1. TheyWorkForYou alerts are helping keep prisoners informed

    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. 

    Inside Time logo“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.

  2. TheyWorkForYou quietly provides essential services for civil society — and beyond

    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 conveyup 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

    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. 

    Local government

    “As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”

    Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster

    Other uses

    Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching

    TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.

    In one private sector example 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

  3. Closing down SayIt

    We’re sad to have to announce that we’ve made the difficult decision to stop hosting SayIt and will close the site by the end of July.

    SayIt is an open source tool for making transcripts easy to read, search and share on the modern internet. It lays out transcripts so that the viewer can cut and dice them to best suit their needs. Want to see everything said by one speaker? Everything said on a specific date? Search for every instance of a particular word or phrase? SayIt can do all of this.

    Over the years SayIt has hosted transcripts of all kinds. Not only the Leveson Inquiry, the trial of Charles Taylor (former President of Liberia), speeches recovered from the online archives of the Conservative and Labour parties, but also many user-generated transcripts too.

    We’ve had to close down sites in the past in order to focus on current priorities and sadly that time has come for SayIt. Although we believe that the concept is a good one and that having searchable, web friendly transcripts is a good thing, we don’t have the resources to continue to maintain or develop it. This means that we’re no longer able to continue running the service itself.

    Many SayIt instances may have been preserved in archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Get in touch if you have any questions or concerns or have an interest in continuing to maintain the project. The code will remain open source and available on GitHub.

  4. MPs’ Register of Financial Interests

    Donations to MPs are in the news again, and TheyWorkForYou allows users to easily see what any individual MP has received. In fact, the site has carried a copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (in which, as Parliament’s website explains, “MPs must register within 28 days any interest which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP“) since at least 2005.

    This hasn’t always been straightforward, and has recently become slightly trickier.

    The official register is published as static HTML or PDF, with a simple list of all MPs. We scrape that HTML, convert it into light XML and import it onto the site – which means you can easily see not only the current entry on an individual MP’s page, but also see a complete history of their register without having to view many different copies of the official register.

    The XML contains all the data from the official register, but it only parses out basic information like the category of interest. Providing more detail would be great, but is quite a hard problem to tackle.

    Recently, Parliament has started using Cloudflare’s bot-protection technology. We assume this change was made with good reason, but as a side effect it has prevented effective scraping of the website, as Cloudflare don’t distinguish between good and bad bots or scrapers.

    We know that Parliament was working on an API at least as far back as 2016, from their now-removed data blog, but if this is still in development, it is yet to see the light of day. What they said at the time still stands: their website is still the only means of accessing this data. We don’t think it’s necessary to protect purely static HTML pages such as the Register in quite such a heavy-handed manner.

    We do have ways of continuing to get the Register, and TheyWorkForYou is still up to date, so anyone else who has been scraping the official site and has hit issues because of this is welcome to use our data, either via the XML or our API.

    Image: Adeolu Eletu

  5. Party voting instructions should be public

    Summary

    • 62% of the public agree that parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. 
    • 55% of the public think MPs are personally responsible for their vote, regardless of party instruction. 
    • The public are undecided on whether the fact that an MP was elected on a party manifesto means they should follow party instructions. 

    The public think voting instructions should be public

    Many votes in Parliament are ‘whipped’, meaning that the party gives MPs instructions on how to vote. This practice is both well known and secretive. While “everyone knows” parties instruct their MPs on how to vote, the instructions  are not publicly released. 

    In late 2021, we worked with Opinium to ask the public some questions to inform our work around TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow. This polling shows that 62% of the public think parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. Only 8% disagree that this information should be public. 

    From our point of view, releasing this information would solve a practical problem. TheyWorkForYou makes comparisons between MPs and their party, but to do this it has to calculate what the instruction probably was, based on how most MPs voted. We don’t know what the whip’s instruction was, and so have to work harder to get a result that is inferring what is happening behind closed doors. We also do not have information about the strength of the instruction, and can’t say when a party has a mild preference or a strong opinion about how their MPs should vote. 

    This information is also important on a principled level. The role of whipped votes is part of the argument about the value of individual MP voting records, where one side argues that MPs don’t really make voting decisions, and so should not be judged individually. If you accept this argument that votes in Parliament are really decided by the party leadership, the democratic case for releasing these instructions is overwhelming. 

