TheyWorkForYou and leaves of absence: it’s all about priorities


TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…

TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.

Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.

Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.

So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.

And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.

You can see just how long we’ve had this issue open, and that it has had some thought, in our development ticket here (related tickets are also here and here).

Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.

Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.

Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output

As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:

We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.

From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!

Be the change you want to see

OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.

A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.

An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.

Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).

If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.

We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.

Image: Erik Lundqvist


  1. Thanks for this piece. I am fully with you and it is truly essential to raise more awareness on what time and effort, so often pro bono, actually goes into the great work you and other civic tech groups are doing.

    It did give me a feeling of discomfort though to read the suggestions. I believe we as a community need to be very conscious and cautious about potential hierarchies and exclusions of voices that can be built into our tools. Envisioning a scenario in which people who can afford to make conditioned donations (this money is going into xyz) or people who can write code themselves might ‘dictate’ how those tools develop leaves a bitter aftertaste imho.

    • Thanks Kersti. I understand exactly what you mean and did hope as I was writing this post that it wouldn’t sound too much like ‘pay for whatever you want us to do!’; we’re also sensitive to the potential inequalities you mention.

      In all honesty I don’t think we’ve ever yet had a situation where anyone has donated with a stipulation over what they’d like us to work on (possibly a suggestion? I’d have to check). Obviously we receive grant funding sometimes which is ringfenced towards particular features, but these tend to be agreed between ourselves and the funders and often based on research as to how we can best serve our users.

      If such a donation did come in, we’d be transparent as to its origin and results, documenting everything on here, and of course we’d reject anything that was not contributing to TWFY’s wider aims or serving its users.

      Thanks for the timely reminder and for keeping us on track with our thinking!

  2. Veronica-Mae Soar

    Just a thought. Is there anything from government which provides a graph of an MP’s attendance record ? Would that be helpful in any way ?
    Could you list – or annotate – all those who for a number of reasons cannot vote, even if they are present ? that also might be helpful.

    • Unfortunately, attendance is also one of the things Parliament doesn’t record officially – see this post for a little more detail.

      We’ll be looking at this issue again today and for the meantime it looks like we will have to use manual updates, while continuing to request that Parliament outputs the data – which would be useful for many services, not just TheyWorkForYou.

  3. ‘If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP)’

    Perhaps we need more MPs who *are* developers to understand issues like these (and the myriad of other IT issues which come up in legislation)? 🙂