1. Gaza Ceasefire votes and voting records

    What happened?

    Yesterday in the House of Commons, there was an SNP Opposition Day debate about a ceasefire in Gaza. This meant that the SNP had an opportunity to put forward a motion for the House to vote on.

    The Labour Party’s preferred wording of a ceasefire motion replaced the SNP motion and was passed by the House of Commons based on what is known as a voice vote. 

    This is when the speaker (in this case the Deputy Speaker who was in the chair) judges the result of the vote based on the volume of shouts in the chamber. As such, there is no record of how individual MPs voted.

    This is not the same as saying the vote was unanimous – and listening to the recordings there is a clear ‘no’ present on both votes (the Deputy Speaker does later claim that “nobody called against it”, which is then contested).

    From the Speaker’s point of view, the goal is taking a read on the decision of the House (and this may have been correct in that one side was louder, if not unopposed) – and a vote in the lobbies (division), which takes around 15 minutes, serves no purpose. 

    But votes also serve the purpose of putting the opinions of individual MPs on the record, which several were frustrated to have been denied. Votes are part of the public facts about MPs’ impact in Parliament, and part of how actions are communicated to constituents. This is a factor in the democratic process that also needs balancing in these decisions. 

    This decision followed a long division for a motion to sit in private – and votes that seemed clear on a voice vote may have been seen as costly in terms of time to take to a full division. In general, it is possible to have voting processes that are much faster and fairer to MPs, that would allow getting two votes on the record without taking most of an hour of parliamentary time. 

    What does this mean for TheyWorkForYou?

    Because there was no recorded division – the approval of the motion does not appear in the recent votes tab for MPs.

    The full debate is worth a read – the general sense is of a long debate where MPs engage with a complicated situation, and reflect that the UK’s role can only be part of any solution. 

    We’re in the process of updating the processes behind our voting summaries, which includes ways to include what we’re calling “agreements” (decisions without a “division”) in summaries. But issues like last night’s decision reflect that we need to take a cautionary approach – as there is clear evidence that it was not an unambiguous decision. We will publish more on this approach soon.

    Why was the amendment process controversial?

    As it was an SNP Opposition day, (a day when an Opposition party gets to choose the main debate) they got to propose the motion. Both Labour (another Opposition party) and the Conservative Party (Government party) proposed amendments to the motion.

    The Speaker went against previous convention and allowed both a Government and Opposition amendment – which was unexpected. The motivation of this was to give most MPs a chance to vote for a motion on their preferred wording – the problem is that the amendment process is not really set up for this.

    The thinking makes sense given how Opposition day voting is supposed to work: the Opposition by definition is not supposed to win because they have fewer MPs than the government.

    What’s supposed to happen is that MPs debate a topic, hold a vote, and the motion is rejected. If the topic strikes closer to home, the Government will amend it to say “this is an important issue but the Government is doing a great job”, and that is the motion that is passed because the Government should have the numbers to win the vote.

    Government amendments come after the vote on the main motion to respect the purpose of Opposition day debates, while reflecting the reality that the government can amend the motion and win. This sequencing allows for a vote on the pure motion on the record before the amended one wins.

    The same applies for amendments from other parties or backbenchers in the Opposition – these votes should also lose, and can be put before the motion without disrupting the flow.

    So what could have happened is: Labour amendment rejected (mostly by Government MPs), SNP motion rejected (mostly by Government MPs), Conservative amendment approved and adopted (mostly by Government MPs). In this scenario, most MPs have had a chance to vote for their party’s preferred wording, but this is only possible because the first few votes are rejected.

    In practice what seems to have fallen apart is the government approach – exactly why is still unclear but one suggestion is not enough Government MPs wanted to vote against the Labour wording, so to avoid an internal conflict they pulled their amendment and stopped opposing other votes. 

    This meant that Labour’s amendment won, it replaced the SNP motion and was passed as the main motion. 

    This outcome was the opposite of the one the Speaker’s choice was intended to facilitate. The SNP (and anyone who preferred the contents of their motion) didn’t get the chance to vote on their version, and no one generated a voting record either. A ceasefire motion passed, but no individual votes were recorded for it.

    The role of the Speaker

    The core issue is different ideas of what the Speaker is supposed to do. 

    In one reading the Speaker is supposed to be an agent to draw out the collective will of MPs, in another, the emphasis is on being non-partisan and reflecting a settled (cross-party) view of how the House of Commons operates. 

    The Clerk of the House advised not to allow both amendments, but also said that this was allowed by the rules, it went against previous approaches and risked that the SNP motion wouldn’t be voted on. The Speaker didn’t do anything inherently wrong by the rulebook, but has upset the sense that he was supposed to be a speaker who “innovated” less than his predecessor John Bercow.

    The virtue of deferring to the dead hand of precedent is that it shields the Speaker from the accusations of political bias. The outcome of this decision was good for Labour in that it avoided a split over the SNP vote, leading to a perception the rules were being bent in Labour’s favour. If this had threaded the needle and everyone had got the votes they wanted, this might have paid off. As it is, there’s a big question mark over whether the Speaker is trusted by MPs to be fulfilling the role. 

    The argument made by Owen Thompson (SNP) was that “the purpose of an Opposition day is for our party to have the ability to put forward our business”.  In general, Labour has a lot more Opposition days, where they haven’t chosen to propose their version of the motion. One of the SNP’s few days has resulted in SNP MPs not being able to put their views on the record. 

