Useful Internet Tools for Staff

The internet is a big place, and buried within it are some immensely valuable tools for MPs and their staff, many built outside official channels by groups like MySociety, a charitable project which builds websites that give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives.

Tom Steinberg, director of www.mySociety.org, guides you through some of the sites that he thinks are key. As he points out ‘by the time you’ve made use of these tools your jobs will be so easy you’ll be begging for photocopying to fill up your time.’

1 – TheyWorkForYou email alerts at www.TheyWorkForYou.com

TheyWorkForYou.com is a volunteer-built website, which makes it easy for members of the public to keep tabs on their MP’s parliamentary activities. Joe Public can find out his/her MP’s name and then check their MPs recent appearances (e.g. PQs tabled or participation in debates), voting record, expenses and committee membership, etc.

They Work For You includes:

  • all debates, written answers, and written ministerial statements in the House of Commons Hansard back to the General Election of June 2001;
  • the same for the House of Lords Hansard (so as yet no Grand Committees) back to around November 1999;
  • everything in the various Northern Ireland (Transitional) Assembly debates;
  • everything in the Scottish Parliament official report.

Even as a staffer, it’s not always possible to keep up with exactly what your MP has been doing – every PQ answered, EDM signed or vote, especially if your MP – shock, horror! – is capable of doing things on his/her own. You might find that They Work For You can often be an easier option than Hansard when you’re looking for something in particular. For example, those pesky casework letters addressed to your MP but from someone who you’re sure isn’t in your constituency – simply type their postcode into the ‘MP finder’ facility and it’ll tell you whose office to forward it on to.

If you’re an intern applying for a job with an MP, using the site can help you get a quick handle on that MP’s interests – it will show you their recent debates and PQs at the touch of a button. Public affairs professionals also find the site useful, as they can receive email alerts for keywords of importance to their clients.

Also for staffers, you might consider the ranking section useful – this shows how many debates your MP has appeared in, PQs tabled, votes attended and so on, and whether this is above or below average in comparison to other MPs.

Members of the public might also use it as a quick guide to see how prolific in parliament their MP is. The site used to show these results in terms of ranking against other MPs, but has stopped doing this since discovering Researchers tabling PQs in abundance simply to push their MP up the ranking.

Useful facilities:

  • ‘e-mail me when’ – a e-mail alert facility where theyworkforyou.com will e-mail you each time your MP speaks in the house, or whenever an issue in which you register an interest is raised;
  • a facility to search when a particular issue was last raised in Parliament;
  • a facility to search on everything  your MP has said in the Chamber or Westminster Hall, including Written Ministerial Statements;
  • a handy page which covers Public Bill Committee proceedings, shows how many speeches have been made during each session and allows members of the public to leave comments at www.theyworkforyou.com/pbc/
  • video footage of debates in the Chamber – they get their footage from the BBC and text from Hansard, but need help from site users to match up the correct video with the Hansard, using a handy Flash application
  • since 2008, coverage of the Scottish Parliament  – all proceedings back to its launch in 1999;
  • since 2006, coverage of the Northern Ireland Assembly – all proceedings back to its first inception in 1998.

TheyWorkForYou.com says:

  • “This is the best place to get the unadulterated lowdown on what your MP has said and done in your name.
  • As the election approaches, we think the site could make a real difference to democratic transparency and engagement.
  • If you agree, please tell your friends. Blog about us. Write about us. Link to us. Use our RSS feeds in your sites. Tell your enemies. Hell, even tell your parents. You’re the only marketing we can afford!”

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/

2 – The Public Whip at  www.publicwhip.org.uk

This makes the complex process of working out who voted which way on which divisions into a doddle.  You can search by Member or by vote (with the most recent controversial divisions listed on the homepage).  Very useful indeed is the ‘search by policy facility’ which gives you a list of all divisions which have taken place on that policy subject. For example, the ‘smoking ban – in favour’ section gives you details of divisions on this matter, such as those which took place as part of the GLA Bill back in 1999, the Tobacco Advertising Bill in 2002 and the Health Bill in 2005. Apparently it’s become the default tool for the parliamentary librarians, so be smart and keep an eye on it.

3 – TheGovernmentSays at www.thegovernmentsays.com

Every day the departments and agencies of government pump out endless press releases. TheGovernmentSays makes keeping tabs on these as easy as can be – scanning through a day’s releases can be done on one page in just a few seconds. Furthermore, you can also set up email alerts to send you information whenever a word or a phrase crops up in a government press release.

4 – Google News Alerts at  www.google.com/alerts

Yet another email alerts service, Google closes the circle of Total Information Awareness by sending you emails whenever words or phrases crops up pretty much anywhere in the media.  If that’s too often, it can also email you once a day or once a week with a round-up of when your chosen word is used. It doesn’t yet have a lot of local press, but for all the major news sources it is brilliant.

5 – WriteToThem.com at  www.writetothem.com

Need to find out which councillors, assembly members, MEPs or MSPs also represent one of your constituents? Just plug their postcode into WriteToThem.com and you’ll get the complete list. Also handy as a tool to give people when they phone up demanding action – they can easily raise a stink at all levels of governance, not just parliamentary.

6 – PledgeBank at www.pledgebank.com

A worthy and innovative idea, PledgeBank lets you say things like ‘My MP will come to this event, but only if 20 people pledge to come along’, or lets your constituents say things like ‘I will organise a resident’s association, but only if 5 other people on my street will come to my house to talk about it’. It is a powerful, free and instant tool to help your constituents get things done in their area.

7 – Meeting Wizard at www.meetingwizard.com

Is arranging multiple people’s diaries for the most trivial of meetings giving you a headache? Try MeetingWizard and watch your ‘diarizing’ problems vanish in a puff of smoke.

8 – Fix My Street at www.fixmystreet.com

Grumbling constituents everywhere will love Fix My Street, a website which allows them to report local problems (graffiti, fly tipping, potholes, dead cats, etc) and will then send on a message to relevant council. Obviously, if a constituent has a specific problem, you shouldn’t recommend they use the site instead of your MP, but getting the site’s address out and about might lessen the casework you receive on the more minor local problems so your caseworker can get on assisting other constituents.

9 – What Do They Know at www.whatdotheyknow.com

If you’re browsing for statistics or information of interest, take a look at this site which includes all the Freedom of Information requests from members of the public. If your MP has a portfolio, it’s worth browsing through the FOI requests made to the relevant public authority every now and again (and a lot more than government departments and councils are covered!) It also allows anyone to members of the public to make quick and easy FOI requests, but they must bear in mind their request and response will be published on the site.

10 – Groups Near You at www.groupsnearyou.com

Still being tested, Groups Near You is an internet tool which helps people in the same neighbourhood get to know each other by joining existing groups or starting new ones. It’s a useful way for you (and particularly constituency organisers) to keep tabs on what’s happening in the community and find out what people are talking about. Come election time, you’ll be on the lookout for new community associations, campaigns, resident’s associations and other gatherings for your MP to speak to and be photographed with.

11 – The Leader of the House of Commons at www.commonsleader.gov.uk.

On the site you can see the Government’s draft legislative programme, get information about the bills and see how they’re progressing. In this way it’s similar to the ‘Bills and legislation’ section on the main Parliament UK website, but the Leader of the HoC website shows the progress of all Bills in one handy table shown here.

To encourage interest in the site, there is an email alert service which will inform users of any changes made, particularly those affecting Government business in the House of Commons, i.e. the weekly business statement.

Also included is a historical section setting out the biographical details of individuals who have held the post of Leader of the House of Commons, which can be found here.