Thanks to funding from the Welsh Government, our parliamentary website TheyWorkForYou now includes debates and a list of all Members of the Senedd, in both English and Welsh. Find them via www.theyworkforyou.com/senedd/ and cy.theyworkforyou.com/senedd/.
Completists will be glad to know that, with this addition TheyWorkForYou now covers all the law-making parliaments of the UK.
Those familiar with the site will know that the email alerts service is one of TheyWorkForYou’s key features. Anyone can sign up, for free, to receive emails when their representatives speak or vote, or when their topics of interest come up in debates. We send millions of these email alerts out per year, and they’re also indispensable for charities, companies and governments who use them to monitor parliamentary discussions on topics relating to their work.
Alerts are now also available for the Senedd, to help people and organisations living and working in Wales — and anyone else who’s interested — to stay informed about what is said and done in the devolved parliament.
When users in Wales enter their postcode on TheyWorkForYou’s homepage, they will see the members of Senedd as well as their MP in the UK’s national parliament.
They’ll be able to check when their Senedd Member last voted, and what they’ve been saying in debates; as well as using the site’s powerful search function to access previous mentions of their topic of interest. More technical users may also use the data for their own projects through TheyWorkForYou’s API.
We have wanted to add the Senedd for many years. Now, thanks to support from the Welsh Government, we’ve been able to complete the work needed to make it available in TheyWorkForYou’s fully accessible format.
This is a continuation of our mission to make the UK’s Parliaments easier for everyone to access, understand and engage with. Through the regular publication of debates, plus TheyWorkForYou’s search and alert functions, we want to support Welsh citizens and civil society to play an active part in democracy.
Our WriteToThem service, which allows people to send an email to their elected representatives quickly and easily, already covered members of the Senedd. The two sites link together so that, having checked your Senedd Member’s activity on TheyWorkForYou, if you wish to respond to them, you can click through to WriteToThem and send an email.
Mick Antoniw, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution at the Welsh Government, said: “We’ve been pleased to work with mySociety as part of our efforts to involve as many people in our democracy as possible. Being able to follow topics and receive updates about what happens in the Senedd will help people see how we discuss the issues that matter to them most. We’ll continue to work to increase democratic engagement and open up democracy to more people.”
Our own Chief Executive Louise Crow added, “By extending our coverage – and especially email alerts – to the Senedd, we hope to help people and organisations living and working in Wales stay informed about what is said and done in their devolved parliament”.
This addition represents dedicated effort from staff members. Matthew Somerville made TheyWorkForYou work as a bilingual site and wrote the code to work with Senedd data. Alex Parsons and Struan Donald also contributed significantly.
Translation has been diligently handled by Wyn Williams. TheyWorkForYou is open source software, and this work — in particular, the import of Members — built on previous code submitted by Ross Bowen and Sam Knight. Thanks to them all.
If you'd like to see us extending our work in democracy further, please consider making a contribution.Donate now
This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces from people who think deeply about how our democracy works, and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. We’re calling this series “Repowering Democracy”.
With support from the Porticus Foundation, we are reflecting on the impact mySociety and our services have had over the last twenty years, and setting the directions we’ll take in our work over the next few years.
In this series, we’ll be talking through our plans and ideas for the future, and inviting other perspectives on new directions and approaches we might take.
You can sign up here and you’ll get an email every time we post:
Series to date
- Repowering Democracy: new ideas, straight to your inbox
- TheyWorkForYou, now with added Senedd
- TheyWorkForYou provides essential services for civil society — and beyond
- Learning from the way people use TheyWorkForYou
- Guest post: Does watching MPs make them behave better?
- Giving more power to Parliament helps MPs keep their promises to us
- Guest post: What do we need to know to judge our representatives?
- It should be easier for MPs to vote
- Guest post: TheyWorkForYou in the 19th century
- Navigating the new constituencies
The story so far
TheyWorkForYou was created twenty years ago with the aim of making Parliament more accessible and accountable.
We believe that information about our elected representatives should be easy for everyone to access and understand, not just insiders or those who can pay.