    But also if a motion would be preferred by the House it doesn’t seem undemocratic to include it. The amendment process is not meant to allow voicing opinions on three different things – but working towards a single statement that has majority support. If including more amendments changes the outcome, it is reasonable to include them on this basis. 

    This gets at different ideas of what voting in Parliament is for – is it for Parliament to come together and agree a consensus view, or for political actors to signal their divergent views? Both of these are legitimate purposes for a political body – especially when the goal of the motion is signally internationally (and also domestically) what the UK political establishment’s views are. 

    What does this mean for foreign policy?

    There’s a view that this kind of vote is navel gazing – and what MPs yell about over here doesn’t affect things over there. But this view is too narrow and misunderstands Parliament’s role as a political institution and how that relates to international politics.

    Motions can be broadly “doing something” or “saying something” motions, and this was a “saying something” motion. It doesn’t commit the government to do anything, and if it did, the government doesn’t have the power to impose a ceasefire tomorrow.

    In practical terms, it doesn’t matter what the Opposition thinks except in terms of the approach it signals in a possible next government. It does matter what government MPs are thinking however, and these motions seem to have flushed out some fault lines within the Conservative Party. Even if this isn’t on the voting record, it shapes internal discussion and policy making. 

    It is broadly good for the long term project of British diplomacy and coalitions with other countries where there is widespread consensus in Parliament on an action. Even partial support for bigger approaches within the governing party gives the Foreign Secretary more flexibility, and alignment with the likely next party of government similarly empowers the kind of statements and alliances that can be made. 

    So the vote does nothing in itself, but helps reveal what the political lie of the land actually is, and empowers actors working within it. Just because something is partial and political doesn’t mean it’s pointless.

    Political violence is shaping how representatives behave

    Another running thread here is the idea of political violence impacting decisions on the parliamentary agenda. The Speaker explicitly said the decisions he made on amendments were based on conversations “about the security of Members, their families and the people involved” – where MPs were considering their personal safety in weighing up if they could oppose motions by other parties. Regardless of whether you think it would be fine if more MPs had supported the SNP motion, it’s not good that this is part of the thinking in either direction. 

    This is part of a wider problem where political violence and threats of violence are collapsing political trust and openness – making politicians more suspicious of each other (seeing each other as whipping up mobs rather than engaging in politics), and less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to what may be passionate but legitimate participation of citizens in politics. 

    The parliamentary rulebook cannot take the weight of this – there are arguments about the extent to which allowing individual expression is an important purpose, but it can’t take the weight of allowing individual expression for the purposes of safety. 

    Here is where the recent Jo Cox Foundation report  No place in politics: tackling abuse and intimidation gives constructive steps. A key argument in the JCF report is that proportionate reactions to political violence can damage the relationship between representatives and their constituents. More safety measures and less public visibility make representatives less accessible. Its impact is not just in the one act, but the chilling effect it extends through the whole system that makes us more distant and suspicious of each other. 

    Reflecting this, the report puts a lot of time into a series of very practical measures to improve policing and reporting of threats and abuse, tying together different systems of support across Parliament, parties and policing. The clearest way to take abuse and intimidation seriously is to join up support and action on the least ambiguous cases. Politicians feeling that they are safe, and that threats against them are taken seriously, helps an environment where trust and openness support a better democratic system.

    Photo: UK Parliament – Central Lobby 

  2. By-Election Briefing: Understanding boundary changes with the Local Intelligence Hub

    Last Thursday saw two by-elections and two new MPs elected. When the Kingswood and Wellingborough voters go to the polls for the upcoming general election, many will be voting for candidates in brand new constituencies, and won’t have the MP they’ve just elected on their ballot paper. What can the Local Intelligence Hub tell us about how these constituencies will change?

    The times boundaries, they are a’changing

    Both of the constituencies that went to the polls on Thursday are being divided up to form multiple new constituencies at the next general election. The total number of constituencies and MPs (650) isn’t changing, but the boundaries are moving, and there are lots of new (and long) constituency names. In the case of Kingswood, no constituency of that name will exist anymore, instead being replaced by four brand new constituencies. Wellingborough, meanwhile, will be divided into three new constituencies. Let’s dive into the detail 👇

    So, who goes where?

    At the top of our new constituency pages, you’ll find the candidates that have been announced for that seat, thanks to our friends at The Democracy Club. This isn’t an official data set, it’s crowdsourced by Democracy Club and their wonderful volunteers.

    We can see that Kingswood’s new MP, Damian Egan, is standing as the candidate in the new Bristol North East constituency. We also know that just 36% of the constituency’s current population will have the opportunity to vote for him next time round. Here’s how Kingswood will change:

    • Bristol North East will cover approximately 36% of this constituency’s population, and 15% of this constituency’s area. 
    • Filton and Bradley Stoke will cover approximately 18% of this constituency’s population, and 10% of this constituency’s area.
    • North East Somerset and Hanham will cover approximately 45% of this constituency’s population, and 60% of this constituency’s area.
    • Thornbury and Yate will cover approximately 1% of this constituency’s population, and 14% of this constituency’s area.

    What about Wellingborough? We don’t have as much candidate information, but we do know that Wellingborough will become:

    • Daventry, which will cover approximately 4% of this constituency’s population, and 24% of this constituency’s area.
    • South Northamptonshire, which will cover approximately 5% of this constituency’s population, and 24% of this constituency’s area.
    • Wellingborough and Rushden, which will cover approximately 90% of this constituency’s population, and 51% of this constituency’s area.

