A broad range of tools, platforms and organisations are now working to maximise transparency and ensure policy-makers are accountable to citizens. There is little awareness, however, that this scrutiny is not uniformly applied and perceived. Ben Worthy and Stefani Langehennig discuss findings from research looking at which differences matter most and their impact on MPs.
The fatal flaw in democracy, it could be argued, is that elected representatives aren’t watched enough to make them do as they should, and the unwatched will abuse their power. In the UK, there are deep doubts over quite how accountable MPs are, and how well they are monitored. As one recent study put it, “Members of Parliament are minimally accountable for their issue stances (and they know it)”.
Between 2019 and 2022, our Leverhulme Trust-funded study looked at the impact of the UK’s monitoring sites. These sites, termed Parliamentary Monitoring Organisations (PMOs), seek to make legislators more accountable and reduce some of the moral hazards involved in giving away power to someone to “represent you”. At the centre of the UK’s PMO ecology is the platform TheyWorkForYou, which allows users to see individual MPs’ and Peers’ voting records, appearances and declarations on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It averages around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits, though this jumps amid elections or scandals. Other parts of the ecology include data directly from Parliament, such as Hansard reports, attendance records, voting and activity data. There are also a host of third-party sites detailing votes and expenses, and legal or regulatory tools such as Freedom of Information (FOI) and various registers.
In theory, making more data available about agents should create a “window” on misbehaviour, catching out wrongdoing and enforcing accountability. Those being watched would avoid poor behaviour to prevent its negative consequences, thereby creating “democratic control by anticipated reaction”. However, transparency may not always be applied evenly, throwing light on some activities while others remain obscured. Data can also reinforce inequalities and biases over which agents, and which activities, are watched.
Transparency may not always be applied evenly, throwing light on some activities while others remain obscured.
Our study found PMOs do reduce such hazards and make for greater “informatory” accountability from MPs and Peers. The primary effect is on the House of Commons, and on individual MPs, where information-seeking is most frequently local, with constituents (as well as potential opponents) watching their local MP.
The exact impact is variable. Mark Harper argued back in 2006 that,
“TheyWorkForYou.com and the way in which its measurement of the effectiveness of a Member of Parliament in a performance league table puts Members under incredible pressure. If they do not undertake a volume of work, their performance is criticised—that applies more to new Members than experienced colleagues, who are more relaxed because they have more experience in the House.”
This too seemed broadly supported by our analysis, as the table below shows.
Table 1: YouGov Poll Question 2: What effect, if any, do you think websites such as these have on…(by Year Elected)
|Pre 1997||1997-2009||2010-2014||2015-2019||2019-||MPs re-elected in 2019 General Election|
|How you work in your role as an MP?|
|Base Weighted raw respondents||101||5||18||21||32||24||77|
(source: YouGov 2021)
MPs who had served in the Commons longer, especially from 1997-2009, were far more likely to claim such monitoring had “no effect”. However, there were signs that certain events may have shaped the negative views of certain cohorts of MPs, especially those coming into the Commons after the 2009 expenses scandal, and those entering in 2019 after the intense Brexit pressure.
The poll also pointed towards a gender divide, with female MPs believing monitoring had a negative impact on their own work as MPs, but much less on the institution as a whole.
Table 2: YouGov Poll Questions 3a and 3b: What effect, if any, do you think websites such as these have on…(by Gender)
|3a: How you work in your role as an MP?||Total||Male||Female|
|Base Weighted raw respondents||101||67||34|
|3b: The work of MPs in general?||Total||Male||Female|
|Base Weighted raw respondents||101||67||34|
(source: YouGov 2021)
This finding fits with what the “lazy list” controversy in 2013 revealed around gendered biases within monitoring. Research shows, for example, that female MPs are frequently subject to greater scrutiny than male colleagues and are, as a result, less willing to submit expenses claims.
Collecting data is no silver bullet
Overall, PMOs have made misbehaviour more difficult to conceal. The new data made for more “informatory accountability”, creating further pressure on legislators to address their famous “single strategic problem” of justifying what it is they do. To a lesser extent, new data have forced behaviour change, raising the cost of corruption or shirking, and helped fuel reforms and rule changes. In 2021, after journalists and campaigners crunched data on MPs and their second jobs, some MPs quietly dropped theirs. Beyond single MPs and Peers, PMOs have driven a new “emerging politics of measurement” ranking, comparing, and assessing members, such as this analysis of MPs’ additional incomes.
There is a concern among academics and commentators that citizens aren’t monitoring, so MPs aren’t behaving. Our study shows this isn’t the case. However, monitoring is qualified and skewed. The primary effect is on the House of Commons, and on individual MPs as “local” representatives. The exact effect depends upon whether an MP is in government or opposition, how long they have served and, more subtly, their gender. All this new data at citizens’ fingertips means they are watching what their elected members are doing, but some are more watched than others.
This post is based on research contained in the following full article: Worthy, Ben and Langehennig, Stefani (2022) Accountability, analysis and avoidance: how PMO data impacts on Westminster. The Journal of Legislative Studies ISSN 1357-2334 (or see the final report and project site at https://whoswatchingwestminster.wordpress.com/)
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Featured image credit: UK Parliament, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)