With so very much going on in politics right now, and so many MPs in the spotlight at any given moment, there has been a lot of sharing of TheyWorkForYou’s voting records on social media.
Of course, we’re all for it, if it helps people understand MPs’ voting history and the stances they’ve taken during their careers: we even include little share buttons beneath each voting record section to help you do this.
But as from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll also see a new addition to these sections: we’ve added a link saying ‘please share these voting records responsibly’ — and if you click on it, you’ll see a page setting out lots more information about votes, including the data that feeds the voting information on the site, and what you can — and what you definitely shouldn’t — conclude from it.
What TheyWorkForYou has always tried to do is take the complex, sometimes messy, often arcane and opaque business of Parliament and make it easy for the everyday person to understand, even if they don’t have a degree in Politics or lifelong membership of a political party.
The trouble is, as our users and MPs themselves can be very quick to point out, when you try to simplify a complicated area, some nuance is always lost. There are things everyone should know before they charge onto Twitter or Facebook, hoping to win an argument or denigrate an MP by brandishing their record on foreign policy or social issues. And so we’ve set these points out on one page.
A key question that arises when writing a page like this is: if we can’t present everything (either because the data doesn’t exist, or because including it would complicate the overall picture so much that we would risk losing our aim of making things easy to understand) should we present anything at all?
We ask ourselves this question fairly often, and so far our answer has always been ‘yes’. Please read our page so that you fully understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.
Image: MP speaking at Theresa May’s last Prime Minister’s Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.
As we undertake a lot of work based around knowledge-sharing and best practice, we’re looking into the concept of ‘playbooks’ as one proven way to share practical lessons. Our aim is to ensure that none of our learning is lost, and that it is shared with practitioners who face similar challenges in the future in as useful and accessible a way as possible.
What is a playbook?
‘Playbook’ is a word that’s used a lot these days, by tech and management people. They’ve borrowed it from the world of sports, where the idea of a book telling you ‘how to play’ is a more straightforwardly obvious concept.
If you find this terminology a bit too hipster, though, you can think of them by the less trendy terms of ‘manuals’ or ‘toolkits’ — though a playbook does have the advantage of sounding like a lot more fun than a workbook.
Whatever the name, what they aim to give you is a collection of repeatable plans and tactics for responding to typical challenges. As such, they can be absolutely invaluable as an internal company tool; and we think they can also help in sharing knowledge between organisations.
In either case, a well-managed playbook would be easily available to employees, widely used and regularly updated.
Playbooks might be for one department (like sales, or design) or for the organisation as a whole. They typically contain several different kinds of content, such as:
- Plays (or guides), detailing the steps that need to be taken to achieve a goal or cope with a scenario
- Scenario or problem definitions, describing things that may happen, or go wrong; how they are caused and how they are identified
- Ingredients: details of the resources needed and the costs associated with them
- Case studies: Written summaries of real life projects that have come up against scenarios and utilised similar plays or guides to solve them
- They also usually contain some signposting or navigation method, such as tags or categories — or one of our favourite methods, the questionnaire.
Questionnaires as a content discovery method
One great way to ensure that people are seeing the most relevant content in an often hefty playbook is to use a questionnaire that leads the user to the precise content they need at that particular time.
By answering a series of questions, the visitor can provide some information on their own situation, and in return be delivered the most relevant content.
For example, Atlassian’s health monitor, part of their playbook, asks you to rate how well you feel your team is doing on certain attributes, such as shared understanding, decision making, and dependencies.
Once the questionnaire is completed it offers suggested plays and lets you assemble and share your own action plan.
What goes into a useful playbook?
Practical advice that is specific to your situation is often the most helpful, and this where playbooks really shine.
A well thought-out playbook, with a questionnaire that asks the right questions, can make available clearly-defined, tailored content that is domain-specific. This means that the reader doesn’t need to work hard to apply generic advice to their situation, nor untangle clumsy metaphors.
Playbooks often solve the problem of ‘how do you know what you don’t know?’, with tried and tested solutions to known problems.
A playbook should be designed with the target audience in mind — and that audience can potentially be a narrow one, operating solely within one domain or department — offering rich advice based on experience. It should empower people to achieve their goals, solve their problems and, ultimately, shape the culture of their organisation.
A well thought-out playbook will become invaluable to its users, and consequently they will want to keep it up to date and useful.
For this reason many playbooks have a method of feedback to aid continual improvement, such as rating a page based on its utility, open feedback methods or collaborative wiki-style editing.