    What does that mean for our data?

    As we explain here, it depends on how the data comes to us in the first place.

    Over time, statistics agencies will release more information for future constituencies, which we will be able to import straight into the Local Intelligence Hub. But during the changeover we want to keep as much of the value of datasets for the outgoing constituencies as possible.

    What can we say about how these constituencies will change?

    For datasets where we have the original data at a very granular level (eg: LSOA or point-based data), we’ve started creating new datasets using future constituencies. We’ve already done that for the Index of Multiple Deprivation dataset, and we’ll let you know as we make more progress on this. 

    Where we only have data at the level of current constituencies, we’ve created a process to approximately convert information from current to future constituencies. The big assumption of this method is that, for either people or area, the thing being measured is evenly distributed across that metric. As such, we think it’s fair to say that while the data is fuzzy in comparison between neighbours, overall it will capture trends across wider areas or regions.

    You can also dig into the new constituencies data yourself.

    Thoughts?

    The Local Intelligence Hub is brand new, and we’re still working out how to make it as useful as possible – for old constituencies, and new ones. Please try the hub out for yourself, and let us know how you get on!

    Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

    P.S. We’ve also published this on our LinkedIn page – why not connect with us there?

  3. Democracy month notes – January

    What are month notes?

    They are notes on what we’ve been working on… each month. It’s like weeknotes for lazy people. 

    We’ve been writing them for our Climate programme, and we’re building up to the point where we’ve got enough going on in our Democracy work that it’s worth establishing the habit of being clear about what’s going on.

    It’s about being open with what we’re working on, and if we’re lucky that helps spark conversations that help move things along. 

    What is “democracy” at mySociety?

    “We should do some Democracy monthnotes” is a sentence that makes perfect sense internally, but for some quick scene setting…

    In principle, everything we do is in some way about democracy —  we consider our FOI and transparency work to be important in part because it enables and grows civic ideas of democracy. Key to our climate work is the idea that democratic and climate problems are linked, and so our climate work is very engaged with the kinds of problems of democracy we’ve been thinking about all along — but with a sharper focus.

    Internally, we tend to think about our democracy work as being around TheyWorkForYou  and WriteToThem, and internationally looking at similar “parliamentary monitoring organisations”. These are some of our longest running services, widely used, and with a long potential future ahead of them. One of the things we’ve been doing over the last year is creating a clearer idea of what we want to accomplish with PMO work. Lots of this work has been behind the scenes in funding bids – but can be seen in the work adding the Senedd as a general direction of travel. More on what we’re currently working on (and some things that didn’t work out) in future. 

    Behind the scenes, there isn’t a Democracy “team” as such because we don’t currently have the funding available for that. My estimate is that last year we probably had 1-1.5 full time equivalent (FTE) people working on Democracy – but that was spread over 5-6 actual people. Given the porous lines between the different things we do, the immediate goal isn’t to get a big team, but to be increasing the consistency with which we can use the wide range of skills already in the organisation — and in making links and making the most of opportunities across our wider work. 

    So “Democracy” at mySociety is always going to be a little fluid —  we’ll use these monthnotes to be clearer about what that means in practice. 

    All the conferences

    The Democracy Network held its second conference this January, attended by 10% of mySociety (three people). 

    This is an interesting crowd that is, for obvious reasons, moving into being quite election focused. By contrast, a lot of mySociety’s work is about an effective civic democracy between elections. Many WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou features become less useful in an election, while traffic increases and usage changes. Once Parliament dissolves ,there are no MPs until new ones are elected, but what those MPs have been up to is important. We’re doing some thinking on our options for running the most useful version of the site during an election, and have picked up some conversations at the conference to continue. 

    Julia also went to the Democracy Classroom strategy day, where she spoke on a panel about using data in campaigning alongside our friends at Generation Rent and the Democracy Club. Our hosts, the Politics Project, brought together organisations of all sizes and types, from all across the UK. It was great to have a really practical conversation about the data needs of organisations working with young people, and after a follow up chat with Gaibhin from United Response, we’re already working on adding census disability data to the Local Intelligence Hub service we’re launching soon. 

    We’ve also had the mySociety quarterly team meeting, where we all head somewhere in the country (this time, Leeds!) to talk for a few days with colleagues we generally only see on the internet. They’re nice! 

    Register of interests

    Great to put out our spreadsheet version of the register of members interests

    Fun fact: this has been mostly ready to go since October —  part of not having a lot of funded time for Democracy work means there’s a backlog of 99% finished work to get out the door. 

    But the response to the blog post shows the value in getting that out, and in being transparent in general. Lots of nice comments from people who think they’ll find it useful – but it’s also leading to more conversations with people with an interest in the register that can help us get a better sense of what’s currently happening where, and what our role in the picture might be. 

    For keeping track: On my bit at the end about the kinds of questions people might want answered, Stuart from Open Innovations has linked me to some of their old weeknotes on work they did with PDS and the HoC Library on the kind of questions that can be answered through the current data.

    Voting records

    One of the big things we were doing behind the scenes last year is reviewing and updating our approach to voting records. This is one of TheyWorkForYou’s most notable features, and we got a grant from Newby Trust to have a good look at these and used some of our grant from the Porticus Foundation to do some more involved technical work than we may have otherwise been able to manage. January has been the fiddly final stages of getting this to launch. 

