1. Making votes easier to understand

    Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.

    Supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations, we’re now displaying  MPs’, Lords’ and Scottish Parliament votes on TheyWorkForYou more graphically, making them easier to understand at a glance:

    (Click the image to see this vote in situ.)

    For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.

    Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.

    Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:

    • All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
    • The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
    • As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.

    If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.

    We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.


    Image: Katie McNabb

  2. How your MP voted… in your email inbox

    If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

    From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

    The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

    This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

    Find out more about votes

    Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

    How to sign up for alerts

    Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

    Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

    Image: Luca Micheli

  3. Proxy voting and parental absence in Parliament: inquiry report

    So proxy voting has been in the news again. For whatever reason, MP Brandon Lewis failed to honour an agreed pairing for Jo Swinson while she was on maternity leave. Those arguing in favour of a more formal system might say that this story — and the ensuing confusion — underlines the point perfectly.

    You may remember that we submitted evidence to the Commons Procedure Committee inquiry on just this matter. Back in May, they published their report and recommendations for Parliament (you can see the summary here if you’re in a hurry).

    While we broadly support measures that will formalise the currently informal system, our main interest is in digital data being available so that our own site TheyWorkForYou, as well as parliamentary sites run by other people, can disseminate the information clearly, aiding transparency and accessibility.

    We were glad to see that this point has been acknowledged. Paragraph 59 of the report states:

    Where a proxy vote is cast, it must to be recorded in a transparent way. When listing the result of divisions, both online and in its printed edition, the Official Report (Hansard) must note votes which were cast by proxy, by marking a symbol adjacent to the name of the absent Member and identifying the Member who cast the proxy vote. It should be the aim that this record should be treated as an integral part of the digital record of Commons divisions and should be shared as open data in a format compatible with Parliament’s Open Data output, both as part of the dataset for each division and as a standalone output.

    So what next?

    The recommendations were to have been debated in the House of Commons at the beginning of this month, but a lack of time prevented that from happening.

    As it’s now the summer recess, the report will come back to the table in September. Presumably the recent display of how informal pairing can fail will stand as a rather good argument for these more official arrangements.

    As for the mechanics of the matter, the implementation of proxy voting will require a number of changes to be made to Standing Orders (the rules by which each House’s proceedings are run), which the committee has suggested should be put to the House for decision at the same time as the report is debated.

    If these are agreed to, they’ve recommended that the scheme should brought into force with immediate effect; there would then be a reassessment after they’ve run for twelve months to see if any further changes are required.

     

    Image: Andrew Seaman

  4. Using mySociety data to explore the representation of women

    A key part of mySociety’s research agenda is understanding how Civic Technology is (or isn’t) helping under-represented groups in society access government services and their representation. In 2015 we released a report  Who Benefits from Civic Technology, that explored variations in usage of Civic Tech in various countries and demographics. You can read or download it here.

    In this blog post I’m going to talk a bit about how we’ve internally tried to apply our data to understanding the under-representation of women in politics and as users of our services, as well as some interesting things that external researchers have found using our data.

    EveryPolitician

    Our EveryPolitician dataset contains information on current (and in some cases historical) politicians for a large number of countries around the world. For a large number of representatives, this includes gender information.

    However, a key problem of international comparisons of the representation of women is, as Miki Caul points out, that it “overlooks the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud argues “cross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.

    Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of problem that an international dataset like EveryPolitician is well placed to examine – on Thursday we’ll be using a new mini-site to explore the gender and party information contained in EveryPolitician to give a sense of the international picture and the party-level differences within each country. Stay tuned! Or you can download the data yourself (there are APIs for Python, Ruby and R) and try and beat us to it.

    TheyWorkForYou

    TheyWorkForYou makes it easy to search through the history of what has been said in Parliament, and we make the data (based on the Hansard dataset but more consistently formatted) freely available to download. As essentially a download of a very large amount of text, getting insights from this dataset is a bit more complicated, but potentially very rewarding.

    Jack Blumenau has a paper based on TheyWorkForYou data using language to analyse whether appointing female ministers changes how other female MPs participate in debates. Looking at “half a million Commons’ speeches between 1997 and 2017, [he demonstrates] that appointing a female minster increases the participation of women MPs in relevant debates by approximately one third over the level of female participation under male ministers” – and that “female MPs also became more influential in debates under the purview of female ministers […] female ministers respond in a systematically different fashion to the speeches of female MPs.” In this case, influence is a measure of whether the language an individual used is then taken up by others, and this kind of analysis shows how the TheyWorkForYou dataset can be used to demonstrate not just counts of how many women were in Parliament, but the substantive effects of women holding office on the political process.

    As Myf talked about yesterday, TheyWorkForYou’s Commons content now extends back to 1918, and so includes every speech by a female MP ever made. We hope this is a useful resource for anyone interested in exploring the history of the representation of women in the UK and have plans for a small project in the upcoming months to show in a simple way how this data can be used (please sign up to our mailing list if you’re interested in hearing about this when it’s completed).

