Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.
This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.
So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.
1. We do not have a political agenda
We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.
We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.
That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?
We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.
2. Our data is largely created by Parliament
We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.
Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.
TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.
In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.
3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines
Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.
It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.
4. But there are some things we have to do by hand
So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.
However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.
TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.
Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.
For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.
But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.
While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.
That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.
5. We are committed to transparency
Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.
We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.
(Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).
Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.
For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:
More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.
This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.
Which leads us to the next point:
6. We’re still working on it
Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.
One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.
When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.
7. Facts are facts
But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.
We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.
We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.
We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.
And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.
Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and — oh, what’s this? — “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.
As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.
8. We must be doing something right…
175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.
When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?
It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.
9. We’re open to discussion
We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.
As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.
But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.
10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding
Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.
Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.