When we talk about our website TheyWorkForYou, it’s often to point out how it helps the ‘everyday’ citizen keep up with what their elected representatives are doing in Parliament: you don’t need to be an expert to see how your MP has voted, or what they’ve contributed to debates.
This is one invaluable aspect of the site, but it ignores another large and equally important function. It’s an aspect that we haven’t much highlighted, but that could, without overstatement, be said to be underpinning civil society.
We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system, which made it clear just how much heavy lifting the site is doing for charities and small organisations. Indeed, it is providing a service that many rely on — free subscription to alerts on any keyword, so that you receive an email when it is mentioned in Parliament. Despite recent improvements to the official Hansard site, respondents still indicate that they find TheyWorkForYou’s provision more useful than Parliament’s offering.
So it’s not too much to say that TheyWorkForYou is a vital service which would cause substantial fallout to this sector if it were to be discontinued; or, more positively, that if mySociety had the resource to update the site, make improvements and promote it to more of the types of organisations that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process, hundreds more charities and campaigns would be empowered to affect policy for the better. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also helping those who work within Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.
Charitable and service organisations
“We are too small to do any lobbying or to afford a paid-for service so this helps keep us in touch”.
People working in charities told us that they used keyword alerts to track all mentions of themes relevant to their work, such as words around domestic violence; asylum and immigration; religious persecution; accessibility; nature conservation, and many more.
“Without the site we might have to pay for a service, or give up trying to make our voice heard”.
Tracking which representatives mention keywords can help charities in identifying potentially interested parliamentarians to connect with, but can also be directly useful in organisations that deliver services, like advising people on their rights.
“The alerts are invaluable as we don’t have the capacity to follow what’s happening in Parliament […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
Our email alert system helps distribute the latest policy via subscriptions to written questions and answers. For instance, a child poverty group uses a subscription to written answers from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to get clearer details of policy and policy changes. This helps them convey “up to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!”
Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.
“We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. Where relationships are more established, making written questions more visible helps civil society groups suggest written questions to MPs, because they can better match the language and style.
“I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service”
Inside government and Parliament
“I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.”
Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are still using TheyWorkForYou.
For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly (perhaps, in part, due to TheyWorkForYou’s example) and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.
Members of Parliament
“I rely on the alerts to stay up to date with any written questions or debates relating to the interests of the MP I work for.”
MPs’ offices use the service to check if people live in the constituency, and for notifications of recent speeches by their or nearby MPs.
“It’s the quickest way to keep up with any questions or votes that my boss has participated in.”
Information from TheyWorkForYou is also used as part of preparation of reports, media releases, and to support correspondence with constituents.
Civil servants similarly have an interest in understanding the history and views of their ministers. Respondents to our survey included civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education.
They use the service to keep track of Parliamentary mentions of their department and work. Inside the DWP (one of the larger departments), one response came from a civil servant who used the alerts to shape service delivery.
While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.
“As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”
Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster.
Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching.
TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.
In one private sector example that is worth highlighting, an accountancy firm uses TheyWorkForYou as part of due diligence checks on politically exposed persons. Improving the ease and quality of accessing official information about MPs’ activities (in particular given concerns about written questions and second jobs) enhances wider legal regimes around money laundering and anti-corruption.
TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website
Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard.
“Primary use is a better Hansard than Hansard (still, though Hansard has caught up a lot)” – Public sector organisation
There were several specific complaints about the search function of the official site.
“Its [the Parliament site’s] search function barely works at all.” – Business consultancy firm
In some of these cases the official site may improve in future (improving the search seems a very attainable goal), but in other cases there has been backsliding, such as availability of the register of interests. TheyWorkForYou has value as a backstop on the official service where it has flaws, but also in providing services like the email alerts that go above and beyond what the official service is ever likely to offer.
Image: Monisha Selvakumar