Speaker’s Commission creates a powerful narrative for better democracy
The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy was an ambitious attempt to gauge the interest, understanding and opportunities for digital services in relation to the UK Parliament. This is the first important caveat, it’s about Parliament not democracy in general, though many of the findings will have implications and resonance beyond the Palace of Westminster. So that shouldn’t stop the findings from the Commission’s extensive process being useful and used elsewhere, such as in the devolved legislatures and local government. This report has the potential to set the pace for digital democratic practices for the next few years and hopefully it will.
So does it deliver?
The final report gives us five key targets. I’m quite sure the Commission will be criticised for being too conservative and limited in these recommendations, but as someone who has worked with this Parliament and others I think they’ve been realistic. The report is pragmatic rather than radical and, if we want things to happen, that’s a good thing. Because in some corners of the Palace much of what they recommend will be seen as highly challenging, if not downright terrifying! So the first problem here is going to be the mis-match between the expectations of democracy activists and the inherently conservative nature and glacial pace of change of parliaments.
The Commission has given us five major things to aim for:
- By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
- By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
- The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
- In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
- By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.
There are clearly some ambitious dates here and some major logistical (and political) challenges to overcome if Parliament is to achieve them. But I welcome all of these targets, they all have the potential to make Parliament more relevant, accessible and understandable. Some, like online voting, are going to be hard to deliver. I’m sceptical this can be done by 2020 given the legitimate issues of security and trust (not to mention the hot air) this matter generates but it can be done if we can agree an acceptable risk profile. In direct contrast, their recommendation for providing better and more detailed information on parties and prospective parliamentary candidates is already well served, the challenge here, I suspect, is awareness building not actually doing (though it would be nice to think that the people doing this could at least get some support and some funding to cover their costs!).
There is a strong recognition that the public wants more engagement and interaction with (and within) Parliament. The report cites examples of where both citizens and MPs reflected positively on opening up the evidence taking process at the committee stages to gain a wider perspective. Lord Jim Knight went further proposing a ‘third chamber’ made up of citizens. This proposal was perhaps too radical for the Commission to consider, it’s also complex and the concept only loosely defined. But the idea does resonate and there is recognition in the report that steps can be taken towards including public points of view in debates. The path of least resistance for this could be through Westminster Hall debates since these tend to be less political or contentious.
The Commission has given Parliament a lot of work do to achieve this. At a time when the operational structure of Parliament is evolving into a second phase of its digital life, through restructuring and new appointments that will position digital as both a key strategic focus and business as usual for the institution, it’s is being asked to:
- Open up
- Skill up
- Tool up, and
- Follow up
I like this. I like it because it’s right but also because it’s simple and clear. It sets the tone. It would have been all too easy to write an inward looking report that only those steeped in parliamentary process would understand, after all Parliament needs to own these recommendations and deliver a lot of the change. But I feel that we all need to own this report and make it happen. This report is intended to be read by anyone and everyone and it hands the baton to us to hold Parliament to account – to make sure change happens and the work of the Commission isn’t locked away down one of Parliament’s many rodent-friendly dusty corridors.
Change has to happen, the report makes that clear. Yes, the detail is open to discussion and there will be some who try and limit and restrict it. But the reality is that Parliament exists to serve its Members and its Members exist to represent us. Let’s not lose sight of this. The more we can do to help Parliament help us to understand it, connect with it and stay engaged is a good thing for us, Parliament and representative democracy in the UK.
I’m pleased that the Commission has felt confident in recommending that Parliament has to learn from the outside and become more agile and experimental. It needs to get better at getting out and listening and that it needs to make sure that there’s follow up for people who do engage. All things I’ve recommended many times over the years!
There’s also recognition of one of the biggest problems I’ve heard the public talk about, namely the density and complexity of parliamentary language and protocol. This can be simplified and work has already been happening within government to make more readable versions of legislation are available. Providing open access to Erksine May, the definitive guide to parliamentary practice, might seem trivial but when the guide to how our parliament works is locked down in a £300+ book (and the ICO has ruled it does not have to be released under FoI law), it’s more about the principle than the practice. If you’ve not seen it, I should warn you, it’s duller than ditch water. But ensuring that Hansard is fully open sourced by the end of 2015, providing better search facilities across the parliamentary web estate and increasing the use of infographics are all good things.
And, yes, we need better political literacy. We desperately need to teach our children about parliament, about politics and about how it all works. But I’ve argued often that we have to go further and make sure there’s support for everyone to get the knowledge they need to support the action they want to take. We need just in time learning too because understanding is a big part of building trust. Parliament’s outreach and education teams are fantastic but they can only do so much with their budget. We all have to make sure we’re supporting projects, particularly with young people, that connect them with parliament and inform them about how it works. For democracy to work it’s got to mean something to all of us.
Finally, I’m pleased to see my recommendation that the UK Parliament fully adopts the principles of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. That of itself would be a good step forward for the UK and send a strong message to other parliaments around the world.
Overall, the Commission has made a real effort to engage, talk to different people and it has really thought about the issues, challenges and what can be done to improve our democracy. This report is them closing the circle and telling us what they heard and what they want Parliament to do. It has no mandate to force change but it would be a mistake for Parliament to ignore it, especially given that the consultation for this was both wide and deep. This report serves as both a narrative for digital activism in the UK and a powerful call for the transformation of our most important democratic institution.