    I’m not going to go into a lot of details here (there are long blog posts to come) – but the big task has been thinking through what we’re trying to achieve, and then untangling our technical systems to make that sustainable over the long run. 

    Our current system is based on various data flows in and out of the Public Whip – which has a complicated history with TheyWorkForYou. It has some overlap with the people who founded it, it’s not run by us, but at the moment is substantially kept updated by Matthew’s work unclogging the ParlParse system the two sites have in common. Some of the things we want to change would need changes deep in the Public Whip, which we can’t do, and that’s bad for what’s such an important feature of the site. 

    As such, we’ve made a transitional replacement for the Public Whip, where we can build in the kind of analysis tools we need to have more visibility and control of the whole process.Over this year we’re going to be talking to people who want more of the kind of number-y analysis the Public Whip does well to tidy up what we’re using internally — and set it up as a useful specialist complement to TheyWorkForYou. 

    TICTeC/PMO Communities of Practice

    TICTeC is back in London! See the call for proposals about the conference itself – where we’re especially trying to think about how/if/where civic tech is relevant to themes of democracy in crisis, and democratic approaches to the climate crisis.

    As part of this funding, we are also setting up communities of practice around access to information and parliamentary monitoring organisations. A big bit of January for me has been (working with the Civic Tech Field Guide) making a good list of PMO organisations from around the world to approach to get a sense of what problems we might discuss over the next year. I’m currently working through the survey responses to that. 

    New combined authority

    Welcome to the new “York and North Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority”  — added to our big list of local authorities, our IMD dataset, and nearest neighbour dataset – and to CAPE – our local climate action tracker – where you can see some of these datasets in practice.

    CAPE has some features helping navigate the connections between authorities and combined authorities, and in general we’re trying to think about how we can better reflect Combined Authorities in our core work. 

    A key use of WriteToThem is a “here is the structure of government where you are” — and we haven’t added the new CAs because unlike the London Assembly they don’t have as clear a public facing representative. The long term solution here is either to lean into WriteToThem having information for people you don’t necessarily “write to” or building a clearer page for this into TheyWorkForYou – which does some version of this for devolved Parliaments/Assemblies. We’re thinking about it. 

    Making progress

    In any given month, we’re generally making incremental progress on things we think are good ideas, that might also importantly be fundable ideas on where we’re well placed to make something better

    Julia’s been developing more about what our approach to training might be — making more of the fact our tools are already used by educators, and building a better loop between that and our service development. 

    I’ve been developing our thoughts on the register of interests further, and reading through the Jo Cox Foundation’s new report “No place in politics: tackling abuse and intimidation” (which I thought was measured, and well-thought through) and making some notes on how it applies to our work. 

    We’re also thinking more about how practically we can try and increase support from the public for our services. Here moving a bit away from “Save TheyWorkForYou” language to being clearer about how what we do is part of making things better (regardless of who wins elections), and that we want to be far more ambitious than keeping the lights on.

    Anyway, if you’ve read this far — donations are welcome. But also get in touch if you’ve got something to chat with us about!

  4. Foodbanks and TheyWorkForYou alerts

    Give Food is an independent UK charity, founded in early 2020. They run the only national public database of UK foodbanks, and provide an up-to-date index of what goods each one is asking to be donated. 

    Founder Jason Cartwright spoke to us about how Give Food makes use of TheyWorkForYou’s email alerts — and we were pleased to discover that mySociety has helped shape their offerings in other ways, too. 

    Find a foodbank near you

    The Give Food website performs a number of related functions, as Jason explains: “We help members of the public understand that there are foodbanks around them, then give them tools to donate the items that are needed or to take political action.”

    Put in your postcode and you’ll be shown a list and a map of all the foodbanks near you. If you click on one of them, you’ll see what they need, what they already have plenty of, and where you can drop donations — or in some cases, how you can purchase goods online and have them delivered directly to the foodbank.

    “We aim to help local organisations address the immediate and critical needs created by food insecurity, but the wider ultimate aim is to not exist at all, as we believe that foodbanks should not be required in our country.”

    Turning alert emails into action

    As this suggests, Give Food is not just a middleman between citizens and foodbanks, but also acts as a political campaigning organisation. So where do the TheyWorkForYou alerts come in? 

    “We use them heavily,” says Jason, “basically to inform ourselves of what is being discussed by lawmakers around our cause.

    “We’re only small, but larger charities in our field are experts at engaging the public and politicians to achieve the same aims as us, and regularly directly influence policy. 

    “TheyWorkForYou alerts allow us to see, almost in real time, which of the approaches they are using are cutting through to being discussed in Parliament and national/city assemblies.

    “We use the information about how conversation around our cause is going to influence how we approach our advertising, site usability and copy — all of which allows our users to maximise their political action.

    “For instance, as a simple example, the current cost of living crisis, especially energy bills, is having a profound effect on foodbanks. Seeing this being discussed by politicians we were able to quickly change our advertising keywords and also reflect the current conversation in the form email our users can send to their MP.”

    Open source code

    It’s great to hear of such a direct connection between our output and a charity’s ability to act. And, as it turned out, the alerts aren’t the only benefit that Give Food have gained from mySociety.

    One more useful function of the Give Food website is that you can sign up to receive an email when your local foodbank needs supplies. This isn’t powered by our code, but Jason tells us that it was modelled on TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system. 

