back to article Improbable: YOU gave model Lily Cole £200k for her whimsy-site

Why is the UK taxpayer funding a millionaire supermodel and actress to build a website that replicates the "Help Needed" pages of Craigslist and Freecycle? Using information gleaned from Freedom of Information requests, we’ve attempted to find out. The model and actress Lily Luahana Cole, a Cambridge University art history …


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  1. Valeyard

    so much rubbish

    I read that Guardian article you linked to before. It's a typical example of saying words for the sake of saying words, none of which mean anything when said in succession.

    Managers are awesome at it and don't realise we all know they're trying to sound smart about something that is either rubbish or that they know nothing about.

    1. Jim 59

      Re: so much rubbish

      @Vakeyard - couldn't agree more about management speak, and every adult who indulges in it needs a bucket of water over the head.

      Lily Cole deserves slightly more understanding though. She is only 26 and does not write for a living. She is never going to sound like Walt Whitman. Ditto other youngsters who have been accused of vacuous writings eg Peaches Geldof. She was 19, brought up in a millionaire celebrity bubble and some fools lacerated her for not being Earnest Hemmingway

      1. NumptyScrub

        Re: so much rubbish

        quote: "Lily Cole deserves slightly more understanding though. She is only 26 and does not write for a living. She is never going to sound like Walt Whitman. Ditto other youngsters who have been accused of vacuous writings eg Peaches Geldof. She was 19, brought up in a millionaire celebrity bubble and some fools lacerated her for not being Earnest Hemmingway"

        Both of those examples are good, however it still doesn't explain why a professional publication would employ someone so demonstrably unskilled at writing to write for them. Think of the rebukes as being aimed at the person who hired them for these positions. Did they not ask for demonstrations of work prior to offering them the role, or was the glare of "celebrity" so great that it eclipsed any requirement for basic writing skills? Because that is what these people are actually griping about, that someone so obviously unsuited for the role has apparently been chosen due to factors unrelated to their capabilities.

        It's like hiring programmers because of their cup size or previous modelling work, rather than competence with programming languages. The output is going to be substandard and as a manager, you should expect to get called on it pretty damn quickly.

  2. midcapwarrior

    Always feel better about my own government waste, fraud and abuse when I see what you Brits spend your tax dollars on.

    1. The Axe

      All governments waste money, that's why it's stupid to keep on paying taxes when its spent so inefficiently. Better to give direct to business that will provide a similar service or proper charities. I say proper ones, not fake charties that are basically extensions of the government. Many of these fake charities also lobby the governemnt behind their smoke screen of "charity".

    2. billse10


      In a country where a subway driver can fail to provide a breath sample for intoxication testing, and yet the tube unions can claim drivers are necessary for passenger safety and driverless trains are dangerous, not very much is that surprising any more.

      As I said, :(

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: :(

        Thankfully the driver was arrested and the offence is being investigated. If guilty he will probably lose his job and quite right too.

        Not sure how you link the story to the union safety concerns though, after all it was a colleague who reported him in the first place.

    3. Professor Clifton Shallot

      Which government is that? Are you sure it isn't equally absurd but less well monitored and reported upon?

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail'

    "It is also reasonable to ask if an unknown working class teenager in the North of England would receive the same red carpet"

    ....Amen to that!

    1. apr1985

      Re: 'If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail'

      See reg article

      Where a uk techs attempts in touch screen technology (before the iphone came out) were stunted by Nesta not giving money, maybe he should have put Lilly Coles name on his application.....

    2. Richard 120

      Re: 'If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail'

      To be honest they'd probably spend a lot of it on drinking and partying, I know I would have.

      I'm not entirely sure whether or not that's actually a better deal for the taxpayer, I don't think there's that much in it.

    3. Jim 59

      Re: 'If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail'

      They probably gave her the dosh because the "Impossible" enterprise was not intended to enrich her personally. By associating her name and brand with the project (for free), she hoped to promote the cause. I am not going to pee on her charitable enterprise, though the cabinet should obviously check for similar existing serviced first (they did Freecycle no favours).

      The main thing highlighted by this article is that the Cabinet Office itself is worthy of several special investigations.

    4. asdf

      Re: 'If you're a millionaire, you literally can't fail'

      Hmm did David Cameron ride her horse as well?

  4. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    The words of Trillian ring true

    "I don't know about impossible but it's very, very improbable."

    In fact, it is so improbable I think they must have hooked up the logic circuitry of a Bambleweeny 57 sub-meson brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian motion generator to get this far.

