Sod the horses, ride the algorithm!

Last night I was explaining representative democracy in the digital age, in a bar, shouting over loud music, jaegerbomb in hand – because that’s how dull exciting I am!! Anyway, I thought it was good to write down here because it might help make sense of why everyone is banging on about digital democracy.

In the olden days men would ride to Parliament from towns and villages across the land, to bring the wishes of the people. They would return with news of what was happening in Parliament. And so representative democracy worked (in a very crude explanation!).

Nowadays the algorithms are the horses.

This is why marked up content, open data and social media – all the digital shizzle, is SO important for representative democracy.

And girls can ride algorithms too.

At 00:01 26th January 2015 the first UK report on Digital Democracy will be live

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 MPRobert 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:

Electronic voting

Engagement and facilitating dialogue


Digital scrutiny

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

The report will be available live from 00:01 Monday 26 January at and

Hashtag Legislation

Background noise for those who don’t know me or follow every single thing I do or join: I am on this and am writing about some of the stuff that comes out and sharing opps to join in too.

We heard evidence being given today on making laws in a digital age, aka Legislation. “Giving evidence” is another phrase for those who have a proven track record or knowledge in the space we are casing, stroking our collective chins and mumbling, telling us everything they think we should know from their years and years of detailed work – in 15 minutes. I know, not perfect but there it is. (I think that is why they invite the empassioned to be commissioners, this is like catnip to us – a whiff of *new*… ‘mazing). But we don’t *just* do that, we also …

(This is the only image I could find for stroking chin looking serious, on open licence, apologies – but ice skating can be fun)

… read everything that comes in from everyone over the course of the evidence process. (See my previous post for the timeline of topics, but you can pretty much join in whenever, if there is a soapbox, we will gladly standby and listen – mainly because we want to be on your soapbox with you. So long as it is about Digital Democracy obviously). So nothing is done based on 15 minutes and a short heated debate, but it does actually require you to send your stuff in, or chat on the forum <- bit rubbish in there, come on real people, this is properly the time to stop whispering behind your hand and chuck your milk; stuff is going to happen here, you can help. I’ll stop hectoring…

Anyway, today we heard from people who know a *lot* about Legislation. I mean this space of civic society is quite incestuous, it is a small world, luckily growing larger (go get on your soapbox and make it bigger…) and of course any discussion on Legislation without John Sheridan would be a discussion that is pretty pointless. Or so I thought, I mean John knows everything, and he is passionate and he can analyse and apply Boolean logic to the Statute Book for God’s sake – his life, like mine and digi democ, is dedicated to this legislation topic. He does lots of diagrams that look like this:

… although that is a social media diagram from Wikipedia and way more simple than John’s, his are too scary for pre-watershed. I can honestly tell you that his visualisation of the affect of an amendment to an Act, was basically a GIANT SCRIBBLE, that was drawn properly and could justify itself. The most scary scribble in the world – and it even took the Speaker back into his pre-Speaker days (I think).

But John is just a piece of this puzzle I thought I knew pretty well, from reading John’s stuff. But then, these amazing men (who are dressed beautifully but ridiculously, please do not change, I absolutely love having men/women that dress up for work and I am so totally not lying, Parliamentary dress is something we must treasure forever, like paper, ink and embossed logos… but I digress) explain the process of amending a Bill; making a change to something that has already been enshrined in Law. They were so …

… about the process they absolutely believed in, but also knew absolutely to be outdated and irrelevant to the people who needed to know.

Cue my lesson number one: This is not a case of just pointing out the bleeding obvious (which to be fair has been the case across government/Parliament-ish for the last decade+). In Parliament at least they have slashed the thorn trees to the best of their ability (not a green field yet, obvs) and they are facing the granite wall of history. How the holy f*ck are we going to deal with this, I mean seriously…

We had at the table today, five dedicated people who have been active in this digi democ space from a point of law, preeettttyyy much since they learned to read, I think. In addition to the Commissioners and Speaker.

As I listened to this insanely complex process of legislation, the paper annotations that are recorded studiously, drafted meticulously, the amendments that are processed now against Laws passed in the 19th Century to address issues we face nowadays with firearms and knives on streets, for example. There are no limits to the number of amendments to a Bill, so basically we are updating the manual when the toaster just doesn’t work any more. this analogy is not mine, it was from today though <- perfect.

