Improving TheyWorkForYou’s voting summaries

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Our MPs in Parliament have many roles, but one of the most important is that they make decisions on the laws that govern us, and these decisions can affect every aspect of how we live our lives. 

TheyWorkForYou’s voting record summaries are part of a number of different arguments about what the role of MPs is, and how Parliament should work.

As well as listing individual votes in Parliament, our voting summaries give an overview of how MPs have voted on policies that come up in multiple votes. We strongly stand by the principle of our summaries, but don’t think there’s only one way of doing it. Using a grant from the Newby Trust, we’ve been reviewing our methods and refining our approaches to voting records. 

The key headline is that we’re going to sharpen the focus in our approach. The main changes are:

We have written a longer document explaining how these changes achieve our goals.

This change is being applied alongside a backlog of new policy lines that we’ve been reviewing with our new criteria for inclusion. While these may be big shifts in principle, in practice most existing summaries stay exactly the same. It’s a progression and simplification rather than a revolution.

To see our voting summaries for your MP, search for your postcode on TheyWorkForYou and click ‘Voting Summaries’.

What we want to achieve with our summaries

In thinking about our voting summaries, we wanted to clearly define what we’re trying to accomplish. This has led to two headline goals:

We want to present clear and accurate summaries of how individual MPs have voted, for use by the public.

  • As a point of principle, it should be possible and straightforward to find out how MPs have acted on behalf of their constituents. 
  • The top-line display of information should be a good reflection of the data that was used to create it – balancing clarity and accuracy.  We should provide options for people to learn or explore more, with the expectation that most won’t, and so the clarity of the summary matters.
  • While we aspire to produce information that is also of use to people with a professional interest in Parliament, this need might be better met through other tools or summaries. For instance, while it is possible to compare different MPs through voting records, it is not the main purpose of these summaries.  

In line with our general approach, we want to align with and amplify citizen perspectives of how MPs should work, as voiced by Citizens’ Assemblies (in particular the Democracy in the UK Citizens Assembly) and polling.

  • Historically, we’ve seen that making the actions of MPs more visible changes their behaviour.
  • We need to be conscious of the likely effects of our summaries, and ensure they reflect our values, democratic principles and approach. We want to anchor our approach in wider ideas of how our democracy works rather than our own opinions.
  • We also need to be aware of when pressure on individual MPs is not the best way to achieve systemic change. As such we need to consider where our work reinforces rather than changing parliamentary systems that are hostile to MPs from groups historically excluded from Parliament (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, disabled MPs). 

A longer document explaining how these changes achieve these goals can be read here

The impact of this change

Most of the top-level summaries on the site (73%) are completely unaffected by these changes. 82% of MP ‘scores’ are either the same, or have a stronger/weaker version of the same alignment (i.e. the adjustment has not affected our assessment of whether the MP is for or against a policy). About 14% of connections between MP and policies are removed, which is a combination of removing seven policy lines that were made up entirely of votes that did not directly use Parliamentary power, and longer running policies being confined to a narrower time frame. The remaining changes are “a mix for and against” assignments becoming more clear (or the reverse), and a small group (about 120 out of 80,000) where the direction of the score has changed (i.e. where someone was voting for and is now seen as voting against – this is mostly concentrated in two policies). You can read more about this in our longer summary.

This is good because we don’t generally want these to be too sensitive to the exact formula used: the kind of broad points we’re making should be reachable no matter which method is applied. Ultimately only a small group of votes have been removed from policies, and the positions we were displaying before were mostly driven by votes that already passed the “use of powers” criteria. The goal of this process is to simplify how we work and enable clearer explanations of what we’re doing – but the general end product isn’t massively changed by adopting these new rules.

A process, not a destination

This isn’t where we stop. This update is a step in the journey.

There is a growing clarity issue that for long-serving MPs there are now quite a lot of policies — and part of our work creating summaries should be helping people find the relevant information they’re looking for. 

There is also a pending question about presenting a retrospective on the current Parliament during the next election. With the technical work we’ve done, it is now much easier to explore alternate approaches to displaying this data. 

We are considering how we can best do this, and how we work with others to ensure we are capturing the important issues of the last Parliament. 

Making other tools available 

One kind of complaint about voting summaries is that they do not provide an easy way of drawing out small differences between two MPs on how they voted. This is true – we might say two MPs voted a mixture of for and against a policy, but in practice they took opposite positions on different votes. 

In our voting summaries we’ve made the decision to focus on providing information that makes sense for a constituent looking at their MP – we produce better summaries by focusing on specific kinds of users we want to make sure it works for. But for our own work as well as to support others, we want to provide a wider range of tools and information for both citizens and specialists. 

Our previous approach to voting was deeply tied technically with the Public Whip (originally a companion project to TheyWorkForYou, but not run by mySociety). This means we had limited ability to take big swings in our approach: while we indirectly maintain it through the data feed, we can’t change the basic functioning of the Public Whip.  

To implement the changes described above, we have internally created a Public Whip replacement (TheyWorkForYou Votes) that we’re using to update voting records, and provide new analysis tools to help us understand votes, giving us easy understanding of the parliamentary dynamics of a vote and basic analysis of the motion.  In the next year, we want to talk to more people who want better tools for working with raw voting information, to help shape this tool for a public release. 

Supporting our work

In our voting records work we have an approach that has public support, and we think serves an important purpose. But we don’t think this is the only or best way of creating voting summaries: we want to be able to be reactive to how Parliament is changing, and always making our coverage and approach better. We also want to work to encourage better transparency and public understanding at the source, through improving how Parliament works.

If you value the work we do, please consider whether you can support us financially. We have a good track record, and with our platform a little support can go a long way.  If you would like to make a larger donation to support specific work, or to match-fund other donations, please get in touch. 

In the next few weeks we will be announcing a new project involving volunteers and the register of members interests. If you’re interested in hearing more about that, please sign up to our volunteer mailing list.

Header image: Photo by Aaron Du on Unsplash