The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.
But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.
That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:
“Does this answer the above question?”
Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.
That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.
Is the current administration more slippery?
It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.
In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.
In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.
Best and worst departments for a straight answer
Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.
Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.
We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.
You may remember that earlier this year we added new pages to TheyWorkForYou, showing MPs’ voting records in detail.
We’ve continued work on assessing votes, and you can now check your MP’s stance on seven new issues:
In Constitutional Reform:
- Transferring more powers to the Welsh Assembly
- Transferring more powers to the Scottish Parliament
In Foreign Policy and Defence:
- Strengthening the Military Covenant
In Social Issues:
- Laws to promote equality and human rights
In Taxation and Employment:
- An annual tax on the value of expensive homes (popularly known as a mansion tax)
And in Miscellaneous:
- Culling badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis
- Requiring pub companies to offer pub landlords rent-only leases
- Restricting the scope of legal aid
- Greater regulation of gambling
Check your own MP’s voting record here – just input your postcode on the homepage, then click on the ‘voting record’ tab on your MP’s page (or click ‘see full list’).
And don’t forget, if you want to discuss what you find with your MP you can use WriteToThem.com afterwards.
This post refers to the statistics we published for 2013. If you would like to see the latest responsiveness figures on WriteToThem, please visit www.writetothem.com/stats/.
We’ve just published the WriteToThem responsiveness league table for 2013. Check your MP’s performance here – just enter your postcode.
League table? What’s that?
Our website WriteToThem.com allows anyone to send a message to their elected representatives.
If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that two weeks later, we email you to ask whether or not your representative replied.
The information we obtain from this questionnaire is important to us: it helps us check that WriteToThem remains an effective way to contact politicians. But, when it’s analysed further, there are interesting results to be found.
WriteToThem launched in 2005. Until 2008, we published an annual ‘league table’, ranking MPs by responsiveness. We did this because we believe that it is a fundamental part of an MP’s duty to respond to their constituents’ messages; we wanted to recognise the best performers, and highlight the ones who were falling below expectations.
We haven’t run this data since 2008 – mainly because we’re a very busy organisation with a wide range of priorities.
But our users frequently ask for the latest stats, and to that end we’ve now run the 2013 data. Take a look at it here.
A big WriteToThem gold star to some MPs
The people of Romsey and Southampton North should rest easy. Their Conservative MP Caroline Nokes is on the case. Top of our league table, she replied to 96% of messages sent through WriteToThem.
Other good performers include Conservatives John Glen MP for Salisbury, and Justin Tomlinson representing North Swindon. Gloria De Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield, comes in at 4th position. Check your MP’s performance here.
And ‘could do better, see me’ to others
Mansfield residents may feel like nobody’s listening; their representative Alan Meale (Labour) comes bottom of the rankings, having replied to a sole message in 2013.
Other low responders were Khalid Mahmood (Labour), representing Birmingham Perry Barr; Kenneth Clarke (Conservative) for Rushcliffe; and Tom Blenkinsop (Labour) in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Check your MP’s performance here.
Not just MPs
WriteToThem isn’t just for contacting your MP. You can also use it to write to Lords, councillors, MEPs and members of the assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Running this data also allows us to make broad comparisons across all of these bodies – see our figures here.
The Welsh Assembly comes out looking fairly respectable, with a 70% response rate, while the House of Lords (who, it must be noted, do not have an obligation to respond to correspondence) slink in at 27%.
We’ve also sliced the data so you can see which political parties perform best and worst overall. Guess who comes top?
Data and methodology
- Our figures are based on our follow-up questionnaire, and of course, not all users respond to it. This data is based on 58,573 responses; you can see more about the data below.
- Letters sent via WriteToThem represent less than 1% of the entire parliamentary postbag, so this has to be taken as a sample rather than giving the full picture across the board.
- WriteToThem is not the only way that people can contact their representatives. For all we know, those poor performers may be responding perfectly adequately to messages sent by other channels – although we do make it as simple as we can for them to reply to WriteToThem users, and it’s our belief that the channel of communication should not make any difference.
We know, too, that some messages don’t require an answer. We would not expect to see a 100% response rate, and, by the way, we are considering altering our questionnaire so that it includes the option “I didn’t get a reply, but my message didn’t need one”.
- It’s also important to note that this league table is not a ‘laziness’ ranking. MPs do many other things besides reply to their constituents’ letters. Poor responders may be incredibly active in their constituency, or in Westminster debates. So it’s what it says it is – a responsiveness league table, no more, no less.
- WriteToThem sent 96,396 messages to MPs in the year 2013 and 103,965 to other elected representatives.
- 58,573 people answered our feedback survey about communicating with their MP.
The survey asked whether people had had a reply (not just an acknowledgement) from their representative.
People were surveyed initially after 2 weeks, and if they didn’t answer, were surveyed again after 3 weeks.
Because of this, and because of the way different people interpret the survey, you should interpret the figures with some caution.