Today, one in three UK adults has heard of TheyWorkForYou and one in five has used the site. Millions of people visit the site every year, while WriteToThem helps people send hundreds of thousands of messages to their representatives. Our email alerts provide a vital free parliamentary monitoring tool to charities, and even people working inside government and Parliament.
We think these services play a role in improving the quality of people’s lives across the UK, but finding the resources to support them has always been a challenge. Without investment to support innovation and respond to our changing society, there’s a risk the services will be solving the problems of the past — and becoming ever less useful and relevant.
More generally, people view the use of technology to tackle democratic problems differently today. There is much less scepticism of the idea that technology can change democracy, but much more that this is unambiguously a good thing. There’s more need than ever to understand the impact digital services have, and to have good models for the way in which they are governed and controlled. Alongside the question of how technology can improve democracy, is the question of how democracy can be used to tame technology.
Through this series, we’re going to examine what we think the continuing value of TheyWorkForYou is; the challenges it faces; and potential paths for its future. We want to lay out how we can better work with other organisations and our supporters to solve the problems that matter now, and prepare ourselves for the problems of tomorrow.
Working across the UK
Parliamentary websites have improved over the last twenty years, but TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem still play a key role in piecing together the information they provide in ways that help people across the UK understand how they are represented at different levels.
Devolution in the UK brings more power closer to citizens, but increases the complexity of government. WriteToThem has a key use beyond its primary purpose as a ‘write to your representative’ site, in making the layers of government more visible. Given a postcode, it provides simple descriptions of all the different levels of government in your area, their purposes, and who your representatives at these levels are. No official institution has a remit to lay this out clearly and in quite the same way.
Official Parliament websites have also adopted the postcode lookup as a way to match constituents with the correct representative — but each is, understandably, focused on their own institution. We see that we have an overarching role that allows us to make the national/devolved/local political system clearer and more transparent in a way that no individual institution can.
With support from the Welsh Government, we are completing our coverage and expanding TheyWorkForYou to the Senedd, as well as creating a Welsh language version of the site and our email alerts. Here our goal isn’t to duplicate the Senedd’s own website. For people living in Wales we want to make it clearer, in one place, how the nation’s different layers of representation fit together. For Welsh civil society we want to make our email alerts useful as a monitoring tool.
Devolution comes in many shapes and sizes. Recent and ongoing devolution in England, to Combined Authorities and Mayors, looks very different to devolution to national Parliaments. What is the right approach to bring accessibility and accountability to these latest layers of government? These are the kind of questions we’ll be considering.
You can get this series as an email in your inbox, weekly:
Doing what official sites can’t
As a non-partisan third party, we can describe and summarise in a way that official Parliament staffers can’t. Official parliamentary descriptions reflect how the system works on paper, while we have greater freedom to describe how parliaments work in practice.
We also produce summaries that make the actions of our representatives more transparent. Arguments about TheyWorkForYou voting records encompass big questions about the proper role of MPs and how they should be held to account, as well as more specific ones about whether TheyWorkForYou does the best job it could in presenting these summaries.
We defend the principle of voting summaries but we don’t think the way in which they currently work is the only way to present voting records. We’ll be writing about our plans to update our approach to voting records in the coming months.
We also don’t want to limit our focus in this area to voting records – and want to explore other ways we can combine official data with careful analysis to help people understand and interpret it. In areas like the register of members interests, we don’t want to duplicate analysis happening elsewhere, but do want to think about how we could best build on that work to inform the most people we can.
You can get this series as an email in your inbox, weekly:
Technology, democracy, and change
Through TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, mySociety is an intermediary between the UK’s Parliaments, elected politicians and people. The choices we make in which information we present shape the perspectives and views of both sides, and that gives us a certain amount of power. With this power comes responsibility and a need to anchor that power in public perspectives on how our political system should work.
We should take an informed and inclusive approach rooted in the perspectives and conversations that people have when they come together to think about the problem. In principle, technology is a lever, which we can operate on behalf of millions, to move powerful institutions and individuals closer to the way in which people in the UK want democracy to work.
This provides a theoretical approach – but raises a lot of questions about how we might make it work in practice. Through this series we’re going to be working through the implications of this line of thinking, what people want from politics, and looking at other attempts to shape technology with democratic input.
