How do you know when Parliament is going to be debating the things you care about? One way is to use TheyWorkForYou—you can set it up to send you handy reminders ahead of time.
On the agenda
The legalisation of cannabis is one of those topics that people have strong opinions about, and we’ve noticed a few tweets where people are saying that they’ve used WriteToThem.com to share their views with their MPs, ahead of today’s Westminster Hall debate on the matter.
Of course, you can share your thoughts on any topic with your MP, at any time. Doing so just before a debate is useful, though, as it means your representative is more likely to take your views into consideration before voting or speaking.
TheyWorkForYou.com, our site that covers the UK’s parliaments, actually makes it pretty easy to time your messages correctly. As well as publishing everything spoken in Parliament, it also shows upcoming business.
More than that, you can subscribe to any key word or phrase within the upcoming business section, and we’ll send you an email whenever it arises. So, whether you care deeply about cannabis, or your interests lie in another topic all together, you’ll know when a debate is scheduled.
And then you can get straight onto WriteToThem to write your message.
Here’s how to set up your ‘future business’ alert:
1. Go to the future business page on TheyWorkForYou.
2. Enter your chosen word or phrase in the search box to the right (titled Search upcoming business, or set up a future business email alert)
3. You’ll be taken to a page showing any future business containing your keyword. On the right of that page you’ll see a box like this:
Notice the small text: (or just forests in Future Business). Click on this if you’d like to receive results only for forthcoming debates.
4. You’ll be asked to confirm what you want:
5. Click ‘subscribe’ and you’ll be asked to input your email address (unless you are already logged in). Check your email to confirm your address and you’re done — all ready to fire off an email to your MP next time something important is on the horizon.
We received a tweet this morning wondering how many emails there had been to MPs on the subject of the ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign, and whether WriteToThem, our contact-a-politician website, might have some relevant data.
Even if we could, WriteToThem is a completely non-partisan service, and users may be writing on either side of an issue.
We do use Google Analytics, which collects entirely anonymous statistics on how many people visit the site, how long they stay on it, etc. There is one clear indication that the site is being used more than usual: user numbers on Thursday and Friday of last week were about 5 or 6 times higher than the norm. There was a dip at the weekend — there generally is — and numbers have continued to climb on Monday and today.
Google Analytics also allows us to see which websites have referred people to our site. Over this period, it seems it was mostly Facebook and the petitions site Avaaz.
With most websites, you can regard visitor numbers as a pretty good indication of your success — if they’re going up, then at least something’s right.
With WriteToThem though, user numbers regularly fluctuate so wildly that you could be fooled into thinking we’re on the brink of disaster, or the brink of world domination, from one week to the next.
In the normal way of things, there seems to be a baseline at which the UK populace will toddle along. A small percentage of us will write to our politicians whenever we have an opinion that we want to express, but most of us are content with a few acerbic Facebook updates or heated discussions down the pub.
Then, now and then, an issue comes along which grips the nation. This week, that would indeed appear to be the issue of refugees.
Of course, we’re always glad to see the site used, and we hope that people who are referred to it because of an issue they care about will also remember it’s there whenever they need to contact their representatives in the future.
Incidentally, if you are running any kind of campaign and you would like to harness WriteToThem’s functionality on your own site, don’t forget that we’ve written a guide to doing just that.
Back in November 2013, we asked you what improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou.
One answer dominated: you wanted more information about how MPs vote.
Adding information on voting has been the single biggest project on the site since its launch, and has required several different phases of development. We announced each of these as it happened, but now that we’re at the end of this large piece of work, it seems like a good time for a complete overview.
So let’s take a look at exactly what it has involved—and, more importantly, what it means for you.
We’ll start with a rundown of features, then go into more detail about how they are created at the end of the post, for those who are interested.
What vote information means for you
1. You can easily see how your MP voted
Just how much do you know about how your MP voted on the stuff that matters? Most of us would have a hard time keeping up with every vote, simply because it isn’t information that’s widely publicised.
On TheyWorkForYou, you can see a run-down of how any MP has voted on key policies, by visiting their page on the site and clicking the ‘voting record’ tab (see image, above). We’ve created summaries of their stance on all kinds of matters, including the EU, same-sex marriage, NHS reform and a lot more.
Each of these summaries is compiled from every vote the MP has made on a motion that impacts on that policy.
You can click ‘show votes’ (see image above) to see the specific votes that go to make up any particular stance, and we’ve laid them all out in plain English so that it’s easy to grasp exactly what the issue is.
And from there you can click through to the website Public Whip, where you can explore votes in more detail, including lists of who voted for or against any given motion.
2. You can find out how strongly your MP feels
When we first presented voting information, we said that an MP had voted ‘strongly for’ or ‘moderately against’ certain policies, which led to quite a large postbag from people asking, “How can you vote strongly, surely you either vote for or against?”.
We wrote in the second half of this blog post about the wording changes we made to clarify the fact that these stances are calculated from a number of votes.
3. You can assess if your MP is a sheep or a lone wolf
We’ve pulled out all the votes which differ substantially from the way that the majority of each MP’s party voted. If your MP has voted against the flow, you’ll see something like this on their page:
Why do we highlight this type of vote? Because we think they’re a really good indication of where an MP feels strongly enough about something to risk sticking their neck out. It’s also a great way to check the truth when people say, “MPs? They’re all the same”.
4. You can understand the background to the votes
Generally speaking, there’s a debate before any vote takes place in Parliament, covering all the matters which may be topmost in MPs’ minds before they cast their lot.
Clicking on the ‘show full debate’ link from the topic pages (see image above) will give you the full context.
How we compile vote information
If that all seems nice and simple, well, great! That was our aim.
Putting it all together definitely wasn’t so simple, though. Voting information has never been previously presented all in one place in quite this way before—on TheyWorkForYou or anywhere else, to the best of our knowledge—so we had to figure out how to import the data and how best to display it.
As with much of our work, it’s a mixture of manual graft and automating whatever we can. Some things, like rewriting votes so that everyone can understand them, can’t be done by a computer. But many of our users are surprised to learn just how much of what we publish out is untouched by human hand.
Our Developer Struan, who did the most recent round of work on the voting records, said:
We get all our voting data from PublicWhip, a site set up by Francis Irving (once of mySociety) and Julian Todd. Public Whip takes the data we [TheyWorkForYou] produce from Hansard and extracts only the information on votes (or divisions in Parliamentary jargon) that take place in Parliament. It then allows you to look up how an MP or a Lord voted.
Let’s just think about that for a moment. We’re looking at a process where Parliament publishes Hansard, TheyWorkForYou scrapes the data and re-presents it, Public Whip extracts the voting information and presents that, and TheyWorkForYou takes that voting information back for its own voting pages. Simple…
One of the first things we did was to ‘translate’ the votes into plain English, so that it was very clear what was being voted for or against— and if you want to read more about that process, we talked about it in a blog post back in July 2014.
That allowed us to move to the next phase, as Struan explains:
Public Whip groups related votes together into policies, e.g renewing Trident, so you can see how an MP voted on the policy as a whole.
It does this by saying which way an MP would have to vote each of the divisions in the policy if they agreed with the policy. It then takes the MP’s votes on each division in the policy and assigns a score to it based on how they voted. These scores are then added up and compared to the score they would get if they always voted in agreement with the policy. The closer the MP’s score is to the score of an MP who always voted in agreement with the policy, the more they agree with the policy.
Thanks to Public Whip’s grouping, we were able to start compiling our MPs’ voting records along those same policy lines.
One of the most fiddly parts of the process was figuring out how to ensure that the information we present is a true, non-biased representation of the MP’s intentions. You might think that a vote is quite a simple matter – it’s either a yes or a no for a particular motion. But as soon as we started displaying votes within a policy, things got a bit trickier.
Some divisions in a policy can be marked as important and voting with the policy in those divisions is worth more points. This is to prevent voting in agreement on a set of minor votes, e.g “Parliament will commission a report on the future of Trident”, outweighing voting against something important, e.g. “Renew Trident”. It also reflects the way Parliament works, often with several smaller votes on parts of a bill and then a vote on the bill as a whole.
For clarity I should point out here that sometimes voting no in a division is a vote for the policy, e.g voting no in a “This house believes Trident should not be renewed” division would clearly be a vote for our example “Renew Trident” policy.
This approach also helps where one vote straddles several topics: for example, consider a vote against the Budget when the Budget contains many proposals including, say, the capping of VAT. It’s quite possible that an MP may be for the capping of VAT but broadly against several other motions covered by the Budget, and so decides to vote against it on balance. So long as we mark the Budget vote as a weak vote for the capping of VAT, its significance should be properly accounted for.
Where we don’t have enough information to show a stance, for example where an MP never voted on the topic, is too new to have had a chance to vote on the topic, or all their votes on the topic have been labelled as ‘weak’, we say so:
A final little subtlety is the difference between “Never voted” on a policy and votes where the MP was absent. If it says an MP has never voted on a policy that means they were elected after all the divisions in the policy took place so did not have a chance to vote on them. Absent means they could have voted in the divisions but did not.
Absent votes count towards your score but at half the rate of voting in agreement with the policy. This is so that an MP who votes in agreement with the policy in one division and then misses all the other divisions shows as agreeing with the policy rather than against as it would if no score was assigned to absent votes. That does currently mean that if they were always absent it shows, slightly unhelpfully, as “a mixture of for and against”.
It’s not an ideal system as it does produce some odd results occasionally but it mostly works.
To show where an MP has voted against the majority of their party, we have to figure out a similar score across the party as a whole.
This is exactly the same process, only we add up all the votes by all the MPs but the maths is pretty much the same.
All in a day’s work
As mentioned at the top of this post, vote information was our most-requested addition. And rightly so! Our MPs represent us, so naturally we want to see their track records, quickly and easily.
If you’re not an expert, you might not have known how to find this information before. And that’s essentially what TheyWorkForYou aims to do: make the workings of Parliament more accessible for everyone.
Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.
For a while now, TheyWorkForYou has shown how your MP voted on key topics.
What it hasn’t done, until this week, is give a crucial piece of context. That is, how do your MP’s votes differ from those of their colleagues in the same party?
We all know that, on many issues, the whip ensures that MPs vote according to the party line rather than their own convictions. So in theory, by examining the votes which diverge from the majority party vote, we might get the clearest picture of what an MP truly cares about.
And now, we’ve added a small piece of code to the site, which allows us to do just that. At the top of your MP’s page, you’ll now see text along these lines:
If your MP never disagrees with their party, you’ll just see the top line followed by a random selection of votes.
The importance of wording
The screenshot above shows another small change we’ve made to TheyWorkForYou: just a matter of wording, this time.
When we first started displaying how MPs had voted, we used terms such as “voted strongly for”, “voted moderately against”, etc. This was to allow us to represent a range of positions along a spectrum for each topic.
For every topic, such as EU Integration, or smoking bans, several different votes are analysed. The ‘show votes’ button, as seen above, takes you to a page where these are listed.
However, we received a steady stream of emails, tweets and Facebook messages asking how an MP can vote ‘strongly’ or ‘moderately’ for something. To a fly-by reader, it seemed nonsensical, because of course they were thinking of that fact that MPs vote for or against a single motion.
To counteract this, we’ve used words which we hope encapsulate the concept of a series of votes over time – words like ‘consistently’, ‘occasionally’ and ‘never’.
Choosing these words proved to be harder than we’d anticipated, and, after a long heated discussion between colleagues, resulted in a straw poll asking anyone we could find to arrange pieces of paper in a line to indicate how they perceived their strength.
We finally came up with an answer that the majority agreed on—and we haven’t had any mail on the subject since then. Let’s cautiously call that a win for careful wording.
So, the results are in. Some of us have a brand new MP. Others will see the same familiar face returning to the benches of Westminster.
Either way, the important questions remain the same:
- What will your MP do in Parliament?
- Will they speak about the things that matter to you?
- How will they vote in your name?
The easy way to keep up
TheyWorkForYou.com makes it very easy to keep check: you can even sign up to receive an email whenever your MP speaks. These are in the form of a daily digest, and we only send them on days when your MP has actually contributed to a debate.
It’s the low-effort way to see exactly what your MP is getting up to, with no spin, just the facts. Click here for our easy sign-up.
If you already receive alerts, but your prior MP has lost their seat, be sure to set up an alert for the new one now. We’ll be sending reminders to all current subscribers.
There’s no need to cancel the previous alert, however: if your old MP isn’t in Parliament, we simply won’t be sending any more emails about them.
Spare a thought for us over the night of May 7th – for, when the nation wakes up to the General Election results, we’ll have been up all night updating TheyWorkForYou.
As you might imagine, elections are bitter-sweet times for us here at mySociety. On the one hand, swingometers, marginals and ballot boxes are about as exciting as life gets for a bunch of political geeks. On the other, we have only a short window of time in which to ensure our parliamentary websites reflect the new administration.
In previous years, this has meant manually updating an XML file and running an import script 650 times – slightly arduous, even for the most dedicated civic coder. This year, we’re taking advantage of the fact that YourNextMP exists and several of us will be staying up anyway to see the results, and hoping to do things a little differently.
As each result is announced (or potentially even earlier, if it’s clear that there’s only one possible winner), site administrators will be logged in to YourNextMP, where they’ll have access to a “this person won!” button. We’ll be on a rota throughout the night, sharing duties with the equally dedicated Democracy Club volunteer team.
When that button is clicked, YourNextMP will update, and TheyWorkForYou will notice and automatically update its underlying JSON data.
This is the data we match you with when you input your postcode on the homepage, meaning that TheyWorkForYou should be a great place to find out who your next MP is as soon as you wake up (assuming the results are in) on 8th May.
UPDATE: If you are interested in the technical aspects of the YourNextMP and TheyWorkForYou updates, you may like to read more about it in this thread.
A blank canvas
Note that new MPs will not have a great deal on their pages yet: TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages are built up of voting and debating activity, past positions and expenses, etc, and of course, totally new MPs will have none of that. But there’s one important feature that you should take advantage of on Friday—the ‘subscribe’ button.
Sign up, and we’ll send you an email every time your new MP speaks in Parliament, so you can keep track of exactly what he or she is saying in your name. If you were previously following an MP who has resigned or lost their seat, don’t forget to follow the new one! We’ll be sending out a message straight after the election to remind you.
Another website which will require a lot of attention post-election is WriteToThem, which matches you with your local and national politicians so that you can contact them.
Unfortunately, WriteToThem takes a little longer to update, as we rely on data, including email addresses, from external sources. We’ll be updating as soon as we can. Meanwhile, if you have an urgent message for your MP or councillors, you may find that you can locate direct email addresses on the official Parliament and council websites.
Of course, there are many factors that you’ll consider before you cast your vote in the general election. But we think that one important quality in an MP is that they respond to their constituents.
So you may wish to check your own MP’s performance on the latest WriteToThem responsiveness league table. Just put in your postcode and you can see how they did in 2014.
Where the data comes from
When you send a message to your MP using our site WriteToThem, you’ll receive an automated email two weeks later, asking whether or not you received a response. Every year, we take the data from these surveys and use it to assemble our responsiveness rankings.
You might think that MPs would be doing the best they can this year, in the run-up to the election. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case: overall, responsiveness has fallen a percentage point since last year, with 46% of emails receiving no reply.
You can find all our data and methodology on the league table page.
We know that messages sent to WriteToThem may not reflect all messages sent to an MP; we also know that not every message will require an answer. However, we think that, taken overall, our sample size of over 36,000 interactions can be seen as indicative.
Our team member Richard has now analysed every single one of those votes, and his findings have been added to each MP’s information on TheyWorkForYou.
We hope that’s great news for users: it means that we can now present a really full picture of how your MP voted on key topics.
It’s also potentially useful for developers, eDemocracy hackers and campaign groups, who can pick up our data and use it as they please.
So what exactly is the data?
Often MPs vote on motions which are, at first glance, rather incomprehensible and cryptic. They might vote for example on a motion to accept:
Amendments (a) to (d) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 1 to 4 and 6.
We’ve done the research to determine what MPs were actually voting on in each case, and turned their archaic language into plain English.
For every vote we’ve written a sentence to describe the effect of voting either “aye” or “no”. In relation to one MP’s vote on the evening of the 9th of July 2014 we write:
Mark Pawsey MP, Rugby voted for a residence test as an eligibility criteria for civil legal aid; subject to exceptions for refugees and those who have sought asylum.
In addition to describing every vote, we have decided whether it should be considered relevant to the topics we list on each MP’s page (see an example MP here, or check your own MP by inputting your postcode on the homepage, then clicking ‘voting record’ on your MP’s page).
If a vote was relevant to one of the statements we show on TheyWorkForYou, we then determined whether voting ‘aye’ or ‘no’ was a vote for or against the statement and if the vote was very important, or less important. By clicking on the green ‘details’ button beside each statement on an MP’s voting record you can see exactly which individual votes contributed to it as well as how we calculated which wording such as “moderately for” or “strongly against” to apply in each case.
Matters MPs have voted on since the 2010 general election have ranged from bankers’ bonuses to same sex marriage; from food banks to the “bedroom tax” (all of which have contributed to statements we show on TheyWorkForYou); from daylight saving to the regulation of hairdressers (neither included) – and plenty more. (We’ve written previously about how we select which topics to show on TheyWorkForYou.)
Of course, Parliament continues to hold votes, and we’ll be continuing to analyse the results as they come in – but it is good to know that we are bang up to date.
How can this data be used?
We have plenty of ideas ourselves, and we want to hear yours, too. With the forthcoming general election, one obvious use is for ‘who should I vote for?’ tools, which match users’ opinions with those of each party.
There’s also potential for comparisons between what constituents believe and what their elected representative has voted for.
No doubt there are many other ideas that haven’t even occurred to us yet – please do get in touch if you have ideas and you’d like to use this data.
The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.
But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.
That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:
“Does this answer the above question?”
Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.
That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.
Is the current administration more slippery?
It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.
In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.
In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.
Best and worst departments for a straight answer
Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.
Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.
We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.
You may remember that earlier this year we added new pages to TheyWorkForYou, showing MPs’ voting records in detail.
We’ve continued work on assessing votes, and you can now check your MP’s stance on seven new issues:
In Constitutional Reform:
- Transferring more powers to the Welsh Assembly
- Transferring more powers to the Scottish Parliament
In Foreign Policy and Defence:
- Strengthening the Military Covenant
In Social Issues:
- Laws to promote equality and human rights
In Taxation and Employment:
- An annual tax on the value of expensive homes (popularly known as a mansion tax)
And in Miscellaneous:
- Culling badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis
- Requiring pub companies to offer pub landlords rent-only leases
- Restricting the scope of legal aid
- Greater regulation of gambling
Check your own MP’s voting record here – just input your postcode on the homepage, then click on the ‘voting record’ tab on your MP’s page (or click ‘see full list’).
And don’t forget, if you want to discuss what you find with your MP you can use WriteToThem.com afterwards.