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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Last year, mySociety worked as part of a consortium to deliver three local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. This was as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, which was a joint project between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The goal was to trial new ways of involving citizens in local decision making. Alongside Involve, the Democratic Society and the RSA we investigated how digital tools and methods could be used as part of deliberative processes.
As one of the final parts of this programme, the RSA has published a handbook about what we learned, and case studies of each of the assemblies:
- How to run a citizens’ assembly: a handbook for local authorities based on the Innovation in Democracy Programme
- Innovation in Democracy Programme case studies
The RSA have also blogged about the handbook.
mySociety’s part in this project was primarily to investigate how best to use digital tools to complement an in-person citizens’ assembly. We published this as two sets of guidance:
The first is a practical exploration into what materials are best to prepare and show on a website for a citizens’ assembly; the second looks at how tools can be used to bring evidence and external contributions into the debate, without diluting the representative nature of how participants were selected.
The handbook also describes an approach we helped with at the assembly in Test Valley. Discussions at pre-evidence sessions were recorded in argument maps for reference during the event.
This thinking has led into our work on the UK’s climate assembly helping proceedings, evidence and outputs to be transparent and available to everyone who is interested.
Since that project, for fairly obvious reasons, many organisations that previously focused on offline deliberation are now looking to pivot rapidly into how to run online deliberation. Involve has a good guide as to the range of tools and approaches that can be useful.
We are continuing to research and think about how citizens can be more integral to decision making, and what the appropriate role of technology is in making this happen. You can subscribe to our research newsletter to hear more:
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The House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has released its report: Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.
The recommendations can be seen online, but we were pleased to see a point taken up from our friends at Democracy Club, that there should be more open data about elections, candidates and polling stations so focus can be on providing that information to citizens rather than sourcing it.
This recommendation in particular reflects mySociety thinking:
Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.
Through our research and practical work in the last few years, we have been concerned with finding the appropriate place for technology in addressing problems.
Digital solutions have enormous potential to scale cheaply (and have powerful uses in democratic transparency), but also have uneven engagement and require different skill sets to manage. Where digital tools allow more efficiency, this should enable resources to be redirected towards improving the overall quality of the exercise.
As we argued last year when we were looking at digital tools and democratic participation:
Where using a tool can bring down other costs, those funds can be redeployed towards outreach and other real world activities to broaden participation. The use of digital tools must be understood as part of the whole system, which involves gauging not just what the tool does, but the effort and time it can free up to address other priorities.
The problem of citizens and communities being excluded from the political process will rarely be fixed by a digital tool alone, but when correctly aligned with democratic efforts to involve people in decision making, they can be a powerful part of the solution.
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Photo credit: Photo by Ciel Cheng on Unsplash
We are living in a historic age.
There are plenty of ways to see the truth of that right now. And here’s one more indicator: WriteToThem user numbers have exploded. Over the site’s lifetime (more than 15 years), we’ve never seen so many people using it to contact their representatives as we have during the last week or so.
See that big spike on the right? That represents almost 35,000 messages sent to MPs in the first twelve days of June, against a normal monthly average of around 4,000.
In total, so far this month you’ve already sent 55,000 messages to every type of representative, as the UK’s coronavirus death toll rose ever higher, and Black Lives Matter protests spread from the US to the UK.
A previous peak on 24/25 May coincided with the Dominic Cummings story. That week, 11,756 messages were sent to MPs.
Referrals have largely come through social media, as people share the easy way to contact representatives about the issues that have gripped them — but there have also been welcome links from mainstream media, including youth culture and style publications like i-D and Dazed. We hope this might indicate a welcome broadening of our userbase to include more young and diverse citizens — and if so, we hope they’ll come back in the future every time they need to make contact with those in power.
WriteToThem exists so that anyone can contact their elected representatives, and feed into the democratic process. We make it as easy as possible for you to tell your politicians what you expect of them, to share your beliefs and opinions, and to ask for their support. We are glad that so many citizens are doing just that during this increasingly momentous era.
If you’d like to know more about what WriteToThem is and how it works, see this post.
Image: James Eades
WriteToThem is a very simple website with just one purpose: it helps you to contact your elected representatives, from local councillors up to MPs, quickly and easily.
- WriteToThem is neutral and does not campaign. We don’t take a stance on any political issue and we don’t promote any particular belief or cause.
- But WriteToThem can be used by campaigns. The site’s functionality can be slotted into any website to provide an easy way for supporters to contact their representatives.
- WriteToThem only lets you write to your own representatives. The service was set up so that you can only write to the people who represent you within your constituency. This is because of a protocol that states reps must only deal with their own constituents. You can read more about this here.
- WriteToThem helps you understand which representatives to write to. WriteToThem briefly describes the job of each layer of representation on the page where you pick who to write to.
- WriteToThem doesn’t allow the mass sending of identical messages. We’ve heard directly from MPs that they are far more likely to ignore identical messages, or dismiss them as having less value. So WriteToThem blocks messages when it identifies that they are the same as several others that have been sent.
- WriteToThem detects and prevents vexatious use where possible. The WriteToThem system can automatically detect potentially irresponsible patterns of behaviour, eg one person sending a very large number of emails to a single recipient during a very short period of time.
- WriteToThem is not an official government service. It is run by mySociety, a UK charity which provides services to help you be an active citizen. Why? Because when we built it, there was no easy way to contact representatives online. And we continue to run it because it’s still providing an invaluable service to the thousands of people that use it every month.
- WriteToThem messages are (almost always) sent without human intervention. Everything is automated, and in almost every case, your message will never be seen by anyone except you and its intended recipient. In the remaining tiny number of cases, a WriteToThem moderator may access your message to see why there has been a problem with delivery.
- WriteToThem doesn’t track you with cookies. In March 2020 mySociety made the decision to remove tracking cookies from the majority of its services. That means we don’t track anything you do on the site on an individually identifiable basis.
Black Lives Matter.
The protests in the US and subsequently the UK are finally forcing those of us who don’t face racism daily to confront the inherent biases, unfairness and systemic racism that exists here in the UK. The toppling of statues, the renaming of streets and an increasing willingness to listen and learn are a start, but there is so much more to do.
mySociety’s work has always been about understanding where power lies and how to enhance people’s abilities to hold that power to account and call out injustice. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors and all Black people who have experienced systemic and institutional discrimination.
We recognise that the injustices perpetrated by the current system and institutions, built on centuries of racial injustice and colonial violence, disproportionately impact those from Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. It is only right, therefore, that we reflect upon where we’re falling short in our support of these communities and what we might do to better as an organisation and as a sector to change those dynamics.
Starting with ourselves
Technology reinforces structural inequality by actively equipping state institutions to deliver unjust outcomes more efficiently, e.g. by wilfully enabling state surveillance (knowing that people of colour are disproportionately affected by this) while civil society and civic tech have failed to open up channels for engagement that work better for marginalised groups and aren’t primarily on the terms of extant powerful institutions.
This is exacerbated by representation in civic tech which suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields that we’re part of: with usually white leadership and staff, most tech roles held by men, and limited opportunities for progression for those from BAME communities. The challenges of this narrow representation in our field are very clearly laid out by Decolonizing Civic Tech.
Having spent the past few years successfully improving gender equality within our own team but with less success in improving our ethnic diversity, we are well aware that changing the make-up of an organisation does not happen of its own accord; it requires intention and purpose – we’ll only have more Black colleagues by actually hiring them.
Changing the composition of our teams to become more diverse is not an overnight job and we have to start from where we are. That means making explicit commitments to actively tackle racism in our organisation and the wider sector, advertise for new roles to ensure that they reach prospective Black candidates and the role and organisation is seen as attractive to work in, creating leadership opportunities for Black colleagues, and providing support for training and career progression where we can.
Something we can make progress on more immediately is how we can best help shift power within our sector, and without assuming this is what is needed explore what appetite exists for establishing more cross sector communities to provide support and mentorship between Black colleagues within different civic tech organisations and the wider field.
Where we are falling short
Five years ago we released our report on ‘Who benefits from Civic Technology’ which looked at the inherent biases in who was more likely to make use of our services; in the UK they tended to be older, usually white and usually male – basically those already comfortable dealing with public officials, in public, and with an expectation that their requests would be dealt with in a timely manner.
Since then not enough has changed.
Internationally all of the successful work we have done has been carried out in partnership, with local groups who understand their community, the political situation, how best to operate and run their services.
We identified this partnership approach as being the key way that we could better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they could benefit more marginalised communities. Despite a few exceptions we simply haven’t made enough progress on this.
So with each new project we will redouble our efforts to listen to and collaborate with those groups and individuals drawn from these communities to better understand how we might change our approach where needed, make services that work for those who most need them, or just get out of the way and support others when it’s not our place to help. We’re committed to reporting back on progress against this in our research programme.
As a team and individuals we recognise that it’s up to us to educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist. Like many others, we’re sharing books and articles to read so that we all better understand the issues and recognise what we need to do to change.
From our internal discussions we’ve made clear that it’s okay to be uncertain of how to react or what to say – but it’s even better to learn from each other. This is not just the work of a few blog posts or the occasional meeting – it’s about understanding how we normalise anti-racism within our day to day work, to adapt our approach and working methods where required.
We’ll consider the language we use to describe what we do, how we might better use the funds, access and what influence we have to raise up and introduce Black voices within our sector and the communities that we serve.
And where we get it wrong along the way we’ll try to fix it and make it right.
On a personal note
As a senior leader within a civil society organisation I’m not unusual in being a middle-aged white man.
One thing I do understand is that the job of leadership is to help create the conditions for your team to succeed and do their best work in the right way. This applies equally with the need to create a more diverse team and culture, especially when all the research suggests that more diverse teams are more successful in their goals and impact.
So whilst I hold a position of responsibility it’s on me to cede that held space to others as we find and support new leaders to take our work forward – which is ultimately what I’ll be held accountable for in the future.
And if you like me are looking for a good place to begin, this post by Salma Patel: ‘White senior leaders: 12 practical things you can do this week to create a supportive culture for your Black/BAME colleagues’ is a very useful starting point.
If you were putting in a claim for benefits, challenging an accusation in court or phoning in sick to your employer, would you expect your local authority to be checking your social media presence?
How do you think a stranger might assess you as a parent, were they to skim over any public posts on your Facebook page? If you’ve been on a protest recently, would you be comfortable knowing that your local council was combing through any photos you’ve shared?
A Freedom of Information investigation by Privacy International, using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, has discovered that a significant number of local authorities — 62.5% of those responding to their FOI requests — habitually monitor citizens’ Facebook or other social media profiles to gather intelligence.
What’s more, the majority have no policy in place or measurement of how often and to what extent these investigations occur.
If this concerns you, the first thing you should do is check that your social media privacy controls are up to date. Then you might like to go and read Privacy International’s full report, as well as checking how (or whether) your own local authority has responded to their requests for information.
And finally, you can join Privacy International’s call for stronger guidelines from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.
Just… maybe think twice about putting it in a public Facebook post?
We’re only joking, of course. Or half joking.
Issues like this need to be shared far and wide. But as Privacy International point out, there are already sobering instances from abroad of threats to those following anti-government accounts. With so many completely unexpected changes to the status quo recently, can we say for certain that it could never happen here?
Image: John Schnobrich
We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.
We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.
Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.
We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.
At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.
Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted.
It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.
Image: Ben Garratt
Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.
Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money — and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.
And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.
The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.
We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.
Back in January, we announced that the climate would be mySociety’s main focus this year.
A few months on, how are we doing with that?
One easy way to check is our new Climate page on the mySociety website, where we’re listing projects as they launch. Meanwhile, here’s a quick rundown as of now.
In a practical piece of support for the environment, we created the digital platform for Climate Assembly UK.
This citizens’ assembly was run by Involve and Sortition Foundation, with mySociety handling the online element – which became increasingly important during the lockdown.
This has allowed for the publishing of information including a background to the assembly, agendas and livestreams of presentations, keeping the nation informed while the 110 assembly members learn, debate and vote.
When the covid-19 pandemic meant that the final weekend couldn’t run as normal, the project pivoted to a virtual assembly running over additional weekends.
Once it’s over and a final report has been produced, that will be available on the Climate Assembly site, too.
Tracking climate action
Many local councils in the UK have now declared a climate emergency, recognising the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action.
However, there is no one place where these can all be seen and assessed. And while the declarations are welcome, what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.
So, working closely with Friends of the Earth UK and other groups active in this space, we’re working towards a site that will allow campaigners, councils and members of the public to see what councils have said they’ll do about the climate emergency.
As a first step, we’re crowdsourcing a list of councils’ Climate Action plans. You can help by having a quick search for the ones that are missing.
Looking to ourselves
If we’re holding others up to scrutiny of course, we really need to also be making sure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce our own environmental impact.
So we’ve set up an internal Climate Action Group to research, report back, and recommend changes to company policy.
The first thing we did was start gathering data, so that we know our baseline carbon output for a year. That way, we have something to benchmark against and see if we’re making progress.
While travel is obviously halted for the moment, it has always been fairly extensive at mySociety. Here’s where we got to, to be picked up again if and when things return to normal:
- We agreed to join the Climate Perks scheme, which gives staff members additional days of paid leave if they use sustainable transport for their holidays.
- We drafted a policy around work-related travel, which must be for essential purposes only. Where a trip would be under a set number of hours, it must be by sustainable transport.
- We’ve agreed to carbon offset all flights that mySociety pays for (in practice, this means staff flights and the flights of TICTeC travel grantees). While recognising that offsetting isn’t the perfect solution, we’ll do this until we can find a better solution.
- Where flights are part of a project’s grant funding, we’ll include offsetting as a cost.
- We created TICTeC’s environmental policy.
Our other big area of concern is around hardware, from our own computer equipment to the server farms pumping out emissions on our behalf. In this area we’ve:
- Drafted policies that extend the expected lifespan of staff computers, and suggest sustainable ways to recycle or repurpose them when they’re no longer in use.
- Started researching our hosts’ environmental policies with the aim of considering these as equally important to cost when we decide whether to renew contracts or to take business elsewhere.
More widely, we’re ensuring that we make it clear to all suppliers that we’d like to know their environmental policies — and that these will be a key consideration when we choose who to go with. We believe that this simple step helps create a commercial imperative that companies make progress in this area.
Similarly, we intend to keep talking about this within our sector, so that it becomes a norm. Just now, it doesn’t feel right to be plotting out our travel plans for the year ahead, but we hope we’ll be able to share our thinking in plenty of detail soon.
Image: Andy Falconer