The Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy held discussions with the public sector in Cardiff on 26-27 September. The discussions formed part of GovCamp Cymru, an unconference where public sector workers came together to discuss, create and innovate, how technology, new thinking and public services could improve society.
Below is a summary of the key points from the discussions.
- We need to incentivise taking part e.g. ‘your petition may get discussed if you get enough signatures’, is that good enough?
- Many people are more interested in 38 Degrees and Change.org because they’re easy to use and the technical quality is much higher than parliament epetitions
- “Government has no right to be moderating the epetitions site” there is an inherent distrust
Committee agendas and papers
- Papers posted on parliamentary websites should be in plain, readable English
- Clear language implies a clear purpose which would build more trust with people when reading papers online
- Online voting should be a priority "why should I have to turn up to one place from 7am 10pm when I could just go online?"
Redesigning democracy completely
- MPs are there to represent “this is what my constituents think”. Is this needed any more when you can tell what citizens think from online forums and data?
- There's a sense of democracy being overcomplicated.
“People are looking for political leaders to be leaders” There’s a tendency to make decisions based on the emotional appeal to the public rather than the right or practical decision.
- Taking a theory from computing, everything must come down to a binary eventually, so why can’t we say to people ‘here’s 1000 questions about education,' and let everyone answer, using computers to analyse the data.
- Example of rewards: Google surveys give people about 20 pence to take a 23 question survey, as they have such a large userbase
the data is useful. Would paying people for their time engaging in democracy be a good way to engage the unengaged? An alternative proposal along these lines was to give timebanking credits rather than actual cash.
- Constituency design is based on geographical areas. Traditionally the MP was someone of good standing, known to everyone, and they would go up to London where noone else would ever go, to represent the views of their constituents. Now the world is completely different and there are many ways for the voice of the people to be heard.
- Could you opt out of ‘Cardiff Central’ and opt in to the ‘constituency of the web’, or an interest-based constituency?
- Geography is not as elevant to the way the world works now; the existence of transient populations and likelyhood of people knowing someone on Twitter better than their physical neighbours.
- On dialogue: why ask citizens to talk to parliament? They are talking to each other already (on social media, etc). Parliament should just shush and listen.
- Given the inherent distrust (see petitions above), Parliament should not be the owners of a platform to facilitate citizen dialogue.
- Reddit is selfmanaged by engaged users. Most people are good and responsible people; a lot of good happens online so there’s no reason why forums can’t be selfmoderated.
- The crucial part to this is that Parliament staff or MPs (however the practicalities work) must engage in this dialogue in a useful way, not try to own or direct the conversation. "Leaving people shouting at a wall is no good so they must interact but there is some letting go required!"
- Both government and citizens also need to learn to trust these tools and technologies if they are going to be useful.
- It’s important that any platform is neutral.
General Engagement with Democracy
- Engagement is an actual skill and a lot of people (officers, civil servants, etc) are trying to do it untrained. Is there a way to help them to learn and do it better?
- We need to explain what is the point and what politicians do because many people genuinely have no idea the Welsh Assembly has started to do this with videos about what committees are for etc, but there is a still a large knowledge gap
- E.g. “they’re changing the buses aren’t they?”, “Have you heard they’re going to change that law?” “Yeah I heard they’re going to build that new motorway”. Many people cannot tell you who ‘they’ is, and many don’t care. People think a random administrative change has changed their benefits/taxes/whatever, don’t realise it’s a political decision that’s been made by politicians.
- Citizens need to know that showing up matters, even if the result doesn’t go your way, showing up does mean being heard.
- Prime Minister's Questions destroys Parliaement's image. The member should speak more respectfully to each other.
How to maintain digital inclusiveness
- Some people may not want to engage digitally MPs and staff must give same level of attention to both digital and traditional methods of contact
- Caseworkers need consistency (e.g. of digital tools) and proper training, as their ability often has an impact on the ability of an MP to engage too
- Accountability and honesty also required i.e. who is actually replying to your tweets (could have who is managing the account in the Twitter profile)
- MPs should be given social media training.
- Local Councillors should be on social media.
Challenges for MPs
- Will more digital conversation bring new expectations? Will MPs be expected to answer tweets at midnight?
- There are questions over the standard and quality of replies traditional information flow means you ask an MP a question, they send it to researchers and then reply several days or weeks later
New ways to make laws case study: Laughing Boy Bill
- Connor Sparrowhead died in an assessment/treatment unit, the case highlighted problems with care for young people
- His family and other people created a bill to improve the situation
- Hashtag #lbbill
- A barrister is voluntarily working with the tweeters to draft the legislation
- All the work is funded by interested charities
- 1000s of people are taking part, crowdsourcing ideas and solutions with professional help and support
- Intention is to create an openspace bill and then campaign to MPs and candidates to make it law
- View the storify of the GovCamp Cymru conference by the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office. here
Image: Dan Green