Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.
This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.
So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.
1. We do not have a political agenda
We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.
We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.
That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?
We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.
2. Our data is largely created by Parliament
We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.
Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.
TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.
In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.
3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines
Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.
It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.
4. But there are some things we have to do by hand
So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.
However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.
TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.
Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.
For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.
But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.
While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.
That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.
5. We are committed to transparency
Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.
We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.
(Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).
Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.
For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:
More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.
This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.
Which leads us to the next point:
6. We’re still working on it
Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.
One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.
When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.
7. Facts are facts
But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.
We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.
We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.
We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.
And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.
Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and — oh, what’s this? — “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.
As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.
8. We must be doing something right…
175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.
When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?
It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.
9. We’re open to discussion
We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.
As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.
But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.
10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding
Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.
Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.
We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.
But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.
So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.
And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.
As I was doing so, something felt wrong.
Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.
Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.
No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.
So, what now?
I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:
FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.
And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.
If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.
Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.
We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.
1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.
Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.
Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.
I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.
This victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses. The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal
I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.
Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy. By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.
Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas  EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)
Today we’ve added twelve new topics to the voting pages for every MP on TheyWorkForYou. Covering important areas such as membership of the EU, mass surveillance of data, and military action against Daesh/ISIL, these voting lines will help give an even better at-a-glance picture of what your MP stands for, and how that was reflected in Parliament.
Check your own MP’s votes on these topics by inputting your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage:
and then clicking on the ‘voting record’ tab:
You’ll see all your MP’s voting lines laid out in several topic areas on a single page:
From there, it’s easier to explore further by clicking ‘show votes’, which will take you to a page listing every vote taken into consideration when calculating the MP’s stance.
For a full explanation on the methodology behind these pages — a combination of manual and automated inputs — see our previous blog post.
How do we choose which topics to include? It’s all driven by what MPs have voted on in Parliament, and consequently how much data there is to draw from in any specific subject area (there are also a few ‘topics in waiting’: areas we know we want to cover, but where there need to be some more votes before we have sufficient data to present meaningful stances).
New topics in full
The new voting lines we’ve added are:
- In Constitutional Reform
- Reducing the voting age
- In Home Affairs
- Mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities
- Merging police and fire services under Police and Crime Commissioners
- In Transport (a new topic area)
- High speed rail network
- Greater public control of bus services
- Publicly-owned railways
- In Foreign Policy & Defence
- UK membership of the EU
- The right to remain for EU nationals
- Military action against the group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh
- In Taxation & Employment
- The reduction of Capital Gains Tax
- In Housing (a new topic area)
- Secure tenancies for life
- Charging a market rent to high earners renting a council home
We hope this helps you see, even more clearly, the effect your MP has had on a broad range of national and international issues.
Don’t forget that we also offer the chance to discuss these votes (or any other issue) with your MP. Just click the ‘send a message’ button at the top of the page to go to WriteToThem.com, where you can compose a message to your representatives quickly and easily.
- In Constitutional Reform
Even official records aren’t as safe as you might think they are. The archive of a country’s political history might be wiped out in a single conflagration.
Take the example of Burkina Faso, a beautiful West African country that is, sadly, perhaps best known to the rest of the world for its troubled political past.
The uprising in Burkina Faso in 2014 led to a fire in the National Assembly building and archives office. Nearly 90% of the documents were lost. Now the National Assembly is working to reconstruct the list of its parliament’s members before 1992.
This means that the data EveryPolitician has on Burkina Faso has nothing from terms before 1992. We’ve got some data for six of the seven most recent terms from the National Assembly so far, of which five are live on the site. Even though that data is not very rich (there’s little more than names in many cases; and the 6th term was transitional so data on that one’s membership might remain elusive) it’s a beginning.
We know from experience that data-gathering often proceeds piecemeal, and names are always a good place to start.
As Tinto finds new data, whether that’s more information about the politicians already collected or membership lists of the missing terms before 1992, we’ll be adding that to EveryPolitician too.
A vast collection
When people ask what EveryPolitician is, we often say, ‘The clue’s in the name’. EveryPolitician aims to provide data about, well … every politician. In the world.
(We’ve limited our scope — for the time being — to politicians in national-level legislatures).
The project is growing. Since our launch last year, we’ve got data for legislatures in 233 countries. The amount of data we’ve collected currently comprises well over three million items. The number of politicians in our datafiles is now in excess of 70,000.
Seventy thousand is an awful lot of politicians.
In fact, if you think that might be more politicians than the world needs right now, you’re right: as the Burkina Faso example shows, EveryPolitician collects historic data too.