    TheyWorkForYou data can either be accessed through an API, or downloaded as formatted XML files.

    FixMyStreet and WriteToThem

    Understanding the under-representation of women is important across our services. Where men and women are experiencing different issues and concerns, imbalances in access (or use of access) potentially lead to differences in resource allocation.

    The majority of reports on FixMyStreet.com are reported by men – but to make things more complicated, it’s not just that women make fewer reports, but women report substantively different kinds of reports.

    Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama investigated FixMyStreet reports and found (by determining gender from names of problem reporters) that different kinds of reports are more likely to be reported by men and women – they suggest that at “first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter)”.

    If different kinds of reports are differently gendered, this complicates thinking about how to improve how women use the website – as potential users are having substantially different experiences of problems in the real world well before they interact with the site. We have to engage with the nuance of this kind of finding to understand how to redress issues of access to services.

    We’re currently in the process of extending this kind of analysis to our other service. For WriteToThem, we’ve learned that while the majority of people using the service to write to MPs are male (around 60%), this picture is different depending on the level of government – for instance the gender balance for people writing to councils is pretty close to 50/50.

    As part of this, we’re investigating whether having the same gender as their representative makes people more likely to make contact. This has some interesting preliminary findings, and we hope to have more to say about this towards the end of the year.

    Our research in this area is ongoing, and we’re keen to help people use our data to investigate under-representation – especially where you have expertise or knowledge that we don’t. If you’d like to discuss potential uses of the data please get in touch, or sign up to our mailing list to hear about future research releases.

    Image: Theresa May’s first PMQs: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor (CC by-nc/2.0)

  5. Celebrating National Democracy Week

    Excuse us while we just finish hanging this bunting…

    Yes, wave the flags and toot those vuvuzelas: it’s National Democracy Week, a new initiative to celebrate the democratic process and encourage democratic participation.

    And thanks to some extra-curricular work by one of the mySociety team, we’re now able to celebrate it in a quite exceptional way. Longstanding  developer Matthew has used his own free time to import historic House of Commons debates from 1919-1935 into our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. With this work, he’s extended the site’s value as an easy-access archive of parliamentary activity even further.

    You can check it out now by visiting TheyWorkForYou, searching for any word or phrase, and then sorting the search results by ‘oldest’. Or, pick any MP active during 1919-1935 and search for them to see every speech they made in Parliament.

    Please let us know if you find anything of interest! For developers who use TheyWorkForYou data to power their own sites and apps, the extended content will also be available via TheyWorkForYou’s API.

    “No one sex can govern alone” – Nancy Astor

    This is the first National Democracy Week, and it has taken, as its theme, the anniversary of women’s suffrage: as you’re sure to have heard by now, 2018 is the centenary of (some) women getting the vote* in the UK.

    We wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of the big milestones of women’s participation in Parliament, but there was just one problem.  TheyWorkForYou only contained House of Commons debates as far back as the 1930s — while, for example, the maiden speech of Nancy Astor, the first woman to speak in Parliament, was in 1920.

    So it’s a big deal that Matthew’s imported this early data into TheyWorkForYou, and we’re all the more grateful because he did so on his own time. It’s something we’ve wanted to do, but not had the resource for. You can now browse, search or link to Commons debates right back to 1919, and find not just women’s contributions, but a whole wealth of historic parliamentary content. Result!

    What you can enjoy this week

    We’re going to take this opportunity to highlight, through a week-long series of posts:

    • Tomorrow, our researcher Alex will be highlighting some of the ways people have used our data and APIs to explore issues of gender and representation and describe some of our future plans in this area. This also gives us the opportunity to point out where you can access all our lovely, juicy data, should you want to do something similar yourself.
    • Finally, as a weekend bonus, we’ll be blogging on the various organisations which support women within our own sphere of Civic Tech.

    We’ll add the links in for each day’s content as it goes live.

    Since our sites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in the UK, our activities with the Democratic Commons, and the support we give to partners in other countries are all, at heart, aiming to make democratic participation easier, we are, of course, all over this event. We hope you’ll enjoy the week!


    *We can have another celebration in 2028 for the remaining women.

  6. Our written evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry on voting by proxy

    We’ve submitted evidence to the recent inquiry on whether Parliament should introduce a more formal system of voting by proxy. You can read our submission herepdf, and see submissions from other organisations and individuals on Parliament’s website.

    Voting by proxy is the practice of allowing someone else to cast your vote for you. In Parliament, when MPs go on extended leave, for example when they have a baby, there is no formal system in place; rather, arrangements are often made informally and, potentially, inconsistently.

    A Member may approach a whip to request that they are paired with an MP from the opposition who will not be voting either, thus effectively cancelling out the votes that would have been cast. Apparently, there is also an informal tradition of allowing infirm or incapacitated (for example, because they are carrying a baby in their arms) representatives to vote from outside the chamber, but only when present within the precincts of the House. We were interested to see a remark in David Lammy MP’s own evidence:

    I would also hope that the Committee might consider some way to end the practice notorious from the late 1970s of bringing seriously sick Members into Westminster in order to vote. This would carry severe reputational risk if repeated nowadays.

