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London Tech Week: Digital Democracy - Just a Tweet?

If Digital Democracy was just being allowed to Tweet from Commissions that feature their own Hashtag, we’d already be there. Sadly the remit of the Digital Democracy Commission goes a bit beyond that. Tasked with looking at “how parliamentary democracy in the UK can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world,” the Commission met during London Tech Week to discuss the subject and suggest ideas to improve access to Parliament & Politicians in the Digital world.

Sevenoaks Councillor Peter Fleming is leading the charge and sees technology as a great tool for democracy. “In local government we have been pushing the use of social media and as many different routes of connecting people with democracy as possible, and the more you can do to open up this place [referring to Portcullis House and the Houses of Parliament], the better.”

“Politicians are seen as aloof, away and disconnected from #normalpeople, but the best people on Twitter are those who give away a little bit of themselves, and I do not think that is any bad thing.”

Cllr Fleming doesn’t see the likes of social media as a replacement for current communication methods, merely ‘an adjunct.’ He refers to a case where a councillor from The Midlands was forced to conduct surgeries via Skype from home after a traffic accident, but the results were so encouraging he kept Skyping long after he was able to leave his home, as well as conduct traditional surgeries. “That is the sort of thing we can do to use the technology and the various channels that are out there to interact better with the people we are elected to serve.”

With today’s mobile, always-on world, questions about expectations and workload are raised. “We live in a world where immediacy and gratification are expected. People’s expectations are heightened about how you will respond,” says Fleming. “The same was said about email. There was a time when you wrote to your MP. Within two or three months you might get a reply.”

As questions come up about talking to people outside your constituency, Fleming doesn’t see it as an issue either way. “Does it actually matter? If, for instance, I am talking about welfare reform or an issue to do with empty homes, yes, it has a Sevenoaks context, but should I only listen to that?”

“We are at a crossroads. The opportunities are there for including more people in the democratic process, for widening the debate and for hearing voices that we would not normally hear,” he says. “The idea that politicians in this place would be able to put a barrier around themselves and say they are not going to deal with it—frankly, that is not reality.”

To Andrew Cooper, Founder of consultancy firm Poplulus and former Director of Strategy for the Prime Minister, the proliferation of digital channels is irrelevant to Democracy. “Does digital democracy simply create new channels for the people who are already engaged, or does it expand access to politics, so that politicians can hear voices that they do not normally hear from?” He asks. “I think the evidence at the moment is that it is predominantly the former.”

Does Digital Democracy enable us to hear the voices that we don’t normally hear? I am not sure that at the moment it does.

Cooper tells us that the problem of engagement is on a basic level; the pantomime of parliament, the evasive answers politicians give, and the general out of touch image politicians unintentionally put out. “I think the fundamental questions at the end are: does digital democracy enable us to hear the voices that we don’t normally hear? I am not sure that at the moment it does. Will it lead people who aren’t already engaged to feel better informed? I think probably not. Will it make the majority of people who feel increasingly frustrated by their politics feel less so, and feel that politicians are doing their jobs better? I fear not.”

Dr. Andy Williamson, an academic expert in digital democracy, strongly disagrees. “I think that the way we frame disengagement is the way that political élites maintain power,” he explains. “Young people are disengaged from party politics and from what they see as an irrelevance. They do not see the relevance of Parliament because Parliament is just what they see on TV, but they are in no way disengaged from the issues that affect their lives.”

“If you ask them about political engagement, that is what they will tell you, but you are asking the wrong question. Are they interested in health, education or in their kids? Yes. Are they interested in jobs? Yes. We just do not give them the vehicle, so we have to change the system.”

Williamson has a strong view of politicians not engaging in today’s technology. “Digital is not optional. It should be in the job description. If you can’t do it digitally, you shouldn’t be here. It is time to retire. There are better things for you to do. I’m sorry, but it is as blunt as that. In the House of Commons, if you cannot work digitally, you have no place here.”

In the House of Commons, if you cannot work digitally, you have no place here. It is time to retire.

“Parliament is a microcosm of the world; there are good digital people and bad digital people—people who get it and people who don’t. But as for not using it, it is like when you start a new job: on day one in the bank, you can’t turn around and say, “I don’t think I’ll use that email, thank you.” It is not your choice. As you work for us in here, we should be telling you what the job description is, and part of that job description is: you will be digital.”

As Chair of the Information Committee in the House of Lords and charged with the responsibility of trying to educate in an ICT direction in a House that has an average age of 68½, Lord Archy Kirkwood is well-versed in making technology accessible for people. He proposes a recommendation that, “no self-respecting elected Member in 2015 should come to Parliament without some level of support within their own operation that is media/coms/digital savvy.”

He calls for a revamp of the ‘inadequate’ parliament website’s search engine to make at as easy and usable as Google. “Google is still better than our parliamentary search engine by a mile. I don’t know why that is.” He also brings up Keeling schedules – where all of a bill’s amendments are kept in a relevant part of a legislation instead of a “whole list of amendments that is completely incomprehensible, even to parliamentarians.” On eVoting, Lord Kirkwood is confident we’ll have something in place before 2025. “I think there is a good chance of getting some of the legislation through in the next Parliament, but not before.”

My two cents:

80% of the World's leaders are on Twitter, which is great. But it should be 100% not only of the leaders, but MPs, MEPs, and Councillors, and not just on Twitter. I’m not sure I agree that only the already-engaged use Digital Channels to engage with politics, and even if it’s true, the more options people have the better. And as today’s Digital Natives get older and more engaged in the political process, there’ll be a whole generation just a click away. Obviously nothing about the Democratic process should be digital only – physical voting stations, surgeries etc. should always be around for anyone who wants them.

The UK is making some great strides around Digital Democracy and access. You can make an FOI request via Twitter, we have ePetitions the Government has to take notice of. And while the You-Gov site isn’t perfect, it’s a good start. There’s still a way to go, and I agree that it should be mandatory for politicians to be, if not active online, have a definitive presence, and eVoting should be seriously looked at. But it seems the biggest problem might still be the politicians and the microcosm of politics that people still can’t relate to.

What are your thoughts of Digital Democracy? Comment below.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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