By Cristina Leston-Bandeira and Louise Thompson
About eight months ago, we got together to come up with an idea for Parliament Week. We’d recently taken over as the new Co-Convenors of the Political Studies Association’s specialist group for Parliaments and Legislatures, and we thought the group should be involved with this initiative. It fit right in with our strategy of promoting the study and understanding of parliament and, most importantly, it went beyond the academic community. Eight months later we were sitting in Portcullis House in one of Parliament Week’s prime slots, waiting for The Political Studies Association (our co-organisers) to arrive, along with over 100 sixth form students!
Our idea was very simple: to encourage Universities to work with local schools on an idea that would make them connect with Parliament. This would happen through simple workshops where sixth form students would develop an idea for a digital tool to enhance youth engagement with Parliament. This touched on Parliament Week’s 2014 theme of youth engagement and on the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission, which has been collating evidence throughout the year.
Above: One of the regional workshops at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington.
But in order to explain what this event was all about, we need to go back to September. For the event in Portcullis House wasn’t the only part of our strategy for Parliament Week. It was preceded by a series of regional workshops held around the UK in which sixth form students came together to discuss the different ways in which Parliament could engage young people through digital means. The first workshop was held at Canterbury Christ Church University with students from King’s School and St Edmund’s School. Organised by Mark Bennister, this was the first in a series of fifteen workshops which would take place in September and October all across the UK, including Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As our Storify of the workshops shows, the students came up with some fantastic ideas covering political education, the needs of young people and including all kinds of digital technology from mobile phone apps, to Twitter, Facebook forums and more. Each of the workshops ended with a vote for the best idea. This idea would go through to the main event – and two students from each school were chosen to pitch it to an invited audience. Together with our co-organisers, we funded the travel expenses of two representatives from each workshop ensuring representation from all across the UK.
And so, from 1pm Monday 17th November we were joined in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House by groups of very nervous (but also very excited!) students, all eager to pitch their ideas about digital democracy. They were joined by an even bigger group of students who had come to watch the presentations and take part in the discussions. All of the groups came armed with a poster to convey the key features of their idea and these were displayed straight away so that other participants could absorb their ideas and ask questions in a more informal atmosphere before the event officially began.
Above: Students exhibiting posters showcasing their ideas
Soon it was time for the formal event to begin and everyone was seated in the Attlee suite to listen to the pitches from the students and to debate and discuss their ideas. Femi Oyeniran (actor, film maker and member of the Digital Democracy Commission) hosted the event. He was joined by two digital democracy experts: Aileen Walker, Parliament’s Director of Public Engagement and Drew Thomson, Founder of Starcount. The ideas presented covered an array of digital applications (everything from mobile phones, to online discussion forums, Twitter and YouTube) and were focused on different aspects of Parliament. Some students wanted technology to enhance the scrutiny undertaken by Parliament and so developed ideas based around Prime Minister’s Question Time and petitions systems, whilst others wanted to use technology to increase young people’s awareness of parliament and specific political issues. All ideas were compiled in a handbook.
Above: Pannelists Aileen Walker (Director of Public Engagement, UK Parliament) and Drew Thomson (Founder, Starcount)
The experts on the panel were very impressed with the students’ ideas and there was a fantastic debate about the merits of the proposals and about how they would be marketed to young people. The session ended with an interactive vote to decide on the winning idea. The overall winners were Sebastien Rocks and Daisy Bamfield, from Oakwood School in Kent. Their idea – Vloggers – would encourage celebrities and existing vloggers to put together short one minute videos about political issues, demonstrating how they affect young people’s daily lives. The group even made their own vlog to demonstrate how their idea could work and has since then being trying to implement the idea.
Above: Event host and Digital Democracy Commissioner Femi Oyeniran with the winning group, Seb and Daisy from Oakwood Park School, Canterbury.
The event was a huge success. But the students’ hard work hasn’t ended there. The handbook of the students’ ideas was accepted as evidence by the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. This means that it will inform the commission’s final report (due early next year).
For more information and photos from the event, see the PSA’s storify page.