Here at mySociety, we talk a lot about how citizens can use Freedom of Information to hold public authorities to account. But it’s interesting to note that those same authorities, or members of them, sometimes also turn to FOI to solicit information from one another.
At first, this might seem strange: it’s a common assumption that authorities, not to mention high level people within them, have the power to summon any information they require in order to go about their duties.
But on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are several reasons why the public sector might turn to FOI rather than the more standard channels.
Surveying multiple authorities
Suppose you’d like to gather information from many different sources — say every hospital in the country — in order to compile a nationwide set of statistics.
A large task like this can be more orderly if managed via a set of Freedom of Information requests. Additionally, the obligation for authorities to respond may mean that your request goes into official channels — with built in timescales — helping to ensure that you get results.
As a nice illustration of this kind of usage, the Royal College of Surgeons surveyed NHS trusts to see if they are still using outdated fax machine equipment, generating a story which made the headlines back in July.
Members of Parliament may also use FOI to survey a large number of public authorities and gather statistics to support campaigns or an issue they’re working on.
We don’t know if members of the Scottish Parliament have more of an appetite for this than the UK one, but a quick search showed several using FOI to good effect. Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale surveyed residential units to see stats on vulnerable children going missing; Murdo Fraser accessed delay repayments figures from Scotrail; Mark Griffin discovered that council tax exemptions weren’t being utilised; and Monica Lennon uncovered the lack of sanitary product strategies across Scotland’s health boards.
That said, there are several UK MPs past and present who have made use of WhatDoTheyKnow, including the office of Diane Abbott and Dr Phillip Lee. There may well be others who prefer to use a pseudonym.
Then, those working in bodies such as universities and hospitals very commonly use FOI to support their academic or medical research.
We can’t neglect to mention that in all such cases, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro would be a great help to the process of sending out and organising multiple requests.
Putting information into the public domain
FOI’s not just useful for large scale requests, though. Those from public sector bodies may be using the Act to bring information into the open because they feel it should be known — and of course, making the request through WhatDoTheyKnow will do this by default, since all requests and responses are published online.
Researchers from Cardiff University used FOI as one tool when investigating how data is used by various public services to help in decision-making. They point out that, while fiddly and labour-intensive, FOI fills a gap in public knowledge:
The use of FOIs to investigate the integration of changing data systems is problematic and resource intensive for all parties. However, in the absence of a public list, the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for systematic inquiry.
Getting hold of information which has been hard to pin down
Sometimes FOI is a last resort when other avenues have been exhausted. On TheyWorkForYou we see a councillor writing to her own council to find out their preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, with the remark “I have tried to get this via the members case work system but I am not confident I will get an adequate response”.
Such frustration definitely motivates Members of Parliament into submitting FOI requests, too. There are other channels through which they can ask questions of course, for example by submitting Written Questions — a process by which both the question and answer are placed in the public domain, thanks to Hansard.
But should those channels fail, FOI is another option.
In 2010 the BBC wrote about how costs for redecoration of Parliament’s Head Office were only uncovered thanks to FOI, after a Written Answer was turned down on grounds of the information being too commercially sensitive.
The parliamentary staff and civil servants who deal with Written Answers are likely to be different from those who deal with FOI requests. Their criteria for release of information may also differ, as they are guided by different protocols.
Representatives at every level can use FOI as a channel for information which might have proven elusive via other means. We see on WhatDoTheyKnow that Parish Councils quite often send requests to higher tier authorities to get hold of information that will help them in their work, as is happening here for example.
Keeping an eye open
When it comes to authorities and representatives requesting information from other authorities, we can see the benefits. One of our team, Gareth, makes an analogy with the Open Source community, where because code is open to all, developers (sharing their expertise in their area of specialisation) can be quick to spot and repair any bugs: “It’s a really good thing for security. Many eyeballs make it easier to identify problems and suggest improvements”.
Similarly, FOI acts as a kind of safety net, another layer of assurance that our authorities are working as they should be.
If you’ve seen any other good examples of public sector to public sector FOI (for want of a better term), please do let us know.
If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.
From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.
The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.
This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.
Find out more about votes
Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.
How to sign up for alerts
Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.
Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.
Image: Luca Micheli
The protagonist and eponymous bodyguard, David Budd, is assigned to protect the story’s fictional Home Secretary, Julia Montague MP. And within the programme’s all thriller no filler formula, what really got our pulses racing was probably a welcome moment of calm for most viewers — Budd doing a quick Google to find out more about his new boss.
What came high in the search results? Why, TheyWorkForYou, of course (sorry, @Parlidigital!), and Budd was able to click through to see the Home Secretary’s voting record and just how it had impacted on his own past life fighting in Afghanistan. These tweets from the show’s designer reveal just how much thought has gone into every detail.
Image: Matthew Clark’s Twitter
Back in 2015, we thought long and hard about a small piece of wording on TheyWorkForYou: the text that goes with MPs’ voting stances (see the second half of this blog post). This wording tells you that an MP ‘consistently’ or ‘occasionally’ (or always, or never) voted for or against an area… such as military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Julia Montague, it turns out, is a very ‘consistent’ voter.
So proxy voting has been in the news again. For whatever reason, MP Brandon Lewis failed to honour an agreed pairing for Jo Swinson while she was on maternity leave. Those arguing in favour of a more formal system might say that this story — and the ensuing confusion — underlines the point perfectly.
You may remember that we submitted evidence to the Commons Procedure Committee inquiry on just this matter. Back in May, they published their report and recommendations for Parliament (you can see the summary here if you’re in a hurry).
While we broadly support measures that will formalise the currently informal system, our main interest is in digital data being available so that our own site TheyWorkForYou, as well as parliamentary sites run by other people, can disseminate the information clearly, aiding transparency and accessibility.
We were glad to see that this point has been acknowledged. Paragraph 59 of the report states:
Where a proxy vote is cast, it must to be recorded in a transparent way. When listing the result of divisions, both online and in its printed edition, the Official Report (Hansard) must note votes which were cast by proxy, by marking a symbol adjacent to the name of the absent Member and identifying the Member who cast the proxy vote. It should be the aim that this record should be treated as an integral part of the digital record of Commons divisions and should be shared as open data in a format compatible with Parliament’s Open Data output, both as part of the dataset for each division and as a standalone output.
So what next?
The recommendations were to have been debated in the House of Commons at the beginning of this month, but a lack of time prevented that from happening.
As it’s now the summer recess, the report will come back to the table in September. Presumably the recent display of how informal pairing can fail will stand as a rather good argument for these more official arrangements.
As for the mechanics of the matter, the implementation of proxy voting will require a number of changes to be made to Standing Orders (the rules by which each House’s proceedings are run), which the committee has suggested should be put to the House for decision at the same time as the report is debated.
If these are agreed to, they’ve recommended that the scheme should brought into force with immediate effect; there would then be a reassessment after they’ve run for twelve months to see if any further changes are required.
Image: Andrew Seaman
Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?
The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.
We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.
We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.
Does publishing a correspondence with MPs make it more likely that promises will be upheld, and citizens’ voices heard? Thanks to a piece of software we’ve just installed on a partners’ site, we may be about to find out.
As you may know, mySociety supports several partners’ projects worldwide: one of these is People’s Assembly, which, like our own TheyWorkForYou, makes it easier for citizens to find out who their representatives are and what they’re doing in Parliament.
PMG, who run the site, saw the potential of the Open Source WriteInPublic software, which was made by our friends in Chile Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente. Like mySociety’s own UK tool WriteToThem, WriteInPublic allows users to easily contact their representatives; where it differs is that the whole correspondence is published online. It’s a way of holding representatives to account, and making sure that promises or assertions are not forgotten.
Messages to MPs
Here in the UK, of course, MPs only deal with correspondence from their own constituents, but in South Africa, citizens may legitimately write to any MP. Messages are far more frequently about policy rather than personal issues, which might go some way to explaining why a WriteInPublic tool targeting MPs is a more viable prospect than it might be, say, in the UK.
PMG are yet to promote the tool through their newsletter and social media channels, but of course, users are discovering it for themselves on the homepage. In the five weeks since launch, more than 270 messages have been sent to MPs. These can be seen on the MPs’ pages, in a new ‘messages’ tab: here’s an example.
The new tool doesn’t just invite users to write to their MPs directly; People’s Assembly now sports two invitations on its homepage: one to write to an MP, and another to contact a Committee.
PMG have previously had some success in surveying their users over key issues of party funding: the survey results were sent to a sitting Committee, and the chairman reported that they were “very helpful for the Committee’s discussions” and were “used as a reference point to gauge public opinion especially where discussions were deadlocked”.
The group are keen to extend this kind of engagement, and this second tool allows citizens to send a message to a Committee dealing with specific issues such as public works or the police. PMG are planning to continue surveying their users, while also pointing them at the tool as a way of getting public input into the bill-making process.
In the spirit of Democratic Commons, the underlying contact data for the MPs tool (though not the Committees one) is also now being used by Wikidata and our EveryPolitician project, so it’s freely available for anyone to use. For us it’s a win-win when data can not only serve an immediate purpose, but will also go on to provide a resource for anyone else who needs it.
We’ve submitted evidence to the recent inquiry on whether Parliament should introduce a more formal system of voting by proxy. You can read our submission here, and see submissions from other organisations and individuals on Parliament’s website.
Voting by proxy is the practice of allowing someone else to cast your vote for you. In Parliament, when MPs go on extended leave, for example when they have a baby, there is no formal system in place; rather, arrangements are often made informally and, potentially, inconsistently.
A Member may approach a whip to request that they are paired with an MP from the opposition who will not be voting either, thus effectively cancelling out the votes that would have been cast. Apparently, there is also an informal tradition of allowing infirm or incapacitated (for example, because they are carrying a baby in their arms) representatives to vote from outside the chamber, but only when present within the precincts of the House. We were interested to see a remark in David Lammy MP’s own evidence:
I would also hope that the Committee might consider some way to end the practice notorious from the late 1970s of bringing seriously sick Members into Westminster in order to vote. This would carry severe reputational risk if repeated nowadays.
Why are we interested?
The inquiry is a direct result of the recent debate, on International Women’s Day, in which Harriet Harman led the call for a more formal system of voting by proxy for members on extended leave (and particularly on ‘baby leave’).
We agree that it’s important Parliament formalises this system, and we fully support any measure that will make life easier for parents, or those on extended leave for other life-changing reasons. And of course, we’re very much in favour of any initiative which will make parliamentary arrangements more transparent and accessible to the general public, which after all is the whole reason TheyWorkForYou exists.
But we also have a further interest in this subject. As you may recall, we were called out by MPs (and subsequently members of the public) for misrepresenting representatives on leave, since our site TheyWorkForYou was not displaying this information, leaving potential for members of the public to believe that such MPs were not attending to their duties.
In response to this, we are now able to manually add notes to the profile pages of those MPs who request it. However, as we outlined in our prior posts it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons, as summarised in our inquiry response.
We’re hoping that once the proxy voting system is formalised, the relevant information (that is, who is on extended leave, that a proxy is voting in their place, and the name of the proxy) will be released along with Parliament’s existing data outputs. You can read more about that in our response, but in short, this would allow us to display the information consistently and automatically, as we do for virtually all the rest of the information on TheyWorkForYou.
But it won’t only be useful for us. It’ll allow for the data to be displayed on Parliament’s own website, and of course will be of help to any website or tool which deals with Parliamentary activity and makes it easier for everyone to understand.
Image by Jessica Taylor (Parliamentary copyright, reproduced with the permission of Parliament). “Ayes to the right, noes to the left”. When there is a vote in the Commons, MPs leave their seats and walk into either the Aye or No lobby.
Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.
You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:
The @mySociety service @TheyWorkForYou is currently receiving criticism from some MPs following requests from @EmmaReynoldsMP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave.
— Mark Cridge (@markcridge) February 2, 2018
In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:
- We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
- In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices
TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.
We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.
So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.
MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.
This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.
It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.
The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.
We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.
So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.
If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.
If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.
This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.
However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.
With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.
It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.
That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.
@TheyWorkForYou – @EmmaReynoldsmp is saying that you refused to note that she was on maternity leave next to her voting record? Is that true? Is that something that is under active discussion? it seems to penalise female MPs as it stands https://t.co/7FfPFLY2EP
— Simon Burall (@sburall) February 1, 2018
TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…
TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.
Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.
Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.
So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.
And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.
Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.
Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.
Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output
As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:
We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.
From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!
Be the change you want to see
OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.
A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.
An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.
Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).
If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.
We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.
Image: Erik Lundqvist
We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.
New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.
The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.
Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.
A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!
Leaflets and posters for schools
We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.
While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.
We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).
It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.
Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.
We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.
Top image: Thomas William