TheyWorkForYou’s goal is to make the UK’s Parliaments more transparent and accessible. We believe that high quality 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 Parliament. While originally intended mainly as a way for citizens to know what their MP was saying, but this also provides a free parliamentary monitoring tool that is useful for charities and small organisations. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.
We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system to understand more about how people were using this feature. What we found reflected the impact we are having in helping 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.
“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 […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
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 convey “up to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!”
Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.
“We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”
One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. 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.
“I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service”
Inside government and Parliament
“I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.”
Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are using TheyWorkForYou.
For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.
Members of Parliament
“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.
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.
While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously.
“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.
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 that is worth highlighting, 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 indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard.
“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
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.
Image: Monisha Selvakumar
Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.
Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.
And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.
A toolkit for speaking out
Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.
“WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).
We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.
Up to date contacts
Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.
However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.
“Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.
Flexible and free
So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.
“There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.
“We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”
“However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.
“We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).
“In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.
“Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
For all levels of coding knowledge
How easy was it to add the tool to their website?
Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.
“The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.
“The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”
“This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”
Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.
This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.
Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.
And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.
Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.
WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.
People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.
Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.
If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.
International emergency aid charity Médecins Sans Frontiers are one of the biggest purchasers of medicine worldwide, and naturally it’s important that the drugs they buy are cost-effective. Where possible, they choose generics—white label medicines that contain the same ingredients even if they don’t carry the well-known brand names: think ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘Nurofen’ or ‘Anadin’.
But when a specific medicine is only available as a patented product from a big drugs company and with an equally big price tag attached, MSF, like everyone else, has little choice but to pay.
Curiously, this turned out to be a problem that can be solved, in part, through good web design. Here’s the story.
Obviously, drugs companies have an interest in keeping their medicines under patent. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.
MSF’s online project, the Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for helping people challenge medicine patents. PODB helps groups around the world to find each other and work on cases together, and to share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits which may help others in future oppositions.
The site was already up, running and functional, and the concept was sound. But it wasn’t attracting much take-up. On analysis, it became clear that this was because there was no focused experience on the site, encouraging users towards the core interactions which would power the whole concept of collaborating and sharing knowledge.
Where design came in
MSF asked us to suggest improvements that would enable groups to communicate about specific cases, and to improve the sense of community. Our solutions will add intuitive user paths that lead people to existing opposition cases and the information they need, then encourage them to join in by placing discussions and information about contributors on the page.
It’s crucial for MSF that the project reaches its full potential, and with the in-depth design changes we’ve suggested, and have now been asked to implement, we know it will.
You can read more about how we approached this project in our latest case study, over at the mySociety Services website.
Image: Procsilas Moscas (cc)
mySociety is looking to recruit new trustees to help us, as we transition from being a small digital non-profit into a mature international social enterprise.
If you are interested in helping to guide one of the earliest ‘digitally native’ charities through to its next stage of growth, this may be an opportunity of interest to you.
Our mission is to discover how technology can (or cannot) help make people more powerful. As a team and a community we are driven by a desire to build tools that help people exert a little control over the world around them – especially people who have never tried to do so, and who don’t think they would succeed if they tried.
If that is a goal that motivates you in the way it motivates our staff and volunteers, we should have a conversation.
What is a trustee?
Trustees oversee charities to ensure that they are well-run, solvent, operating within the law, and making the right strategic decisions. These are unpaid roles with an ultimate legal responsibility for the charity. To understand more about what being a trustee means legally, please see this introduction from the charities commission.
mySociety is the public brand of the registered charity UK Citizens Online Democracy: the positions we are advertising for today are trustees of that charity.
As a UKCOD trustee, you will advise on the organisation’s priorities, help with the approval of budgets and staffing, and assess legal matters. In concrete terms, that means attending meetings in London every three months, and dealing with the associated emails and documents – a commitment of about six hours per month.
Between 2003 and the present day, mySociety has built and grown a series of British democratic and civic websites and apps, including FixMyStreet.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, WriteToThem.com and TheyWorkForYou.com.
