This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.
WriteToThem is a service that assists people in writing to their representatives. Given a postcode, it lists the associated elected representatives at every layer of government and provides a form to write an email to them.
This can also be seen as a bundle of services. The main use of this website is to write to MPs, but this is just under half of messages ever sent (48%), with most messages sent to representatives in devolved or local government. Different services have different profiles of use and so need to have their effect judged separately.
In 2015, the British Election Study asked whether people had contacted a “politician, government or local government official” in the prior 12 months and found that 17% had. Based on this, over 11 million adults wrote to a representative or official that year — and WriteToThem’s 187,000 emails accounted for 1.6% of this. These results also showed that 20% of men had made contact compared to 15% of women, meaning that 57% of those doing the contacting were men. Extending this into a logistic regression shows that older respondents and those with higher levels of education were more likely to contact, with no significant difference for income and ethnicity once age and education were controlled for.
Demographic profile of WriteToThem users
Looking at the profile of people writing to MPs using WriteToThem, there is an uneven use by different demographics. Over all time, 60% of messages sent have been from men and 60% of people writing had written before. Using the index of multiple deprivation, more messages are sent by better off areas, with 55% of messages being sent by the less deprived half of the country, and 7% of messages coming from the most deprived decile (you would expect 10% if this were evenly divided).
There is a clear linear pattern of greater employment and income in an area being associated with a greater amount of messages sent. Most of these gradients are slight, but in aggregate the effect is that WriteToThem reflects existing divisions in participation (although there are no good sources for the demographics of people who write to MPs specifically) .
But is this actually a problem? Should a service be judged for the proportion of existing represented groups making use of it, or what it does for the under-represented groups who do use it? WriteToThem has delivered 73,000 messages to MPs from people in the most deprived IMD decile alone, if this has led to dialogues that resolved issues that would not otherwise have happened, this is a positive regardless of whether the same is also true for more people in the least deprived areas. If WriteToThem lowers the cost of contact by making it easier, then it is unsurprising that many of the people making use of it would have made contact anyway — but also included in that are people who were previously unable to engage in the process.
When we look at the result of the survey asking whether a user of WriteToThem was writing for the first time, we can see that people from the bottom three IMD deciles were statistically more likely to be writing for the first time (this is also true when just looking at people writing to MPs, and when just looking at 2018). While generally the number of people using the site for the first time has decreased over time, this decline is demographically uneven and mostly occurs in less deprived areas.
For the complete time-span of the service, 47% percent of survey respondents in IMD 1 (most deprived) were writing for the first time compared to 38% of IMD 10 (least deprived). Looking at just 2018, this was 48% compared to 35%. While the service as a whole is used more by people in less deprived areas, of those using it in less deprived areas it is successfully facilitating a higher proportion of first time contacts.
The local picture
To return to the idea of bundles, WriteToThem is also quietly solving a much harder problem than contacting MPs. While people generally recognise their MP when prompted with a name, local councillors remain far more anonymous. From 2007 to 2018 WriteToThem has helped constituents send 450,000 emails to their local councillors (42,000 in 2018). This service has an effectively even gender ratio (with a female majority in 2018), with more reports coming from more deprived areas (54% by more deprived half).
If we imagine one of these bundled services being a site named “WriteToYourCouncillor”, it is in many respects a model service, with a user base displaying an even gender ratio, and more likely to be used in deprived areas. That in reality it is one function of a more well-used service in terms of numbers somewhat obscures this.
But while it is good to recognise where services are successfully reaching people we want to reach, it is also important to think about volume and overall impact. One issue with a service used more by men or in better off areas might be if it shapes how resources are deployed or provides a false shape of the views of constituents (and emails received are certainly used by MPs to build a picture). Even a service that adequately represents under-represented groups may be ineffective if it exists in a wider ecosystem that does not.
