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VoteWatch and VoteMatch

Monday, May 11th, 2009 at 11:37 pm Written by:

We both exist to promote a new culture of informed political interest and responsibility – paving the way for increased enthusiastic public participation. — an infuriating email response from VoteMatch

This is a story about VoteMatch and VoteWatch, both launched onto the unsuspecting public today 11 May 2009, backed by two different wholly unethical global PR firms (both owned by the same Wire and Plastic Products group), and coded by two entirely different European NGOs — both called IPP.

This is all very confusing, so it’s likely I have some facts wrong. I am, after all, just a blogger, and no one’s going to read post this except for historical interest.

These two projects are not to be confused with VoteWise, a well-meaning website by two citizens who don’t yet believe that the system wants to be broken, or EUprofiler, a rival vote matching site that comes out of a different part of the Netherlands whose shallow information services I discussed during the Israeli election.

There is a dire need for effective information architecture to connect citizens (particularly those who vote) to the decision-making processes in Government so that opinions are not entirely mediated by an unreliable press who often cooperate (and hide) well-managed and unethical PR compaigns.

The usual suspects, including myself and other mySociety affiliates, have been building such information systems (and solving the deep technical problems) with little or no financial, institutional or publicity-related backing for over five years now. It’s tiring and frustrating.

In a functioning democracy help would have come from one of the following sources to either substantially support the work, or consult, engage and seek endorsement for carrying the project forwards. Unfortunately, every avenue has failed:

  • government institutions – usually responsible for publishing the data in an obfuscated form in the first place at great expense using inappropriate technologies and not seeming to care about the inadequacy. Refer to the stories from last week to realize this prerogative.
  • philanthropic foundations – very stingy when it comes to web technology, and tend to heavily favour those with the skills and connections to fill in good grant applications, but can’t code, while ignoring those who can code but cannot work their tortuous grant processes. They need to either hire head-hunters, or insist that their lazy beneficiaries collaborate with those who align with the objective but can’t buck the system.
  • universities – now virtually devoid of any public interest ethos, staffed by ambitious academics who wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t one of their paying students. These staff are often very keen on writing dead tree books, and would like those who advocate for dynamic web-systems for presenting same data to piss off and die — or simply buy their book and shut up.
  • the press – incompetent, disinterested, and prone to blowing all their money and enthusiasm on stupid football porn, and blowing people like us off repeatedly to the point where we’re not going to bother with them any more.
  • celebrity endorsements – PR firms know this works, which is why they pay them to endorse products and front their launch events. Just one loud-mouth with a column in a daily paper could, for example, tell our story, raise our profile and make it cool enough to increase our success rates with the above institutions, but you didn’t did you, Mr. Doctorow.

So the field of internet-informed democracy remains wide open for some dangerously evil PR firm to move in and wreak serious and sustained damage to the information systems.


The PublicWhip team email was sent the following press release on 28 April 2009 from an over-funded organization I know nothing about called UnlockDemocracy:

This year, we have worked with WPP, Hill & Knowlton and Apple to create an application that will look and feel very smart and very share-able.

Our launch is of course a chance to be one of the first to play with Vote Match (and check that you really do work for the right party.) but it is also our chance to open an engaged energetic conversation on how modern politics can use modern communications technology to engage new audiences.

We expect high press coverage – and would welcome your involvement.

It promised to be a really interesting group of people – with representatives from the Taxi Drivers Association through to party politicians and new media companies like facebook and spotify. I hope it will be excellent opportunity for you to find out more about the application, represent your users among the invited audience – and gain momentum from our publicity.

The launch is 6pm Monday May 11th – at the very sleek Apple Store on Regents Street. I really look forward to hearing whether you’ll be able to join us.

The launch was fronted by Stephen Fry (a celebrity who twittered the wrong URL), and seems exactly the same as the the 2008 votematch for the London Mayoral elections: some kind of StemWijzer voting indication tool “pioneered by the Dutch Centre for Political Participation (IPP)” that’s over five years old.

The current website is a bit broken. It also links to the very similar site with a different set of questions. I have no idea what could be going on here.

This site, and many like it, has no objective, no educational value, no links (for example) to the official party web-pages, no connection to the political infrastructure, no stimulation of debate, and shows no evidence of development and evolution towards achieving a result. It’s a thorough waste of time.

Hill&Knowlton, famous for the massive deception of the US Congress and the public with the Nurse Nayirah case (for which it has never been prosecuted), are presently incompetent in this area, but it’s no surprise:


In the meantime they’re not a threat; they’re too unimaginative and without any vision.

On the other hand …


I saw and heard of VoteWatch for the first time last week during the FarmSubsidy Open Data Summit when Sara Hagermann came into the room and demonstrated it.

