Summary of Digital Scotland Festival Roundtable on 16 June 2014

On Monday 16 June the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy held a roundtable discussion as part of Digital Scotland Festival 2014. The discussion was chaired by Commissioner Helen Milner.

The aim of the session was to hear from professionals largely from the volunteer sector in Scotland focussing on the theme of engagement.

Questions discussed:

  • Do you currently engage with the UK Parliament about the work it does?  
  • Is there anything that would help you to engage more often and more meaningfully? And anything that you think would help others engage more often and more meaningfully?
  • How could digital technologies help people to participate more and be more engaged?
  • How should the UK Parliament make sure that digital doesn't exclude people with varying needs?

Main conclusions and recommendations

Engagement

There needs to be a culture change within Parliament.

Participants agreed that the UK Parliament’s processes and procedures should be more understandable and accessible; people need to know (or be able to find out easily) how they can have their voices heard for true inclusive engagement to exist:

“De-Mystify Parliament Jargon so citizens can learn how they can engage more effectively.”

People don’t care about complex processes but they are interested in issues/ topics. There should be more hooks linking Parliament to civil society.

The group agreed that people who engage with Parliament need to hear back but that it was also a two way process:

“Standard letter comes in, standard response comes out—that is not engagement. We need more from both sides.”

The general discussion bought up the issue of what effective engagement means. The group discussed how you could move people from initial engagement such as a comment via Twitter to more ‘meaningful’ engagement and what that would mean.

Petitions to parliament were discussed as a good way to start a conversation between the public and parliament. Some participants noted that people use petitions in different way; some want follow up and to continue a conversation whereas others are happy to just sign or fire off a petition and that any system for engagement should be able to deal with people’s different engagement needs.

Parliament TV was seen as an important part of Parliament’s communication. It needs to be accessible on all devices. Emma McIntosh from the Commission team explained that work was underway to change Parliament TV in order to make this possible which should be in place by the end of the year.

The group discussed their own personal engagement with the UK Parliament and, although almost all of them engaged as part of their jobs, most of the group admitted that they didn’t try to engage with Parliament as individuals. The group agreed that people’s relationship with Parliament might not be one they have all the time – but one they dip in and out of depending on what issues are being discussed and are affecting them at the time.

There was a suggestion that instead of MPs surgeries there should be roundtables between MPs and a selection of their constituents to discuss what views are affecting them.

Parliament information: documents and website

The group agreed that the parliament website is currently difficult to navigate due to the search function and language—parliamentary terms like the 'vote bundle' are not understood by most people outside of Westminster. Other examples included Parliament ‘Votes and Proceedings’ which were described as unclear and difficult to understand even though they were an important record of the key things which happen in Parliament. The order paper which describes what is going to happen in Parliament on a daily basis was also mentioned as being difficult to understand. It was recommended that more information is needed—for example outlying possible outcomes of the different ‘agenda items’.

“The average person has no idea of the difference in significance between an adjournment debate, a back bench committee debate and a ten minute rule bill.”

One comment from the group was that the order papers should be ‘machine and human readable’. (It was noted that a new ‘order paper app’ was now available).

The organisation and ability to navigate information on the Parliament website was viewed as making it impossible to know if you had found and read a reasonable amount and were going away with a good idea of what has been going on in Parliament about a certain issue or topic or whether you had barely scratched the surface. It was suggested that better tagging was needed with the key information on the top and the ability to drill down for more detailed information if you want it. It was suggested that the website should be redesigned with the user needs at the forefront and not the institution.

The parliamentary monitoring organisation ‘They work for you’ was sighted as a good example of parliamentary information being used in a functional way which is both easy for people to find and understand. One suggestion was that the official record of MPs behaviours such as attendance and voting records should be made more accessible. A further suggestion was automated tweets letting you know what your MP had just voted on etc.

The group discussed how tools could be put in place to improve media coverage of Parliament. A suggestion of a Parliament newspaper as well as the suggestion that Parliament should ask journalists what it could do to help them report better.

The group agreed that a proper infrastructure to cope with engagement was needed. It was felt that digital had been added on to the current parliament instead of being at the centre.

Young people

Digital can be used as a way to engage with young people who aren’t currently engaged.

Young people are online but don’t engage, whereas older people aren’t online but do engage.

There should be structured conversations within schools and supported political education.

Facilitating dialogue

There was a suggestion that Parliament could create spaces where people can communicate but that it should also try and find existing debate to tap into: “Parliament needs to go to where people are … and most of them are online”

There was a second suggestion of creating a virtual parliament or a virtual lobby where people could engage and try to get their voices heard.


Digital literacy

Politicians and staff need to be trained. Digital needs to be done well and Parliament needs to change the way it responds to the public. One example included MPs’ Twitter accounts–it was felt that MPs’ staff were using accounts as mouth pieces to push out information rather than engage with current conversation and communicate with people. The group agreed that if intervention such as training wasn’t implemented a ‘natural selection’ process would eventually get more media and digital savvy politicians into Parliament over time. The group felt that it needed to be a pull not push approach. Participants warned about the language of ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’ and agreed that Parliament should engage with citizens not customers.

Digital inclusion and accessibility

The group agreed that more should be done to invest in helping more people use the internet.

The group discussed how many older people may not have the mind-set to start tweeting. Different people have different assumptions on how you should positively interact and communicate with people which should always be taken into account.

Although standard letters to MPs (such as those sent by 38 degrees letters) were discussed in a negative light from an MPs perspective, the group agreed that for some groups they provide a much needed assistance and guide for people who, for example, have low literacy levels or learning difficulties. For certain people, these standard letters were seen as a valuable tool to enable them to engage with Parliament and should therefore be treated as ‘real’ engagement.

The group agreed that there needs to be an accessible view of what Parliament is doing. Better communication, without jargon, and full disability access requirements. Information should be made available in a wide range of formats including: electronic, printed, video and translated into sign language.

Thanks

The Commission would like to thank the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) who organised the Digital Scotland Festival 2014 and allowed the Commission to take part.

Attendees

Alex Stobart, Mydex; Alistair Stoddart, The Democractic Society; Christian Storstein, Scottish Government; Derek Young, Age Scotland; Diane Webb, Quarriers Hilary, Young Scot; Jeremy Hewer, Scottish Federation of Housing Association; Kathryn Crane, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations; Michael Fourman, University of Edinburgh; Nicola Osborne, University of Edinburgh; Peter McColl, Royal Voluntary Service; Rob Gowans, Citizens Advice Scotland; Sally Dyson, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Facilitators:
Helen Milner, Commissioner and Emma McIntosh, Commission Specialist, Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.