On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.
Their final report concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.
The five targets are:
- 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.
Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.
It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.
It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.
Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.
Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.
For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.
It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.
It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.
But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.
The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.
Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.
Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.