1. ICO advisory note on publishing spreadsheets

    Following the PSNI and other recent data breaches, the ICO has issued guidance to public authorities. This guidance suggests a temporary stop on publishing Excel-style spreadsheets in response to FOI requests made via online platforms like WhatDoTheyKnow. The full advisory note is available online

    The advisory note emphasises that this is not a reason not to disclose requested information. Instead, the ICO says to release the information from original source spreadsheets as a CSV file – a simpler format than Excel Workbooks, with less potential for including hidden sheets or metadata that can lead to an accidental breach.

    A focus on file formats is a blunt measure, and one that will need to be superseded by better procedures and technical processes.

    We support authorities releasing data in the most appropriate format for the information being requested. This may sometimes mean an extract from a table, and sometimes a complete document. Excel spreadsheets are legitimate public documents, and information released in this format can be hugely valuable. It’s important to develop processes where they can be released safely. 

    Significant data breaches involving Excel files clearly show the risks when data management and release processes fail. These include not just breaches we see through WhatDoTheyKnow, but through disclosure logs and releases made directly to requesters. This is an opportunity for public authorities, the ICO and us at WhatDoTheyKnow to reflect on how we can best deliver the huge benefits of public transparency while safeguarding personal data. 

    Modern authorities need to be good at handling data. Data breaches happen at the intersection of technical and human processes. The FOI team can be the last link in the chain of a data breach when they release the information, but the root cause often goes back to wider organisational issues with the handling of sensitive data.

    In the short run, the ICO has recommended training for staff involved with disclosing data. Many teams already have excellent processes and do excellent work, but all authorities should take this opportunity to consider their responsibility on the data they hold, and have appropriate processes in place.

    Long term progress means developing good universal processes that keep data safe, regardless of the format of the data or how the data is released. All FOI releases should in principle be treated as if they are being released to the public, because the authority’s ability to stop a data breach ends when the information is released. Making FOI responses public produces huge efficiencies for the public sector, increasing transparency in practice, and multiplying the benefit to society of the information released. 

    Technology can also be part of the solution – we need to understand more about why existing technical ways of removing hidden information from Excel spreadsheets are not being used (as described in the ICO’s established guidance on disclosing information safely), and how new tools or guidance can make it easier to release data safely. 

    A core part of our work at WhatDoTheyKnow is dealing with the practical reality of promoting public transparency while protecting personal information. We take data breaches seriously and have processes in place for dealing with them as promptly as possible. We continue to plan and work to help reduce the occurrences and impact of personal data breaches through both our procedures and technical approach. 

    By monitoring how authorities respond to requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, we will seek to understand how this guidance is working in practice, and engage with the ICO and other organisations to promote effective long term approaches to this problem. 


    Notes on the content of the advisory

    Below is our understanding of the advisory note by subject matter:

    Freedom of Information requests

    • Continue to comply with FOI responsibilities. This guidance is about releasing information in a way that reduces risk of accidental disclosure. 
    • Temporarily, do not release original source spreadsheets to online platforms like WhatDoTheyKnow. Instead – convert and release to CSV files.
    • If that is not possible, then:
      • Ask if the Excel sheet can be sent to a separate (non-public) address. Proceed with the original address if they ask for this. 
      • In all releases, go through processes to ensure there is no data breach in the material. 

    General data management

    • Excel files are unsuitable working environments when they become very large (hundreds of thousands of rows). Authorities need to switch to appropriate data management systems that are more appropriate for managing larger amounts of data.  
    • Staff who use data software and are involved in disclosing information need continuous training.  
    • Understanding of pivot tables and their risks should be incorporated into data management.

    The ICO plans to update their guidance on Disclosing Information Safely

    The checklist released accompanying the advisory has several useful steps on checking for hidden data in Excel sheets. However, on the ‘considered alternative ways to disclose’ step, refer back to the steps in the advisory note. Information converted to CSV can be released to WhatDoTheyKnow in compliance with the advisory note. The advisory note says that the source dataset should continue to be released to WhatDoTheyKnow if it cannot be converted, the requester does not want to use an alternative route, and the authority is confident it does not contain a data breach.

  2. Navigating the new constituencies

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, shares data we’ve produced about new constituencies, and how we should steer the process of boundary reform towards making our politics easier to navigate.

    The current set of parliamentary constituencies is being replaced for the next election. For some, the main effect is a name change, but for others the borders of constituencies will change substantially.

    Boundary reviews are carried out by four separate organisations — one for each nation — who each set their own boundaries. This means that no-one officially produces a single dataset of all the new constituencies covering the whole UK.

    That seems like a useful thing to have, so we’ve created it. We’ve made:

     

    This contains both the official GSS id, and a unique ID based on the three letter IDs for new constituencies created by Philip Brown and Alasdair Rae for their hexmap of the new constituencies. This is useful in some instances because the GSS codes are not unique to the new constituencies (some Scottish constituencies are unchanged).

    Screenshot of a postcode in mapit, showing the different kind of boundaries available.


    Political equality means more than equal seats

    There are 650 MPs in the UK Parliament, each is elected from a constituency, and each constituency only has one MP.

    The main change in the new rules is reducing the tolerance for differences in the number of registered voters between constituencies, and ending the previous separate weighting of Wales. This means that some areas are affected much more than others by the change – with the number of Welsh seats reduced by eight, and Scotland losing two seats in total.

    Boundary changes aren’t just a technical process, but have impacts on the results of elections. In the UK, politicians can’t directly draw boundaries, but this doesn’t mean they’re not a political choice. The boundary commissions follow the rules they are set, but what these rules are (and how often they happen) are the subject of political debate where everyone has one eye on the outcomes that different sets of rules produce. The debate about “equal size constituencies” versus boundaries that reflect “natural communities” is in part about different perceived partisan advantages of drawing lines in different ways.

    Advocates of constituencies of equal size argue that this is about political equality. Now, we like political equality, but taking this argument seriously should lead you way past equal size to supporting a move to proportional representation. In practice, everyone in this debate accepts trade-offs between political equality and other factors. If we’re not going to have proportional representation, we think clear lines between different levels of government are features that should have real weight.

    Effective and understandable layers of representation

    We are in favour of layers of representation that are effective and easy to understand. Through postcode lookups on TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem we can explain the overlaps for a user’s own postcode, but the simpler the system the easier it is for people to understand what is happening – whether or not they visit one of our websites.