Where we’re working with playbooks
Local Digital FOI
One of the prototypes we pursued as a result of our research into how councils manage Freedom of Information requests was a playbook, fronted by a self assessment questionnaire.
We identified a need where teams want to improve their service but don’t necessarily know where to make improvements (eg, should they invest in better software, train staff, or revamp their processes?).
Our prototype playbook asked questions to determine the shape of the council’s FOI service, which then presented guides and descriptions of potential problems relevant to their case.
We’re looking at developing this idea further in a future project. If you work in a local authority, and are interested in partnering with other local authorities in a Local Digital funded project to develop this prototype into a resource that could be used across the sector to improve services… please do get in touch!
Our Public Square work focuses on citizen engagement in local democracy, and we think a playbook could form a key part of this project.
We’re planning a series of guides, case studies and research presented in a clear and accessible playbook format, to be used by councils and other public sector organisations where greater citizen involvement in decision making is a goal.
Our favourite playbooks
There are hundreds of great examples, but here are the ones we’ve singled out as particularly strong:
- Thoughtbot’s playbook for software design and development
- GV’s design sprint playbook
- Atlassian’s team playbook
If you’ve been working on a playbook, or your organisation already has one that you think is doing interesting things, please do let us know.
As part of the recent work we’ve been doing around meaningful citizen participation in democratic decision making, mySociety have been investigating how digital tools can be used as part of the process of a Citizens’ Assembly.
We reviewed how Citizens’ Assemblies to date have used digital technology, and explored where lessons can be learned from other deliberative or consultative activities.
While there is no unified digital service for Citizens’ Assemblies, there are a number of different, individual tools that can be used to enhance the process — and most of these are generic and well-tested products and services. We also tried to identify where innovative tools could be put to new uses, while always bearing in mind the core importance of the in-person deliberative nature of assemblies.
We found that digital tools have potential uses in many parts of the process, which we grouped in three areas:
Preparation: bringing the public in
- Question forming
- Public submissions
- Finding experts and stakeholders to give evidence
Internal: facilitating assemblies
- Attendance management
- Tools for coming to decisions in the assembly (voting)
- Sharing assembly materials to members
- Including a wider range of experts
- Enabling online deliberation for assembly members outside the face-to-face sessions
External: sharing products
- Sharing the conclusions of the assembly
- Streaming of evidence/plenary sessions
- Sharing evidence submitted to inquiry
- Tracking implementation of recommendations
- Communicating participants’ experiences
- Allowing feedback from non-participants on the outcome
Above all when considering the use of digital tools, it’s important that the final choice is appropriate to the aims of the project — and will typically be complementary rather than taking a centre-stage role. Digital tools can reduce costs and enhance the process by creating resources that add greater depth and knowledge to the process, but shouldn’t detract focus from the importance of the core deliberative activity of the assembly.
After over five years of active development we have decided to pause work on the EveryPolitician project for the foreseeable future.
In this post we’ll outline where we are leaving things, how you can make use of the data that does exist, and how you might be able to help migrate or transfer some of what we’ve collected over to services like Wikidata.
What’s in place today
The EveryPolitician project is, as its name suggests, based on the simple idea to gather accurate and up-to-date data on every politician in the world, collated and shared in a consistent format for free download and use by researchers, democracy projects, campaigners and individual citizens.
Over the course of the project we have gathered, structured and shared data on 78,382 politicians from 233 countries and territories presented on EveryPolitician.org via hundreds of scrapers run on morph.io and hosted on GitHub, producing the data on everypolitician-data.
Mostly the data covers the main chambers of recent parliaments around the world, but it also includes thousands of entries for previous parliaments, in some cases going back decades.
This has been a sizeable undertaking, involving a handful of very talented developers and colleagues within mySociety, as well as contributions from dozens of other organisations and individuals, many of whom make use of the data within their own projects.
The reality is that this work is hugely time consuming, complex and requires not just expert knowledge but a commitment to go deep into the intricacies of parliamentary data in order to make it comprehensible to a wider group of users. And looking to the next couple of years this task is only ever going to increase in complexity — too much for one underfunded organisation.
We therefore intend to freeze the current data as it currently stands, and it will continue to be available for download and reuse. We just can no longer commit to keeping this data up to date.
Always playing catch up
The challenge with data projects like EveryPolitician, beyond the complexity of understanding the structures and relationships within hundreds of individual parliaments (every parliament is an edge case in some way), is that the data is always steadily going out of date.
