Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.
We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.
The old normal
Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.
MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.
This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.
Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.
And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.
A digital revolution — and a roll back
There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.
MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.
But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.
The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.
Proxy voting is the wrong approach
While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.
There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.
This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).
As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.
While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.
In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.
But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.
Portraying MPs fairly
Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.
Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:
- We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
- We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
- In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.
mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.
Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.
Who could vote when?
Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting 11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave – 2 June – 4 June – Parental leave Physically present 5 June-9 June – Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present 10th June- – Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present
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Last year, mySociety worked as part of a consortium to deliver three local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. This was as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, which was a joint project between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The goal was to trial new ways of involving citizens in local decision making. Alongside Involve, the Democratic Society and the RSA we investigated how digital tools and methods could be used as part of deliberative processes.
As one of the final parts of this programme, the RSA has published a handbook about what we learned, and case studies of each of the assemblies:
- How to run a citizens’ assembly: a handbook for local authorities based on the Innovation in Democracy Programme
- Innovation in Democracy Programme case studies
The RSA have also blogged about the handbook.
mySociety’s part in this project was primarily to investigate how best to use digital tools to complement an in-person citizens’ assembly. We published this as two sets of guidance:
The first is a practical exploration into what materials are best to prepare and show on a website for a citizens’ assembly; the second looks at how tools can be used to bring evidence and external contributions into the debate, without diluting the representative nature of how participants were selected.
The handbook also describes an approach we helped with at the assembly in Test Valley. Discussions at pre-evidence sessions were recorded in argument maps for reference during the event.
This thinking has led into our work on the UK’s climate assembly helping proceedings, evidence and outputs to be transparent and available to everyone who is interested.
Since that project, for fairly obvious reasons, many organisations that previously focused on offline deliberation are now looking to pivot rapidly into how to run online deliberation. Involve has a good guide as to the range of tools and approaches that can be useful.
We are continuing to research and think about how citizens can be more integral to decision making, and what the appropriate role of technology is in making this happen. You can subscribe to our research newsletter to hear more:
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The House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has released its report: Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.
The recommendations can be seen online, but we were pleased to see a point taken up from our friends at Democracy Club, that there should be more open data about elections, candidates and polling stations so focus can be on providing that information to citizens rather than sourcing it.
This recommendation in particular reflects mySociety thinking:
Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.
Through our research and practical work in the last few years, we have been concerned with finding the appropriate place for technology in addressing problems.
Digital solutions have enormous potential to scale cheaply (and have powerful uses in democratic transparency), but also have uneven engagement and require different skill sets to manage. Where digital tools allow more efficiency, this should enable resources to be redirected towards improving the overall quality of the exercise.
As we argued last year when we were looking at digital tools and democratic participation:
Where using a tool can bring down other costs, those funds can be redeployed towards outreach and other real world activities to broaden participation. The use of digital tools must be understood as part of the whole system, which involves gauging not just what the tool does, but the effort and time it can free up to address other priorities.
The problem of citizens and communities being excluded from the political process will rarely be fixed by a digital tool alone, but when correctly aligned with democratic efforts to involve people in decision making, they can be a powerful part of the solution.
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Photo credit: Photo by Ciel Cheng on Unsplash
We are living in a historic age.
There are plenty of ways to see the truth of that right now. And here’s one more indicator: WriteToThem user numbers have exploded. Over the site’s lifetime (more than 15 years), we’ve never seen so many people using it to contact their representatives as we have during the last week or so.
See that big spike on the right? That represents almost 35,000 messages sent to MPs in the first twelve days of June, against a normal monthly average of around 4,000.
In total, so far this month you’ve already sent 55,000 messages to every type of representative, as the UK’s coronavirus death toll rose ever higher, and Black Lives Matter protests spread from the US to the UK.
A previous peak on 24/25 May coincided with the Dominic Cummings story. That week, 11,756 messages were sent to MPs.
Referrals have largely come through social media, as people share the easy way to contact representatives about the issues that have gripped them — but there have also been welcome links from mainstream media, including youth culture and style publications like i-D and Dazed. We hope this might indicate a welcome broadening of our userbase to include more young and diverse citizens — and if so, we hope they’ll come back in the future every time they need to make contact with those in power.