    Why are we interested?

    The inquiry is a direct result of the recent debate, on International Women’s Day, in which Harriet Harman led the call for a more formal system of voting by proxy for members on extended leave (and particularly on ‘baby leave’).

    We agree that it’s important Parliament formalises this system, and we fully support any measure that will make life easier for parents, or those on extended leave for other life-changing reasons. And of course, we’re very much in favour of any initiative which will make parliamentary arrangements more transparent and accessible to the general public, which after all is the whole reason TheyWorkForYou exists.

    But we also have a further interest in this subject. As you may recall, we were called out by MPs (and subsequently members of the public) for misrepresenting representatives on leave, since our site TheyWorkForYou was not displaying this information, leaving potential for members of the public to believe that such MPs were not attending to their duties.

    In response to this, we are now able to manually add notes to the profile pages of those MPs who request it. However, as we outlined in our prior posts it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons, as summarised in our inquiry response.

    We’re hoping that once the proxy voting system is formalised, the relevant information (that is, who is on extended leave, that a proxy is voting in their place, and the name of the proxy) will be released along with Parliament’s existing data outputs. You can read more about that in our response, but in short, this would allow us to display the information consistently and automatically, as we do for virtually all the rest of the information on TheyWorkForYou.

    But it won’t only be useful for us. It’ll allow for the data to be displayed on Parliament’s own website, and of course will be of help to any website or tool which deals with Parliamentary activity and makes it easier for everyone to understand.


    Image by Jessica Taylor (Parliamentary copyright, reproduced with the permission of Parliament). “Ayes to the right, noes to the left”. When there is a vote in the Commons, MPs leave their seats and walk into either the Aye or No lobby.

  7. Citizenship & Civic Engagement Committee: mySociety’s written evidence

    In June this year, a Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was appointed. Submissions of written evidence were invited, and of course, this being very much our area, we felt the need to contribute.

    Our written evidence is a fairly quick readpdf. Nonetheless we hope that it gets the essential points across, drawing on our experience in what works and what doesn’t in technology for civic engagement.

    You can view all the submissions the inquiry received on the Parliament website. The committee will report their findings by the end of March next year.


    Image: Daniel Funes Fuentes (Unsplash)

    Save

    Save

    Save

  8. Do a friend a favour: point them towards the Donald Trump debate

    In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday Parliament debated whether Donald Trump should be barred entry to the UK.

    This is a bit of an occasion, because the first petition has been signed by more people than any other in this Parliament. It has 573,971 signatures, and its title is “Block Donald J Trump from UK entry”. The second petition is titled “Don’t ban Trump from the United Kingdom”. That petition is curious. It has 42,898 signatures, but 30,000 signatures were removed because they were thought to be suspect and coming from one source.

    Now, regular TheyWorkForYou readers know that parliamentary debates are often interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally amusing. The Trump debate is a great example of all of those things.

    But most people see the goings-on in Parliament as very dull. Today, you might want to do someone a favour, and point them towards this particular debate, which you can see in full here.

    As always with TheyWorkForYou content, it’s easy to search, share or link to any individual section. And as if that’s not enough, this debate contains the only use of the word wazzock yet recorded in Parliament. Now that’s got to be worth a share.

     

    Image: Michael Vadon (CC)

  9. Why We Do What We Do

    Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.

    Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.

    What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:

    Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.

    Simply put, this is our cause.

     

    Our Theory Of Change

    Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.

    Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.

    Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.

    Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.

     

    Freedom of Information

    FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.

    Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.

    Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.

     

    Parliaments and Elections

    The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.

    We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.

    Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.

    In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.

     

    Local Issue Reporting

    FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.

    The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.

    We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.

    Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.

     

    Scaling Up

    For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.

    There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.

    What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.

    I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.


    Image: Morgan Schmorgan (CC)

  10. Your access to Freedom of Information is under threat – here’s what to do

    Note: Not only were these changes outruled, but WhatDoTheyKnow got a nice mention in the process. See more in our follow-up blog post.


     

    Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.

    This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:

    • You’d be charged for making a request
    • Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
    • You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
    • The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
    • The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.

    You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.

    Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.

    What you can do

    SaveFOI: sign a petition1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

    If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.

    #SaveFOI: write to your MP2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP

    Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole. Stuck for words? Here are some ideas.

     submit an FOI story #SaveFOI3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story

    SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.

    #SaveFOI respond to the consultaition4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation

    The call for evidence is here and there is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also put together this super-easy Plain English version.

    Why these restrictions matter

    Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it

    If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.

    It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).

    It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.

    We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries

    Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.

    In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.

    In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.

    Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.

    The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.

    Government ministers could pick and choose what they release

    Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.

    If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.

    The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.

    We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.

    Public authorities are funded by us, the public

    If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.

    We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.

    If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.

    How will you help?

    These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.


    *A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.

    Image: Kimberly Kauer (CC)