    I'm of to get a really hot cup of tea

  5. Dr Stephen Jones

    Is this a practical joke?

    I keep expecting Chris Morris to appear in explaining that "It's all been a joke." The entire Innovation in Giving Fund was created for a new series of Brass Eye.

    If any of this is real then the UK is in deeper shit than anyone thought.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Is this a practical joke?

      It isn't and it's not just the UK.

      Patronage and connections is the order of the day and has been for decades now.

  6. Bonce

    I can't be bothered to visit the site to post this, but...

    "I wish public money hadn't been used to fund"

    1. Jacksonville

      Re: I can't be bothered to visit the site to post this, but...

      Well - I did and I registered to leave my wish...

      I'd like to now unregister, please. Oh, I can't...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I can't be bothered to visit the site to post this, but...

      I actually did do that a couple months back when Bong posted about it. Never went back to check on progress though.

  7. Dr Dre

    Tip of the iceberg

    This is almost certainly not the worst waste of public money that is happening,but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth when a millionaire is given £200k of public money, to set up a website for which there appeared to be no demand, and if there was a demand, it could have been done for £200. It's not as if it needs to be hosted anywhere with a lot of bandwidth. Someone's bedroom on ADSL would seem to be plenty.

    This needs to be seen against the background of disabled people being made homeless because they had a spare bedroom, of the same people being told they are well enough to work (including a friend of mine who died of terminal cancer 3 days after the letter telling him he was well enough to work was written), of cuts to the NHS, cuts in roads, education and just about everywhere you might need a service from the government. The only place not being cut is the government and their immediate support network. We are really not all in this together are we.

    1. AbelSoul

      Re: Tip of the iceberg

      £200k of public money, to set up a website for which there appeared to be no demand, and if there was a demand, it could have been done for £200

      And £200 that she could easily have found herself if she thought it was so important and worthwhile.

  8. Code Monkey

    I wish ...

    I wish UK govt had spent this money on nurses or something.

  9. Chris Miller

    I know I've posted it before, but

    A charity that gets most of its funding from government is no more a charity than a prostitute is your girlfriend. Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes)

  10. Richard Taylor 2

    I have

    both reviewed and been an 'associate' (read my organisation has a joint programme - deal with it) with NESTA in the past. They do some very interesting stuff, BUT, far too much in the past was driven by individual ministerial interests, and far too much relies on the impact projects will have on their management layers. Charity allows no FOI - wonderful and a way to avoid past excesses.

    1. Benjol

      Re: I have

      "a way to avoid revealing past excesses"?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe the money buys them a chunk and they're hoping for another twitter or WhatsApp. Meantime it's jobs for the boys and keeps a bunch of 'new media gurus' busy writing carefully-faked 'wish' posts and not out in the real world irritating everybody. What's not to like?

  12. 's water music

    I wish...

    ...that someone would develop a stupid fucking website that I can spunk meaningless drivel onto. I would gladly see some of my tax money diverted from essential services to support development of such a service.

    I thought it was my lucky day but I tried and it doesn't fucking work in Chrome 33 or IE9 on Windows 7 FFS.

    I anyone knows of an alternative I would be much obliged.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I wish...

      how about the comments on the register - you're doing great so far!

    2. Chris Harden

      Re: I wish... (But I think you have to pass some kind of test called a 'Job Interview' before you get to post on this one properly)

  13. Shonko Kid

    "Even following very heavy media promotion"

    First I've EVER heard of it.

    PR money well spent then eh?

    1. Gregory Kohs

      Re: "Even following very heavy media promotion"

      Well, consider that the PR firm was Freud Communications. That's the employer of Kate Garvey, who is Jimmy Wales' (third) spouse. Jimmy Wales was fully on this bandwagon as soon as he heard state money could be garnered. He's described Lily Cole as "like a daughter to me". So, it all comes full-circle, as a family affair.

  14. Jacksonville

    I Wish

    I could have my #£200000 back

    --- A Taxpayer

    1. countd

      Re: I Wish

      A "hard working" taxpayer - the only sort that counts these days.

  15. Matt Bryant Silver badge


    Not to be too blunt, but Ms Cole really does come across as thick as two short planks, which makes me wonder if she's not just the figurehead for some more politically-aware parasites that saw a good scam.

    1. Chris Miller

      thick as two short planks?

      Let's see: Lily Luahana Cole, a Cambridge University (going well so far) art history graduate (bugger). Art History - that's what royals do, isn't it - neither Art nor History, a bit like taking a degree in French Chemistry.

      1. Matt Bryant Silver badge

        Re: Chris Miller Re: thick as two short planks?