    When boundaries are less complex, it’s also easier for people working inside the system to understand how the pieces fit together. Tighter requirements on populations means more constituencies will cross local authority boundaries. Using our new datasets, we can say that the number of constituencies that have more than 5% of its population in at least one other local authority has increased from 26% to 38%.

    This means there are an increasing number of MPs who have a harder job than others – working with different or multiple local authorities depending on the issue at hand. Knowledge and understanding of local systems is much more complicated for these MPs, and getting problems to the right place is more challenging for their staff.

    Number of local authorities Current constituencies % Future constituencies %
    1 478 74% 404 62%
    2 155 24% 220 34%
    3 16 2% 26 4%
    4 1 0% 0%

    Tighter requirements also mean more frequent changes. The current timetable will lead to this process being repeated every other election, disrupting understanding of constituencies and processes of accountability.

    The reason we’ve produced this data in the first place is to help organisations we are working with transform information they have about current constituencies into information that is useful for new constituencies. Institutions inside and outside the formal political system develop an understanding of the country that is disrupted by changing boundaries.

    This problem also applies to the understanding MPs have of their own area – both in terms of learned understanding, and statistics and reports created to inform them. Changing boundaries means everyone has to change their understanding of what a constituency looks like. This is all bad from the point of view of effective understanding and interrelation of layered government.

    Something that should be key when designing our political system is making sure that it can be understood by citizens and representatives, and supports effective communication between layers of government.

    If we designed our institutions and boundaries to be easily navigated, rather than meet mathematical rules, what would that look like? Certainly there should be better alignment between different layers of government, but can we go further than that? We want better postcode data so that we can fix the problems of when the same postcode is in multiple areas, but from a public understanding point of view – why shouldn’t the line drawers respect postcode boundaries in the first place? They’re a lot more real to people than the process that produces our boundaries now.

    The way we draw our boundaries is part of wider arguments about the different priorities we have when we design political institutions – and the idea that things should be easy to understand and navigate is currently undervalued.





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  3. It should be easier for MPs to vote

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    As part of this work, we are working to solidify our views on where Parliamentary reform would work in a complimentary way with the principles behind our services. This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses how changes to how MPs vote can improve both transparency and the parliamentary working culture.

    Improving how MPs vote isn’t just about adopting new technology. The sudden move in the pandemic from MPs physically packing into voting lobbies to voting on their phones felt like catching up with a century of technology all at once. But that period was over quickly and things are now (roughly) back to how they were before.

    This is because parliamentary processes also reflect political culture. Thomas Edison proposed an electronic voting system for the US Congress in 1869, but one wasn’t actually implemented for 90 years after that. The technology existed, but that wasn’t enough.

    New technologies can change who holds power and threaten how things work. Decisions about technology become wrapped up in fights to preserve or change political culture. When thinking about technological changes, we can’t just approach it as a project of modernisation – we need to have a view on the culture we want to create.

    Our view is that when MPs vote, we want processes that create transparency on the votes of individuals, that help create an effective working culture, and are sensitive to the circumstances of representatives’ lives.

    These elements are not separate. Both transparency around voting and sensitivity to the lives of representatives are important to creating an effective democratic working culture. The approach needs to balance the fact that MPs are standing in for the rest of us, with the fact that they are also people, and are entitled to decent working conditions like anyone else.

    This leads to three recommendations on how the UK Parliament should handle its internal votes:

    • The House of Commons should in normal circumstances, defer votes to a standardised voting time (within ‘core hours’), where multiple votes are held in succession.
    • These votes should be held through a fast electronic means – whether through terminals, voting pass systems, or apps.
    • Current proxy voting schemes should be extended to personal discretion to designate a proxy – e.g. a set number of days a year a proxy vote can be allocated, no questions asked.

    In this week’s blog post, I’m going to walk through a bit of the backstory to this thinking, and the benefits of this approach.



    How votes work now

    Currently, when a decision point is reached in a debate, there is a “voice vote” in the room to test if anyone objects. If they do, MPs vote by physically moving into two rooms connected to the debating chamber. Two different systems kick in here – MPs tap their passes on readers to record how they individually voted, while Tellers (two sets of two MPs) count the number of people who entered to report back for the purpose of the vote. This takes quite a long time, and a vote can last around 15 minutes. Part of this includes an eight minute window for MPs to reach the lobbies from elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate.

    The current system isn’t pointlessly antiquated and slow, it is antiquated in a way that supports the way power currently works in the Commons. A slower voting process discourages too many votes – which reflects the reality that non-government approved amendments do not win, and MPs aren’t really engaged in a functional process of improving legislation. The lobbies themselves are defended as an opportunity for MPs to talk to ministers, but the influence also works the other way. The lobby system is a physical and intimidating process of sorting that enforces party unity and discourage rebellion. It is a more difficult thing for someone to walk into a room of their enemies, while being shouted at by their friends, than it is to press a button.

    Any change from this system has the potential to disrupt how power works, shifting power away from a shared consensus of party leadership (who, regardless of the specific issue, are in favour of MPs doing what parties say) and enabling more individual action by MPs.

    Our view is that this broadly would be a good thing – empowering individual MPs and Parliament collectively over the party leaderships would enable a culture closer to what citizens collectively want from MPs. Importantly, it also helps create a better working environment for MPs themselves.

    Why we care about the votes of individual MPs

    To provide better information through TheyWorkForYou, we need more complete individual voting data. The more formal mechanisms there are to manage absences, the more we can say what an MP’s vote in comparison to their party’s vote means, and produce better information for our users. Giving disclaimers and saying “it’s more complicated than that” is one approach, but it’s better to fix the problem at the source.

    Ultimately we think that MPs are responsible for how they vote and that giving more power to MPs helps them keep their promises to us. The growing amount of “rebellions” (where MPs vote against their parties) is assumed (at least in part) to result from TheyWorkForYou making individual voting records more salient. While MPs do not have strong individual mandates, they do have opinions about where leadership is drifting beyond what they said in elections. We think it is more effective for the responsibility of remembering promises to be distributed among a party, rather than seeing an election as endorsement of any and all future decisions of the party leadership.

    We’re not blindly pro-rebellions, but we think it’s important to create the space where they’re a real option available to MPs. We want better data, but we also want to give MPs more room to make decisions.

    Separating debates from votes

    Grouping votes is already the standard working pattern in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. The Scottish Parliament groups votes into a “decision time” at the end of the day; the Senedd similarly has a “voting time”. Combined with electronic voting systems – these parliaments can handle a number of votes in the time it takes the Westminster commons time to do one vote. This was also a recommendation of Sarah Childs’ Good Parliament Report, and the Fawcett Society’s A House for Everyone.

    But is it right to split up debates and votes? The Parliament website says that parliamentary “[d]ebates are designed to assist MPs and Lords to reach an informed decision on a subject. This decision is then often expressed in a vote (called a ‘division’), for or against”. Don’t we want MPs to make decisions following the debate so their votes are informed by the arguments they’ve heard?

    The problem is this description is technically true, but fiddly in the details. While debates are an opportunity for individual MPs to talk about principle and specific issues with legislation, when we move to votes, party power asserts itself. MPs who were never part of the debate are summoned by the division bell, and the vote is decided by who holds power in Parliament, rather than strong arguments made in the moment.

    Debates and votes are connected indirectly. The best way of describing the process is that parliamentary debates are the visible portion of a wider set of conversations between groups of MPs as well as between government MPs and leadership. These conversations pre-determine the outcome of votes, by finding if there are any areas the government will accept and support amendments on, or to save face, will more quietly accept in the Lords rather than the Commons. It’s not that MPs’ concerns and opinions go nowhere, just that the method they can have impact is indirect. To describe this isn’t to say it’s good, or an ideal way of working, just that it is not important for how the Commons currently works for votes to directly follow the debate they relate to.

    The connection between debates and votes is part of a long debate about the role of MPs and technology. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in arguing against remote electronic voting, argued that if MPs didn’t “have the inconvenience of having to be here physically, they don’t necessarily take it as seriously”. This is a less substantial version of Thomas Wakley’s 1839 complaint about having division bells at all – where he found it “most mischievous, that hon. Members should come down there to vote upon a question without having heard one word of the discussion”.

    Ultimately, Wakley has lost this argument – but separating out debates and votes, and moving towards a decision time, at the least removes one source of party pressure, and helps build an effective working culture that also has good transparency to the rest of the country.

    This decision time should be held within some concept of “core hours” for Parliament – helping most MPs make the voting period within their other responsibilities, personal and professional.

    Being sensitive to the lives of MPs

    Sometimes MPs can’t make it to Parliament for reasons that are part of the normal human experience. People have children and people get sick. These are things we recognise as important to safeguard in employment law, but there are difficulties for MPs in applying this to MPs who are effectively self-employed, but with obligations to constituents.

    The way Parliament currently balances this is through proxy votes – where MPs can, in circumstances like maternity/paternity leave or prolonged sickness, designate another MP to cast a vote on their behalf. Similar mechanisms now operate in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. In TheyWorkForYou, proxy votes are displayed the same as normal votes, with a note of who the proxy vote was cast by.

    The proxy vote system (introduced in 2019) was a result of two factors. The first is a long running trend where TheyWorkForYou (or similar analysis) highlighted individual voting records in a way that did not capture informal mechanisms of managing long absences like pairing – where parties mutually agree a list of absent MPs so the final result is not affected by absences. While in practice the absence is being accounted for, this is happening in a way that is not transparent to the public. In 2018, women MPs argued that TheyWorkForYou metrics were part of a standard where MPs had to work too soon after having children. This more broadly reflects the issue that Parliament and political life are structured in such a way that assumes the model MP is male, and TheyWorkForYou reinforced rather than challenged this.

    The second factor was that a breakdown of trust between parties on pairing led to heavily pregnant MPs needing to vote. Informal mechanisms are ultimately dependent on goodwill, something that cannot always be relied on.

    Proxy votes were a solution to this. They are formal mechanisms that are guaranteed by Parliament rather than parties. They reflect the reality that often, an MPs vote is the same as all other MPs of that party, and other MPs can easily cast it for them. By creating an explicit way MPs can be absent for sustained periods, the stream of individual data is created that preserves visibility on the impact of MPs, without requiring a daily presence in Westminster.

    This system is a good innovation, but it should go further. While circumstances that lead to prolonged absences are explicitly included (and others should be over time), people often need time off work to handle important issues in their lives. Currently, this remains managed through informal pairing approaches. Party managers can give MPs permission to be absent (“slips”), which will then be managed through party channels.

    The problem with this informal approach is another area where it gives parties arbitrary power in one aspect of an MP’s life, that can be used to encourage discipline more widely. In 2022, female Conservative MPs argued there was sexism in when slips were and weren’t allowed – with an example of a slip not being given to a mother needing to take a child to hospital, while feeling male colleagues were easily being given permission to go on holiday. In other cases, permission might be denied to punish internal critics. This is not a healthy system – it works for party management, but not for MPs, and doesn’t work transparently for the rest of the country.

    The solution to this is to manage “slips” through the same proxy vote mechanism. MPs should be given the equivalent of leave through a set number of times they can designate a proxy for the day, no questions asked. This accomplishes a double goal of removing more absences from the parliamentary record, and reducing another arbitrary way parties can hold power over MPs.

    Looking for answers that work for everyone

    We believe that transparency in how MPs vote is important. Through our voting records we want to present straightforward summaries of the impact of MPs in Parliament, that inform our users, and encourage focus on significant decisions made in Parliament. From our point of view, the more complete the data, the easier it is to create summaries that accurately reflect underlying realities without long disclaimers. As such, we’re in favour of both making voting easier and parties publishing the instructions they give MPs, to give the public more complete, and easier to understand, information about voting.

    At the same time, making voting easier improves the quality of life of MPs. Making voting more predictable, and reasonable absences more possible, fit well as part of a package of changes improving parliamentary life.

    While TheyWorkForYou will sometimes make life harder for MPs (and that’s partly the point), in other cases, our frustration at lack of transparency, and MPs’ frustrations at arbitrary and bad working conditions come from the same place: an agreement between party leaderships that power should be centralised. But there are ways of changing that, and we should talk more about it.





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  4. Machine learning can make climate action plans more explorable

    We’ve used machine learning to make practical improvements in the search on CAPE – our local government climate information portal.

    The site contains hundreds of documents and climate action plans from different councils, and they’re all searchable.

    One aim of this project is to make it easier for everyone to find the climate information they need: so councils, for example, can learn from each other’s work; and people can easily pull together a picture on what is planned across the country.

    The problem is that these documents often use different terms to talk about the same basic ideas – meaning that using the search function requires an expert understanding of which different keywords to search for in combination.

