This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from our staff, and external contributors who think deeply about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. Learn more about this series.

  1. Guest post: What are the questions MPs ask that don’t get answered?

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. We are publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week, we’re re-publishing a blog post from Anna Powell-Smith at the Centre for Public Data, which is a new, non-partisan non-profit working for stronger public data. We’re previously worked together on recommendations to avoid fragmented public data. This blog post touches on several issues close to our hearts: Parliamentary written questions, and where there isn’t enough data to understand what’s going on.

    Data gaps are under-reported, because it’s hard to write about data that doesn’t exist.

    As we’ve written about before, newspapers publish endless stories on house prices, where there’s lots of data – but few on rental costs, even though millions of people rent. That’s partly because the Office for National Statistics doesn’t collect much data on rentals.

    To tackle this problem, I’ve been thinking about how to map data gaps, and make them more visible.

    And I think the best way is actually to think about questions, instead of data. What are the important questions that the government can’t answer?

    Obviously, ‘important’ is subjective! But one source of clearly important questions is Parliamentary written questions, which are the formal questions that MPs and peers ask the government. Where the government doesn’t have the data to answer them, it has to say so.

    So this post introduces new research: a data analysis of 200,000 Parliamentary written questions, and what they tell us about the UK’s missing numbers.

    Our modest goal: to find the UK’s biggest data gaps.



    What we did

    Building on some previous research of ours, we strapped on our coding hats 🪖, and did the following:

    • First, we scraped all the written questions in Parliament from December 2019 to February 2023, from TheyWorkForYou, which gaves us about 200,000 questions.
    • Next, we flagged questions asking for quantitative information, with phrases like “how many” or “how much” – which showed that about a fifth of questions wanted data, just under 40,000.
    • Then we flagged questions where the government apparently said the data was “not held”, “not collected”, etc. About a quarter of quantitative questions were answered like this.

    And we ended up with a dataset of around 10,000 questions where MPs apparently both (i) asked for data, and (ii) were told it was not available. So: missing numbers.

    Then we spot-checked the questions to check our method. It wasn’t perfect, but it was very decent. (It helps that Parliament uses formal, consistent language.) You can download the full dataset here.

    Sometimes, MPs ask about strange things, like jobs for clowns. But most are extremely serious, covering the issues that affect MP’s constituents. And overall, they tell us what MPs need to know.

    Data gaps by department

    Firstly, we looked at how often each government department said that data wasn’t available. (See the code.) And there were were huge differences:

    • At the Department of Health & Social Care, around 40% of quantitative requests were unanswered (though we can cut them some slack, as this was during the Covid pandemic).
    • At the Home Office and the Department for Work & Pensions, around a third were; at the Ministry of Justice the proportion of unanswered quantitative requests was 30%, and the Department for Education 27%.
    • But the proportion was much lower at other big departments – almost all others were below 20%.

    Of course, we need to be cautious here, as the numbers are approximate. Without reading each question, we can’t be sure that we’ve tagged it correctly, or if the MP was asking something impossible. It’s probably most useful to consider the differences between departments.

    Given that, it’s not surprising that the health, benefits, justice and education departments would get requests for data, since they run massive operational services that affect people’s lives. (The Foreign Office, by contrast, largely seems to get asked about wine.) It’s more surprising that they seem to struggle to answer them more than other departments.

    Now let’s dive into what these unanswered questions were about.

    The topics with the biggest data gaps

    Each question scraped has a title. We can use this to see which topics were least likely to get an answer.

    Other than Covid-related topics, the major topics with the highest proportion of unanswered questions were:

    1. Benefits – grouping together benefits like Universal Credit and PIP
    2. Asylum, refugees and migrants
    3. Child maintenance
    4. Energy meters
    5. Armed forces housing

    This seems plausible. The DWP Select Committee has repeatedly criticised the government for the lack of visibility over the benefits system; the statistics regulator has expressed concerns about the use of asylum statistics, while the National Audit Office has noted gaps in the data available on smart meters.

    We also used GPT-4 to try tagging questions, which worked quite well. We used it to tag questions to the Department of Health & Social Care. This helped us identify major clusters of unanswered questions in these areas.

    In healthcare, MPs often struggled to get basic prevalence information, whether:

    Also, funding is a topic it’s surprisingly difficult to get information about, e.g.

    Following on from this, hospital-level information in general often seems to be poor, e.g.:

    And finally, workforce is a huge one, with topics like:

    You can see the tagged questions here – there are many more examples under each topic.

    This gets really worrying when you look at the dataset over time. It’s immediately clear that MPs often ask the same thing over and over again – yet the information doesn’t seem to improve.

    What next?

    We think statistics producers should be monitoring Parliamentary questions, to tell them where data needs to be better. After all, MPs deserve answers to their questions, and so do we all.

    If you can help us make this happen, we’d love to talk.

    If you’re interested in this research – or even better, if you can fund us to do more of it! – please do get in touch.

    Image: Tom Chen on Unsplash.

  2. Improving the register of MPs interests

    Tl;dr: We’re now releasing our register of interests data as a spreadsheet.

    High quality data about the external interests of our MPs and ministers is vital to identifying conflicts of interests, and discouraging politicians from having conflicts of interest in the first place.

    Lack of clarity on the interests and income streams of MPs is a corruption risk. The problem with second jobs and outside interests is less that MPs might be distracted from their main job – but that when they stand in Parliament, they may be representing groups beyond their constituents, asking questions (or not asking questions) depending on their outside work.

    When outside interests exist, it’s vital they are clear and transparent. The Register of Members Interests contains a list of disclosures MPs are required to make of financial interests or benefits which “others might reasonably consider to influence his or her actions or words as a Member of Parliament”. Following the Owen Patterson scandal, there was renewed interest in this data, as it was clear that there were a number of potential stories and scandals hidden in plain sight – just requiring someone to join up the data.



    Building a data ecosystem

    A key problem is that the data is not easy to work with. The data is released (roughly fortnightly) on the parliament.uk website as a HTML document for each MP. This process technically releases the information, but makes it hard to compare releases of the same MP over time, or to make comparisons between different MPs.

    TheyWorkForYou improves on this by creating structured data from the HTML release. Using this we can highlight the changes in each release from the previous release. This is useful for journalists and campaigners in quickly understanding what has changed in each release. For instance, the change in Rishi Sunak’s register over time can be seen here.

    We want to avoid people doing the same work of cleaning the data over and over. We make our version of the data available publicly, so other people can use our work to do things that we haven’t done ourselves. For instance, Open Innovations have built on top of the data we publish to link the data to other datasets and create a Register of Members’ Financial Interests Explorer.

    While projects like the Tortoise/Sky News Westminster Accounts create new value in joining up datasets and cleaning the data for their own work – ultimately the new datasets they have created are only usable by those organisations. That’s their right as the people doing the work – but we think there is a bigger (and more sustainable) impact to be had in improving the data in public.

    Making our data more accessible

    Previously, we have published our interests data as a series of XML files, which is useful for programmers, but harder for other specialists to work with. We did some thinking with OpenDemocracy last year to explore if there were small changes we could make that would make the work we already do more useful.

    As well as the XML files, we now publish an experimental spreadsheet version of all data since 2000, and the register for the current 2019 Parliament.

    These sheets show the earliest and latest disclosure of an interest, and include some (very) basic NLP analysis to extract mentioned orgs from the free text and make it easier to quickly parse when scrolling.

    This data can also be explored through Datasette, which can be used to query the datasets in the browser, and save the queries as links that can be shared.

    For instance, the following links go to specific queries (we’re using an in-browser version for prototyping and this might take a minute to load):

    We want to continue to improve our approach here – and welcome feedback from anyone this spreadsheet helps.

    Parliament can do better data publication

    A key problem run into by everyone working with the data is that it’s broken to start with. MPs fill things out in inconsistent ways that makes the overall data different to analyse without cleaning first (see both the Open Innovations and Tortoise/Sky News methodology notes). Fixing this up is a key first step towards aggregate analysis – and the easiest place to fix it is with validation when the data is collected at the start.

