The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.
But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.
That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:
“Does this answer the above question?”
Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.
That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.
Is the current administration more slippery?
It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.
In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.
In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.
Best and worst departments for a straight answer
Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.
Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.
We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.
You may remember that earlier this year we added new pages to TheyWorkForYou, showing MPs’ voting records in detail.
We’ve continued work on assessing votes, and you can now check your MP’s stance on seven new issues:
In Constitutional Reform:
- Transferring more powers to the Welsh Assembly
- Transferring more powers to the Scottish Parliament
In Foreign Policy and Defence:
- Strengthening the Military Covenant
In Social Issues:
- Laws to promote equality and human rights
In Taxation and Employment:
- An annual tax on the value of expensive homes (popularly known as a mansion tax)
And in Miscellaneous:
- Culling badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis
- Requiring pub companies to offer pub landlords rent-only leases
- Restricting the scope of legal aid
- Greater regulation of gambling
Check your own MP’s voting record here – just input your postcode on the homepage, then click on the ‘voting record’ tab on your MP’s page (or click ‘see full list’).
And don’t forget, if you want to discuss what you find with your MP you can use WriteToThem.com afterwards.
Thanks to everyone who came to Wednesday night’s meet-up at the uber-cool Founders Hub in Cardiff: it was great to meet you all.
Apart from being fascinated by the Founders Hub’s 3D printer (we managed to print a bottle opener to crack open our beers!), we were really impressed with the interesting conversations and provocative debate that followed Daniele Procida and Sam Knight’s presentations.
First up, it was really inspiring to hear Sam Knight talk about his motivations behind setting up and developing Your Senedd. Your Senedd is your go-to website to find out about the Welsh Assembly; whether you want to know who your Assembly Member is, their background and what speeches they’ve made, or read recent debates, it’s all there. You can even sign up for the weekly newsletter that gives an overview of what the Assembly is working on that week and what odd Assembly terminology actually means.
It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.
If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please join the mailing list.
Sam set up Your Senedd back in 2011 in order to help more Welsh people engage with their Assembly, after hearing that only half of Welsh people knew who their first minister was. He also wanted to find a way to provide the Welsh public with information from the Assembly that wasn’t just inflammatory or sensational, as in the pre-Your Senedd days most of the Welsh Assembly debates reported by the mainstream media were ones that provoked anger, meaning that the public didn’t get to hear about the debates that really did matter to them. Your Senedd provides the public with impartial information about all Assembly debates.
The future of Your Senedd
Sam has improvements in mind for the website too: as with TheyWorkForYou, he plans to show Assembly Members’ voting history; he’d like to produce easy-to-read guides on how the Assembly works and how the public can get involved; and he would like the site to become more of a two-way conversation, instead of a one-way broadcaster. He plans to put all of the Assembly’s Statements of Opinion (similar to Westminster’s Early Day Motions) on the site and encourage the public to vote on them. What a great way to get people more involved with politics!
Your Senedd doesn’t just encourage the public to engage more in Welsh politics – Sam said that one Assembly Member was so scared that his lack of participation in debates shown on his Your Senedd page would damage his reputation, that he’s been involved with every debate since! Scaring Assembly Members into action wasn’t part of Sam’s original motivation, but it’s certainly an added benefit!
If you have any questions for Sam, or any ideas of how Your Senedd could be improved or shared, please give him a tweet.
Daniele Procida: ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’
Our second talk of the night was by Daniele Procida, who gave us an exclusive preview of his presentation for DjangoCon Europe, where he’ll be presenting in May. Daniele is co-organiser of DjangoCon Europe and runs DjangoCMS, as well as managing the University of Cardiff’s School of Medicine’s website.
Daniele’s presentation was called ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’ and drew from his background in philosophy. Daniele asked provocative questions such as ‘Who are the programmers that are increasingly building the world we live in and determining the systems that govern our lives?’ and ‘Does it matter who they are or just what they do?’.
