This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from our staff, and external contributors who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. Learn more about this series.
We’re thinking about the future of TheyWorkForYou, and we want to ground our plans in an understanding of how it is currently used and the impact it has had.
At a very practical level, it is much easier to make small changes than big ones — but small changes don’t have to have small effects. By leaning into how people are using the site, we can find ways of better supporting what people are already trying to do.
TheyWorkForYou has been politically (and culturally) influential. The way in which MPs and parties conduct themselves has changed in reaction to the service: next week we’ll have a guest post covering this in more detail. A throwaway shot in 2018’s TV thriller The Bodyguard, where a character quickly scans a politician’s voting record, shows how the idea of TheyWorkForYou has become a part of the UK’s political shorthand (with many arguments about whether this is a good or a bad thing, that we’ll come back to in this series).
That said, until recently we had no solid data as to how widely known the service is. In late 2021, Opinium gave us a set of free questions for a nationally representative poll. We used one of these to understand more about people’s awareness and usage of mySociety websites. We found that, out of all mySociety’s services, TheyWorkForYou was the one most people knew about. The poll found that one in three UK adults have heard of the site, and one in five have visited the site.
One of the biggest obstacles to successful civic tech isn’t having a good idea for a digital service, but successfully getting more than a handful of people to use it. TheyWorkForYou, with 20 years of history behind it, has crossed that hurdle. Improving and refining TheyWorkForYou is potentially a much more impactful thing to do than launching new services, but the funding environment for civic tech means there is far more money available for new projects than for steady payoffs from established work. This is a key issue we need to navigate, balancing short-term survival with a commitment to doing the things that will have the biggest positive impact.
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Parliamentary monitoring: a slow-burn success story
A key unique feature of TheyWorkForYou is the email alerts service. We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of their chosen MPs or Lords, or when phrases that they are interested in are used in debates or written questions/answers. On average, this means we send around 400,000 emails a month. People mostly use alerts to keep up with their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also means that this service is a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool. Alerts are used by a range of public, private and charitable sector organisations to track specific issues and keywords in Parliament.
In 2021, we ran a survey on users of alerts and found that while the majority (84%) were citizen users, a sizable proportion (16%) were using it in a professional context. Focusing on this group for a follow-up survey in 2022, we got more details of the value that charities and campaigners get from TheyWorkForYou, but we also found that the alerts are in use by people working in Parliament and government departments, improving the flow of information inside these central institutions.
These professional users were also interested in different elements of the site than citizen users, being slightly more focused on written answers and statements (as these can be the best statements of current policy), and having much less interest in voting records. A 2016 GovLab report estimated an economic benefit of TheyWorkForYou, on time saved alone, of up to £70 million a year to the third sector. As a free service, it provides an important alternative to political intelligence organisations and helps level the playing field for civil society to engage with parliamentarians and decision-makers.
There is real potential here to build on something that’s going well. We can better reflect, in the way the site works, and in the work we do around it, that a key way we have impact is via intermediaries, and making Parliament far more accessible to a range of charities and organisations. The technical side works well, but we could help organisations make the most use of this feature.
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During elections, people want different things from TheyWorkForYou
For the last 10 years, TheyWorkForYou has generally had over six million page views each year. In 2021 there were 7.8 million page views, and there were 13 million in the last election year. In each of the last five years, there have been a million views of either the summary or voting record pages of MPs. Information on these pages also travels far further than to these direct users, as it is amplified by journalists or social media.
For the 2019 election, there was a clear increase in both overall traffic, but also in the proportion of people looking at the voting records pages. There were many views of the profiles of a small number of MPs (mostly party leaders) rather than views being evenly distributed among people looking at local MPs.
This shift towards more and more views of just the voting records pages reflected a change in the way people arrived at the site. The pattern of people entering a postcode at theyworkforyou.com, arriving at a summary page (with party comparisons), before maybe moving onto more detailed individual voting policies was becoming less common. More users were coming to the site via search engines or social media, and missing parts of the information we presented. As a result, we changed the way we displayed information, moving more of the important context from the party comparison to the voting records page.
But when the reason people are using the site changes, it’s a good time to consider how the information can best be presented. TheyWorkForYou in its design, is very focused on what happens in Parliament between elections, but the information it holds is obviously very relevant during an election. Steering into that, we could follow hints about what people want to know about (party leaders, and more widely, parties) and create new views on the information we hold, that reflect actions taken by a party over a parliamentary term. Here an existing usage suggests a different approach that could be useful to voters, that we are uniquely well placed to deliver, but which would be a substantial change in how we think about and present information.
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Purposeful incremental change
TheyWorkForYou needs more than just code and servers to keep on serving the people of the UK well. Playing the biggest role we can in informing people over the next twenty years will require careful stewardship to support what works, while adapting to new problems and opportunities.
As a long-running service, the site has picked up features that are sometimes useful, but sometimes outlive their purpose or the resources that are available to maintain them. Sometimes we have turned parts off. The core challenge of project-based funding is that it can only indirectly support “doing what’s already working”, and each additional project and feature adds long term maintenance costs. This is why it’s important that, while looking for opportunities to make improvements to the site, we need to make sure that our plans still fit into a coherent idea of what TheyWorkForYou is for – so all the parts of the site are still working together in a way that makes sense in the long run.
Image: Maksim Shutov