This week I was asked to write a blog on ‘Open Up’, the Digital Democracy Commission report – a great opportunity as the newbie here at Delib to learn about what is being proposed to improve digital technology in Parliament and how digital could help increase public engagement.
I found the report informative and relevant, not only for Parliament, but for citizens as well. It’s full of interesting video snippets and infographics on topics ranging from how Parliament works to what students are saying about political engagement with today’s youth.
Delib are big supporters of digital democracy – engaging both citizens and government. We were pretty excited to provide the Commission’s online survey, via Citizen Space, which helped them to engage with people on both sides of the government fence for the report. The Commission also held events and meetings, connecting with a wide range of people across the UK online and face to face.
What does it say?
There are 34 recommendations outlined in the Digital Democracy Commission report. The Summary condenses these in five key targets.
The first target is for the House of Commons to ensure that everyone can understand what it does by 2020. To me, that seems like a big ask but a good ask – something that needs to happen. Voting in the UK has decreased from 80% in the 1980s to 65% in 2010. The fact is, people won’t vote if they think their vote won’t matter. In order to believe that their vote does make a difference, citizens need to understand how things work, that government is relevant to them and that their voice will be heard. There is some stark demographic content within the report about who is likely to vote – this information identifies the citizens Parliament needs to focus on to drive engagement.
The second target is for Parliament to be fully interactive and digital by 2020, giving the public a way to get involved by asking ministers questions and also contribute to the law making process. This would be a great way for citizens to engage in relevant dialogue with MPs. A win all around that supports engagement by demonstrating to the public that their voice is wanted and heard.
Creating a new forum for public participation in the debating function in Westminster Hall is the recommendation of the third target. If the pilot is successful this could be rolled out to debates in the main House of Commons chamber. Giving people the opportunity to ask questions created some impact with the #AskPickles (the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) twitter session, which resulted in a law being changed.
The fourth target to secure online voting as an option for all voters by 2020 presents valid technical challenges; so far Estonia is the only country in the world to have permanent national online voting. However, with the right specialists working within the UK government the Commission is confident this can be achieved.
The final target is based around open data; it is proposed that by 2016 all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for re-use. This includes the (edited) verbatim report, Hansard. Great concept, but it’s not enough just to have the information available. There is still the barrier of Parliamentary language – if comms aren’t written in plain English, getting people reading the actual content will be a tough nut to crack.
Making tomorrow’s democracy work
A key thing to all of this is how do you communicate these changes to the public and gain their buy-in? As we say at Delib – it takes two to do the democracy tango. Interaction between government and citizens needs to be improved for everyone to benefit.
As someone who supports more transparency in government, I am all for Parliament using digital technology to be more efficient and changing some of the age old traditions to get with the times. Not easy but necessary. If Parliament lags behind the digital world, the youth of today (otherwise known as the leaders of tomorrow) are going to be less and less engaged. And for citizens to get involved they need relevant discussion and confidence that their voice will be heard.
All in all, I’m looking forward to hearing about Parliament’s steps towards transparency, inclusiveness and better engagement with the public. Sounds like a winner to me.