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.
When we talk about our website TheyWorkForYou, it’s often to point out how it helps the ‘everyday’ citizen keep up with what their elected representatives are doing in Parliament: you don’t need to be an expert to see how your MP has voted, or what they’ve contributed to debates.
This is one invaluable aspect of the site, but it ignores another large and equally important function. It’s an aspect that we haven’t much highlighted, but that could, without overstatement, be said to be underpinning civil society.
We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system, which made it clear just how much heavy lifting the site is doing for charities and small organisations. Indeed, it is providing a service that many rely on — free subscription to alerts on any keyword, so that you receive an email when it is mentioned in Parliament. Despite recent improvements to the official Hansard site, respondents still indicate that they find TheyWorkForYou’s provision more useful than Parliament’s offering.
So it’s not too much to say that TheyWorkForYou is a vital service which would cause substantial fallout to this sector if it were to be discontinued; or, more positively, that if mySociety had the resource to update the site, make improvements and promote it to more of the types of organisations that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process, hundreds more charities and campaigns would be empowered to affect policy for the better. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also helping those who work within Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.
Charitable and service organisations
“We are too small to do any lobbying or to afford a paid-for service so this helps keep us in touch”.
People working in charities told us that they used keyword alerts to track all mentions of themes relevant to their work, such as words around domestic violence; asylum and immigration; religious persecution; accessibility; nature conservation, and many more.
“Without the site we might have to pay for a service, or give up trying to make our voice heard”.
Tracking which representatives mention keywords can help charities in identifying potentially interested parliamentarians to connect with, but can also be directly useful in organisations that deliver services, like advising people on their rights.
“The alerts are invaluable as we don’t have the capacity to follow what’s happening in Parliament […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
Our email alert system helps distribute the latest policy via subscriptions to written questions and answers. For instance, a child poverty group uses a subscription to written answers from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to get clearer details of policy and policy changes. This helps them convey “up to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!”
Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.
“We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. Where relationships are more established, making written questions more visible helps civil society groups suggest written questions to MPs, because they can better match the language and style.
“I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service”
Inside government and Parliament
“I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.”
Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are still using TheyWorkForYou.
For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly (perhaps, in part, due to TheyWorkForYou’s example) and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.
Members of Parliament
“I rely on the alerts to stay up to date with any written questions or debates relating to the interests of the MP I work for.”
MPs’ offices use the service to check if people live in the constituency, and for notifications of recent speeches by their or nearby MPs.
“It’s the quickest way to keep up with any questions or votes that my boss has participated in.”
Information from TheyWorkForYou is also used as part of preparation of reports, media releases, and to support correspondence with constituents.
Civil servants similarly have an interest in understanding the history and views of their ministers. Respondents to our survey included civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education.
They use the service to keep track of Parliamentary mentions of their department and work. Inside the DWP (one of the larger departments), one response came from a civil servant who used the alerts to shape service delivery.
While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.
“As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”
Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster.
Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching.
TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.
In one private sector example that is worth highlighting, an accountancy firm uses TheyWorkForYou as part of due diligence checks on politically exposed persons. Improving the ease and quality of accessing official information about MPs’ activities (in particular given concerns about written questions and second jobs) enhances wider legal regimes around money laundering and anti-corruption.
TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website
Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard.
“Primary use is a better Hansard than Hansard (still, though Hansard has caught up a lot)” – Public sector organisation
There were several specific complaints about the search function of the official site.
“Its [the Parliament site’s] search function barely works at all.” – Business consultancy firm
In some of these cases the official site may improve in future (improving the search seems a very attainable goal), but in other cases there has been backsliding, such as availability of the register of interests. TheyWorkForYou has value as a backstop on the official service where it has flaws, but also in providing services like the email alerts that go above and beyond what the official service is ever likely to offer.
Image: Monisha Selvakumar
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Over the last few years we have stopped publishing several statistics on some of our services, but haven’t really talked publicly about why. This blog post is about the problems we’ve been trying to address and why, for the moment, we think less is better.
TheyWorkForYou launched with explicit rankings of MPs but these were quickly replaced with more “fuzzy” rankings, acknowledging the limitations of the data sources available in providing a concrete evaluation of an MP. Explicit rankings on the ‘numerology’ section of an MPs profile were removed in 2006. In July 2020, we removed the section altogether.
This section covered the number of speeches in Parliament this year, answers to written questions, attendance at votes, alongside more abstract metrics like the reading age of the MP’s speeches, and ‘three-word alliterative phrases’ which counted the number of times an MP said phrases like ‘she sells seashells’.
This last metric intended to make a point about the limits of the data, along with a disclaimer that countable numbers reflect only part of an MP’s job.
Our new approach is based on the idea that, while disclaimers may make us feel we have adequately reflected nuance, we don’t think they are really read by users. Instead, if we do not believe data can help make meaningful evaluations or requires large qualifications, we should not highlight it.
Covid-19 and limits on remote participation also mean that the significance of some participation metrics is less clear for some periods. We’re open to the idea that some data may return in the future, if a clear need arises that we think we can fill with good information. In the meantime the raw information on voting attendance is still available on Public Whip.
WriteToThem responsiveness statistics
When someone sends a message to a representative through WriteToThem, we send a survey two weeks later to ask if this was their first time writing, and whether they got a response.
This answer was used annually to generate a table ranking MPs by responsiveness. In 2017 we stopped publishing the WriteToThem stats page. The concerns that led to this were:
- There are systemic factors that can make MPs more or less likely to respond to correspondence (eg holding ministerial office).
- As the statistics only cover the last year, this can lead to MPs moving around the rankings significantly, calling into question the value of a placement in any particular year. Does it represent improvement/decline, or is the change random?
