Last week we convened the sixth and final (at least for now) online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.
Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.
This time, the discussants looked at the challenges and rewards of creating civic tech within hostile environments, from war zones to dictatorships; examined what ‘peacetech’ means and whether it can be applied more broadly; and then discussed how a small grant might best be deployed to help those working for good despite tough external factors.
Discussants were Yolanda Booyzen, Communications Coordinator at HURIDOCS, joining us from South Africa; Julie Hawke, Digital Peacebuilding Lead at Build Up speaking from the US; and Teona Tomashvili, co-founder and Project Lead at ForSet in Georgia.
For a high-level view, read on. We’ve attempted to capture all the ideas discussed, but if you’re keen not to miss anything, access the notes from the meeting, as well as the full recording of the session and the AI-generated transcript.
A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.
- Security: Both people and information must be kept secure when working in hostile environments.
- Practical and logisitcal problems: Stable internet connections and electricity supplies can’t be relied on; roads may be poor and organisations may need to work across large or difficult-to-reach areas; there may be language barriers.
- Time: Issues with time expectations manifest themselves in a variety of ways; for example –
- The documentation of atrocities may take longer than the period in which funders expect to see results;
- Organisations may need to react more quickly to fast-changing events than tech developers are used to.
- Socio-cultural factors:
- Organisations have to work in hostile online environments which also foster mis- and disinformation; hate speech, algorithmic profile targeting and polarisation.
- In the real world, they may be battling electoral fraud and a non-independent media that is under political pressure.
- Lack of political will: Trying to run a service that is helpful to citizens, such as an Alaveteli-based FOI service, is difficult without government co-operation — and this leads to a lack of open data for civic technologists to work with.
- Create networks of grassroots organisations working in the same or similar areas, online if that is safer.
- Make longlasting and authentic relationships with the organisations working on the ground; not just partnerships for the duration that the funding is available.
- Base your services or software on the actual needs of the people you’re making it for. Listen to them before you begin. They might not even need software: it might be that they need connections, or training, instead. The objectives come first, before the tech.
- Ensure that the safety of people and security of information are prioritised.
- Build software so that it works offline — for example by storing data locally on a device and allowing the user to upload it when they come back to somewhere with wifi.
- Often the way forward is to use or repurpose existing software in new contexts. You don’t necessarily have to see yourself as a creator of ‘peacetech’ to be providing a technology that fosters peace.
- Don’t forget that people in hostile environments need psychological support as well as technological tools. A sense of humour is also important.
- Consider giving money to people other than ‘the usual suspects’, directly and without strings. Take more risks.
How the grant could help
Some ideas for spending (and administering) the grant.
- Consult the organisations over what they really need.
- A handbook listing ways to work and what not to do in hostile environments.
- The organisations that need the most help are not always fluent in English. Consider providing a contact that can help them through the grant process.
- Consider not requiring any proposals or reports, as that uses up the valuable resource of the organisations bidding for the money, and takes up some of the money you’re granting in terms of their time.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the Action Lab working group, which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.
To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.
Yesterday was the second Innovations in Climate Tech event. People from councils and organisations came along and discussed all kinds of projects and ideas.
The key question? What they might do with a small injection of money designed to kickstart digitally based, local climate related projects.
If you’re ready to go ahead with your application, start here. Otherwise, read on.
Projects beginning to form
You can see all the ideas that were floated in our first meetup on our Padlet, but here are a few of the projects that emerged and appeared to be gaining the most momentum yesterday.
- A national knowledge sharing tool This project would seek to create a comprehensive list of what has been done digitally around Climate Adaptation, showcasing lessons learned, successes and failures. The instigators could also develop playbooks, open source tools and a knowledge sharing forum for councils and citizens. Notes here.
- Community resilience to extreme weather events A plan to bring people together to embed community resilience, sharing information about flood risk, how to make your home more able to cope with the effect of climate change and extreme weather events. There was also a suggestion of broadening the existing community warden role to encompass community resilience issues. Notes here.