So as well as the people serving in today’s parliaments, our data includes increasing numbers of those from the past. (Obviously, if you have such data for your country’s legislature, we’d love to hear from you!)
More than just today’s data
The Burkina Faso fire is an illustration of the value of collecting and preserving this historic data.
Of course, we’re fully aware of the usefulness of current data, because we believe that by providing it we can seed many other projects — including, but in no way limited to, parliamentary monitoring sites around the world (sites like our own TheyWorkForYou in the UK, or Mzalendo in Kenya, for example).
Nonetheless, we never intended to limit ourselves to the present. By sharing and collating historic records too, we hope to enable researchers, journalists, historians and who-knows-who-else to investigate, model, or reveal connections and trends over time that we haven’t even begun to imagine. We know this data has value; we look forward to discovering just how much value.
But it turns out we’re providing a simpler potential benefit too. EveryPolitician’s core datafiles are an excellent distributed archive.
What Burkina Faso’s misfortune goes to show is that, as historians know only too well, data sources can be surprisingly fragile.
In this case the specific situation involves paper records being destroyed by fire. That is a simple analogue warning to the digital world. Websites and their underlying databases are considerably more volatile than the most flammable of paper archives.
Database-backed sites are often poor catalogues of their pasts. Links, servers and domain registrations all expire. Access to data may be revoked, firewalls can appear.
Digital data doesn’t fade; instead it is so transient that it can simply disappear.
Of course, we cannot ourselves guarantee that our servers will be here forever (we’re not planning on going anywhere, but projects like this have to be realistic about the longer view).
There is an intriguing consequence of us using GitHub as our datastore. The fact is, the EveryPolitician data you can download isn’t coming off our servers at all. Instead, we benefit from GitHub’s industrial-scale infrastructure, as well as the distributed nature of the version control system, git, on which it is based. By its nature, every time someone clones the repository (which is easy to do), they’re securing for themselves a complete copy of all the data.
But the point is not necessarily about data persisting far into the next millennium — that’s a bit presumptuous even for us, frankly — so much as its robustness over the shorter cycles of world events. So, should any nation’s data become inaccessible (who knows? for the length of an interregnum or civil war, a natural disaster, or maybe just a work crew accidentally cutting through the wrong cable outside parliament), we want to know the core data will remain publicly available until it’s back.
Naturally there are other aspects to the EveryPolitician project which are more — as modern language would have it — compelling than collecting old data about old politicians. But the usefulness of the EveryPolitician project as a persistent archive of historical data is one that we have not overlooked.
If you’ve used WriteToThem, you’ll know that two weeks after you submit a message to your MP, we send a follow-up questionnaire to check whether you received a response.
Each year, we collate that data to see how MPs are doing at responding to constituents’ mails*, and we publish the results. (This year, we waited a bit longer than usual so that we could cover a full year since the general election.)
They’re now live, so you can go and check exactly how your own MP did — just enter your postcode.
Some interesting stats
- Because we’ve been running these figures since 2005 (with a gap between 2008-13), we can make some comparisons. We’re disappointed to see that the responsiveness rate of MPs has been steadily declining. In 2005, 63% of respondents indicated that they’d had a reply; this year, that’s down to 50%.
- Before we analysed the data, we thought that new MPs, elected in 2015, would perhaps perform better than the jaded incumbents. Not so: on average ‘old’ MPs responded to 53.07% of constituents’ messages, while the newly-elected managed only 46.10%. One new MP, Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, came in at 635 out of the 642 MPs eligible for inclusion.
- Receiving more mail doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll perform poorly. Notable in this respect is Gerald Kaufman, who managed a 79% responsiveness rate despite having the second largest postbag.
- And being in the public eye doesn’t necessarily impact an MP’s responsiveness: Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn performed poorly, but have done so in prior years, too. Equally, we suppose it follows that a poor responsiveness level doesn’t necessarily impact on electoral success.
- We were curious to know whether there’s a gender divide when it comes to responsiveness. There is, but it’s very slight: on average male MPs responded to 52% of correspondence; female MPs to 50%.
- And another thing we’ve been asked about, sometimes by MPs themselves. There is no significant relationship between parliamentary constituency size and responsiveness. In other words, having more people in a constituency does not automatically mean that the MP is a poor responder.
Anyway, enough of this — go and check how your MP did, and then tell everyone else to do the same.
*This needs a caveat. Our data only covers messages sent via WriteToThem, and, furthermore, only those messages where users completed the questionnaire. You can see the full methodology on the rankings page.
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.
For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.
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.
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.
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:
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.