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How to Score Politicians Without Turning Parliament Into a Game

BY David Eaves | Friday, September 21 2012

Dangerous and pernicious.

These were the words that - according to the European blog Le Lab - Alain Vidal, the French minister for relations with Parliament, used during a tirade against NosDéputés, a French version of parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou.com or OpenCongress.org.

On one level, the Minister's complaint is not unreasonable. As he laid out in a much less alarmist follow-up interview, he does not disapprove of NosDéputés in general. Rather, he specifically disapproves of the way the site counts the number of times an elected official speaks on the floor of Parliament.

He charges that the site causes parliament's time to be used less effectively as members increasingly speak up regardless of whether they have anything intelligent to say in order to "pad their stats" for the website. The charge is not without precedence. In 2006, the Times of London ran a story titled The MPs Who Can't Stop Talking which claimed that TheyWorkForYou.com, a parliamentary monitoring site in the United Kingdom were submitting more and more questions in order to improve their rankings. However, the Minister offers no evidence to support his claim. More damning, RegardsCitoyens.org - the organization that runs NosDéputés - has conducted an analysis of parliamentary debates showing the opposite effect that recent debates have in fact been shorter than those in years before the existence of NosDéputés.

What NosDéputés does to parliamentary debate might be interesting, but more worthy of interest is the idea that it can do anything at all.

Firstly, consider this. Here is a site run entirely by volunteers on a shoestring budget. Compared to newspapers like Le Monde and Le Figaro it has virtually no resources. And yet, despite its tiny size it is able to pose a "dangerous and pernicious" threat to the functioning of parliament! The minister's reaction speaks volumes of the reach and effectiveness of the RegardsCitoyens team. Apparently (or at least according to this government) NosDéputés matters, a lot. This suggests that parliamentary monitoring websites can have real impact and so should be taken seriously. Funders, media organizations and political parties - take note.

Secondly, I confess some discomfort with the prospect that RegardsCitoyens and MySociety would sit down with parliament to try to assess what would be appropriate metrics by which to measure the effectiveness of parliamentarians. As outlined in the TheyWorkForYou help page, such a conversation even caused MySociety to remove the absolute rankings.

On the one hand I believe the dialogue is likely productive and sharing a better understanding of each others perspectives. On the other, it is hard to imagine the political editor of a newspaper sitting down with parliament to discuss what is and is not appropriate ways to cover the performance of parliamentarians.

More importantly, however, is that I fear it fosters support for the wrong type of solution. There is no "right" way to assess the performance of parliamentarians. There is no algorithm that will rank them perfectly, no set of stats that will objectively determine their effectiveness. The problem with NosDéputés, TheyWorkForYou or even OpenCongress is not that they don't measure performance the right way, the problem is that they are the only websites in their respective countries really measuring performance at all. Should the public care how many questions their representatives ask in parliament? Maybe. Maybe not. But if you had a number of sites comparing parliamentarians performance you'd find out pretty fast what the public did care about. And frankly, I could care less if it made parliament more or less effective for the sitting government.

Besides, such a view only holds if one assumes that neither a parliament nor the public can evolve. Vidal, the French minister, voiced concern that 30 elected officials may stand up to defend the same thing, he claims, just to boost their stats. Let's put aside the fact that maybe having those officials state their defense on the record is actually a good thing for democracy. It is not hard to imagine a parliamentary convention quickly evolving where the last 29 officials could "+1" a statement. This would be both efficient - addressing the Minister's concerns - but also allow them to have a voice - addressing my concern about democratic participation.

In addition, it is not impossible to assume that the public could, itself, adopt a more nuanced approach to measuring parliamentary performance. Maybe today what gets rewarded is the number of questions a representative asks. But it is not hard to imagine that a new website emerges that assess the quality of those questions, or the subject matter they tackle, which would add complexity to any ranking. The public could itself evolve in want it wants to see from a parliamentary website.

So let's not get lost in a debate over whether a parliamentary website diminishes or enhances debate. Let's get on with creating more parliamentary websites so that we can have varied metrics about performance. Because in the end it shouldn't be up to parliamentarians, or website developers to decide how the parliamentarians should be evaluated. It should be up to the public.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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