- Adaptation gardens Showing people how they could garden in a different way to adapt to a changing climate: eg with drought resistant plants, water conservation methods, pollinator friendly plants and other eco-friendly methods. Notes here.
- Digital toolkit for events Putting together a digital toolkit that people can use for climate-related community events, ensuring it’s accessible and reusable in lots of different situations. Notes here.
Seen a project that you’d like to try too?
Maybe you’re a council officer who thinks one of the ideas above would fit well within your constituency.
Or maybe you’re a community group that could help shape the project and replicate it in your area.
There may be an opportunity to join up with other folks working on the idea, and perhaps expanding their plans into more than one region.
Feel free to fill in our form and indicate that you are open to working with others on one of the existing ideas.
What you should know about the grants
- You do not have to have attended either of the prior sessions to bid, but please do give consideration to what we are looking for: small, locally-based trials of projects that work with a local council at the intersection of democracy (broadly defined) and climate. A local authority must be involved in the project.
- Need to find a partner council? Let us know and we’ll shout out on Twitter for you.
- This is seed funding, designed to allow for testing, planning and trying new approaches; things that aren’t possible with restricted grants. So don’t worry about having a detailed plan — your application can be short and simple.
- Applications close at 23:59 on Monday 31st October 2022. We aim to have made our decisions and awarded the grants by Monday 7th November 2022.
- Funding will cover the period until March 31 2023 — though your project may continue onwards for as long as you like. We’ll hold a wrap-up event in spring showcasing the work to date.
Ready to bid? Apply here.
We spoke to Rebecca Sawyer of Brighton Peace and Environment Centre, to discover how their ReForest Brighton project interfaces with our own CAPE and Council Climate Scorecards sites.
As it turns out, our projects have a lot in common. Both aim to make it easier for everyone to understand and assess the progress a council is making towards cutting carbon emissions, a field where the picture can be complicated and difficult for the average person to follow. That starts with data.
Rebecca explained, “Identifying the path to carbon neutrality is not straightforward, and the data that would enable organisations to know where they currently are on this path is very weak.”
To address this, ReForest Brighton is developing an interactive website to show in real time the progress that each local authority has made in relation to its individual carbon neutral targets.
Naturally, the project began by looking at the organisation’s hometown of Brighton, which has a target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030. That’s just the start, though; the model is replicable for any other local authority in the UK, allowing their own carbon neutral targets and the actions determined by their climate action plans to be slotted in.
“The aim,” says Rebecca, “is to provide real time quality data that will enable decision making around policy and practice.
“So for example, if it’s clear that maintaining the current level of action won’t bring a city to carbon neutrality by their set date, the council can refocus their efforts to reduce emissions and sequestrate more carbon.”
The ultimate target? “To make local authority councils more ambitious.”
Carbon neutral dates
So where do CAPE and the Scorecards site come in? As Rebecca explained, CAPE was useful mainly for a single datapoint amongst the many that it provides.
“The main way we’ve been using it is to retrieve the carbon neutral dates of all the individual local authorities in the UK.
“Without this data being easily accessible it would’ve taken us a long time and lot of resources to go through more than 300 local authorities and dig out their target dates.”
And as for the Scorecards site, this has been more of a sanity-check tool: “We used it once we’d completed our calculations, to check our ratings of each local authority against the Scorecards rating.
“For example, if our calculations rated a local authority with high climate action but the Scorecards had it as low, then we’d analyse and reassess our ratings.”
As well as the interactive map, their project will produce predictive data to show how much progress the council will have made by their target zero emissions date.
For those who like the technical details, Rebecca is keen to oblige: “Our categorisation is based on a calculation of emission trends from 2016-2020. The trends allow us to predict where each local authority will be by the carbon neutral target date we downloaded from CAPE, using the ‘forecast’ formula (=FORECAST (x, known_ys, known_xs)).
“There is actually 15 years’ worth of emissions data available, but we chose this five-year period because climate action has only started becoming a consideration for local authorities in the last few years.
“Basically, we look at the predicted emissions on the authority’s carbon neutral date and categorise them accordingly — and if a local authority had no carbon neutral target or plans, it is automatically rated zero.”
A knock-on effect
ReForest Brighton wants to make it easier for the public to understand how their local authority is doing in achieving its carbon reduction targets — and they have another aim, too:
“We would like the public to push local governments to take faster, more effective action, and we’re planning to help them do this by giving them the means to write to their elected representatives, and to share the website with their friends and contacts.
“But even while hoping that councils will be making as much progress as possible, we’re also pushing for transparency. We’d even encourage an authority to push their carbon neutral target date further back if it gave a more honest picture of where they are at.”
Brighton Peace and Environment Centre are a registered charity and they welcome volunteers: get in touch if you would like to know more.
You can also make a donation to them, using this link.
Image: Aaron Burden
Last Wednesday a varied audience convened online for our Innovations In Climate Tech event.
The aim: to showcase some of the remarkable and effective projects being implemented in the UK and further afield, and to spark inspiration so that these, or similar projects, might be replicated in other UK regions.
mySociety has three £5,000 grants to give to innovators and local councils who work together and trial something they’ve seen, or been inspired by, during the event.
Missed the live version? Don’t worry: we have videos and notes, and you don’t have to have attended to be able to bid for a grant.
Rewatch or read up
Here’s where to find the various assets from the day:
- Watch a video of all the morning presentations, followed by the Q&A. This video features:
- Annie Pickering from Climate Emergency UK, on how they scored councils’ Climate Action Plans;
- Ariane Crampton from Wiltshire County Council on how they tackled outreach to diverse communities with their climate consultation;
- Claus Wilhelmsen from Copenhagen City Council on the practical ways in which they are tackling carbon cutting within construction industries;
- Ornaldo Gjergji from the European Data Journalism Network on how visualising temperature data from individual cities and towns helps people better understand the impacts of climate change;
- Kasper Spaan from Waternet on creating green roofs across the city to aid urban cooling and biodiversity.
- The afternoon breakout sessions weren’t recorded, but you can read notes of the presentations and subsequent discussions for:
- The Adaptation session (Padlet here) in which Josh Shimmin from Atamate talked about a data-driven approach to retrofitting housing;
- The Engagement session (Padlet here) in which Susan Rodaway from Pennard Community Council presented on a community consultation tool that helped them decide what to spend budget on; and Arnau Quinquilla from Climate 2025 talked about mapping climate movements across the world;
- The Spatial Planning session (Padlet here) in which Lora Botev from CitizenLab explained how their software enables councils to run consultations and grow an active group of residents who have a voice in decisions around climate;
- The Equity, Diversion and Inclusion session (Padlet here) in which Emma Geen from the Bristol Disability Equality Forum explained how vital it is to include disabled people in a green transition, and the ways in which the group has taken action to make this happen.
On 19 October, we’ll be running an informal session online, explaining what we’re looking for in a grant pitch, and giving you the chance to explore your ideas with potential partners. Then, if you want to go forward and bid for one of three £5,000 grants, we’ll give you everything you need to make your pitch.
You do not have to have attended the first event to join us at this stage. Please explore the resources above, add your thoughts to the Padlets, and sign up for this event via Eventbrite.
What sort of projects will we be funding?
To be eligible to bid for one of the grants, you must either be:
- a council that wants to trial an idea; or
- an organisation that wants to work with a council to trial your project.
Partnerships can be between two or more organisations, but every partnership must include at least one local council (and might only consist of councils). But don’t worry if you haven’t got a partner in mind yet – you may find one at this event.
- You might have seen an idea in the presentations that is directly applicable to your council area, and want to simply replicate it.
- Or, in a less straightforward but equally valid scenario, you might simply have seen an organisation you’d like to work with, or had a completely new idea sparked by something you saw.
- You might have no ideas at all, but a commitment to try something new… bring an open mind and see if anything at the event grabs you!
Sign up for the upcoming event here.
- Watch a video of all the morning presentations, followed by the Q&A. This video features:
The TheyWorkForYou alerts system will send you an email every time your chosen keyword is mentioned in Parliament. A recent survey revealed that this system is being used by a broad range of different organisations and individuals. We’ve been speaking to a few of them to find out more.
First of these is Ben Leapman, Editor of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, circulated to all of the UK’s 141 prisons.
A unique publication
As Ben explains, “Each issue includes news, features, advice, puzzles – and eight pages of readers’ letters, which provide a fascinating insight into what’s on the minds of men and women behind bars.
“We’re a not-for-profit publication and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New Bridge Foundation charity, which was founded in 1956 to create links between the offender and the community. We’re funded by advertising revenue. As far as we’re aware, no other country has a national prison newspaper. We’re unique!”
As Editor, Ben commissions articles, decides which stories go on which pages, fact-checks, and plenty more. But he also writes news stories. We were, of course, interested to hear how TheyWorkForYou alerts can help with this.
Parliamentary mentions of prisons
“I use the alerts service to monitor for the keywords “prison” – it’s as simple as that,” says Ben.
“Prisons are a crucial public service, but sadly they don’t get as much attention from politicians or voters as schools and hospitals – it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. So the volume of daily mentions is manageable, and I’m able to look at them all.”
These simple alerts have resulted in Inside Time stories such as this one, about an innovative scheme to reduce violence, being trialled at 18 prisons.
“I don’t think there has been any public announcement or press release about it,” says Ben: “I hadn’t heard of it until I saw the parliamentary question.”
And here’s another recent story, this time prompted by a House of Lords debate in which Lord Farmer, who wrote two Government reports on the importance of family visits to the rehabilitation of prisoners, says that Covid restrictions in prison visits halls are doing harm.
Stories can arise from all types of parliamentary activity: “I’ve found news stories in Commons and Lords debates, Select Committee hearings, written answers to Parliamentary questions in the Commons and Lords, Scottish Parliament proceedings, even the proceedings of Bill committees.”
Communication is key
Finally, we asked Ben what he thinks the impact of such stories is.
“I’m a news journalist – I think it’s always important that people are well-informed. For the general public in a democracy, exposure to news is essential so that people can cast their vote in a well-informed way.
“In England, prisoners are denied the vote – but there are other ways that reading news can be a direct benefit. Say we report on a new course or initiative that’s happening at a particular prison. If one of our readers reads that story and likes the sound of it, they could apply to transfer to that prison – or they could ask staff why it’s not happening at their prison.
“Prisons are rather secretive places, they’re not great at communication – so it’s often the case that both prisoners and prison staff are unaware of things going on around their prison or in other prisons, both the good and the bad.”
Thanks very much to Ben for giving us these insights into how he uses TheyWorkForYou alerts in his work.
It’s certainly one area that we’d never have imagined before he filled in our survey — but we are very glad to know that our services are helping with the admirable aims of Inside Time.
[UPDATE: Since this post was published, the 19 September has been declared an official bank holiday – our assumption in the final section of this post, that ‘no bank holiday will be formally declared’, and the conclusions we came to as a result, were incorrect. We’ve updated the section accordingly.]
On 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
mySociety runs the WhatDoTheyKnow website, which lists many authorities related to the monarchy, the Royal household and associated offices.
As a non-partisan UK registered charity, we recognise that some of our users will view the monarchy as being a political institution, while others will not. We ask all our users to be respectful in their communications and to continue to follow our House Rules.
The constitution of the United Kingdom
When a monarch dies in the UK, they are immediately succeeded by their heir, even before the coronation has taken place. The Demise of the Crown Act 1901 provides that the holding of any office under the Crown is not to be affected in any way by the death of the reigning monarch.
