1. New behaviours for repowering democracy

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

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

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

    1. Partner for impact and diversity

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

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

    2. Build community everywhere

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

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

    3. Advocate for change

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

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

    4. A drumbeat of experimentation

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

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

    5. Everyday equity and inclusion

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

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

    6. Home is where the heart is

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

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

    7. A bigger idea of team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Where we go next

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

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

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

    Image: Ussama Azam

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

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

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

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

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

    Shift #1: Design for the needs of society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Shift #3: Prise open institutions for meaningful participation

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

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

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

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

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

    What these three shifts represent

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

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

    Image: Sandro Katalina

  3. The need to repower democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Where we started

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

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

    A different model of democracy and society was possible.

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

    The mySociety project

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Today’s problem: dual crises of democracy and climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Repowering democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva

  4. Cosmetic improvements to TheyWorkForYou

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Photos of MPs

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

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

    Clearer access to the API

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

    The TheyWorkForYou API, homepage

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

    Image: David Pisnoy

  5. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

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

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

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

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

    What content do users find useful?

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

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

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

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

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

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

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

     

  6. Changes to party comparisons on TheyWorkForyou

    On TheyWorkForYou’s voting records, we have made comparisons with the party consensus visible in more places, and changed how we calculate that consensus.

    Since 2015, MP’s summary pages on TheyWorkForYou have highlighted votes which differ from those of the other MPs in their party. Over time, issues have emerged with how this process works, and recently we have made several changes to address these.

    This year we have:

    • Made party comparisons more prominent.
    • Adjusted party comparisons to only compare against MPs who had the opportunity to vote in the same divisions, rather than the all time party record.

    This fits into a longer running process of reviewing our public statistics. This update is not the end of our thinking around voting records, and we will have more to say in future about our work in this area.

    Making party comparisons more prominent

    The intended flow of TheyWorkForYou is that people arrive, search for their MP, are presented by the summary page (with divergences from party highlighted), and can click through to the voting record for more information.

    What has become more common is that users skip the intended flow through searching for a search record directly (“[MP] voting record” will usually lead to TheyWorkForYou).

    Alternatively, screenshots of a specific policy voting record can be shared directly on social media. As we were highlighting divergences from party in the summary rather than voting records page, this context was being calculated, but we weren’t showing it in all the places where it might be relevant/useful.

    Our assumption that the MP’s summary page is seen more than the voting record still generally holds up, but as the graph below shows, during 2019 there were almost as many views of the voting records of MPs as of the summary pages.

    In February 2021,  we made a change to bring the party context into the voting record page itself and added additional context about the time range of the votes used in a comparison. Similar to the summary page, this highlights votes where an MP differs from the general party consensus. We have now extended this to also indicate when a vote is in line with the party consensus.

    A screenshot of Boris Johson's voting record, showing his position on EU integration is aligned with his party.

    The party comparison is included when the party and MP are aligned.

     

    A graph showing the growing ratio of views of voting record pages to views of summary record pages, with the two measures almost the same in 2019.

    A graph showing the growing ratio of views of voting record pages to views of summary record pages, with the two measures almost the same in 2019.

    Improving the quality of party comparisons

    As a side effect of making party comparisons more prominent, some existing problems with the way we displayed data have become more obvious. As years go by, the time range covered by voting records has increased, and this has caused the method of comparing votes to parties to become more strained.

    Behind the scenes, the original system compared an MP’s position to a ‘party score’ for a policy area. This was generated from the votes of all current MPs in a party in that policy area. Over time, and with turnover of MPs, this has become less of a useful measure.

    For instance, a reversal of a party’s position over multiple parliaments leads to new MPs being compared to a score weighted towards votes in previous parliaments. New MPs were highlighted as being outside the party consensus, while in reality following the party whip.

    We have made a change so that MPs are only compared with their direct counterparts: people of their party who had the opportunity to take part in the same votes. The aggregate effect of this is that most MPs are now slightly more similar to their parties (generally making no change to how they are displayed on the site), and MPs who joined in more recent cohorts are recognised as being within the modern consensus. A more detailed analysis of this shift can be read here.

    New approaches to party switchers

    One problem in presenting voting records is in how to present good comparisons for MPs who changed parties. Historically this does not come up often, but became a more prominent issue in 2019.

