‘Open up!’ – Digital democracy in the House of Commons

Digital DemocracyOpen up!’ was published yesterday and is the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Liberal Democrats should pay it some attention, even though, sadly, we do not appear to have had any representation on the Commission itself.

Its remit was to explore how to use digital technology to improve parliamentary democracy in the House of Commons, and increase democratic participation, which is surely something that we care about deeply.

After a year of consulting with a huge range of organisations and listening to expert witnesses (including some familiar names like Richard Allan, Archy Kirkwood and Matthew Hannay), the Commission has come up with five key targets:

  1. By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. 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.
  4. By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. 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.

These are fine ambitions. I am particularly pleased with the last target, because it means that public documents will not be tied to proprietary formats such as Word or, worse still, bespoke  formats developed specifically for an organisation. We don’t often see the term ‘open data’ in Government reports, so it is very welcome.

Let’s unpack the other targets, in reverse order

Online voting is a can of worms. I have spent many years in the e-democracy world, advocating increased participation in democratic processes through online tools; so you might expect me to strongly support online voting, but in practice I have been very cautious. Advocates believe that, once they have built public confidence in the processes, e-voting would be universally welcomed. I point out that the public puts trust in all kinds of electronic systems, naïvely at times, from buying lottery tickets, online banking and shopping through to Oyster cards, and it would not take much to convince them to vote online as well.

The people who really need to be convinced are those with the most to gain, or lose, namely the candidates. At a traditional count candidates and their agents can physically check the numbers. When votes are cast electronically it is very difficult to produce an audit trail which will convince candidates that the numbers accurately reflect the votes cast. Corruption can take place at a deep level of code, inaccessible to candidates. Both systems are open to meddling but I would only accept an online system if it was at least as secure and transparent as paper ballots. I think we have some way to go.

The third target is rather exciting.

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.”

In what sense can the House of Commons be ‘fully interactive and digital’ as in the second target? This is about reaching out to new audiences and involving members of the public in committee work. The Commission also wants Parliament to provide new facilities for MPs to ‘help increase the volume and quality of interaction between MPs and their constituents’ and to combat cyber harassment. Division votes through the lobbies will be recorded using the MPs’ smart cards, and they will pilot absent voting for those prevented from attending in person.

Finally, as the first target recognises, understanding what the House of Commons does depends on good quality communications. The report recommends simplifying parliamentary language and actually refers to Plain English – something I have been pushing in local government for years – as well as tools to support disabilities and the use of infographics. And at last visitors should be allowed to take mobiles and tablets into the chamber so they can make full use of social media while there.

Throughout the report, education is seen as a key to increasing participation. It calls for improvements in political education and a place for voter education in the national curriculum, and for better public information about candidates and their policies.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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15 Comments

  • Kevin McNamara 27th Jan '15 - 6:17pm

    What it is missing for me is electronic voting for Parliamentarians. So much time is wasted by divisions!

  • Tsar Nicolas 27th Jan '15 - 6:31pm

    Secure online voting for voters?

    Has nobody figured out that this is impossible? Has nobody been watching the United States where elections – as in Ohio in 2004 – can just be flipped by a concentrated effort at fiddling?

  • Kevin – electronic voting for MPs is in there. They could use their smart cards to vote, and even vote in absentia. The MPs still wanted to walk through the lobbies, it seems, but in theory they could all vote from the comfort of their own homes.

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Jan '15 - 7:51pm

    “Secure online voting for voters” – no, no, no, a thousand million times NO!
    Not only is Tsar Nicholas probably right that “secure” in the sense it is meant here is ultimately impossible; even if it were possible, the huge damage it does to the vital principle of the secret ballot (i.e. nobody can see you voting) should be enough to rule it out.

  • Tsar Nicolas – thanks for the video. Have now watched it right through. I hope you got past the five targets and saw that I share your scepticism. Online voting, IF it was secure, would be good for democracy but it’s not going to happen.

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th Jan '15 - 11:21pm

    I don’t want to come across as harsh here Ms Reid, because I suspect that your heart is in the right place. Just this really smacks of: something must be done – this is something – there’s shiny internet toys involved – therefore this must be done.

    You describe the remit as including, ‘increase democratic participation, which is surely something that we care about deeply.’ Well, no actually. I care about democratic ENGAGEMENT. That’s not the same thing as participation. I realise it is heresy in some circles, but tapping away at a keyboard, pressing like on facebook and writing chippy comments on talkboards is participation, but not real engagement. What is being lost is what might be termed civil society and agency within it. Whether the internet has accelerated the atomisation of society I will leave to your value judgment.

    Voting SHOULD be more than the equivalent of clicking like on facebook. I’m not totally sure I like the idea that anyone with a chip on their shoulder and time on their hands should be able to somehow shape debates in Parliament. Are these really, ‘new audiences,’ or the usual suspects and interests in a different format?

    (For that matter what about those of us that don’t use social media, do we not count?)

    Yes, of course Parliament should keep up with technology. But use of technology is not is not per se an end in itself, real engagement is what we should aim for. Sitting around tapping away at a keyboard is a poor substitute for a real civil society. Strengthening civil society and its institutions should be the priority. Indeed, you say you work in local government, the age profile of many councils is truly scary from a civil society point of view.

    Indeed, take your arguments to their end-point Ms Reid. Would you like say the cyber chamber to discuss, say individual immigration applications? Planning approvals? Criminal cases? Unfortunately, democracy is not the same thing as a free-for-all.

  • Electronic voting is a really bad idea.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3_0x6oaDmI&w=560&h=315%5D

  • Richard Sangster 28th Jan '15 - 7:52am

    The present system of voting in Parliament with MPs wandering through division lobbies wastes a lot of time and effectively limits the number of votes that can be taken. It needs to be replaced by electronic voting.

  • Tsar Nicolas 28th Jan '15 - 8:31am

    Sarah Noble,

    That is an excellent short video – top marks.

    I think Tom Scott also (without realising it) made a very good case against postal votes on demand.

    I am heartened by the comments on this thread.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jan '15 - 9:49am

    Mary Reid

    Online voting is a can of worms. I have spent many years in the e-democracy world, advocating increased participation in democratic processes through online tools; so you might expect me to strongly support online voting, but in practice I have been very cautious.

    I am a Computer Scientist by profession, so you might expect me to strongly support online voting. I am strongly opposed to it. So is every other Computer Scientist I know who has expressed an opinion on it.

    One of the advantages of being academics is that we know about these things, but we aren’t under commercial pressure to push them. It is because we know about these things that we are less starry-eyed than the naive who push them, or those who push them because they make money from them.

    With the concrete physical system we use for voting, what is happening can be observed from beginning to end, it doesn’t require any particular expertise to follow it. This is a very valuable safeguard. That is all thrown away if you rely on software. Even quite simple software can have subtle errors and ways in which security can be broken.

    Please see the following links:

    http://citpsite.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/oldsite-htdocs/voting/advantage/

    http://avirubin.com/vote.pdf

    for a couple of examples. These are on dedicated voting machines. There are many more problems that come in when you want to do it on-line.

  • “….After a year of consulting with a huge range of organisations and listening to expert witnesses…. the Commission has come up with five key targets:
    1…By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.”

    🙂

    This is radical stuff.
    Is five years long enough to teach some of the more bone-headed MPs what the House of Commons does?

    As for electronic voting – I am probably the only person in the UK who was listening to the BBC Word Service between 4 and 5 am today but I listened to a discussion on this very subject. The digital expert was refreshingly honest: she explained how she used to be all for digital voting because she knew about digital things and how to transfer to a digitalised process. Then she chage her mind when she started to look at democracy; she realised how title she knew about democracy and therefore how difficult and potentially dangerous digitalising would be.

    Matthew Huntbach puts it perfectly in his comment when he says —
    “..With the concrete physical system we use for voting, what is happening can be observed from beginning to end, it doesn’t require any particular expertise to follow it. This is a very valuable safeguard. …..”

  • peter tyzack 28th Jan '15 - 10:35am

    I’m all for the stubby pencil making a mark on a piece of paper then putting it in a box… but the ‘mark’ must be 1-2-3-4. If you can’t get there on the day, only then you can apply for a postal/proxy vote. The idea of going to a Polling Station should be at the very centre of all future ideas, how else do you get a sense of the community selecting its representative?

  • The lady in the video in Mary’s article —

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Milner_(Digital_Inclusion)

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