Connecting knowledge to power: the future of digital democracy in the UK (Archive 1)

Wikimedia UK and Demos are encouraging participation in an attempt to crowdsource a submission to a call for evidence on digital democracy from the Speaker of the House of Commons. This page is an archive of the submission that has been made already, on the theme of digital scrutiny. You can view the current theme of digital representation, and contribute, here.

The Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament


Theme one submission - Digital scrutinyEdit

Please do not edit below this point on the page Please note that a submission on this theme was made in July. You can read the content below, and the full submission, including talk page discussion and summary, here on the Parliament website (PDF)

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has established a Commission on Digital Democracy. It will report to Parliament in early 2015 with recommendations on how Parliament can use technology to better represent and engage with the electorate, make laws and hold the powerful to account. As part of their work, the Commission have issued a series of calls for evidence. These are open invitations for members of the public, either as individuals or groups, to submit responses to a series of questions. They have attracted responses from unions, academics, non-governmental institutions and private individuals. The first theme was ‘making laws in a digital age’, and the second on ‘digital scrutiny’. The Commission plans to shortly publish the final three themes.

There is a growing sense that the growth of the Internet has not paid the democratic dividends that it could. Turnout in formal political elections is steadily decreasing, and trust and support in the institutions and offices of mainstream political life are low and falling. Despite many innovative attempts from both within and outside of Government, the daily reality of democratic engagement for most people in the UK would be familiar to generations of British citizens who predate Facebook or email. The rise of the Internet has, broadly, done little to challenge concentrations of power or structures of unequal representation

Demos is one of Britain’s leading cross-party think tanks and it has an overarching mission to bring politics closer to people. They contacted Wikimedia UK to propose an experiment: can an online community be used to source a response to this call? Can the ethos, community and technology like that of Wikipedia be used to engage Wikipedians to come together and collaborate to create a reply? In particular, Carl Miller, Research Director of the Demos Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, wrote this piece for Wired in which he describes Wikipedia as a masterclass in digital democracy.

This conversation has led to what is an experimental attempt to do just that. In theory there are many lessons that any attempt to increase engagement with digital democracy can learn from Wikimedia projects, especially Wikipedia. These include the participatory nature of content development and the nature of content (and policy) being arrived at by consensus. Wikipedians are from a wide array of backgrounds and represent a broad spectrum of views. This could lend itself to effective drafting of the kind of evidence that the Speaker is looking for. Wikimedia UK and Demos would like to establish whether this is indeed the case. In particular, we are seeking answers to the following questions:

  • How can technology help Parliament and other agencies to scrutinise the work of government?
  • How can technology help citizens scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament?
  • What kinds of data should Parliament and Government release to the public to make itself more open to outside scrutiny?

Everyone is encouraged to try to answer these questions collaboratively, in much the same way Wikipedia articles are approached - using the space below for content and talk page for discussion. Stevie Benton from Wikimedia UK and Carl Miller from Demos will happily answer any questions on the talk page but are equally happy to let the process take its course.

At this point there is no fixed deadline for evidence on the theme of digital scrutiny. However, the Speaker’s Commission will be publishing a single call for evidence covering our last three themes (yet to be announced). The conversation and crowdsourced evidence will be reviewed at the end of June with a view to either continuing the process or submitting as is. If there is appetite among the community, and if the first attempt is successful, there may be further attempts to develop submissions to the later three themes.

At the end of the process Demos and Wikimedia UK will prepare a report on the process and the effectiveness of this kind of approach to crowdsourcing policy and evidence. This paper will be released under an open licence. It is a real opportunity for Wikimedians to influence the debate about digital democracy and both Wikimedia UK and Demos thank you for engaging with this idea.

How can technology help Parliament and other agencies to scrutinise the work of government?Edit

Please make improvements to our response by editing the text below. Use the talk page for further discussion.

DefinitionsEdit

To answer this question, we will specify what we will mean by "scrutinise", "the work of government" and "technology".

In this response we will assume "scrutiny" means either (1) the close consideration of the validity of the arguments put forward to support an action taken, (2) assessment of the effectiveness of the action (i.e. the extent to which the outcome meets the set objectives) and (3) assessment of the performance (i.e. how well they have delivered their objectives).

In this response we will separate "The work of government" in the UK into three main functions: (1) proposing legislation; (2) delivering services through executive agencies, and (3) supervising the work of independent bodies. Scrutiny of each of these three functions is carried out in a different way.