    Comparing a MP to their new party means they will have a large amount of difference, without reflecting if they followed the party line at the time of a vote. For instance, someone switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats would be compared to a Liberal Democrat party record that they had frequently voted differently from. This is an accurate reflection of what has happened, but there is obviously extra context that is useful.

    Given that most party switchers are now ex-MPs and spent the majority of their parliamentary time with their original party, the default approach is to retain a comparison to the original party, while adding an information box explaining that they have switched parties. This means that party comparisons remain active for MPs who have become independent through losing the whip (which can be a temporary event).

    In instances where this approach doesn’t make sense (e.g. Jeffery M. Donaldson changed parties in 2003, and has remained with his new party since), the comparison is reversed to use the current party.  This approach has also been taken for the two Alba MPs who moved from the SNP in March 2021.

    This change means that MPs whose party status changes will have a better default comparison, while allowing some discretion to choose a different approach for MPs where this does not make sense.

    Ongoing thinking

    These changes are part of an ongoing process around our public statistics. This time last year we published the thinking behind decisions to publish less information on TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in general. There are many ongoing questions about voting records and how to best display this information in a way that is both accurate and useful to the public.

    This update is not the end of that thinking, and we will have more to say in future about our work in this area.

    Header image: UK Parliament flickr

  7. We believe in the right to protest

    mySociety condemns the inclusion of new legislation against protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the second reading of which started on Monday and which continued to be debated and was then voted through last night.

    Clauses 54 to 60, amending the Public Order Act 1986, were added at short notice to a wide-ranging Bill and threaten to expand police powers with loosely written clauses that will allow almost any act of assembly or protest to be seen as breaking the law.

    The Bill now goes to the Committee stage stage for a clause by clause analysis which you’ll be able to follow on TheyWorkForYou. There is still time to send your comments to your MP before the proposals become law.

    A vital right within a democracy

    mySociety is a non-partisan organisation which gives people the tools they need to be active citizens. We strongly believe that in a thriving democracy, citizens must be able to hold their elected representatives to account. We recognise that public protest is a vital part of being an active citizen; a mechanism for making change and challenging those in power.

    When a single voice isn’t enough, a message can be amplified by marching on the streets with banners and megaphones — an entitlement that is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, codified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and which we believe to be of huge importance to the way that democracy functions.

    Protest doesn’t just block roads and display inconvenient dissent to governments. Protest is a means by which communities across the UK may discuss amongst themselves and come to agreement about what they believe in; what they will or will not stand for and the kind of country in which they want to live.

    It brings issues to the public discourse far from the cities in which a march or assembly takes place, and can result in nuanced discussions, changed minds, and ultimately, alterations to law that reflect this new consensus.

    Impact is the whole point

    With vague wording that allows for police to clamp down on any assembly (or indeed lone protester) that “may” cause disruption, this addition to the Bill extends maximum sentencing for public nuisance to ten years; and deters citizens from one of the important means of displaying dissatisfaction — all points that were brought up during the debate but which were ultimately discounted in the final division.

    Under this clause, a Senior Police Officer may “impose any conditions they consider necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”, reports the Good Law Project, also pointing out that “the very object of exercising the right to protest is to have impact.”

    Indeed, we can look back at a long history of instances where protest has done just that, from the abrupt withdrawal of the Poll Tax to the gradual change in law over gay rights.

    The Good Law Project is not alone in pointing out that the proposed amendments also give Home Secretaries (present and future) unrestricted powers to change the definition of ‘serious disruption’: they have a perhaps surprising ally in Theresa May:

    “It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”

    This provision was conceived during the pandemic and presented as a temporary measure that would allow the government to ensure that people did not endanger others by breaking lockdown rules. As many have pointed out, such simultaneously nebulous and sinister adjustments to police powers should not be written into law lightly, in a hurry, and without intense scrutiny from civil society.

    But it was added at short notice to the Bill along with other hurried restrictions and significant omissions which should be similarly subject to proper scrutiny.

    What you can do

    As this is the Second Reading, the Bill now undergoes its Committee and Reporting stages before being sent to the House of Lords. If the Lords want to propose amendments, it will return to the Commons for further debate. So there is still time to use our WriteToThem service to email your MP and tell them how important the right to protest is to you and to your community.

