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
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.
This week, we heard from a user whose MP’s agent had threatened to take him to court if he shared an image, showing TheyWorkForYou data, on social media. Here’s what we think of that.
Available to all
Prior to an election, you’ll see all sorts of messaging trying to turn you towards, or against, specific candidates — some from political parties, some from independent campaigning groups, and some just from individuals who feel strongly.
At mySociety, we’re non-partisan: we strive for neutrality in our websites and services, and they are available to everyone, no matter which part of the political spectrum you are on. We won’t tell you how to vote; we will, however, present the facts and give you the tools that allow you to make up your own mind.
When we looked into the image our user had wanted to share, we found that there are many similar images, generated from a single source, using TheyWorkForYou voting data to highlight the voting records of Conservative MPs in marginal seats. Here’s what they look like:
And for political balance, here’s an image with a similar intent, highlighting a Labour MP’s voting record (but not from this election, sorry: we have been unable to find anything more up to date, but feel free to send us any you’ve seen and we’ll add them to this post):
We have no problem with our data being shared in this way, so long as the wording is unchanged, and the source is credited (as clearly it hasn’t been in our latter example). Adding the source benefits everyone, because while top-line statements like these are, of necessity, brief in a shareable image, they are backed up on TheyWorkForYou with links to the actual votes that substantiate them.
As we say, this data is available to anyone, and TheyWorkForYou covers every MP, so there’s no unfair political advantage being gained here. The votes are statements of fact; and indeed there may well be people looking at a list like that and finding that, actually, they quite agree with everything on the list, in which case the image would be having the opposite effect from that intended.
If you read our blog post from yesterday, you’ll know that we’ve recently introduced Facebook and Twitter share buttons to make it super-easy to share any MP’s votes. So, in short: share our stuff. That’s part of what it’s for.
And yet, the user we mentioned had been told by someone working on behalf of the MP’s campaign that he would be ‘taken to court’ if he shared such an image, as it was ‘based on unreliable data’.
All of our voting analyses are based on the official data put out by Parliament, and we do our utmost to ensure that they are fair: while much of TheyWorkForYou’s content is published out via automated processes, we recognise that voting data is too subtle and sensitive to manage in any way other than manually. That’s why all our voting information is painstakingly compiled by hand, in a process we’ve described previously in this post.
MPs do occasionally contact us to question the wording of certain voting topics, and we are always happy to explain how we arrived at them, and improve them if we agree that the votes have been misrepresented.
We would be quite happy to hear directly from the MP in question and to discuss any information which they perceive as inaccurate: we note that their voting page has been in place on TheyWorkForYou since August 2015 (it has been viewed by over 5,500 people, 67 of them from within the Houses of Parliament) and in that time we have not been contacted with any query.
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Politwoops tracks politicians’ tweets, and reports the ones that are deleted.
Often those tweets are deleted because of a typo: everyone makes simple mistakes with the buttons on their devices, and politicians are no less human than the rest of us.
But Politwoops’s targets are public servants who use Twitter to communicate with that public. And sometimes the contents of the tweets they delete are not simply the result of bad typing. Those tweets can be especially interesting to people whom those politicians are representing: sometimes they may be evidence of a usually-suppressed prejudice, or an attempt to remove evidence of a previously held opinion that is no longer convenient.
In effect, Politwoops is a public archive of direct quotes that would otherwise be lost.
And also… EveryPolitician
Our EveryPolitician project is an ever-growing collection of data on every politician in the world (we’re not there yet, but we’re over 230 countries and 72,700 politicians in, and counting).
Like Politwoops, our data includes politicians’ Twitter handles. But also a lot more besides.
We make that data useful by putting it out in consistent, simple formats — the simplest of which is a comma-separated value (CSV) file for each term of a legislature. In practice, that means if you want a spreadsheet of the current politicians in your country’s parliament, then EveryPolitician is probably the place for you.
Put them together…
Now, Politwoops predates EveryPolitician by several years, and they’ve being doing their thing without needing our data just fine. In fact, Politwoops has been happily politwooping since 2010 (Politwoops is a project of the Open State Foundation, based in the Netherlands).
Behind the scenes, it works pretty much the way you’d expect: with a list of politicians’ Twitter handles for each country where it’s running.
But… who doesn’t want to add something extra for free? Our data also includes Twitter handles (mostly but not entirely from the same public sources Politwoops were using). So that meant they could take our CSVs and match each line—all that extra data!—with the Twitter handle.
Better, for free
So last year, they augmented their data with ours for one very simple win: they get to know party affiliation for the politician associated with each of those twitter handles. Well, actually they get to know lots of other things besides party — gender, date of birth, or… well, all our other data, if they wanted it. But just party? That’s also fine.
This all means that Politwoops now shows the party of each tweet’s deleter, just because they merged our CSV with theirs. Lovely!
Although party affiliation was the detail Politwoops went for, it turns out the other data from EveryPolitician was a little too tempting for them to ignore… So recently they’ve been doing some playful analysis on their statistics using the gender breakdown that EveryPolitician data makes possible too. You can see more on the Politwoops website.
You can too
To be clear: Politwoops did this, not us. We’re committed to doing the groundwork of finding, collecting and collating the data, and making it available (and, additionally, endlessly checking for updates… if you’re interested in how this all works, you can read our bot’s own blog). We do this so people who want to get on with using the data can do just that. As did, in this case, Breyten and his team at Politwoops.
EveryPolitician’s data is available as plain CSVs for this kind of thing, but we also provide a richer JSON version too if that’s more useful to you. All the files are downloadable from the website. If you’re a coder who wants to dive in, there are libraries to make it even easier for you (the EveryPolitician team works in Ruby, so we wrote the everypolitician gem, but there are also ports to Python and PHP).
For more information see the docs.everypolitian.org.
The EveryPolitician bot wrote its own version of this blog post, which goes into a little more detail of the process.
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.