By Joshua Newton
Technology and social media are often revered as a 21st Century remedy to the ills of citizen detachment from politics and to the closed and elitist nature of UK political institutions. This was demonstrated by a recent Hansard Society Report which highlighted the central role that Parliament could play in communicating and engaging with the public. Yet with a unique organisational structure, that does not lend itself to far-reaching internal reform, the challenge of Parliament to devise and introduce a digital adaptation plan is daunting. Step-forward the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy (DDC). Launched by John Bercow last year, its aim is to explore how representative democracy can embrace technology. Having been lucky enough to contribute through a students’ forum, I will outline some of the productive ideas that are emerging out of the inquiry’s ground-breaking and inclusive nature.
Commissioned by the Speaker without instruction from the Prime Minister, it is the first self-initiated inquiry in British political history. In its pursuit of evidence from as wide a range of people as possible, the DDC is accepting evidence in any format; emails, blogposts, videos and web forum posts. Its members are also getting out on the road, having hosted workshops in Chesterfield, open discussions in Cardiff. In addition, Commissioner Cristina Leston-Bandeira organised a student online forum with politics undergraduates from eight Universities (Cardiff, De Montfort, Hull, Leeds, Nottingham, Strathclyde, Surrey and Ulster). As a rapporteur to the forum I will discuss its organisation and findings below.
The forum was student led and discussed issues related to five themes: legislation, scrutiny, representation, engagement and dialogue, and made use of Basecamp – an online project management application. Each discussion was led by an appointed student facilitator. Although this approach meant that discussions naturally overlooked some issues, it ensured those mentioned were raised organically within the forum.
Legislation or law-making was the most active of the five discussions, underlining its importance as a parliamentary function and as a central element of any prospective digital strategy for the institution. While the forum recognised that the legislative process is more open and accessible than ever before, it found that it did not utilise digital technologies to promote citizens’ understanding. Law-making is by nature highly-technical, which makes it even more important to provide citizens with the opportunity to engage. It was felt that the e-Petitions procedure – the platform where citizens currently have the best chance to directly engage with law-making – is misunderstood and flawed. The absence of integration between social media and the parliamentary process was also an area where resources could be targeted.
With balanced mediation and integration with the non-digital, technology offers a wealth of opportunities to help citizens follow and engage with legislation. Existing platforms need to be improved; the management of e-Petitions requires clarification and legislation should be digitalised more effectively. As it is a parliamentary tool, this should be led by parliament and not by government. Parliament should reconsider whether e-Petitions should remain consultative or have a debate trigger-mechanism instead. Bills need to become more accessible and interactive online, with the forum highlighting the benefits of creating a citizen portal that could pass comment on proposals or even act as a third chamber.
Scrutiny was also seen as an essential function and key strength of parliament, but the forum considered that accessibility for citizens who wish to become involved is limited. Mechanisms are currently available for citizens to participate in scrutiny online (such as the recent #AskGove session run by the Education Select Committee), but these are not formalised or well known. A greater awareness of parliament’s scrutiny capacity is greatly needed. One centralised place for citizens to field questions could be introduced as well as making more use of existing platforms such as YouTube to improve the accessibility of hearings. The forum also recognised that a buffed up e-Petitions system could offer additional scrutiny opportunities.
The forum’s discussion on Representation was highly focussed on voting arrangements, but also recognised the low engagement felt amongst young people and the poor descriptive representation in parliament. While low turnout may only be a symptom of a greater systemic failure of representation, technology could improve the voting experience. E-voting could help to facilitate more direct democracy, save money in the long run and get results quicker. A national online voting system would also prevent duplicate voting and make it easier for citizens to register on polling day, then vote online or at any polling station they wish.
Engagement with Parliament and the wider political process in between elections also received a lot attention. It is clear that technology eases access and allows a better understanding of politics. But the forum felt that at present, the use of political jargon combined with there being an abundance of information available, actually repelled citizens from engaging further. Organising information under issues rather than processes on the parliamentary website would better enable citizens to locate information relevant to them. Finding a better balance between informative and technical language would also improve knowledge.
The final issue discussed by the forum was dialogue, or how to increase political discussion. The forum attributed the lack of dialogue to perceptions that discussing issues amounts to nothing and is exclusive to those with spare time or money. ‘Normal’ people are perceived to only react to politics when there is a problem affecting them. Technology can thus only be part of the solution. To build dialogue, the forum recommended the appointment of regional digital democracy officers to work across all levels of government, whose remit would be to improve online interaction between citizens.
It was felt that a better understanding of the role of an MP was also needed. Although the flexibility of Britain’s uncodified constitution was viewed as a strength, the formalisation of an MP’s job requirements and responsibilities should be introduced. MPs should be explicitly expected to fulfil certain tasks (as most already do) such as holding constituency surgeries and attending community events; but a level of digital participation should be included as part of this. MPs should all have regularly maintained websites and be expected to host online web surgeries or Q&As. A growing number do this already. But the codification of expectations would spread the message and help to renew confidence.
The forum also highlighted two challenges that warrant close consideration in the DDC’s final recommendations. Firstly digital participation of any kind requires effective mediation and cannot be left to citizens themselves. In various circumstances parliamentary staff, new digital officers and MPs could all act as responsible mediators to collect and acknowledge citizens’ views. A second point emphasised across all discussions, was the lack of a basic understanding of political processes, especially among young people. Many technological opportunities in politics may rely on an initial interest or understanding. To achieve this the forum felt very strongly that there was a need for greater political education.
Despite these two challenges, the contribution that the Digital Democracy Commission has the potential to offer is exciting. Just as parliamentary democracy is one the UK’s most successful exports, the UK is in a position to lead a political/technological renaissance and to substantially increase citizens’ engagement with the political process.
Joshua Newton is an undergraduate student at the University of Hull and was rapporteur for the Legislation forum, which reported in April this year. He tweets @_jnewton.
Image: uwgb admissions CC BY-NC