        ".... Cambridge University (going well so far) art history graduate (bugger)...." Double penetration - she also has a degree from Glasgow Caledonoian, only it's an honorary degree for being a caring luvvie.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: thick as two short planks?

        As someone who actually has a degree in Chemistry with French (which I'd argue is actually harder than degrees solely in either chemistry or French) I object!

      3. Tom 11

        Re: thick as two short planks?

        Chris, looks like you managed to upset the only French Chemist on the web...

    2. Dom 3

      Re: Figurehead?

      ISTR the young lady got sent off to the Amazon and in an interview afterwards said summat like "I never realised that rubber comes from trees".

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Figurehead?

        I bet she knows her summat from her something.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wish

    People would write "I wish I could..." instead if "I wish I can..." on impossible.vom

  17. Kristian Walsh

    It's good to be rich

    I'm reminded of something a friend of mine once said:

    "I want to be a millionaire, not because I want loads of money, but because when you're a millionaire people give you stuff. Not useless stuff, but stuff that you'd have bought anyway. And they give it to you for free, just because you're rich enough to be able to buy it if you wanted it! It's brilliant!"

    It was true then, it's true now.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's good to be rich

      There are one or two stories (movies) around of people pretending to be rich, and getting stuff for free just off the back of that. Free samples in anticipation of future purchases. Of cause, the character never needed to buy anything, and lived off the free samples.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: It's good to be rich

      It's GOOD to be the king!

  18. TitterYeNot


    "The Cole story raises several fascinating questions. It vividly illustrates the lack of accountability in government, with the state apparently set on autopilot."

    Yes. Yes. And more Yes. This.

    1. The Stolly

      Re: Yes

      "with the state apparently set on autopilot"

      And heading for the Southern Indian Ocean

  19. Valeyard

    200k is NOT small

    to people used to dealing with billions of £s in budget, 200k may seem like a small amount to piss away here and there

    but that's like the entire working life of numerous people right there, their entire lives' contributions, pissed away on a shit website

    but it's "budgetted for" and a small amount compared to anything else, and is therefore fine

  20. Semtex451

    Waste of Taxpayers Money #142859345

    To add to Dr Dre and others above:

    How about the £30-40 Meeeeelion about to be handed to MS because the DoH can't recruit IT Managers who can migrate an to a new OS once in 10 years.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Waste of Taxpayers Money #142859345

      Say what?!

      More info please.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In a nutshell

    I read through her Telegraph article (OK I admit my eyes glazed over and I gave up half way down), but it's fair to say that Lily Cole's political stance can be summed up as "let's all be nice to each other".

    That's lovely.

    But why is it that we pay any credence at all to the opinions of famous people, outside of their normal area of expertise? Lily Cole is a supermodel, so I am sure she can offer valuable insights into fashion, first class travel and bulimia, but why should I care what she has to say about capitalism?

    Similarly Bono. I am sure he's bang up to date on sunglasses you can wear indoors and where to get Cuban heels, but do I give a fuck about his views on the situation in Palestine / Syria / wherever? No I don't.

    1. Lamont Cranston

      Re: In a nutshell

      Celebrities can be very useful, if they ally themselves with a charity or a cause - they're most likely invaluable when it comes to raising the profile of said cause, and encouraging the masses to donate/get involved.

      But then we make the mistake of assuming that they know what they're talking about, and they seldom do.

      Matt Damon was interviewed on the radio, recently, in his capacity as the token celebrity for a water charity, and he was refreshingly honest about his involvement, deferring to the charity head on the details, and admitting that he's baiscally just there to put a pretty face on it all.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: In a nutshell

        Wow, Kudos to Matt then, as it would have been totally hilarious to see some canned, but possibly forgotten, answers from him. Seeing Actors/Actresses give pretend replies about films they regretted acting in is like watching a car crash. The same would have happened here had he not been honest.

      2. Youngdog

        Lamont - the value of celebrities

        To paraphrase something I heard recently and won't forget - "When celebrities start demanding their cocaine is ethically sourced, then I'll start listening to what they have to say"

      3. mrjohn

        Re: In a nutshell

        something he does quite well

    2. JurassicPark

      Re: In a nutshell

      Surely the definition of a charity is a not-for-profit organisation set up to raise money from the public (A) to do something of good (provide a service, react to disasters, do research etc.) for other members of the public (B), where government (local / national / international) hasn't / won't / can't help said members of the public (B).

      Why is tax payers money being used to fund any charity? If a millionaire 'supermodel' can get £200k funding for this website and Eton, a rich mans public (private) school can set itself up as a charity in order to avoid paying tax, there is something seriously wrong with the whole charity business.