At the moment, the systematic effect of any bias in WriteToThem outputs is marginal as WriteToThem accounts for a small fraction of parliamentary mail. While the amount of physical mail entering the Houses of Parliament each year has decreased steadily, in 2018 it was still 24 times larger than the number of emails sent to MPs via WriteToThem. The average MP received 94 emails via WriteToThem in 2018; most MPs would receive more than this through other means in a week.
Returning to the British Election Study finding that 57% of contacting in 2015 was done by men, the equivalent figure for WriteToThem as a whole in 2018 was 55%. Being generous and bearing in mind the previous finding that the method used to assign gender from name undercounts women, this could be seen as a marginal improvement on the real world. However, it would be a marginal improvement in a pool that only represents 1.6% of the total amount of number of messages.
Based on the above, we can think about three different kinds of ‘success’ of a civic tech service in serving under-represented groups:
Relative – The service improves under-representation relative to the current standard. e.g. a service where 60% of usage was by men is an improvement over an offline status quo of 70%.
Absolute – The service adequately (or over-) services under-represented communities to what would be expected based on their numbers in the general population.
Systematic – The service successfully services under-represented communities and is successful enough that this redresses issues of representation in competitor services/methods.
Working with these, we could say WriteToThem is a success on a relative level, servicing people in more deprived areas more than they would have been otherwise (larger proportion of first time writers), but not to the proportion of the population these groups represent.
The “WriteToYourCouncillor” part of the bundle is a success on an absolute level, providing a relatively even amount of representation, with a slight weight towards groups who typically make contact less often.
But neither really makes a dent systematically. They may be redressing inequalities of access for individual users (which is good), but cannot significantly adjust inequalities in volume of messages and the corresponding perceptions of problems.
Making a dent in this problem is outside the scope of WriteToThem — and probably should be. While you can imagine a future where WriteToThem continues to lower the barrier to contacting representatives, this is likely to create new users from currently-represented groups for each under-represented person successfully reached. Targeted interventions and partnerships with other organisations can avert this problem in terms of helping individuals make contact about their issues but turning the problem around, this is a platform that is unlikely to provide a balanced view of opinions and priorities of constituents.
If it is a problem that representatives have systematically skewed visions of the problems and views of their constituents, is an email platform that requires citizens rather than representatives to do work the best way to address that? A civic tech solution to this problem might look more like Consul (or similar general participation platform) than WriteToThem – but even explicitly designed online platforms still risk being skewed towards the online and present members of the community. Exploring better forms of local participation is something currently being explored through our Public Square project.
A key part of mySociety’s research agenda is understanding how Civic Technology is (or isn’t) helping under-represented groups in society access government services and their representation. In 2015 we released a report Who Benefits from Civic Technology, that explored variations in usage of Civic Tech in various countries and demographics. You can read or download it here.
In this blog post I’m going to talk a bit about how we’ve internally tried to apply our data to understanding the under-representation of women in politics and as users of our services, as well as some interesting things that external researchers have found using our data.
Our EveryPolitician dataset contains information on current (and in some cases historical) politicians for a large number of countries around the world. For a large number of representatives, this includes gender information.
However, a key problem of international comparisons of the representation of women is, as Miki Caul points out, that it “overlooks the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud argues “cross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.
Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of problem that an international dataset like EveryPolitician is well placed to examine – on Thursday we’ll be using a new mini-site to explore the gender and party information contained in EveryPolitician to give a sense of the international picture and the party-level differences within each country. Stay tuned! Or you can download the data yourself (there are APIs for Python, Ruby and R) and try and beat us to it.
TheyWorkForYou makes it easy to search through the history of what has been said in Parliament, and we make the data (based on the Hansard dataset but more consistently formatted) freely available to download. As essentially a download of a very large amount of text, getting insights from this dataset is a bit more complicated, but potentially very rewarding.
