In a recent blog post, we summarised the research we commissioned from the University of Manchester’s Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini, on whether or not our core UK websites have an impact.
The full research paper is now available, and you can download it here .
Professor Rachel Gibson says: “This research presents a unique and valuable insight into the users of online resources such as FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
“Through applying a highly original methodology that combines quantitative and in-depth qualitative data about people’s experience of mySociety sites over time, we provide a picture of how eDemocracy tools are contributing to activism at the local level.
“We thank all those that contributed to this important study and mySociety for their co-operation in developing this highly rewarding and academically rigorous project.”
Our thanks to Rachel, Marta and Silvia for conducting this research, which utilised methods not previously used in the civic tech field. We hope that it will prove a useful foundation to our own further research, and that of others.
Here, in both video and quotes, are a few selected highlights from our speakers; including some of their lovely remarks about the work mySociety does.
Speaking about The Content Mine
mySociety is one of the most wonderful things to have come out of the bottom-up democratic movement in the UK and the UK is a shining light for the rest of the world. I’ve used WriteToThem on many occasions…. It just makes the whole business of contacting your representative so much easier. And I’ve also used a lot of WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests and again it’s absolutely brilliant. It makes the difference between doing it and not doing it.
We’re going to liberate one hundred million facts per year from the scientific literature and we’re going to put them in Wikipedia or rather WikiData and we’re working closely with WikiData.
What’s happened this year is the UK Government has pushed through copyright reform and it has given exemptions to copyright … We’ve got the law. The law hasn’t been tested. I am allowed to do it according to the law for non-commercial purposes. Elsevier says I can’t because they can stop me doing it under the law and we had a big public fight in London.
Speaking about TheyWorkForYou.com
The thing I work on particularly on TheyWorkForYou is the statements we write on each MP’s page on how they voted. … This will be the first time we’re going into a general election in this country where the sitting MPs’ voting records are comprehensively easily accessible to the electorate.
It’s really important to us that we’re impartial and non-partisan. So one of the things we had to think about when we were doing this was how do we even decide what topics to cover because we could be accused of being partisan just by what we decide to draw attention to. … Not all MPs attend all votes by any-means so we can use MPs’ own attendance at votes to give them some kind of ranking of importance.
Everything that I do is available under an open licence so as long as you attribute where it has come from you can use it and do what you like with it. And hopefully people will do stuff with it as we run into the election.
Mike Soper and Hendrik Grothuis
Speaking about Cambridgeshire Insight
If you think about something like FixMyStreet you can see where that application has had a very positive impact on local government, on councils.
The idea is that pressure will come from the great British public at a local level to hold public sector organisations to account. In order to hold people to account you need information.
Professor Shepherd several years ago realised, because he was a medical professor, that he was looking at facial injuries of people who had been injured by having beer glasses shoved in their faces during fights and recording meticulously the detail of these physical and working out that if you change the composition of the beer glass you can drastically reduce the severity of the injury.
We’re getting support at a national level for the sort of work we are doing and the sort of line about trying to encourage openness and promote open data here in Cambridgeshire. We’re getting national support for that.
Videos of full talks, including Q&A:
- Peter Murry-Rust on The Content Mine. (Transcript)
- Richard Taylor on TheyWorkForYou’s voting records.
- Mike Soper and Hendrik Grothuis of Cambridgeshire Insight. (Mike has also published his slides)
What impact do mySociety sites actually have? We could lose a lot of sleep over this important question – or we could do something concrete, like conducting academic research to nail the answers down for once and for all.
As slumber enthusiasts, we went for the research option – and, to help us with this commitment we’ve recently taken on a new Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul. Watch this space as she probes more deeply into whether our tools are making a difference, both in the UK and abroad.
Even before Rebecca came on board, though, we had set a couple of research projects in motion. One of those was in partnership with the University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, which sought to understand what impact our core UK sites (FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow) have on their users, and specifically on their level of political engagement.
Gateways to participation
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, while our sites appear, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a handy set of tools for the general citizen, they were built with another purpose in mind. Simply put, each site aims to show people how easy it is to participate in democracy, to contact the people who make decisions on our behalf, and to make changes at the local and national levels.
Like any other online endeavour, we measure user numbers and transaction completions and time spent on site – all of that stuff. But one of the metrics we pay most attention to is whether users say they are contacting their council, their MP or a public body for the first time. Keeping track of this number ensures that we’re doing something to open democratic avenues up to people that haven’t used them before.