    While work can be done to improve the data after the fact (and experiments with Generative AI have found it to be quite good at fixing inconsistent formatting), improving the initial data collection is the most effective way of improving the quality of the data. There are active moves in Parliament to fix some of these problems. Producing more information in machine readable formats, and adding methods to make sure the data is correct to start with, will make the transparency process simpler at every stage.

    Similar issues apply to the register published for All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which should publish as “machine readable” data the range of data that the groups are formally supposed to make publicly available. APPGs are semi-official groups that MPs can form around specific interests or issues. Many of these are useful ways of having discussions, but these can also be an avenue for corruption, with outside interests supporting the group and its activities. The register includes the officers of groups and financial assistance and gifts received by the group – but not the overall membership. APPGs are separately required to disclose their wider membership on their website (or if they don’t have a website, if someone asks) but this isn’t included in the register, and so can’t be consistently scraped to produce data. While MPs are supposed to disclose benefits from groups on their individual disclosure, clearer data on what is officially “public” memberships would help ensure that there is nothing missed between these two datasets.

    Separately there is a register of ministerial interests that applies to MPs who also have government positions. This is in principle more strict, requiring disclosures of relevant interests of family members, and avoiding even perceived conflicts of interest. However, in practice the information does not contain the specific financial value of gifts or benefits, just that they exist. The disclosure cycle is also longer, being published every six months rather than monthly. In practice – this means that relevant interests may not be public for a significant time after a minister is appointed (and potentially never published, if the minister has again moved on by then).

    There is a lot of work that can be done from the outside to build on official data. But the more Parliament does things that it is uniquely able to do, the more we can focus on analysis and data comparisons that are best done outside.

    What mySociety can do

    A very basic thing we can do is beat the drum (and work with those who have been doing this for ages) for better publication of data from Parliament.

    But if this happens or not, we can do work to make the data better. If it looks like Parliament’s data is unlikely to be fixed at the source, then a project of improving the data in public in a way that multiple projects could then build on would be useful. But if the data gets better, then we can better spend our time doing more work on top of this data. This might include joining up the official data with other datasets (including those of the UK’s other Parliaments and Assemblies) to draw out connections and better analysis.

    But our work here isn’t just about producing good data – it’s about displaying it in a way that’s useful and understandable by people. Chris Bryant MP (former Chair of the Standards Committee) has argued that Parliament’s own display of the history of registers should match what’s provided by TheyWorkForYou. If Parliament improved its own display to the public of registers of members’ interests this would be fantastic news – and we in turn would need to think about if there are new approaches that would be useful on top of that.

    One approach we are thinking about would be to find out what people wanted to know the answers to about their MPs interests, and then using volunteers to answer a set of common questions. This is the kind of editorialising that Parliament itself would find much harder to do – while providing something different from aggregate analysis of the data all together. This is something we could do with the data as it exists, but is something where better data would let us create new tools so volunteers could answer more complicated questions.

    Making MPs’ interests clearer and easier to understand is key to spotting conflicts of interest and keeping politicians accountable. We hope our new spreadsheet version of the data helps make the work we’re already doing more useful and accessible – while we think about the road we want to take in future to improve TheyWorkForYou and the project of a transparent democracy.





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  3. Navigating the new constituencies

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, shares data we’ve produced about new constituencies, and how we should steer the process of boundary reform towards making our politics easier to navigate.

    The current set of parliamentary constituencies is being replaced for the next election. For some, the main effect is a name change, but for others the borders of constituencies will change substantially.

    Boundary reviews are carried out by four separate organisations — one for each nation — who each set their own boundaries. This means that no-one officially produces a single dataset of all the new constituencies covering the whole UK.

    That seems like a useful thing to have, so we’ve created it. We’ve made:

     

    This contains both the official GSS id, and a unique ID based on the three letter IDs for new constituencies created by Philip Brown and Alasdair Rae for their hexmap of the new constituencies. This is useful in some instances because the GSS codes are not unique to the new constituencies (some Scottish constituencies are unchanged).

    Screenshot of a postcode in mapit, showing the different kind of boundaries available.


    Political equality means more than equal seats

    There are 650 MPs in the UK Parliament, each is elected from a constituency, and each constituency only has one MP.

    The main change in the new rules is reducing the tolerance for differences in the number of registered voters between constituencies, and ending the previous separate weighting of Wales. This means that some areas are affected much more than others by the change – with the number of Welsh seats reduced by eight, and Scotland losing two seats in total.

    Boundary changes aren’t just a technical process, but have impacts on the results of elections. In the UK, politicians can’t directly draw boundaries, but this doesn’t mean they’re not a political choice. The boundary commissions follow the rules they are set, but what these rules are (and how often they happen) are the subject of political debate where everyone has one eye on the outcomes that different sets of rules produce. The debate about “equal size constituencies” versus boundaries that reflect “natural communities” is in part about different perceived partisan advantages of drawing lines in different ways.

    Advocates of constituencies of equal size argue that this is about political equality. Now, we like political equality, but taking this argument seriously should lead you way past equal size to supporting a move to proportional representation. In practice, everyone in this debate accepts trade-offs between political equality and other factors. If we’re not going to have proportional representation, we think clear lines between different levels of government are features that should have real weight.

    Effective and understandable layers of representation

    We are in favour of layers of representation that are effective and easy to understand. Through postcode lookups on TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem we can explain the overlaps for a user’s own postcode, but the simpler the system the easier it is for people to understand what is happening – whether or not they visit one of our websites.

    When boundaries are less complex, it’s also easier for people working inside the system to understand how the pieces fit together. Tighter requirements on populations means more constituencies will cross local authority boundaries. Using our new datasets, we can say that the number of constituencies that have more than 5% of its population in at least one other local authority has increased from 26% to 38%.

    This means there are an increasing number of MPs who have a harder job than others – working with different or multiple local authorities depending on the issue at hand. Knowledge and understanding of local systems is much more complicated for these MPs, and getting problems to the right place is more challenging for their staff.

    Number of local authorities Current constituencies % Future constituencies %
    1 478 74% 404 62%
    2 155 24% 220 34%
    3 16 2% 26 4%
    4 1 0% 0%

    Tighter requirements also mean more frequent changes. The current timetable will lead to this process being repeated every other election, disrupting understanding of constituencies and processes of accountability.

    The reason we’ve produced this data in the first place is to help organisations we are working with transform information they have about current constituencies into information that is useful for new constituencies. Institutions inside and outside the formal political system develop an understanding of the country that is disrupted by changing boundaries.

    This problem also applies to the understanding MPs have of their own area – both in terms of learned understanding, and statistics and reports created to inform them. Changing boundaries means everyone has to change their understanding of what a constituency looks like. This is all bad from the point of view of effective understanding and interrelation of layered government.

    Something that should be key when designing our political system is making sure that it can be understood by citizens and representatives, and supports effective communication between layers of government.

    If we designed our institutions and boundaries to be easily navigated, rather than meet mathematical rules, what would that look like? Certainly there should be better alignment between different layers of government, but can we go further than that? We want better postcode data so that we can fix the problems of when the same postcode is in multiple areas, but from a public understanding point of view – why shouldn’t the line drawers respect postcode boundaries in the first place? They’re a lot more real to people than the process that produces our boundaries now.

    The way we draw our boundaries is part of wider arguments about the different priorities we have when we design political institutions – and the idea that things should be easy to understand and navigate is currently undervalued.





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  4. TheyWorkForYou in the 19th century

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week Dr Kathryn Rix writes about the opening up of parliamentary information in the 19th century. TheyWorkForYou is twenty years old, but in many respects is a digital continuation of similar projects and arguments about parliamentary transparency that go back centuries.

    Learning more about this history helps situate our work in the longer context – and this period (with league tables of MPs, arguments about league tables of MPs, and a clear illustration of the link between changes to the physical building and transparency), is one with obvious application to our work today.

    On 22 February 1836 a landmark vote took place in the House of Commons. It was significant not because of the issue involved – a local railway bill – but because for the first time, MPs left the chamber to vote in two separate division lobbies, following which an official division list was published, recording the names of every MP voting in the majority and minority.