    Using machine learning, we’ve now made it so the search will automatically include related terms. We’ve also improved the accessibility of individual documents by highlighting which key concepts are discussed in the document.

    Screenshot of CAPE: Search results for "flooding" , including 41 related terms such as drainage, river, and flooding. Screenshot of CAPE action plan listing. Shows a climate emergency action plan, and some of 65 topics extracted from the document: e.g. air quality, biodiversity, carbon budgets

    How machine learning helps

    We’re already using machine learning techniques as part of our work clustering similar councils based on emissions profile, but we hadn’t previously looked at how machine learning approaches could be applied to big databases of text like CAPE.

    As part of our funding from Quadrature Climate Foundation, we were supported to take part in the Faculty Fellowship – where people transitioning from academic to industrial data science jobs are partnered with organisations looking to explore how machine learning can benefit their work.

    Louis Davidson joined us for six weeks as part of this programme. After a bit of exploration of the data, we decided on a project looking at this problem of improving the search, as there was a clear way a machine learning solution could be applied: using a language model to identify key concepts that were present across all the documents. You can watch Louis’ end of project presentation on YouTube.

    Moving from similar words to similar concepts

    Louis took the documents we had and used a language model (in this case, BERT) to produce ‘embeddings’ for all the phrases they contained.

    When language models are trained on large amounts of text, this changes the internal shape of the model so that text with similar meanings ends up being ‘closer’ to each other inside the model. An ‘embedding’ is a series of numbers that represent this location. By looking at the distance between embeddings, we can identify groups of similar terms with similar meanings. While a more basic text similarity approach would say that ‘bat’ and ‘bag’ are very similar, a model that sorts based on meaning would identify that ‘bat’ and ‘owl’ are more similar.

    This means that without needing to re-train the model (because you’re not really concerned with what the model was originally trained to do), you can explore the similarities between concepts.

    There are approaches to this that store a “vector database” of these embeddings which can be directly searched – but we’ve gone for a simpler approach that doesn’t require a big change to how CAPE was already working.

    Using the documents we have, we automatically identified (and manually selected a group of) common concepts that are found across a range of documents – and the original groups of words that relate to those concepts.

    When a search is made we now consult this list of similar phrases, and search for these at the same time. This gives us a practical way of improving our existing processes without adding new technical requirements when adding new documents or searching the database.

    Because we now have this list of common concepts, we are also pre-searching for these concepts to provide, for each document, links to where that concept is discussed within it. With this change, the contents of individual documents are more visible, with it easier to quickly identify interesting contents depending on what you are interested in.

    Potential of machine learning for mySociety

    Our other websites, like TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow, similarly have a large amount of text that this kind of semantic search can make more accessible — and we can already see how they might be useful to those relying on data around climate and the environment WhatDoTheyKnow in particular has huge amounts of environmental information fragmented across replies to hundreds of different authorities.

    Generative AI and machine learning have huge potential to help us make the information we hold more accessible. At the same time, we need to understand how to incorporate new techniques into our services in a way that is sustainable over time.

    Through experiments like this with CAPE, we are learning how to think about machine learning, which problems we have that it applies to, and understand new skills we need to work with it. Thanks to Louis, and his Faculty advisors for his work and their support on this project.

    Image: Ravaly on Unsplash.

  5. Giving more power to Parliament helps MPs keep their promises to us

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses the connection between our democracy and climate work, and how changing Parliament to empower MPs helps them keep the promises they made in elections.

    Last October’s debate and vote on a ban on fracking demonstrated how the lack of effective action on the climate crisis is part of wider problems with our politics. This was an extraordinary collision between the government’s agenda and government MPs promises to voters, which ended with the breaking of both. The vote to legislatively ban fracking did not go forward, and the force applied by party leadership to achieve this led to the resignation of the Prime Minister.

    The outcomes of these situations were extreme, but this dynamic is part of wider problems that don’t explode in such a clear way. Government should be anchored to the promises made to voters in elections. Changes to how Parliament works, in line with citizen expectations of how it should work, would strengthen the ability of politicians to deliver on the promises they make in elections, and respond to the level of citizens’ concern over the environment.

    Currently the government has too much control of what Parliament can spend their time discussing and voting on. The effect of this is that it is easier for governments to stray from their manifesto mandates on environmental and climate change issues, where many promises are kept or broken without a parliamentary vote.

    Strengthening the power of Parliament to control its own time was a recommendation of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK (a group of ordinary people who, like a jury, were selected to come together and discuss questions about how our democracy should work). Doing so would give more force to threats from a majority of MPs to constrain the government through Parliament, and would help keep governments aligned with the promises they’ve made.



    Fracking and democracy

    Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from bedrock by pumping pressured water into the rock. The 2019 Conservative manifesto reflected the action the previous Conservative government had taken to stop fracking in England:

    We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect. Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.

    This action was taken after an Oil and Gas Authority report concluded that “it is not possible with current technology to accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking”. The government retained the legal ability to issue fracking licences; they just committed in public not to do so.

    As late as March 2022, a government minister was saying that the approach needed to be led by science, and that practically, fracking solved no near-term problems (a similar point was made at the time by then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng). This was a cross-party position, with the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos also having statements on banning fracking in England, and the SNP and Plaid Cymru manifestos were for banning fracking in Scotland and Wales.

    The government position was changed by Prime Minister Liz Truss, who indicated they would allow fracking when it was supported by local communities. This created a conflict between the manifesto that government MPs were elected under, and the direction of the government itself.

    Such a conflict is a democratic problem, because justifications for the government’s power to take decisions depends on the support of a majority of MPs, and in turn, the promises they collectively made to voters in elections.

    But there was not an obvious point at which the conflict would come into the open. Thanks to the limitations on time available for non-government business, the prospect of a meaningful vote on fracking was entirely in the government’s gift. This makes it easier for governments to maintain policies in areas they may not have the backing of their own party.

    If a majority of MPs had more power to get their issues on schedule, it would be harder to get into a situation like this in the first place. Changing the allocations and acceptable uses of Parliamentary time would help alignment between government actions and election promises.

    Manifestos promises and party instructions

    Where a manifesto commitment involves passing a new law, MPs have the opportunity to weigh up whether a promise to voters or loyalty to the current leader is more important. The party will give them instructions to vote, and they can choose if they want to follow those instructions.