    Net agree 62%, net disagree 8%, strong disagree 2%, somewhat disagree 30%, somewaht agree 35%, strong agree, 28%

    Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes

    The argument made to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (in her book Commons and Lords)  by party whips was that they were performing a democratic function: the people elected the MPs on a party manifesto, and so MPs in Parliament should “scrutinise and improve” but not oppose government plans. 

    The public is split on how convincing this argument is. We asked if respondents agreed with the statement “MPs are elected on a party’s manifesto, and should vote as the party leadership instructs”.  Only 24% agree with this statement, 35% disagree, with 41% neither agreeing or disagreeing. That only a small group outright agree with a philosophy that justifies how Parliament currently works is a problem, but the large group in the middle suggests that the views of the public might be more nuanced about what the role of parties should be in directing votes. 

    The answer to this question also varies by how people voted in the 2019 election. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were more likely to move from ‘don’t know’ to ‘disagree’ with the idea that MPs should do as their party instructs, with 43% of Labour voters polled disagreeing and 51% of Liberal Democrat voters disagreeing. This might also reflect an idea that opposition MPs should be less bound by what they said in the last election. 

    24% net agree, 35% net disagree, 12% strong disagree, 23% somewhat disagree, 41% neither agree nor disagree, 18% somewhat agree, 5% strongly agree

    43% of labour respondents disagreed, to 51% of liberal democrat respondents, to 26% of conservative respondents. Other parties did not have significant differences.

    Regardless of why they made the decision, the public think MPs are personally responsible for how they vote

    Our polling also showed that the majority of the public (55%) believe that MPs are personally responsible for their vote, with only 15% disagreeing with the statement.  This should sound a note of caution for MPs. While it being common practice to follow the instructions of the party is an explanation of how Parliament works, it is not universally accepted this should be the case, or that it removes personal responsibility for their votes in the eyes of the public. 

    55% net agree, 15% net disagree, 5% strong disagree, 9% somewhat disagree, 30% neither agree nor disagree, 29% somewhat agree, 27% strongly agree

    This polling forms part of a wider series of questions that we hope to use to shape our work, and we will share more with you in the coming months.

    Thanks to Opinium for providing free polling questions to charities as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign. 

     

    Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash

  6. New behaviours for repowering democracy

    In the first post in this series I introduced our new focus around repowering democracy, and in the second I outlined how we think we need to change as an organisation to make this happen. In this final post we’ll give an overview of the new behaviours we’ll adopt across the organisation so that we’re better able to help repower democracy.

    Over the next 10 years, we might have two general elections; maybe three rounds of various local elections; and quite possibly a vote for Scottish independence in 2023 – but by and large the elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders and institutions we already have in place today are the ones who will be making the big decisions about democracy and climate over the next decade.

    With this in mind we’ve identified seven cross-cutting behaviours we need to adopt in order to deliver our strategy. Below, we introduce each behaviour and the key events and outcomes we are seeking to deliver as we incorporate these into our day to day work.

    1. Partner for impact and diversity

    We can deliver our greatest impact through and with others. We look for partners with the ‘same goals, different skill sets’: organisations and groups that want to achieve similar outcomes to ourselves, but that might be approaching it in a different way, or have a distinct set of skills so we can each complement what the other is doing.

    Understanding, learning from, and seeking to collaborate with the systematic connections and existing networks already active in tackling the democratic and climate challenges ensure that we can best understand the unique contribution we can make to drive the most positive outcomes.

    2. Build community everywhere

    We’ll seek to build community everywhere, inside and outside our organisation – stewarding and supporting the growth of participant communities around our existing services, enabling a greater sense of ownership by those communities. We’ll help users to help each other more, reach new users, and provide more evidence for the benefits of becoming active citizens.

    Building community is a core concept for understanding how to put more power into more people’s hands and better understanding societal needs beyond the needs of individuals. To make this happen we’ll become a more porous organisation, helping us improve at working with and collaborating with others to achieve our shared goals.

    3. Advocate for change

    Our research work to date has played a relatively passive role in putting forward practical and actionable ideas for how things might be done differently. Considering the scale of the crises we face, we need to advocate and push for more significant and swifter change – pulling the levers of power where they are open to us; aligning with movements for change where they are not.

    At its simplest this means getting the word out about how people can work with us, find common cause, and pool our resources in order to increase active pressure for change. We’ll seek to expand our public policy and public affairs skills directly and through partnering, increasing our capacity to really dig into institutions to identify key decision makers and allies.

    4. A drumbeat of experimentation

    We want to recapture the early approach to experimentation which kickstarted mySociety by placing new bets within each of our programmes, to try new approaches and engage new users and participants who might not be familiar with our work or how they can make use of it.