Jack Blumenau has a paper based on TheyWorkForYou data using language to analyse whether appointing female ministers changes how other female MPs participate in debates. Looking at “half a million Commons’ speeches between 1997 and 2017, [he demonstrates] that appointing a female minster increases the participation of women MPs in relevant debates by approximately one third over the level of female participation under male ministers” – and that “female MPs also became more influential in debates under the purview of female ministers […] female ministers respond in a systematically different fashion to the speeches of female MPs.” In this case, influence is a measure of whether the language an individual used is then taken up by others, and this kind of analysis shows how the TheyWorkForYou dataset can be used to demonstrate not just counts of how many women were in Parliament, but the substantive effects of women holding office on the political process.
As Myf talked about yesterday, TheyWorkForYou’s Commons content now extends back to 1918, and so includes every speech by a female MP ever made. We hope this is a useful resource for anyone interested in exploring the history of the representation of women in the UK and have plans for a small project in the upcoming months to show in a simple way how this data can be used (please sign up to our mailing list if you’re interested in hearing about this when it’s completed).
FixMyStreet and WriteToThem
Understanding the under-representation of women is important across our services. Where men and women are experiencing different issues and concerns, imbalances in access (or use of access) potentially lead to differences in resource allocation.
The majority of reports on FixMyStreet.com are reported by men – but to make things more complicated, it’s not just that women make fewer reports, but women report substantively different kinds of reports.
Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama investigated FixMyStreet reports and found (by determining gender from names of problem reporters) that different kinds of reports are more likely to be reported by men and women – they suggest that at “first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter)”.
If different kinds of reports are differently gendered, this complicates thinking about how to improve how women use the website – as potential users are having substantially different experiences of problems in the real world well before they interact with the site. We have to engage with the nuance of this kind of finding to understand how to redress issues of access to services.
We’re currently in the process of extending this kind of analysis to our other service. For WriteToThem, we’ve learned that while the majority of people using the service to write to MPs are male (around 60%), this picture is different depending on the level of government – for instance the gender balance for people writing to councils is pretty close to 50/50.
As part of this, we’re investigating whether having the same gender as their representative makes people more likely to make contact. This has some interesting preliminary findings, and we hope to have more to say about this towards the end of the year.
Our research in this area is ongoing, and we’re keen to help people use our data to investigate under-representation – especially where you have expertise or knowledge that we don’t. If you’d like to discuss potential uses of the data please get in touch, or sign up to our mailing list to hear about future research releases.
Excuse us while we just finish hanging this bunting…
Yes, wave the flags and toot those vuvuzelas: it’s National Democracy Week, a new initiative to celebrate the democratic process and encourage democratic participation.
And thanks to some extra-curricular work by one of the mySociety team, we’re now able to celebrate it in a quite exceptional way. Longstanding developer Matthew has used his own free time to import historic House of Commons debates from 1919-1935 into our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. With this work, he’s extended the site’s value as an easy-access archive of parliamentary activity even further.
You can check it out now by visiting TheyWorkForYou, searching for any word or phrase, and then sorting the search results by ‘oldest’. Or, pick any MP active during 1919-1935 and search for them to see every speech they made in Parliament.
Please let us know if you find anything of interest! For developers who use TheyWorkForYou data to power their own sites and apps, the extended content will also be available via TheyWorkForYou’s API.
“No one sex can govern alone” – Nancy Astor
This is the first National Democracy Week, and it has taken, as its theme, the anniversary of women’s suffrage: as you’re sure to have heard by now, 2018 is the centenary of (some) women getting the vote* in the UK.
We wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of the big milestones of women’s participation in Parliament, but there was just one problem. TheyWorkForYou only contained House of Commons debates as far back as the 1930s — while, for example, the maiden speech of Nancy Astor, the first woman to speak in Parliament, was in 1920.
So it’s a big deal that Matthew’s imported this early data into TheyWorkForYou, and we’re all the more grateful because he did so on his own time. It’s something we’ve wanted to do, but not had the resource for. You can now browse, search or link to Commons debates right back to 1919, and find not just women’s contributions, but a whole wealth of historic parliamentary content. Result!
What you can enjoy this week
We’re going to take this opportunity to highlight, through a week-long series of posts:
- Today: Milestones in women’s parliamentary participation A rundown of when and how women became integrated into the UK Parliament. You can see this, our first post of the week, right now.
- Tomorrow, our researcher Alex will be highlighting some of the ways people have used our data and APIs to explore issues of gender and representation and describe some of our future plans in this area. This also gives us the opportunity to point out where you can access all our lovely, juicy data, should you want to do something similar yourself.
- On Wednesday we’ll delve back into history, this time looking at the changes in law which have had bearing on women’s lives, with more links to richer background detail on TheyWorkForYou.
- On Thursday Alex is back, exploring what we can learn from EveryPolitician data about representation of women in democracies around the world.
- Friday will give us a chance to show how you can use TheyWorkForYou to research when topics were first mentioned in Parliament, and how that can give a snapshot of the zeitgeist.
- Finally, as a weekend bonus, we’ll be blogging on the various organisations which support women within our own sphere of Civic Tech.
We’ll add the links in for each day’s content as it goes live.
Since our sites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in the UK, our activities with the Democratic Commons, and the support we give to partners in other countries are all, at heart, aiming to make democratic participation easier, we are, of course, all over this event. We hope you’ll enjoy the week!
*We can have another celebration in 2028 for the remaining women.
Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?
The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.
We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.
We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.
We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.
New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.
The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.
Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.
A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!
Leaflets and posters for schools
We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.
While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.
We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).
It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.
Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.
We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.
Top image: Thomas William
Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
It’s official, there’s going to be a General Election in the UK on June 8th.
As you might suspect mySociety has lots of tools and services that you might find useful during the campaign whether you just want to find out the voting record of your current MP or if you’re planning on building a website or app to cover the campaign.
First things first: TheyWorkForYou.com already covers in lots of detail who your MPs are and how they voted. This should be your first port of call so that you can evaluate your incumbent MP, especially when you’re thinking about who to vote for next.
Over the next couple of weeks we are going to make some changes here and there to make relevant parts of the voting record more prominent, and more clearly explain how we calculate the voting records themselves.
If you’re planning on using the data we have in TheyWorkForYou you can access information on UK politicians, parliamentary debates, written answers, and written ministerial statement via our API at theyworkforyou.com/api
Tomorrow we’ll share a blog post explaining in a little more technical detail how to access the API and some advice on how to get the most out of the service.
Building a service or website that covers all or part of the country and want an easy way to let your users identify which constituency they are in? Then MapIt is your friend.
It already powers most of our own services and is widely used by the likes of Government Digital Services and our friends at Democracy Club.
You can sign up for for free at mapit.mysociety.org and if you need more calls it’s easy to upgrade to a monthly plan – you can get 10,000 calls a month for free if you are a charity or working on an open project – if you think you are going to be busier than that (a) congrats and (b) drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Helping Democracy Club
Speaking of Democracy Club we’re going to be wholeheartedly supporting their efforts to crowdsource a full set of candidate data in the run up to the election – they are gathering all of their ideas together in this Google Doc https://goo.gl/8WtZvc
We had planned to make some updates and amends to the YourNextRepresentative service that supports Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVotefor.co.uk site in the quiet period between major elections, ahem, but with the snap election called we’ll be doing what we can to make the site run faster and make whatever UI tweaks and fixes we can in the time available.
They will no doubt be looking for help in sourcing candidate data, so please do sign up to help and find out what you can do democracyclub.org.uk/blog/2017/04/18/its-ge2017
In summary and to make it easy you can find all of our relevant #GE2017 datasets and APIs here data.mysociety.org/datasets/?category=ge2017
It’s not too late to let your current MP know what you think on any subject of your choice via WriteToThem.com.
And finally, don’t forget to register to vote yourself at gov.uk/register-to-vote
Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.
What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.
There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.
The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.
Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.
Educating, campaigning, sharing
The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.
If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.
When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.
Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.
How it works
Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.
When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.
But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.
Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.
Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.
All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.
We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.
But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.
So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.
And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.
As I was doing so, something felt wrong.
Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.
Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.
No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.
So, what now?
I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:
FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.
And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.
If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.
Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.
We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.
1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.