What this means in practice is that Government ministers, civil servants and military personnel continue to hold office and that public authorities will continue to exist without interruption. Where this becomes relevant to WhatDoTheyKnow is that FOI requests do not need to be resubmitted.
The names of public authorities
Where appropriate, our volunteers will update the names of public authorities and the notes on the site to reflect the fact that King Charles Ⅲ is now the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. For example, we will rename the Queen’s Printer for Scotland to the King’s Printer for Scotland when the authority publicly updates its name.
Not all bodies with “Queen” in the name need to be renamed. For example, The Queen’s College, Oxford was named in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault and does not require a change. A number of schools and other public bodies were named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and we’d expect that they will continue to use their current names.
We’ve also updated the site to take account of the fact that Prince William is now the Duke of Cornwall. Under a royal charter from 1337, the position of Duke of Cornwall is held by the eldest son to the reigning monarch provided he is heir to the throne.
We have never listed the monarch as a public authority on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we continue to list the Royal Household.
We expect the Accession Council to convene shortly at St James’s Palace. The Accession Council is a body that meets twice following the death of a monarch. The purpose of the first meeting is to formally announce the death of the monarch and proclaim the succession of the new sovereign. The second meeting will be the first Privy Council meeting of the new monarch.
The day of the state funeral will be a day of national mourning in the UK, and has now been formally declared as a bank holiday.
This means that WhatDoTheyKnow will automatically treat 19 September as a non-working day for the purposes of calculating the time limits for complying with Freedom of Information requests. Even before we understood that the day would officially be a bank holiday, we had made this adjustment. This would have meant that our position differed from the position set out in FOI law; however, we believed it to be the most reasonable approach in the circumstances.
Bank holiday matters aside, we encourage people making FOI requests to recognise that some employees of public authorities will have a higher than normal workload at present and to be patient and courteous when dealing with public officials.
Has our open source Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli had an impact on transparency around the world? We’ve got more than a million reasons to say that yes, it has!
From the makes and models of over 18,000 cars stolen in Argentina to statistics about apricot farming in Tunisia; information about food labelling laws in Uruguay to what was on the menu when visiting heads of state met with the Australian Prime Minister, Alaveteli has enabled people to ask for, and receive, a colossal amount of information that otherwise would most likely not have been openly available.
Our own FOI site, WhatDoTheyKnow, runs on Alaveteli. It’s also free as open source software to anyone around the world who wants to set up an Access to Information service for their own country or jurisdiction — and in the 11 years it’s been available, many have done just that.
Key to Alaveteli is that both FOI requests and responses are published, meaning that each site builds up its own archive of information over time. Even when information is not held by the authority, public knowledge increases, and when requests go unanswered, the very fact that a request was made shows that there is public appetite for the information.
We noticed that the ticker had passed a million at the end of July this year. The lion’s share — more than 840,000 requests — represents requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow. The others are from jurisdictions as wide-ranging as Rwanda, Australia, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Europe alone, 17 Alaveteli sites are operating; five of these have been launched since 2019, thanks to support from Adessium and Swedish Postcode foundations.
We hope to be able to work with the network of Access to Information platforms in Europe (including some that are not running on Alaveteli) to strengthen their individual and collective impact. We’re looking to help build and connect the ‘community of interest’ around FOI; and to undertake more coordinated and strategic advocacy efforts to improve Access to Information at national and regional levels – all of which will help ensure continued access to information over the long-term.
Thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Helen Cross for finding the examples cited at the beginning of this post, and many more, during a multilingual trawl through the collective Alaveteli sites.
Climate change threatens to have huge impacts on human health and wellbeing. At the same time, the measures local authorities are putting in place through their climate action plans have great potential to bring positive impacts to health and well-being.
