Hashtag Scrutiny

This is the third blog post in a series I have been writing in my role on the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. It may help to quickly scan the previous two (as with the legislation post, I will scatter kittens and nice things throughout, as I write loads):

Hashtag Democracy

Hashtag legislation

We are currently calling for evidence on scrutiny’s role in democracy, I shall remind you of how to do this at the end of this post. Earlier this month the commission met to hear from people (witnesses) who gave us more detailed background based on their knowledge. Specifically we were supposed to be talking about:

  • Select Committees
  • Examples from other countries
  • Open data
  • Information from government
  • Parliamentary Monitoring Organisations (PMOs)
  • KPIs for MPs

But actually the conversation we ended up having was much more fundamental than that, and this I thought would be useful to share with you.

Parliament’s role and government’s role

Very few people, in fact it is probably so few it may as well be none except those who work in it, know the difference between the role of Parliament and the role of Government (indeed the difference between Government and government). Knowing that Parliament’s role is to scrutinise the work of the Government, and that we (citizens in a democracy) can in turn scrutinise the work of Parliament is a fact lost on most of the population of this country.

{kitten break}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So when you start to look at the vital part scrutiny must play in democracy – and the enhanced opportunities offered through digital tools, communities and reach – it is immediately confused by having to assume that no one will really know where to start, nor do many of them want to.

Research conducted by the Hansard Society paints a gloomy view of engagement and enthusiasm for politics. On the 30th April 2014 they will publish their 11th Audit of Political Engagement, should you wish to interrogate some findings for yourself, but it pretty much rides out what you would expect:

  • few people want to be involved in decision-making
  • parliament should take responsibility for enabling those who do, as well as reaching those who can’t be bothered, (but would if they knew there was something being decided on that they actually care about)
  • the language of Parliament is alienating: whips, select committees etc
  • the older people get the more interested they are in politics and law; conversely the older they are right now, the less digitally engaged they are

So really this is going to be much more about outreach than making channels available to those battering the doors down to find a way in.

Conundrums

The social media led communities of the digital world are once again the game-changers – and what we are hearing over and again is that when online communities are actively sought out for engagement with a specific topic, the response and engagement is immediate, relevant and useful to everyone involved. Bit of a No S**t S******k moment, right? Seems obvious…

Parliament is already doing some of this, we have seen small scale projects having great success, but with very limited resource applied to them, they have a digital outreach team and all sorts of disparate stuff the Speaker detailed last year when he announced this Commission in a speech to the Hansard Society:

Digital democracy should thus be seen as the complementary counterpart of the outreach efforts which I have spent much of my four years as Speaker seeking to promote. It is a form of in-reach, encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result. Historically, in-reach has largely consisted of voting once every four or five years. For representative democracy to thrive it has to evolve and there has to be a step change improvement in its responsiveness to the electorate and the country at large.

{flowers from the Eden Project break}

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In a sort of earnest, and perhaps wishful, fashion he later went on to state:

If we get this right, then the Speaker’s Commission would provide a blueprint for action covering, among other topics, ways to bring to the heart of our democracy the things that really matter to our citizens – how to put right grievances, how to turn law-making into something that really involves the people who will be affected – and not just a conversation between interest groups and political parties – and much more that we have yet to discover.

So far so “Yes”, obviously, yet it seems the more we dig, the more basic it is – digital is not the solution to a broken process, a cry screeched far too many times into the echo chamber, but never more apt here. The challenges are mighty, resources are few and the real action needs to be around sharing in the world where people are communing around topics (on and offline). Then in turn ensuring that this engagement, once won, has the opportunity to add value.

Engagement, digital or otherwise, that turns out to be pointless to the person dedicating their time and energy is not only an expensive waste of time, it will also actively damage any further attempts to garner feedback or opinion. Worse, it will create an environment of suspicion and distrust, further damaging the vestige of democracy.

Red Pill/Blue Pill

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus, The Matrix

I seem to be using this quote a lot recently, so apologies to those who may read more than one thing I write (although I know this post has been LABORIOUS… sorry! But it is so important to share this cogitating with you all)…

For the Digital Democracy Commission I see the Red pill/Blue pill choice to be:

Blue: Use the opportunity to shine a big fat mirror at the issues and walk away – wake up next year and carry on. No further damage done, nothing broken, also nothing fixed.

Red: Be bloody brave, lay out that blue print to citizen re-engagement in democratic process, but ensure that it is written in stone that this goes hand in hand with revision of process through Parliament and Government – so that engaged people really can change the world.

{Chief Librarian break}

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(This is John Pullinger, the legend photo accreditation at the end of my post on democracy)

How can you get involved?

I promised I would let you know how to get involved with all this, should you fancy. Here is a very lazy copy paste of the information on the Commission web pages:

These are the issues we would like to hear your views on:

  • The role of technology in helping Parliament and other agencies to scrutinise the work of government
  • The role of technology in helping citizens to scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament
  • The nature and format of information and data about Parliament and government that is published online

It’s not necessary to respond to all of these. Feel free to concentrate on the issues you think are most important, or which you have most to say on.

We will publish evidence submitted on this site: please let us know if there is a reason you would prefer to submit evidence privately.

How to have your say

Contributions by email from everyone and in any format is welcome: videos, blog posts as well as more formal notes.

Deadline

Whilst it would help us to have received evidence on digital scrutiny by the end of May, we recognise that the themes overlap and you may prefer to cover two or more themes in a single response at any point over the next few months. We will shortly be publishing a single call for evidence covering our last three themes.

