Simon Willison’s Weblog


Hacking the political system

17th February 2004

Danny O’Brien has a fascinating post up about the nature of hacking and how to game entrenched political systems. It’s all worth reading, but the part about how Fax Your MP was created as a deliberate political hack in particular caught my attention. I’ve long been a fan of Fax Your MP and it’s really interesting to see some of the ideas behind the system explained:

We crafted FYMP explicitly as a hack on the political system. It’s aesthetics and techniques are drawn directly from the hacking tradition (in the sense of the Jargon File, not the sense of the computer cracker of course). FaxYourMP provides something which some (by no means all, but some) MPs really don’t want—a low-cost way of hassling your elected representative.

It’s really hard to object to this, because the rules of the game state that MPs represent their constituents. Over time, other forces—party political and the media mainly—have bypassed those rules so that some MPs do very little constituent tending. This is a gaming that has been very hard to stop. Bad MPs have a lot of excellent techniques for avoiding their constituents. Some are just inaccessible. Some have a great excuse that they try to meet with their constituents, but those apathetic buggers simply refuse to turn up to the surgeries.


By setting up the fax gateway—a dirt cheap tech fix, we took those excuses away, and didn’t provide any new ones. We tried to rig the forces that broke the MP/constituent link to work for us. When a fax machine doesn’t work, it’s not us that has to fix it. It’s the whip’s office, who need to keep in touch with their MP. When MPs don’t reply to faxes, we don’t do anything. We just alter the public statistics, which the press read and respond to.

But best of all, it’s really hard for people to complain about our existence, because we’re working within the rules of the game. In fact, people now think we’re *part* of the rules of the game. A sizeable minority of people using FYMP think we’re a government service, and get angry at us when they’re MP doesn’t reply.

This is Hacking the political system by Simon Willison, posted on 17th February 2004.

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