    Finally, there’s one more important way in which we’ve influenced Give Food: “Our code and data is all open source, and that decision was 100% influenced by mySociety’s open ethos.

    “Our data is used by governments, councils, universities, supermarkets, political parties, hundreds of national & local news websites, apps, plus other charities including food banks and food bank networks themselves,” says Jason, proving that when data is set free, it can be used in a multitude of different and useful tools.

    If you’re a developer and you think Give Food’s data or code might be useful to you, start on their API page

    Thanks very much to Jason for talking to us: it’s a joy to discover the many and varied ways in which TheyWorkForYou alerts are helping others to make a difference.

    Image: FeydHuxtable (CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  5. Improving the register of MPs interests

    Tl;dr: We’re now releasing our register of interests data as a spreadsheet.

    High quality data about the external interests of our MPs and ministers is vital to identifying conflicts of interests, and discouraging politicians from having conflicts of interest in the first place.

    Lack of clarity on the interests and income streams of MPs is a corruption risk. The problem with second jobs and outside interests is less that MPs might be distracted from their main job – but that when they stand in Parliament, they may be representing groups beyond their constituents, asking questions (or not asking questions) depending on their outside work.

    When outside interests exist, it’s vital they are clear and transparent. The Register of Members Interests contains a list of disclosures MPs are required to make of financial interests or benefits which “others might reasonably consider to influence his or her actions or words as a Member of Parliament”. Following the Owen Patterson scandal, there was renewed interest in this data, as it was clear that there were a number of potential stories and scandals hidden in plain sight – just requiring someone to join up the data.



    Building a data ecosystem

    A key problem is that the data is not easy to work with. The data is released (roughly fortnightly) on the parliament.uk website as a HTML document for each MP. This process technically releases the information, but makes it hard to compare releases of the same MP over time, or to make comparisons between different MPs.

    TheyWorkForYou improves on this by creating structured data from the HTML release. Using this we can highlight the changes in each release from the previous release. This is useful for journalists and campaigners in quickly understanding what has changed in each release. For instance, the change in Rishi Sunak’s register over time can be seen here.

    We want to avoid people doing the same work of cleaning the data over and over. We make our version of the data available publicly, so other people can use our work to do things that we haven’t done ourselves. For instance, Open Innovations have built on top of the data we publish to link the data to other datasets and create a Register of Members’ Financial Interests Explorer.

    While projects like the Tortoise/Sky News Westminster Accounts create new value in joining up datasets and cleaning the data for their own work – ultimately the new datasets they have created are only usable by those organisations. That’s their right as the people doing the work – but we think there is a bigger (and more sustainable) impact to be had in improving the data in public.

    Making our data more accessible

    Previously, we have published our interests data as a series of XML files, which is useful for programmers, but harder for other specialists to work with. We did some thinking with OpenDemocracy last year to explore if there were small changes we could make that would make the work we already do more useful.

    As well as the XML files, we now publish an experimental spreadsheet version of all data since 2000, and the register for the current 2019 Parliament.

    These sheets show the earliest and latest disclosure of an interest, and include some (very) basic NLP analysis to extract mentioned orgs from the free text and make it easier to quickly parse when scrolling.

    This data can also be explored through Datasette, which can be used to query the datasets in the browser, and save the queries as links that can be shared.

    For instance, the following links go to specific queries (we’re using an in-browser version for prototyping and this might take a minute to load):

    We want to continue to improve our approach here – and welcome feedback from anyone this spreadsheet helps.

    Parliament can do better data publication

    A key problem run into by everyone working with the data is that it’s broken to start with. MPs fill things out in inconsistent ways that makes the overall data different to analyse without cleaning first (see both the Open Innovations and Tortoise/Sky News methodology notes). Fixing this up is a key first step towards aggregate analysis – and the easiest place to fix it is with validation when the data is collected at the start.

    While work can be done to improve the data after the fact (and experiments with Generative AI have found it to be quite good at fixing inconsistent formatting), improving the initial data collection is the most effective way of improving the quality of the data. There are active moves in Parliament to fix some of these problems. Producing more information in machine readable formats, and adding methods to make sure the data is correct to start with, will make the transparency process simpler at every stage.

    Similar issues apply to the register published for All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which should publish as “machine readable” data the range of data that the groups are formally supposed to make publicly available. APPGs are semi-official groups that MPs can form around specific interests or issues. Many of these are useful ways of having discussions, but these can also be an avenue for corruption, with outside interests supporting the group and its activities. The register includes the officers of groups and financial assistance and gifts received by the group – but not the overall membership. APPGs are separately required to disclose their wider membership on their website (or if they don’t have a website, if someone asks) but this isn’t included in the register, and so can’t be consistently scraped to produce data. While MPs are supposed to disclose benefits from groups on their individual disclosure, clearer data on what is officially “public” memberships would help ensure that there is nothing missed between these two datasets.

    Separately there is a register of ministerial interests that applies to MPs who also have government positions. This is in principle more strict, requiring disclosures of relevant interests of family members, and avoiding even perceived conflicts of interest. However, in practice the information does not contain the specific financial value of gifts or benefits, just that they exist. The disclosure cycle is also longer, being published every six months rather than monthly. In practice – this means that relevant interests may not be public for a significant time after a minister is appointed (and potentially never published, if the minister has again moved on by then).

