Parliamentary monitoring tools were some of the first tech solutions developed for governmental transparency efforts. They allow the public to check the details on every Member of Parliament (MP) – their background, affiliations, voting record. They present how bills are processed: from an idea, through commissions, consultations and hearings all the way to the votes in different chambers and signing into law. They allow searches of speeches both in plenary sessions or committees. Some initiatives extend the scope of statement monitoring into collecting data from social and traditional media.
Such tools and their features can be also used to monitor local city hall councils, district councils, political parties, tenants associations or any other organizations where democratic processes of debate and voting are used.
Democratic organizations can only be accountable to their members (citizens) if they are transparent. That is the main drive of organizations recording council sessions, opening up datasets and/or creating the above-mentioned tools.
The value of these initiatives comes from several factors, which often work together.
Chronologically, the first priority is to bring the democratic processes out of the dark. While most parliaments provide information about their work online, it still isn’t the case with many local councils. Bringing these local processes to light (as in Cracow, Poland or Alsónémedi, Hungary) requires the hard work of local watchdog activists who go to every meeting, record the sessions, prepare the stenographs and register the votes.
The opening of data comes next. The higher quality data one can access, the easier it is to analyse it and create new accountability tools. In order to prepare for it properly we recommend opening up the democratic organizations’ data using the Popolo standard. Want to see it in use? The ParlData project presents Popolo-standardised data for one type of such organizations – national parliaments. It currently provides data for parliaments in 13 Central and Eastern European countries.
Once the data is available, one can concentrate on creating tools to process it. On a basic level, these tools provide information to the public, but they also can provide additional value in various analyses: showing the gender gap, automatically reconstructing MPs connections based on how similarly they vote, highlighting discussed topics. Looking at the impact of the end product, user experience is an important factor when we want to engage people in tracking the work of their representatives. Being able to easily navigate stenographs, follow new bills, receive notifications when public consultations start – all of it all brings down the barriers that are often encountered on governmental websites. Finally, all of the data can be used in smart voting solutions, by providing citizens with insights about the candidates they vote for in the coming elections.
As the level of public data openness in the CEE region is still relatively low, watchdog and civic tech organizations have grown quite strong. Over the years, they have created a range of tech for transparency tools, and those dedicated to parliamentary monitoring are the most developed. I’ve chosen several of them, highlighting their unique features. I’ve also presented smart voting projects that focus on helping citizens make informed choices during elections. A comprehensive and up to date list of tools in CEE can always be found on our transparencee.org website under the“Parliamentary monitoring” and “Smart voting” topics. In total, the list currently covers 18 solutions from 16 countries.
How to assess parliamentary openness? The Legislative Openness Data Explorer prepared by Kohovolit from the Czech Republic provides global comparative information on parliamentary openness. The definition of parliamentary openness includes both procedural (ie. can a member of the public observe or listen to parliamentary plenary sessions?) and technical (is data published in open formats?) aspects. It has been categorized to provide a general overview of data availability into three categories: green indicates that the data is available in open formats; yellow that the data is available but not in open formats; and red that the data is not available.
Other openness rankings
In parallel with the work on this ranking, the World Justice Project has released their Open Government Index assessing perceived openness. Also, each year Open Knowledge International releases the Global Open Data Index which assesses the technical openness of key government datasets, as well as their Open Data Census which allows partners to monitor local data openness in their countries/regions.
The advantage of the Legislative Openness Explorer and both of the Open Knowledge indexes is that by assessing facts instead of perceived openness allows organizations to provide actionable recommendations on what can be improved. With a bad score comes the detailed explanation which guides representatives of a parliament (or any other assessed institution) towards improved data disclosure.
Some illegal parliamentary practices are so common that parliamentary monitoring platforms dedicate separate sections for it. Such is the case of the Кнопкодавство (Knopkodavstvo, Button pushing) section in the Ukrainian Chesno platform – a database of politicians that have voted in their colleagues’ name and thus have broken the law. Each case is documented with a short video showing the illegal voting as well as a news article to share.
MojePanstwo is a Polish website created by ePanstwo Foundation [DISCLAIMER: I work for ePanstwo, which is also a TransparenCEE project partner]. MojePanstwo aggregates and cross-links public data from numerous sources, as diverse as railroad timetables, postal codes and public procurement. The website has started its life as a parliamentary monitoring tool called Sejmometr and there still are several features dedicated to this topic. Below, I will present four of them.
Trying to make tabular data more accessible, we have created animated infographics presenting the spending of MP’s offices, how much (on average, who’s spending the maximum amount, who’s spending the minimum amount) is being spent on: remuneration, diet, office, expertises, travel, etc. During its promotional campaign it got 26k unique views, but it’s not used on a daily basis. The underlying data is accessible in a tabular form on our website and through an API.
We redflag votes of MPs who (according to official data) should be travelling as part of an official delegation – votes which are theoretically impossible. It turns out that many of the red flags are assigned due to dirty data – ie. a delegation was canceled, or an MP returned to the parliament before the official end date of the delegation. Nevertheless, this feature puts MPs under media scrutiny.
On our website, each politician is given a timeline on which his or her actions can be followed.