Further information

Until next time… bai :)

 

Young Rewired State: bringing back open government data

Young Rewired State was born back in 2009 when a small group of us decided that we needed to bring the open government data revolution to the next generations. Our intention was to show them what had been fought and won on their behalf for democracy and scrutiny, introduce them to the potential for open data, open government or otherwise, in a non-dull way.

Google hosted that first weekend for us but the legend now goes that it took us three months and a massive credit card bill for hotels and trains to find 50 coding kids in the whole of the UK for a single weekend hackathon at the much-lauded Google HQ in London. Our original sign-up was three kids… three… for a free weekend in Google HQ London.

Photo by Lettuce
We wanted to introduce coding kids to open government data, instead we discovered
  • schools were not teaching programming, computer science, or anything really other than the PE/Geography/any spare teacher showing the kids how to turn on a computer and use Word/Excel/How to photoshop a kitten pic (the only nod to programming – some of you will get this)
  • this was not something the teachers were happy about and I found acres of frustrated geeky teachers fighting a Latin Goliath
  • young people were being driven to teaching themselves, something well-served online with a tonne of lessons on YouTube, websites with individual lessons in the greatest detail, should you care to look, but these kids were isolated and bullied
  • some/many were being failed at school <- when I posted that blog post 25,000 people on Hacker News clicked on it within the first hour…

M’esteemed colleagues were well-renowned software engineers and designers and did not have the capacity to fight this particular fight, except by continuing to do good – most of whom are now in the UK Government Digital Service – but I was able enough, and I was a Mum and I was an entrepreneur, and I was an open government data campaigner – and I had to stay to do something.

Through personal and professional means I turned myself into a lobbying machine to teach our kids to code and, through Rewired State, continued to run Young Rewired State as an annual event, growing from 50 kids to 600 kids, now 1000.

I gave up my job.

I fought battles.

I lost battles.

I won them.

I did school runs.

I got cross about girl engineers (lack of).

I wrote.

I did.

I talked (although I am not a natural speaker – BetaBlockers FTW).

And I found a community of fabulous people: Mathematica, CodeClub, Mozilla, Nominet, Nesta, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jam, MadLab, Birmingham City Council, CoderDojo, Treehouse, General Assembly – seriously so many people… and now I feel like I can step back from that fight now. I have been as much use as I can be… and a *lot* is happening.

I need to look to the future and I need to re-focus the kids we are now finding in increasing numbers, and as the others teach them how to code, and as the others fight the battle with institutions and education – I want to go back to what we wanted to do in the first place.

And so I think now is the time, as we grow beyond the UK, to re-focus what we are doing on finding these kids and introducing them to Open Government Data. I will always fight for education, but I fight for democracy, transparency and accountability over all – and I would like our children to grow up understanding Open Data as freely as they understand Open Source.

Starting now…

Our aim is to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code – and introduce them to open government data

http://youngrewiredstate.org

Parly Hack 2012

On the 24th and 25th November 2012 we are running a hack weekend for Parliament http://rewiredstate.org/hacks/parliament-2012. This is our second “Parly hack” and we have over 100 of the UK’s top developers (including 20% aged 18 or under from Young Rewired State) joining us.

Hack events in the UK have always played a vital role in helping government be open and transparent about what it is doing, and it is essential that this extends to what Parliament is doing too. Many people roll Government and Parliament up into one big ball of responsibility, and whilst it is right that this is so, there are also fundamental differences between the two bodies. Parliament has a video that explains this very clearly (ignore the target age group)

How Parliament works

For those not familiar with the hack day format, it is an event usually held over two days, where developers, designers and experts work with digital information to create prototype web or mobile apps, infographics, websites or widgets with a view to making that information more understandable by everyone. They are important because the people involved are working with facts, statistics and published information – there is no opportunity for spin or mis-direction. In these days of mistrust of anyone in power, these events and communities underpin democracy and have a big role to play in rebuilding trust between citizens of a country and its elected populus.

If you watched the video you will understand the major differences between Government and Parliament, if you didn’t the highlights are thus:

  • Government is made up of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and is responsible for running public sector departments – choosing how to raise and spend money from the taxpayer
  • Parliament is made up of the House of Lords, The House of Commons and the Monarch – so Government is a part of Parliament
  • Crucially, Parliament is the highest legislative authority of the land, making and revising most the laws in the UK
  • Parliament also scrutinises Government and its actions

Consider your Member of Parliament (MP), they can raise questions on your behalf and get answers, they can also ask difficult questions of Government Ministers in their capacity as an MP. As can the House of Lords.

So if the communities of people who attend open data hack events only focused on the Government in the UK, they risk only getting half the answer, and providing easy access to information that is only made available through Government – and miss the information that Parliament holds on any given topic. Needless to say, scrutiny of those in Parliament is as important as that levelled at Number Ten and the Cabinet.

This year Parliament has been enthusiastic about joining in on this hack day, to the point that not only are they ensuring we have access to as much information as they can release, they are also opening access to the Annunciator data.

The annunciator service gives information about parliamentary proceedings, including live feeds from the Commons and Lords Chambers and Westminster Hall, on television screens throughout the parliamentary estate.

We have been keen on getting this for a while, simply because we can not only help open up Parliamentary procedure more easily with this access, but we can also create assets for MPs and Parliamentarians, to make their lives more easy too. Making pages such as this more alive http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/divisions/

And so we begin our plans for Parly hack 2012, hand in hand with Parliament and the developer community; with a view to continuing the trend for transparency – and making information relevant and understandable for everyone. At the same time we are supporting the (continuously cut) public sector employees who struggle to have the time and resources to do it on their own, however committed they are to openness.

If you would like to attend the Show and Tell to see what is made at Parly hack, sign up here http://rewiredstate.org/hacks/rsparly-2012-show-and-tell

Parliament Hack is taking place as a part of Parliament Week.

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