When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.
Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.
One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.
‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.
Image: Fabio Bracht
Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.
We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.
The old normal
Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.
MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.
This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.
Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.
And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.
A digital revolution — and a roll back
There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.
MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.
But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.
The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.
Proxy voting is the wrong approach
While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.
There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.
This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).
As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.
While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.
In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.
But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.
Portraying MPs fairly
Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.
Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:
- We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
- We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
- In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.
mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.
Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.
Who could vote when?
Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting 11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave – 2 June – 4 June – Parental leave Physically present 5 June-9 June – Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present 10th June- – Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present
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mySociety’s latest research looks into the impacts of Legal Information Institutes in sub-Saharan Africa. You can read the full paper here.
If you wanted to find out what a specific law covered, how would you do it? Google what you thought the law was and hope that it came up in an internet search? Go to the local public library and look for law books? Ask a friend? In many cases around the world, especially in developing countries, it is almost impossible to get access to the law through these channels. Many sub-Saharan African countries do not routinely publish their legislation online, and fewer still publish the case-law judgments made by the courts.
So where is this information? Does it exist?
The answer is, that it does mostly exist, but much of it is either held in hard copy format within expensive and rare legal textbooks (the kind that can only be found in shiny law offices or prestigious university libraries), or, it is held behind an electronic paywall by a private, profit-making organisation, which requires often eye-watering subscription fees to access.
How, then, can individuals working in the legal field without significant financial backing, access and use the law? Online Legal Information Institutes are the primary answer.
In more than 60 countries around the world, Legal Information Institutes make significant volumes of legal information — legislation, case law, judgements etc — freely available on the internet. They can provide valuable resources to legal students, practitioners and stakeholders.
Despite the fact that a substantial movement exists promoting the principles of free access to law, these services have received relatively little charitable or philanthropic funding — particularly when compared to services that provide information relating to political or fiscal transparency. Is it the case that LIIs are primarily used by comparatively well-paid professionals, and hence deliver little true, positive, impact? Or do LIIs in developing countries, where domestic case law and legislation is already difficult to access, and where social mobility within the professions remains low, perform a greater societal service?
As a financial supporter of a number of African LIIs since 2013, the Indigo Trust, a UK-based philanthropic foundation, commissioned a report to examine the impacts of the LIIs, and whether those impacts could reasonably be amplified with greater investment.
The research identified clear, positive impacts resulting from the existence and use of the LIIs, most notably in South Africa, where the LII proved to be a key tool in increasing access to the legal profession for economically disadvantaged groups. Across the countries studied, the LIIs were also benefiting the development of high quality domestic case law, which had been underdeveloped prior to digitisation; and were considered to be useful tools for citizens in developing a more meaningful understanding of the law.
The publication of this research serves to demonstrate this positive work, and the further development work that can strengthen the LIIs.
Image: Gemma Moulder
On Wednesday 21st November we will be launching our latest research report ‘Parliaments and the People: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa’.
This report presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.
The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.
The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.
The full report will be published here on our news feed, via Amazon Kindle, and on our social media feed at 4pm on the 21st November to coincide with a launch event for the report at the House of Lords. That event is now fully subscribed, but please follow along on Twitter #ParliamentsandPeople and @mysociety to share the report and join the conversation.
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Every now and then, we in the mySociety research team are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to explore specific themes in civic participation, in partnership with some of the leading philanthropic bodies in our field. Last year, we worked with the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network to examine Participatory Budgeting. These organisations were keen to explore where there might be opportunities for the Participatory Budgeting field to be supported or developed, and alongside academic experts Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty and Michael Touchton, the mySociety research team conducted a wide-ranging review of some of the key questions surrounding Participatory Budgeting, and interviewed a number of practitioners and global experts.
You can read the full report here.
One of the truly fascinating things about the spread of Participatory Budgeting over the last 30 years is how it has evolved, mutated and emerged in almost all corners of the world. The model conceived in Porto Alegre 30 years ago is very different from the implementations of Participatory Budgeting operational today in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Projects and frameworks for participation must evolve with changing attitudes, must be culturally appropriate, and must work within the resources available. However, the very reasons that implementing bodies have for doing Participatory Budgeting have also changed.
While many practitioners view Participatory Budgeting as a very process based activity, there are many differing opinions on what it is actually structured to achieve. In Brazil, this model was developed as a new political offering to build a fundamentally redistributive programme, allowing citizens with the greatest need to input into real-world budgeting solutions to leverage funding into the poorest neighbourhoods. This concept of redistribution has, based on our research, appeared to have waned in the majority of places, with the focus of Participatory Budgeting now firmly upon the commonly accepted ideal of broad citizen participation, with the merit assigned to the act and volume of participation by the general populace in local budgeting.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this shift in focus, but it does raise questions around scale, legitimacy and programme outcomes. What are institutions really trying to achieve when implementing Participatory Budgeting? Is it redistribution, is it genuine participation, or is it the appearance of genuine participation? And is there any desired outcome beyond having citizens participate? Is the high cost of engaging the most disadvantaged citizens offset by the educational benefits of small-scale Participatory Budgeting exercises? Do implementers want these programmes to be large scale but relatively ‘light touch’? And if so, does that devalue the process of participation or exclude disadvantaged citizens or minorities? Is it right that those citizens able to mobilise support and votes for specific projects are most likely to be from comparatively wealthy and educated sections of society? Does the scaling potential of digital Participatory Budgeting platforms gentrify the process? And what is the point of investing in exercises such as Participatory Budgeting when the political and bureaucratic institutions overseeing them are evidently corrupting or subverting the process?