I was sitting next to MPs who groaned in acknowledgement of the time, the ridiculous process and effort they had to go through to recommend that something change in law to make life better, in a legal way, for their constituents. The *time* our democratically elected representatives spend on this …

And so I suddenly learned lesson number two today:

This is not about getting Mary next door to comment on a Bill about firearms, that’s a thing we need to address of course – but if the MPs we actually elect are bound up in this crazy web of amendments, and not actually representing the people because they are having to actually make up for the fact that they have not learned every Bill and Amendment when they chose to go into elected politics, I am not actually sure anyone except John could do this anyway.

Freeing the MPs from paper-bound process is as vital to democracy as engaging Mary in gang warfare (law), so to speak.

Action required from you, dear reader:

Having read all of that, these are the questions the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy have out for consideration at the mo:

  • Could technology improve the access to and usability of both legislation and the law-making process for the citizen, representatives and professionals (such as lawyers), and if so do you have any suggestions?
  • Should you need to be a lawyer to understand and use an Act?
  • Should technology be used to integrate citizens’ views better into the legislative process? At what stage of the legislative process would this work best? How could the Public Reading Stage be improved?
  • Are there any examples from other parliaments/democratic institutions in the UK or elsewhere of using technology to enhance legislation and the legislative process, which the Commission should consider?

You don’t have to answer them all, of course, just tell us what you think we should consider/remember/be wary of/or of course what you think we should JFD. You can submit your evidence (thoughts/opinions) by email to but there is also a forum if you prefer some chatter: although all I can see so far is Nick Booth commenting and I know him so that isn’t fair – go play in the forum, this affects you all. Please? And actually, riff on the MPs, because I really think we could have a huge impact by digitising their official work. I know loads of them and they are not all gin and jags, most are like me: still up at 1am writing about this stuff.

Here is the next post on Scrutiny

I can’t do a social media toolkit, but Obama can! (Sort of…)

Growl, possibly the only reason he is President of the US and I am not… apart from… (no OK)

Oh this is so hard to say, but Twitter has come up trumps again. The truly remarkable Oli Barrett found this gem.

It is a very wordy document, but do read it, just the headings will do if you know what you are talking about. I am interested most in how this success story can be moved into all online public engagement.

There is a very small but growing bunch of people who work in the public sector over here who have been trying to harness and do exactly what Obama has done: not for campaigning purposes, but for online engagement, digital democracy (although it is often for free and in our own time to be honest).

Hopefully very soon Government here in the UK will step up to the plate and put some serious time, money and resource into utilising the opportunity offered by social media, which I know has become a swear word, even amongst my most beloved. (And by time money and resource, I don’t mean taxing the public purse further, I mean re-directing the bleed).

I am not a geek, nor am I particularly talented at policy-making – but what I do know is how government works, big G government: as in the governing party, as well as the mighty civil service. And what I am so sure of, is that the three powers that run this country:

  • citizens
  • the Labour Party (do I need to date this post?)
  • the civil service

… must pay serious heed to how everyone is learning now. Behaviour is being influenced in a way never before seen; it is simple, it is the power of community.

I have no real idea how best to harness this, but I will give it a damn good try, but I know for certain that it does not depend on the right content management system.

The digital ‘me’ culture is not such a bad thing, you know: we start to think in Facebook/twitter updates, but it is exactly this that enables us to share our lives, and to say ‘I am willing to reduce my hours/days of work to ensure that my neighbour can bring in an income to support their family’. This is something referred to in Obama’s speech:

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

I know that I have become far more conscious of my societal obligations since I started engaging in online communities. Why? Because it is real. Reality plays a huge part in this online revolution, I am not going to go down the path of fictitious reality as we can generally spot and ignore those, but each of our friends are more real to us – and so we feel an affinity and turn towards our governers to see what they are doing, how are they responding to our concerns?

Let’s see how this plays out, what worries me is that the opportunity here will be swallowed up by a fear of the unknown, and a need to be ‘stakeholder managed’ through change, which is ridiculous – we can all keep up, but can someone have the guts to show the way? Because to be honest, if someone doesn’t I can see the potential for digital civil war – and the senior civil servants, the Ministers and departments will have no idea how to address or indeed manage it; and they won’t have the time to write the project initiation document (PID).