    The publication of these official lists from 1836 made it far easier for those outside Westminster to scrutinise and assess the activities of their representatives. One Radical MP described this change as “perhaps one of the most important measures ever sanctioned, as a check upon the conduct of members”.

    Before this ground-breaking division, the official records of the Commons gave only the names of the tellers who counted the votes in each division, and the total number of MPs voting on each side. The Commons had just one lobby, so when divisions took place, the presumed majority stayed in the chamber to be counted there, and the presumed minority went out into the lobby.



    The informal record

    Although there was no official record of how each MP voted, some MPs – notably the Radical backbencher Joseph Hume – compiled their own lists of divisions and supplied these for publication in the newspapers. However, these unofficial lists were usually produced only for more important divisions and sometimes gave the names of those in the minority, but not the majority. They were notoriously inaccurate, and MPs regularly wrote to the press correcting errors.

    Pressure to improve this system and publish a full official record of every division increased after the 1832 Reform Act, the first major reform of the British electoral system. One of the Act’s key aims was to restore public confidence in government by making the Commons more responsive and accountable to public opinion. In this spirit, the Radical MP Daniel Whittle Harvey put the case for official division lists, arguing that:

    “every person now acknowledged that responsibility, and not secresy [sic] and concealment, was the basis of the trust reposed in the hands of Representatives by their constituents … In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted”.

    A select committee in 1834 felt the best option for compiling accurate official division lists would be to construct a second division lobby, but the cramped conditions of the Commons chamber made this impractical. However, when MPs moved into temporary accommodation following the catastrophic fire at Westminster in October 1834, this obstacle was removed. The additional second lobby, which facilitated the publication of official division lists, was built during the 1835-6 recess. It became an integral part of the Commons and was replicated in the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry.

    Use by newspapers and journalists

    Information extracted from the official division lists was widely reproduced and analysed in the newspaper press, as well as in guides to MPs’ voting behaviour, such as An Atlas of the Divisions of the House of Commons (1836), which listed every MP’s vote in the 1836 parliamentary session in a tabular form. Such analysis of MPs’ votes was not entirely new. Richard Gooch’s The Book of the Reformed Parliament (1834) had tabulated MPs’ votes in selected divisions in 1833 and 1834, and had been used at the 1835 general election to challenge MPs in several constituencies about their attendance levels at Westminster. MPs had, however, disputed the accuracy of Gooch’s publication, based as it was on unofficial records. At Droitwich, where his opponent calculated that he had voted in just 11 of the 116 divisions listed by Gooch, John Foley insisted that his votes “had been given much nearer ninety-nine times than nine”.

    A grid of divisions ands MPs marking absences and votes.

    Extract from Atlas of Divisions (1836)

    The publication of official division lists meant that MPs could no longer try to shirk responsibility for particular votes by claiming that they had been misreported. Another highly significant development was that, with all divisions fully recorded, accurate calculations could be made of how many times MPs voted each session. The Atlas displayed these totals against each MP’s name, a novel feature which one commentator tellingly described as “a scale of diligence” by which voters could measure “the conduct of representatives”.

    Rankings and league tables

    National and local newspapers compiled and dissected figures on MPs’ attendance levels on a weekly and annual basis, making it much easier for voters and the wider public to access this information and use it to call MPs to account. While annual attendance statistics sometimes listed their names alphabetically, it became common for MPs to be ranked alongside their colleagues – either nationally or regionally – on the basis of how often they had voted, producing what were effectively ‘league tables’ of MPs. The Gateshead Observer referred to its annual attendance tables of north-eastern MPs as a ‘parliamentary audit’ or ‘reckoning day’. MPs had been accustomed to explaining to their constituents how they had voted, but increasingly also found themselves having to justify how often they did so.

    For those MPs who appeared towards the top of these tables, these statistics provided welcome proof of their diligence. After being ranked as the fifth most attentive MP during the 1840 session, Henry Salwey, MP for Ludlow, was praised by his supporters as “most assiduous, and most constant – ever vigilant in promoting … the local interests placed in his care, and the general welfare of the community”. In contrast, other MPs and their supporters rejected attempts to reduce their Commons contribution to mere numbers. At the 1841 Hertfordshire election, the voting record of the Conservative MP Abel Smith was compared unfavourably with his Liberal opponent, who had voted three times more often. One of Smith’s backers argued, however, that “we don’t count the number of divisions – we look to the importance of them: we don’t wish our member to sit through every paltry discussion – as though nailed to the benches”.

    The reaction of the quantified MP

    The question of how useful these attendance figures were as a measure of MPs’ commitment to representing their constituents was widely debated during the nineteenth century. The Morning Chronicle was not alone in mocking the idea that an MP’s “whole duty … consists in walking in and out of the lobbies”. It was pointed out that notable figures such as Lord John Russell (a former prime minister) – who voted in 28 of 198 divisions in 1856 – and William Gladstone (a future prime minister) – with 58 votes that session – would be found lacking if judged only by this measure. The ‘Division-list Test’, as one MP labelled it, failed to take account of MPs’ contributions in other areas of the work of the Commons, particularly in serving on committees. Although one Worcester newspaper noted the relatively poor attendance of the local MP, Joseph Bailey, in divisions, it observed “in justice” to Bailey that “his labours on Committees have been incessant”.

    There were other reasons why voting in numerous divisions was not necessarily seen as demonstrating dedication to parliamentary business. The influx of MPs from the smoking or refreshment rooms when the division bell rang, without having heard the preceding debate, was often commented upon.

    Such behaviour prompted the Conservative MP Charles Adderley to argue that there could be “no worse test of a man being a useful member of Parliament”, since “a man might attend every division… and be the idlest dog in the House”. Another argument against testing MPs’ diligence in this way was that the overall totals did not distinguish between critical issues and less significant matters, such as local or private bills which did not affect the MP’s constituency. William Scholefield, generally seen as a hard-working representative, told his Birmingham constituents that he had deliberately abstained in many such cases, since “I will never vote on a bill unless I distinctly know what I am going to vote about”. Yet while the use of the “Division-list Test” could be challenged in various ways, it continued to be seen as a useful indicator for constituents in deciding whether their representatives had been attentive or neglectful in carrying out their parliamentary duties.

    Images: ‘Division barrier and lobby’ and it is taken from pg. 409 of J. Ewing Ritchie, The life and times of William Ewart Gladstone. The pictorial edition Volume I.

    Dr Kathryn Rix is Assistant Editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1945 project at the History of Parliament Trust, which is currently researching electoral and parliamentary history between 1832 and 1868.





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  5. It should be easier for MPs to vote

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    As part of this work, we are working to solidify our views on where Parliamentary reform would work in a complimentary way with the principles behind our services. This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses how changes to how MPs vote can improve both transparency and the parliamentary working culture.

    Improving how MPs vote isn’t just about adopting new technology. The sudden move in the pandemic from MPs physically packing into voting lobbies to voting on their phones felt like catching up with a century of technology all at once. But that period was over quickly and things are now (roughly) back to how they were before.

    This is because parliamentary processes also reflect political culture. Thomas Edison proposed an electronic voting system for the US Congress in 1869, but one wasn’t actually implemented for 90 years after that. The technology existed, but that wasn’t enough.

    New technologies can change who holds power and threaten how things work. Decisions about technology become wrapped up in fights to preserve or change political culture. When thinking about technological changes, we can’t just approach it as a project of modernisation – we need to have a view on the culture we want to create.

    Our view is that when MPs vote, we want processes that create transparency on the votes of individuals, that help create an effective working culture, and are sensitive to the circumstances of representatives’ lives.

    These elements are not separate. Both transparency around voting and sensitivity to the lives of representatives are important to creating an effective democratic working culture. The approach needs to balance the fact that MPs are standing in for the rest of us, with the fact that they are also people, and are entitled to decent working conditions like anyone else.

    This leads to three recommendations on how the UK Parliament should handle its internal votes:

    • The House of Commons should in normal circumstances, defer votes to a standardised voting time (within ‘core hours’), where multiple votes are held in succession.
    • These votes should be held through a fast electronic means – whether through terminals, voting pass systems, or apps.
    • Current proxy voting schemes should be extended to personal discretion to designate a proxy – e.g. a set number of days a year a proxy vote can be allocated, no questions asked.

