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Digital Democracy Discussion with MPs

On Tuesday 15 July, the Digital Democracy Commission held a round table discussion with MPs. The event was hosted by Commissioner Meg Hillier MP. Read below the discussion summary

Topics discussed:

  • Electronic voting in the House of Commons
  • Electronic voting in elections
  • Social media
  • Direct democracy
  • Digital divide
  • Parliamentary communications and engagement

Key points:

  •  Current practice for voting in divisions was inefficient, and it was sometimes difficult to ascertain what the effect of the amendment being voted on would be. Members should be provided with this information via text message and/or on the annunciators, and members of public in the galleries should also have access to it, so that they could see what Members were voting on.
  • Members wanted to retain the practice of voting in the lobby as it was an invaluable opportunity to discuss issues of interest and concern with Ministers and other Members. A system of electronic voting in the lobby might free up more time and therefore allow more votes to take place.
  • Views on electronic voting in general elections were mixed. It was suggested that e-voting might make it easier to have open primary elections, but there were also concerns about security. Members agreed that the idea was worth exploring further.
  • Social media was already being used to good effect by many Members, but there were limitations to how it could be used. It would not be appropriate to require all Members to use a form of social media – it should be for Members to decide for themselves.
  • Training for Members on the technical aspects of social media use via parliamentary equipment should be provided. However, if further training on how to use social media was required, Members should pay for it out of their office budget.
  • Views on direct democracy differed. One view was that citizens should have an active role in political decision-making through regular votes online or by phone; another view was that representative democracy was a fairer system and that opportunities for people to express their opinion were already available. There was a fear that more direct democracy would mean that those who shouted the loudest would be heard more than those with a less popular but important issue
  • The digital divide was a concern, as many constituents were unable or unlikely to use online tools. Paper letters and face-to-face meetings were still an invaluable way of corresponding and engaging with constituents.
  • Members agreed that the parliamentary internet and intranet still needed some improvement

Summary of discussions

Electronic voting in the House of Commons

Some Members felt that the current system for voting in divisions was inefficient, outdated, time-consuming and resource-intensive, with one Member describing it as absurd. Comparisons were made with the European Parliament, where votes took 6.5 minutes and there were dedicated voting periods. From a practical perspective, when there were several divisions back to back, it was difficult to know exactly what was being voted on. Members had to rely on Whips for information about votes, but there had been occasions when the information they had received had been incomplete or incorrect. Similarly, members of the public watching from the gallery were unable to ascertain what Members were voting on, which made it hard for them to understand what was going on. Several Members felt it would be useful to have information on annunciators or sent to them by text stating the effect of the measure they were voting on.

Members agreed that the action of going through the division lobby presented an invaluable opportunity to meet Ministers and to ask other Members to sign early-day motions or otherwise lend their support on a particular issue. One potential alternative system would be to defer all votes to a standing voting period, such as Wednesday afternoon, but there were concerns about the effect that this might have on business on other days, on attendance and on votes on contentious issues.
A system of electronic voting that still required Members to go to the division lobby was thought to be good compromise. It would allow Members to continue mixing in the lobby, and if it sped up the voting process it would enable Members to vote on more amendments. Concerns were raised about the potential for error with an electronic system, but some Members felt that it would be more accurate.

Electronic voting in general elections

Some Members felt that there was huge potential to use electronic voting in general elections. It was suggested that e-voting would make it easier to have open primaries.

Members discussed the security concerns surrounding e-voting. Some felt that current systems were not robust enough, highlighting reports of e-voting systems in other countries having staggering gaps in security and being open to cyber attacks. Others commented that there were also security issues with manual, and particularly postal voting systems. The point was made that if secure online banking could be made available then secure online voting should also be possible. It was suggested that if ID cards had been introduced they could have made it easier to introduce e-voting, and that an opportunity had been missed to promote them as something beneficial to the public.

Trust was thought to be a factor, with people being more prepared to trust their bank to fix any security issues with online banking. The same level of trust was not there between citizen and state. There was also a question as to how mistakes would be fixed and whether there would be a presumption in favour of the citizen if there was an issue with ID or personal details.

The potential effect of online voting on turnout was discussed. It was often suggested that young people would be more likely to vote if they could do it online, but there was also evidence that young people would be less likely to vote online because they had experienced having their social media accounts hacked and this had made them wary.
Members agreed that electronic voting in general elections was worth exploring further.

Social Media

Most Members used social media, with Twitter and Facebook being the main platforms used. Members used these in slightly different ways and discussed their practices. Twitter enabled users to reach large numbers of people and to draw attention to issues that had been debated in the House by a small number of Members. It tended to be better for having conversations, and was a useful tool for crowdsourcing questions to Select Committee witnesses. However, Twitter had its limits and Members tended to ask people to email them if an issue required more detailed or lengthy correspondence. Similarly, Twitter was not appropriate for constituency casework, which required a more secure medium. Members also remained aware that only a small proportion of the population were on Twitter.

The nature of social media meant that Members could be contacted by people outside their constituency and all over the world regarding particular issues. Those who received a lot of this kind of engagement did respond to people who were not their constituents, but emphasised that constituency casework took precedence. Some Members had found that people’s expectations of correspondence with them via social media were unrealistically high—for example, expecting a response to a tweet within 30 minutes.

There was an issue with abuse from other social media users, and several MPs had blocked users who had engaged in abusive behaviour.
All Members agreed that it would not be appropriate to require Members to use a form of social media. It was for each individual to decide how best to do their job.

It was agreed that Members should be provided with technical training on how to use social media on parliamentary equipment. However, there was also a feeling that training about how to use social media to achieve particular outcomes should be paid for by Members out of their own office budget rather than being provided by the House.

Direct democracy

Views differed on the practicality of having more direct democracy. One view was that all members of the public should be able to vote regularly via internet and phone as part of the political decision-making process. However, concerns were raised that this would not be representative and would give greater power to those who shouted the loudest. On a practical level, it might be more difficult for some groups to take part in votes than for others. Another view was that other channels that enabled people to express themselves publicly were more appropriate than plebiscites.

Digital divide

There were concerns that a move towards more digital use should not widen the digital divide.
Most correspondence was received online now, but some constituents preferred to attend meetings in person or receive information on paper rather than doing things online. However, Members were careful to ensure that email correspondence did not jump the queue ahead of paper correspondence. Members agreed that face-to-face surgeries were still very much a necessity, particularly for constituents with learning difficulties or issues with spelling or with writing in English. Paper letters were still a very effective way of communicating with constituents, and Members felt that this medium should still be used alongside digital methods. There was strong agreement that digital should add to, rather than replace, more traditional forms of engagement.

Parliamentary communications and engagement

Members agreed that there were issues with parliamentary communications and with the parliamentary intranet. Pages could work better on mobile devices, and the Members’ page on the intranet could be better designed to be make it easier for Members to table an e-question for example.

More information could be available to help people who wanted to campaign on a particular issue or to bring about a specific change, but were unsure what actions to take. It was suggested that an app that identified MPs who were interested in particular issues would be useful to members of the public seeking to influence policy, as well as to MPs themselves.

List of attendees

Meg Hillier, MP, Hackney South and Shoreditch (co-chair)
Robert Halfon, MP, Harlow (co-chair)
Andrew Miller, MP, Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Chair, Science and Technology Committee
Caroline Lucas, MP, Green, Brighton Pavilion
Luciana Berger MP, Labour and Co-operative, Liverpool Wavertree, Shadow Minister for Public Health
Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP, Conservative, Totnes, Chair, Health Committee
Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, Conservative, Suffolk Coastal