Exploring the UK Government online – They Work For You and the Public Whip

I’ve known about TheyWorkForYou.com for some time, but had not really explored it properly until this weekend. I also unearthed two underlying services: the Parliament Parser, which hosts structured data on MPs and their debates, and The Public Whip, which uses that same data and tracks voting patterns.

I happened to be listening to Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon, thanks to Radio 4’s Today In Parliament. It’s always great to hear what’s going on in the Commons, but especially fun on a Wednesdays when the PM gets a grilling. At one point, I wanted to check something that was said. Not an urge I often have, but when it strikes I’d normally turn to Hansard, the transcript of parliamentary proceedings.

It’s really worth comparing the transcript in Hansard to TheyWorkForYou’s version of the same events though.

hansard

While the text is the same, the simple addition of some additional markup, links and photos brings it to life. The addition of user comments turns the whole thing into a social application, allowing us to discuss what our MPs and Lords are shouting across their respective aisles at each other every day.

theyworkforyou

This comment (“Why did he shout that out?” re “Lord Ashcroft!”) is a great example, and I see that within an hour it had received a thoughtful reply.

The TheyWorkForYou search facility is great too. Inspired by a Matthew Parris documentary on parliamentary clichés, I wondered which MPs and Lords are guilty of using the well-worn phrase “rearranging the deckchairs [on the Titanic]”. It turns out, there are quite a few, and Nick Herbert (Con) has used a variation three times in the last year.

Next, I used TheyWorkForYou to look up my local MP, John Denham.

How John Denham voted on key issues since 2001:

  • Voted strongly for introducing ID cards.
  • Voted very strongly for introducing foundation hospitals.
  • Voted strongly for introducing student top-up fees.
  • Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
  • Voted very strongly against investigating the Iraq war.
  • Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.

I suddenly wished he was on my doorstep. I’ve now signed up for email updates whenever John Denham speaks, as well as subscribed to the RSS feed of his activity. Let’s just take a moment to enjoy that. An RSS feed for what my MP is up to. And (get this) there’s an API too, in case I ever want to write my own interface to any of this data.

Social software designers talk about the ‘atoms’, (or objects, or entities) of an application. For example, YouTube’s atoms include videos (of course) but also comments, playlists and users. Flickr’s atoms include photos, comments, users, groups and notes. TheyWorkForYou’s atoms are speeches and comments. Don’t get the impression that ‘speech’ necessarily means a long speech. It could be a question, an interruption, an answer or a statement. Sometimes even standing up to speak is enough to get an entry in Hansard.

I mentioned that TheyWorkForYou pulls in lots of information from the Public Whip project. Public Whip describes itself as “counting votes on your behalf”. Keeping our elected (and indeed, unelected) Members accountable, by making their voting records accessible to everyone, seems like a Very Good Thing. Compared to the social Hansard, Public Whip has many more ‘atoms’.

  • Divisions, or votes, though division is the tem used in Parliament. The houses frequently divides, voting aye/no for Commons, and content/not-content for Lords. If the resolution is confusing, and you have done your research, you can log in and improve it.
  • MPs and Lords themselves. We can see how an MP voted in ever division, and (interestingly) whether they voted with the majority of his/her party, or were a rebel.
  • Policies. Now this is where it gets really fun. Policies are the structures thanks to which voting characteristics of MPs and Lords can be determined. You can create your own, and it them to test which MPs voted inline with the abstract policy. If you don’t agree with the definition of a policy, you can log in and improve it.

I told you earlier that my MP voted strongly for introducing ID cards. Here’s the relevant policy in Public Whip which makes that calculation possible. It’s actually worded as a negative, “Someone who believes that compulsory Identity Cards and the National Identity Register should not be introduced would have voted like this…”). You can compare the policy with how individual MPs voted, and there are graphs showing how that maps to the parties.

ID_commons

ID_lords

Of course each vote is linked back to the debate itself, so you can also use the voting record as a way of digging back into what was actually said. In a few hours of exploring I have already learned a lot about UK politics. I’m particularly struck by how closely government ministers tend to stick with the party whip, which makes the list of divisions in which there were rebels (also available as a feed) all the more interesting. If I were an MP I think I’m be a bit of a rebel. Don’t worry. No plans in that direction.

I can imagine using Public Whip almost like a game, dreaming up new policies and digging back through the votes to see who would agree. Particular policies of note include innocent until proven guilty, and Freedom of Information should apply to Parliament. If you feel strongly about these (or other) issues, Public Whip is a great way of finding out how your elected representative voted, and holding them to account.

Tom Steinberg, Francis Irving, Julian Todd, Matthew Somerville, Tom ‘Tomski’ Loosemore have between them (and often in conjunction) done sterling work on things like TheyWorkForYou.com, The Public Whip, Parliament Parser, Downing Street Says and more.

If you are interested in the web and UK government, you’ll probably be interested in BarCampUKGovweb in London on January 26th – 27th 2008.

Update: if you like Hansard, you’ll love the Hansard Prototype.

3 Comments

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  1. Thanks for a lovely writeup.

    Comment by Francis Irving — December 4, 2007 #

  2. Thank you for making such lovely things. :-)

    Comment by Roo — December 5, 2007 #

  3. […] If you’re wondering about its heritage, before Open Tech 2008 came Open Tech 2005 (at which BBC Backstage was launched) and NotCon 2004 (which saw the launch of TheyWorkForYou, which Cory Doctorow called the worlds finest advocacy web site and I also love). […]

    Pingback by rooreynolds.com: Open Tech 2008 — July 7, 2008 #

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