    In this week’s blog post, I’m going to walk through a bit of the backstory to this thinking, and the benefits of this approach.



    How votes work now

    Currently, when a decision point is reached in a debate, there is a “voice vote” in the room to test if anyone objects. If they do, MPs vote by physically moving into two rooms connected to the debating chamber. Two different systems kick in here – MPs tap their passes on readers to record how they individually voted, while Tellers (two sets of two MPs) count the number of people who entered to report back for the purpose of the vote. This takes quite a long time, and a vote can last around 15 minutes. Part of this includes an eight minute window for MPs to reach the lobbies from elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate.

    The current system isn’t pointlessly antiquated and slow, it is antiquated in a way that supports the way power currently works in the Commons. A slower voting process discourages too many votes – which reflects the reality that non-government approved amendments do not win, and MPs aren’t really engaged in a functional process of improving legislation. The lobbies themselves are defended as an opportunity for MPs to talk to ministers, but the influence also works the other way. The lobby system is a physical and intimidating process of sorting that enforces party unity and discourage rebellion. It is a more difficult thing for someone to walk into a room of their enemies, while being shouted at by their friends, than it is to press a button.

    Any change from this system has the potential to disrupt how power works, shifting power away from a shared consensus of party leadership (who, regardless of the specific issue, are in favour of MPs doing what parties say) and enabling more individual action by MPs.

    Our view is that this broadly would be a good thing – empowering individual MPs and Parliament collectively over the party leaderships would enable a culture closer to what citizens collectively want from MPs. Importantly, it also helps create a better working environment for MPs themselves.

    Why we care about the votes of individual MPs

    To provide better information through TheyWorkForYou, we need more complete individual voting data. The more formal mechanisms there are to manage absences, the more we can say what an MP’s vote in comparison to their party’s vote means, and produce better information for our users. Giving disclaimers and saying “it’s more complicated than that” is one approach, but it’s better to fix the problem at the source.

    Ultimately we think that MPs are responsible for how they vote and that giving more power to MPs helps them keep their promises to us. The growing amount of “rebellions” (where MPs vote against their parties) is assumed (at least in part) to result from TheyWorkForYou making individual voting records more salient. While MPs do not have strong individual mandates, they do have opinions about where leadership is drifting beyond what they said in elections. We think it is more effective for the responsibility of remembering promises to be distributed among a party, rather than seeing an election as endorsement of any and all future decisions of the party leadership.

    We’re not blindly pro-rebellions, but we think it’s important to create the space where they’re a real option available to MPs. We want better data, but we also want to give MPs more room to make decisions.

    Separating debates from votes

    Grouping votes is already the standard working pattern in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. The Scottish Parliament groups votes into a “decision time” at the end of the day; the Senedd similarly has a “voting time”. Combined with electronic voting systems – these parliaments can handle a number of votes in the time it takes the Westminster commons time to do one vote. This was also a recommendation of Sarah Childs’ Good Parliament Report, and the Fawcett Society’s A House for Everyone.

    But is it right to split up debates and votes? The Parliament website says that parliamentary “[d]ebates are designed to assist MPs and Lords to reach an informed decision on a subject. This decision is then often expressed in a vote (called a ‘division’), for or against”. Don’t we want MPs to make decisions following the debate so their votes are informed by the arguments they’ve heard?

    The problem is this description is technically true, but fiddly in the details. While debates are an opportunity for individual MPs to talk about principle and specific issues with legislation, when we move to votes, party power asserts itself. MPs who were never part of the debate are summoned by the division bell, and the vote is decided by who holds power in Parliament, rather than strong arguments made in the moment.

    Debates and votes are connected indirectly. The best way of describing the process is that parliamentary debates are the visible portion of a wider set of conversations between groups of MPs as well as between government MPs and leadership. These conversations pre-determine the outcome of votes, by finding if there are any areas the government will accept and support amendments on, or to save face, will more quietly accept in the Lords rather than the Commons. It’s not that MPs’ concerns and opinions go nowhere, just that the method they can have impact is indirect. To describe this isn’t to say it’s good, or an ideal way of working, just that it is not important for how the Commons currently works for votes to directly follow the debate they relate to.

    The connection between debates and votes is part of a long debate about the role of MPs and technology. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in arguing against remote electronic voting, argued that if MPs didn’t “have the inconvenience of having to be here physically, they don’t necessarily take it as seriously”. This is a less substantial version of Thomas Wakley’s 1839 complaint about having division bells at all – where he found it “most mischievous, that hon. Members should come down there to vote upon a question without having heard one word of the discussion”.

    Ultimately, Wakley has lost this argument – but separating out debates and votes, and moving towards a decision time, at the least removes one source of party pressure, and helps build an effective working culture that also has good transparency to the rest of the country.

    This decision time should be held within some concept of “core hours” for Parliament – helping most MPs make the voting period within their other responsibilities, personal and professional.

    Being sensitive to the lives of MPs

    Sometimes MPs can’t make it to Parliament for reasons that are part of the normal human experience. People have children and people get sick. These are things we recognise as important to safeguard in employment law, but there are difficulties for MPs in applying this to MPs who are effectively self-employed, but with obligations to constituents.

    The way Parliament currently balances this is through proxy votes – where MPs can, in circumstances like maternity/paternity leave or prolonged sickness, designate another MP to cast a vote on their behalf. Similar mechanisms now operate in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. In TheyWorkForYou, proxy votes are displayed the same as normal votes, with a note of who the proxy vote was cast by.

    The proxy vote system (introduced in 2019) was a result of two factors. The first is a long running trend where TheyWorkForYou (or similar analysis) highlighted individual voting records in a way that did not capture informal mechanisms of managing long absences like pairing – where parties mutually agree a list of absent MPs so the final result is not affected by absences. While in practice the absence is being accounted for, this is happening in a way that is not transparent to the public. In 2018, women MPs argued that TheyWorkForYou metrics were part of a standard where MPs had to work too soon after having children. This more broadly reflects the issue that Parliament and political life are structured in such a way that assumes the model MP is male, and TheyWorkForYou reinforced rather than challenged this.

    The second factor was that a breakdown of trust between parties on pairing led to heavily pregnant MPs needing to vote. Informal mechanisms are ultimately dependent on goodwill, something that cannot always be relied on.

    Proxy votes were a solution to this. They are formal mechanisms that are guaranteed by Parliament rather than parties. They reflect the reality that often, an MPs vote is the same as all other MPs of that party, and other MPs can easily cast it for them. By creating an explicit way MPs can be absent for sustained periods, the stream of individual data is created that preserves visibility on the impact of MPs, without requiring a daily presence in Westminster.

    This system is a good innovation, but it should go further. While circumstances that lead to prolonged absences are explicitly included (and others should be over time), people often need time off work to handle important issues in their lives. Currently, this remains managed through informal pairing approaches. Party managers can give MPs permission to be absent (“slips”), which will then be managed through party channels.

    The problem with this informal approach is another area where it gives parties arbitrary power in one aspect of an MP’s life, that can be used to encourage discipline more widely. In 2022, female Conservative MPs argued there was sexism in when slips were and weren’t allowed – with an example of a slip not being given to a mother needing to take a child to hospital, while feeling male colleagues were easily being given permission to go on holiday. In other cases, permission might be denied to punish internal critics. This is not a healthy system – it works for party management, but not for MPs, and doesn’t work transparently for the rest of the country.

    The solution to this is to manage “slips” through the same proxy vote mechanism. MPs should be given the equivalent of leave through a set number of times they can designate a proxy for the day, no questions asked. This accomplishes a double goal of removing more absences from the parliamentary record, and reducing another arbitrary way parties can hold power over MPs.

    Looking for answers that work for everyone

    We believe that transparency in how MPs vote is important. Through our voting records we want to present straightforward summaries of the impact of MPs in Parliament, that inform our users, and encourage focus on significant decisions made in Parliament. From our point of view, the more complete the data, the easier it is to create summaries that accurately reflect underlying realities without long disclaimers. As such, we’re in favour of both making voting easier and parties publishing the instructions they give MPs, to give the public more complete, and easier to understand, information about voting.