Across the world’s national parliaments there is an election somewhere roughly once a week, and that’s often when parliaments choose to update their websites, sometimes breaking our scrapers and changing the format of the data. Throughout the life of a parliament you might expect a few percent of MPs to change, sometimes more in different systems, so keeping on top of those individual changes is a sizeable task – especially where errors or duplications occur.
In addition to managing the hundreds of scrapers, we also included data from other sources — increasingly from Wikidata. Over the past 18 months we’ve been attempting to migrate more and more of what we’ve learned on EveryPolitician over to Wikidata via the WikiProject every politician.
Where the project goes next
EveryPolitician was built on the many years of work we had already delivered in this area, through PopIt, Poplus and working with Popolo. We knew what was needed, what worked and what didn’t.
We saw the potential to create an Open Corporates for political data, and hoped that EveryPolitician would be able to attract grant funding to grow, and potentially develop appropriate commercial services in support.
However, after five years of significant investment we just don’t have the funding to continue this work on our own.
In time we hope to be able to continue to contribute again to the wider availability of political data, and with hindsight it’s clear that Wikidata should be the natural global home for this type of data – benefitting from much greater reach, the contribution of motivated individuals in each country, and from the wider Wiki community.
As part of our contribution to Wikidata, we’ve created numerous tools to support the cross-referencing, verification, and supported update of data between EveryPolitician and the Wikiproject. This is still something of a work in progress, but we see it as a key way that others might contribute and take on aspects of the project in the future.
In the meantime we hope that many people continue to make use of the wealth of data that’s already been collected.
If you have a specific interest in a country, group of legislatures or some other combination, perhaps you can consider adding the kind of data that EveryPolitician has collected to Wikidata. We have no further resources to devote to this work; however if you do have an interest in taking some of this on then we will try to advise what options might best suit.
Image: Jelle van Leest
Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.
For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.
Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.
Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:
- All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
- The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
- As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.
If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.
We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.
You can help us keep improving our services.Donate now
Image: Katie McNabb
You may remember that in August this year, mySociety and Open Knowledge International launched a survey, looking for the sources of digital files that hold electoral boundaries… for every country in the world. Well, we are still looking!
There is a good reason for this hunt: the files are integral for people who want to make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, who need to be able to match users to the right representative. From mySociety’s site TheyWorkForYou to Surfers against Sewage’s Plastic Free Parliament campaign, to Call your Rep in the US, all these tools required boundary data before they could be built.
We know that finding this data openly licensed is still a real challenge for many countries, which is of course why we launched the survey. We encourage people to continue to submit links to the survey, and we would love if people experienced in electoral boundary data, could help by reviewing submissions: if you are able to offer a few hours of help, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The EveryBoundary survey FAQs tell you everything you need to know about what to look for when boundary hunting. But we also wanted to share some top tips that we have learnt through our own experiences.
- Start the search by looking at authoritative sources first: electoral commissions, national mapping agencies, national statistics bodies, government data portals.
- Look for data formats (.shp, .geojson, kml etc), and not just a PDF.
- Ask around if you can’t find the data: if a map is published digitally, then the data behind it exists somewhere!
- Confuse administrative boundaries with electoral boundaries — they can be the same, but they often aren’t (even when they share a name).
- Assume boundaries stay the same — check for redistricting, and make sure your data is current.
If you get stuck
- Electoral boundaries are normally defined in legislation; sometimes this takes the form of lists of the administrative subdivisions which make up the electoral districts. If you can get the boundaries for the subdivisions you can build up the electoral districts with this information.
- Make FOI requests to get hold of the data.
- If needed, escalate the matter. We have heard of groups writing to their representatives, explaining the need for the data. And don’t forget: building tools that strengthen democracy is a worthwhile cause.
mySociety is asking people to share electoral boundary data as part of efforts to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, and support the creation of a Democratic Commons. Electoral boundary files are an essential part of the data infrastructure of a Democratic Commons. A directory of electoral boundary sources is a potential benefit to many people and organisations — so let’s keep up the search!
Photo: Chase Clark
What we’ve done — and what we want to do
Wikidata now has up-to-date and consistent data on political position holders in current national legislatures for at least 39 countries (and work in progress for over 60 countries), thanks to work by volunteer community members on the Wikiproject every politician. mySociety worked as part of this project with a Wikimedia Foundation grant in 2017-18.
