Technology: The cause of and solution to democracy’s problems

It’s easier than ever to talk to MPs, but not in a meaningful way. How can we fix that?

9 Dec 2016
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There’s a disconnect between us and our political representatives, but the internet and digital tools aren’t helping bridge the gap. In fact, in some ways they’re widening it, leaving our MPs overwhelmed by tweets, e-petitions and emails.

The internet makes it easy to be an armchair activist, retweeting a campaigner’s call to action, mass-emailing demands to an MP, or tagging your representative in a Facebook post.

Indeed, it’s so easy to “engage” online that some MPs claim to be drowning in digital engagement. Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, has long been one of the most active parliamentarians online, but says that in the three or four days following last year’s vote on what military action to take in Syria, she had 12,500 tweets and as many Facebook messages. “It’s absolutely impossible to engage with that level of volume – or the level of anger people were bringing to it,” she said, speaking at a Future Parliament event organised by the Hansard Society.

Sites such as 38 Degrees and Change.org that make it easier to hassle your MP via email aren’t helping. Creasy simply ignores them. “I had to stop responding to mass emails in 2011 because I could do literally nothing but [reply],” Creasy said. “The signals are no longer there, it’s just noise… I cannot deal with the volume of it.”

And that’s a problem: there’s no better way to snuff out political passion in a person than for them to attempt to get involved and see nothing come of their effort. That’s why Creasy points to the parliamentary petitions system as another “bad example of engagement”. Many people believe that if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures, MPs are forced to have a debate on the topic. They’re not; the government need only post a text response if it doesn’t think it’s worth spending the time in parliament. “We need some honesty with people,” Creasy said.

The widely held belief that social media and digital tools let us have a real discussion is false. “Technology can help us improve conversation, but if the fundamental interaction at the start of it is misleading or confused, then it doesn’t matter how great your hashtag is, how great your Facebook [post] is, or how original your Instagrams, people are going to at some point... feel misled and frustrated, and that there’s no point in engaging in the first place,” Creasy added.

Building a parliament for the future

The meeting point between democracy and technology is not, of course, limited to social media. Perhaps there is an opportunity for technology to be integrated in a deeper, more meaningful way, within what Creasy describes as the “fundamental interaction” between citizens and politicians.

Sometime after 2020, our MPs will move out from under Big Ben’s shadow to temporary offices in order to allow the Palace of Westminster to be refurbished. Some see the governmental hot-desking as an opportunity to set up a parliamentary innovation lab, allowing MPs and their staff to trial governance tech – and bring what works back to the Palace when the renovation work is complete.

(Above L-R: Stella Creasy, Liam Laurence Smyth, Emma Allen, Dr Ruth Fox)

“It’s a once-in-a-150-year opportunity for reforming the leading institution of our democracy,” said Ruth Fox, director and head of research at the Hansard Society, the think tank behind the “Hacking Parliament” event that considered the idea. “The refurbishment project is the [closest] we will come to a blank slate.”

While few but the stodgiest luddites among the uprooted parliamentarians would disagree that technology could be helpful to democracy and governance, questions remain about which technologies to trial and what problems they’re expected to solve. Shoving a few iPads in MPs’ hands and hoping they tweet now and then will not save democracy.

The Hansard Society panel – made up of a mix of MPs and parliamentary staff, experts from tech quangos, and tech firm representatives – suggested there were two areas a government innovation lab should consider. First, there’s the use of digital communications tools to improve engagement – or, in civilian speak, talking to constituents via Twitter, WhatsApp or whatever else normal humans use, during election campaigns and as well as throughout an MP’s tenure. Second is the use of technology to make it easier to write better legislation, such as platforms that let anyone comment on a bill, adding transparency to the process and pulling in more expert insight beyond the Westminster circle.

As Creasy noted, the problem isn’t only the volume of digital engagement, but the quality of it. If you want to sway an MP’s mind on a subject, online activist groups would do better to ditch the spam and instead crowdsource research reports on a topic, delivering a fact-checked package of data and suggestions to politicians and journalists to help sway policy decisions.

So, how could that innovation lab build engagement? Aside from smart filtering tools for MP’s inboxes, it’d be a wise move to bring in the likes of 38 Degrees and Change.org, to help them build tools that will get messages across to MPs in a useful way without swamping inboxes.

Rebecca Rumbul, head of research at mySociety, called for what she calls “considered interaction”, rather than simply clicking a link to spam your MP with a pre-written message. That's something mySociety has tried to encourage with websites TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow, which gather up information about MPs' views and voting records, as well as aggregate Freedom of Information Act requests, to give citizens more useful data to make their minds up.

(Above: DoTheyWorkForYou.com)Better information is more useful, she argues, than constant calls to action that result in little more than ignored spam. So rather than tasking the parliamentary innovation lab with reinventing a “Facebook for politics” or building more engagement platforms, it's better to make the social networks we already have more informative and purge the nonsense stories that flood them. “That would be far better for democracy right now,” she said.

Transparent government

Engagement aside, the use of digital tools to draft laws could be particularly important over the next few years as “the legislative process is going to come under increasing pressure” thanks to Brexit, the Hansard Society’s Fox noted. Indeed, part of the problem faced by parliament is the disconnect between setting a policy and drafting the law to make it happen – an example where Brexit is a key case in point, noted Liam Laurence Smyth, clerk of legislation at the House of Commons.

Picture a platform that lets anyone look at a draft bill or consultation papers, allowing those of us dwelling outside Westminster to scrutinise planned legislation, add comments and suggestions, and perhaps even edit draft text – sort of like a wiki for laws in progress. Would average people use it, or would it be abused by lobbyists and special-interest groups – much the same way PRs fiddled with Wikipedia – and how could you ensure it was an actual British person making a comment without infringing their privacy? The technology itself is easy to build, but addressing such challenges could prove tougher.

And there are other hurdles to consider. For example, technology has a funny way of increasing the velocity of everything it touches. A story breaks on the BBC, and MPs are expected to have a response on Twitter in minutes, a speech in parliament within hours, and a contribution to a white paper or bill within days. There’s merit in giving politicians time to think – we want technology to help us make better laws, not make crappy laws more quickly.

Legislation at the speed of tweet storms isn’t a sane way to operate

“There is virtue in parts of the process being quite slow,” said Laurence Smyth. That some bills take a long time to get through the two houses of parliament allows MPs to understand the issues, campaigners and lobbyists the chance to influence them, and journalists the opportunity to explain it to the rest of us. Legislation at the speed of tweet storms isn’t a sane way to operate – just look at the carnage wreaked by Donald Trump with a few midnight messages.

Purposeful innovation

None of these challenges mean the temporary parliamentary offices shouldn’t be used as innovation labs – there’s simply no reason not to do so, and any MP unwilling to take part in a tech trial of some part should have an excuse beyond being a luddite or lacking skills.

Indeed, some of the suggestions tossed about the panel seemed obvious solutions to basic problems that needn’t wait until 2020 to be trialled. One idea was to make it possible for MPs to vote remotely, so they don’t need to spend their days dashing down the Palace halls, while another suggestion was to make it easier for experts to submit evidence to committees without the burden of travelling to London – something that holds back useful experts around the country from contributing. Others suggested parliament start drafting documents in more flexible digital formats (rather than, say, PDFs) so it’s easier to edit them, and called to let citizens track a bill or topic through parliament by registering their interest, receiving an email or notification when something’s been decided or is about to be.

We don’t need an “innovation lab” for such basic tech tweaks, but larger projects such as public-facing bill drafting tools and the like could certainly benefit from getting developers and MPs in the same room. But we need to decide now what the end goal is. As mySociety’s Rumbul pointed out, tech progress is not necessarily political progress. “We need improvements to the system rather than the tech,” she said.

If our MPs want us to stop tweeting at them, they need to find other ways to engage with us – and we need our own attention spans to last longer than a few days around each election, referendum or controversy. Fixing democracy, and our parliament in particular, isn’t only a technology problem, but a people problem.

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