We did not include any MP who received fewer than 20 messages in 2013, as the sample numbers are too small to be indicative. See the bottom of our league table for the MPs affected: here you may also see which MPs do not accept correspondence sent via WriteToThem.
Before preparing this table, we contacted the lowest performers to ensure that we had the right email addresses for them.
In the cases of Caroline Flint (9 out of 63 positive responses to our survey), Stephen Dorrell (18 out of 94) and Tom Watson (4 out of 42), we were informed that while the addresses were monitored, there were better ones to use – these are now in place on WriteToThem.
In the case of Alasdair McDonnell (10 out of 57), we were informed that we had the correct address. Jack Lopresti (4 out of 70) and Stephen Williams (53 out of 267) did not respond.Image credit: Barry (CC)
Do you know how your MP voted on the issues that matter to you?
If not, take a look at the new Voting Record section for your MP – accessed easily via TheyWorkForYou.com. Even if you don’t know who your MP is, we’ve made it easy to find their voting activities, and to easy understand their big decisions at a glance.
We’ve been working hard to increase the coverage of votes (we admit – they had got a bit out of date), as well as to make the experience of reading them much more pleasant. There are now so many bits of analysis we’ve actually split a separate voting page out for each MP, accessible from their main TheyWorkForYou page.
Now you can see how your MP voted on issues like these:
- Benefit levels – what goes up or down
- Foreign policy – including military decisions
- Social issues – eg gay marriage
- Constitutional issues – for example, how many MPs there are
Keeping things objective
TheyWorkForYou is a trusted, non-partisan service so we work hard to ensure that these voting lines are unbiased and neutrally worded.
We’re so keen to ensure that we don’t accidentally introduce unconscious biases, that we try to avoid entirely the business of picking which topics to analyse. Instead, we prioritise our analysis based on what gets voted on by lots of MPs (accounting for whole party abstentions), not what gets talked about in the news, or what we care about ourselves.
Wording is important
We have decided to prioritise clarity over expressing every detailed nuance of votes – this is an intentional choice, reflecting our priority of reaching citizens who have never paid attention to their MPs before. Consequently, vote summaries need to be concise and not use jargon.
For example, would we be wrong to use the common term ‘bedroom tax’? It’s a phrase that a lot of people would recognise from the press coverage, but the government’s preferred term is ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.
In the end, we went with reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the “bedroom tax”) – a balance between objectivity and clarity.
The bottom line
We’ve made lot of changes to the display for information on MPs recently. So if you have any feedback, good or bad, please us know what you think by leaving a comment below, or dropping us a line.
Note (June 2016): This post is now slightly out of date. FixMyTransport is no longer running, though all of the other APIs and tools listed are still available.
There is also one significant addition which developers should find useful: EveryPolitician, which provides data on all current politicians around the world (and, in the future, we hope, all past ones too). See more here.
Much of what we do here at mySociety relies on Open Data, so naturally we support Open Data Day. In case you haven’t come across this event before, here’s the low-down:
Open Data Day is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.
If you’re planning on being a part of Open Data Day, you may find some of mySociety’s feeds, tools and APIs useful. This post attempts to put them all in one place. (more…)
WriteToThem allows you to email the people who represent you – even if you don’t know who they are. Input your postcode, and you’ll see all your representatives, from local councillors, to your MP and MEPs. You can then choose who you want to write to, and send off your message.
Never done anything like this before? You’re not alone. In fact, we ask all our users whether this is the first time they have contacted a representative. The number who say ‘yes’ is consistenly over 50%.
Kate found WriteToThem in the same way that many others do: searches for phrases such as ‘contact my local MP’ bring a lot of users to the site.
I first came across WriteToThem a few years ago when looking for my local MP’s contact details. It was the first time I had contacted an MP, apart from when I wrote a letter to Parliament as part of a secondary school project.
I chose WriteToThem because it had a full list of representatives, as well as a letter template.
The first time I used the site, I got an almost immediate response from my local MP.
That’s great. Of course, every MP is different, and we can’t guarantee that they’ll respond – but it’s good to hear that yours was on the ball. So, what do you contact your representatives about?
I only write to an MP when I feel that public service providers have acted unprofessionally or not helped in any way.
I have written about more support being given to single working parents. I have written about traffic wardens handing out unjustified parking fines to cars with permits displayed, and I have also written about the lack of housing.
Has it been useful?
I have had responses to every letter, and I have also seen results: one of my letters about single working mothers was sent from my local MP to Iain Duncan Smith, and since April there has been more support around child-care.
WriteToThem is a direct and simple way to contact representatives. The site is easy to use, and every time I have used it I have had a response from the MP either by letter or email.
It’s a good way to get your opinions heard by politicians, and a good way to encourage positive change within local and national politics.
Thanks very much to Kate for telling us how she uses WriteToThem.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
- See also: our posts on FixMyStreet user, Steve and WhatDoTheyKnow user, Jonathan.
- If you are a regular user of any of our sites, do drop us a line – we’d love to profile you too.
MPs are about to review the first five years of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We’d like to encourage users of mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com to share their views and experiences with the MPs who are to carry out the review.
The review is being conducted by the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee.
The committee is currently inviting people to make submissions to it. The deadline for submissions is Friday 3 February 2012.
A memorandum from the Ministry of Justice has been prepared to brief the committee, that document notes, in paragraph 67:
Very little research has been published detailing the views of requesters of information.
Particularly in light of this we thought it would be worthwhile alerting our users to this review; if we could encourage our users to make submissions to the committee that might help ensure they receive balanced evidence: from outside, as well as within, the public sector.
While the committee is interested in any comments on the act’s operation, specific questions the committee has asked for comment on are:
- Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?
- Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?
Responses can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Details of how responses should be formatted and technical details relating to submission are available on the webpage announcing the call for submissions.
These issues have always been carefully chosen to give a simple but neutral top-line view of each MP’s voting activity. Judging by Twitter, they’re a fairly popular part of the site, too.
There’s way, way more tedious complexity behind producing these little summaries than you might think, and due to a lack of appropriately skilled people in our team over the last year we had let our vote analyses get a bit behind the times. If you’re really interested you can read about why authoring these things in such a scrupulously balanced way is so time consuming here.
We’re posting today to tell you that we have recruited a pair of excellent new part-time voting analysts, David and Ambreen, and they have recently produced the first of a new generation of voting summaries.
The first shows how each MP has voted on increasing the rate of VAT, and second on the recent changes to university tuition fees. We have also increased the number of votes which feed into the EU integration policy to bring it more up to date.
To see this new data, just pop along to TheyWorkForYou’s home page, stick in your postcode, and check out your own MPs’ page. Then, if you want to be made aware as soon as we’ve published the next analyses, please follow our new TheyWorkForYou Twitter account.
Lastly, I just want to say thank you to the vote analysts Ambreen and David, to senior developer Matthew and to uber-volunteer Richard Taylor for kicking this vital part of TheyWorkForYou back into top gear.
Image by European Parliament.
TheyWorkForYou has, until now, only covered things that have already happened, be that Commons main chamber debates since 1935, Public Bill committees back to 2000, or all debates in the modern Northern Ireland Assembly.
From today, we are taking the UK Parliament’s upcoming business calendar and feeding it into our database and search engine, which means some notable new features. Firstly, and most simply, you can browse what’s on today (or the next day Parliament is sitting), or 16th May. Secondly, you can easily search this data, to e.g. see if there will be something happening regarding Twickenham. And best of all, if you’re signed up for an email alert – see below for instructions – you’ll get an email about any matching future business along with the matching new Hansard data we already send. We currently send about 25,000 alerts a day, with over 65,000 email addresses signed up to over 111,000 alerts.
Mark originally wrote some code to scrape Parliament’s business papers, but this sadly proved too fragile, so we settled on Parliament’s calendar which covers most of the same information and more importantly has (mostly) machine-readable data. Duncan and I worked on this intermittently amidst our other activities, with Duncan concentrating on the importer and updating our search indexer (thanks as ever to Xapian) whilst I got on with adding and integrating the new data into the site.
I’ve also taken the opportunity to rejig the home page (and fix the long-standing bug with popular searches that meant it was nearly always Linda Gilroy MP!) to remove the confusingly dense amount of recent links, bring it more in line with the recently refreshed Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly home pages, and provide more information to users who might not have any idea what the site covers.
Signing up for an email alert: If you want to receive an email alert on a particular person (MP, Lord, MLA or MSP), visit their page on TheyWorkForYou and follow the “Email me updates” link. If you would like alerts for a particular word or phrase, or anything else, simply do a search for what you’re after, then follow the email alert or RSS links to the right of the results page.
One of the most popular features on TheyWorkForYou is the plain English, non-judgemental vote analyses on MP pages that say things like “voted strongly against introducing a smoking ban“. We call these ‘policies’, and they are authored by skilled people using the volunteer run PublicWhip website.
Making each one of these policies is a painstaking task, requiring good knowledge of how the Parliamentary voting system works, good writing skills, patience, and the strength of character not to let your own views about the issues cloud the analysis. It is of utmost importance to both mySociety and our users that these policies are fair and trustworthy.
Earlier this year we started to update the process by which we made new policies to make it even more rigorous, which we wrote about here. Marcus Fergusson and Stephen Young came onboard and did sterling work, but they have now moved on to greater things, and so we’re looking to recruit two to three new people to do this job. Uber volunteer Richard Taylor has been helping out recently, but this is really a job for two or more people.
You might very well ask ‘why two people, given the work is part time?’. The answer is that we really want every new policy to be cross-checked by two different people every time it is added or amended. This is to help eliminate possible mistakes, and prevent any unconscious biases.
We pay for this work on a piece work basis – £160 a time for a combination of one new policy authored, and one other policy double-checked. This money comes mainly from people making small donations, which I think helps keep everyone focussed on how important it is to get these right. We hope to add about two new policies a month, once the new team is up to speed.
If you’d like to be considered, please email email@example.com with ‘mspolicies’ in the subject line. Applications close 22nd November 2010.