I was inspired by an event on the Digital Democracy (#digidemocracyuk ) last week. It was the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture and it was dedicated to discussing /debating recommendations put forward by The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.
The 4 things that made it different…and a bit inspiring:
1. Ambition and belief
There is a genuine ambition for making the democratic method work better in the UK with the help of digital. You can find details here: Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. In sum, the recommendations are about making Parliament more accessible and generate more engagement between politicians and the people they represent. Eventually, lead to changes in voting by securing online voting for people in Britain.
This had a “West Wing” like inspirational effect. When was the last time you heard politicians concerned – - in a genuine fashion – - about representation and engagement rather than referencing digital in order to make the other guy look bad? There is a clear and absolute dedication by the Digital Democracy team to drive positive change.
2. Open about a lack of certainty and perfection
The Digital Democracy team were not certain that they had everything right but they were not going to let that stop ‘em This was brought into sharp focus by a question from the floor re: how they were planning for technologies that have existed for 3 years rather than projecting forward for technologies that will exist in 5 years. Good question. They didn’t adopt a defensive position. Rather, they agreed and indicated that they are working with what they know. They explained that they have to get the basics working better. Because it is better to get something achieved than keep projecting forward without delivering anything. Then, they welcomed others to be part of the movement to help them consider forward planning. Refreshing to hear such an approach from Westminster representatives.
3. Understanding how it works – - online and offline
Helen Milner, a key team member (not a politician) who appeared to be a key driver behind a lot of the work talked about the impressive blend of online and offline methods that were used to understand what is needed as well as what stood the best chance of working. There appears to be a genuine understanding of how digital information distribution works with offline word of mouth. This is a key insight given that 80% of word of mouth taking place face-to-face and 10% of the UK still without access to the internet. Helen also shared some sobering anecdotes about how disconnected people are with the political process, e.g. a significant segment of the population vote regularly for TV shows (e.g. X Factor) but are not registered to vote in an election.
There was a realistic understanding that slapping some share buttons on the Parliament website and making sure that politicians are tweeting regularly is not enough. The digital tools need to be put in place and then at least as much effort put into stimulating engagement/regular usage – - even if it means we give a voice to thousands of Jeremy Clarkson’s. A joke that Chloe Smith put right by noting that representation is the point even though we may not always agree with what is being voiced.
It was inspiring to hear politicians concerned with actual behaviour change – - potentially from individuals who will not vote for them – - rather than hunting for a headline statistic that sounds like progress.
4. It is coming; this is not a prediction
Application of digital is already changing political structures around the world: crowd sourced constitution in Iceland, a political party representing 22,000 votes only on the internet in Argentina, and online voting in Estonia.
These are profound innovations.
What if we re-engage the 35% of the UK population not currently turning out for general elections or the 65% not turning out for European elections? What if individuals become more aware of key issues being considered in committee, then storm in with opinions and evidence – - across Parliament platforms as well as independent platforms that Parliament learns from?
My only question to John Bercow and his excellent team is how can the digital industry help?
The Parliament site encourages me to contact my MP, submit evidence for a bill, become a fan of Parliament on Facebook, etc. These invitations to engage are not ambitious enough.
Why not put challenges to the digital industry to develop an app that answers a specific user case, figure out how to stimulate online/offline engagement with communities or create some new online voting solutions that no one has thought of before?
We are keen to help. We might even admit to a sense of duty. It is amazing what a bit of selfless innovation brings on.