WriteToThem exists so that anyone can contact their elected representatives, and feed into the democratic process. We make it as easy as possible for you to tell your politicians what you expect of them, to share your beliefs and opinions, and to ask for their support. We are glad that so many citizens are doing just that during this increasingly momentous era.
If you’d like to know more about what WriteToThem is and how it works, see this post.
Image: James Eades
WriteToThem is a very simple website with just one purpose: it helps you to contact your elected representatives, from local councillors up to MPs, quickly and easily.
- WriteToThem is neutral and does not campaign. We don’t take a stance on any political issue and we don’t promote any particular belief or cause.
- But WriteToThem can be used by campaigns. The site’s functionality can be slotted into any website to provide an easy way for supporters to contact their representatives.
- WriteToThem only lets you write to your own representatives. The service was set up so that you can only write to the people who represent you within your constituency. This is because of a protocol that states reps must only deal with their own constituents. You can read more about this here.
- WriteToThem helps you understand which representatives to write to. WriteToThem briefly describes the job of each layer of representation on the page where you pick who to write to.
- WriteToThem doesn’t allow the mass sending of identical messages. We’ve heard directly from MPs that they are far more likely to ignore identical messages, or dismiss them as having less value. So WriteToThem blocks messages when it identifies that they are the same as several others that have been sent.
- WriteToThem detects and prevents vexatious use where possible. The WriteToThem system can automatically detect potentially irresponsible patterns of behaviour, eg one person sending a very large number of emails to a single recipient during a very short period of time.
- WriteToThem is not an official government service. It is run by mySociety, a UK charity which provides services to help you be an active citizen. Why? Because when we built it, there was no easy way to contact representatives online. And we continue to run it because it’s still providing an invaluable service to the thousands of people that use it every month.
- WriteToThem messages are (almost always) sent without human intervention. Everything is automated, and in almost every case, your message will never be seen by anyone except you and its intended recipient. In the remaining tiny number of cases, a WriteToThem moderator may access your message to see why there has been a problem with delivery.
- WriteToThem doesn’t track you with cookies. In March 2020 mySociety made the decision to remove tracking cookies from the majority of its services. That means we don’t track anything you do on the site on an individually identifiable basis.
Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.
This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.
Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.
If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.
We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.
During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.
But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.
Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.
We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.
Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)
Friends of the Earth are on a mission to double the number of trees in the UK: we’re sadly lacking on this front compared to our European neighbours, and of course, we’re all well aware of the part that trees play in helping safeguard the climate and encourage wildlife diversity.
As they point out, it’s not all about planting new trees: it’s just as important, and perhaps more economical, to preserve the ones we have. And we were delighted to see that FoE highlight FixMyStreet as a way to do so.
They suggest that you make a report to request a new TPO — Tree Preservation Order. If granted, this will make it a criminal offence to damage or cut down the tree without written consent from the local authority.
Generally, TPOs are used for trees that are providing a particular benefit to the local community (although it is, of course, possible to argue that pretty much every tree is doing this!). FoE guide you through the report-making process in the section of their page titled ‘How to request a TPO’.
As they make clear, not all councils are the same. Categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. So for some, you will find ‘trees’ as a category (and some even mark every tree on the map, making it very easy to pinpoint the one you are referring to). For others, you may have to choose a wider category such as ‘highways’. If all else fails, there’s always the ‘other’ category.
Once you’ve requested your TPO, it might help to get some support from your representatives. We’re glad to see FoE also suggesting the use of WriteToThem to contact local councillors and bring them onside. Maybe even your MP as well?
It might seem like a small thing, but we think if more people requested TPOs up and down the UK, it could make a real difference. So, if there’s a tree you really appreciate in your local area, you know what to do. Fire up FixMyStreet and get requesting!
Image: Bert Sz
If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.
In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.
You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.
We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.
You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.
When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.
One focus, one reason
We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.
We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.
We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.
And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.
So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.
We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.
Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.
Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?
But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.
Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:
Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.
You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.
What to do
First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.
Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.
Already signed up?
One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.
And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.
Useful for everyone
Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.
It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.
Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities
Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.
If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.
Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.
Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)
When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.
And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.
We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.
We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.
We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.
Right now, you can get a headstart:
If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:
- Use the API in the knowledge that it’s delivering the current MPs
- Download a spreadsheet of the current MPs
Now we need you to help us
We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.
There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.
But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)