From what I can gather, this seems to have been coded during the past year by the Institute for Public Policy (IPP), a Romanian NGO.that has nothing to do with the Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek (IPP) in the Netherlands, and it’s a major piece of work.

In a letter she wrote last December, she explained:

Our VoteWatchEU project will provide updated information on all 785 MEPs’ voting records, presenting details on how they have voted within various policy areas…

All of this happens on the basis of a multi-sponsor approach, whereby a network of interests and expertise provide the necessary professional input to develop a highly sophisticated website and related activities….

It is by giving the citizens a choice between representatives of different political platforms that interest can be generated in any political system.

The other co-founder of VoteWatchEU is Professor Simon Hix, who works in the London School of Economics and has been palling around with Hell’s Public Relations firm Burson-Masteller since at least 2004.

Clearly, it’s wealthy benefactors like this which these university fellows turned to in order put their expertise towards refloating an earlier IPP (Romania) EU Vote Watch project that had closed due to lack of funds when none of the aforementioned legitimate institutions (government agencies, educational establishments, philanthropists, celebrity publicists, or the press) had taken an interest.

The other two benefactors of the project are, a flashy full spectrum political campaign managing software system, and Open Society Institute. George Soros’s fund (about which I know nothing).

Francis reports meeting with Professor Hix in 2004 to talk about the cluster maps on Public Whip, but nothing since then. There are a lot of good new ideas for finding, visualizing and analysing voting data that we’ve come up with in the last five years, so it’s a shame he never had any time to talk to us and pick them up and do something better than produce lots of huge tables of numbers no one knows how to read.

But anyway, the designs will get better with sufficient funding and work and humility.

What won’t get better is the damage that can be caused by the involvement of a PR firm with a long history manipulating public opinion so that it acts against its own interests by using fake front groups and illegitimate access to the press. Such a business shouldn’t be allowed within a million miles of this project. They will turn the on-line situation to one that is as screwed as American TV network news for informing the public.

Here’s a statement from the CEO in 2003:

Question: There is much talk about integrated communication PR/PA. Is this the latest hype or a sustainable trend? Will it have an impact on the consulting industry structure?

Jeremy Galbraith, CEO, Burson-Marsteller Brussels: We have been doing this for years – probably since we arrived in Brussels in 1965. It is obvious that there are numerous communications tools that can be used to influence the public policy debate. Direct lobbying is one way but so is getting the FT – or even EurActiv – to write about a particular issue. Mobilising third parties to take a case to politicians or officials is core to much of what we do at Burson-Marsteller and can be so much more effective than direct lobbying. Internet campaigning is increasingly important as a mechanism for influencing debates.

So that clearifies their available tactics.

Just imagine what’s going to happen.

All the academics and politicians are going to be happy that the private sector has funded this piece of poilitical infrastructure, and maybe it’ll even be unbiased and trustworthy. But there’s power there that goes beyond simply having this tool acting as a beacon of prestige.

Let me explain.

In the time we’ve run PublicWhip (our similar site) we’ve used it to host campaigns against the European software patent directive (an existential threat to the free software we depend on), the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (which would have made Parliamentary voting pretty irrelevant and was intended to ease the passage of wonderful things like further financial deregulation), and the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — about whose purpose and voting procedures MPs were lying about (and we now know why).

I’ve also used it to test for feedback when delivering leaflets that had a unique webaddress on them to determin the result.

Polling and feedback are essential for PR operatives to guide their microsurgical instruments of social engineering and rumour-mongering into the body politic. Like any surgeon, they need to see what they are doing. Can you imagine how valuable this information is: the precise timing and referrers of the thousands of hits on the Gurkha settlement rights Parliamentary vote page, for example, which they could synchronize precisely with known PR actions in order to determine which ones are uniquely effective? (Hint: It’s the celebrity endorsement.)

We won’t stand a chance. Just as we don’t stand a chance against the network news when it is determined to lie.

We’ll continue to be screwed on so many levels, from unnecessary poisoning by bromine products and killer medical implants, to war and existential threats to the species.

This business has proven to have no scruples, no morals, no ethics and no limits. They do not care how many people die as a result of their work. They do it for money; the kind of money you can’t afford unless you get a serious return on investment at a level that rarely occurs on the side of justice.

In ten or twenty years time, when this whole political internet thing is sorted out, and they are systematically misusing the power at the crux of the citizen-governance information systems to be more evil than even I can imagine, there will no doubt be philanthropic donations to academics and investigative reporters for looking into the resulting democratic crisis in a manner that in no way reflects on their institutions’ failure to occupy this space with something more legitimate, when they had the chance, when it was still vacant.

