Editing History

The Public deserve transparency and accountability for edits made to The Government of Jersey's website. Posted 27 September 2020

You can easily view a log of edits made to public web pages on popular websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Stack Exchange, and many more. Responsible news outlets usually include a brief message summarising edits or corrections made to a story after publication. This transparency breeds trust because edits are proactively brought to your attention. It is such an important tool for accountability that third-parties began tracking mainstream media edits independently.

I sent the below essay about a recent incident involving the Constable of Saint Saviour to the local paper’s opinions page but they did not print it. In 2020 we are all publishers now, and I think my idea definitely has merit, so here it is direct from the source. I think there is a much bigger story here and that it will continue to fester until the public interest is recognised.

Is the Constable making this story up? I believe her, but if she got the facts wrong (or simply made an honest mistake) then voters deserve to know.

Is the Constable telling the truth? If so, a sneaky edit was made to a public data set which influenced an elected politician’s decision, and this cannot be tolerated. This is called regulatory capture and it is unacceptable.

Anyhow, here is my 400 word essay and I welcome any comments or criticism.

Editing History

In the Technology sector we keep version histories for important computer code, since code is just specially formatted text files. We do this to track all edits and to troubleshoot bugs that occur when new sections of code are introduced.

We need this for the Government of Jersey website.

Many popular websites already do this. A public edit history exists for Wikipedia and the Stack Exchange network. Readers have a link on every page to reveal the complete history of that page. If someone uses a Palace of Westminster computer to edit a Wikipedia page telling readers what a great job the Prime Minister is doing, that edit history is relevant and provides context.

Why should we do the same? I have plenty examples, but the best one yet is when Constable of St Lawrence warned that plans for the new hospital “were quietly amended on the government website, and only addressed by officials when picked up by the media”. That really should not be possible. If the content on the Government of Jersey website is to be trusted, we cannot tolerate that sort of sneakiness.

If I can visit Wikipedia and see what changed, and who made the edits, why can’t Constables do this on www.gov.je? Why can’t you? The answer is that the website lacks transparency. It is not a trustworthy source of information, but it could be.

Adding an edit log to important pages benefits the public, and also protects the Government from any false allegations about political meddling.

Politicians love being able to edit facts. Last year Donald Trump held up a map showing the predicted path of a hurricane. “Someone” had taken a pen and crudely drawn a wider path of destruction to match the President’s earlier misstatement, which was not backed by science. He and the map were widely ridiculed because it was so easy for anyone to spot the edits while he continued to deny that he had misspoken.

Transparency breeds trust. I use the Government of Jersey website frequently and I want to be able to trust what I read there. I think the team managing the website are first rate and they should be immune from political meddling (that’s what the Communications team are for).

The Government of Jersey already use version control software for parts of their website but not the whole thing. Time to change that and go all in.