But there are plenty more questions we can ask about the impact we’re having. The University of Manchester study looked into one of them, by attempting to track whether there was a measurable change in people’s political activity and engagement after they’ve used one of our sites. On Monday, researchers Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini presented their findings to an attentive audience at King’s College London.
The project has taken a multi-pronged approach, asking our users to complete questionnaires, participate in online discussions, or keep a 12-week diary about political and community engagement (thanks very much to you, if you were one of the participants in this!). The result was a bunch of both qualitative and quantitative data which we’ll be able to come back to and slice multiple ways in the future – Gibson says that they haven’t as yet managed to analyse all of the free text diaries yet, for example.
In itself this study was interesting, because not much research has previously been conducted into the impact of digital civic tools – and yet, as we know from our own international activities, people (not least ourselves) are launching sites all over the world based on the premise that they work.
Some top-level conclusions
The research will be published in full at a future date, and it’s too complex to cover all of it within the confines of a short blog post, but here are just a few of the takeaway findings:
- A small but quantifiable uplift in ‘civic participation’ was noticed in the period after people had used our sites. This could include anything from working with others in the local community to make improvements, to volunteering for a charity.
- No change was found in the level of political influence or understanding that people judged themselves to have. This was a surprise to the researchers, who had thought that users would feel more empowered and knowledgeable after contacting those in power, or checking up on their parliamentary activity.
- As with our research back in 2011, the ‘average’ user of mySociety sites was found to be white, above middle-aged, and educated to at least degree level. Clearly this is a userbase which we desperately need to expand, and we’ll be looking carefully – with more research and some concentrated outreach efforts – at how we can do that.
- Users tended to identify themselves as people who already had an interest in politics. Again, here is an area in which we can improve. Of course, we’re happy to serve such users, but we also want to be accessible to those who have less of a baseline interest.
- Many users spoke of community action as bringing great satisfaction. In some cases, that was getting together in real life to make improvements, but others saw something as simple as reporting graffiti on FixMyStreet as an action that improved the local area for everyone.
Thanks to the University of Manchester researchers for these insights and for presenting them so engagingly. We’ll update when the full research is available.
An analysis, with code and data, of which Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted since 1997.
By Richard Taylor and Anna Powell-Smith.
PublicWhip is a wonderful thing. Founded and still run by independent volunteers, it contains the results of every House of Commons vote since 1997, scraped from the official web pages and presented as simple structured data. Here at mySociety, we’ve used it to power TheyWorkForYou for many years.
Most recently, it helped our staffer Richard create the new voting analyses on TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages. Want a quick, simple summary of your MP’s voting history on same-sex marriage or climate change, or on any of 62 other major issues? You’ll now find the answer on your MP’s TheyWorkForYou page, all based on PublicWhip data.
But here’s the most exciting thing about PublicWhip. If you know how to get around its slightly forbidding exterior, it contains a treasure-trove of data on MPs’ voting patterns, all structured, openly-licensed and ready for anyone to analyse.
A data challenge
Recently, while discussing the upcoming Scottish referendum, Richard posed a question to Anna: could PublicWhip data tell us which House of Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted?
This is interesting because if the Scottish people vote “yes” to independence on September 18th, we may see (probably not as soon as 2015, but perhaps soon thereafter) a House of Commons without Scottish MPs. No-one really knows how such a Parliament would be different.
While it was widely reported that that Scottish MPs’ votes carried the decision to introduce student tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England, those were just two high-profile votes. To our knowledge, no-one has published a comprehensive analysis of all votes that were carried by the Scottish MPs.
Anna chose to accept Richard’s challenge, and to use PublicWhip data to carry out this analysis. You can see all their code, and the data they produced, on GitHub.
The headline finding is that only 21 votes (out of nearly 5000 since 1997) would have gone differently if Scottish MP’s votes hadn’t been counted. This surprised Anna, who expected more.
Secondly, if there’s any visible pattern, it’s that English MPs seem to have a stronger civil-libertarian bent than their Scottish counterparts. High-profile votes on 42-day detention, “glorifying terrorism”, allowing the Lord Chancellor to suspend inquests, and on control orders: according to Anna’s analysis, all would have gone differently if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber.
Other than that – Anna comments – the key finding is perhaps the absence of any other strong trend.
Here is the full list of votes that would have gone differently – click on the date to see the full vote details on PublicWhip. If Scottish MPs hadn’t been in the chamber:
- 5 Sep 2014 The majority of MPs would have voted to send the Affordable Homes Bill to a Select Committee rather than a Public Bill Committee.
