Reviewing public services online

Chris Adams says that there are problems with reviewing public services online because the technical

This month, MySociety released the latest metrics from writetothem.com, a civic engagement tool designed to make it easier for constituents to raise issues with their MP. As ever, the stats make for fascinating reading, if not least because they give a glimpse of what accountability in a networked democracy might look like.

There are league tables, metrics on how good MPs are at responding to issues raised, and even graphs showing how well MPs are doing compared to the same time last year. From writetothem.com, visitors can easily jump to a sister site, theyworkforyou.com, to see how the people they elect have voted in the houses too, and what they've been saying in parliamentary debates on their behalf.

In short, there's ample scope for scrutiny here and further analysis, and this level of transparency is a high benchmark for other services in the public sector. MySociety rightly advise caution about what deductions can be drawn from their metrics, and the data they collect is resolutely quantitative -- how many letters are written for the first time, what percentage of those writing hear back from the MP within three weeks, or how many letters are written.

Other services use a more qualitative approach for providing feedback. Patient Opinion serves to shine a light on the treatment of patients in NHS trusts, letting them write reviews of their visit on a website and, after moderation, display them online. Ratemyteachers.co.uk allows pupils and parents to grade a teacher's performance. And in America ratemycop.com is attempting to let the public rate their interactions with individual police officers. One of the projects winning funding at Social Innovation Camp was a project to let families rate how well their prison visit was managed.

All of these services above use an initial 'user review' model for public services, much like that of amazon.com - what they do with the reviews varies from site to site. As the technical barriers to creating direct feedback mechanisms get lower, the challenge is to find an elegant solution to make that feedback as valuable as possible and ensure it is submitted in a way that doesn't cause unnecessary harm.

Simply mapping a five star rating system onto complex social interactions is a seductive idea, because it's easy to pull out stats from data like this, and give a veneer of objectivity when presenting for funding or support. But if the initial process of collecting feedback isn't thought through well enough, the data ends up being meaningless, and more importantly, useless for informing any kind of social change.

To use the old programming adage - garbage in, garbage out.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.