    There is a lot of work that can be done from the outside to build on official data. But the more Parliament does things that it is uniquely able to do, the more we can focus on analysis and data comparisons that are best done outside.

    What mySociety can do

    A very basic thing we can do is beat the drum (and work with those who have been doing this for ages) for better publication of data from Parliament.

    But if this happens or not, we can do work to make the data better. If it looks like Parliament’s data is unlikely to be fixed at the source, then a project of improving the data in public in a way that multiple projects could then build on would be useful. But if the data gets better, then we can better spend our time doing more work on top of this data. This might include joining up the official data with other datasets (including those of the UK’s other Parliaments and Assemblies) to draw out connections and better analysis.

    But our work here isn’t just about producing good data – it’s about displaying it in a way that’s useful and understandable by people. Chris Bryant MP (former Chair of the Standards Committee) has argued that Parliament’s own display of the history of registers should match what’s provided by TheyWorkForYou. If Parliament improved its own display to the public of registers of members’ interests this would be fantastic news – and we in turn would need to think about if there are new approaches that would be useful on top of that.

    One approach we are thinking about would be to find out what people wanted to know the answers to about their MPs interests, and then using volunteers to answer a set of common questions. This is the kind of editorialising that Parliament itself would find much harder to do – while providing something different from aggregate analysis of the data all together. This is something we could do with the data as it exists, but is something where better data would let us create new tools so volunteers could answer more complicated questions.

    Making MPs’ interests clearer and easier to understand is key to spotting conflicts of interest and keeping politicians accountable. We hope our new spreadsheet version of the data helps make the work we’re already doing more useful and accessible – while we think about the road we want to take in future to improve TheyWorkForYou and the project of a transparent democracy.





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  6. This is not just any Impact Report…

    …this is mySociety’s 20th anniversary Impact Report!

    Cover of mySociety's 20th anniversary impact reportThis has been a very special year – mySociety’s 20th anniversary.

    So we haven’t just put together our usual review of the past twelve months: this Impact Report is a special edition, covering our entire history since 2003.

    We look back at our beginnings as a small group of determined coders, and trace our history through the changes our services have made, here in the UK and across the world.

    Discover daring acts of (data) piracy, and learn which vandalised phone box sparked the idea for FixMyStreet. Find out how our “cheap and cheerful open web technology” has been instrumental in helping citizens tackle vital issues, from the climate emergency to human trafficking.

    It’s quite the read. Sit back, grab a mince pie if you have one to hand…and enjoy! Access the Anniversary Impact report here (web), or enjoy the print-faithful PDF version, or plain text and epub formats.

    And if you’re interested in our activity on the SocietyWorks side, don’t miss their own, just as engrossing, annual report: you can read that here.

  7. Shortlist announced for mySociety’s 20th anniversary awards

    The ways in which people and organisations have used mySociety’s services through the lifetime of the organisation have been impressive, inspiring and sometimes astonishing.

    So, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, on 15 November we’ll be presenting awards in five categories, showcasing impactful usage of their services through the years.

    • Driving Institutional Change
    • Accelerating Climate Action
    • Exposing Truth
    • Impactful International Reuse
    • Campaigning for Justice

    The shortlist is as follows:

    Driving Institutional Change

    • The Give Them Time campaign used WhatDoTheyKnow to get the law changed over funding for nursery care in Scotland.
    • John Graham-Cumming In 2009, John used the petitions website that mySociety had built for 10 Downing Street, resulting in Gordon Brown apologising on behalf of the British Government for its treatment of the computer scientist Alan Turing.
    • Richard Bennett used WhatDoTheyKnow, coupled with the Equality Act, to make pathways more accessible for wheelchair users, sharing his methods so that others could do the same.
    • Privacy International The ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow to reveal the unchecked use of surveillance technology by police forces across the UK.

    Accelerating Climate Action

    • Zero Hour Using mySociety’s WriteToThem software, they’ve garnered the backing of over 150 MPs for their draft Climate and Ecology Bill.
    • Sustain used data from CAPE, our Climate Action Plans Explorer, to analyse the degree to which local authorities are including food within their strategies to cut emissions. 
    • Save the Trees of Armada Way Plymouth’s grassroots campaign fought against the removal of much-loved trees in the city centre, using WriteToThem to send emails to the local councillors — apparently, the most emails they had ever received on a single subject. 

     Exposing Truth

    • Jenna Corderoy Jenna is shortlisted for her investigation — using WhatDoTheyKnow — of the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House, a secretive unit that screened  and blocked FOI requests made by journalists and campaigners, often on matters of serious public interest.
    • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Their Sold From Under You project used crowdsourced and FOI data to reveal how much publicly-owned property was sold off by councils across England, in an attempt to fill funding gaps caused by austerity measures. 
    • Lost in Europe worked with people running FOI sites on our Alaveteli platform, in 12 different countries, to uncover previously unknown statistics around how many children disappear at borders

    Impactful International Reuse 

    • Dostup do Pravda/Access to Truth The Ukrainian Freedom of Information site continues providing access to information even in the difficult circumstances of war.
    • vTaiwan, Public Digital Innovation Space, and the Taiwanese Ministry of Digital Affairs The Taiwanese government uses mySociety’s SayIt software to make deliberations on difficult subjects public and accessible to citizens.
    • DATA Uruguay The organisation has built both FixMyStreet and Freedom of Information sites on mySociety’s codebases, changing the way their governments  communicate with citizens at both local and national levels.