    While this decision may involve complicated personal trade-offs, our polling from last year found that a majority of UK adults (55%) agreed with the idea that MPs are personally responsible for how they vote, regardless of party instructions. One of the conclusions of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK was that parties should be able to enforce discipline to keep promises – but not beyond that. They also suggested MPs should hold local citizens’ assemblies to inform their votes on controversial issues outside the manifesto.

    The best understanding we have of citizen perspectives of how this should work is that party leaders should not be able to change policy direction and enforce discipline at the same time. This sort of idea is reflected in the way in which MPs themselves talk about manifesto promises and decisions to disobey party instructions, with the former Energy Minister arguing that allowing fracking broke pledges made at the election, as it went against wider net zero commitments.

    Parliamentary time

    The question of exactly what MPs are responsible for, and when they should defer to their parties assumes that MPs have an actual choice to make. But manifesto promises can be kept or broken without MPs doing anything, because they relate to things the government has been given the power to do without asking Parliament.

    The suspension of fracking permits is one of these areas. When it was announced, fracking was not banned, but government policy changed so no permits would be granted. MPs did not need to vote for this to happen – and the reverse is also true – there is no natural point for MPs to vote to stop it happening.

    The most precious asset in Parliament is time. For Parliament to talk about or vote about a specific area, time needs to have been agreed on the schedule. But control of the schedule is almost entirely in the hands of the government. What happened in October was the opposition using one of their rare allocations of Parliamentary time to try and pass a vote that would open up further Parliamentary time for the full process required to pass a ban on fracking.

    This approach led to the Government Chief Whip arguing to their MPs that “this is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the Government. We cannot, under any circumstances, let the Labour Party take control of the [schedule] and put through their own legislation and whatever other bits of legislation they desire”. It’s worth emphasising that the UK Parliament is unusual in the extent to which the government controls the schedule, and actively tries to restrict the “proper” uses of time that is given to other purposes.

    This point was made by a report on Parliamentary time written by Meg Russell and Daniel Glover, which argues that “the uses of opposition days are limited compared to other legislatures – where opposition parties can for example use such time for proposing bills. The government should seek to win votes on opposition business on merit, rather than deploying procedural tactics.”

    In this light, the government position that it is improper for the opposition to propose legislation is an ideological one, which voters might understandably view as less important than the substantive matter under discussion. Fracking wouldn’t have been banned instantly if the vote was successful, but it would have been highly likely to lead to a legal change that restricted action more than the current situation. It was, ultimately, a vote about fracking.



    Opening up the schedule

    Russell and Glover argue it is “difficult for MPs to get key topics of concern debated in the Commons, and in particular to make binding decisions on them, in the face of government resistance – even where a majority of [MPs] would support this”, and suggest changes to fix this problem. They highlight previous recommendations and examples from other Parliaments, international and in the UK, in favour of giving Parliament as a whole more power over the agenda. For instance, they argue in favour of more dedicated time for non-government business (highlighting that the Welsh Parliament has an explicit 3:2 rule for government versus other business).

    They also highlight a previous recommendation from the 2009 Wright Committee that that the schedule should be possible for Parliament to amend, which had been “standard practice in many parliaments around the world and has operated in the Scottish Parliament without problems for the last decade”. In the fracking vote, Labour’s approach was attacked by the government as being against how the system works – but the wider context shows that the UK Parliament works badly when compared to other parliaments, and the current system does not work with the best interests of citizens in mind.

    The Citizens Assembly on Democracy in the UK was very supportive of giving Parliament more control over its time. With overwhelming support for the idea that MPs should be able to ensure important public issues outside the government agenda are discussed (recommendation 1.7), that bills do not need to originate in the government and time should be available to properly examine potential bills with cross party support (recommendation 1.8), and that while the government needed to have the time to deliver what they were elected to do – more fixed time was needed in the schedule for non-government business (recommendation 1.9).

    Arguments about how parliamentary scheduling should happen are sometimes dismissed as procedural or nerdy, but what is actually happening here, in dry language, is that the way Parliament works is systematically off from the way in which citizens would expect it to work. Fixing the deep plumbing of parliamentary democracy helps MPs take real action, in line with their promises, to change how the country works.

    Powers are influential even if not used

    Greater amounts of time given to non-government business, and broader views about acceptable use of that time, would be a way of putting pressure on the government to keep manifesto promises. The prospect of more non-government legislation makes it easier for the majority of MPs (who in this case have a commitment to a stronger ban on fracking than current policy) to credibly threaten to overrule the government. This shapes behaviour even if it never happens.

    The events of October validate this. Using opposition time to force government MPs into a bind, opened up a concession from the government to their own MPs that there would be a vote on what “local consent” means for fracking. This was a change from the previous position. Without the threat that Parliamentary time might be rerouted, this promise might not have happened. Greater power to Parliament to forcefully ensure alignment between the majority and government make it more likely the government will do so voluntarily, and stay better aligned with election promises.

    What can we do from the outside?

    Our view on the climate crisis is the best road forward is a democratic one. In our work, that includes support for climate assemblies as a way of finding consensus on difficult and important issues. More broadly, we believe that different people and communities working together are competent and capable of making decisions on issues that affect their future. But we also have to work on where power actually is, and make elected institutions more effective and responsive, in line with the way in which citizens think those institutions should work.

    Our Climate programme is currently focused at the local level. On our CAPE website, you can view and search councils’ climate action plans – and you can see which local authorities have mentioned fracking (or fracking bans) in their plans.

    We want to work similar approaches into our wider set of services. We want to think about how we use our platform, and services like TheyWorkForYou, to help shape politics in line with what citizens expect of it.

    For climate and environmental issues a specific complaint made of TheyWorkForYou is that decisions without disagreement (like the statutory net zero target) or using existing government powers are not as visible as contentious votes. This is an area we want to get better at, but also reflects part of a wider (bad) trend where more and more official business disappears into “secondary legislation”, where the ability of MPs to scrutinise is much weaker. A lot has changed since TheyWorkForYou was set up, and we want to adapt our work to address the problems of today.

    If you have comments or feedback on the issues in the blog post, we’d love to hear from you.





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    Image: Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

  6. Learning from the way people use TheyWorkForYou

    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.

    Never heard of TheyWorkForYou 69%, have heard of it 32%, have visited/used 20%

     



    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.

    Professional users are mostly in public or charitable sector jobs

     

    VOtes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals


    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.

    TheyWorkForYou Page views by year, showing a spike in 2019 for the election Shows that generally there were more views of the summayr apge, until 2010 - when voting records almost reached parity

    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.



    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.



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    Image: Maksim Shutov

     

  7. TheyWorkForYou provides essential services for civil society — and beyond

    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.

    TheyWorkForYou’s goal is to make the UK’s Parliaments more transparent and accessible. We believe that fast access information about our elected representatives shouldn’t only be available to insiders, or those who can pay. We work to make information about Parliament accessible to citizens and to civil society.

    One way we do this is through email alerts. Users of the website can sign up to receive an email when specific people speak, or specific keywords are spoken in any of the Parliaments we cover (now including the Senedd). On average, this means we send around 400,000 emails a month. While the main users of alerts are people subscribing to updates from their MP, one of our goals is that TheyWorkForYou’s alerts should lower the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament. 

    Last year, we ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system to understand more about how people were using this feature. Through this we found more details on how the site helps small organisations stay engaged with Parliament. It is also helping those who work within both government and 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. One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response.

    “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 other than when we are working intensively on a bill or other activity.”

    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 conveyup to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!” 

    Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society.  One respondent from a local social care reform campaign, said they “wrote [an] email to my local MP to congratulate her on her PQ and sought to update her on the govt response received so she would pursue”.

    In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask – TheyWorkForYou “enables us to ensure questions from elected members do not pass unnoticed”. 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.

    “We find your service very easy to navigate [and] a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”



    Inside Parliament and government

    TheyWorkForYou (and especially the alerts) continue to be part of the flow of information between and inside Parliament and Government departments.

    “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.

    Devolved and local government

    “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 – making parliamentary activity more transparent helps visibility between different democratic bodies in the UK.

    Civil servants

    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 by subscribing to questions answered by the minister. Because these answers might reflect recent policy changes, alerts through TheyWorkForYou can be a fast way for information to move around the department.

    While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants when crafting responses as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.



    Other uses

    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, 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 gave us some information about why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. While the official website has much improved, the search feature was highlighted as a reason why some respondents used TheyWorkForYou.

    “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

    he search function is also better than Parliaments so when we are looking for quotes/references we will also use it to support our research.” – Researcher

    “Easier to use than other sources such as Hansard’s website. Search function is much more precise and reliable” – respondent who works for an MP or Lord

    In some of these cases the official site may improve in future, 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.

    While our main focus as a service (and most of our visitors and alert subscribers) are individual citizens, supporting and amplifying the power of small civil society groups helps ensure a more level playing field of access to decision makers. In future, we’d like to be able to explore this path more, and provide better advice and guidance on how to make the best use of our tools to groups that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process. 



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    This blog post was originally published 28/07/2022 – and updated in June 2023

    Image: Monisha Selvakumar

     

  8. 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.

    You can sign up here and you’ll get an email every time we post:


    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

    To hear more about our work in this area, sign-up to our newsletter below:


    Header image: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

  9. Call for proposals – Environmental Information Regulations: How are they working in practice at the local level?

    Links

    In one sentence

    mySociety is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to explore requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.com to understand how requests for environmental information are being used in practice, highlighting success stories in releasing information at the local level, problems requesters encountered, and suggestions on how mySociety could better make use of the environmental information requests. 

    About mySociety

    mySociety is the charity behind UK civic services like TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, and WriteToThem. We build open, digital solutions to help repower democracy, in the UK and around the world.

    mySociety’s climate programme is funded by Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund.

    About mySociety’s existing work in this area 

    mySociety’s Climate Programme is exploring how digital tools and approaches can work to reduce the third of UK emissions that local authorities have influence over. A key focus of this work is improving the quality and quantity of information that exists around local climate action. We make local authority plans more accessible and visible, campaign for better official data, and support pooling and crowdsourcing of data to improve knowledge and accountability for climate action. You can read more about mySociety’s Climate programme here.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a website built by mySociety, and administered by mySociety in partnership with volunteers, that helps people make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and publishes the results in public. Over 900,000 FOI requests have been made through this platform. We have published research looking at the scale of FOI in local government, and in improving FOI through the UK, and Europe

    About this project

    Our ultimate goal in our climate work is to decrease UK carbon emissions that are either directly controlled or influenced by UK local government. Our main approach is by improving the information environment so that a variety of local institutions and actors are better able to understand the current situation, share knowledge on their approaches, and take more informed action. We have done this by making local authorities own plans and documents more discoverable and searchable, supporting crowdsourcing of information about plans and actions, pooling information held by different groups of campaigners, and arguing for improved publishing of official information

    Another method open to us is to use (or facilitate the use of) Freedom of Information laws to get more official data and information into the public domain. Freedom of Information laws give a wide range of public access to information held by authorities. This is useful in releasing information about authorities’ own plans and actions, but is also useful in releasing underlying information which local authorities, so that other organisations (including companies, charities, and other public sector bodies) can use to inform their own approach and actions. 

    The Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) substantially overlap with Freedom of Information. EIR requests make it easier to ask for and receive information specifically related to the environment, and covers a wider range of organisations than the general Freedom of Information law. We believe there is the potential to use improved support and guidance for Environmental Information Requests to facilitate more information relevant to local climate action being released, and being made discoverable by local authority actors, civil society and communities. This might take the form of modifications to WhatDoTheyKnow, or light-weight specialist services that sit on top of WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive and infrastructure (similar to FragDenStaat’s Climate Helpdesk). 

    But before we can do that, we want to understand more about Environmental Information Requests. WhatDoTheyKnow’s archive gives us access to a huge number of requests made for environmental information, but we understand very little about the contents of these requests. 

    Based on a quick text search, we have a maximum of 70,000 requests that in some way mention environmental information regulations. As part of our wider pool of 1 million FOI requests, there may be other requests with environmental interests that have not explicitly mentioned EIR. We are looking for a contractor to explore the large WhatDoTheyKnow dataset, and highlight themes, patterns, and individual examples that show how EIRs are being used, obstacles users are encountering, and the implications of this for mySociety’s future work in this area. 

    The available budget for this work is up to £8000-10,000 (inclusive of VAT), and the project would need to be completed by the end of July. There is a small amount of flexibility on this end date – but we are looking to make decisions in August about best ways to follow up the project in September. 

    What we want to know more about

    The broad goal of this project is to refine our understanding of how EIR works in practice. We’ve broken this into six areas we’d like to understand more about. 

