What are month notes?
They are notes on what we’ve been working on… each month. It’s like weeknotes for lazy people.
We’ve been writing them for our Climate programme, and we’re building up to the point where we’ve got enough going on in our Democracy work that it’s worth establishing the habit of being clear about what’s going on.
It’s about being open with what we’re working on, and if we’re lucky that helps spark conversations that help move things along.
What is “democracy” at mySociety?
“We should do some Democracy monthnotes” is a sentence that makes perfect sense internally, but for some quick scene setting…
In principle, everything we do is in some way about democracy — we consider our FOI and transparency work to be important in part because it enables and grows civic ideas of democracy. Key to our climate work is the idea that democratic and climate problems are linked, and so our climate work is very engaged with the kinds of problems of democracy we’ve been thinking about all along — but with a sharper focus.
Internally, we tend to think about our democracy work as being around TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, and internationally looking at similar “parliamentary monitoring organisations”. These are some of our longest running services, widely used, and with a long potential future ahead of them. One of the things we’ve been doing over the last year is creating a clearer idea of what we want to accomplish with PMO work. Lots of this work has been behind the scenes in funding bids – but can be seen in the work adding the Senedd as a general direction of travel. More on what we’re currently working on (and some things that didn’t work out) in future.
Behind the scenes, there isn’t a Democracy “team” as such because we don’t currently have the funding available for that. My estimate is that last year we probably had 1-1.5 full time equivalent (FTE) people working on Democracy – but that was spread over 5-6 actual people. Given the porous lines between the different things we do, the immediate goal isn’t to get a big team, but to be increasing the consistency with which we can use the wide range of skills already in the organisation — and in making links and making the most of opportunities across our wider work.
So “Democracy” at mySociety is always going to be a little fluid — we’ll use these monthnotes to be clearer about what that means in practice.
All the conferences
The Democracy Network held its second conference this January, attended by 10% of mySociety (three people).
This is an interesting crowd that is, for obvious reasons, moving into being quite election focused. By contrast, a lot of mySociety’s work is about an effective civic democracy between elections. Many WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou features become less useful in an election, while traffic increases and usage changes. Once Parliament dissolves ,there are no MPs until new ones are elected, but what those MPs have been up to is important. We’re doing some thinking on our options for running the most useful version of the site during an election, and have picked up some conversations at the conference to continue.
Julia also went to the Democracy Classroom strategy day, where she spoke on a panel about using data in campaigning alongside our friends at Generation Rent and the Democracy Club. Our hosts, the Politics Project, brought together organisations of all sizes and types, from all across the UK. It was great to have a really practical conversation about the data needs of organisations working with young people, and after a follow up chat with Gaibhin from United Response, we’re already working on adding census disability data to the Local Intelligence Hub service we’re launching soon.
We’ve also had the mySociety quarterly team meeting, where we all head somewhere in the country (this time, Leeds!) to talk for a few days with colleagues we generally only see on the internet. They’re nice!
Register of interests
Great to put out our spreadsheet version of the register of members interests.
Fun fact: this has been mostly ready to go since October — part of not having a lot of funded time for Democracy work means there’s a backlog of 99% finished work to get out the door.
But the response to the blog post shows the value in getting that out, and in being transparent in general. Lots of nice comments from people who think they’ll find it useful – but it’s also leading to more conversations with people with an interest in the register that can help us get a better sense of what’s currently happening where, and what our role in the picture might be.
For keeping track: On my bit at the end about the kinds of questions people might want answered, Stuart from Open Innovations has linked me to some of their old weeknotes on work they did with PDS and the HoC Library on the kind of questions that can be answered through the current data.
One of the big things we were doing behind the scenes last year is reviewing and updating our approach to voting records. This is one of TheyWorkForYou’s most notable features, and we got a grant from Newby Trust to have a good look at these and used some of our grant from the Porticus Foundation to do some more involved technical work than we may have otherwise been able to manage. January has been the fiddly final stages of getting this to launch.
I’m not going to go into a lot of details here (there are long blog posts to come) – but the big task has been thinking through what we’re trying to achieve, and then untangling our technical systems to make that sustainable over the long run.
Our current system is based on various data flows in and out of the Public Whip – which has a complicated history with TheyWorkForYou. It has some overlap with the people who founded it, it’s not run by us, but at the moment is substantially kept updated by Matthew’s work unclogging the ParlParse system the two sites have in common. Some of the things we want to change would need changes deep in the Public Whip, which we can’t do, and that’s bad for what’s such an important feature of the site.
As such, we’ve made a transitional replacement for the Public Whip, where we can build in the kind of analysis tools we need to have more visibility and control of the whole process.Over this year we’re going to be talking to people who want more of the kind of number-y analysis the Public Whip does well to tidy up what we’re using internally — and set it up as a useful specialist complement to TheyWorkForYou.
TICTeC/PMO Communities of Practice
TICTeC is back in London! See the call for proposals about the conference itself – where we’re especially trying to think about how/if/where civic tech is relevant to themes of democracy in crisis, and democratic approaches to the climate crisis.
As part of this funding, we are also setting up communities of practice around access to information and parliamentary monitoring organisations. A big bit of January for me has been (working with the Civic Tech Field Guide) making a good list of PMO organisations from around the world to approach to get a sense of what problems we might discuss over the next year. I’m currently working through the survey responses to that.
New combined authority
Welcome to the new “York and North Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority” — added to our big list of local authorities, our IMD dataset, and nearest neighbour dataset – and to CAPE – our local climate action tracker – where you can see some of these datasets in practice.
CAPE has some features helping navigate the connections between authorities and combined authorities, and in general we’re trying to think about how we can better reflect Combined Authorities in our core work.
A key use of WriteToThem is a “here is the structure of government where you are” — and we haven’t added the new CAs because unlike the London Assembly they don’t have as clear a public facing representative. The long term solution here is either to lean into WriteToThem having information for people you don’t necessarily “write to” or building a clearer page for this into TheyWorkForYou – which does some version of this for devolved Parliaments/Assemblies. We’re thinking about it.
In any given month, we’re generally making incremental progress on things we think are good ideas, that might also importantly be fundable ideas on where we’re well placed to make something better.
Julia’s been developing more about what our approach to training might be — making more of the fact our tools are already used by educators, and building a better loop between that and our service development.
I’ve been developing our thoughts on the register of interests further, and reading through the Jo Cox Foundation’s new report “No place in politics: tackling abuse and intimidation” (which I thought was measured, and well-thought through) and making some notes on how it applies to our work.
We’re also thinking more about how practically we can try and increase support from the public for our services. Here moving a bit away from “Save TheyWorkForYou” language to being clearer about how what we do is part of making things better (regardless of who wins elections), and that we want to be far more ambitious than keeping the lights on.