There is now a real possibility for Wikidata to become the definitive source of data about democracies worldwide — but only if that data can be maintained sustainably. A significant risk is that elections and other major political changes quickly render data on political position holders and legislatures in Wikidata out-of-date.
We’re proposing a Wikidata post-election updating toolkit project, which aims to ensure that data on elected representatives is substantially correct and complete within a month following an election, leading to improved quality and consistency of data in Wikidata over time. We’ll work as part of the Wikidata community to create and signpost tools and pathways that help contributors to quickly, easily and consistently update data following an election or other political change.
How community members can get involved in the project
If you’re already active around data relevant to political position holders, legislatures, or elections in Wikidata, we’d like your feedback and help to test the new tools and guidance and ensure that they are consistent with the emerging consensus around modelling these types of data.
In particular, if you live in a country or major region that has an upcoming election, please talk to us about piloting the tools! We’d like for you to test the project tools and guidance to update data following your country’s election, and to give us feedback on the value and appropriateness of the approach in your context and political system.
In general, we’re keen to encourage discussion and evaluation of Wikidata as a source of current position holder data.
Please review our proposal
If you’re interested in this, and are active on Wiki projects, please have a look and review our proposal here.
Image: Mike Alonzo
If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.
From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.
The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.
This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.
Find out more about votes
Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.
How to sign up for alerts
Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.
Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.
Image: Luca Micheli
As we’ve highlighted in recent posts, EveryPolitician is an open dataset.
We’ve always been strong advocates of open data, but there’s no doubt that it come with its own challenges. For example, when data is freely and openly available, without even the need for registration, we have very little idea of who is accessing it. That, in turn, makes it hard to prove that the project is having impact…and subsequently to find funders to support the maintenance of the project.
So we were fortunate that user research interviews for the Democratic Commons led us to Andrew from New/Mode. New/Mode deliver advocacy and engagement tools that are used by hundreds of the top campaign, nonprofits and advocacy organisations around the world.
These tools are connecting people to their representatives, so information is key: specifically, information on who politicians are and how to contact them. And that’s just what EveryPolitician is, in part*, providing for New/Mode’s tools which are used by groups in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.
We asked Andrew what impacts have been created through New/Mode’s tools, and he told us that:
- In the UK, ONE’s supporters sent 6,500 emails to MPs over the space of a week, helping to successfully pressure MPs to vote for a Sanctions and Anti Money Laundering Bill that increases transparency and cracks down on global corruption.
- In the US, Win Without War used New/Mode tools with EveryPolitician data to block a defence bill that would have given Trump more nuclear access. The Sunrise Movement is currently using New/Mode tools to push for swift action on climate change.
- In Canada, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East prompted 16,000 emails to Canadian MPs in support of Trudeau’s comments condemning violence against unarmed Palestinian protesters.
We need more of these stories to help us build a picture of who uses EveryPolitician and why it is important, to make a case for why we should keep working on it. As mySociety’s Mark Cridge outlined in a previous post, we’ve recognised that EveryPolitician can only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort, which is why we are collaborating with Wikidata — but we still need the resources to do that.
Any ideas, or suggestions, please let us know by emailing email@example.com
*PS, In case you were wondering which APIs New/Mode uses, here is a breakdown:
- Currently, Open North’s Represent is providing the bulk of the data for Canadian politicians. But senators’ data and Twitter handles for the MPs and senators are pulled from EveryPolitician.
- For the US, Google Civic does a good job of providing the bulk of information, but again EveryPolitician is used for congressional fax numbers and to fill in any blanks with Google Civic data.
- In the UK, New/Mode are using another mySociety tool, Maplt alongside EveryPolitician. EveryPolitician data is only available for the national level of politicians as yet.
- For Australia where they focus on national politicians, the data is drawn from a mixture of Open Australia and again EveryPolitician.
Thanks to everyone who braved the very long queues to get into Parliament yesterday — ironically, they were battling for access to a meeting about making parliaments easier to access!
We hope that those who waited over an hour to gain entry to the House of Lords committee room felt that it was worth it, despite the wintry temperatures.
Launching Parliament and the People
Parliament and the people: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa is the result of two in-depth fact-finding trips to Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda by our research team. Read the report here.
While visiting these countries, report authors Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder spoke to numerous activists, civil servants, elected representatives and civic tech organisations to fully understand just how political information is disseminated digitally in the region.
Their findings give both a unique insight into how technology is being used in sub-Saharan Africa right now, but also allowed for the formulating of six key recommendations for anyone funding or building tech for political engagement. We believe they will apply anywhere in the world.