Encyclopedic analysisEdit

Building an encyclopaedia and analysing the effectiveness of legislation are tasks that could be readily compared. Both require the distillation of diverse sources of information into a single, neutral, summary of the facts. Systematic links are key to building quality, useful information. Acts of Parliament[1] can be linked to secondary legislation made under those Acts,[2] debates in parliament,[3] the websites of public bodies created under the Acts,[4] reports of the effectiveness of these bodies,[5] and other reports.[6] Associated European law can also be linked.[7]

In the same way that many Wikipedia readers become Wikipedia editors, practitioners using services like www.legislation.gov.uk and www.parliament.uk can be engaged to build a library of useful links and to produce feedback on the effectiveness of the legislation.

Transparency and communicationEdit

Governments develop their own evidence base, which is not always easily accessed by Parliamentary committees. Data and evidence should be shared by default. Raw data should be accessible for Parliament to scrutinise.

From the ekklêsia of Athens to the floor of a modern Parliament, the development of functional forums has always been central to democracy. Modern technology can make citizen scrutiny more dynamic and continuous and bring the public deeper into the process of legislation. Parliamentary committees can track the development of new policy rather than simply wait until it has been completed. Commenting on White Papers, draft Bills, etc could be done through a wiki-type format that would enable individual comments by Parliamentarians to be tracked and then responded to by Government in a transparent manner.

Careful development of open forums for citizens to present and vote on petitions and proposals has the potential to make the general will of the nation more apparent to those who seek to implement it. It is by no means simple to design a truly free and fair forum, where everyone has an honest opportunity to be heard and have their ideas evaluated by neutral members of the public in a way that rewards good ideas rather than tactical gamesmanship. To do this so effectively that the leading proposals are popularly supported, well thought out and useful for drafting legislation would be a triumph of social technology.

How can technology help citizens scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament?Edit

Please make improvements to our response by editing the text below. Use the talk page for further discussion.

Technology is only a medium - Government and Parliament need to make their work more accessible in terms of tone, relevance and accessibility. Technology can facilitate that, but the starting point for engagement has to be to translating the technocratic content of Government into language and content that is relevant to people's lives and concerns. Technology alone cannot do that, but it can facilitate the two-way conversation between decision-makers and those that are affected by decisions.

It would be valuable to facilitate conversation and dialogue about Bills, committee discussions, meetings and their implications. This includes presentation of diverse views and perspectives, so that citizens can see the trade-offs and synergies between their individual perspectives. Democracy needs to balance individuals with what is right for the country as a whole - we won't all be happy with everything. Digital platforms can enable conversation and expose people to others viewpoints. However, this needs to be moderated carefully to ensure that discussion is civil and that conflict is addressed in a constructive manner.

Currently the way that non-mainstream issues are raised in Parliament is via a Members Bill - technology could help identify issues that are important to citizens but have been overlooked by Government and/or Parliament. Technology can enable direct engagement between citizens and Parliament without having to rely solely on MPs or knowledge of Parliamentary procedure.

It is presently possible to subscribe to an RSS feed of bills before Parliament.[8] A list of draft bills before Parliament is "published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny."[9] It is also possible to receive email updates on a particular Bill through the parliament website.[10]

We recommend that this laudable work be continued and expanded, so that those who subscribe to a particular bill can receive updates on anything and everything that happens regarding it: for example, transcripts of discussions in Parliament or committee, upcoming votes and the results of votes, and any official petitions regarding that piece of legislation. RSS syndication with additional updates for the list of draft bills is also desirable. Providing a more engaging and accessible interface for viewing annual budget allocation information and quarterly financial performance reporting would aid scrutiny of departmental expenditure and policy delivery.

What kinds of data should Parliament and Government release to the public to make itself more open to outside scrutiny?Edit

Please make improvements to our response by editing the text below. Use the talk page for further discussion.

A lot of data is already available, but not necessarily in an accessible or machine-readable format.

Central governmentEdit

  • Office of National Statistics datasets - grouped by policy areas and as a way of providing an evidence base for discussions
  • Evidence and research used by Government to develop policy
  • Parliamentary Committee research and data
  • Annual budget allocation information. This data is partly available in the Budget, but not in an engaging or accessible way.
  • Quarterly financial performance reporting would aid scrutiny of departmental expenditure and policy delivery.
  • Departmental monitoring and reporting data - currently often available internally but is rarely made available externally.
  • Voting records and MP attendance
  • Searchable Hansard entries
  • Calendar of Parliamentary activities - that can be tailored to interest and downloaded in an accessible and multi-platform format (so someone could put it on their phone for example)
  • The Register of Members' Financial Interests should be made available as data

Local governmentEdit

  • Equivalents of the above for local government, where similar things exist: budgets and financial reporting, council minutes, registers of councillors' financial interests, registers of by-laws, etc., preferably in a uniform format mandated by central government, so that the performance of local governments in different areas can be compared

ReferencesEdit