Digital Democracy discussion at the British Youth Council Convention in Birmingham

On Saturday 11 October the Digital Democracy Commission attended the British Youth Council convention in Birmingham. It held two 'circle of influence' discussions with a variety of young people who were representatives of, or engaged with, the BYC including UK Youth Parliament representatives.

Below is a summary of the discussions:

Personal experiences of engaging with parliament

Despite the groups’ general engagement in youth politics, not many had ever tried to engage with the UK Parliament. Parliament was generally viewed by the group as being impenetrable and not accessible to them. One participant had been involved in organising the mass lobby on votes at 16 which he said had been positive. The other two experiences were negative: one had written to their local MP and not received a response while another who had posted a critical tweet against a Government Minister had been asked to remove it from his twitter account. The general view of Parliament consultations was “they [Parliament/ Politicians] don't ask about our opinions”.

E-petitions

The group did not automatically associate signing e-petitions as engaging with Parliament as when later asked if anyone had signed one, about a third of the group had done so.  They were generally viewed as a positive way to participate in democracy and a great fast way to engage on something which was important to them. Some felt the system needed to be fairer on what you could submit as a petition (after having some rejected without clear reasons). Others said that they found it difficult to view and find petitions on gov.uk.

Committees
Only one person (out of both dicussion groups) was aware of engaging with Parliament by sending a submission to a Select Committee inquiry (this person had done work experience at Parliament and attended a Parliamentary Outreach seminar). No-one knew about opportunities for lobbying Public Bill Committees or Lords on legislation going through Parliament.

The standard format of Select Committee Inquiries was discussed. The group felt that less lengthy and complex questions were needed when seeking the views of young people and the general public who were not specialists. Survey monkey was suggested as a quick and easy way in which people could express their views, adding to the more lengthy submissions Committees received. The recent 'hashtag ask' initiatives (i.e. #AskGoves by the Education Committee and #AskPickles by the Communities and Local Government Committee) were seen as positive.  Participants also thought that these initiatives should be use for views relating to a Committee inquiry rather than just sourcing questions. The group stressed that not everyone was on twitter and other channels such as Facebook should also be used.

Problems with analysing social media

The group didn't feel this was a big problem. For example, GIS technology could help analyse what the issues were in different areas to see if it's national or localised plus stratified samples could help.

Advertisement

Both groups believed strongly that Parliament needed to advertise opportunities for engagement (such as Select Committee inquiries) much better. They thought that Parliament should be proactive in informing people how they can participate in democracy outside of elections.


Social media
Most of the group were surprised that the UK Parliament had a Facebook page and thought that more should be done to promote it including using paid push advertisements to get it on people's radar. The pros and cons of different committees also having their own Facebook pages were discussed. Some thought that people interested in particular subjects would only want to follow the relevant Select Committee. Others felt that having too many Parliament Facebook accounts could be confusing to others and they would miss other Parliamentary activities on that subject if the Select Committee didn’t promote it on their page. It was noted that all Committees now have their own Twitter accounts.

The consensus was that all engagement opportunities should be promoted effectively on Facebook and Twitter and that repetition of these messages was important.

Other advertising – go to where people are
Although expensive, some participants thought that paid advertisements on TV for engagement opportunities with Parliament would be an effective way to inform people who otherwise would be unaware and therefore unable to participate/ engage in democracy. Other suggestions for paid advertisement in places where people currently not engaged can be found included Spotify, YouTube and billboards. In addition, the group thought that Parliament should advertise on sites that people already use for example linking up relevant things on local council websites.

Notifications
Some participants thought that young people should be able to sign up for notifications relating to topics/ issues of interest. As well as keeping them informed, Parliament could use these contacts when they want to specifically target a consultation at young people.

Website
The recent Government overhaul and launch of gov.uk was mentioned by some as being really positive and said it was now easy to find information relating to issues (policy areas). Parliament should try and replicate it as best they can and organise information into topics/ issues.

“It’s not about what's said, it's about who's saying it”

Not everyone is going to listen to Parliament. Interims should be used to relay and relate information down to young people. Celebrities and those who young people can relate to should be used to help get information out on behalf of Parliament. A suggestion was made that the UK Youth Parliament could advertise engagement opportunities such as Select Committee inquiries, re-written in more accessible language for young people and filtered down using its own channels. Youth contacts could also be utilised to get messages into Schools and other youth organisations.

Media (Broadcast verses Blogs)

The group agreed that Parliament should be targeting other forms of 'press' outside of the mainstream broadcasters. It was felt that traditional media always portrayed young people and Parliament negatively. Parliament should also target its information at bloggers as a way of reaching different audiences and providing different perspectives and voices on what is going on.

Letters in the post!
The point was made that nowadays young people hardly ever receive any actually post and that when a letter did arrive for them it was exciting and instantly made them instantly interested. This could be utilised by Parliament, although not a digital solution!

Popular suggestions for new initiatives

  • Google hang-out Prime Ministers Question Time
  • Use of polls which require citizens to prioritise issues (for example via the Red button on your TV as a way of informing Parliament what the public are most interested in).
  • Online polls on the BBCs democracy live page. For example, a video questionnaire every week on Prime Ministers Question Time which could provide direct feedback to MPs on what people thought.
  • Use of simpler consultation surveys which are easy to share via social media such as Survey Monkey.
  • Use of publicity stunts similar to Downing Street cat #SaveLarry


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