That year saw many debates in Parliament on topics that have since become very familiar: the question of whether the tax on cigarettes should be raised; whether cigarettes should be advertised on television, whether smoking should be allowed in public places, and whether warnings should be printed on packets.
Rich and fascinating stuff for any social historian – and it’s all on TheyWorkForYou.com.
Hansard is an archive
Hansard, the official record of Parliament, is a huge historic archive, and whatever your sphere of interest, it is bound to have been debated at some point.
Browsing through past debates is a fascinating way of learning what the nation was feeling: worries, celebrations, causes for sorrow – all are recorded here.
How to use TheyWorkForYou to browse historic debates
TheyWorkForYou contains masses of historic information: House of Commons debates back to 1935, for example, and details of MPs going back to around 1806. You can see exactly what the site covers here.
There are various ways to search or browse the content. Start with the search box on the homepage – it looks like this:
You can do a simple search right from this page, or choose ‘more options’ below the search box to refine your search.
We’ll look at those advanced options later, but let’s see what happens when you input a simple search term like ‘smoking’.
Here (above) are my search results, with my keyword helpfully highlighted.
By default, search results are presented in reverse chronological order, with the most recent results first. If you are particularly interested in historical mentions, you may wish to see the older mentions first.
That’s easy – just click on the word ‘oldest’ after ‘sorted by date':
You’ll notice a few other options here:
- Sort by relevance orders your results with the most relevant ones first, as discerned by our search engine. This will give you those speeches with the most mentions of your keyword ahead of those where it is only mentioned once or twice.
- Show use by person displays a list of people who have mentioned your keyword, with the most frequent users at the top. This can be fascinating for games such as “who has apologised the most?” or “who has mentioned kittens most often?”
Click through any of the names, and you’ll see all the speeches where that person mentioned your keyword.
That’s a good start – but what if there are too many search results, and you need some way to refine them? You’ll notice from my screenshots above that there are (at the time of writing) over 10,000 mentions of smoking.
That’s where Advanced Search comes in. You can access it from a few places:
- The ‘more options’ link right next to the search box on search results pages (see image below)
- The ‘more options’ link below the search box on the homepage (see image below)
- Or just navigate directly to our dedicated Advanced Search page (see image below)
Whichever way you arrive at it, the Advanced Search page helps you really get to the content you’re interested in.
The pink box on the right gives you some tips for effective searching.
For example, just as with Google, you can search for exact phrases by putting your search term within quotation marks. Otherwise, your results will contain every speech where all your words are mentioned, even if they’re not together. For phrases like “high street”, this could make a real difference.
Even if you are only searching for a single word, you can put it in quotation marks to restrict the use of ‘stemming’ – so, for example, a search for the word house will also return results containing houses, housing and housed, unless you put it in quotation marks.
You can exclude words too: this can be useful for minimising the number of irrelevant results. So, for example, you might want to find information about the town of Barking, but find that many of your results are debates about dogs. Simply enter the search term “barking” -dogs. The minus sign excludes the word from your search.
In the main body of the page, you’ll also see options to restrict your search to within certain dates, or a specific speaker, or a department, section (eg Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly) and even political party.
Get stuck in
The best way to see what you can find is to dig in and give it a go. If your search doesn’t work for you the first time, you can always refine it until it does.
Let us know if you find anything interesting!
Our site TheyWorkForYou publishes everything said in Parliament. But how do you know when they’re debating the stuff that really matters to you?
Easy – you set up an email alert.
You can ask TheyWorkForYou to email you whenever a chosen word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament, or when a specific person speaks.
Then, once a day, our automated processes check to see whether your keyword has been mentioned, or your chosen politician has spoken, and if so, we send you an email.
Alerts are for everyone
How might this service be useful to you?
- If you work for a charity or campaign group, you can subscribe to mentions of your cause;
- If you ever wonder exactly what your MP does, we’ll tell you every time he or she speaks;
- If you subscribe to the name of your town or city, you’ll know whenever it’s mentioned in Parliament;
- If a particular news story is of interest, you can subscribe to mentions…
…and so on. Everyone has their own topics of interest, and most topics are debated in Parliament at one time or another, so we think there really is an alert for everyone.
