Digital Democracy: a new way to engage citizens?

By on 20/05/2014

Can the work of global governments ever be interesting enough for social media? The UK Parliament certainly hopes so, as Eleanor Goodison reports

A revolution may be about to take place in the way the UK Parliament at Westminster operates – but, ironically, not many people seem to know about it.

The traditions of this long-established institution have so far kept it fairly paper-bound.  In fact, the House of Commons Procedure committee reported in 2011 that some members regard the use of Twitter in Parliament as “a threat to the dignity of parliamentary proceedings.”

All this may be about to change, however, thanks to an initiative of the Speaker of the House, John Bercow. In a speech to political research and education charity The Hansard Society last November, Bercow launched a Commission on Digital Democracy.

That sounds very on-trend, but what did Bercow actually mean by the term “digital democracy”?

He said it might include online voting, e-dialogue between MPs and their constituents, more flexibility in how debates take place and a much more intense pace of change.  “What we are talking about here is nothing less than a Parliament version 2.0,” he asserted.

The commission has now been put together, including Members of Parliament, academics and young people who live and breathe social media.

It has invited evidence on making laws in a digital age and on digital scrutiny. It plans to move on to representation, engagement and facilitating dialogue in due course, with a report due in early 2015. This coincides with the 750th anniversary of the UK Parliament, making it a fitting moment to take stock of the way it conducts its business in the 21st century.

Making progress

Despite falling beneath the radar in its early days, the commission is gradually starting to spread the word about its activities. Its members held an internal event in Parliament in March and its Twitter feed (@digidemocracyuk) is now attracting a healthy number of followers.

Even so, the commission faces a significant challenge, summed up in many of the comments at a recent forum it held at Facebook’s UK HQ in London. Young people find politicians – and politics in general – boring. There are too many long words, the processes are tedious, and they have no sense that anyone is listening to them.

Commissioner Emma Mulqueeny’s blog (mulqueeny.wordpress.com) both addresses and illustrates the problem. She assumes her readership will find the content so dull that she livens it up with pictures of her kitten. But her passion for the topic shines through.

For example, in one post Mulqueeny writes: “The challenges are mighty, resources are few and the real action needs to be around sharing in the world where people are communing around topics (on and offline). Then in turn ensuring that this engagement, once won, has the opportunity to add value.”

Some digital innovations had already been introduced to the UK government before the Digital Democracy Commission was inaugurated. The best-known example is #AskPickles: an initiative by the Community and Local Government Committee in which citizens tweet questions for the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles.

#AskPickles has been very effective – leading, for example, to a change in local council regulations enabling agendas for meetings to be sent out electronically, rather than in hard copy.

In fact, local government in the UK appears to be some way ahead of Parliament in terms of digital democracy. For example, Dudley Council, in the Midlands, recently held a meeting on Facebook, allowing for a truly open discussion to take place.

A global perspective

The UK Parliament is by no means alone in seeking to make better use of digital technology to enhance democracy. John Bercow cited the example of Estonia in his speech launching the commission. And Involve, the organization which has been working on public involvement in NHS research for nearly 20 years, has pointed out that Brazil and Chile both have web-based systems to let citizens comment on legislation.

Moreover, the Democratic Society has explained how Finland uses crowdsourcing tools to produce new laws. Iceland also used crowdsourcing recently to produce its proposed new constitution.

Further evidence of the global interest in digital democracy is seen in the World e-Parliament Conference, organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which took place recently in Seoul.

A wide range of countries was represented at this event (go to www.wepc2014.org for more details). In his speech to delegates, John Bercow developed the theme of the UK Commission on Digital Democracy, inviting people from around the world to share their expertise in this area.

Speaking about his commission last November, Bercow said: “Like the digital world itself it will be unpredictable, potentially anarchic. It should even be quite fun… What we want is to be fast, flexible and fluid.”

There is, though, a circularity to the process: unless more people engage with the commission’s work, it will have nothing much to report in 2015. But until the commission has something to say that is of real interest to its intended audiences, it will struggle to engage citizens to the desired extent.

Bercow is aware of these challenges. When launching his idea, he conceded that it was ambitious, but argued that this was no reason not to go ahead.  What he could do with is for digital democracy to go viral. And for that to happen, the commission needs something really interesting to say. Watch this space.

Eleanor Goodison is principal consultant at Catelyns House – a training and development company that works closely with the UK government. She was a civil servant for 30 years, holding posts that included deputy director of the National School of Government and secretary to the Civil Service Commissioners. For more information about Eleanor, visit www.catelynshouse.co.uk.

About Kevin Sorkin

Pendragon International Media publish www.globalgovernmentforum.com, a community of senior government officials around the world. Global Government Forum is an important international network focusing on impartial, government news, analysis and best practice. The content addresses the real issues facing senior leaders in public service policy and administration today and aims to support them in developing public services for the future. Our aim is to help all organisations engage with this important community by improving understanding and strengthening relationships. I am the founder of the Civil Service Awards and Civil Service Live, which are now established industry leading brands and extremely important events for government. I also launched and published Civil Service World, civilserviceworld.com and Civil Service World Research and Information bringing together the civil service community to enable communication, sharing of best practice, inspire and motivate the civil service community. Over the years I have established relationships with the most senior officials in government and the private sector and have built a very strong and positive reputation across the industry.

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