TheyWorkForYou doesn’t just give an incomplete picture of MPs’ behaviour – it changes it

21 Oct

There is no especially good reason that TheyWorkForYou, the website which monitors how MPs vote, should be thrust in the spotlight after a Member of Parliament is murdered in what looks like an act of Islamist-inspired terrorism.

But we seem to have made a collective decision to talk about online abuse instead, and thus the question of simplistic tools getting misused to drum up public anger against MPs has arisen.

That the model employed by TWFY has some quite fundamental problems isn’t a new realisation. As this article from 2019 explores, the principle challenge is that in a bid to be simple and accessible, it risks offering a fundamentally misleading picture of MPs’ records and their political significance.

Some issues are so generally accepted that votes are only held on subjects that are either contentious or only tangentially related. There is also the basic question of the parliamentary whip. It fails to account for political activity outwith the division lobbies, and so on.

The obvious cry is ‘more context’. But by the time you have added sufficient context to paint a more accurate picture, you probably don’t have a simple, immediately accessible dashboard anymore. Instead you have a basic primer on Parliament and British politics, which is undoubtedly helpful but quite a different product.

League tables work when you are assessing an appropriate metric. Since mere participation is not actually an adequate metric for assessing an MP’s political activity, we should not be surprised that TWFY doesn’t really work for anyone.

But there is another downside to TWFY which seems to have been mentioned less often, but which any number of parliamentary staffers can attest to: it distorts the parliamentary activity of MPs.

Being able to say that you’re “one of the most active MPs” is a handy thing to be able to put in your campaign literature. And thus, some MPs at least make a concerted effort to up their activity in the House of Commons with the participation statistics uppermost in mind. This can only contribute, alongside other modern evils such as strict programming of debate time, to the phenomenon of MPs appearing in the Chamber, asking their question, and then leaving.

Just as with the installation of cameras, which has led to MPs making speeches intended primarily for their own social media streams or the news, observation is not a neutral act. It acts upon the institution observed, and in ways that are not always beneficial. We sometimes encounter this debate in the context of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on government decision-making, but it applies here too.

Scrutiny is not an unalloyed good. In any given instance it may be better that, if it cannot be done properly, it is not done at all.

Row over Hancock’s emails highlights the trade-offs involved in ‘Freedom of Information’

28 Jun

As the Matt Hancock story develops, one angle which may get more attention as the initial outrage over the adultery and rule-breaking dies down a little is the broader question of whether or not people close to him or Gina Coladangelo received improper favour from the Department of Health.

One thing fuelling speculation about this is the fact that the former Health Secretary reportedly kept using his private email for official business. This morning’s Guardian reports:

“Matt Hancock’s use of private emails that bypassed disclosure rules when doing government business came under scrutiny this weekend, as exchanges emerged showing the former health secretary had personally referred an old neighbour wanting an NHS contract on to an official.”

Any credible suggestion of impropriety should be properly investigated. But it is worth recalling that there are several less nefarious reasons why a member of the Government might have continued to use their personal email address.

Two are utterly mundane. The first is personal habit – anyone who has got used to conducting work via their personal phone or email before having to switch to an official one can attest to how difficult it can be to break the habit, especially if those whom you have worked with before continue to reach you on them. Getting an email via your private account and replying via the official one can feel a laborious process.

Second, ministers are also political figures and there are restrictions on using government accounts for party business. No excuse for failing to use them for official communications, of course, but another factor making it harder to make a change in habits stick.

But the third, and most serious, is that ministers and their advisers have an understandable desire to speak frankly when developing policy and responding to crises. And in the era of Freedom of Information, this is very difficult. (Not that personal communications are exempt from the legislation, mind you.)

This is not an original observation. Charles Moore wrote almost ten years ago about how “the pursuit of transparency is leading to dishonesty” and intrigue:

“Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.”

Nor is this observation confined to historians and reactionaries. Tony Blair, the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, is scathing about it in his autobiography:

“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.  There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it all.”

His argument is twofold. First that for all the warm rhetoric around ‘transparency’, FoI requests are filed only extremely rarely by members of the public. They are instead almost exclusively a tool for journalists and campaigners. One may feel this is entirely legitimate whilst recognising that it is not how the legislation was originally conceived.

But he also shares Moore’s view that it has both occluded and even degraded the conduct of government :

“Without the confidentiality, people are inhibited and consideration of options is limited in a way that isn’t conductive to good decision-making. In every system that goes down this path, what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper. It is a thoroughly bad way of analysing complex issues.”

It isn’t difficult to see how this tendency might have been especially pronounced in a pandemic, when ministers were under intense pressure to find quick solutions to unanticipated problems but knew their choices would be picked over at leisure by commentators and campaigners at a later date.

Of course if it turns out that Hancock or anyone else in government was doling out public contracts improperly, that will highlight the downside of ‘opaque government’.

But even if there are arguments on both sides, we should recognise that there is very often a trade-off between efficacy and accountability. And that the media tends to ignore this when it champions any policy, be it putting cameras the House of Commons or televised leaders’ debates, that give them more material and enhances their role in our democratic system.