Tomorrow morning sees the launch of the report: Open Up! by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. I have been lucky enough to be a commissioner on this alongside the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, Robert Halfon MP, Meg Hillier MP, Paul Kane, Helen Milner, Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Femi Oyeniran and Toni Pearce. It has been quite a journey to here, so tomorrow is hugely exciting. In the coming weeks I will write about some of the recommendations we have made and why, but for now I just wanted to remind you what it was we were charged with.
What was the Commission actually doing?
Set up by the Speaker, the Commission was “investigating the opportunities digital technology can bring for parliamentary democracy in the UK”. We were to focus on specific areas:
Engagement and facilitating dialogue
Making laws in a digital age
We spent a year hearing from experts from around the world with results of research, pilots and live activities in each of these areas – to help us learn and make recommendations for what Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, could do to maintain representative democracy in a digital age. All of the contributions and evidence gathered over the year can be read here.
What happens next?
We have made a number of recommendations that will be available for you to read from the links at the end of this page from 00:01 26th January 2015. Those recommendations have dates against many of them, that we feel are reasonable for delivery of the most important activities. Some are easy, some are hard – most are building on work already happening in Parliament, but perhaps not identified as so critical to democracy, and/or could do with renewed vigour and attention.
But it has also become really apparent that this is just the very beginning, and the coming years will see a great change in the way people learn, share and influence, as digital communities become a greater representative voice of the people. If nothing else the breadth of the work covered by the commission and in the report will serve as a heads up that there is a lot to consider once you embrace digital. And the digital communities deserve as much of a voice as those who engage with Parliament through traditional channels.
This is the first time a Commission has been set up in this country to look specifically at democracy in a digital age, indeed anywhere, and I hope that the output tomorrow will lead to a wider conversation with other democratic countries. I am totally up for that and keen to do more.
Repesentative democracy in a borderless age
One of the greatest opportunities and challenges afforded by the digital renaissance is the removal of geographical boundaries and limitations. Borders are physical, the web transcends these. In representative democracies this is a fundamental shift.
It changes and challenges the modus operandi for everything we have become comfortable with. There has been no evidence that I have seen that a representative democracy cannot work in a digital age, but there are challenges that were thrown up during the course of the last year, that went way beyond the remit of the commission – but I think cannot remain unaddressed.
I am passionate about living in a democracy, and being a part of the work of this Commission has been one of the most important things I have ever done. I know a lot about digital, but until last year I did not know enough about democracy and the journey of the last 12 months of learning, listening and finding workable solutions has been what can only be described as passionately challenging! I have read lots of books, watched many online lectures and spoken to many people who know everything that can be known about democracy and have way too many bits and pieces saved on my computer, but I have copied some quote here for you here that I think need to be thought about in relation to digital communities and their voice (these are all from Political Philosophy – A Complete Introduction: Teach Yourself by Phil Parvin, Clare Chambers):
The representative model retains the idea of popular sovereignty (that sovereignty should lie with the citizen body) without requiring every individual citizen to engage in the affairs of state. The business of government is handled by representatives who are charged with the responsibility of legislating in accordance with the will of the people. On such a model citizen participation is limited to certain key activities, such as voting, by which political power is transferred to the representatives…
…. Democracy is a method for making decisions when people disagree. Given the diversity of modern liberal democratic states, it is unrealistic to expect consensus on most political issues. Indeed, populations of democratic states like Britain or the USA rarely, if ever, reach unanimous consensus. People disagree about almost everything: state provision of healthcare, immigration, state funding of the arts, sentencing of criminals, religion and so on. Consequently, the best that democratic states can do is enact the will of the majority of the people. But this means that there will be winners and losers: some people get the leaders and the laws that they want, and others do not. The losers must accede to laws and leaders with which they may profoundly disagree….
… In democratic societies we think that everyone should have an equal right to influence decisions about state action. Why? It is not as if political matters are straightforward or easy. On the contrary, states require incredibly complicated and difficult decisions on a range of complex topics which have national and international implications. Democracy seems to hold that there is no role for expertise in the realm of politics, but this seems implausible…
… the representative model puts decision-making power in the hands of people who are charged with thinking about these issues on a full-time basis, without abandoning the idea that ultimate power lies in the hands of the citizen body at large. But still, politicians in a representative system are broadly required to act in accordance with the will of their constituents, even if only out of a desire to get re-elected.
This is democracy’s next ‘printing press’ moment, it is not about putting the digital in democracy, it is about re-settling representative democracy in the digital renaissance.
Every single person who strode or stumbled into conversation with me or with the other Commissioners on the topic of Digital Democracy was worked up about some or many aspects of it. I saw no apathy anywhere. Dismay and disillusion, yes – but apathy no.
And so I am really looking forward to everyone seeing our real recommendations, against challenges they will recognise in their every day lives. And more so, I am looking forward to everyone feeling more and more engaged and represented over the coming five years; feeling that their voice has a place to be heard and that they can easily find out what is happening on topics they care about.
Important links for tomorrow:
The launch is live-streamed from 08:45 tomorrow here