    Campaigning for Justice 

    • Doug Paulley is a lifelong campaigner for rights for disabled people, using FOI to fight against access discrimination, especially around public transport.
    • Eleanor Shaikh has dedicated hours and hundreds of FOI requests to finding out the truth behind the Post Office Horizon scandal, with her findings making front page headlines.
    • After Exploitation use Freedom of Information to uncover the failings of the government’s measures to protect vulnerable detainees.

    Of course, every single user of our services is a winner in our eyes – but watch this space to find out who takes home the award in each category!

    Image: Rene Böhmer

  8. The Climate and Ecology Bill is gaining traction – with the help of WriteToThem

    You might know our WriteToThem service as an easy way to contact your representatives – which it definitely is! But did you realise that it’s also doing heavier lifting, helping proposed legislation gain support in Parliament?

    We’ve already seen how Power for People have mobilised their supporters this way: and Zero Hour is also running a successful campaign around a draft Bill. 

    zero hour logoZero Hour’s campaign centres around the Climate and Ecology Bill, in which they lay out a comprehensive and joined-up approach to the climate and nature emergency. A cornerstone of their strategy relies on getting their supporters to contact their representatives and ask them for their backing. 

    We asked Amy McDonnell, co-Director of Zero Hour to give us a bit more background and to explain the thinking behind the Bill. 

    Amy explained, “It’s the only current or proposed legislation that tackles the interconnected nature-climate emergency together.

    “We formed the campaign to provide a pathway to getting cross-party support for a legislative solution that will ensure that the UK delivers a science-led, people-powered plan on biodiversity and climate.”

    We were interested to know more about how rallying individuals can pave the way to change. 

    Amy told us, “We’ve always depended on our grassroots movement. MPs really care about what their constituents think, and writing to them is incredibly impactful. Moving forwards, we know that we can only win with people on the ground by turbocharging our activity in Parliament.”

    So how did they make the decision to bring WriteToThem onto their website? 

    “We knew that we needed an integrated tool on our site. The WriteToThem tool was key, as we recognise that people’s priorities are stretched and time is precious. So we used WriteToThem to ensure that supporters could contact the MP where they live with the click of a button. 

    “This has been incredibly effective, with thousands of our supporters asking their MPs to support the Climate and Ecology Bill. Having the mechanism to write to MPs with ease has been crucial to the success of the campaign to date, providing insightful responses and opening opportunities for our team to have engaging conversations with members of all political parties on how we can all work together to create an integrated strategy to tackle nature-climate emergency together.”

    WriteToThem doesn’t allow for mass, identical messages from users, and we were curious to know whether that had created any kind of challenge. Quite the reverse, as it turns out:

    We’ve found that fewer, personalised messages are a lot more impactful than thousands of standard emails, which can easily be blocked and ignored.

    “Our approach has always been to maximise not just the action taken by our supporters, but critically the impact that our supporters can make. Through providing guidance on how to personalise messages, we can avoid emails being dismissed or reaching spam folders.”

    And that has a knock-on effect on the way campaigners feel about taking action. 

    “The effectiveness is leading to visible progress, and that’s critical in ensuring that subsequent supporters see there’s a point in taking action on the campaign. So, we created the tool in a way that allows them to craft a personal messages about why the CE Bill can deliver a prosperous, nature-rich UK, that benefits nature, jobs and health for all, in their own words — and it will go directly to the right representative.

    “We know this has proven fruitful, as we commonly get meaningful responses from MPs which move the campaign forward — they can create an opportunity for further conversation about meeting our shared objectives on climate and nature.” 

    And WriteToThem helps in other fundamental ways, too:

    “It reduces the barrier of users having to search for their MP’s details and contact them in a more manual way. It saves supporters time. 

    “We knew mySociety was a very reputable and trustworthy organisation that could deliver the reliability we required in providing functional tools to best engage with the political system and felt the tool was a perfect match to get the engagement we were seeking from the campaign. The choice to use WriteToThem has been instrumental in the success of our campaign.”

    So would they recommend it to other campaigns looking to follow a similar model?

    “Absolutely. We would wholeheartedly recommend campaigns utilise WriteToThem as it’s a reliable and convenient tool for ensuring your campaign is not only seen by a maximum number of representatives but also vitally providing engaged responses. 

    “We can say without question that the tool increased the frequency of our supporters contacting MPs. This has provided invaluable leverage; opened doors and raising the profile of the CE Bill for us to build support which now stretches across all major parties.”

    Indeed, support now comes from 132 MPs, 40 Peers, the Mayor of London, 240 local councils, 192 scientists and 500 organisations — you can find Zero Hour’s full list of supporters here.

    “Frequently when we call MPs’ offices about events, briefings and other matters, office staff mention they have received numerous emails on the Climate and Ecology Bill, and that is a testament to the power of the WriteToThem tool, as MP’s have a large number of competing campaigns and prioritises in their inboxes daily. So, if you are looking for a way to easily connect supporters with their MP to increase awareness and engagement on key campaigns, it’s very effective.”

    Well, we couldn’t hope for much more than that! We’re very glad to have helped underpin such an essential campaign.

    If you’d like to find out more, head to zerohour.uk. And if you feel inspired to write to your MP about the Climate & Ecology Bill, you can do so here

    For those who would like to be kept up to date with all Zero Hour’s activities, the best way is to sign up as a supporter.

