Why technologists should join Which? (or what I learned failing to stand for election)

Richard Pope,

Earlier this year Nicola and I decided to move house. After 10 years on Electric Avenue we've moved to suburban West Norwood.

Mostly driven by the inevitable white goods purchases that go with moving home, I decided to join Which? AKA The Consumers' Association. It turns out that it's also a pretty interesting organisation.

The idea of a new organisation to advise consumers was originally proposed by a Labour Party researcher called Michael Young (who was also responsible for drafting the 1945 manifesto and helping found the Open University, AKA 'University of the Air').

The idea didn't make the cut of the 1950 manifesto, but it lived on and Which? ended up being published from a garage in Bethnal Green in 1957.

It's aim was to help citizens navigate the rapidly changing, relatively new and occasionally dodgy market and marketing of consumer goods.

History aside, I mostly joined for the cooker reviews. The do proper standardised physical tests of the sort that are never going to feature in an Amazon product review: things like test how equally toast browns or if your fridge will stay cold on a hot day.

As part of membership you get the monthly magazine. Flicking through it, the lack of reviews for digital services and issues about privacy/trust really jumped out at me.

They do reviews of tablets and phones, but they are mostly about build quality and value for money, but again, not really about trust of those devices. Are they full of security holes? How quickly are bugs fixed? Are the privacy settings understandable by an average user? How many dark-patterns do they use? Is the cryptography going to see off a casual hacker? How good is the data protection policy?

These issues are the modern equivalent to the 'sharp trading practices' of the post-war years that Which? set out to expose, but what institutions are there to look out for the average consumer of today's digital services?

Luckily, this seems to be an issue that Which? have recognised. A few months ago the magazine published a call to members to stand for the 'Which? Council' (the management body of the charity) and specifically asked for members who have experience of digital to stand for election.

I decided to try and stand for election, but party due to moving house, partly because the process is quite complex, I failed to see the process through to the end.

However, there remains a real opportunity to help an organisation, that is trusted by citizens, make digital services better. So, below below is what I learned about the process in the hope that developers, digital policy professionals and designers will consider engaging with the organisation and hopefully voting in or standing for election next year.

How to stand to become a member of Which? / stand for election to the Council

  1. Join Which?. This makes you an 'Associate Member'. You get the magazine and can access reviews online.

  2. Once you are a member of Which? you then need to apply to become an 'Ordinary Member of the Consumer Association' (the official name of the charity). This means you can nominate others for election, vote, attend the AGM and stand for election. To become an 'Ordinary Member' you need to print and complete this form (PDF) and send it to: Company Secretary (Council Nominations), Which?, 2 Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DF. (note: your details will be kept on a public-ish register of members and may be made available to other members)

  3. To stand for election, you need to email councilelection@which.co.uk. The Company Secretariat team will then send you a 'candidate information form' (basically your CV for the election) and a nomination form.

  4. You need to find 5 other 'Ordinary Members' to nominate you. There are apparently about 8,600 Ordinary Members, and the secretariat posted me a print-out of the contact details of the 30 or so who live in South West London, I guess so I could visit them to ask for a nomination.

  5. The original forms must be returned before the AGM (which happens in the Autumn). Any ordinary members that attend the AGM can vote for a Council Member, as well as any changes to the constitution.