    At the same time, making voting easier improves the quality of life of MPs. Making voting more predictable, and reasonable absences more possible, fit well as part of a package of changes improving parliamentary life.

    While TheyWorkForYou will sometimes make life harder for MPs (and that’s partly the point), in other cases, our frustration at lack of transparency, and MPs’ frustrations at arbitrary and bad working conditions come from the same place: an agreement between party leaderships that power should be centralised. But there are ways of changing that, and we should talk more about it.





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  6. What do we need to know to judge our representatives?

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week Professor Kate Dommett, writes about different ideas about how MPs represent us, and the implications of that for how sites like TheyWorkForYou create and display information about representatives.

    Key points:

    • People want different things from representatives…
    • …but it’s not as clean as that: people see the value of different representation styles at different times.
    • Sites like TheyWorkForYou shouldn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach, but cater to different possible lenses.

    Why do we want information about how our politicians behave? This answer to this question initially appears simple – we want to hold our elected representatives to account. And yet it’s not at all clear that people want the same information, or that they use it to evaluate representatives in the same way.

    Some people might want to know whether their representative delivered on a promise to defend the local hospital; another might want to know if their MP has stuck to the party line when casting votes. Another may wish to know not about voting, but about whether their MP has taken on a second job, whilst a different person might be interested in knowing how much time their representative spent contributing to debate in the chamber.

    The information that we want can vary, but currently citizens tend to be given a relatively uniform set of insights. In this blog post, I want to think about the different types of information that citizens may desire, and the alternative ways that a site like TheyWorkForYou could present information.



    What do we know about elected representatives?

    Given you’re reading this post, you’re likely to be familiar with the format of TheyWorkForYou and have previously looked at the information the site provides about recent votes, news and upcoming debates in your chosen Parliament. You may even have used the ‘Find out more about your MP’ search function and looked at your representative’s voting record and register of interests. Yet what you may not have considered before is why you are being shown those particular pieces of information.

    Sites like TheyWorkForYou are making a series of assumptions about what people may want or need to know about their representatives. They have decided that people should know how MPs vote on key issues, whether they tend to vote with their party or not, what debates they are contributing to and what their interests are. These are all important insights, but the choices made raise a series of questions: why are we being presented with this specific information? What else could we have been shown? And why might we want to know different things about what MPs do?

    Styles of representation

    Representatives might be judged on the data presented, and academic scholarship has suggested that people can make a range of different types of calculations when they determine how to vote. Some people vote in accordance with party ties, others focus on future promises, whilst others make choices based on how a representative performs. It is this latter, evaluative style of judgement that is of interest here, and academic research has shown that evaluations can be based on many different types of evidence.

    One way of thinking about the information citizens might use to make an evaluation about their representatives is a framework originally offered by the 18th century MP and political thinker Edmund Burke. Burke’s ideas have been developed to distinguish three different styles of representation:

    • Delegate – Representatives should act as a conduit for citizens’ desires
    • Trustee – Representatives should not seek to simply reflect and respond to citizens’ whims, but should instead exercise their independent judgement and act as ‘trustees’ of citizens’ interests, which might involve taking decisions which, though in constituents’ and/or the national interest, would be opposed by citizens themselves
    • Partisan – Representatives should act in accordance with the goals and objectives of a particular party agenda or ideology

    These different styles of representation are interesting because they provide alternative metrics on which representatives can be evaluated.

    Previous polling on these styles of representation suggests that when you ask people which style they prefer, the ‘delegate’ style of representation comes out on top. Indeed, in a poll by YouGov which asked whether an MP should vote in accordance to his or her judgement, or according to the majority view of his or her local electorate, the latter (delegate style of representation) was favoured by 58% of respondents, while 29% supported the trustee model (with 13% ‘Don’t know’). This kind of representation can be overtly offered, indeed Andrew Grey – a recent candidate at the Selby and Ainsty by-election offers an interesting case in point.

    From this, people appear to primarily want information about the degree to which MPs act in line with their own (or their local area’s) preferences. And yet, when people are not asked to choose just one representative style, it becomes clear that people can value all three forms of representation. Indeed, my own research has shown that equal numbers of survey respondents think that representatives should act as delegates and trustees (72% of respondents), whilst partisan representation is favoured only slightly less (66%). People value multiple styles of representation and hence are likely to want information on representatives’ performance in each category.

    Evaluating representatives

    Thinking back to what’s covered on TheyWorkForYou, we can see some useful information about MP’s representative styles. The pages provide insight on partisan voting behaviour, revealing whether or not the MP votes the same way as other MPs from the same party. And yet, there are not clear indicators of the degree to which the MP acts as a delegate or trustee.

    Whilst finding indicators of these representative styles is challenging, there are some possibilities. It would be possible, for example, to look at the degree to which MPs made pledges to their local constituency and monitor the degree to which they then honour those pledges in office. One MP who has done this previously is Gisela Stewart, who provided a personal manifesto alongside the party manifesto.

    It’s also something done by local councillors who often provide local place-based manifestos that outline pledges to their local area. These provide useful metrics of the degree to which representatives are acting as delegates in line with their pledges, and sites such as TheyWorkForYou could capture such pledges and then trace the degree to which an MP’s voting record matches these promises.

    To monitor trustee behaviour, it would also be possible to highlight the number of times particular votes were introduced or justified as important for advancing the national interest, looking at the justifications given for particular votes and the degree to which these claims were contested in debate.

    Taking multiple approaches

    Whilst the precise metrics require refinement, the principle of measuring and reporting different styles of representation chimes with the idea that people can draw on different types of information to make assessments about their representative’s performance. Recognising this, sites like TheyWorkForYou could create different filters when presenting information, asking users which type of information is most important for them, and presenting data accordingly. An individual concerned with partisan loyalty could therefore receive detailed breakdowns about party voting and where and why representatives depart from the party line. Alternatively, someone placing equal value on trustee and partisan representation could be shown performance information on both metrics.

    The value of thinking about what information citizens want and need when evaluating their representatives opens the door to an important debate about the different metrics that can be used to judge MPs. It allows closer reflection on how and why different information can be presented to users, suggesting that a uniform strategy may not always be suitable.

    Yet, it also encourages recognition of the very different standards that can be used to evaluate representatives and, in so doing, it highlights the challenge of being an MP. Far from having to comply with one standard of behaviour, MPs have to balance a range of different imperatives and are hence unable to satisfy everyone. But at the moment MPs rarely shape expectations about how they plan to act in office and what representative style they intend to follow.

    There is a case for MPs themselves to take some additional responsibility in shaping expectations, making it clearer to citizens how they intend to behave and which metrics are therefore most appropriate for evaluating their behaviour in office.

    From this perspective, websites such as TheyWorkForYou can make it easier for citizens to evaluate representatives, both by presenting a range of different metrics and clearly signalling to citizens how and why they might want to look at different pieces of information. But they can also encourage MPs and other representatives to be clearer about how they choose to work, helping to establish clearer expectations of representative politics.




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  7. Giving more power to Parliament helps MPs keep their promises to us

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses the connection between our democracy and climate work, and how changing Parliament to empower MPs helps them keep the promises they made in elections.

    Last October’s debate and vote on a ban on fracking demonstrated how the lack of effective action on the climate crisis is part of wider problems with our politics. This was an extraordinary collision between the government’s agenda and government MPs promises to voters, which ended with the breaking of both. The vote to legislatively ban fracking did not go forward, and the force applied by party leadership to achieve this led to the resignation of the Prime Minister.

    The outcomes of these situations were extreme, but this dynamic is part of wider problems that don’t explode in such a clear way. Government should be anchored to the promises made to voters in elections. Changes to how Parliament works, in line with citizen expectations of how it should work, would strengthen the ability of politicians to deliver on the promises they make in elections, and respond to the level of citizens’ concern over the environment.

    Currently the government has too much control of what Parliament can spend their time discussing and voting on. The effect of this is that it is easier for governments to stray from their manifesto mandates on environmental and climate change issues, where many promises are kept or broken without a parliamentary vote.