    1. EIRs have fewer exemptions, and a higher threshold for withholding material on public interest grounds, than FOI and. In principle, relevant information should be easier to get through EIR, but it is unclear how much this is significant in practice. We want to know more about the kinds of information that are successfully being released through EIR.
    2. EIRs apply to more types of organisation – and organisations that have an important local footprint may be accessible to FOI. We want to know about the kinds of institutions and authorities who are or could be releasing information under EIR that is relevant to our local emissions goals.
    3. Authorities should consider which regime a request falls under – and default to the more permissive EIR regime when a request is for environmental information. We want to know if there are cases where information is being withheld under FOI but should have been considered under EIR.
    4. EIR might be more poorly understood by both requesters and authorities – information may be being incorrectly withheld that should be released. We want to understand any patterns of refusal that would inform advice tools. 
    5. At the moment we don’t have an automatic way of identifying EIR responses (when authorities have judged a request under these rules), but it should be possible to create classification rules that separate them from FOI requests. We want to refine this approach so we can more consistently identify and analyse EIR responses, so they can be in current or future local climate services.
    6. The big way in which EIRs are less accessible is that authorities can charge fees without a minimum amount of time taken, which is the case for FOI requests. Generally we think this doesn’t happen much (the ICO’s guidance is not to charge for a reasonable request), but we don’t know. We want a clearer sense of how often authorities ask that requesters pay a fee for environmental information.

    What we are looking for in and from a partner

    Expertise / skill set

    We think there are a few different approaches to this project and are open to a range of approaches. In general we anticipate two main kinds of applicants: one leaning more on technical ability, and the other on specialist knowledge of FOI and EIR, or environmental data more broadly. For either kind of applicant, we can provide basic support in the other skillset. The ideal candidate would cover all of these bases (where a subject matter expert makes the technical search process sharper) – and we can help facilitate partnership applications between technical and specialist partners who might otherwise submit separately. If you are interested in this route, please fill out this collaboration form and we can help put you in contact. 

    The key thing an applicant needs to have is an approach to searching the large quantity of information on WhatDoTheyKnow. At a minimum this requires some technical skills and ability to navigate the site – but beyond that might be accomplished by large scale text analysis, or a sampling and search method. WhatDoTheyKnow’s search allows searching for specific search terms – but the search count is not always accurate for larger queries. 

    For technical strategies, we can provide data exports to enable searches off-platform. But for subject matter experts, we can also provide an Excel sheet of links to URLs that have triggered particular keywords, and authorities. 

    Something that is important to us is being able to point to individual examples – and so approaches based on aggregate analysis (which might be the better approach to identify the scale of fees being charged, for instance, or automatically analyse themes of requests) need to also be able to drill down to individual requests. 

    With this in mind, the following is a list of skills we would expect the candidate to have a couple but not necessarily all of the following:

    • Technical skills
      • Experience with search and processing large amounts of text delivered in a mostly unstructured way.
      • Experience with Natural Language Processing (NLP) or automated topic extraction. 
    • Subject matter skills
      • Knowledge and experience of Freedom of Information and/or Environmental Information Requests
        • Especially practical understanding of refusal and appeal grounds in both FOI and EIR.
      • Less important, but understanding of the wider European context of Environmental Information Regulations might provide additional understanding of potential approaches mySociety could take in the UK. 

    Alignment with values and aims

    Our Repowering Democracy strategy puts a special emphasis on embedding equity and inclusion in our work practices and services, and our work aims in general to fulfil values of equity/justice, openness and collaboration

    Applicants should consider if this presents any obstacles to a working relationship, and think about how these values should be reflected in the project plan, either in terms of subject matter to investigate, or research approach.

    Working practices

    mySociety works flexibly and remotely, and there is no requirement to work from or visit an office. Applicants can distribute their work as appropriate over the time available, but we would expect regular check-ins on progress to be arranged over that period. A shared Slack channel and a specific contact person will be used to help coordinate and quickly share questions and information between mySociety and the researcher. 

    Successful applicants would be expected to abide by the mySociety Code of Conduct in mySociety communications channels and events. 

    Outputs and deliverables

    The purpose of this project is to inform mySociety’s future projects, especially forming the base of knowledge around the use of EIRs for a prototyping week.

    We are open to the form of outputs – this may take the form of one large report, briefings around our individual question areas, proposed amendments to guidance, etc. For technical submissions, analysis code under an appropriate licence would form part of the output.

    The outputs should also work as a general contribution to knowledge of the current use of EIRs, and we might either publish or edit down and publish these briefings/reports.

    Q&A and contact details

    The application timeline includes a Q&A event, to which you can sign up at the link at the top of this document. The Q&A session will include an element to help individual researchers coordinate to form a joint submission (applications are also welcome from individual researchers). Answers will be made available in a video on this page for applicants who cannot take part. Questions can be emailed to the contact address below. 

    Please send any queries or questions to research-commissioning+eir2023@mysociety.org and mention which project it is in regard to. Questions in advance are preferred and will be prioritised in the session. 

    Your application

    Applications can be submitted by individuals, organisations, or joint teams of individuals/organisations. These should be sent to research-commissioning+eir2023@mysociety.org by the closing date. 

    You should submit a short application, of up to 4 pages of A4. A template for the response can be downloaded at the link at the top of this page, and covers: 

    • Who you are (whether an individual, organisation, or joint team).
    • A description of your previous experience/previous work and why you want to take on this project.
      • To the extent that this is possible, this should be anonymous and not include names of the org or members of the team (to help with anonymous stages of the recruitment process)
    • How you would approach and deliver this project – a short project plan with approximate timings. 
      • This could include discussion of appropriate outputs for the project, and balancing technical and subject matter requirements. 
    • The total value (£) of your proposal (including VAT), and high-level breakdown of costs (perhaps an indication of days per person, any other expenses). This does not need to include production costs of the report. 
      • Given the cost of the project, we will not be giving a great deal of weight to budget plans so please keep this short and high-level – we can dig into further details during interviews, if necessary.
    • A short description of the individuals or team who will do the work, including biographies

    There is a separate equalities monitoring form to fill out, which is processed separately from the main application (there is a link to the form in the application form). This is for understanding the reach of our method of distributing the call for proposals. 

    If you are interested in joining a ‘researcher pool’ mailing list that we will contact with details of future projects, please see the link at the top of this document. 

    Application timeline

    If there are changes during this timeline, the table on the website version of this form will be updated. 