The liberalist stance is that it only matters what people do and not who they are – which as Daniele pointed out, is perfectly good and the correct approach when it comes to the justice system for example, but he questioned this approach when thinking about programmers. According to Daniele, we need to be more concerned about who programmers are, to make sure that not only one type or group of people are building our virtual new world, and therefore not taking into account the needs of those who are different from them.
Daniele’s opinion is that there are currently too many white males in programming which liberalism says doesn’t matter (because the things they make should matter) but actually it does matter, because their inherent privilege affects the things they make and the way they see problems, meaning they can never fully understand the experience of someone who has lived without said privilege.
Daniele’s presentation and thoughts fuelled a really good debate amongst those who came along – a healthy mix of agreement and disagreement was great to see, reminding us that we’re all entitled to our own opinions!
If you’re intrigued by Daniele’s talk and viewpoints – try and check him out at DjangoCon in May.
Many thanks to both Sam and Daniele for coming to do presentations – hope to see you again when we’re back in Cardiff!
Our meet-ups now take place at different cities across the UK on the first Wednesday of every month. The next one will be in Bath on 7th May. Sign up here.
Our programme of meet-ups is open to everyone. So whether you’re an open source veteran, or just a curious newbie interested in anything you see on mysociety.org, please come along.
Do you know how your MP voted on the issues that matter to you?
If not, take a look at the new Voting Record section for your MP – accessed easily via TheyWorkForYou.com. Even if you don’t know who your MP is, we’ve made it easy to find their voting activities, and to easy understand their big decisions at a glance.
We’ve been working hard to increase the coverage of votes (we admit – they had got a bit out of date), as well as to make the experience of reading them much more pleasant. There are now so many bits of analysis we’ve actually split a separate voting page out for each MP, accessible from their main TheyWorkForYou page.
Now you can see how your MP voted on issues like these:
- Benefit levels – what goes up or down
- Foreign policy – including military decisions
- Social issues – eg gay marriage
- Constitutional issues – for example, how many MPs there are
Keeping things objective
TheyWorkForYou is a trusted, non-partisan service so we work hard to ensure that these voting lines are unbiased and neutrally worded.
We’re so keen to ensure that we don’t accidentally introduce unconscious biases, that we try to avoid entirely the business of picking which topics to analyse. Instead, we prioritise our analysis based on what gets voted on by lots of MPs (accounting for whole party abstentions), not what gets talked about in the news, or what we care about ourselves.
Wording is important
We have decided to prioritise clarity over expressing every detailed nuance of votes – this is an intentional choice, reflecting our priority of reaching citizens who have never paid attention to their MPs before. Consequently, vote summaries need to be concise and not use jargon.
For example, would we be wrong to use the common term ‘bedroom tax’? It’s a phrase that a lot of people would recognise from the press coverage, but the government’s preferred term is ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.
In the end, we went with reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the “bedroom tax”) – a balance between objectivity and clarity.
The bottom line
We’ve made lot of changes to the display for information on MPs recently. So if you have any feedback, good or bad, please us know what you think by leaving a comment below, or dropping us a line.
Last week we asked what improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou. Thanks so much for all the comments on that post (do keep them coming). They’ve all been carefully documented on our development list.
Our standard way of working on a project like this is in ‘sprints’ – short periods of activity after which we can spend some time reflecting on what went well, and what could have gone better.
This system is great for ensuring that we don’t get involved in a large piece of work, only to realise that it doesn’t do what was intended, or hasn’t had the desired effect. So, for example, if we’ve added a new feature, we might be asking ourselves, ‘Is anyone using it?’, ‘Have there been any bug reports?’, and ‘Has it fulfilled our original aim?’. We’re striving to be as analytical and methodical as possible about these assessments, so part of the process has also been figuring out which types of metrics to collect, and how.
That said, what have we already done?
It’s easier to find a specific representative
Where previously our pages listing all MPs, all MSPs and all MLAs just contained one very long list of names that you had to search or scroll through, there’s now an A-Z navigation at the top. We also added the ability to find your own MP from this page.
