On the 26th of January a much-needed report was launched by the Digital Democracy Commission led by the Speaker, the Rt Hon. John Bercow, MP: Open up!

From 16-year-old students to cross-party MPs, Lords to everyday citizens, it’s only 8.30 a.m. but the Atlee Suite is already full.

On the back of the digital revolution and a growing disengagement between citizens and Westminster politics, the message of the Speaker was pretty clear: ‘we need a two-way conversation’. He adds: ‘People are interested in politics but fed up with the system, so digital technology should be a tool to engage […] this report is a satnav for the House’. Commissioner and actor-filmmaker Femi Oyeniran goes on to highlight the urgent need to inform, interact and reach out through online spaces : ‘we do not have a democracy deficit but a communication deficit’.

Before the launch, the commission gathered evidence in any format from over a hundred face-to-face meetings and roundtable discussions with a wide range of individuals. What better way of designing a more democratic Parliament is there than promoting collaborative work from the unusual suspects for once?

The report is digital (of course!) and even mobile friendly. Coupled with video interviews, animations, photos, infographics and; in plain, simple English, is as interactive as it could be, representing exactly what the commission is trying to achieve:

1. By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.

2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.

3. The 2015 newly-elected House of Commons should create immediately a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons.

4. By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.

5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for reuse. Hansard [the official edited report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords] should be available as open data by the end of 2015.[1]

These ambitious goals provoked a lot of enthusiasm and hope from a majority of the public but have also been labelled as incredibly optimistic by others. The most controversial recommendation being the online voting …

Amongst the most popular recommendations the commissioners called for reaching out to under-represented voters such as the 18-25 year-olds not at university, people with learning difficulties, homeless people and people living in communities with a very low voter turnout. Other digital innovations pushed for the empowerment of citizen through decision-making tools and better education about Parliamentary processes in an accessible format for all (especially those not at ease with new technologies).

On the flip side, it wasn’t entirely clear how the implementation phase and practical application of these recommendations would be undertaken. With the average MP supported by only three and a half members of staff, being present on several online platforms seems unrealistic.

‘We need a party buy-in’ urged another commissioner arguing for party leaders to include the recommendations in party manifestos and calling for a genuine commitment from all parties. Others asked whether civil servants should take on the project and align it to their current bureaucratic tasks.

Whilst the meaning of digital democracy at face value seems obvious, for some such as ‘an ordinary attendee’ it can appear more complex. This raises other issues generated by the topic: what is meant by open source information and big data? How much would be shared and in which format? Who will be responsible for collecting, communicating and moderating online data?

Also, let’s not forget that it is not always up to politicians to do the tall order. As Meg Hillier suggests ‘Civil society needs to build and create apps and platforms’ that works for the community. On this note, a few organisation have taken the lead in encouraging political participation such as the Civic Workshop – looking at how the census could make better use of technological advances and data expertise – Vote for policies – a platform making it easy to compare what the political parties are promising to do and helping voters make informed,unbiased decision about who to vote for – and CoVI (Common Vision), the first crowdsourced and crowdfunded think tank which uses film and interactive media to encourage wider civic engagement.

Overall, the promise of an idea which could transform the way we engage with politics shows great potential and offers an opportunity to start further discussion and piloting programmes, but it will only be fully understood once implemented. Meanwhile the debate surrounding digital democracy is certainly leading the trend abroad, with twitter followers from 66 countries outside of the UK; the commission’s suggestions strongly encourage replication and a proposal to making digital democracy global.

 

Sources:

[1] Extract from the Executive Summary: Open up!
Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
http://www.digitaldemocracy.parliament.uk/