- MPs receive different types of communication and may prioritise some over others (for example, requests for intervention rather than policy lobbying). Different MPs may receive different types of messages, making comparisons difficult.
- The bottom rankings may be reflecting factors outside MPs’control (eg a technical problem with the email address, or health problems), which can invalidate the wider value of the rankings.
The original plan was to turn this off temporarily while we explored how the approach could be improved, but digging into the complexity has led to the issue dragging on and at this point it is best to say the rankings are unlikely to return in a similar form any time soon.
The reasons for this come from our research on WriteToThem and the different ways we have tried to explore what these responsiveness scores mean.
There are structural factors that make direct comparisons between MPs more complicated. For instance, we found that when people write to Members of the Scottish Parliament there are different response rates for list and constituency members. What we don’t know is whether this reflects different behaviour in response to the same messages, or whether list and constituency MSPs were getting different kinds of messages, some of which are easier to respond to. Either way, this would suggest an approach where we judge these separately or need to apply a correction for this effect (and we would need to have different processes for different legislatures).
There are also collective factors that individual representatives do contribute to. For instance, if MPs from one party are more responsive to communication, controlling for this factor to make them easier to compare to other MPs individually is unfair as it minimises the collective effort. Individuals are part of parties, but also parliamentary parties are a collection of individuals. Clear divides are difficult in terms of allocating agency.
One of the other findings of our paper on the Scottish Parliament was that there was an effect in the Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments where female MPs had a systematically lower responsiveness score than male MPs (roughly 7% lower in both cases, and this remains when looking at parties in isolation). Is this a genuine difference in behaviour, or does it reflect a deeper problem with the data? While responsiveness scores are not quite evaluations it seems reasonable to be cautious in user-generated data that is systematically leading to lower rankings for women, especially when the relevant literature suggests that women MPs had spent more time on constituency service when the question was studied in the 1990s.
One concern was if abusive messages sent through the platform were leading to more emails not worth responding to. This was of special concern given online abuse against women MPs through other platforms. While WriteToThem only accounts for 1-2% of emails to MPs, it is a concern if we cannot rule out if a gendered difference in abusive messages is a contributor to a difference in a metric we would then use to make judgements about MPs.
Our research in this area has found some interaction between the gender of the writer and recipient of a message. We found a (small) preference for users to write to representatives who shared their gender, but without more knowledge of the content of messages we cannot really understand if the responsiveness difference results from factors that are fair or unfair to judge individual representatives on. Our policy that we should maintain the privacy of communications between people and their MP as much as possible means direct examination is not possible for research projects, and returning to publishing rankings without more work to rule this out would be problematic. We are exploring other approaches to understand more about the content of messages.
Content and needs
We could in principle adjust for differences that can be identified, but we also suspect there are other differences that we cannot detect and remove. For instance, constituents in different places have different types of problems, and so have different needs from their MP. If these different kinds of problems have different levels of responsiveness, what we are actually judging an MP on is their constituents, rather than their own behaviour.
A finding from our analysis of how the index of multiple deprivation (which ranks the country on a variety of different possible measures of deprivation) relates to data in WriteToThem is that messages to MPs from more deprived areas are less likely to get a response than those from less deprived areas. The least deprived decile has a response rate about 7% higher than the average and the most deprived decile is 6% lower. However, when looking at rates per decile per individual MP there is no pattern. This suggests this is a feature of different MPs covering different areas (with different distributions of deprivation), rather than individual MPs responding differently to their own constituents.
At the end of last year, we experimented with an approach that standardised the scores via a hypothetical average constituency. This was used by change.org as one metric among many in a People-Power index. While this approach addresses a few issues with the raw rankings, we’re not happy with it. In particular, there was an issue with an MP who was downgraded because more of their responses were in a more deprived decile, and this was averaged down by lower responses in higher deciles.
If we were to continue with that approach, a system that punishes better responsiveness to more deprived areas is a choice that needed a strong justification. This approach is also becoming more abstract as a measure, and less easy to explain what the ranking represents. Are we aiming to provide useful comparisons by which to judge an MP, or a guide to WriteToThem users as to whether they should expect a reply? These are two different problems.
We are continuing to collect the data, because it is an interesting dataset and we’re still thinking about what it can best be used for, but do not expect to publish rankings in their previous form again.
FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow
Other services are concerned with public authorities rather than individual representatives. In these cases, there is a clearer (and sometimes statutory) sense of what good performance looks like.
Early versions of FixMyStreet displayed a “league table”, showing the number of reports sent to each UK council, along with the number that had been fixed recently. A few years ago we changed this page so that it only lists the top five most responsive councils.
There were several reasons for this: FixMyStreet covers many different kinds of issues that take different amounts of time to address, and different councils have more of some of these issues than others. Additionally, even once a council resolves an issue, not all users come back to mark their reports as fixed.
As a result the information we have on how quickly problems are fixed may vary for reasons out of a council’s control. And so while we show a selection of the top five “most responsive” councils on our dashboard page, as a small way of recognising the most active councils on the site, we don’t share responsiveness stats for all councils in the UK. More detail on the difference in the reported fix rate between different kinds of reports can be seen on our data explorer minisite.
WhatDoTheyKnow similarly has some statistics summary pages for the FOI performance of public authorities. We are reviewing how we want to generate and use these stats to better reflect our goals of understanding and improving compliance with FOI legislation in the UK, and as a model for our partner FOI platforms throughout the world.
In general, we want to be confident that any metric is measuring what we want to measure, and we are providing information to citizens that is meaningful. For the moment that means publishing slightly less. In the long run, we hope this will lead us to new and valuable ways of exploring this data.