By Cristina Leston-Bandeira
Today’s launch of the report of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) marks the end of an extraordinarily interesting year for us Commissioners. The DDC was established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to explore the potential of digital technology to support a modern and inclusive parliamentary democracy. Throughout the year we have collated evidence, listened to people and organised workshops across the whole of the country from all walks of life, as well as internationally. The Report reflects this. It shows the diversity of views we have received on many issues from the making of legislation to the language of parliament.
As an academic used to interacting mainly with students, other academics and parliaments (I know, a very secluded world…), it has been a truly fascinating year. To hear what people think (or more likely not think) of parliament in so many contexts has been a true privilege. From this the main thing I retain is that for most of us Parliament is indistinguishable from Government; most people assume parliament is government. Although theoretically I already knew this, this past year has made this all the more patent and visible to me.
Another very clear key message throughout our activities and evidence is that digital is not a solution and, much less so, a panacea. Digital doesn’t fix processes or perceptions. And the report reflects this. Digital can in fact reinforce problems, rather than addressing them. For digital to be meaningful, effectively opening up parliament further and helping to make it more efficient, it needs to be accompanied by a re-think of processes. It also needs to take context into account and link the aims of different initiatives, rather than lead to the development of disconnected activities. But on the other hand, the power and usage of digital tools can’t be ignored either. This realisation is one reason why the report is not simply about digital, but importantly about how digital tools can be harnessed to promote a more inclusive and effective practice.
The report addresses many areas, but overall it is simply about opening up the House of Commons further, in all areas of parliamentary work. From opening up parts of the legislative process to the public, to developing engagement initiatives further, to utilising digital tools to help explain parliament more effectively, or simply about supporting MPs to make the most of digital tools to enhance their parliamentary work. Different people will be interested in different areas. For some the hype of excitement will be online voting. For others, it will be open data.
The areas I’m most proud of in the report are those dealing with public engagement and education- which in fact runs across several of the report’s sections. The House of Commons has already been experimenting with issue based (rather than parliamentary process based) digital engagement. The report recognises this and recommends that these are developed further, identifying great potential for instance in the way the public can engage with select committee work on issues that matter to them. The report also recognises that not everyone feels the urge to engage and participate – and that this is not necessarily an issue. What matters is that the public understands broadly what parliament does, and about how to become more involved should they need to. The report’s emphasis on education shows this. It is not just about facilitating engagement, it is also about engendering a social capital that includes the awareness of one of our key political institutions.
I’m also very proud about the report’s format. It is very different from a traditional parliamentary enquiry report – just as it should be: the DDC’s composition, method and remit is very different to a traditional parliamentary group. The report is written mainly to address an outside audience – even if most of its recommendations need to be addressed internally. This signals an effort to communicate in a different manner, making parliament more relevant beyond the few parliament geeks among us.
It has been a true privilege to be part of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. Hopefully this is not the end of a process, with discussions to follow the report. No doubt much criticism and scepticism will follow regarding some of its recommendations, but hopefully also much discussion and ways forward. So, go on, do have a browse of the report, beyond its five key recommendations and let the DDC know what you think.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Parliament at the University of Hull. She is a member of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission and Co-Convenor of the Parliaments and Legislatures Specialist Group. She tweets @estrangeirada.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the views of the Digital Democracy Commission.
Image: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced here with the permission of Parliament.