Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

More