And, in the meantime, politicians will be able to dismiss any and all political pressures from the public that in any way appear to be informed on the details as just some fixed up behind-the-scenes PR campaign — even when it is not — except in the case of conveniently selected issues where friends employed by one of these firms has asked them to choose not to ignore it.

The internet still has made no improvement to democratic politics — a field of human endeavour that is all about knowledge and conflicting views of reality usually based on false information. When is someone with influence going to realize that this is outrageous? It cannot go on.


  • 1. James Graham replies at 12th May 2009, 4:59 pm :

    I think you fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between Hill and Knowlton and Unlock Democracy.

    Vote Match is run by Unlock Democracy. It does not receive a pennty from H&K and never has. We are hiring them to help us publicise the tool and thus far – appearing on Newsnight yesterday for example – they are earning their keep.

    But they can’t claim credit for the Apple/Stephen Fry launch. All credit for that goes to our marketing officer, Ella, who is working on a voluntary basis (and no, she doesn’t work for H&K as her day job).

    As for it being an over funded organisation AND the project being a “bit broken” – I will plead guilty to the latter and dispute the former.

    It isn’t yet fully functional because I was getting a working version up and running in time for the launch. It was a struggle because we effectively have one person doing this – i.e. me. And if we were fully funded, we wouldn’t have had to lose a member of staff earlier in the year. In turn, that would have meant I would have had more time, which means the website would have a little more functionality right now.

    But I’m sure you don’t want to hear my problems. All I’m saying right now is that you can’t have it both ways (oh, and we publish our accounts if you’re really interested). What I’m most intrigued by is all this language about “threats” – if the website was absolutely perfect, why do you think it would be a “threat”? Who to exactly?

  • 2. Topics about Street-art &&hellip replies at 13th May 2009, 7:19 am :

    […] Kriel, Lize created an interesting post today on VoteWatch and VoteMatchHere’s a short outline6pm Monday May 11th – at the very sleek Apple Store on Regents Street. … with Professor Hix in 2004 to talk about the cluster maps on Public Whip […]

  • 3. Julian replies at 15th May 2009, 10:48 am :

    It was completely careless of me not to find the funding page for unlockdemocracy.

    I am glad I have finally got your attention.

    I explained at length above (and possibly too rambly) how controlling the perfect website gives a lot of power — like google controlling the search engine. There is immense scope for misuse, and the companies involved have a distinguished record for it.

    I don’t have time to be kind right now, but I can explain that your votematch website is wrong and broken in so many ways. To me it would merely be an irritation if you weren’t so good at doing PR.

    There are lots of people I know (who can be found on the mysociety public list, which you should join) who are at the cutting edge of this type of software, but suck at PR.

    You need to make time to track them down and find out how to work with them instead of buying in same old defective crap from IPP and the rest.

    If you do not do this, and I find you are launching this same votematch thing at the next UK general election — with lots of PR and celebrities — I will cancel whatever I am doing, come down to your launch party, and throw bricks at it. I guarentee that neither of us will enjoy the experience.

    There are too few resources to waste in this area without a concerted and real effort at some level of collaboration.

    If you are unable find any contacts, I can forward them to you.

  • 4. Peter Facey replies at 22nd May 2009, 2:26 pm :

    Dear Julian

    The present version of was built in house and did not involve IPP directly in the software development, though the methodology for developing the questions we use is theirs.

    When we were trying to develop our own software we did approach My Society and were told that we could hire them to develop it, but that it was not an idea they were interested in. we have the greatest respect for My Society which is why we sort to collaborate with them.

    We did not have the money to develop the tool on a strictly comercial basis and decided to do it in house.

    We are keen to work with anyone who can help make the tool better, though i think we have done a better job than you seem to think. We have a number of ideas of how to make it better for the General Election (but yes we will run it again), but urgently need more capacity so any volunteers would be welcome.

    As for good PR, on behalf of our team thanks for the compliment.

  • 5. Julian Todd replies at 23rd May 2009, 8:27 am :

    There are a lot of levels between contractual commercial basis, and total disconnect — like circulating the app among volunteers like me and inviting comments on it.

    I can see this has been done in a hurry, with substantial improvements occurring after the launch event. For approx £30k received from the JRRT for it, it is quite poor.

    One obvious critique is to point out that it is a cul-de-sac. You don’t even have any links to the parties of choice. At the very least you should point voters to it and say, “if you support this party, consider volunteering for them or donating to them.”

    The debatewise pages are totally flawed. If a single user contributes to them, I will be very surprised. Clearly they should be linked or embedded in the place the question is posed — not after 30 other questions have been rattled through which mask any thoughts+feelings you had.

    Basically, this site appears to have no objective other than to get used for its own sake. What are its objectives? Do you believe that if this site gained a million hits it could still have hypothetically failed?

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