But we also have to recognise the limits of building on broken systems. By working on top of existing processes, we can amplify the parts of our political system that exclude people and groups from participation. We want to explore how we can work better with other advocates for changing the political system, with a focus on how responsible use of technology can help create the political system people want to live in.
To hear more about our work in this area, sign-up to our newsletter below:
You can get this series as an email in your inbox, weekly:
Header image: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
In case you missed it — or in case you want to watch it all again — here’s the video from our #Democracy2043 event of May 24.
Our insightful panel discuss what kind of democracy they’d like to see in 2043, and, perhaps more importantly, what we need to put in place in order to make it a reality.
Many thanks to our panelists for their brilliant inputs: Emma Geen, Disability Activist; Immy Kaur of CIVIC SQUARE; Joy Green, Systemic Futurist; Dr Kim Foale of Geeks For Social Change and our own Chief Executive Louise Crow.
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The TheyWorkForYou alerts system will send you an email every time your chosen keyword is mentioned in Parliament. A recent survey revealed that this system is being used by a broad range of different organisations and individuals. We’ve been speaking to a few of them to find out more.
First of these is Ben Leapman, Editor of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, circulated to all of the UK’s 141 prisons.
A unique publication
As Ben explains, “Each issue includes news, features, advice, puzzles – and eight pages of readers’ letters, which provide a fascinating insight into what’s on the minds of men and women behind bars.
“We’re a not-for-profit publication and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New Bridge Foundation charity, which was founded in 1956 to create links between the offender and the community. We’re funded by advertising revenue. As far as we’re aware, no other country has a national prison newspaper. We’re unique!”
As Editor, Ben commissions articles, decides which stories go on which pages, fact-checks, and plenty more. But he also writes news stories. We were, of course, interested to hear how TheyWorkForYou alerts can help with this.
Parliamentary mentions of prisons
“I use the alerts service to monitor for the keywords “prison” – it’s as simple as that,” says Ben.
“Prisons are a crucial public service, but sadly they don’t get as much attention from politicians or voters as schools and hospitals – it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. So the volume of daily mentions is manageable, and I’m able to look at them all.”
These simple alerts have resulted in Inside Time stories such as this one, about an innovative scheme to reduce violence, being trialled at 18 prisons.
“I don’t think there has been any public announcement or press release about it,” says Ben: “I hadn’t heard of it until I saw the parliamentary question.”
And here’s another recent story, this time prompted by a House of Lords debate in which Lord Farmer, who wrote two Government reports on the importance of family visits to the rehabilitation of prisoners, says that Covid restrictions in prison visits halls are doing harm.
Stories can arise from all types of parliamentary activity: “I’ve found news stories in Commons and Lords debates, Select Committee hearings, written answers to Parliamentary questions in the Commons and Lords, Scottish Parliament proceedings, even the proceedings of Bill committees.”
Communication is key
Finally, we asked Ben what he thinks the impact of such stories is.
“I’m a news journalist – I think it’s always important that people are well-informed. For the general public in a democracy, exposure to news is essential so that people can cast their vote in a well-informed way.
“In England, prisoners are denied the vote – but there are other ways that reading news can be a direct benefit. Say we report on a new course or initiative that’s happening at a particular prison. If one of our readers reads that story and likes the sound of it, they could apply to transfer to that prison – or they could ask staff why it’s not happening at their prison.
“Prisons are rather secretive places, they’re not great at communication – so it’s often the case that both prisoners and prison staff are unaware of things going on around their prison or in other prisons, both the good and the bad.”
Thanks very much to Ben for giving us these insights into how he uses TheyWorkForYou alerts in his work.
It’s certainly one area that we’d never have imagined before he filled in our survey — but we are very glad to know that our services are helping with the admirable aims of Inside Time.
Donations to MPs are in the news again, and TheyWorkForYou allows users to easily see what any individual MP has received. In fact, the site has carried a copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (in which, as Parliament’s website explains, “MPs must register within 28 days any interest which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP“) since at least 2005.
This hasn’t always been straightforward, and has recently become slightly trickier.
