Power for People would like to see a transformation in the way we provide energy in this country – by removing barriers to small-scale renewable energy schemes, owned and run by people in their local communities.
They’ve written draft legislation — the Local Electricity Bill — and are currently campaigning for it to be made law. Since our TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem services are an integral part of their campaign, we were keen to find out more.
Power For People’s Corinna Miller was happy to help, firstly by explaining what drives the campaign: “We’re in the midst of an energy price crisis. It’s never been more obvious that we need cheap, clean, home-produced energy.”
And their vision is one of a sweeping change to the UK’s energy provision. Right now, provision is limited to a few big monopolies with profits disappearing into shareholders’ pockets; Power for People advocate clearing the path for small sustainable energy projects, with profits that would stay local.
“There’s such huge potential in our cities, towns and villages, for growth in small-scale renewable energy generation – especially by local groups that would provide cheaper, greener power and distribute the benefits across their local communities.
“But at the moment, such schemes only generate 0.5% of the UK’s electricity – largely due to the prohibitive costs they face in accessing local markets.”
So how do mySociety’s services fit into their campaign? It’s down to Power For People’s belief that mass mobilisation can bring change — and that all links back to the experience of their Director Steve Shaw, says Corinna.
“In 15 years working both at environmental NGOs and as a freelancer, Steve worked on campaigns that were instrumental in getting new laws passed – like the Household Waste Recycling Act, bringing in the doorstep recycling collection that all our homes now have; and the Climate Change Act, setting a legally binding target for the government to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — which has resulted in almost all of the UK’s coal power stations closing and the building of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms.
“These were great successes, and one thing Steve learned from them was that grassroots focused campaigns, mobilising tens or hundreds of thousands of people to lobby their MPs at the constituency level, when done in a coordinated way over a long-term arc, are extremely effective.”
And of course, to help people contact those MPs, what better than free web services like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem?
Power for People’s website first sends you to TheyWorkForYou to find out who your MP is, then provides a list to check against and discover whether or not they already support the Local Electricity Bill.
Once you know what their stance is, you’re in a far better position to write a persuasive message to your MP, says Corinna, and WriteToThem is the final step on that path.
“We wanted to streamline the communication process so each supporter didn’t feel like they had to do too much extra work. Whether an individual has contacted their MP before or not, offering them a tool to help easily find and write to them, all in one place, felt like the best solution to get people to take action in support of the campaign.
“WriteToThem has a wonderfully streamlined system that people trust and we have found people take effective action with this tool.”
WriteToThem doesn’t allow for copy and pasted messages, and Corinna says she finds they’re often blocked by MPs’ servers in any case. “Instead, we direct people to helpful facts that they can share with their local leaders — and we give them bespoke advice when they receive a response.
“We highly encourage back-and-forth communication, so that the MP understands that the campaign is not going to go away until action is taken at a parliamentary level. People care about this issue, and we want MPs to know that.”
It sounds like everything’s working nicely for Power For People, who say that their Bill already has the support of 322 MPs from all parties — a figure which includes 128 Conservatives — along with 110 local authorities and county councils.
“Our main call to action continues to be for people to write to their MP, which is why WriteToThem is such a key tool for us. Helping streamline the communication process and helping people write to their local leaders has been vital to the success of the campaign so far.”
And so, what advice would they give to other organisations considering using WriteToThem for their own campaigns?
“Definitely help people curate their own message to their MP, by being specific to their constituency. This requires a bit more time speaking to your supporters but it’s worth it to get an MP interested in what you are calling for. Be specific. Try to keep each email short and polite, with a single request for the MP.”
Many thanks to Corinna for sharing such interesting background details to the campaign. If you’d like to learn more about Power for People and get involved, visit their website.
Meanwhile, if you’re running a campaign yourself and think it might benefit from WriteToThem’s free service, there’s lots of useful information here.
This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from our staff, and external contributors who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. Learn more about this series.
TheyWorkForYou’s goal is to make the UK’s Parliaments more transparent and accessible. We believe that fast access information about our elected representatives shouldn’t only be available to insiders, or those who can pay. We work to make information about Parliament accessible to citizens and to civil society.
One way we do this is through email alerts. Users of the website can sign up to receive an email when specific people speak, or specific keywords are spoken in any of the Parliaments we cover (now including the Senedd). On average, this means we send around 400,000 emails a month. While the main users of alerts are people subscribing to updates from their MP, one of our goals is that TheyWorkForYou’s alerts should lower the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.
Last year, we ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system to understand more about how people were using this feature. Through this we found more details on how the site helps small organisations stay engaged with Parliament. It is also helping those who work within both government and Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.
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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. One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response.
“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 other than when we are working intensively on a bill or other activity.”
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!”
Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. One respondent from a local social care reform campaign, said they “wrote [an] email to my local MP to congratulate her on her PQ and sought to update her on the govt response received so she would pursue”.
In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask – TheyWorkForYou “enables us to ensure questions from elected members do not pass unnoticed”. 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.
“We find your service very easy to navigate [and] a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
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Inside Parliament and government
TheyWorkForYou (and especially the alerts) continue to be part of the flow of information between and inside Parliament and Government departments.
“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.
Devolved and local government
“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 – making parliamentary activity more transparent helps visibility between different democratic bodies in the UK.
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 by subscribing to questions answered by the minister. Because these answers might reflect recent policy changes, alerts through TheyWorkForYou can be a fast way for information to move around the department.
While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants when crafting responses as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.
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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, 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.
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TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website
Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents gave us some information about why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. While the official website has much improved, the search feature was highlighted as a reason why some respondents used TheyWorkForYou.
“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
“he search function is also better than Parliaments so when we are looking for quotes/references we will also use it to support our research.” – Researcher
“Easier to use than other sources such as Hansard’s website. Search function is much more precise and reliable” – respondent who works for an MP or Lord
In some of these cases the official site may improve in future, 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.
While our main focus as a service (and most of our visitors and alert subscribers) are individual citizens, supporting and amplifying the power of small civil society groups helps ensure a more level playing field of access to decision makers. In future, we’d like to be able to explore this path more, and provide better advice and guidance on how to make the best use of our tools to groups that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process.
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This blog post was originally published 28/07/2022 – and updated in June 2023
Image: Monisha Selvakumar
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
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
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