In the last two years our organisation has experienced a great deal of growth, with our staff tripling in number (to nearly 20) and our objectives becoming ever more international. This is largely due to major investments by groups like the Omidyar Network and the Open Society Foundation, as well as an increase in our commercial software and consultancy services, which generate about half our revenues.
We have numerous challenges to face as we approach our 10th birthday, in late 2013.
- How do we balance the need to maintain and improve the quality of UK services, whilst working increasingly in other countries?
- How do we ensure that the people trying to build copies of the services we run in other countries succeed in adapting them to very different environments?
- How do we become a successful, substantial social enterprise that can drive quality improvement and higher ethical standards across the entire government IT sector?
- How do we do all this whilst ensuring that the high standards of talent – and niceness – of the people within our organisation do not slip?
What we’re looking for in trustees
mySociety is still small enough that it often needs very practical support from the trustees, such as opinions on legal matters. This means we need trustees equally comfortable with big questions and small ones.
We are interested in acquiring trustees from a range of different occupational backgrounds. If you have skills in any of the disciplines listed below, you could really help us.
- Campaigning and community organising
- International development
- Human resources
- Governance structures
- Digital product development
- Local Government
- Quality assurance
We also welcome applications from mySociety volunteers, whether past or present.
We will be happy to meet people and arrange phonecalls for no-commitment discussions up to 21st December 2012. Please contact email@example.com if you would like to book in a conversation with someone who could tell you a bit more about the role.
If you would actually like to apply, please send a CV and covering letter, explaining why becoming a trustee is of interest, to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5th January 2012 latest.
We will conduct interviews on Monday and Tuesday 21st and 22nd January – we can arrange them in the evenings if that is necessary.
We will notify applicants of our appointment decisions on Monday 28th January.
[Warning – the following is an exceedingly dull blog post but important for accountability]
We’re writing this post today because we’ve made a mistake. It’s not a mistake that will matter to many people, but because (rightly) our accounts are public, anyone looking at those that we just filed this week will see that we’ve admitted we made some mistakes in previous accounts.
It’s not a very exciting mistake – no money has been lost or misused – but we made some previous declarations about how money was accounted for inside mySociety that were wrong. And in the interests of complete transparency, we’ve written this post to explain how.
First off, it is probably worth explaining that mySociety is a project run by the charity UKCOD. UKCOD runs all of the not for profit sites that you see and use under the mySociety umbrella.
In order to fund the development and support of these not for profit sites we carry out commercial work from which we make profit. This commercial work is carried out by mySociety Ltd – a commercial trading company that is wholly owned by UKCOD.
The latest accounts
Yesterday UKCOD and mySociety Ltd submitted their accounts to Companies House (and, for UKCOD, to the Charity Commission) for the financial year ending 31st March 2010.
Anyone reading our accounts would notice two important points:
1) Both sets of accounts were several months latePRIOR YEAR ADJUSTMENT
2) In both sets of accounts the figures for the previous financial year 2008/09 have been restated, and a note has been added to the accounts which states for UKCOD:
In previous years, amounts of £136,274 received from the subsidiary, mySociety Limited, a company, were classed as donations from them. However, these amounts were for paying the VAT creditor and repayments to the parent for services provided by them. This has resulted in donations received (and consequently the net income) being overstated by £136,274, hence the need for the prior year adjustment.
Which leads to these questions:
1) Is the financial health of UKCOD/mySociety worse than previously reported?
2) Why are the accounts so late?
3) What does the adjustment note mean?
The answer to 1) is no, absolutely not – see below for more detail.
The answer to 2) is quite simply that discovering the errors that led to us writing the adjustment note resulted in a lot of extra work having to be carried out in order to ensure that the accounts are correct and the prior years are appropriately restated.
The answer to 3) is the next section.
Okay, so what does the adjustment note mean?
mySociety Ltd, our commercial arm, makes payments to the charity UKCOD to pay for the commercial development work carried out by UKCOD developers. In addition it makes payments to UKCOD to cover its share of the group VAT liability. Any surplus profit it makes is donated to UKCOD to support the not for profit work.
In previous years all of the payments made from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD had erroneously been reported as donations. So, for instance in a year when mySociety Ltd had paid £20,000 for VAT, £60,000 for development time and a £30,000 donation all £110,000 had been reported as a donation. The £80,000 for VAT and development had been noted, but treated as an unpaid debt owing from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD.
This had three results:
1) The surplus of UKCOD had been overstated.
2) The profit of mySociety Ltd had been under stated (or to be more precise, the loss it made was over stated).
3) A non-existent debt was reported as existing between mySociety Ltd and UKCOD.
This was, quite simply, a mistake that should have been picked up by both ourselves and our accountants. Sorry. It is embarrassing, but it does not alter the overall financial position of UKCOD/mySociety Ltd.
So what have we done about it?
1) We have reviewed our accounts and inter-company transactions for the last three years to ensure that we correctly apportion the payments between the two organizations.
2) For mySociety Ltd we have restated the profit and loss figures for the financial year 2008/09 and the creditor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
3) For UKCOD we have restated the surplus/deficit position for the financial year 2008/09 and the debtor position at the end of the financial year 2009. In addition we have restated the donation value from mySociety Ltd to UKCOD for the financial year 2008/09.
4) We have sought independent legal advice and engaged a second firm of accountants with a charity specialism to review these changes. On the advice of accountants we haven’t resubmitted the accounts for any prior years as the above changes are sufficient to reflect the reporting correction. There is no increase in the tax liability of mySociety Ltd for prior years as result of these restatements.
5) We have already started work on the preparation of our 2010/11 accounts to ensure that they are delivered in a much more timely manner.
So to sum up
The net financial position of UKCOD and mySociety has not changed in any way. The accounts submitted yesterday have corrected the reporting errors of prior years so that both the starting and ending financial positions of the two organizations are correctly stated.
This is a fairly long and detailed post, but as an organization that champions transparency we felt that it was important to be as open and clear as possible about what has happened.
Paul Lenz, Head of Operations and Finance
Amandeep Rehlon, UKCOD Treasurer
Note [added 06.03.12]: We have modified this blog post to remove a single word, and replace it with one more appropriate to the topic.
From one extreme to another – the diversity among mySociety’s volunteers is most fascinating. You may, or may not, have read one of my previous blog posts on Tim Morley, a volunteer responsible for the day to day running of pledgebank.com. If you have, you will know that he is a primary school language teacher who is making a massive contribution towards keeping that site going.
It may be difficult to believe, and mySociety is ever so grateful for it, but there are actually other volunteers out there who are just as dedicated. One of them are Amandeep Rehlon – Treasurer as well as Trustee of UKCOD and Director of mySociety.
Having a background in accounting and finance Amandeep is responsible for, among other things, VAT returns, annual accounts and paying staff. We all know that money makes the world go around, so quite a lot of responsibility there.
As dealing with finances at mySociety is not enough, he also does it in his “real” job working for the Bank of England. As he puts it himself, being based in the Financial Stability area he has been ‘ahem, rather busy in the last year or so’. Yeah, I can imagine!
Amandeep originally got involved with mySociety in late 2005 as he was seen as a suitable replacement for Tom Loosemore, the previous Treasurer who left to due to family commitments. Three years or so later, he’s still around because he thinks ‘mySociety’s sites make the world a better place’ and (as with Tim Morley) he likes the people that he works with. Very encouraging to read that he also knows a lot of people who are using mySociety’s services in their day jobs – we would like to hear more of that!
When he has some spare time (not sure when that would be but there you go) he plays hockey, read, listen to music (including lots of gigs) and eat too much chocolate – ‘especially from James’s chocolate shop’. Sounds like a full on life, but fortunately with a bit of fun in between.
mySociety is auctioning two places on our yearly retreat.
This is only the third such retreat in five years, and it is a super-rare occasion when all the various people who make mySociety tick get together. On these retreats we meet to set our agenda for the next year and try to reassess what we’ve done and what we’re about. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet many of the most talented developers and thinkers in the field of the internet and democracy, people you’d otherwise rarely be able to catch. And it’s a great moment to catch them, pausing for a moment to discuss what we’re about and where we could go next.
I am fully concious that the ticketsare not cheap – we are doing this it is to help us cover our costs as a charity.
The door is not closed to the rest of you – most people on this retreat will be volunteers, and you can be too!
We’re busy as bees, lots of things happening, increasingly many of which are commercial, and we can’t talk about until they’re released.
Commercial? But you’re a charity! Yes – but just as Oxfam have a trading subsidiary company which runs the second hand clothes shops, we have a trading subsidiary company that sells services relating to the websites that we make (structural details here).
Everything from other small charities to large media companies are buying our services – which range from customised versions of FixMyStreet, through to strategic consulatancy. If you’ve got something that you think we might be able to help with, email Hello@mysociety.org – easier to talk to than us geeks.
Meanwhile we’re cracking on with our free services for the public, which are increasingly funded by this commercial work.
TheyWorkForYou recently launched a Scottish version, thanks to volunteer Mark Longair, and Matthew. More goodies in store as the Free Our Bills campaign unfolds. We’ve started a sprint to get a photo for every MP’s page. If you work for or are an MP or have copyright of a photo of one that we’re missing, then email it to us.
WhatDoTheyKnow is getting lots of polishing – the new site design that Tommy has been working on is nearly ready. Today I just turned on lots of new email alerts and RSS feeds, so you can get emailed, for example, when a new request is filed to a particular public body, or when a request is successful.
Our super ace volunteers have been busy adding public authorties to the site, and we now have 1153 in total. We’re getting a steady trickle of good requests (pretty graph) coming in. Blogs such as Blind man’s buff and confirm or deny are sorting the wheat from the chaff. Do blog about and link to any interesting requests that you see!
Other things in the works are a much needed revamp of www.mysociety.org, some interesting things on GroupsNearYou, and no doubt squillions of other things. I’ll let Matthew post up anything I’ve missed 🙂
I’ve had the good fortune to talk with a few folks over the past several days who have echoed many of the things that we’ve been learning at PledgeBank over the past several months and years, and I thought I’d share…
First, I chatted yesterday with Jason Dick, who blogs at A Small Change. The blog focuses on nonprofit fundraising, and in our conversation we chatted about the tendency of nonprofits to be more than a bit behind the curve when it comes to adoption of new ideas/technologies…but that’s old news. We also chatted about the organizations that have decided to take a bit of a chance on online fundraising, and that have done some incredible things. We’ve seen the same thing happen at PledgeBank — a small organization (or a not-yet-formed organization) trusts its supporters enough to put some modicum of responsibility in their hands, and gets a tremendous response.
I also chatted yesterday with Peter Dietz of Social Actions and the impressive lot behind the Social Actions Mashup (selected as a finalist in the NetSquared competition, btw). There was great conversation about the value in aggregating information, what the nonprofit sector can gain from the syndication of social actions, and how we can all work together to create more ways for more people to do more good. Really.
Finally, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend, Susannah Cowden, who is now working with Be the Change. As an organization that’s still forming and growing, there’s significant pressure to both be different and be innovative — I hear the same struggle from a lot of organizations in the U.S. While there are many folks who have every intention of trusting their supporters to act on their behalf and equipping them with the tools to do so, there are very few who actually do it.
I wanted to capture these conversations because these themes are not at all unique. We all know that nonprofits move slowly when it comes to technology. We all know that those willing to take a chance are, more often than not, rewarded. And we all know that there’s a delicate balance between controlling your organization’s message (especially if your tax status is 501(c)3 in the U.S.) and empowering your organization’s members.
What I think these conversations illuminated for me is the need for someone to cut through all of these lessons and to find ways to make real stuff happen, with real impact. That’s what mySociety is about: giving people “simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives.” And (I hope) that’s what PledgeBank enables. Holler (heather at pledgebank dot com) if you’re interested in working together to create a larger platform for collective community action.