Repowering Democracy: new ideas, straight to your inbox

This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces from people who think deeply about how our democracy works, and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. We’re calling this series “Repowering Democracy”.

With support from the Porticus Foundation, we are reflecting on the impact mySociety and our services have had over the last twenty years, and setting the directions we’ll take in our work over the next few years.

In this series, we’ll be talking through our plans and ideas for the future, and inviting other perspectives on new directions and approaches we might take.

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Series to date

The story so far

TheyWorkForYou was created twenty years ago with the aim of making Parliament more accessible and accountable.

We believe that information about our elected representatives should be easy for everyone to access and understand, not just insiders or those who can pay.

Today, one in three UK adults has heard of TheyWorkForYou and one in five has used the site. Millions of people visit the site every year, while WriteToThem helps people send hundreds of thousands of messages to their representatives. Our email alerts provide a vital free parliamentary monitoring tool to charities, and even people working inside government and Parliament.

We think these services play a role in improving the quality of people’s lives across the UK, but finding the resources to support them has always been a challenge. Without investment to support innovation and respond to our changing society, there’s a risk the services will be solving the problems of the past — and becoming ever less useful and relevant.

More generally, people view the use of technology to tackle democratic problems differently today. There is much less scepticism of the idea that technology can change democracy, but much more that this is unambiguously a good thing. There’s more need than ever to understand the impact digital services have, and to have good models for the way in which they are governed and controlled. Alongside the question of how technology can improve democracy, is the question of how democracy can be used to tame technology.

Through this series, we’re going to examine what we think the continuing value of TheyWorkForYou is; the challenges it faces; and potential paths for its future. We want to lay out how we can better work with other organisations and our supporters to solve the problems that matter now, and prepare ourselves for the problems of tomorrow.

Working across the UK

Parliamentary websites have improved over the last twenty years, but TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem still play a key role in piecing together the information they provide in ways that help people across the UK understand how they are represented at different levels.

Devolution in the UK brings more power closer to citizens, but increases the complexity of government. WriteToThem has a key use beyond its primary purpose as a ‘write to your representative’ site, in making the layers of government more visible. Given a postcode, it provides simple descriptions of all the different levels of government in your area, their purposes, and who your representatives at these levels are. No official institution has a remit to lay this out clearly and in quite the same way.

Official Parliament websites have also adopted the postcode lookup as a way to match constituents with the correct representative — but each is, understandably, focused on their own institution. We see that we have an overarching role that allows us to make the national/devolved/local political system clearer and more transparent in a way that no individual institution can.

With support from the Welsh Government, we are completing our coverage and expanding TheyWorkForYou to the Senedd, as well as creating a Welsh language version of the site and our email alerts. Here our goal isn’t to duplicate the Senedd’s own website. For people living in Wales we want to make it clearer, in one place, how the nation’s different layers of representation fit together. For Welsh civil society we want to make our email alerts useful as a monitoring tool.

Devolution comes in many shapes and sizes. Recent and ongoing devolution in England, to Combined Authorities and Mayors, looks very different to devolution to national Parliaments. What is the right approach to bring accessibility and accountability to these latest layers of government? These are the kind of questions we’ll be considering.

Doing what official sites can’t

As a non-partisan third party, we can describe and summarise in a way that official Parliament staffers can’t. Official parliamentary descriptions reflect how the system works on paper, while we have greater freedom to describe how parliaments work in practice.

We also produce summaries that make the actions of our representatives more transparent. Arguments about TheyWorkForYou voting records encompass big questions about the proper role of MPs and how they should be held to account, as well as more specific ones about whether TheyWorkForYou does the best job it could in presenting these summaries.

We defend the principle of voting summaries but we don’t think the way in which they currently work is the only way to present voting records. We’ll be writing about our plans to update our approach to voting records in the coming months.

We also don’t want to limit our focus in this area to voting records – and want to explore other ways we can combine official data with careful analysis to help people understand and interpret it. In areas like the register of members interests, we don’t want to duplicate analysis happening elsewhere, but do want to think about how we could best build on that work to inform the most people we can.

Technology, democracy, and change

Through TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, mySociety is an intermediary between the UK’s Parliaments, elected politicians and people. The choices we make in which information we present shape the perspectives and views of both sides, and that gives us a certain amount of power. With this power comes responsibility and a need to anchor that power in public perspectives on how our political system should work.

We should take an informed and inclusive approach rooted in the perspectives and conversations that people have when they come together to think about the problem. In principle, technology is a lever, which we can operate on behalf of millions, to move powerful institutions and individuals closer to the way in which people in the UK want democracy to work.

This provides a theoretical approach – but raises a lot of questions about how we might make it work in practice. Through this series we’re going to be working through the implications of this line of thinking, what people want  from politics, and looking at other attempts to shape technology with democratic input.

But we also have to recognise the limits of building on broken systems. By working on top of existing processes, we can amplify the parts of our political system that exclude people and groups from participation. We want to explore how we can work better with other advocates for changing the political system, with a focus on how responsible use of technology can help create the political system people want to live in.

Repowering democracy

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Header image: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash