1. Just who is this Stephen Crabb?

    Well, it certainly all happened over the weekend: the resignation of one Secretary of State on Friday and the quick appointment of another by Saturday.

    It all left a lot of people wondering just who this Stephen Crabb fellow was, and what he stood for.

    Fortunately, there’s a very handy website where you can look up the details, debates and voting records of every MP — we refer, of course, to our very own TheyWorkForYou. Over the weekend, we saw the link to Crabb’s voting record shared across social media (and even good old traditional media; we were also mentioned on Radio 4’s Any Answers). Naturally, most interest was around Crabb’s voting habits when it comes to welfare and benefits.

    The upshot of this was that TheyWorkForYou saw almost three times our normal traffic for a Saturday. Over the weekend, 30% of all page views were for Crabb’s profile or voting records. In contrast, just 1.83% thought to check out his predecessor’s record: yesterday’s news already, it seems.

    So Stephen Crabb’s the new guy, and you may want to keep up to date with his contributions to Parliament. Sign up here and we’ll send you an email every time he speaks.

     

    Image: Number 10 (CC)

     

     

     

  2. Mzalendo: more reliable than the Kenyan government’s website

    For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.

    Parliamentary monitoring website Mzalendo, which runs on mySociety’s Pombola platform, carries more accurate MP data than the official Kenyan Parliament site.

    Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.

    Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.

    “The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.

    And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.

    Image: Richard Portsmouth (CC)

  3. People’s Assembly track the attendance records of South Africa’s MPs

    South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.

    A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.

    This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.

    According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.

    With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.

     

    South African MPs' attendance at committee meetings on People's Assembly

    Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)

  4. You asked for it: new voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    We recently added an Environment section to voting pages on TheyWorkForYou, so now you can see exactly how your MP voted on issues like fracking, measures to prevent climate change, and green energy, all in one place, like this:

    David Cameron's voting record on the environment

    Votes on environmental issues are clearly a priority for our users. They’ve been one of the most-requested additions in the TheyWorkForYou postbag over the last couple of years, and we’re glad to have fulfilled those requests, even if it took a while.

    At the same time, we’ve also made several other additions to existing sections on voting pages, so now you can check how your MP has voted in these areas:

    • Assisted dying
    • Trade union regulation
    • Taxation of banks
    • Enforcement of immigration rules
    • MPs’ veto over laws only affecting their part of the UK (AKA English votes for English laws)

    To check your own MP’s voting record, head over to TheyWorkForYou.com, and input your postcode on the homepage. Then click ‘voting record’ at the top of your MP’s page.

    If you have strong opinions about how your MP voted on any issue, don’t forget, you can let them know by clicking on ‘Send a Message’, which will take you over to WriteToThem.com.

     

    Image: Paul (CC)

  5. Timing is everything: why we’re publishing in June

    It’s around this time of year that we normally publish our responsiveness statistics on WriteToThem. However, if you’ve been looking forward to seeing your MP’s ranking, we’re afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer.

    Two weeks after you use WriteToThem to contact a representative, we send you an automated email to check whether or not you received a response. The data gathered by these questionnaires gives us a snapshot of how well the site is working for its users; it also allows us to highlight which MPs, which parties, and which parliamentary bodies do the best and worst at responding to constituents’ messages.

    We’ve habitually analysed  a calendar year of responses, January to December. Last year, though, was an election year, meaning that several MPs were active up until May, and then several new MPs took their seats in the new Parliament. So we’re going to run the data in June, looking at May 2015 to May 2016, followed by a four-week period to ensure we’ve received all the questionnaires.

    Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much, because we rank MPs by the percentage of mail sent through WriteToThem that they respond to (or more accurately, that our users tell us they have responded to). An MP may have responded to 100% of all their mail and then been voted out; their successor may then respond to 10% of their mail: both MPs would be ranked accordingly.

    In fact, that’s how we did it for 2005, the first year for which we published WriteToThem rankings, and also an election year*.

    But shifting the date like this means that the data will be less confusing. It’ll let us see how every current MP has performed, in terms of responsiveness, across a full year.

    Of course, one side effect of this is that if you’re an MP and you want to be top of the pops, you have an extra five months in which to boost your score… so, on your marks, time to get writing!

     

    Image: Debb Collins (CC)

     

    *2010 fell within a four-year period during which we didn’t publish rankings.

  6. How to contact your MP at just the right time

    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:

    future business subscribeNotice 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:

    confirm subscriptionAs you’ll see, this confirmation also teaches you a shortcut, if you ever want to search within Future Business directly: [keyword section:future]

    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.

     

    Image: Alexodus (CC)

  7. When an issue grips the nation, WriteToThem is there

    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.

    Well, it’s not quite as simple as it might seem. WriteToThem’s privacy policy makes it clear that we will only look at certain types of data: we won’t (bar exceptional cases related to the running of the site) look at the text of users’ messages, even in an automated fashion, so there’s no way of narrowing down which topics people are writing about, for example by counting how many users’ mails contain words like ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’.

    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.

    Rollercoaster

    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.

    Image: Andre Vandal (cc)

  8. Everything about TheyWorkForYou’s voting information

    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

    MP's voting record

    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.

    show votes on TheyWorkForYouYou 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.

    plain English votes on TheyWokrForYou

    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

    voted consistently

    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:

    how Yasmin Qureshi differs from party colleagues on TheyWorkForYou

    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

    see full debate

    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:

    not enough info

    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.

     

  9. How far does your MP tread the party line?

    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:

    stephen phillips voting in parliament

    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.

    Image: Harry Potts (CC)

  10. Track your MP’s activity with TheyWorkForYou

    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.

    All change

    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.

    Image: Parliament Acts by Jeroen van Luin (CC)