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.
Subscribe to our Repowering Democracy: our weekly newsletter on democracy and technology
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 convey “up 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.”
Subscribe to Repowering democracy
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 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.
Subscribe to Repowering democracy
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.
Subscribe to Repowering democracy
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.Donate now
This blog post was originally published 28/07/2022 – and updated in June 2023
Image: Monisha Selvakumar