    We will look for every opportunity to move quickly and experiment widely – doing what’s necessary to learn, putting that into practice and looking for ways to ‘put money behind what works’.

    5. Everyday equity and inclusion

    Whilst technology can achieve many things, it can often serve to reinforce structural inequality. Representation in civic tech suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields: with predominantly white leadership and staff, the majority of technical roles and positions of power held by men, limited opportunities for those from historically excluded and as a result underrepresented groups – particularly racially minoritised and disabled people.

    We need to better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they benefit more marginalised communities, and actively work to diversify our workforce – leading to better outcomes for everyone.

    6. Home is where the heart is

    We started in the UK and we still run our largest active services here. Over the past 18 years we’ve worked with fellow civic technologists around the globe as part of the civic tech community, sharing, adapting and collaborating on building a movement of technology led participation.

    Through this strategy we are recommitting to incubating solutions to democratic and climate challenges here in the UK first of all – and working in the open to support partners to adopt this work elsewhere. Through TICTeC we seek to better connect and equip others to undertake effective, evidence-based and impactful work that enhances public participation, transparency and accountability.

    7. A bigger idea of team

    We have an excellent, experienced and committed team. But we are often thinly spread and constrained around our capacity to explore new ideas at pace and scale and we need to be more inclusive and diverse both as a team and through the partners and communities we serve.

    If we’re going to operate in a way that is commensurate with the crises we face, we’ll need to find new and imaginative ways to do more; enhancing our collective skills further, with new staff who can help us collaborate more effectively and work better with others to achieve our goals.

    We’ll invest in community building roles, with outreach and network skills to give us more capacity to better connect, learn and collaborate; we’ll rejuvenate our approach to volunteering, expanding the ways for more people to contribute their time in more meaningful ways to support and extend our work – becoming a more open and porous organisation along the way.

    We’ll work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.

    We’ve learned a lot about what we need to change in order to make the shifts we’ve identified, in order to be ready to repower democracy.

    Our experience over the past 18 years has taught us that advocacy campaigns and policy influencing is more effective when it’s done in partnership, and that we offer a specific set of skills and experience that many organisations do not have inhouse. We plan to partner more with a broad range of experienced people and partners outside of the organisation.

    We need to rethink our definition of the team beyond the confines of just the staff – our volunteers, board members, and not least the wider community of which we are all part helps forge a bigger, better definition of what mySociety needs to be.

    We’ve recognised that we can’t just play one side of the game: it’s not enough just to empower citizens, we need to prime institutions to be capable of responding to that empowerment.

    And along with all of this we’ll need to increasingly rethink where power lies, and where we refocus our activity beyond government and the public sector.

    Where we go next

    The thoughts outlined in these three posts set out the direction of travel for our work over the next few years – over the next few months we’ll be working through what this means for our existing programmes and services, how we live up to the three shifts and fully incorporate our new behaviours.

    In developing this thinking we’ve drawn upon support from across our whole team, board members, staff and volunteers, with lots of input from external peers and advisors. I’m especially grateful to the New Citizenship Project who have helped us imagine what the #citizenshift means for our day to day work and have helped us work though how we might put that into practice.

    If you have any thoughts on how you might help repower democracy, I’ll put all three of these posts on Medium for comments and further discussion.

    Image: Ussama Azam

  7. Three shifts we’ll make, to repower democracy

    To realise our goal of repowering democracy, and to really consider how we can contribute to mitigating the worst aspects of the climate crisis, we need to change how we do things.

    We’ll base these shifts on what we’ve learned over the past two decades; a recognition of the scale of the crises we face; and an understanding of how we might be part of a bigger solution.

    The three interlinked strategic shifts that we need to make as an organisation are:

    Shift #1:
    Design for the needs of society, not just provide tools for individual citizens.
    Shift #2:
    Place more power in more people’s hands, not just make old power more accountable.
    Shift #3:
    Prise open institutions, so they are better able to support and embrace meaningful participation.

    Shift #1: Design for the needs of society

    Building digital services for individual action has been a big part of our work to date, but we recognise that this isn’t enough to address the really big problems we face.

    We need to better understand not just individual citizens’ needs, but the needs of communities as a whole.

    Designing for society’s shared problems means understanding the wider system of potential partners and collaborators, assessing who has power and how it is exercised, understanding where tools and services might play a role, or where it might make more sense to amplify the efforts of others.

