Summary of Westminster University Roundtable on 19 May 2014

On Monday 19 May, the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy held a roundtable discussion with Westminster University academics.

The broad aim of the workshop was to investigate potential intervention points within Parliament where forms of digital engagement with the public might be exploited. Discussions centered around opportunities for public engagement via various parliamentary processes. Ideas presented in this summary do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the workshop.

Summary of discussions

Engagement through MPs

Given the multi-faceted nature of an MP’s work, it was no surprise that all MPs worked differently. It was up to them where they drew the line between their roles as campaigner and legislative representative and their other parliamentary work.

It was suggested that more needed to be done in relation to how MPs engaged with constituents. The Hansard Society has said that it took a long time for MPs to get online, and it has been suggested that some citizens are disappointed by how infrequently MPs appear on forums. The Hansard Society has suggested a co-ordinated “consult your MP” or democracy day to raise awareness of the possibilities and to raise interest in engaging.  When trying to foster citizen-to-citizen discussions, it was easier to start discussions face to face and then move them online.
MPs’ resources were a tricky issue – too few and they could not keep up with their correspondence, particularly on social media, too many and this could make it difficult for other candidates to compete with them at election time.

There were various opportunities for greater engagement between MPs and constituents:

  • MPs could connect with constituents both online and offline by holding face-to-face and town hall meetings and live-streaming these to enable others to view them or take part.
  • Constituents could be involved in helping MPs identify their campaigning priorities.
  • Members could have an online system for constituents to ask questions about the constituency. In Germany, 97% of members signed up to a system in which people could post a question online for MP to answer.

Motions for debate

Members of the public could play a role in generating debates in the House by:

  • urging their MP to put down an early-day motion
  • asking them to request an Adjournment debate, or
  • starting or signing an e-petition.

Parliamentary Written Questions

MPs used the written parliamentary question system to ask Ministers to answer specific questions about their Department’s work or performance. If members of the public had similar questions, they were entitled to make their own freedom of information (FOI) requests to Departments. However, there was potential to increase engagement by opening out the parliamentary written questions system. For example, MPs could:

  • have online brainstorming sessions and discussions to help identify topics for questions or to formulate questions.
  •  introduce a voting / crowdsourcing mechanism whereby they would automatically ask a question (within reason) that gained a certain number of supporters.

It was noted that the new parliamentary question system would be online only and should be both easier to search and more transparent.

Legislative processes

Secondary legislation

Many changes are made by secondary legislation, which is often published in draft for consultation. The Lords were more engaged at Committee level in looking at delegated legislation. There were opportunities for the public to be involved in online discussions about secondary legislation and for Ministers to “meet” people online to discuss specific pieces of legislation.

Backbench legislation

Private Member’s Bills might be a good place for inviting public engagement in the legislative process.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

  • There were various points at which the public could be consulted on policy or legislation before it reached Second Reading—eg, Government consultation on policy, Green and White Papers and draft Bills.
  • Select Committees and Joint Committees already scrutinised draft Bills. If more time were made available to them to do this, there would be more opportunity to involve the public in this pre-legislative scrutiny.
  • Government could publish draft Bills directly for consultation with the public. However, there were likely to be limitations to the number of draft Bills for which the Government would be willing to do this.
  • The earlier in the process the public were involved, the easier it was for them to have meaningful involvement. It was easier for them to voice opinions on policy aims than on technically worded clauses. One way of involving people earlier would be to invite comments on the Government’s proposed legislative programme after this was announced in the Queen’s Speech. There could be a Second Reading type debate for members of the public after the Queen’s Speech or at particular stages of the legislative process. There was a question as to whether this should be done by Parliament or Government. Feedback collected by Parliament could go to the Bill Committee. [See comments below on methods by which the public could comment on parliamentary processes.]
  • Crowd-sourcing could be used to help get the drafting right in Bills, potentially contributing to better legislation. However, time constraints imposed by the Government timetable for drafting legislation might make that difficult.
  • Draft Bills could be published in a  HTML format and there could be wikis and discussion groups for every clause. However, there was a question as to how many people and who would engage with such a system.
  • There was no real reason why amendments had to be bound up in technical language. Discussion of potential amendments could be more policy-focused, with redrafting being left to draftspersons.

Methods by which the public could comment on legislative processes

Commenting by email was less appealing to people than online discussions and online “town hall” meetings where they could view and comment on each other’s contributions. One way of inviting this would be to have a parliamentary YouTube platform on which people could upload content commenting on how they felt about particular topics.

Select Committees

Select Committees already publish highly regarded reports, but they could invite more engagement from the public by asking for feedback on reports after they are published. Or, during inquiries they could make more effective use of digital technologies in seeking input on the main ideas or potential recommendations being considered.
Select Committees might be also be interested in helping whistleblowers by having a Wikileaks-type page where the public could upload documents

Liaison Committee

The Liaison Committee’s sessions in which members question the Prime Minister were seen as an opportunity for further engagement.

PMQs

PMQs could be opened up to the public through crowdsourcing – people could suggest questions and vote on the best ones. Suggestions could be made in writing or by video on YouTube. The questions sourced in this way could be put to the PM in a separate PMQs to the one where Members ask questions. [See Professor Christian Fuchs’ QTube submission for more on this idea.]

All-party groups

All-party groups presented another opportunity for increasing engagement by linking with other groups and with people interested in that topic outside Parliament. The point was made that people tended to come to politics through their interest in specific issues, rather than through political parties (with party membership in decline) or other means.

Parliament could make more progress in this area. For example, there could be a system enabling people to register to receive online alerts and information when an issue in which they are interested, or relevant to their constituency, was being debated or otherwise dealt with in Parliament.

Parliamentary Outreach

Parliamentary Outreach already did a lot to inform the public about Select Committees and other aspects of Parliament. This included “training the trainer” sessions, so that knowledge about Parliament could provided by others.

The digital outreach team was working to open and increase online engagement with Parliament by forging links with various interest groups and through initiatives such as the recent #ourD diabetes live tweetchat alongside a Westminster Hall debate on diabetes.

Public Engagement Committee

There was potential for a parliamentary Public Engagement Committee to act as a ‘champion’ for digital engagement, focusing on issues such as:

  • reviewing and reporting on parliamentary application of digital technologies for engagement
  • receiving and leading response to e-petitions
  • reviewing the potential of emerging technologies for engagement

and to assist members of the public with queries about:

  • data ownership
  • how MPs were performing their roles
  • local data regarding specific areas or constituencies

It was suggested that the role of Parliamentary Outreach, a potential Public Engagement Committee and/or other possible ‘champions’ of digital engagement was critical. It was also suggested that a significant degree of culture change would be necessary amongst MPs, Peers and Parliamentary staff if digital engagement were to become embedded within the work of Parliament. Without champions with significant influence, digital engagement was likely to remain piecemeal and ineffective.

Alternative summary

Another summary of this roundtable put together by Professor Christian Fuchs and published as a University of Westminster news item can be viewed here: http://www.westminster.ac.uk/csd/news/edemocracy-workshop-in-the-uk-parliament 

Attended

Edward Wood, Secretary to the Digital Democracy Commission
Christian Fuchs, Professor of Social Media, University of Westminster.
Anastasia Kavada, Senior Lecturer, Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Westminster.
Justine McGuinness, External Communications Adviser to the Speaker
Richard Kelly, Parliament and Constitution Centre, House of Commons Library – lead researcher on parliamentary procedure and how Parliament works
Luanne Middleton, Commission Specialist, DDC
Graham Smith, Professor of Politics, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.
Anthony Staddon, Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, and adviser to the World Bank.

Image: Parliamentary Copyright