Two types of alert
There are two different types of alert: you can choose to receive an email every time a specific person (most likely your own MP) speaks, or to receive one whenever a specified word or phrase is mentioned.
In this post, I’m going to walk through the process of setting up an alert for when your MP speaks, and then in subsequent posts, we’ll look at alerts for keywords, and how to manage your alerts.
Receive an alert every time your MP speaks
1. Find your MP’s page
If you already know who your MP is (or you want to follow a member of Parliament who is not your MP) you can search for them by name on the TheyWorkForYou homepage :
If you don’t know who your MP is, no worries – just put your postcode into the search box:
Either way, you should end up on your MP’s page:
2. Sign up for alerts
Click on the blue button at the top of the page marked ‘sign up for email updates':
If you are logged in to the site, that’s it – you’ve subscribed, and you don’t need to do anything more.
3. Confirming your alert
If you are not logged in, don’t worry. You don’t actually need an account in order to sign up for alerts.
You’ll see this text:
Request a TheyWorkForYou email alert
Signing up for things by [your MP’s name]
Input your email address, and we’ll send you a confirmation email:
Click on the link in the email, and you’re all set up:
Now all you have to do is wait for our emails to come into your inbox.
Don’t worry if you want to stop them at any time – there’s a link at the foot of every alert email which you can follow to pause or delete your alerts.
Rather subscribe to a topic? Then you need this blog post.
Our team member Richard has now analysed every single one of those votes, and his findings have been added to each MP’s information on TheyWorkForYou.
We hope that’s great news for users: it means that we can now present a really full picture of how your MP voted on key topics.
It’s also potentially useful for developers, eDemocracy hackers and campaign groups, who can pick up our data and use it as they please.
So what exactly is the data?
Often MPs vote on motions which are, at first glance, rather incomprehensible and cryptic. They might vote for example on a motion to accept:
Amendments (a) to (d) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 1 to 4 and 6.
We’ve done the research to determine what MPs were actually voting on in each case, and turned their archaic language into plain English.
For every vote we’ve written a sentence to describe the effect of voting either “aye” or “no”. In relation to one MP’s vote on the evening of the 9th of July 2014 we write:
Mark Pawsey MP, Rugby voted for a residence test as an eligibility criteria for civil legal aid; subject to exceptions for refugees and those who have sought asylum.
In addition to describing every vote, we have decided whether it should be considered relevant to the topics we list on each MP’s page (see an example MP here, or check your own MP by inputting your postcode on the homepage, then clicking ‘voting record’ on your MP’s page).
If a vote was relevant to one of the statements we show on TheyWorkForYou, we then determined whether voting ‘aye’ or ‘no’ was a vote for or against the statement and if the vote was very important, or less important. By clicking on the green ‘details’ button beside each statement on an MP’s voting record you can see exactly which individual votes contributed to it as well as how we calculated which wording such as “moderately for” or “strongly against” to apply in each case.
Matters MPs have voted on since the 2010 general election have ranged from bankers’ bonuses to same sex marriage; from food banks to the “bedroom tax” (all of which have contributed to statements we show on TheyWorkForYou); from daylight saving to the regulation of hairdressers (neither included) – and plenty more. (We’ve written previously about how we select which topics to show on TheyWorkForYou.)
Of course, Parliament continues to hold votes, and we’ll be continuing to analyse the results as they come in – but it is good to know that we are bang up to date.
How can this data be used?
We have plenty of ideas ourselves, and we want to hear yours, too. With the forthcoming general election, one obvious use is for ‘who should I vote for?’ tools, which match users’ opinions with those of each party.
There’s also potential for comparisons between what constituents believe and what their elected representative has voted for.
No doubt there are many other ideas that haven’t even occurred to us yet – please do get in touch if you have ideas and you’d like to use this data.
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)