    Stage Date Description
    Call for proposals published 7 March 2023  
    Q&A Webinar 21 March 2023 An open, online public event for interested bidders to learn more about the project and ask questions. This will be recorded and available afterwards. You can submit questions in advance to research-commissioning@mysociety.org. Questions in advance are preferred. 
    Questions answered 23 March 2023 Video of the webinar to be made available to all potential bidders, in addition to answers to any other questions submitted via email
    Deadline for applications 31 March 2023 (end of day)  
    Initial decisions 7th April 2023 Applicants to be informed whether they have made it through to a short panel interview (and may be asked for a sample of existing work). Applicants not progressing past this stage to be offered written feedback
    Interviews w/c 10 April 2023 Format to be decided, but this will likely be a one-hour panel interview with several people involved in the climate programme, towards the end of the week (14th, 15th April)
    Final decision w/c 18 April 2023 Remaining applicants to be informed of the final decision. Applicants not progressing to be offered feedback
    Project briefing/kick-off meeting End of w/c 18 April 2023 To include a brief introduction to mySociety, discussion of any onboarding required and approach to project management, communication and catch-ups
    Project deadline End of July 2023 End of project
    (Time range of project is a little flexible – we want it to inform decisions in August about any follow up work in September)

    What happens after the project 

    We intend to publish the report or briefs you produce, credited to you, on the mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence (see recent publications on research.mysociety.org for details). We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted. 

    We will convene a short ‘lessons learned’ session for the contractor and mySociety to discuss how the project went – what went well and anything that could have been improved. We will also discuss any future work based on the delivered project (e.g. if you are an academic and might want to co-author an article) and our ongoing relationship. We would also like to arrange a presentation on the project to mySociety staff, and there may also be an opportunity to promote the work in a public event held by mySociety (budgeting for this would be separate to the project above). 

    Terms and conditions

    Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.

     

    Questions and Answers

     

    For data analysis, what format is the data available in?

    We create a regular research export of the database in CSV format. This doesn’t include the last few months of data and removes requester names where possible (this is generally available on the website, but we are trying to future proof against information being too available if redactions are needed in future).

    There is a a data table of requests made by authority, and then a dataset of the individual messages (with full text) for each request. 

    We currently don’t make the downloaded files themselves available in bulk (but are accessible through the site) – but the bulk export does include any cached conversion of a word document or pdf attached.

    We can produce reduced data sets limited to specific authorities or keywords. For instance, to those flagged as potentially EIR projects at the start.

    WhatDoTheyKnow data sharing policy for bulk data

    What is the time scale for the research?

    Broadly we’re looking for work to be completed by the End of July to help us inform how we spend our time in September. Depending on the nature of outputs, there may be some flexibility around this.

    The retained EU law will ‘sunset’ EIR at the end of the year, unless explicitly retained. How does this work relate to that?

    Our current default assumption is “everything will be fine” and this project can proceed as if EIR will continue past 2023. In the event it is looking like everything is not fine, this research helps us understand more about the impact of EIRs for campaigning purposes.

    How have you handled projects like this before and how have they worked?

    We’ve previously commissioned two pieces of research: one was about how we should commission research, the other was the role of local government in climate change. In both case we worked with a sole researcher, with regular check-in meetings and a shared slack channel. That said, we’re open to group applications (and this project may be appropriate for that). Neither of those projects was particularly data heavy, but we have worked to provide external researchers with data before. 

    What support will you give the project?

    The main support and contact for the project will be Alex Parsons (Senior researcher) from aa research and data perspective. There is limited available of the WhatDoTheyKnow on a day to day basis team – but I can either answer questions or get answers to questions we need to know.

    If you have any other questions about this project or the application, please email : research-commissioning+eir2023@mysociety.org

  10. Unlocking the value of fragmented public data

    As a joint project between mySociety and the Centre for Public Data, we have written a set of simple principles for how to get the most impact out of publishing public data.  You can read the report online, or download it as a PDF

    Fragmented public data is a problem that happens when many organisations are required to publish the same data, but not to a common standard or in a common location. Data is published, but without work to join up the results, it rarely has the intended impacts. 

    The results of this are frustrating for everyone. Data users cannot easily use the data, policy makers do not see the impact they want, and publishers in public authorities are required to produce data without seeing clear results from their work. 

    Better and more consistent publication of data by local authorities helps enable understanding and action at scale across a range of areas. At the same time, we recognise that the technical advice given has assumed higher levels of technical capacity that in practice is possible for many data publishing tasks. Our goal has been to make sure our advice makes data more accessible, while having a realistic idea of technical capacities and support needed for data publishing. 

    This report recommends three minimum features for a data publishing requirement to be successful: 

    1. A collaborative (but compulsory) data standard to agree the data and format that is expected.
    2. A central repository of the location of the published data, which is kept up to date with new releases of data.
    3. Support from the data convener to make publication simple and effective – e.g. through validation and publication tools, coordinating returns, and technical support.

    We recommend that:

    • Whenever government imposes duties on multiple public authorities to publish datasets in future, it should also provide the staff and budget to enable these features.
    • The Central Data and Digital Office should publish official guidance covering the above.

    You can read the report online, or download it as a PDF

    Better data publishing helps climate action

    This project is informed by recurring frustrations we have run into in our work. Projects such as KeepItIntheCommunity, which mapped registered Assets of Community Value, were much more complicated than they needed to be because while transparency was required of authorities, coordination was not – meaning the task of keeping the site comprehensive and updated was enormously difficult. In principle, we could build a tool that empowered communities in line with the intentions of the original policy makers. In practice, a lack of support for basic data publishing made the project much harder than it needed to be.

    This problem also affects our work around local government and reducing emissions. Local government has influence over one third of emissions, but much of that is indirect rather than from the corporate emissions of the authority directly.  As such, many activities (and datasets) of local government have climate implications, even if the work or data is not understood as climate data. For instance, the difficulty in accessing the asset data of local authorities makes it harder for civil society to cross-reference this information with the energy rating of properties, and produce tools to help councils understand the wider picture. 

    In future we will be publishing in more detail the kind of data we think is needed to support local authorities in emission reduction – but emissions reduction cannot be isolated from the general work of local authorities. Improving the consistency of the data that is published helps everyone better understand the work that is happening, and makes local government more efficient. 

    Sign up to hear more about our climate work, or to the monthly mySociety newsletter

    Photo credit: Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash