Demos Daily: Democracy in the digital age

From electronic voting to reform of select committees, modernising the functions of Parliament have long been called for by many. Yet when Parliamentary recess comes to an end next week, MPs will be going virtual for the first time. We are – indeed – in unprecedented times, which explains the unprecedented measures. However, this begs the question why it has taken a crisis for us to embrace technology to improve our Parliamentary processes. Way back in 1997, Lord Freeman – former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – wrote a pamphlet for us articulating how he thinks Parliament should embrace the benefits of the ‘information technology revolution’.

Read Democracy in the digital age here, and the chapter Parliament and the electronic message below.

Parliament and the electronic message

Our parliamentary system demands physical presence for voting and for MPs to make a contribution to the written record through speech rather than submission of papers. We have a relatively voluminous written record, both of proceedings in the Chamber and also the various committees. Voting is normally a scrum but this is particularly so for the very large Parliamentary Labour Party now on the government benches. Divisions are apparently taking up much longer as MPs file through the Division Lobbies. Speaking has always been a competition because of the very large number of Members of Parliament compared with most other legislatures. The system for distributing official documents is physically cramped in the Vote Office in the Members’ Lobby; a very large number of public documents have to be indexed and made available in bulk to the Vote Office, which must be both expensive and difficult to accommodate.

A more efficient Parliament would contain a smaller number of Members who would be better paid, with more to do and a greater chance to speak. Select Committees should have some responsibility for the legislative process in order to give them greater prestige and make them more attractive to ambitious politicians. If Select Committees had full access to modern IT then evidence could be taken electronically and software could process and analyse it. Witnesses could be questioned via video conference and e-mail. Part of the drama may be removed from hearings but the end reports could be better informed and more influential.

The Hansard record of proceedings is already on the Internet but perhaps the next step is to move to the publication of key documents on to CD-Rom. Members of Parliament should be able to look forward to a comprehensive record of, say, 30 years in the Commons by storing all their CDs in a desk drawer rather than filling their living rooms with bound volumes of Hansard. And the task of recording debates by Hansard reporters could itself be modernised by the use of voice recognition software to translate the spoken word immediately into written words.

The Library of the House of Commons could become an even more important centre for information services. It could provide facilities for searching documents rapidly for relevant material to Members preparing speeches. Software could be developed to permit the Library to search, precis and analyse material over networks, responding automatically to earlier specified requirements of MPs. Services could be developed more comprehensively to enable individual Members’ offices to interrogate this database.

Voting could be carried out electronically with personalised ‘swipe cards’ at remote terminals for those who are in the Palace of Westminster but who do not wish to leave an important committee or backbench meeting. Traditional voting takes up valuable time, and in addition can endanger health and digestion for those who have to sprint to reach the Chamber from outlying offices within the required eight minutes. (Peers have only six minutes!) Those who wish to meet colleagues or lobby ministers in the Division Lobbies – a long held valuable right of backbenchers – could continue to vote in person. I must add that, as a minister, I found such lobbying conversations difficult to conduct in a crushed corridor. And less time consumed voting, the more time for debating, research, committee work and con- stituency business.

Modern IT, coupled with a special Parliamentary Intranet, would allow Members to digest the large flow of primary and secondary legislation and government reports. The excellent research papers prepared by the Library of the House of Commons could also be held on a special Intranet. Summaries of media comments by departmental subject would be useful, too.

The process of oral questioning is an important means of ensuring ministerial accountability. The daily re-ordering of oral questions, as Members withdraw their submissions and priority questions are permitted by the Speaker, could be displayed electronically for Members on the Intranet in their individual offices in greater detail than is presently possible.

There have long been complaints from Members of Parliament about the timely release of information by Government to the House of Commons, sometimes subsequent to briefings that have been given to the press. If information were to be released electronically to the press and public immediately after the House was informed, such criticisms would be avoided and the media satisfied. Protection of government copyright is, to my mind, less important than wider electronic access to government papers and reports. The Government of the day always has an advantage in controlling the flow of information to the media by giving greater background briefing than is conveniently available to individual Members of Parliament. To place Parliament and the media on the same footing in terms of the detail of information supplied would be both democratic and courteous.

May I annoy the political journalists by suggesting that they could be truly disintermediated by the direct supply of more information quickly into the public domain? The news services and indeed the public would get the raw data in greater quantity. So, no need for gossip and perhaps fewer press conferences? Such immediate availability of government information should make open access a reality. There has been a relatively poor take-up of rights by the media under the current code, Access to government information. Perhaps there is less excitement in asking for information rather than discovering that it is not available.

Local government could benefit also from more use of IT in procedure. Reports could be available to members electronically who could download exactly what they need and want. Less paper and fewer meetings could mean more interest on the part of very busy people in standing for local office. And a final suggestion to annoy the Parliamentary Whips: what about electronic pairing? This would mean an end to errors and misunderstandings.

The vision of future Members of Parliament at work is one in which they have access to information at the same speed and facility as ministers in government, subject to retaining confidentiality of certain government documents and advice to Ministers. The modern politician can only hold ministers to account if the individual Member is armed with the same benefits of IT as the Government itself.