Great thanks to our invited guests who gave us the benefit of their experience and insights into a wide range of associated areas.
Joining mySociety’s Mark Cridge for hosting duties was Lord Purvis of Tweed, who as a member of the International Relations Committee has an interest in digital tools that help build better, more responsive societies.
After an overview of the report findings by our own Dr Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder, there was a discussion with Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust, Julia Keutgen of Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Tom Walker of the Engine Room.
The full report is a great read, but if you only have time to take away the key points, here they are in an easily-digestible form.
1 – Conduct thorough scoping exercises in-country before committing to fund, build or implement a specific solution, and use the intelligence gathered to inform the final product.
Paul Lenz previously worked for mySociety, and recalled the process of setting up projects inspired by our own TheyWorkForYou parliamentary monitoring website, for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s now working for Indigo, the grant-makers who made those projects possible, so he’s seen both sides of the picture.
Paul described the act of lifting tech from a UK context and ‘parachuting it in, often at the behest of the in-country organisations themselves, who had seen it working well’ as, in retrospect, a mistake. Rebecca stressed that we need to ask the projected end-users what they need, rather than telling them. Work from the ground up, not the top down.
Tom added that in-depth scoping research is always useful, and described occasions when it had showed his organisation that a proposed new technology tool was not necessary because local groups were already tackling the problem in other ways. He suggests organisations use the Alidade tool to create a plan for finding technology tools that suit their social change project.
2 – Work with in-country partners that have a good working relationship with their parliament, and ensure the digital tool is integrated into both their regular work and future discussions with parliament about improving civic engagement
Again, Paul brought insights from mySociety’s early days, when we positioned ourselves almost as renegade outsiders — in the early days of TheyWorkForYou, for example, we were even threatened with litigation for publishing Hansard without permission. 15 years later, says Paul, we’ve broadly come to understand that it’s far more sensible to work with institutions than against them.
Some Parliaments may be hostile to overtures from NGOs, but the key is often to find one sympathetic individual and discover what you can do, digitally, for them. That tends to open doors.
Julia brought in the role of parliaments as distinct from government, especially in relation to scrutiny and committee hearings. Committees need to be open to public record, as they are often closed sessions.
3 – Make peace with solutions that aren’t necessarily replicable, because a good digital platform that is built to be specifically appropriate to each country’s unique governance structure will likely be better used and have greater longevity than platform structures replicated wholesale from other jurisdictions.
Each of the countries examined for this report had their own distinct profile when it came to political dissemination by digital means.
Often these are shaped by factors such as access to the internet or mobile data: is it cheap and available to all sectors of society? Attitudes to politics will have been shaped by the country’s history, and will require different means by which to encourage engagement with the democratic process. These, and many other factors, cannot be shoehorned into a one size fits all solution.
4 – Ensure that comprehensive, good quality, data sources are identified before trying to build anything, because poor or inconsistent data is one of the most common issues that threatens the operability of digital tools for parliamentary monitoring.
Contact details of politicians quickly become obsolete — in one of the countries examined, it was common for politicians to change them frequently, specifically to prevent easy access by constituents! Activists have better things to do than collect and maintain data, so input in this area can be extremely helpful – which is the thinking behind our own Democratic Commons project.5 – Ensure ongoing, stable funding for maintenance and growth, and ensure this encompasses both development and non-development work, as without this, the platform will rapidly become out of date, and is likely to fall into obsolescence.Bad tech ‘poisons the well’, and so do projects that launch with a fanfare but then fall by the wayside as funding is removed. Well-meaning projects can even do more harm than good, if they result in potential users mistrusting new projects because previous ones have made them jaded.
6 – Integrate digital tools as much as possible with relevant social media platforms, as shareable and user-friendly content is likely to be disseminated much more widely through these channels, than through visits to the tool itself.
One significant point is that in some countries, internet access is constrained to a few ring-fenced platforms sold as a bundle by mobile phone providers: those subscribing to these very common data packages will never see a parliamentary monitoring website, no matter how beautiful it is, if it can’t be accessed via Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter — and especially if it is heavy to load and eats into a rigid data allowance.
Of course it’s far more exciting to launch a new site or an app, but the reality is that a quick video clip or graphic that can be easily shared by social media may have much further reach.
Hopefully that has given you a taster of the debate around the report launch and the salient points you’ll find within. For a much more in-depth look at digital democracy in the region, download the report, for free, now.