      1. Nuke

        @JurassicPark - Re: In a nutshell

        Wrote :- "Surely the definition of a charity is a not-for-profit organisation set up to raise money from the public (A) to do something of good .... (B) [etc etc]"

        That might be a common-sense definition, but a charity has a legal definition in the UK. I don't know it off the top of my head, but I don't think it involves doing good or needing the money. In fact most people would be suprised and shocked at what entities have "charitable status". You mention Eton College yourself.

  22. Andy 73


    It seems unfair to lambast a site with such lofty goals, but having watched it develop at a snails' pace it's hard to feel that there is much going on behind the facade. If this were a startup I'd expect to see rapid evolution and a focus on responding to it's own user's requests. Instead, the site has made minor changes and there have been no significant alterations to the current model of interaction which is gaining such poor traction.

    In short, I'd expect a lot more to be done with the money, and to see iteration (or indeed pivoting) to take full advantage of the global media coverage. The impression it leaves is that not only has Cole 'conned' the Tax-payer, but the Impossible team have 'conned' her into supporting a badly managed project.

    For a site that aims to encourage social interaction, it's notable how opaque the whole process is. We don't know the who, the how or why this money is being spent.

  23. Stoneshop Silver badge

    Mission Impossible

    This pile of tax-payer money will self-destruct in five seconds.

  24. Herby


    The Lalo Schifrin music. Light the fuse.

  25. 2+2=5 Silver badge


    > When we asked why had received funding, the Cabinet Office pointed us to Nesta. We asked to see the application for funding. Nesta says it will not make this public. Nesta is no longer subject to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests since the Coalition turned it into a charity.

    If only there was some website where you could post a message stating your desire - wish even - to see a copy of the application. Someone might then send it to you.

  26. JurassicPark

    Charity = No Accountability

    So a charity doesn't have to account to the public under FOI? Might as well be a government department then and just change your name periodically so you can say it was the last department and not you that cocked up a-la HSCIC formerly NHSIC selling our hospital patient data.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I assume the picture in the article is actually of the assistant carrying her bags, rather than the supermodel herself...?

    1. BrownishMonstr

      Re: Supermodel?

      No, no. That's the "supermodel". I know what you're going to ask and yes, I cringed a little.

      1. DaneB

        Re: Supermodel?

        Yep, even polluting my mind with your warp-head, Lily.

        Weren't you the weird thing on that Playstation advert? Or Chucky's revenge?

  28. Nasty Nick

    Free wish and give site - impossible? No, Freecycle has aready done it..

    A "want stuff" and "give away stuff" site, global, simple and successful, at no cost to the UK taxpayer (AFAIK)..nor did it need celeb endorsements (free or otherwise) to work.

  29. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    So, the same organisation that gives inventors a pittance and only after they can demonstrate that their product is going to make money is throwing money at rich people to set up websites? I am actually not criticising the website. It sounds like it has worthwhile goals, but sounds a lot like various other websites that also have lofty goals of getting us to recycle and help each other.

    The concern I have is that it seems a *lot* of british inventors, engineers and scientists are making wonderful breakthroughs, but have to go abroad to get finance. These are products that could make serious money, and help the economy. One example: IIRC a lot of the engineers behind the Psion Organiser series developed a new MP3 player while at Psion. Psion could not get funding for it, so they went abroad. Some ended up at Apple, and some of what they developed ended up being used in iPod.

    We are giving people like this a pittance, and making them fight for that while throwing money at millionaires..

    The government's reaction to this? Do they see the benefit of developing new products in this country, then allowing British companies to manufacture and market them and vow to help these companies? No. They ensure the orginisation that distributes the money becomes a charity and under no obligation to release information given an FOI request..

  30. Frankee Llonnygog

    The real story

    Reg articles seem to be getting more sceptical about Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service - that's a good thing. In comparison, are mere dilettantes in the art of budget-splurging and nondelivery. I'm hoping one day for some real digging into Cabinet Office's track record - it'll be a shocker.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: The real story


      It's "The Men From the Ministry"

      (Might as well quote Wikipedia here).

      "The series was about lazy, bungling, incompetent civil servants, "Number One" - Roland Hamilton-Jones (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and later Deryck Lennox-Brown (Deryck Guyler), "Number Two" - Richard Lamb (Richard Murdoch), with their dim, typo-prone, teenage secretary, Mildred Murfin (Norma Ronald), all watched-over by the lecherous, pompous, self-seeking Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Gregory Pitkin (Roy Dotrice and later Ronald Baddiley), all members of the British Civil Service based in Whitehall. The stories centered on their General Assistance Department ......... which helps other governmental departments. Instead of assistance, the department creates mix-ups, misunderstandings and cock-ups that lead to a telling-off from Sir Gregory, who sees his 'hard earned' Civil Service career and pension disappearing.