As we clean up the air we’ll see less respiratory disease; fewer toxins will mean lower cancer rates; better insulated houses will result in less damp in our homes; and better access to nature will bring benefits to mental health.
Yet it’s not a clearcut case of climate action bringing benefits to all. Councils who suffered more from austerity cuts may be less able to implement the changes needed to face the climate emergency, and as we’re already well aware, we’re not starting on a level playing field: levels of deprivation and life expectancy vary across the country.
We’ve been hearing from Heather Brown, Professor of Health Inequalities at Lancaster University, on how data from our Climate programme has been feeding into a current research project that interrogates all of these points and more, with the help of the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Scorecards site.
Funded by the National Institute of Health and Care, the research will:
- identify the actions and policies which local authorities can take to limit climate change; and
- identify actions and adaptations which can mitigate the health (both physical and mental) and health inequality impacts of climate change.
Climate change and human health are interlinked
The effects that climate change may inflict upon human health and wellbeing are huge and multifarious: from the physical health risks of extremes in temperature; shortages in food and medical supplies; water shortages and contaminated water supplies; to the mental health impacts that include anxiety, grief and loss.
It’s well recognised that these effects will, without intervention, be distributed across our population unfairly, with those already in the most deprived regions likely to be hit hardest and soonest.
Well-implemented and properly funded climate action provides an opportunity for turning these issues into positives for public health. In many cases, interventions fall within the provision of local authorities, and the action they take around climate change will have beneficial effects on health, whether intended or not.
As an example, a switch to more people using sustainable transport modes such as cycling and walking will not only cut carbon emissions, but will have both physical and mental health benefits for the population.
Informed by climate action plan data
Professor Brown explains that the first task in the project is to see what research is already out there on the health impacts of climate change: “We will be undertaking a systematic review of the existing literature to synthesise the findings on the impacts of climate change on individuals, communities and the health system’s lived experiences in relation to physical and mental health and health inequalities in a UK context.”
Part of this will involve using our CAPE database to identify local authorities to speak to. Professor Brown says:
“Based on what we find, we want to talk to people working in local authorities, and identify the perceived barriers and facilitators towards collaborating or co-constructing action plans with local communities, in relation to mitigating physical and mental health impacts and health inequalities.
“We also want to identify how local authority leads are using evidence to support the development of their climate action plans. And finally we’ll explore factors which may impact the implementation of the climate action plans and identify areas which could support them.”
At this point, data from our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Plan Scorecards site will be brought into play, interestingly with other datasets as well:
“We’ll use the Scorecards site to explore how the ratings of climate plans correlate with funding cuts associated with austerity at the local authority level; as well as population health (life expectancy), and area level deprivation.
“Then, given our findings, we will speak with people working in local authorities to understand what factors related to health were seen as priorities or not when developing climate plans.”
An increase in our understanding
This research will go back to the National Institute of Health and Care to inform their future funding; it will also feed into academic publications, and on a practical level, it should help local authorities with their decision making.
We were really glad to know that our services are playing a part in research that will increase our understanding of these issues. If this case study has suggested synergies with your own work, Professor Brown says that her team is happy to consider potential collaborations or further ideas for future research. Her contact details can be found here.
Image: Fritz Bielmeier
When we and our partners at Climate Emergency UK began work on CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer, it was with a strong sense that gathering together local councils’ plans would be useful to many types of user. We could see how such a dataset would help councils themselves, as well as informing campaigners, researchers and members of the public.
But of course, when you put data out into the open, you discover the specific ways in which these sectors will put it to use. We’re really enjoying hearing from the varied organisations who’ve been telling us how they have used CAPE and the Scorecards: some we were already quite familiar with, some we’d never heard of, and others in sectors where, while the application becomes obvious as soon as it is mentioned, we just hadn’t foreseen usage.
The reason for such variety is clear when you think about it: transition to carbon zero will touch every area of our lives, and so this data will be relevant everywhere.