Why? This is an example of a small usability tweak which should make a difference to a large number of people – not everyone knows how to search a web page with Ctrl+F. It’s also a fix that’s been on our to-do list for two years!
The addition of the ‘find your MP’ box helps to serve one of our core aims: to make democracy easy to understand for the uninitiated.
We’ve added ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons
We thought you might not notice these discreet additions to our page footers – but we’ve certainly seen an upturn on the rate at which people are ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Whereas Twitter – not so much. Maybe TheyWorkForYou users are just more Facebook-inclined?
Why? In part, this addition is for our own benefit – we welcome the opportunity that social media gives our users to spread the word. As a small organisation with no advertising budget, this kind of grass roots promotion is invaluable. Then, we are hoping that it will help us to understand our users. Clicking that ‘like’ button can be seen as a form of positive affirmation and enagement that it’s very hard to quantify by other means.
We are still considering the addition of buttons which would allow you to share specific debates with your social circles.
We have noted the comments on our last post which made it clear that some of our users do not welcome integration with social media. That’s fine – we’ll never do anything that excludes you from the core activities of the site, whether you use Facebook and Twitter or not – our intention is simply to provide the functionality for those who want it.
Those comments have been a useful reminder to us that we should continue to consult our users, because we can’t always predict what you might object to!
You can change your email address
If you have an account, now you can change your email address yourself.
Why? This was identified as a common request that often puzzled users, and took up support time on our side.
MPs’ pages will look better
You can’t see these yet, because they’re still in progress. Due to some quirks of the code in which the site was originally built, the new design for the MPs’ pages has taken longer to implement than we’d anticipated. But we’re getting there.
Why? MPs’ pages contain an awful lot of information, from voting history to recent appearances, and more. The redesign will help us present all this information more clearly, making the page just as easy to read on a mobile device as it is on a desktop, and simply bringing the (frankly, dated) pages a more current look.
Bullets are bullets
This is almost ridiculous, but we think it was worth attending to. In recent user tests, we noticed some confusion, caused by the fact that our bullet points were in the form of small squares – they were frequently mistaken for check boxes.
Why? Just to rid the world of that one small piece of frustration that occurs when you try to tick a box that is not, in fact, a checkbox.
As I say, we are still actively collecting and working on your feedback, so please do keep it coming. Comment below this post, or drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be reporting back after our next sprint.
Photo by William Warby (CC)
mySociety is an organisation with many priorities, and they often compete for attention. Right now, we have some time and budget to lavish on TheyWorkForYou. We need your input to help us understand what development we should prioritise for the site.
Note: if you don’t know much about TheyWorkForYou, your opinion still counts! See the foot of this blog post for an overview of the site and its aims.
Some suggested improvements
Below is a list of improvements that other users have suggested, or that we think are desirable. Which improvements would you most like to see – from this list, or based on your own needs?
- Easier sharing via social media If you see a debate you want to share with your Twitter or Facebook buddies, all you’d have to do is click a button. More details
- When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
- Option to search just headings At the moment, search covers all content of debates, including everything anyone said. This option would allow you to only search headings, meaning that you could be sure the results were entirely focused on your topic. More details
- Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
- Signposting of big ‘events’ such as the Budget These are not always easy to find if you don’t know your way around, so we’d make sure the big events were always trumpeted on the site. More details
Great ideas, or utter bunkum? Let us know. You can give us feedback via any of the following methods:
1. Leave a comment under this blog post;
3. If you’d like to see the whole list of suggestions and issues, you can do so on our development list at Github (and the ‘more details’ links in the list above go to the issues on there). Note that anyone is welcome to add comments to these issues, or even to create your own (please search first to make sure you’re not duplicating an existing issue). Github may look complex, but it’s easy enough to use – you just need to set up a user account here.
We’re keen to understand whether we’re serving all kinds of users, so it’d also be helpful if you could tell us whether you consider yourself to be someone who knows a bit about Parliament (through work, interest, or experience) or a novice user.
Note – you can see what we’re currently working on here. Some changes were obvious – for example, we’re improving MPs’ individual pages.
What is TheyWorkForYou for?
TheyWorkForYou has been running since 2004. We know why we launched it, though the way you use it may be totally different – and if so, we want to hear about that. Its aim is to give a window into Parliament, for everyone, but including people who may never have previously thought that parliamentary proceedings had anything to do with them.
TheyWorkForYou does a lot of things. It lets you find out who your MP is – if you don’t know – and then it tells you all about them.
It publishes the written record of debates in Parliament, and lets you search it, and link to it easily.
It allows you to set up alerts, so you get an email every your chosen words or phrases are mentioned in Parliament – or every time a particular person speaks.
It publishes future business (there are alerts for that, too), written answers, Public Bill Committees, and more.
So, it does a lot – but we know that it still doesn’t do everything our users request, and it doesn’t neccessarily do everything in the way that they want, either. Some changes are obvious, and we’re working on them – right now, for example, we are improving individual MPs’ pages. But we want your thoughts too.
Photo by Lindsay Bremner (CC)
As you may know, TheyWorkForYou hasn’t displayed proceedings from the Scottish Parliament for a couple of years – but we’re glad to say that we’ve now fixed that. You can read debates from the main chamber from the Official Report and sign up to alerts from the Scottish Parliament here – just as you can for the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For those who are interested in the ‘whys’, in January of 2011, the Scottish Parliament changed the way that they published the Official Report on their website. This change broke our scraper and parser – that is, the pieces of software that fetch content and turn it into structured data.
mySociety is a small organisation with many priorities, and, because it wasn’t a simple fix, we weren’t able to allocate resources to it. So massive thanks are due to our developer Mark, who made the necessary changes to our code in his own free time.
You can help
There’s still more work to be done to get TheyWorkForYou’s data for Scotland to be as complete as it was before they changed their website, such as restoring written answers. If you think you have the expertise to help with that or any of the other issues for TheyWorkForYou Scotland, then we’d love to hear from you. And there’s still the Welsh Assembly to work on too!
Photo by Shelley Bernstein (CC)
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
When TheyWorkForYou was built by a group of volunteer activists, many years ago, it was a first-of-a-kind website. It was novel because it imported large amounts of parliamentary data into a database-driven website, and presented it clearly and simply, and didn’t supply newspaper-style partisan editorial.
Mzalendo (which means ‘Patriot’ in Swahili) has been around for a few years too, as a blog and MP data website founded by volunteer activists Conrad and Ory. However, over the last few months mySociety’s team members Paul, Jessica and Edmund, plus the team at Supercool Design have been helping the original volunteers to rebuild the site from the ground up. We think that what’s launched today can stake a claim to being a true ‘second generation’ parliamentary monitoring site, for a few reasons:
- It is entirely responsively designed, so that it works on the simplest of mobile web browsers from day one.
- All the lessons we learned from storing political data wrongly have been baked into this site (i.e we can easily cope with people changing names, parties and jobs)
- Every organisation, position and place in the system is now a proper object in the database. So if you want to see all the politicians who went to Nairobi University, you can.
- There is lots of clear information on how parliament functions, what MPs and committees do, and so on.
- It synthesizes some very complex National Taxpayer’s Association data on missing or wasted money into a really clear ‘scorecard‘, turning large sums of money into numbers of teachers.
The codebase that Mzalendo is based on is free and open source, as always. It is a complete re-write, in a different language and framework from TheyWorkForYou, and we think it represents a great starting point for other projects. Over the next year we will be talking to people interested in using the code to run such sites in their own country. If this sounds like something of interest to you, get in touch.
Meanwhile, we wish Ory and Conrad the best of luck as the site grows, and we look forward to seeing what the first users demand.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.