    Undertaking this process will lead to engaged and informed systems of partners and collaborators who understand which tools are available to them to shift or create new power; who are able to radically imagine and deliver new ways of working together to tackle the pressing crises of democracy and climate.

    Delivering for the needs of society sets the stage for meaningful participation by citizens and communities, especially those that are underrepresented or less likely to engage in democratic processes.

    From picking a problem > to understanding needs
    From user needs > to community and societal needs
    From individual services > to enabling people to organise
    From suppliers and beneficiaries > to partnerships and coalitions
    From pre-packaged solutions > to being led by experimentation

    Shift #2: More power in more people’s hands

    It’s not enough just to hold power to account: instead we need to change how power is distributed and how it is exercised.

    Getting more power into more people’s hands means creating more opportunities for meaningful participation in decision making; helping people to organise together to come up with solutions that work for all sectors of society.

    We’ll contribute to this by drawing upon established communities of practice around our current programmes, so that people are able to work together for collaborative democracy and climate action at scale.

    We will seek opportunities to work in coalition with partners to digitally supercharge their campaigning, mobilising and advocacy, through a repowering of democratic participation, so that we can better achieve our outcomes by working with others – leading to improved decision-making and sustained long-term participation and new impactful partnerships.

    From holding power to account > to exercising new forms of power
    From individual actions > to collaborative movements
    From incremental change > to transformative shifts
    From sharing information > to solution building
    From calling for action > to helping drive change

    Shift #3: Prise open institutions for meaningful participation

    Thinking about how we put more power in more people’s hands leads us to consider where power lies and how much leverage we have to redistribute this power or create new forms of complementary power.

    Public institutions hold a lot of power, within large and often rigid bureaucracies that struggle to shift their own behaviours quickly. Any meaningful repowering of democracy to make it work better for citizens, with deeper participation and greater accountability, can only be achieved with the consent and collaboration of these existing institutions.

    Putting more power in people’s hands needs to be matched with the prising open of institutions so that they are capable of welcoming and supporting greater participation in decision making. Through our research and civic technology work, and through working with allies and agents of change inside of institutions, using evidence-based approaches, we will advocate for significant long-term policy shifts in how citizens and communities can meaningfully shape decision-making.

    When central and local government are better able to engage with and involve citizens and communities in decisions that affect them and facilitate solutions coming from communities themselves we’ll know we’re getting this right – because greater participation between institutions and diverse representative groups of citizens leads to better outcomes.

    From project based research > to influencing policy change
    From outside critique > to driving institutional change
    From calling for change > to enabling citizen participation
    From accepting balance of power > to prising open institutions
    From highlighting failure > to forcing changes to be made

    What these three shifts represent

    Together these three shifts represent HOW we plan to change as an organisation to be better able to contribute to a repowering of democracy.

    Next: Behaviours we’ll adopt to better repower democracy.

    Image: Sandro Katalina

  8. The need to repower democracy

    Over the past year whilst we’ve been rocked and rolled by the pandemic along with the rest of the world, we’ve been spending some time thinking about where we’re going as an organisation and what we should be focusing on in the future. Alongside establishing the foundations of our climate programme we have been working on redefining the core principles around democracy and power that inform what we do.

    This is the first of three posts where I wanted to get a bunch of this thinking out in the wild so we can start to get some feedback as we incorporate this into our day to day work.

    Where we started was by defining our why, how and what:

    Why: We believe people can and want to work together to build a fairer society – the web can help do this at scale.

    How: Our role is to repower democracy: using our digital and data skills to put more power in more people’s hands.

    What: We work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.

    We’ll unpack those in a moment, but before we get too far into looking forward it’s worth looking back to mySociety’s beginnings.

    Where we started

    In 2003, when the internet still had a shiny new glow, it was viewed by many as the saviour of democracy (and much else besides). Sadly, this vision was more common amongst developers and democracy wonks than those in positions of power, and even today genuine democratic participation is limited. Government still doesn’t really know how to respond when people do want to get involved.

    Outside the halls of government, it was becoming clear that the real potential of the internet was not just in propping up existing power structures, but in driving much more radical change. Industries and institutions were being revolutionised – people were able to self-organise and form new communities around the ideas they cared about.

    A different model of democracy and society was possible.

    It’s useful to refer back to an article by one of our former trustees James Crabtree from 2003, Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy which was one of our founding inspirations. It translated this challenge to the political sphere, providing the spark for the group, led by Tom Steinberg, from which mySociety emerged.

    The mySociety project

    The mySociety project was animated by a series of shared questions:

    • What if technology enabled people to come together and help one another meet civic challenges?
    • How might the internet transform civic life and what might a transformed democracy look like?
    • How might we create digital spaces and tools which people would want to use?

    That original group of volunteers and friends has grown into an organisation capable of exploring these questions in the UK and around the world for millions of people.

    By bootstrapping our work over the years, we’ve shown how people could and would contribute to a democratic society – given the opportunities, tools and spaces – and demonstrated an alternative vision to that provided by mainstream government, quickly building services that worked.

    We’ve enabled the fixing of streets, the freeing of information, the accountability of parliamentarians. We gave ordinary people more of the tools they needed to participate in more everyday democracy.

    We have so much to be proud of. But our work is not finished and our fundamental belief remains unchanged – that people want to work together to build a better, fairer future — and that technology can be harnessed to help do this.

    Today’s problem: dual crises of democracy and climate

    At the time of writing we’ve just come to the end of COP26 in Glasgow; which depending on your point of view was either another wholly underwhelming summit, where promises and commitments fell woefully short of what is necessary… OR it was an important snapshot of the current challenges facing each nation and a stepping stone in their journey towards making the necessary changes.

    Either way, the crisis of the climate continues to be fuelled by the crisis of democracy — in its current form our democratic experience is just not up to the task of responding to the emergency.

    The need for change across the whole of society is urgent, but it needs unprecedentedly bold leadership to build the consensus for necessary changes to happen. The scale and nature of the action required is really daunting.

    With power concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than equitably shared throughout society, today’s model of decision-making fails to take into account what’s good for people, the planet and society as a whole.

    From our perspective, representative democracy in its current form is proving inadequate to the task. In the UK our voting system is flawed and unrepresentative; often distant and unaccountable politicians work within a system that has resulted in polarisation, cynical division and disenchantment. What’s more our core democratic institutions are actively under attack by people who seek to undermine their effectiveness still further.

    It’s not a lack of science that’s driving the climate crisis, it’s a lack of democracy.

    We need a new democratic settlement — one that recognises the shortcomings of the current approach and seeks to put more power in more people’s hands.

    It must be a repowered democracy that allows us to be better at taking decisions together — locally, regionally, nationally and internationally — reducing and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change effectively, and supporting transparent and accountable decision-making.

    Combatting the climate crisis demands that we reconsider every aspect of the way we live our lives: the way we work, the way we travel, how we build and heat our homes – nothing short of imagining an entirely new form of society.

    We need to collectively address these demands in the face of decades of predatory delay from established institutions and corporations, all the time beset by wilful and skilful misinformation, with leaders incapable or unwilling to advocate for how we can all gain from urgently reimagining our lifestyles and communities. The poor health of our democracy increases the risk of further delay at best, and a further erosion of our liberty at worst.

    Repowering democracy

    Repowering democracy means finding new and better ways to collectively tackle the problems in ways that work for society as a whole; creating space and permission for our leaders and politicians to make the difficult decisions that will be needed in years to come with our full support and participation.

    Repowering democracy means improving the legitimacy, effectiveness and resilience of representative democracy so that it is better capable of incorporating, supporting and embracing the outcomes of participatory democracy — creating the conditions for citizen and community power to thrive and flourish.

    The belief that animates mySociety is that the internet can shape a new politics where people solve their own problems together; not just make it easier to take part in existing politics.

    Fundamentally we believe people can — and want to — work together to build a fairer society.

    Repowering democracy demands that here at mySociety we reconsider our role in ways that help more people work together to build that fairer society:

    • We’ll seek to evolve our portfolio of existing services to become hubs of motivated and empowered community building and action; developing new models of action to directly address the most urgent crises facing society; and expand the ways we operate, bringing in new skills and expertise beyond our core tech, delivery and research staff.
    • We’ll look to adopt a model where we spend more time enabling participation and collaboration between people, communities and institutions — increasing participation and prising open institutions.
    • We’ll increasingly seek to support others to deliver more meaningful impact with our help; adopting our shared technology and open approach, convening and enabling new communities of practice.
    • We’ll help people understand and influence how decisions are made; not just provide better tools by which to choose and challenge politicians.

    In summary, we believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role will be to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy.

    Next: The three shifts we need to make as an organisation to better repower democracy.

    Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva

  9. Cosmetic improvements to TheyWorkForYou

    One service we offer on TheyWorkForYou is an email alert: this lets you know when there is new data published on the site that either contains a word/phrase that you’ve subscribed to, or that indicates new activity from your selected Member/s of Parliament.

    (Didn’t know this? Go and sign up now!)

    We send around 400,000 of these emails a month. For many years, the look has remained exactly as it was when we first developed them: plain text, which has the benefit of being lightweight and unlikely to get scrambled by email clients. The downsides are that it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling email, visually speaking, and that some find it hard to identify which sections are of interest in a uniform block of unformatted text.

    We’ve now finally transformed alert emails into a much more polished HTML format, and at the same time we’ve also improved the look and feel of four other vital elements of TWFY: profile images, the API, the sign-up page, and the Contact page.

    Screenshot of a TheyWorkForYou alert email, showing results for the term 'FOI'

    As usual, before starting work, we did a bit of research into who uses this feature and why, so we could be sure we were answering their needs. You can see more about this in Alex’s post here.

    Photos of MPs

    Boris Johnson on TheyWorkForYouWhere there is a more recent and higher quality image available, we’ve updated the profile image we use for MPs. In some cases, this has replaced some pretty youthful faces — it’s clearly high time we caught up with this particular ticket! 

    Higher resolution or larger images also mean that they’ll be more useful to developers using the images (which are all available under an open licence) on other sites and apps.

    Clearer access to the API

    The API page (where developers and researchers can access TheyWorkForYou data) has been given a slick new design. We’ve updated it with new examples of how the API might be used, and streamlined the language and content to make it easier to understand. 

    The TheyWorkForYou API, homepage

    We hope that all of these features will make it easier and more pleasant for you to use TheyWorkForYou, either when you’re checking up on what’s happened in Parliament for yourself, or using our data to make other parliamentary apps and sites.

    Image: David Pisnoy

  10. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

    TheyWorkForYou’s alerts service helps keep people informed on things that happen across a range of UK legislatures (The UK Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly).

    We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of selected parliamentarians, or when defined phrases are used in debates or written questions or answers. On average, this means around 400,000 emails are sent a month. The service was originally intended to act as a way to notify people of their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also makes it a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool.

    Before our redesign of the alert emails (blog post to follow), we wanted to know more about what subscribers find useful.  So in February 2021 we ran a survey of users of our alerts, receiving 1,866 replies. Going by responses to a question on the reasons for alerts, 16% of respondents can be categorised as some kind of ‘professional’ user, who use alerts as part of their role in an organisation. The largest groups were in the charitable sector (40%) and the public sector (35%).

    Generally the alerts serve their core (and largest) audience of ‘ordinary citizens’ (ie those without a professional interest) well. Most are people using the service, as intended, to follow their own MP, and are generally interested in the kind of content the alerts service provides.

    Free text answers showed general satisfaction among users.  Professional users are mainly from the charitable or public sector, and differ in making more use of keyword searches and finding vote information less useful.

    graph showing 16% of alerts users are 'professional' Professional usage is mostly by the charitable and public sector

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

    Respondents were given a set of options on what their alert tracked and could pick more than one. Almost all citizens (94%) and a fair few of professional users (67%) had an alert tracking their own MP.

    Professional users were far more likely to make use of keyword/issue searches (69% to 30% for citizens) and to follow Lords (22% to 9%), which may be because Lords often focus on specific areas of interest.

    New and old users showed similar usage of alerts. One respondent was a parent of an MP, using the site to keep up with their contributions.

    Chart showing the difference between citizen and professional users. Professioanl users are much more interested in keywords.

    What content do users find useful?

    Respondents were given a tick-box question to let them select which alert content was useful.

    All options were considered useful by more than 50% of both groups. The most useful content for citizens was votes (87%), followed by written questions/answers(82%) and speeches (79%).

    For professionals, it was written questions/answers (89%), speeches (76%) and written statements (68%). The largest difference is in votes, which citizens see as useful, but professionals make less use of (although still seen as useful by 59% of professional users).

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

    This survey has helped us understand more about the different users of alerts and their different needs, and shaped our views on how they could be improved to be more useful. The use by the charitable and public sector is especially interesting, because they show the indirect impact of making information more accessible.

    For more information, a 2016 GovLab report explored the impact of this kind of usage of the site. While the improvements in the official Hansard site over the last five years mean there is less of a sharp divide between the official site and TheyWorkForYou,  email alerts remain a key way that TheyWorkForYou helps make Parliamentary activity more transparent for all.

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash