This is my evidence to today’s meeting of the Digital Democracy Commission in Parliament:
Let me start by saying how delighted I am to be asked to give evidence, and that I think the work of this commission is vitally important.
It feels like the public’s engagement with politicians and Parliament is at an all time low – although not necessarily engagement with political issues. Some of the reasons for this are related to digital technology – the expenses scandal wouldn’t have happened without the ability to leak records digitally; the hacking scandal wouldn’t have happened without intercepts of digital technology.
But it is also true that digital technology is the most powerful communication and engagement set of tools ever invented. The opportunity exists to mitigate some of the disengagement by using the power of interactive communications technology. Ultimately it also needs bigger political reform, but that is not for today.
In thinking about how Parliament might do that I want to avoid the usual mistake of starting with the technology. Instead we need to think about the three main functions of Parliament – the formation and scrutiny of the Executive, of Government; making law, the legislative function; and being the voice of those the elect MPs, the representative function.
I believe that digital tools can help with all three.
Let me start with the representative function, something I now observe rather than participate in.
Parliament spends a fortune on free post for Parliamentarians to assist communication with constituents and the public. The building, especially the Palace, is littered with landlines for the same purpose. Neither of these are means of communication that either of my twentysomething children want to use.
If, however, I want to use reasonable video conferencing to visit a school classroom remotely, or a business or whatever, I can’t book anything. If I want a template and some help in easily creating a YouTube video to communicate with constituents Parliament is silent.
These are all easily fixable and could be funded by reducing the reliance on paper-based communication with outside world.
But there is also a problem that too many Parliamentarians view social media like Twitter and YouTube as additional broadcast medium. They are not. They are means of interaction and exchange. Parliamentarians are inundated with emails but few know how to manage interaction and meaningful feedback to people who correspond with them – beyond employing more staff.
This needs thought, and training in using tools like Storify.
I think we need to offer people the option of voting using the same mobile technology they use for secure online banking. It would certainly be more secure than postal voting. If we were to follow Estonia down that road we could also offer that technology to elected representatives to communicate with their registered voters.
Then thinking about the legislative function, I think the Lords is a good place to experiment. It wouldn’t interfere with the legitimacy of the representative chamber and plays to the Lords strength as the House where legislation is improved.
Experimentation should be around a fourth House of Parliament after the Queen, the Commons and the Lords – the House of the Public.
We should experiment with wiki-legislation to inform the Lords prior to the committee stage of bills, much as public evidence informs the initial stage of committee scrutiny in the Commons. This wiki stage could also be summarised in a report by a citizens’ jury taking evidence from experts.
And then, the scrutiny of the Executive.
When I was a minister the scrutiny I feared most was the select committees. These however mirror the vertical silos of Whitehall rather than the horizontals of peoples’ complicated lives. We should consider a digitally enabled childrens commission, a commission of elderly citizens, perhaps another of disabled people, or parents. Parliament could, through citizens’ juries or another longer term arrangement, form select commissions of the public, like this one, to question ministers. If I was in the Government that would really focus the mind!
Finally, I should mention the additional challenge of how technology is changing our relationship with news – the traditional means Westminster communicates with the public.
Many of us now get a personal newsfeed and watch the national news far less. This amplifies the views of people we follow, who we normally agree with, and interested are in. We are essentially amplifying our own noise and filtering out things we don’t want to hear. That re-affirms the importance of Parliamentarians who try to understand issues in a wider context of the connectedness of things, but is also a huge challenge.
Tackling that re-affirms the need to assist Parliamentarians to engage with their constituencies and communities, and not just rely on traditional communication.