      In one 1960s episode, "The Big Rocket", General Assistance Department is put in charge of publicity for Britain's almost non-existent space programme....."

      Rings a bell ?

  31. Ian 3

    How can so many government funded projects be so awful, and rather than anyone admit they've made a mistake, would rather keep shoveling money in, denying there's a problem, making the mistake bigger and repeating until a new government can scrap it completely. Over and over it happens. The people responsible are almost impossible to pin down, and when you do they just lie and/or talk about something different. It boggles my mind just how much inept fuck-buggery goes on, all hiding behind policies and processes that were intended, once, to be useful, but are in fact just screens for incompetence.

  32. Trixr

    What do you expect when you outsource social services?

    So now the govt is slowly getting itself out of the business of providing actual social services - let's not get into the libertarian debate that SS isn't the business of govts (it is in the UK and other social democracies) - and outsourcing to private charities, this kind of thing is going to happen more and more frequently.

    As much as people like to bitch about bureaucracy and red tape (sure, there can be way too much of the latter), the point of all these ministries and whatnot is to account - transparently - for public spending. You outsource it, you instantly lose any visibility or accountability.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Welfare for wankers" gets a lick of paint.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One million hours through Slivers of Time

    You might measure success in terms of tweets – but Slivers of Time are more proud that by the middle of this year 1 million hours of volunteering or temp work will have been completed through charities and employers using their system.

    Tweet that please.

  35. Method

    Good company

    I saw her at a roundable, sharing the stage with Wales and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. TIM. BERNERS. LEE. I guess doors just magically open when you're this pretty.

    Last week, she was interviewed by Chelsea Clinton. The name of the talk - "Meet the Developer". No, they didn't discuss software development...

    1. 9Rune5

      Re: Good company

      That reminds me of that episode of "The IT Crowd" where they had done all the work, yet everybody else got the credit. (

  36. DF118

    Where a "charity" is more than 50% government-funded it should be subject to FOI legislation.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Absolutely right !

      And I'll go a step further and say that if MY taxes are funding you, you have the choice of either justifying every cent you take or refusing to take anything.

      Personally, I would have sent a police car with orders to get either the information, or the people responsible into custody.

      But then some people would go calling names and invoking Goodwin for some reason.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ...I help a little run charity (only 4 people out of the 30 odd involved are paid and as that's their full time job, I think that's only fair), but I've added a "Like" button and Twitter integrations to the site, so now I can ask for £150,000 for social "integration"

  38. Gregory Kohs

    Could Jimmy Wales be more of a dick?

    Jimmy Wales says of this Register article:

    This discussion is not relevant to Wikipedia. I recommend you take it elsewhere. The article in The Register is typical of them - lots of sneering innuendo that doesn't really stand up to a moment's scrutiny. I've reminded Lily that Andrew Orlowski once trumpted a claim that Wikipedia was "Khmer Rouge in diapers". This is not a serious debate. -- Jimbo Wales; 13:10, 26 March 2014

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    She's like a cross between Louise Mensch and Gollum.

  40. ecofeco Silver badge

    The right connections

    She haz them and we don't.

    Suck it peasants.

    1. 9Rune5

      Re: The right connections

      Well, we peasants can always eat cake I guess.

  41. mrjohn

    "She says she was inspired to bring a "gift economy" to the world while on the Thai-Burma border in 2010, and won support from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales."

    The good thing about being ugly is when you smoke weed people ignore your inane drivel

    1. Havin_it

      Thai/Burmese border...

      Ah, right. I think I get it now.

      This nice Burmese gentleman was wishing he had some quality hash. At the same moment, a nice Thai gentleman was wishing for some superb black tar heroin.

      This is when the Gift Economy works best: both parties had something they were happy to offer the other, to fulfil their respective wish. And they said "thank you" to each other in the universally-acknowledged manner.

      Although the deal mutual thank-in almost went south when this mental piggy ghoster showed up asking them if they had any "chang"...

      I wouldn't say she's ugly ('cause that's just rude) but if the Graun article is anything to go by, *I* would need a LOT of something brown and illegal to ignore her nonsense.

  42. DaneB

    Please Lily, please would you pay the money back?

    I'll even say thank-you.

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