    Strengthening the power of Parliament to control its own time was a recommendation of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK (a group of ordinary people who, like a jury, were selected to come together and discuss questions about how our democracy should work). Doing so would give more force to threats from a majority of MPs to constrain the government through Parliament, and would help keep governments aligned with the promises they’ve made.



    Fracking and democracy

    Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from bedrock by pumping pressured water into the rock. The 2019 Conservative manifesto reflected the action the previous Conservative government had taken to stop fracking in England:

    We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect. Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.

    This action was taken after an Oil and Gas Authority report concluded that “it is not possible with current technology to accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking”. The government retained the legal ability to issue fracking licences; they just committed in public not to do so.

    As late as March 2022, a government minister was saying that the approach needed to be led by science, and that practically, fracking solved no near-term problems (a similar point was made at the time by then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng). This was a cross-party position, with the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos also having statements on banning fracking in England, and the SNP and Plaid Cymru manifestos were for banning fracking in Scotland and Wales.

    The government position was changed by Prime Minister Liz Truss, who indicated they would allow fracking when it was supported by local communities. This created a conflict between the manifesto that government MPs were elected under, and the direction of the government itself.

    Such a conflict is a democratic problem, because justifications for the government’s power to take decisions depends on the support of a majority of MPs, and in turn, the promises they collectively made to voters in elections.

    But there was not an obvious point at which the conflict would come into the open. Thanks to the limitations on time available for non-government business, the prospect of a meaningful vote on fracking was entirely in the government’s gift. This makes it easier for governments to maintain policies in areas they may not have the backing of their own party.

    If a majority of MPs had more power to get their issues on schedule, it would be harder to get into a situation like this in the first place. Changing the allocations and acceptable uses of Parliamentary time would help alignment between government actions and election promises.

    Manifestos promises and party instructions

    Where a manifesto commitment involves passing a new law, MPs have the opportunity to weigh up whether a promise to voters or loyalty to the current leader is more important. The party will give them instructions to vote, and they can choose if they want to follow those instructions.

    While this decision may involve complicated personal trade-offs, our polling from last year found that a majority of UK adults (55%) agreed with the idea that MPs are personally responsible for how they vote, regardless of party instructions. One of the conclusions of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK was that parties should be able to enforce discipline to keep promises – but not beyond that. They also suggested MPs should hold local citizens’ assemblies to inform their votes on controversial issues outside the manifesto.

    The best understanding we have of citizen perspectives of how this should work is that party leaders should not be able to change policy direction and enforce discipline at the same time. This sort of idea is reflected in the way in which MPs themselves talk about manifesto promises and decisions to disobey party instructions, with the former Energy Minister arguing that allowing fracking broke pledges made at the election, as it went against wider net zero commitments.

    Parliamentary time

    The question of exactly what MPs are responsible for, and when they should defer to their parties assumes that MPs have an actual choice to make. But manifesto promises can be kept or broken without MPs doing anything, because they relate to things the government has been given the power to do without asking Parliament.

    The suspension of fracking permits is one of these areas. When it was announced, fracking was not banned, but government policy changed so no permits would be granted. MPs did not need to vote for this to happen – and the reverse is also true – there is no natural point for MPs to vote to stop it happening.

    The most precious asset in Parliament is time. For Parliament to talk about or vote about a specific area, time needs to have been agreed on the schedule. But control of the schedule is almost entirely in the hands of the government. What happened in October was the opposition using one of their rare allocations of Parliamentary time to try and pass a vote that would open up further Parliamentary time for the full process required to pass a ban on fracking.

    This approach led to the Government Chief Whip arguing to their MPs that “this is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the Government. We cannot, under any circumstances, let the Labour Party take control of the [schedule] and put through their own legislation and whatever other bits of legislation they desire”. It’s worth emphasising that the UK Parliament is unusual in the extent to which the government controls the schedule, and actively tries to restrict the “proper” uses of time that is given to other purposes.

    This point was made by a report on Parliamentary time written by Meg Russell and Daniel Glover, which argues that “the uses of opposition days are limited compared to other legislatures – where opposition parties can for example use such time for proposing bills. The government should seek to win votes on opposition business on merit, rather than deploying procedural tactics.”

    In this light, the government position that it is improper for the opposition to propose legislation is an ideological one, which voters might understandably view as less important than the substantive matter under discussion. Fracking wouldn’t have been banned instantly if the vote was successful, but it would have been highly likely to lead to a legal change that restricted action more than the current situation. It was, ultimately, a vote about fracking.



    Opening up the schedule

    Russell and Glover argue it is “difficult for MPs to get key topics of concern debated in the Commons, and in particular to make binding decisions on them, in the face of government resistance – even where a majority of [MPs] would support this”, and suggest changes to fix this problem. They highlight previous recommendations and examples from other Parliaments, international and in the UK, in favour of giving Parliament as a whole more power over the agenda. For instance, they argue in favour of more dedicated time for non-government business (highlighting that the Welsh Parliament has an explicit 3:2 rule for government versus other business).

    They also highlight a previous recommendation from the 2009 Wright Committee that that the schedule should be possible for Parliament to amend, which had been “standard practice in many parliaments around the world and has operated in the Scottish Parliament without problems for the last decade”. In the fracking vote, Labour’s approach was attacked by the government as being against how the system works – but the wider context shows that the UK Parliament works badly when compared to other parliaments, and the current system does not work with the best interests of citizens in mind.

    The Citizens Assembly on Democracy in the UK was very supportive of giving Parliament more control over its time. With overwhelming support for the idea that MPs should be able to ensure important public issues outside the government agenda are discussed (recommendation 1.7), that bills do not need to originate in the government and time should be available to properly examine potential bills with cross party support (recommendation 1.8), and that while the government needed to have the time to deliver what they were elected to do – more fixed time was needed in the schedule for non-government business (recommendation 1.9).

    Arguments about how parliamentary scheduling should happen are sometimes dismissed as procedural or nerdy, but what is actually happening here, in dry language, is that the way Parliament works is systematically off from the way in which citizens would expect it to work. Fixing the deep plumbing of parliamentary democracy helps MPs take real action, in line with their promises, to change how the country works.

    Powers are influential even if not used

    Greater amounts of time given to non-government business, and broader views about acceptable use of that time, would be a way of putting pressure on the government to keep manifesto promises. The prospect of more non-government legislation makes it easier for the majority of MPs (who in this case have a commitment to a stronger ban on fracking than current policy) to credibly threaten to overrule the government. This shapes behaviour even if it never happens.

    The events of October validate this. Using opposition time to force government MPs into a bind, opened up a concession from the government to their own MPs that there would be a vote on what “local consent” means for fracking. This was a change from the previous position. Without the threat that Parliamentary time might be rerouted, this promise might not have happened. Greater power to Parliament to forcefully ensure alignment between the majority and government make it more likely the government will do so voluntarily, and stay better aligned with election promises.

    What can we do from the outside?

    Our view on the climate crisis is the best road forward is a democratic one. In our work, that includes support for climate assemblies as a way of finding consensus on difficult and important issues. More broadly, we believe that different people and communities working together are competent and capable of making decisions on issues that affect their future. But we also have to work on where power actually is, and make elected institutions more effective and responsive, in line with the way in which citizens think those institutions should work.

    Our Climate programme is currently focused at the local level. On our CAPE website, you can view and search councils’ climate action plans – and you can see which local authorities have mentioned fracking (or fracking bans) in their plans.

    We want to work similar approaches into our wider set of services. We want to think about how we use our platform, and services like TheyWorkForYou, to help shape politics in line with what citizens expect of it.

    For climate and environmental issues a specific complaint made of TheyWorkForYou is that decisions without disagreement (like the statutory net zero target) or using existing government powers are not as visible as contentious votes. This is an area we want to get better at, but also reflects part of a wider (bad) trend where more and more official business disappears into “secondary legislation”, where the ability of MPs to scrutinise is much weaker. A lot has changed since TheyWorkForYou was set up, and we want to adapt our work to address the problems of today.

    If you have comments or feedback on the issues in the blog post, we’d love to hear from you.





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  8. Guest post: Does watching MPs make them behave better?

