Digital Democracy discussion event in London with NIACE

On Wednesday 10 September 2014, the Digital Democracy Commission held a roundtable discussion with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE).

Below is a summary of the discussions:

Involvement in political activities and debate

  • Many of those who attended were politically interested. Activities included voting, watching PMQs and BBC Parliament, visiting Parliament and discussing political issues locally.
  • However, some people felt that the coverage they saw of Parliament, such as Prime Minister’s question time, was off-putting
  • Some found it difficult to access impartial information about political issues and elections and so did not feel confident about voting. Others didn't know it was possible to get a postal vote
  • Some people stated that the recent scandals had affected people’s trust in MPs and Parliament.
  • Some also felt that politicians needed to change their attitude towards the public and have more trust and confidence in allowing more engagement
  • The importance of having a safe environment for people with learning difficulties to discuss political issues was highlighted.

The following suggestions for increasing engagement were made:

  • Parliament should be more proactive in making people aware of what is going on, for example on big screen TVs in town squares and through advertising.
  • Parliament should incentivise people to engage with it and Parliament needs to remember that engagement is not ‘one size fits all’.
  • Increase opportunities to engage with the law-making process.
  • Simple "how to" guides, using easy-to-understand language, should be provided, explaining how people can engage – for example how they can contribute to a Select Committee.

Contact with MPs and Parliament

  • Many participants had had contact with their MP and Parliament. Both positive and negative experiences were reported. Some had been successful in lobbying their MP or getting their MP to visit a local group. Others said they had waited a long time to hear back from their MP. Some didn't realise it was possible to contact their local MP.
  • Some people found parliamentary “jargon” (e.g. right hon. Member, ayes and noes) difficult to understand and felt they needed a translator.
  • The importance of follow-up from MPs was highlighted, so that people felt that they had been listened to.
  • It was also important to realise that democracy was about being heard, but did not mean always getting your own way

Preferred means of communication

  • Face-to-face contact was seen as the best way of communicating with an MP, but it was accepted that this was not always possible.
  • There was general agreement that while digital is a useful tool, some people need ongoing help to use it. Also, some people do not have access to computer equipment and might be intimidated by libraries. Younger people found the costs of broadband too high.
  • Proper funding was needed for the right kind of professional and safe support to be available to help vulnerable people use digital.
  • Local Question Times were suggested as one way of hearing from MPs and political candidates
  • Some felt it would be useful to have representatives putting forward questions on their behalf to Parliament and MPs
  • For those who were hard of hearing, a text option for contacting their MP would be useful, as would British Sign Language and subtitles to parliamentary debates and video (but not automatic subtitles as these were very inaccurate)
  • Easy-read documents were useful and could be provided more widely.
  • Weekly postal updates of what has happened in Parliament
  • One participant said: "A more vibrant debate would be good - our approach to politics is too polite, too 'British'."
  • The group had mixed views on electronic voting. There was both enthusiasm and concern about security and access. If it was introduced it would have to be simple to use.  There was an opportunity to integrate information about candidates with the voting website.

Ways in which digital could help with engagement and communication 

  • Digital tools must be an addition to current means of communication and engagement, not a replacement, because of the barriers to using technology experienced by some people
  • Twitter could be useful but did not allow in-depth discussion. Also, lots of people did not use Twitter.

The following suggestions were made:

  • Apps to update people when issues of interest were discussed would be useful
  • A properly regulated forum or ‘virtual lobby’ could host the discussion of national and local issues, but it would need to be properly regulated.
  • Webinars could be used to speak to MPs on specific topics and MPs could hold ‘virtual surgeries’ to speak to constituents
  • More blogs and updates from MPs and Parliament – the ones which already exist should be better promoted
  • A Bill tracker making it easy to understand what legislation was being considered and what its effect would be would help people to engage with Parliament
  • A query tracker (similar to parcel trackers used by many companies) would help people to know how their query was being handled and when they would be likely to receive a reply.
  • A massive open online course (MOOC) on democracy and Parliament – like a TV serial – would help engage people in the political process and democracy

Image: Parliamentary Copyright

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