Digital democracy and opportunities for a 21st century Parliament

Posted on October 24th, 2016 by Victoria Boelman

Designing for Democracy is the Crick Centre’s major research and public engagement project, exploring the planned restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. In this blog, the latest in our Designing for Democracy series, Victoria Boelman examines how the restoration offers opportunities for a 21st century parliament.

With the recommendation this autumn that the restoration of the Palace of Westminster should go ahead, temporarily relocating both Houses elsewhere in Westminster, a tantalising prospect has been opened up. The report by the Restoration and Renewal Parliamentary Committee declared that a core objective, alongside fixing the roof, wiring and plumbing, is to ensure the Palace is fit for “the needs of a 21st century Parliament for (i) the public, and (ii) Parliamentarians”.

This should be an exciting proposition. What do we, the citizens of the United Kingdom want our new and improved Parliament to be?  Obviously we are working within the constraints of a UNESCO World Heritage site but that is not to say we cannot make some modifications to the design and layout or, perhaps more significantly, change the practices of Parliament.  How can this opportunity be used to improve working practices, increase citizen engagement, restore trust in politics, and improve the quality and legitimacy of decision-making?

At Nesta we are excited about two opportunities to do this. The first is to say “what if we just experiment?”. For several years MPs, Peers, staff and all those who interact with them will have no choice but to do things differently.  So rather than just ‘making do’ or ‘muddling through’ what would happen if we took the chance to actively try out some new ways of working that we might want to take back into the restored Palace?  There are myriad examples of things we could try, from less adversarial seating arrangements (as already modelled in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament) to greater public access (citizens in Australia have access to around 20% of their Parliament building, compared to around 10% in the UK), to capitalizing on the potential of new technologies to open up our democratic processes, making them more transparent and engaging for everyone.  As the plans for the big move progress, we’ll be talking more about how the temporary Houses could become Living Labs for democracy.

And that leads on to the second big opportunity – the role of digital technologies. At the moment, simply getting wifi access is an achievement in some parts of Parliament.  With all that set to change, what can we do differently?  We have been investigating pioneers of digital democracy across the globe, trying to understand what works, the challenges and opportunities.   Two areas are proving particularly popular on the international stage – the crowdsourcing of policy, and greater collaboration on the development of legislation.  For example, many countries are experimenting with ways of enabling citizen-led initiatives to reach Parliament for debate and potentially passing into law.  One example is the Rahvaalgatus (Estonian People’s Assembly) which has seen three new items of legislation adopted since 2013, with another four partially adopted and more under discussion.  In France, Parlement & Citoyens is designed “to connect deputies and senators who wish to involve citizens in the preparation of their legislative proposals”.  These new platforms encourage debate and deliberation and voting to determine which to pursue further. Further afield, Pol.is, a tool which visualizes consensus and agreement in a debate, has been used to inform the development of new regulation of Uber in Taiwan, and in Brazil the House of Deputies has its own in-house Hacker Lab which develops tools for public participation in the legislative process, via its e-Democracia portal.

Of course, it is not easy. The UK has already experimented with a Public Reading Stage of new Bills, with the aim of increasing engagement at the final stage of the legislative process.  It was not a great success. As with all engagement, the key is to consider who is being engaged, why and when.  Impenetrable legal jargon and lengthy documents are all off-putting and so this may not have been the place to start.  But when the outcomes are more tangible and the knowledge of citizens as experts in their lives and that of their community is more valuable, then it can be worth the investment.   Which brings me to my last point – digital must become an integral part of the way our Parliament works but it must not be seen as a cheap substitute for other forms of engagement.  It takes time and effort to make sure that engagement is inclusive and representative, and that applies as much, if not more so, to digital.  The most successful approaches are those which combine offline and online methods to encourage participation from people from all walks of life, which must surely be the ultimate aim of any 21st Century Parliament.

Biography

Victoria Boelman

Victoria is Principal Researcher in Government Innovation in the Policy and Research team at Nesta. She is currently working on the potential of new digital tools to transform democracy and the exploring the future of a 21st Century UK Parliament.

Prior to joining Nesta, Victoria was Head of Research at The Young Foundation, leading studies on a range of areas from social innovation to the impacts of high cost credit. She has also previously worked for Macmillan Cancer Support; as a freelance consultant for organisations including Centre for London and Power to Change; and as Research Director at a consultancy specialising in understanding the needs of vulnerable consumer groups across a range of industries for public, third and private sector clients.

Victoria has a BA in Geography and Hispanic Studies from the University of Birmingham and an MSc. in Applied Social Psychology from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Notes: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

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