- 29 August 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted to agree that a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was required from the international community, and that it may, if necessary, require military action. (You may remember that David Cameron called MPs back from their summer break to vote on this, and MPs rejected the motion.)
- 29 Jan 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted against postponing a review of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies until 2018 and against delaying a review of the effect of reducing the number of MPs.
- 31 Oct 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted against calling on the UK Government to seek a real-terms cut in the European Union budget.
- 24 Apr 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted to require products containing halal and kosher meat to be labelled as such.
- 24 Feb 2010 The majority of MPs would have voted for restrictions on the amount of carbon dioxide electricity generation plants are permitted to emit.
- 9 Nov 2009 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing the Lord Chancellor (a minister) to suspend an inquest and replace it with an inquiry and against allowing the use of intercepted communications evidence in inquests.
- 8 Dec 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to immediately starting the proceedings of a committee of MPs to investigate the House of Commons procedures in light of the seizure by the police of material belonging to Damian Green MP.
- 12 Nov 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require membership of new regional select committees to be determined taking account of the proportion of members of each party representing constituencies in the relevant region and for at least one member from each of the three largest parties to be on each committee.
- 11 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted against extending the period of police detention without making any criminal charges of terrorist suspects from 28 days to 42 days.
- 2 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require the National Policy Statement to contain policies which contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
- 15 Mar 2006 The majority of MPs would have voted against a proposed timetable for the Parliamentary consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill.
- 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted against making glorifying the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism an offence.
- 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to make the offence of Encouragement of Terrorism only apply to cases where an individual intended their actions to encourage terrorism.
- 28 Feb 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to give a greater role to the courts in relation to the imposition of control orders.
- 22 Apr 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against installing a security screen separating the public gallery from the House of Commons Chamber.
- 31 Mar 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against the introduction of variable university tuition fees (top-up fees) of up to £3,000 per year in place of the previous fixed fee of £1,250 per year.
- 27 Jan 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing university tuition fees to increase from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year, and against making other changes to higher education funding and regulation arrangements.
- 19 Nov 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted against introducing NHS foundation trusts, bodies with a degree of financial and managerial independence from the Department of Health.
- 4 Feb 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted for an 80% elected House of Lords.
- 29 Oct 2002 The majority of MPs would have voted against starting sittings of the House of Commons on Tuesdays at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm.
In the 1997-2001 Parliament, Anna’s code found no votes that would have had different results.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER! We can’t conclude that all of the above would necessarily have become law if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber. Bills don’t become law until they have passed through the House of Lords – not to mention the many other forces of history that would have acted differently.
Get the code and the data
You can see the code used for this analysis, and the full datasets, on GitHub. You can adapt it yourself if you want to do your own analyses.
This analysis is the work of one volunteer: we welcome any corrections. Like PublicWhip itself, the whole point is that it is out in open for anyone to analyse and improve.
Image by Catherine Bebbington. Parliamentary copyright image reproduced with the permission of Parliament.
In our two previous blog posts, we’ve looked at how to set up alerts on TheyWorkForYou.com so that you receive an email whenever your chosen politician speaks in Parliament, or whenever your chosen topic is mentioned.
Now we’re going to look at how to manage your alerts, and how to make sure you have the right type of alerts set up for your needs.
How to see which alerts you are subscribed to
Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t need to register for an account to receive alerts from TheyWorkForYou (although if you do create one, it’s quicker and easier to manage your alerts).
At the bottom of every alert email, there is a link:
Once you’ve followed this link, you’ll see a list of your alerts on the right of the page:
How to switch off or pause alerts
Beside each of your alerts, you will see buttons marked “Suspend”, “Delete”, or “Resume”.
Suspend allows you to stop the alert emails temporarily – they will remain switched off until you click ‘Resume’. This function is helpful if you only want to follow topics during a set time, for example the run-up to elections – or perhaps you want to cut down the number of emails you get while you are away on holiday.
Delete stops your email alerts for good, and removes them from your list.
Resume restarts suspended alerts.
How to check your alerts are correct for your needs
In the example above, the user has subscribed to the following alerts:
Spoken by Simon Kirby – the user will receive alert emails when Simon Kirby MP speaks in Parliament.
Spoken by Caroline Lucas – the user will not receive emails for this alert, because it has been suspended.
mysociety – the user will receive emails whenever the word “mysociety” is mentioned.
