for local councillors.”
After reading a report that outlined just how much time local councillors spent on what is nominally part-time work, Lewis looked into building something that would be simple and quick to use. So VoXup works on a feedback loop. It shows people a list of statements about their local area, and they’re asked to agree or disagree. The feedback gets sent to local councillors, who can respond to each topic to anyone who’s asked for a response.
“That feedback loop is pretty much the only thing that VoXup does,” Lewis adds. “But that’s deliberate. We kept it lightweight and simple, and kept it about the local topics that motivate people.”
The first version of VoXup came to life in the Lord Stanley pub in Camden. “I spoke to one of my local councillors about it, and the very first version of VoXup was made up out of trips to the pub, bits of paper, text messages, that kind of thing,” he says. “I went to the pub with a sign that said ‘I will buy you a drink if you test this thing out for me’.”
That early experience gave Lewis and his colleagues, Padraic Calpin and Krishan Patel – all are or were students at London’s Imperial College – the confidence to approach accelerator programme Bethnal Green Ventures for funding, which helped VoXup grow.
“We began to get a few more users, so around that point we began speaking to council officers,” Lewis explains. “We then realised there were three players in this game- the residents, the councillors and council officers. And residents won’t really distinguish between councillors and council officers.
“For the officers, we wanted to allow them to do quick polls, to put a finger in the wind of opinion. There’s a quite a lot of stuff you can do when you get one piece of information on each topic – and you can track changes in opinion in response to different bits of news. So if I see dissatisfaction amongst residents and I make a change to my service, I can find out if things have gone better since then.”
One example Lewis cites is when residents in one ward were asked if they were satisfied with their access to a doctor. A GP surgery had recently closed, and locals weren’t happy. But a councillor saw the poll results, and made sure a development in the area included funding for a new surgery.
For many residents, Lewis adds, the real value of VoXup was less in getting the new surgery, but more in being kept informed about local decisions. And the more residents join VoXup, the better it is for councillors, who can sign up to the service without charge.
“Councillors tell us that in order for this to be a good use of their time, they need to be contacting tens of people when they log in and use it,” he says.
“To give you some idea, Camden’s cabinet member for finance responded to a few topics the other day. The session lasted 16 minutes, and he contacted 320 people. “If you’re a councillor – one of your jobs is not just making decisions, but managing the expectations of the people who live in your area. If you get to a point where there are a lot of people angry at being ignored, then it’s a systematic failure.”
Now VoXup is being used by Camden Council to engage with residents about its spending plans. “They’ve got to cut a lot of money and they want to know which services people would prioritise,” Lewis explains. “So we’ve created a custom community, and most popular topics have got about 200 votes. About 650 people have taken part at some level, and it’s only just begun. We’ve seen a lot of activity – of the people who look at the web page, almost half give an opinion on something.”
'No need for smartphone app'
What does the future hold for VoXup? Lewis, who is working on the project full-time, says one thing the team won’t be doing is building a smartphone app. “One of the things we thought about doing was creating a mobile app, but that’s been really unnecessary - we built VoXup as a responsive web app,” he says.
“If there’s one tip I can give – don’t build an app, there’s really no need.” Instead, the team will be looking to further embed their work in Camden’s communities. “We’re working on real life components – putting tablets in libraries, showing new activity as it comes along, to finish hooking into real life services,” he says.
“We just want to show people there’s some activity in their area. Being aware that things are being discussed is probably more than a lot of people get. “We found some residents’ associations said we can’t replace what they do. Of course we can’t, but we can provide something that runs in parallel with them.”