It is a huge pleasure and privilege to able to address you today and on a subject about which I have very considerable passion. It also allows me in a small way to continue to foster the broader links between my country and South Korea, a process which was enhanced by the State Visit of your President to the United Kingdom in 2013, an event during which I had the honour of formally welcoming her and introducing her speech to our Parliament. No one can be in this country at this time, however, without mentioning and mourning the terrible ferry disaster which took place here last month and the catastrophic loss of especially young lives which this involved. These terrible events have been covered comprehensively in British newspapers and on our television screens and I wanted to take this opportunity on behalf of the House of Commons to offer our condolences to the families affected and to your country.
Premature deaths should reinforce our determination to make the most of life going forward. The only legacy we can aspire to leave our children is a better place than the one we found. This includes a ceaseless search for improved means of connecting ourselves as citizens.
When I was elected as Speaker of the House of Commons four years ago next month, I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure within our democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is excessively stretching the nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy.
To this aim, I took the initiative last November to establish a special Commission to consider how the digital revolution of the past 25 years, since the birth of the internet, has changed or might further develop British representative democracy. The Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission began its work in January 2014; we plan to publish a report in early 2015, to coincide with our Parliament’s 750th birthday next year.
We have set ourselves an ambitious task. This exercise is far bigger and bolder than our House of Commons inquiries generally are.
This is because I recognise that to think strategically about public participation and digital democracy, there needs to be a willingness to listen to challenges and to contrary views. I recognise the importance of engaging with external experts and people outside the Palace of Westminster. I recognise, too, the strength that comes from seeking out expertise, information and ideas from officials and politicians within Parliament.
I, and the members of the Commission, wish to hear the voices of people who have not historically been intensely engaged with Parliament and politics, as much as hearing the voices of those people with in-depth and ingrained detail knowledge of the House of Commons. Which is why, unlike a Select Committee, the Commission on Digital Democracy is willing to take evidence, ideas and information in any format and has not stipulated precise rules about submissions.
As a result, so far, we have had hundreds of unsolicited emails and phone calls, countless conversations via social media, taken face to face meetings with over 200 different experts, held four roundtable discussion forums with more to follow, conducted a youth-focused forum with Facebook, have Twitter followers in 14 different countries and we are planning a unique one-day policy seminar in London this Summer. I have written to the Vice Chancellor (in effect the Chief Executive) of every University in the UK, so far this has led to 31 replies with offers of help, ideas and further contact with academics at the cutting edge of their specialism. We have run an on-line forum for politics students from nine Universities from across each nation in the UK, considering five separate themes, the results of which will shortly be published. We have considered and continue to look at what public participation means with a wide range of people and organisations, from the “tech” world and businesses to charities and civil society. Even our terms of reference were openly and publicly sourced.
In a similar spirit, while the UK Parliament has an impressive record of using digital technology, the Commission has looked to learn from initiatives outside the UK. I undertook a short fact finding mission to Estonia, where I discovered how digital activity is interwoven into the fabric of Government and democracy. Here, at this conference, two of my colleagues Robert Halfon MP and Meg Hillier MP have participated, as has John Pullinger, Director General of Information Services, sharing our experiences whilst learning from others.
My aim at the outset was to make our methods part of our message.
Indeed, our first thematic evidence meeting included a Skype-call with an expert from the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Cristiano Ferri Soares de Faria, who described the e-Democracia programme in Brazil that used a virtual legislative community with Wiki-groups, forums and a discussion guide to engage people in brainstorms on specific issues.
As I am sure you will be aware, the UK Parliament has three constituent elements: the House of Commons, the dominant political actor, the House of Lords and the Crown (today, largely a symbolic feature). Together these three elements make up the legislature of the United Kingdom, which has the primary role of scrutiny and to pass legislation. It seemed obvious to me that the starting point of our inquiries should be legislation and scrutiny, themes on which we have called for and received evidence. Our next themes for consideration focus on representation and engagement. May I take this opportunity to welcome ideas, information and evidence from this impressive audience.
You may be asking why I set up this Commission. Since even before the House of Commons had its first telephone installed in 1883, the UK Parliament has responded to the emergence of new technology and adapted. But it is clear to me that Digital Democracy should be seen as an integral part of the Parliament reaching out, listening and talking to the external world. It affords us the opportunity to improve our responsiveness to the electorate and the country at large, offering citizens, parliaments and political actors flexible forms of public participation.
My Commission wants representative democracy to thrive and evolve. To this end, we are prodding and provoking Parliament, questioning the way things are done.
Already in our investigations some common themes have emerged. Notably the need for openness, flexibility and understanding that people, consumers of democracy, use and do not use modern technology in a manner that suits them. When I was in Liverpool recently, I heard about a successful programme for senior citizens to allow them to have some control accessing social services using technology, via tablets (not the medical variety). The programme saves money but at the same time helps give the citizen greater freedom by offering choice. In the same city, I learnt about the power of co-production, where people can mutually develop solutions to policy or business issues. I am frequently reminded that the next generation of voters are bombarded by information and seem to be ‘pre-programmed’ to filter data. These examples, amongst others, are helping the Digital Democracy Commission consider strategically what democracy might look like in a decade, while considering useful changes that could be or will be introduced in the short-term.
British voters will soon be able to register on-line but there is no one location whereby they can check the location of their polling station. Now I know some believe that voting ought to have an element of difficulty. The argument is that a good citizen should have to make an effort to vote, be that picking up a postcard posted to them weeks before and dragging themselves down to an empty community hall or primary school on a wet Thursday, to put a cross on a tiny piece of paper.
I am not convinced this is the pinnacle of 21st century democracy in action. We need far more.
One of the buzz words in political campaigning at the moment is ‘micro-targeting’. It is, in part, a method of recognising that people are different individuals and receive political information in their own separate ways. Perhaps the time has come for the House of Commons to allow for greater micro-targeting, or rather allow for greater choice, more flexibility and dynamic public participation.
That may mean that even more of our data should be open for others to use, allowing people to have information about their Parliament, in formats that suit their needs. It may mean that there is a need for greater clarity regarding the role of MPs and what ought to be a citizen’s expectations. It may also mean some of the mystery surrounding the development of our laws, or holding the Government of the day to account, need to evaporate.
In an era where many people bank, search for a partner and conduct their most private of business on-line, treating their mobile phone or tablet as an extension of themselves, why should we not enable them to register to vote, cast their vote or express their views on the issues of the day using the same tools They already often do in countries like Estonia.
I hope that in so doing we will encourage people to be directly involved in politics, improve the work of the House of Commons and secure a more vibrant, relevant representative democracy. The end result will be a democracy that is more relevant to more citizens in the decades to come and that can only mean a stronger democracy as a consequence. I want all democracies to become similar stronger. I believe in collaboration not competition in this regard. We have so much to learn and events such as these and countries such as South Korea are an essential part of that education. It is for this reason that it has been such a privilege for me to able to speak here today. May this conference enhance all of our new e-democracies.
Picture: Parliamentary copyright