That includes those working towards moving society towards more sustainable choices in what we eat. We blogged about Sustain’s work around food and farming not long ago; and now we hear from ProVeg UK, who are also working on making sustainable food choices a part of the nation’s landscape.
ProVeg UK are one of ten country teams that make up ProVeg International, a global non-profit food awareness organisation with the mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040.
They began operating five years ago, and focus solely on making school food healthier and more sustainable by increasing the quality and quantity of plant-based food in schools through their School Plates programme.
The organisation supports local authorities, multi-academy trusts and individual schools throughout the UK to help school menus become healthier, more sustainable and save money through menu reviews, plant-based recipe development, and both online and in-person plant-based cooking in schools workshops with catering staff.
The team have so far helped to swap over 6.4 million meals from meat-based to meat-free or plant-based, and are currently supporting 35 major catering partners (including 29 local authorities), responsible for over 3,500 schools, and over 580,000 children.
Underpinning action with data
With more and more local authorities declaring a climate emergency, ProVeg UK quickly realised that the Climate Actions Plans site was the perfect resource to help them prioritise their outreach to those councils who were actively looking to reduce their emissions. The team’s job is to show councils the significant role food plays in cutting emissions and to offer their free support to make it happen.
It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.
Colette Fox, Programme Manager at ProVeg UK, told us that even just being able to quote the overall number of local authorities who have declared a climate emergency was useful in showing how much work is left to be done.
She said, “The Climate Action Plans Explorer is our go-to resource to check any new declarations and to reference when we quote the current percentages for the UK and by individual nations.
“Without the site we would have had to check every council’s website and search for their climate action plans. It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.”
Recipes and advice
You can find out more about the School Plates programme on the ProVeg UK website, and if you scroll down you can download The Recipes – 35 plant-based recipes designed for primary schools. Each recipe has been created to comply with the School Food Standards, and includes the cost per portion (the average is less than 44p), the carbon footprint, key nutrients and allergens.
Although these recipes are designed for schools, they can of course be made by anyone looking to try more plant-based dishes.
And if you are involved in school food for a local authority or multi academy trust, ProVeg UK provides free menu review, plant-based recipe development, and in person training for your caterers – all free of charge.
ProVeg UK also offers free monthly online cooking workshops to individual schools, to help show why it is so important to eat more plant-based foods. If you’d like to learn more, they’d be very happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we talk about our website TheyWorkForYou, it’s often to point out how it helps the ‘everyday’ citizen keep up with what their elected representatives are doing in Parliament: you don’t need to be an expert to see how your MP has voted, or what they’ve contributed to debates.
This is one invaluable aspect of the site, but it ignores another large and equally important function. It’s an aspect that we haven’t much highlighted, but that could, without overstatement, be said to be underpinning civil society.
We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system, which made it clear just how much heavy lifting the site is doing for charities and small organisations. Indeed, it is providing a service that many rely on — free subscription to alerts on any keyword, so that you receive an email when it is mentioned in Parliament. Despite recent improvements to the official Hansard site, respondents still indicate that they find TheyWorkForYou’s provision more useful than Parliament’s offering.
So it’s not too much to say that TheyWorkForYou is a vital service which would cause substantial fallout to this sector if it were to be discontinued; or, more positively, that if mySociety had the resource to update the site, make improvements and promote it to more of the types of organisations that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process, hundreds more charities and campaigns would be empowered to affect policy for the better. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also helping those who work within 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.
“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 […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
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 convey “up to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!”
Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.
“We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. 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.
“I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service”
Inside government and Parliament
“I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.”
Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are still using TheyWorkForYou.
For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly (perhaps, in part, due to TheyWorkForYou’s example) and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.
Members of Parliament
“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.
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.
While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.
“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.
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 that is worth highlighting, 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 indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard.
“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
In some of these cases the official site may improve in future (improving the search seems a very attainable goal), 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.
Image: Monisha Selvakumar