Bercow’s #DigitalDemocracy report – how does it challenge NI Assembly?

Digital Democracy Commission logoThe Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy issued their report Open Up! on Monday. The brain child of the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, the commission has no powers and no teeth other than the persuasiveness of their recommendations. The report is centred around five targets:

By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.

By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.

The 2015 newly elected House of Commons should create immediately a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons.

By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.

By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for re- use. Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015.

The recommendations range from the high-level and general to the very specific, with one comment even critiquing the House of Commons camera angles that give the proceedings a “detached quality”.

[8] Parliament should make its audio-visual coverage of debates and committees freely available for anyone to download and re-use without unreasonable copyright restrictions by the end of 2015.

At present television coverage of the House of Commons is a bit like looking down on a goldfish bowl due to the high position of cameras in the chamber. This gives the proceedings a somewhat detached quality, emphasising the divide between MPs and audience. The Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement has urged the House to introduce new camera angles to give a more gripping television experience. We support this and are pleased to note that a trial will take place after the election.

While the detailed recommendations apply to the commission members’ suggestions for turning around Westminster (specifically the House of Commons, as the House of Lords didn’t seem to join in), many can be held up to the devolved institutions.

While an e-Petition scheme has never surfaced in Northern Ireland – perhaps that’s for the best and worthy of a separate blog post – the NI Assembly has been ambitious in opening up its data, including rich webservices that allow third party apps and websites to reuse information about MLAs, their committees, their questions and their Hansard contributions. So some  Digital Democracy recommendations have already been ticked off in NI:

[31] All Parliamentary information in the public domain should be made available to the public as downloadable data in formats which make them easy to re-use. Hansard and the register of MPs’ interests should be made available as open data by the end of 2015, followed by bills.

NI Assembly staff met the Digital Democracy team and made a written submission. They’ll no doubt be reading the full report with interest too! [Disclosure – I met them when they were in Belfast in October.]

Aside from the recommendations on election and (e-)voting, reaching out to under-represented groups and being aware of the (limitations of) the digital divide, many recommendation could equally apply to Parliament Buildings.

[11] The Commission recommends that the current restrictions on members of the public taking mobile electronic devices into the House of Commons chamber and Westminster Hall debates are removed.

[13] The House of Commons should take further steps to improve active involvement by young people. This might include: encouraging young people to participate in the e-petitions system; youth issue focused debates which involve young people and MPs.

[18] We believe the public want the opportunity to have their say in House of Commons debates; we also believe that this will provide a useful resource for MPs and help to enhance those debates. We therefore recommend
a unique experiment: the use of regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall. This innovation might be known as the “Cyber Chamber” or “Open House.” If at the end of the next Parliament it has been successful, it could then be extended to debates in the main House of Commons chamber itself.

[19] The House of Commons should experiment with new ways of enabling the public to put forward questions for ministers.

[30] The House of Commons should also pilot an electronic version of the practice of ‘nodding through’ MPs who are physically unable to go through the division lobbies, which would enable MPs who are unwell, or have childcare responsibilities, or a disability, to vote away from the chamber.

In Northern Ireland, we’re politically quite interested, but not that politically active. Would any of the 34 recommendations make a difference to local politics?

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  • Chile already has a virtual Senate, in which members of the public can discuss with senators the issues and votes coming up in the Senate. Brasil has a virtual chamber of deputies. I heard about them 5 years ago.