    If you’d like to really make sure your experiences and insights count, this joint committee is currently accepting input from ‘interested groups and individuals’.

    You can also add your name to the demand for a charter for Freedom of Assembly via this petition from Netpol.

    Ironically, there will be real-world protests too — indeed, these began outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday night and there have been smaller demonstrations across the UK. If you are taking part, please do be careful out there.

    Image: Steve Eason (CC by-nc/2.0)

  8. February 12 is Good News Day

    The climate emergency is, of course, a massive concern, and that’s why we often urge you to contact your MPs and councillors to demand faster, better, greener progress.

    And that’s important — but also, we really should take the time to give positive feedback, thanking those councils and politicians who are doing the right thing.

    This year, we’re taking part in the Climate Coalition’s Good News Day which, since 2015, has asked “organisations, institutions, household names and millions of people to use the power of green hearts to join together and ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis.”

    Here’s how you can get involved

    1. On Friday February 12, use our Climate Action Plans database to search for your local council and see if they have a plan in place.
    2. If they have, drop your councillors a line on our WriteToThem service to let them know you appreciate it.
      Local authorities and councillors who are taking action need to know they’re supported in their actions, some of which may be radical or taking them into new territories — so let’s thank them for everything they’ve done so far, and maybe give them the support to go further, too.
    3. If they haven’t? Let them know you care about any climate-related action the council have taken, and urge them to get a wider plan approved.
    4. Maximise the power of your action by shouting about it on social media. Use the hashtag #ShowTheLove, and use a picture of a green heart (we’ve added links to some royalty-free images below you can download or copy and paste) to join in with the national Good News Day movement. Or, if you want to go all out, make your own crafty green heart: there are some ideas on the Climate Coalition’s worksheet and on cafod.org.uk.
    5. If you’d like to do more, see the Climate Coalition’s collection of downloadable resources.

    If you’re on a roll…

    There are other ways you can #showthelove, too.

    We think the prompt to ‘ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis‘ is a particularly important one, so:

    • You could also use WriteToThem to email your MP with this message…
    • …or go public and tweet them!

    And finally, there is encouragement to share everything your own organisation is doing to help the climate. With that in mind:

    Green heart pictures

    Pictures on Unsplash are free to use and you don’t even have to credit the photographer, although if we’re talking about showing the love, we should of course do the same for the creative people whose work we benefit from!

    Top row L-R: Ronak Valobobhai, Siora Photography, Adithya Vinod.
    Bottom row: Volodymyr Hryshchenko, Patrick Fore, Bekky Bekks.

  9. A response to Robert Largan, MP

    On 18 January we received a letter from Robert Largan MP regarding our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. He requested that we ‘correct a misrepresentation’ in the way that the site displays how he and his fellow MPs have voted on measures to prevent climate change:

    The letter was co-signed by around 50 members of his party, and identified three votes not currently included in our climate change vote calculations, with the request that they be taken into account on their voting records pages.

    This was not an unusual message: we often receive emails from MPs to TheyWorkForYou, asking us to explain or reconsider the data we publish on them — and the most common subject is the voting records pages.

    The only differences with this letter were that Mr Largan had gathered the support of so many other MPs; and that it was covered in the press and shared on Twitter quite a few days before we actually had receipt of it. 

    So we’ve treated it in the same way that we would any other, but given the amount of exposure the issue has already had, we thought we’d also share our considered response here. We’re glad to have this opportunity to illustrate how we run the site, and the judgements that we have to make in order to run the fairest, most factual service we can.

     

    Image: UK Parliament

  10. How you’ve been using our services to help the climate

    mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep —  and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.

    By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.

    At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.

    There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.

    But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.

    We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!

    Changes in your neighbourhood

    On FixMyStreet, we’ve seen people pointing out eco-unfriendly practices to the council, and asking for new amenities that would help locals to pursue a greener lifestyle.

    Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason. 

    Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.

    We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage. 

    Campaigning

    Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that. 

    Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling

    Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.

    And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right. 

    Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be. 

    Requesting information

    Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.

    Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent? 

    This request enquired whether the commitment to the climate went as far as divestment from fossil fuels, and this one dug into whether a council was using renewable energy sources.

    FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.

    Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.

    Holding politicians accountable

    FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou

    Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised. 

    In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.

    Data

    The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses. 

    As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.

    So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.

    If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.