This research project was incredibly compelling, and while we reluctantly concluded the project with more questions than answers, we hope that these points will focus the international Participatory Budgeting community towards genuine development that will benefit all of the many hard-working and dedicated practitioners around the world.
Image: Chris Slupski
mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.
That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.
Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.
We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.
We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.
The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.
To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.
Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Education
Wirral Borough Council
UK Borders Agency
Birmingham City Council
Brighton & Hove City Council
Liverpool City Council
Transport for London
Westminster City Council
Ministry of Defence
Metropolitan Police Service
Bristol City Council
Ministry of Justice
Lambeth Borough Council
Camden Borough Council
Department of Health
Kent County Council
Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.
With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.
Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.
Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:
- Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
- Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
- Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
- Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
- Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.
These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.
Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK, coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.
Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.
In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.
If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.
Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.
In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.
When you send a Freedom of Information request through a site like WhatDoTheyKnow, do authorities respond in the same way as to a request sent via email? Our latest research would suggest that there is a small but crucial difference.
Just one channel
We provide Alaveteli, the software that underpins Freedom of Information sites all over the world — but of course, those sites are not the only means by which citizens can make FOI requests.
A Right to Know means that citizens can request information via whatever means are allowed in their country’s law: traditionally, that’s by post, but many authorities will accept requests via phone and email, and there are even examples of responses being obtained via Twitter.
So Alaveteli sites make a complicated and potentially intimidating process easier, and they also have the benefit that they publish requests and responses online for everyone to access, but they represent just one channel via which information can be accessed.
Something that we’ve often wondered is whether there is any difference in the way authorities respond via an Alaveteli site, or via the email system.
So mySociety’s research team got together with Informace Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site, to conduct an experiment.
The question under scrutiny: Are Freedom of Information requests sent via email treated the same as requests sent via an Alaveteli platform that allows citizens to make requests via an online portal, and publishes all responses publicly on its website?
We wanted to know:
- Would responses be the same?
- Would it take the same amount of time to get a response?
- Would you overall get a better or worse service via Informace Pro Všechny than via a personal email address?
These questions are especially pertinent to us because we want to make sure that our technology is working for people, rather than against them. At the very least, we want to ensure that using an Alaveteli platform such as Informace Pro Všechny will provide the same level of service that citizens can expect from using private email addresses. If using a site such as this does not result in the same level of service, then this would be an issue we as civic technologists should know about and try to address.
Our experiment was simple. We sampled 100 public authorities (town halls and ministries), and sent them two separate requests via a private email address, and two separate requests via Informace Pro Všechny.
The information requested was deliberately simple and uncontroversial, and clearly subject to Freedom of Information law, to avoid any deliberation by public authorities about whether to release it.
The good news is that using both channels of communication — individual email or Informace Pro Všechny — results in the same quality of response. Neither method of communication was found to be inferior to the other with regard to how substantive the response was.
The even better news is that use of Informace Pro Všechny resulted in faster responses to requests. Whereas private email requests were provided on average within 9.2 days, responses to requests sent via Informace Pro Všechny took only 7.2 days – two days quicker.
This is a positive outcome that was by no means certain, and at this point we are unable to fully explain it. It is possible that public authorities were quicker to respond to Informace Pro Všechny requests because these were known to be published online, and therefore, a slower response would be more noticeable.
Or the quicker response rate via the site could be attributed to the fact that its users are known to be politically active, politically interested or involved in journalism: a quicker response might reduce negative coverage or feedback. Or it could be that other external factors we were unaware of influenced the result.
More research would be required to determine the causes of these differences, however, at this point, we are simply delighted to say that Informace Pro Všechny is currently the quickest tool to use to request information from government in the Czech Republic.
25th March 2015, 9.30am – 5.30pm
2nd Floor, 8 Eastcheap, London, EC3M 1AE
mySociety is delighted to announce the launch of TICTeC2015 – or to give it its proper name, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference.
This is the first in an annual series of conferences from mySociety, in which we’ll focus on the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments around the world.
We’ll discuss themes of engagement, participation, institution, social behaviour, politics, community, digital capability, communication and ethics relating to the use and study of civic technology.
TICTeC2015 will bring together individuals from academic and applied backgrounds as well as businesses, public authorities, NGOs and education institutions to discuss ideas, present research and build a network of individuals interested in the civic technology landscape.
This one day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme.
We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme.
Individuals from all backgrounds are welcome to attend the conference, to learn and find out more.
Click here for more details on the event, how to register and how to submit a proposal.
Photo by Licence (CC)
We at mySociety build and popularise digital tools worldwide that help citizens exert power over institutions and decision-makers. Or do we?
Wanting to know whether our well-meaning civic tech is actually making a difference, mySociety recently created the post of Head of Research. My name is Dr Rebecca Rumbul, and I have now been installed in that role for about 6 weeks. I want to know if civic tech like ours is having an impact on citizens and governments, and how such sites operate and negotiate issues not just in the UK, but in the 50 or so countries that we know have digital democracy websites operating in them.
There is enormous scope for interesting and important research to be conducted using sites such as the ones that mySociety and our partners operate. The digital nature of our focus means that we can collect large volumes of data online at a low cost.
That said, there is nothing quite like making connections on the ground or meeting people face to face. mySociety is a small NGO, and does not have the capacity to conduct all of the research activities it would like on its own.
Therefore, we are actively seeking to work with academic partners on both qualitative and quantitative research focusing on the impact of civic tech.
We are planning to conduct research in the following countries. If you are an academic based in one of these countries and interested in our research agenda, please get in touch. We will be very happy to hear from you. Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org
- South Africa
We conduct and disseminate research regularly. If you would like to hear more about our activities and events, sign up for our newsletter.
Image credit: Into the Unknown by Gary Gao (angrytoast), CC BY-NC 2.0