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week’s guest post comes from Dr Ben Worthy. He’s been looking at the ways which sites like TheyWorkForYou impact politics. We’ll be incorporating things we learn from guest writers into our future thinking around our work.

    Our world is awash with information but does more data make for a better democracy? Between 2019 and 2022, our Leverhulme Trust-funded study looked at the impact of monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou on the UK Parliament.

    While our research focused on TheyWorkForYou, there are now a whole range of others, from the new Westminster Accounts, which allows you to see MPs’ interests and donations, to (my personal favourite) this Twitter bot that tells you every time someone with a Westminster IP address changes a Wikipedia page (of which there were 5000 edits between 2003 and 2014). Taken together, these sites and platforms are now a powerful source of accountability and a useful short-cut, used to question MPs, and even predict the positions of new Prime Ministers, as you can see with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

    We take all this data for granted in 2023 but it’s important to remember what a difference it makes. If you wanted to find out about a vote in Parliament in 1895, or even 1995, you needed to either procure a copy of Hansard, ransack a local library or hope the results had been published in a newspaper. Do all these new sources have any effect on our politicians?

    Potentially, all sorts of things could happen now all the data is so easy to find. The hope is that all this data means MPs are less likely to misbehave, for fear of being caught. The more data, the logic runs, the more people are looking, the more likely you’ll get found out. However, the cynical among you could argue the opposite: misbehaving MPs might get better at hiding. There’s been speculation about unintended consequences, too. Could all this data mean MPs to “try to look busy” by turning up very briefly in debates to speak or asking lots of Parliamentary Questions?



    Perceptions and effects on politicians

    To find out, we commissioned a YouGov poll of 100 MPs and asked them the following: ‘A number of websites now exist that enable the public to easily monitor Parliamentary activity, such as TheyWorkForYou. What effect, if any, do you think websites such as these have on (a) your work and role as an MP (b) MPs in general?’

    As a whole, MPs had a roughly equal response between feeling positive about the sites (26%), negative (35%), or believing they had no effect (35%). However, there is good news. MPs do feel they are ‘being watched’. One MP described how data from monitoring sites’ keep MPs on their toes and accountable’.

    Two line graph displaying the numbers discussed in previous paragraphs.

    This is one major finding from our project. MPs are more accountable. After votes, they now share explanations and justifications in Hansard, on Twitter or in the local press. In 2021, for example, Conservative MPs who voted against the government’s COVID-19 lockdown measures and tier system took to Twitter to explain their decisions – making memes themselves both before and after key votes.

    Tweet "Last night I voted AGAINST extending covid restrictions further, because we need our freedom back"

    MPs also, in some cases, change their behaviour. In 2021, after journalists and campaigners crunched data on MPs and their second jobs, some MPs quietly dropped theirs.



    Challenges and concerns in data monitoring

    So far, so positive. There is, however, a but. Several, in fact.

    First, our poll found monitoring was often targeted at those MPs on the government benches. There was a clear cost of being an MP in the government party. 51% of Conservative MPs saw sites having a negative effect on their own work and 61% on MPs in general. This contrasted with just 19% and 27% respectively for Labour.

    Second, it mattered how long you’ve been an MP (and perhaps how safe you are in your seat). Mark Harper argued back in 2006 that:

    “TheyWorkForYou.com […] puts Members under incredible pressure. If they do not undertake a volume of work, their performance is criticised—that applies more to new Members than experienced colleagues, who are more relaxed because they have more experience in the House.”

    MPs who had been in the Commons for decades, especially from 1997-2009, were far more likely to claim monitoring had “no effect”. This could be because they were safer in their seats or because MPs from 2009 onwards, or 2015, lived through the expenses scandal and Brexit.

    Third, gender also plays a role. Female MPs believed far more strongly than their male counterparts that monitoring had a negative impact. This matches what we know about female MPs being frequently subject to greater scrutiny and, for example, less willing to submit expenses claims. The data from TheyWorkForYou was used to famously create a ‘lazy list’ of MPs by the Sun, which then retracted it when it emerged many of those had caring responsibilities. TheyWorkForYou itself has over time published less comparative information, in part due to concerns about gender differences found in the data.



    Party and wider contexts

    Are there any downsides? One major concern from MPs is how data could be taken out of context. TheyWorkForYou explains the context carefully. Nevertheless, it is true, as the journalist Marie Le Conte put it, ‘sharing screenshots of an MP’s voting history misses out vital pieces of context’. Party and party loyalty are the key to (most) of what happens in the House of Commons. TheyWorkForYou does contain comparisons between MPs and their parties, but doesn’t clearly present the mixed agency of the MP and the party leadership in making voting decisions – something that would be made much easier if the parties published the voting instructions they give to their MPs.

    To take a famous example, the Marcus Rashford-inspired vote on low income children and school holiday meals, which led some Conservative MPs to be banned for life from shops in their constituency, was an Opposition Day vote, where Labour forced Conservative MPs to choose between partisan loyalty and hungry children. On climate change legislation, a full 50 Conservative MPs complained in a letter to the chief executive of mySociety in 2021 that ‘misleading’ data ‘misrepresented’ their positions.

    However, we need to remember there is substantial usage of TheyWorkForYou from people working in the Houses of Parliament, and they are happy to use voting data themselves. Keir Starmer accused Johnson of ducking a Heathrow vote, whereas Johnson made up entire Parliamentary votes that didn’t exist.

    So, overall data sites do make politicians behave better. As ever in politics, it depends, but more data does actually make for better politics.

    To find out more, read the final report and take a look at our project site at https://whoswatchingwestminster.wordpress.com/



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  9. Learning from the way people use TheyWorkForYou

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from our staff, and external contributors who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. Learn more about this series.


    We’re thinking about the future of TheyWorkForYou, and we want to ground our plans in an understanding of how it is currently used and the impact it has had.

    At a very practical level, it is much easier to make small changes than big ones — but small changes don’t have to have small effects. By leaning into how people are using the site, we can find ways of better supporting what people are already trying to do.

    TheyWorkForYou has been politically (and culturally) influential. The way in which MPs and parties conduct themselves has changed in reaction to the service: next week we’ll have a guest post covering this in more detail. A throwaway shot in 2018’s TV thriller The Bodyguard, where a character quickly scans a politician’s voting record, shows how the idea of TheyWorkForYou has become a part of the UK’s political shorthand (with many arguments about whether this is a good or a bad thing, that we’ll come back to in this series).

    That said, until recently we had no solid data as to how widely known the service is. In late 2021, Opinium gave us a set of free questions for a nationally representative poll. We used one of these to understand more about people’s awareness and usage of mySociety websites. We found that, out of all mySociety’s services, TheyWorkForYou was the one most people knew about. The poll found that one in three UK adults have heard of the site, and one in five have visited the site.

    One of the biggest obstacles to successful civic tech isn’t having a good idea for a digital service, but successfully getting more than a handful of people to use it. TheyWorkForYou, with 20 years of history behind it, has crossed that hurdle. Improving and refining TheyWorkForYou is potentially a much more impactful thing to do than launching new services, but the funding environment for civic tech means there is far more money available for new projects than for steady payoffs from established work. This is a key issue we need to navigate, balancing short-term survival with a commitment to doing the things that will have the biggest positive impact.

    Never heard of TheyWorkForYou 69%, have heard of it 32%, have visited/used 20%

     



    Parliamentary monitoring: a slow-burn success story

    A key unique feature of TheyWorkForYou is the email alerts service. We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of their chosen MPs or Lords, or when phrases that they are interested in are used in debates or written questions/answers. On average, this means we send around 400,000 emails a month. People mostly use alerts to keep up with their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also means that this service  is a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool. Alerts are used by a range of public, private and charitable sector organisations to track specific issues and keywords in Parliament.

    In 2021, we ran a survey on users of alerts and found that while the majority (84%) were citizen users, a sizable proportion (16%) were using it in a professional context. Focusing on this group for a follow-up survey in 2022, we got more details of the value that charities and campaigners get from TheyWorkForYou, but we also found that the alerts are in use by people working in Parliament and government departments, improving the flow of information inside these central institutions.

    These professional users were also interested in different elements of the site than citizen users, being slightly more focused on written answers and statements (as these can be the best statements of current policy), and having much less interest in voting records.   A 2016 GovLab report estimated an economic benefit of TheyWorkForYou, on time saved alone, of up to £70 million a  year to the third sector.  As a free service, it provides an important alternative to political intelligence organisations and helps level the playing field for civil society to engage with parliamentarians and decision-makers.

    There is real potential here to build on something that’s going well. We can better reflect, in the way the site works, and in the work we do around it, that a key way we have impact is via intermediaries, and making Parliament far more accessible to a range of charities and organisations. The technical side works well, but we could help organisations make the most use of this feature.

    Professional users are mostly in public or charitable sector jobs

     

    VOtes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals


    During elections, people want different things from TheyWorkForYou

    For the last 10 years, TheyWorkForYou has generally had over six million page views each year. In 2021 there were 7.8 million page views, and there were 13 million in the last election year.  In each of the last five years, there have been a million views of either the summary or voting record pages of MPs. Information on these pages also travels far further than to these direct users, as it is amplified by journalists or social media.

    For the 2019 election, there was a clear increase in both overall traffic, but also in the proportion of people looking at the voting records pages. There were many views of the profiles of a small number of MPs (mostly party leaders) rather than views being evenly distributed among people looking at local MPs.

    TheyWorkForYou Page views by year, showing a spike in 2019 for the election Shows that generally there were more views of the summayr apge, until 2010 - when voting records almost reached parity

    This shift towards more and more views of just the voting records pages reflected a change in the way people arrived at the site. The pattern of people entering a postcode at theyworkforyou.com, arriving at a summary page (with party comparisons), before maybe moving onto more detailed individual voting policies was becoming less common. More users were coming to the site via search engines or social media, and missing parts of the information we presented. As a result, we changed the way we displayed information, moving more of the important context from the party comparison to the voting records page.

    But when the reason people are using the site changes, it’s a good time to consider how the information can best be presented. TheyWorkForYou in its design, is very focused on what happens in Parliament between elections, but the information it holds is obviously very relevant during an election. Steering into that, we could follow hints about what people want to know about (party leaders, and more widely, parties) and create new views on the information we hold, that reflect actions taken by a party over a parliamentary term. Here an existing usage suggests a different approach that could be useful to voters, that we are uniquely well placed to deliver, but which would be a substantial change in how we think about and present information.



    Purposeful incremental change

    TheyWorkForYou needs more than just code and servers to keep on serving the people of the UK well. Playing the biggest role we can in informing people over the next twenty years will require careful stewardship to support what works, while adapting to new problems and opportunities.

    As a long-running service, the site has picked up features that are sometimes useful, but sometimes outlive their purpose or the resources that are available to maintain them. Sometimes we have turned parts off. The core challenge of project-based funding is that it can only indirectly support “doing what’s already working”, and each additional project and feature adds long term maintenance costs. This is why it’s important that, while looking for opportunities to make improvements to the site, we need to make sure that our plans still fit into a coherent idea of what TheyWorkForYou is for – so all the parts of the site are still working together in a way that makes sense in the long run.



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    Image: Maksim Shutov

     

  10. TheyWorkForYou provides essential services for civil society — and beyond

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from our staff, and external contributors who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it. Learn more about this series.

    TheyWorkForYou’s goal is to make the UK’s Parliaments more transparent and accessible. We believe that fast access information about our elected representatives shouldn’t only be available to insiders, or those who can pay. We work to make information about Parliament accessible to citizens and to civil society.

    One way we do this is through email alerts. Users of the website can sign up to receive an email when specific people speak, or specific keywords are spoken in any of the Parliaments we cover (now including the Senedd). On average, this means we send around 400,000 emails a month. While the main users of alerts are people subscribing to updates from their MP, one of our goals is that TheyWorkForYou’s alerts should lower the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament. 

    Last year, we ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system to understand more about how people were using this feature. Through this we found more details on how the site helps small organisations stay engaged with Parliament. It is also helping those who work within both government and Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.



    Charitable and service organisations

    We are too small to do any lobbying or to afford a paid-for service so this helps keep us in touch”

    People working in charities told us that they used keyword alerts to track all mentions of themes relevant to their work, such as words around domestic violence; asylum and immigration; religious persecution; accessibility; nature conservation, and many more. One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response.

    “Without the site we might have to pay for a service, or give up trying to make our voice heard”.

    Tracking which representatives mention keywords can help charities in identifying potentially interested parliamentarians to connect with, but can also be directly useful in organisations that deliver services, like advising people on their rights.  

    “The alerts are invaluable as we don’t have the capacity to follow what’s happening in Parliament other than when we are working intensively on a bill or other activity.”

    Our email alert system helps distribute the latest policy via subscriptions to written questions and answers. For instance, a child poverty group uses a subscription to written answers from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to get clearer details of policy and policy changes. This helps them conveyup to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!” 

    Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society.  One respondent from a local social care reform campaign, said they “wrote [an] email to my local MP to congratulate her on her PQ and sought to update her on the govt response received so she would pursue”.

    In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask – TheyWorkForYou “enables us to ensure questions from elected members do not pass unnoticed”. Where relationships are more established, making written questions more visible helps civil society groups suggest written questions to MPs, because they can better match the language and style.

    “We find your service very easy to navigate [and] a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”



    Inside Parliament and government

    TheyWorkForYou (and especially the alerts) continue to be part of the flow of information between and inside Parliament and Government departments.

    “I rely on the alerts to stay up to date with any written questions or debates relating to the interests of the MP I work for.” 

    MPs’ offices use the service to check if people live in the constituency, and for notifications of recent speeches by their or nearby MPs.

    “It’s the quickest way to keep up with any questions or votes that my boss has participated in.” 

    Information from TheyWorkForYou is also used as part of preparation of reports, media releases, and to support correspondence with constituents.

    Devolved and local government

    “As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”

    Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster – making parliamentary activity more transparent helps visibility between different democratic bodies in the UK.

    Civil servants

    Civil servants similarly have an interest in understanding the history and views of their ministers. Respondents to our survey included civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. 

    They use the service to keep track of Parliamentary mentions of their department and work. Inside the DWP (one of the larger departments), one response came from a civil servant who used the alerts to shape service delivery by subscribing to questions answered by the minister. Because these answers might reflect recent policy changes, alerts through TheyWorkForYou can be a fast way for information to move around the department.

    While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants when crafting responses as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.



    Other uses

    Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching

    TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.

    In one private sector example, an accountancy firm uses TheyWorkForYou as part of due diligence checks on politically exposed persons. Improving the ease and quality of accessing official information about MPs’ activities (in particular given concerns about written questions and second jobs) enhances wider legal regimes around money laundering and anti-corruption. 



    TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website

    Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents gave us some information about why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. While the official website has much improved, the search feature was highlighted as a reason why some respondents used TheyWorkForYou.

    “Primary use is a better Hansard than Hansard (still, though Hansard has caught up a lot)” – Public sector organisation

    There were several specific complaints about the search function of the official site. 

    “Its [the Parliament site’s] search function barely works at all.”  – Business consultancy firm

    he search function is also better than Parliaments so when we are looking for quotes/references we will also use it to support our research.” – Researcher

    “Easier to use than other sources such as Hansard’s website. Search function is much more precise and reliable” – respondent who works for an MP or Lord

    In some of these cases the official site may improve in future, but in other cases there has been backsliding, such as availability of the register of interests. TheyWorkForYou has value as a backstop on the official service where it has flaws, but also in providing services like the email alerts that go above and beyond what the official service is ever likely to offer.

    While our main focus as a service (and most of our visitors and alert subscribers) are individual citizens, supporting and amplifying the power of small civil society groups helps ensure a more level playing field of access to decision makers. In future, we’d like to be able to explore this path more, and provide better advice and guidance on how to make the best use of our tools to groups that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process. 



    If you'd like to see us extending our work in democracy further, please consider making a contribution.
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    This blog post was originally published 28/07/2022 – and updated in June 2023

    Image: Monisha Selvakumar