Monitoring politicians goes beyond their activities in the parliament and is expanding into the social media sphere. Deleted tweets, most retweeted content, popular hashtags all give a glimpse into the wider public debate, all thanks to the integration with the Twitter API.
Zakonodajni Monitor website created by Transparency International Slovenia was born out of the monitoring of lobbyist relations and then expanded into a tool that helps to track bills as they work their way through the parliament. While it currently provides details on MPs, their votes and speeches, it is strongest in the two above-mentioned areas: lobbyist relations and tracking bills.
The legislative path of a bill is presented from various angles. There is a timeline for all the activities related to a bill.
Debates concerning any given bill are analyzed by involvement of parties, topics discussed and gender balance.
Registered lobbying efforts are presented as a network in a way that highlights the most frequently lobbied institutions.
Last, but not the least (the opposite actually) there are analyses coupled with data visualizations explaining the parliament’s activities. Definitely worth seeing is the interactive MPs clustering algorithm that groups MPs based on their votes. Try it: divide the whole parliament into two groups and you will clearly see who is the governing group and who is in the opposition. Divide it into more groups than there are parties and it will provide real insight, highlighting groups that span multiple parties or cliques inside any bigger party.
Read more about Legislative Monitor on the TransparenCEE website.
The smart voting concept originated with Project Vote Smart, a non-profit established in the United States in 1992. Project Vote Smart provides extensive information on the candidates for public office gathered from available public sources as well as through issue-based surveys distributed to the candidates. This information is supposed to allow citizens to make better informed decisions during elections.
Usually, the questions for these surveys are prepared by experts and the Candidates fill them out. Citizens are also provided with the same survey, and after completing it receive similarity ratios with MPs and parties. This is how, for example, Poland’s I have the right to know or the Bosnian Glasometar projects operate. While these are good tools to filter through election promises, voters can only be sure that they will be properly represented by a given MP to the extent that he or she will keep his or her election promises.
Some organizations take a different approach: potential voters are put in the position of policymakers and are asked to ‘vote’ on 10 issues selected by experts from bills that had been voted on in parliament. To make the decision informed, expert arguments for and against each issue are provided. After filling out such a questionnaire, the voter is presented with MPs or parties that have actually voted in a similar manner. These are the candidates/parties likely to best represented a voter on a given subject matter. Why not vote for them in the next term?
Javna Rasprava created by Bosnia’s Zasto Ne engages citizens in the public debate connected with selected bills going through parliament. The website provides plain language descriptions of bills and gathers citizen feedback on it through voting. Citizens can vote on the bill, as well as on the selected key issues being part of the bill (when one doesn’t agree with the whole bill).
It takes a lot of manual work to select and create summaries of the bills. Zasto Ne also engages MPs willing to discuss issues with the public. The effect is that citizens feel listened to, even if it is on a small scale.
ParlData is an ambitious initiative to gather the most important parliamentary datasets from a number of CEE countries and publish them in the Popolo standard to allow easy reuse. Currently, ParlData’s API (20 Sep 2016) offers data for the parliaments in 13 countries: Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Speaking about ParlData, I’d like to mention a similar project – My Society’s Every Politician. Its ambitious goal is to gather the data about every national legislature in the world. They focus only on profiles of each MP, but this approach has resulted in a nearly global reach (233 countries, 12 missing). The power of the standardised data comes into effect when common tools are built. For example, data processed in the ParlData project is used by MySociety’s EveryPolitician.
Efforts such as Every Politician and ParlData push the data standardisation practice forward which, in turn, can make all of the above-mentioned tools interoperable. Imagine opening up a new parliamentary dataset and having all the above functionalities available out-of-the-box. Then you can focus on what is really important – campaigning and advocacy.
I’ve been in civic tech just for two years, but others have been here for much longer. For example, GovTrack.us is probably the oldest parliamentary monitoring platform out there. It has been developed since 2004 by Josh Tauberer and early in 2016 another big US-based portal, Sunlight’s OpenCongress, joined forces with GovTrack to be the go to place for American citizens looking for information about Congress.
I’m mentioning GovTrack mainly because of Josh Tauberer and his experience in the field. After 15 years in civic tech, developing GovTrack and being a part of other initiatives, he wrote the famous So you want to reform democracy article, a must-read for anybody who wants to get into civic tech. In it, he debunks naive ideas, many of which had lead him early in his work, and suggests how we should use our energy and eagerness to change how democracy works. “Everyone brings a unique perspective to this world,” he says. I’m happy to live and travel around the CEE region which offer such a variety of perspectives, and meet people whose devotion to making governments more transparent manifest itself in such a variety of tools. At the same time, I feel that we have to have to focus more on the impact of our work. As Josh says “Power comes from organized groups. If you want people to have power, then you want to help them connect with others and teach them how to carry out effective advocacy together. It’s not a technology problem. It’s not something that a slick website solves. Building power is a social, societal, institutional challenge.” Mapping of the slick websites as I’ve done in this article is just the first step. Most of these sites are just tools for advocacy that brings real value. Connecting people, building capacity, presenting the impact – that’s TransparenCEE’s vision for the coming year.