1. MPs’ Register of Financial Interests

    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

  2. Party voting instructions should be public

    Summary

    • 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. 

    Net agree 62%, net disagree 8%, strong disagree 2%, somewhat disagree 30%, somewaht agree 35%, strong agree, 28%

    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. 

    24% net agree, 35% net disagree, 12% strong disagree, 23% somewhat disagree, 41% neither agree nor disagree, 18% somewhat agree, 5% strongly agree

    43% of labour respondents disagreed, to 51% of liberal democrat respondents, to 26% of conservative respondents. Other parties did not have significant differences.

    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. 

    55% net agree, 15% net disagree, 5% strong disagree, 9% somewhat disagree, 30% neither agree nor disagree, 29% somewhat agree, 27% strongly agree

    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

  3. Cosmetic improvements to TheyWorkForYou

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Photos of MPs

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

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

    Clearer access to the API

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

    The TheyWorkForYou API, homepage

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

    Image: David Pisnoy

  4. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

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

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

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

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

    What content do users find useful?

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

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

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

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

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

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

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

     

  5. Changes to party comparisons on TheyWorkForyou

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

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

    This year we have:

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

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

    Making party comparisons more prominent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

    Improving the quality of party comparisons

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

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

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

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

    New approaches to party switchers

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

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

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

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

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

    Ongoing thinking

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

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

    Header image: UK Parliament flickr

  6. A response to Robert Largan, MP

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Image: UK Parliament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Changes in your neighbourhood

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

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

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

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

    Campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

    Requesting information

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

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

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

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

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

    Holding politicians accountable

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

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

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

    Data

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

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

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

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

  8. Publishing less: our current thinking about comparative statistics

    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 numerology 

    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.

    Structural factors

    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.

    Gender

    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.

  9. Parliamentary votes during COVID-19

    Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.

    We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.

    The old normal

    Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.

    MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.

    This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.

    Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.

    And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.

    A digital revolution — and a roll back

    There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.

    MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.

    But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.

    The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.

    Proxy voting is the wrong approach

    While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.

    There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.

    This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).

    As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.

    While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.

    In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.

    But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.

    Portraying MPs fairly

    Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.

    Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:

    • We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
    • We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
    • In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.

    mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.

    Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.

     

     

    Who could vote when?

    Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting
    11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave
    2 June – 4 June Parental leave Physically present
    5 June-9 June Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present
    10th June- Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present

     

    Image: First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus 22/04/2020 by UK Parliament

  10. Keep on top of the new Parliament

    Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.

    Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?

    But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.

    Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:

    Alerts

    Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.

    You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.

    What to do

    First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.

    Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.

    Already signed up?

    One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.

    And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.

    Useful for everyone

    Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.

    It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.

    Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities

    Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.

    If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.

    Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.

    Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)