The official register is published as static HTML or PDF, with a simple list of all MPs. We scrape that HTML, convert it into light XML and import it onto the site – which means you can easily see not only the current entry on an individual MP’s page, but also see a complete history of their register without having to view many different copies of the official register.
The XML contains all the data from the official register, but it only parses out basic information like the category of interest. Providing more detail would be great, but is quite a hard problem to tackle.
Recently, Parliament has started using Cloudflare’s bot-protection technology. We assume this change was made with good reason, but as a side effect it has prevented effective scraping of the website, as Cloudflare don’t distinguish between good and bad bots or scrapers.
We know that Parliament was working on an API at least as far back as 2016, from their now-removed data blog, but if this is still in development, it is yet to see the light of day. What they said at the time still stands: their website is still the only means of accessing this data. We don’t think it’s necessary to protect purely static HTML pages such as the Register in quite such a heavy-handed manner.
We do have ways of continuing to get the Register, and TheyWorkForYou is still up to date, so anyone else who has been scraping the official site and has hit issues because of this is welcome to use our data, either via the XML or our API.
Image: Adeolu Eletu
- 62% of the public agree that parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote.
- 55% of the public think MPs are personally responsible for their vote, regardless of party instruction.
- The public are undecided on whether the fact that an MP was elected on a party manifesto means they should follow party instructions.
The public think voting instructions should be public
Many votes in Parliament are ‘whipped’, meaning that the party gives MPs instructions on how to vote. This practice is both well known and secretive. While “everyone knows” parties instruct their MPs on how to vote, the instructions are not publicly released.
In late 2021, we worked with Opinium to ask the public some questions to inform our work around TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow. This polling shows that 62% of the public think parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. Only 8% disagree that this information should be public.
From our point of view, releasing this information would solve a practical problem. TheyWorkForYou makes comparisons between MPs and their party, but to do this it has to calculate what the instruction probably was, based on how most MPs voted. We don’t know what the whip’s instruction was, and so have to work harder to get a result that is inferring what is happening behind closed doors. We also do not have information about the strength of the instruction, and can’t say when a party has a mild preference or a strong opinion about how their MPs should vote.
This information is also important on a principled level. The role of whipped votes is part of the argument about the value of individual MP voting records, where one side argues that MPs don’t really make voting decisions, and so should not be judged individually. If you accept this argument that votes in Parliament are really decided by the party leadership, the democratic case for releasing these instructions is overwhelming.
Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes
The argument made to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (in her book Commons and Lords) by party whips was that they were performing a democratic function: the people elected the MPs on a party manifesto, and so MPs in Parliament should “scrutinise and improve” but not oppose government plans.
The public is split on how convincing this argument is. We asked if respondents agreed with the statement “MPs are elected on a party’s manifesto, and should vote as the party leadership instructs”. Only 24% agree with this statement, 35% disagree, with 41% neither agreeing or disagreeing. That only a small group outright agree with a philosophy that justifies how Parliament currently works is a problem, but the large group in the middle suggests that the views of the public might be more nuanced about what the role of parties should be in directing votes.
The answer to this question also varies by how people voted in the 2019 election. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were more likely to move from ‘don’t know’ to ‘disagree’ with the idea that MPs should do as their party instructs, with 43% of Labour voters polled disagreeing and 51% of Liberal Democrat voters disagreeing. This might also reflect an idea that opposition MPs should be less bound by what they said in the last election.
Regardless of why they made the decision, the public think MPs are personally responsible for how they vote
Our polling also showed that the majority of the public (55%) believe that MPs are personally responsible for their vote, with only 15% disagreeing with the statement. This should sound a note of caution for MPs. While it being common practice to follow the instructions of the party is an explanation of how Parliament works, it is not universally accepted this should be the case, or that it removes personal responsibility for their votes in the eyes of the public.
This polling forms part of a wider series of questions that we hope to use to shape our work, and we will share more with you in the coming months.
Thanks to Opinium for providing free polling questions to charities as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign.
Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash
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
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:
Design for the needs of society, not just provide tools for individual citizens.
Place more power in more people’s hands, not just make old power more accountable.
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.
Image: Sandro Katalina
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 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.
Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva
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.
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
Where 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.
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