“badger culling” – because of the quotation marks, the user will receive emails whenever the phrase badger culling is mentioned. The user will not receive alerts if the two words ‘badger’ and ‘culling’ are mentioned separately, or if, for example, a phrase like “cull badgers” is used – so this alert may not be the best for their needs.
“Caroline Lucas” – the user will receive an alert every time Caroline Lucas’ name is mentioned by someone in Parliament. This is probably not the intention; it’s a common error to subscribe to mentions of someone’s name rather than their speeches.
small businesses – this is a poor alert. The user will receive emails every time the word ‘small’ is used in the same speech as the word ‘businesses’ (or business), even if the two words are not together. So, if someone happened to say ‘It’s a terrible business’, and then, a bit later, ‘small wonder’, an alert would go out.
This alert would be better if the words were enclosed in quotation marks: “small businesses”; in that case, it’s probably also best to add one for “small business”.
How to correct your alerts
If you have spotted mistakes in your alerts, simply delete the erroneous ones and follow the instructions below to create improved ones.
How to add new alerts
On the left of that same page (or http://www.theyworkforyou.com/alert/ if you have not come via a link in your alert email), you can set up new alerts for people or for keywords.
Otherwise, provide your email address, and click on the link in our confirmation email.
If you type in an MP or Lord’s name:
– you’ll be asked to decide whether you want to receive alerts when they speak (“Things by…”) or when they are mentioned (“Mentions of…”).
Advanced alert set-up
If required, you can use Boolean searches in your alert set-ups.
For example, if you would like to receive alerts when badgers are mentioned, but not owls, input badger -owl.
If you would like to receive alerts when either owls or badgers are mentioned, you can either set up an alert for each term, or you can enter owl OR badger. “Or” must be in capital letters so that the system knows it’s not part of the search term.
If you would like to receive an alert only when badgers and owls are mentioned in the same speech, input both words: badger,owl.
How to register for an account
If you anticipate setting up many alerts, or wanting to manage them closely in the future, you may wish to set up a TheyWorkForYou account.
This also allows you to add annotations to the site, contribute to the glossary, and change your email address if you need to.
Simply visit this sign-up page.
Registering will not change any of the alerts you already have set up – you’ll be able to view and manage them as before.
How to change your email address
You can change the email address that alerts get sent to, if you are registered on the site.
Just visit your profile page, and edit the email address field.
If you are not registered, you can either:
- Register under your old email address (you will still need access to it, because you’ll have to find our confirmation email), then visit your profile page, and edit the email address field; or
- Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will change it for you.
Parliament is back in session – that means that TheyWorkForYou.com will be filling up with lots of new content as our representatives come back to work and start on the rounds of debates, committees, and written answers.
How do you keep up with the stuff that’s relevant to you? Well, you could read it all, every day – or you could be smart, and set up a topic alert.
Receive an alert every time your chosen word or phrase is mentioned
If you’re interested in a specific topic, and you’d like to receive an email every time someone mentions it in Parliament, follow these steps.
1. Search for your chosen topic
Let’s say you’re particularly interested in badger culling, and you’d like to receive an alert every time the word ‘badger’ is mentioned in Parliament.
i) Enter your search term on the homepage:
Tip: If your chosen search term has more than one word, you may find it useful to put it inside quotation marks – otherwise you will receive alerts every time both words are mentioned, even if they are not mentioned adjacently.
ii) Click ‘search’, and you will be taken to a page of search results for your term:
TheyWorkForYou uses ‘stemming’ – so these results contain mentions of words such as ‘badgers’ and ‘badgering’: again, if I want to only receive mentions of the word badger, and none of its derivatives, I should put the word in quotation marks.
iii) Click on the large blue link to the right of the page: “Subscribe to an email alert for [your search term]”.
iv) If you are logged in to the site, that’s it – you’ve subscribed, and you don’t need to do anything more.
If you are not logged in, don’t worry. You don’t need an account in order to sign up for alerts.
Input your email address, and click on the ‘subscribe’ button (NB not the ‘search’ button, but the higher up button marked ‘subscribe’):
We’ll send you a confirmation email.
Click on the link in the email, and there you go – you’re subscribed.
You can sign up for as many alerts as you like: if you are interested in many topics, it is probably worth registering, as you then do not have to go to the bother of inputting your email address and clicking the confirmation link for each one.
In our next post, we will look at how to manage your alerts, and common mistakes that can be made setting them up.
Prefer to receive alerts every time a specified MP speaks? See our previous post.
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 ‘Get 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.