     

     

     —

    Image: Nuno Vasco Rodrigues / Climate Visuals Countdown (CC by-nc-nd 4.0)

  9. WriteToThem supports local campaigning

    In Plymouth, a determined group is fighting to save trees from being cut down in the city centre. They’re called STRAW, an acronym for Save the TRees of Armada Way.

    A small and local campaign it may be, but we recently noticed that it was sending a significant number of people to our ‘contact your representatives’ site WriteToThem. Curiosity piqued, we got in touch to find out more.

    Ali from STRAW was glad to talk to us. “The campaign started last September”, she explained, “when I learned that Plymouth City Council planned to regenerate Armada Way, a wide pedestrianised area which was covered in trees and runs through the heart of the city. It’s an area I live near, and was very fond of.

    “It was clear that some of the trees would have to be cut down in order to implement the design, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this plan before, since it looked like it was definitely going ahead, and quite soon.”

    A campaign is born

    What do you do when you find out that an unwanted change is planned in your own neighbourhood? Gather other people who feel the same, and go on a fact-finding mission, that’s what!

    And indeed, Ali explains: “I realised that I had no power on my own, so I decided I’d try and find out if other people knew about the plan and whether they were happy about it. 

    “Not long after, we discovered it wasn’t the case that some trees would be felled in order for the council to realise their new design. It was 99% of the 137 trees! 

    “Most of them were healthy, and most had been planted in the 80s, so they were trees which people had a real connection to. They’d grown up with them. They were like a little green oasis from quite a harsh urban landscape – an urban forest.”

    Democracy in action

    Once these startling facts had been pinned down, the group needed to take action. Their website provides multiple opportunities for activism: posters you can print out, a chance to donate, a petition to sign, and facts about the trees. Oh, and that link to WriteToThem!

    “The campaign was really one of public awareness”, says Ali. “But we also asked the people of Plymouth to contact the decision-makers and let them know how they felt about what was planned, and that they were unhappy that they had not been consulted on it.

    “We figured that if enough people wrote, they would realise what a bad decision it was. Democracy in action!”

    First steps into politics

    Since it’s a local campaign, STRAW encourages supporters to contact their councillors rather than their MP. WriteToThem doesn’t need you to know who your reps are before you email them, which proved very useful. 

    “Many people had no idea who their councillors were, and had certainly never written to them before. If nothing else, the campaign has got a lot more people in Plymouth to pay attention to local politics,” says Ali. 

    “The thought of having to look up who your councillor is before writing to them is a real barrier for people. WriteToThem makes it so easy, I really think it made a difference.

    “We saw it a bit like a protest. Rather than blocking the streets, we filled councillors’ inboxes with passionate messages – not to be vexatious but to show our strength of feeling. We heard that Plymouth City Council have never had anywhere like the amount of correspondence as they had on this issue. We didn’t get many responses but we knew we’d got our message over.”

    An ongoing campaign

    STRAW had a significant initial success: “In November, at a council meeting, the council passed a motion to pause the project to review it, to determine whether any more trees could be worked into the design. 

    “This was two months before we presented them our petition, and was directly as a result of their being inundated with emails!”

    But unfortunately, there was a huge setback when the plan went ahead regardless. 

    Chopped down trees in front of a fenced off area in Armada Way, Plymouth

    “We’re now in a legal case with the council over the way the Armada Way project has been handled,” says Ali, “and we are fighting to save the 20 trees which weren’t cut down in March as a result of a last minute injunction we managed to obtain.”

    Sad news, but it’s great to hear they’re still fighting on. and Ali reckons that even if STRAW didn’t achieve everything it had hoped for, their actions have still had a net positive effect. 

    “We’re hoping that the campaign will mean that there’s better public consultation in the future. We’ve demonstrated that local people really do care about how their city looks; they want a voice and they care about urban trees and the many benefits mature urban trees bring. 

    “We’d like the council to better consult not only with local people but local stakeholder groups and local experts, most of whom have been overlooked in recent years.”

    Trees matter

    There’s been a growing understanding of the importance of trees within the urban landscape, and particularly in the context of the climate emergency.

    They provide useful shade as the temperature rises; they decrease carbon, help mitigate flooding, increase biodiversity by providing homes for insects, birds and other creatures; and of course they simply make harsh city streets seem more appealing. A tree provides a natural place under which to place a table and chair, for example, reclaiming street use for people rather than traffic.

    Dark Matter Labs has produced this graphic to explain these benefits and more. See more in their Trees As Infrastructure project.

    a graphic showing how trees can reduce noise levels, improve wellbeing, decrease crime levels and reduce carbon among many other benefits.

    Image by Dark Matter Labs; click to see bigger

    A tool for campaigners

    With all this in mind, small neighbourhood campaigns to preserve trees seem all the more vital, and we’re pleased that our services can help. Would Ali recommend that others use WriteToThem as part of their campaigning toolkit?

    “Absolutely. WriteToThem really is so useful; it’s a wonderful tool. 

    “And if you’re campaigning about a situation that lots of people feel passionately about, it can only help if we make our elected officials aware of how we feel.”

    Many thanks to Ali for sharing STRAW’s story. If you’d like to get involved, you can find out more on their website.

     

  10. Navigating the new constituencies

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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



    Political equality means more than equal seats

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

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

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

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

    Effective and understandable layers of representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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    Image: Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash.