1. Our written evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry on voting by proxy

    We’ve submitted evidence to the recent inquiry on whether Parliament should introduce a more formal system of voting by proxy. You can read our submission herepdf, and see submissions from other organisations and individuals on Parliament’s website.

    Voting by proxy is the practice of allowing someone else to cast your vote for you. In Parliament, when MPs go on extended leave, for example when they have a baby, there is no formal system in place; rather, arrangements are often made informally and, potentially, inconsistently.

    A Member may approach a whip to request that they are paired with an MP from the opposition who will not be voting either, thus effectively cancelling out the votes that would have been cast. Apparently, there is also an informal tradition of allowing infirm or incapacitated (for example, because they are carrying a baby in their arms) representatives to vote from outside the chamber, but only when present within the precincts of the House. We were interested to see a remark in David Lammy MP’s own evidence:

    I would also hope that the Committee might consider some way to end the practice notorious from the late 1970s of bringing seriously sick Members into Westminster in order to vote. This would carry severe reputational risk if repeated nowadays.

    Why are we interested?

    The inquiry is a direct result of the recent debate, on International Women’s Day, in which Harriet Harman led the call for a more formal system of voting by proxy for members on extended leave (and particularly on ‘baby leave’).

    We agree that it’s important Parliament formalises this system, and we fully support any measure that will make life easier for parents, or those on extended leave for other life-changing reasons. And of course, we’re very much in favour of any initiative which will make parliamentary arrangements more transparent and accessible to the general public, which after all is the whole reason TheyWorkForYou exists.

    But we also have a further interest in this subject. As you may recall, we were called out by MPs (and subsequently members of the public) for misrepresenting representatives on leave, since our site TheyWorkForYou was not displaying this information, leaving potential for members of the public to believe that such MPs were not attending to their duties.

    In response to this, we are now able to manually add notes to the profile pages of those MPs who request it. However, as we outlined in our prior posts it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons, as summarised in our inquiry response.

    We’re hoping that once the proxy voting system is formalised, the relevant information (that is, who is on extended leave, that a proxy is voting in their place, and the name of the proxy) will be released along with Parliament’s existing data outputs. You can read more about that in our response, but in short, this would allow us to display the information consistently and automatically, as we do for virtually all the rest of the information on TheyWorkForYou.

    But it won’t only be useful for us. It’ll allow for the data to be displayed on Parliament’s own website, and of course will be of help to any website or tool which deals with Parliamentary activity and makes it easier for everyone to understand.


    Image by Jessica Taylor (Parliamentary copyright, reproduced with the permission of Parliament). “Ayes to the right, noes to the left”. When there is a vote in the Commons, MPs leave their seats and walk into either the Aye or No lobby.

  2. Further thoughts on TheyWorkForYou and parental leave

    Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.

    You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:

    In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:

    1. We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
    2. In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices

    TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.

    We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.

    So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.

    MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.

    This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.

    It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.

    The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.

    We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.

    So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.

    If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.

    If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.

    This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.

    However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.

    With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.

    It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.

    That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.

    Image: Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA 2.0

  3. TheyWorkForYou and leaves of absence: it’s all about priorities

     

    TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…

    TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.

    Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.

    Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.

    So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.

    And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.

    You can see just how long we’ve had this issue open, and that it has had some thought, in our development ticket here (related tickets are also here and here).

    Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.

    Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.

    Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output

    As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:

    We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.

    From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!

    Be the change you want to see

    OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.

    A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.

    An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.

    Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).

    If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.

    We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.


    Image: Erik Lundqvist

  4. New (to us) media

    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

    Recent funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust helped us to try initiatives that would help publicise TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem to younger people, like this animated video.

    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).

    TheyWorkforYou leaflets for schools

    MPs’ outreach

    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.

    Outreach leaflet to MPs' offices

    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

  5. TheyWorkForYou strives to be unbiased, reliable and truthful. Here’s how.

    Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.

    This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.

    So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.

    1. We do not have a political agenda

    We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.

    We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.

    That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?

    We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.

    2. Our data is largely created by Parliament

    We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.

    Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.

    TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.

    In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.

    3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines

    Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.

    It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.

    4. But there are some things we have to do by hand

    So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.

    However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.

    TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.

    Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.

    For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.

    But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.

    While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.

    That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.

    5. We are committed to transparency

    Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.

    We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.

    (Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).

    Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.

    For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:

    More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.

    This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.

    Which leads us to the next point:

    6. We’re still working on it

    Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.

    One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.

    When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.

    7. Facts are facts

    But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.

    We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.

    We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.

    We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.

    And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.

    Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and  —  oh, what’s this?  —  “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.

    As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.

    8. We must be doing something right…

    175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.

    When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?

    It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.

    9. We’re open to discussion

    We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.

    As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.

    But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.

    10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding

    Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.

    Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.


    Donate now

    Image: Gordon Williams (Unsplash)

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  6. Go forth and make GIFs

    This week, we heard from a user whose MP’s agent had threatened to take him to court if he shared an image, showing TheyWorkForYou data, on social media. Here’s what we think of that.

    Available to all

    Prior to an election, you’ll see all sorts of messaging trying to turn you towards, or against, specific candidates — some from political parties, some from independent campaigning groups, and some just from individuals who feel strongly.

    At mySociety, we’re non-partisan: we strive for neutrality in our websites and services, and they are available to everyone, no matter which part of the political spectrum you are on. We won’t tell you how to vote; we will, however, present the facts and give you the tools that allow you to make up your own mind.

    When we looked into the image our user had wanted to share, we found that there are many similar images, generated from a single source, using TheyWorkForYou voting data to highlight the voting records of Conservative MPs in marginal seats. Here’s what they look like:

    tory voting lines

     

    And for political balance, here’s an image with a similar intent, highlighting a Labour MP’s voting record (but not from this election, sorry: we have been unable to find anything more up to date, but feel free to send us any you’ve seen and we’ll add them to this post):

    Andy_Bvotingrecord

    Share facts

    We have no problem with our data being shared in this way, so long as the wording is unchanged, and the source is credited (as clearly it hasn’t been in our latter example). Adding the source benefits everyone, because while top-line statements like these are, of necessity, brief in a shareable image, they are backed up on TheyWorkForYou with links to the actual votes that substantiate them.

    As we say, this data is available to anyone, and TheyWorkForYou covers every MP, so there’s no unfair political advantage being gained here. The votes are statements of fact; and indeed there may well be people looking at a list like that and finding that, actually, they quite agree with everything on the list, in which case the image would be having the opposite effect from that intended.

    If you read our blog post from yesterday, you’ll know that we’ve recently introduced Facebook and Twitter share buttons to make it super-easy to share any MP’s votes. So, in short: share our stuff. That’s part of what it’s for.

    Reliable data

    And yet, the user we mentioned had been told by someone working on behalf of the MP’s campaign that he would be ‘taken to court’ if he shared such an image, as it was ‘based on unreliable data’.

    All of our voting analyses are based on the official data put out by Parliament, and we do our utmost to ensure that they are fair: while much of TheyWorkForYou’s content is published out via automated processes, we recognise that voting data is too subtle and sensitive to manage in any way other than manually. That’s why all our voting information is painstakingly compiled by hand, in a process we’ve described previously in this post.

    MPs do occasionally contact us to question the wording of certain voting topics, and we are always happy to explain how we arrived at them, and improve them if we agree that the votes have been misrepresented.

    We would be quite happy to hear directly from the MP in question and to discuss any information which they perceive as inaccurate: we note that their voting page has been in place on TheyWorkForYou since August 2015 (it has been viewed by over 5,500 people, 67 of them from within the Houses of Parliament) and in that time we have not been contacted with any query.


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    Image: Al King (CC by/2.0)

  7. Making votes easier to find and share

    In order to make debates and votes a bit easier to find, understand and share, we’ve recently introduced some new features on TheyWorkForYou.

    What am I looking for?

    Our users frequently write to us to say that they can’t find a specific vote on TheyWorkForYou — and that’s often because descriptions of votes in the media, or in conversation, don’t reflect the way they are referred to in Parliament.

    The official record, for example, will not bring you a vote titled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Brexit’: you’ll have to know enough to search for the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, ‘Social Tenants Deemed to Have Excess Bedrooms’, or ‘Exiting the European Union’.

    So we’ve put in place a few different ways to find the content that matters to you.

    Recent votes

    99% of the time when people ask us where to find a particular vote, it’s something that happened in the last few days, or at most, weeks.

    So now, you’ll see a new ‘Recent Votes‘ tab in the main TheyWorkForYou menu, which leads to a page listing the last 30 votes:

    twfy menu bar

    TheyWorkForYou menu bar

    If you’ve entered your postcode on the homepage (or your browser cookies remember you from previous visits), you’ll also see your own MP’s stance under each vote, like this:

    recent votes

    There’s one important point about this page: it only contains those votes for which we currently have policy lines — that is to say, the votes we include on MPs’ pages. That’s because they are the ones for which we already have a plain English description. Fortunately, these are almost always the ones that people are most interested in.

    If you want to find a vote that isn’t on this page, you can always look on Public Whip, which is where the raw voting data that feeds TheyWorkForYou comes from.

    Individual votes

    If you click through from any of those listings, you’ll get a page dedicated to that particular vote.

    Here you’ll see something that we know is important to many of our users, set out nice and clearly: the ‘division’, ie which MPs voted for and against, who was absent and who abstained.

    Again, if you’ve entered your postcode on the site, you’ll also see how your own MP voted, in the top section of the page:

    twfy vote page

    TheyWorkForYou individual vote page

     

    But even better, if what you’re most interested in is your own MP’s position in a specific vote, you’ll get this version of the page when you click through from their voting record — as clear as we can make it:

    FireShot Screen Capture #1107 - 'House of Lords Reform Bill — Second Reading_ Recent Votes - TheyWorkForYou' - www_theyworkforyou_com_divisions_pw-201

    MP individual vote page on TheyWorkForYou

    Topics pages

    So that’s all fine and dandy for people who think in terms of MPs and votes. But for a long time, we’ve wanted to explore ways to make parliamentary content more welcoming for complete political newbies.

    We’ve been meeting with groups of young people around the UK to find out more about how they access politics, and one finding is that they think in terms of issues. Politics comes through the lens of topics like ‘the NHS’, ‘the environment’ or ‘Brexit’.

    For that reason, we’ve created topic pages like this one, which gather together a lot of relevant and immediate content, showing how your MP voted, how all relevant votes went, debates and a chance to sign up for email alerts:

    TheyWorkForYou topic page

    TheyWorkForYou topic page

    We’ll be adding more of these as time goes on.

    Easier to share

    The final feature we’ve introduced was a direct result of observing the way that you, our users, share our content on Facebook and Twitter.

    We started collecting examples of where people had made a screenshot of voter records in order to make a political point, and we soon saw that this was a very common thing to do, especially at key points like the current run-up to the General Election, or a party leadership campaign.

    To save you the bother of making and saving a screenshot, we’ve now added these share buttons at the foot of each section of votes on MPs’ pages:

    TheyWorkForYou share buttons

    TheyWorkForYou share buttons

    That’s it for now, but this is all part of a rolling program of improvements, so do feel free to feed back with any related features you’d like to see.


    Image: A Currell (CC by-nc/2.0)

  8. Here’s how mySociety can help you during the 2017 General Election

    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.

    TheyWorkForYou

    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.

    MapIt

    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 mapit@mysociety.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

    Image courtesy of Maurice on Flickr.com

  9. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  10. 12 new topics for TheyWorkForYou: how did your MP vote?

    Today we’ve added twelve new topics to the voting pages for every MP on TheyWorkForYou. Covering important areas such as membership of the EU, mass surveillance of data, and military action against Daesh/ISIL, these voting lines will help give an even better at-a-glance picture of what your MP stands for, and how that was reflected in Parliament.

    Check your own MP’s votes on these topics by inputting your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage:

    Where to input your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage

    and then clicking on the ‘voting record’ tab:

    Voting tab on TheyWorkForYou's MP pages

    You’ll see all your MP’s voting lines laid out in several topic areas on a single page:

    selection of voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    From there, it’s easier to explore further by clicking ‘show votes’, which will take you to a page listing every vote taken into consideration when calculating the MP’s stance.

    For a full explanation on the methodology behind these pages — a combination of manual and automated inputs — see our previous blog post.

    How do we choose which topics to include? It’s all driven by what MPs have voted on in Parliament, and consequently how much data there is to draw from in any specific subject area (there are also a few ‘topics in waiting’: areas we know we want to cover, but where there need to be some more votes before we have sufficient data to present meaningful stances).

    New topics in full

    The new voting lines we’ve added are:

    • In Constitutional Reform
      • Reducing the voting age
    • In Home Affairs
      • Mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities
      • Merging police and fire services under Police and Crime Commissioners
    • In Transport (a new topic area)
      • High speed rail network
      • Greater public control of bus services
      • Publicly-owned railways
    • In Foreign Policy & Defence
      • UK membership of the EU
      • The right to remain for EU nationals
      • Military action against the group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh
    • In Taxation & Employment
      • The reduction of Capital Gains Tax
    • In Housing (a new topic area)
      • Secure tenancies for life
      • Charging a market rent to high earners renting a council home

    We hope this helps you see, even more clearly, the effect your MP has had on a broad range of national and international issues.

    Don’t forget that we also offer the chance to discuss these votes (or any other issue) with your MP. Just click the ‘send a message’ button at the top of the page to go to WriteToThem.com, where you can compose a message to your representatives quickly and easily.

    Image: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor