HMRC Self Assessment tax return

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A guest post from Patrick Olszowski (Civility.me.uk) on rapid response political campaigning using Change.org and social media.


A couple of weeks ago the taxman/woman, aka Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, aka HMRC (enough!) trailed plans to sell tax data to corporates.

While this was actually not a new plan (it had been part of a prior consultation that none but the most ardent tax justice campaigners had been aware of), the news was enough to make one man very angry; a man who was still wearing his pyjamas and who bears a striking resemblance to me.

Given the government’s shambolic track record with data, private sector collaboration and the inability to ensure even anonymous data is actually anonymous (http://33bits.org/about/netflix-paper-home-page/) I knew this was a bad plan.

So before getting out of bed I decided to launch an online petition to at least say “hey, not in my name”.

While the campaign is far from won, and is in fact part of a wider struggle that has been waged by data campaigners and tax justice campaigners over a long time, this skirmish has gone from just me to over 150,000 people.

Along the way I have learnt some good and bad lessons which may help you.

Although I remain deeply sceptical about the ability of large online movements to translate in to actual change on the ground, I decided to start the petition on Change.org.

While this had many benefits, including a recognizable campaigning brand, looking back lesson 1) it is important to consider if you need to be able to contact people beyond the end of the petition.

As a platform Change allows me, as the petition creator, to contact signees with regards to this campaign, but the functionality is not great. I also can’t download their emails and therefore this is poor for building a longer-term movement, except for the platform itself.

Now before you say it, given the subject itself it DOES seem wrong to think I might want to get people’s emails address, but people who sign up to a petition about this issue, could be wonderful campaigners and fundraisers for the future, assuming they are explicitly asked to opt-in.

So lesson 2) ask, at the outset, whether you can keep in touch with people about the topic you are campaigning on, beyond just the tactical activity you want them involved in (ie a petition).

Within 2 hours of launch approximately 100 people had joined the petition, driven mostly by contacting people via Twitter searching for the terms “tax justice” and “HMRC” and then mentioning the petition to them.

At the same time, one of the wonderful Twits contacted me and said “we need a good hashtag” and then came up with “#flogitHMRC”. Simple and very good.

So lesson 3) come up with a memorable #tag and use Twitter to find new supporters.

Twitter also led to other spin off benefits. The owner of this blog, gave me a free domain name he wasn’t using (thanks). Another person helped me set up a Facebook page (thanks) and many established tax justice campaigners offered advice and chats in the real world (thanks).

This is their day to day reality, which I stumbled on to, and really worth following @Naomi_Fowler, @RichardJMurphy and @TaxJusticeNet.

Through Twitter, I also found a number of fab bloggers like Wendy (the author of #flogitHMRC, a person of many talents) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20448.

So lesson 4) don’t just ask people to retweet or tweet, if you need extra help, ask and the twitterverse may provide.

Given how small my personal network is I knew I needed to get to on board some bigger allies, and fast. On the first day, I was contacted by www.openrightsgroup.org (ORG) a talented team concerned with digital rights and civil liberties.

One downside of my anxiety to get on with it, particularly given the “hook” of the breaking news event, was that I didn’t ask around before launching my petition.  It turned out that ORG wanted to also do something on this issue and I already had people signing up to “my petition”.

After some discussions, we agreed we would collaborate and use virtually the same text for the petition, and do a joint handin, across the Change.org platform and their own hosted site.  So lesson 5) look to partner up as quickly as possible and if possible launch just one petition or action, ideally on a site that is self hosted.

This collaboration was made significantly easier as ORG and I had previously collaborated and so lesson 6) is that the strength of real world relationships make possible the best online collaborations, particularly where time is of the essence; so get off the internet, meet people and work together to change the world.

As #flogitHMRC got going, 38 Degrees also came on board – and to date, over 150,000 people support the campaign between them, Open Rights Group and my initial Change one (supported by 500 people – all wonderful).

So my final lesson is don’t be too precious, campaigning is about pushing for the win not about credit!

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I have been making and marketing websites for 15 years. Love coffee, politics, web design, SEO and social media. Read more on my about page.

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