Implementing the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission: Where to now?

Last week saw a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Andy Williamson argues that while concrete steps are being taken to implement some of the recommendations, greater drive will be needed to create a coherent long-term programme for the digital modernisation of Parliament.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has concluded leaving a rather important question hanging in the air: what happens next? The Commission had no powers, no formal authority to do anything and what remains is a question of its half-life, its ongoing influence and the ability of the former Commissioners and others to advocate for change based on their work. I felt that the Commission report had ‘the potential to set the pace for digital democratic practices for the next few years’, not least because it echoes the findings in my own research on the future of citizen engagement with parliaments, but it’s far from certain that this will happen. I’ve discussed the recommendations here but, to briefly recap, the final report gives us five key targets and 34 mostly pragmatic rather than radical recommendations:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, 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 open format.

There are some ambitious dates and achieving them will require some major logistical (and political) challenges to be overcome. There’s also the risk of focussing in the wrong place, such as the recommendation for online voting. It risks other more practical and readily achievable recommendations, which could have a greater and more lasting impact, getting lost.

I don’t want to measure the Commission’s success simply on how many recommendations are actioned. A number are already happening or would happen anyway, though their inclusion in the report gives them greater profile, focus and impetus. We need to consider the overall direction of parliamentary democracy in this country and its wider impact on other aspects of democratic governance. When we do, I hope that the Commission’s legacy will be as a catalyst for wider democratic reform. And whilst much of this will be enabled by digital, ultimately success means shifting our democratic culture towards being inclusive and participatory by default.

Delivering on the report will not be easy, even with a new Parliamentary Digital Service. There is a lot of agreement in some areas, there is significant resistance in others. Not all the resistance is logical, much is about incumbent power and privilege, some is about strongly held positions. On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge the significant efforts not just of the Commission but of a number of Members and officials within Parliament and many people outside. They have challenged the resistance, pursing change in the growing certainty that, if Parliament is to stay relevant, it is both necessary and inevitable.

The Commission’s recommendations are not equal in their impact or their challenge. To understand how they can be achieved, we need to look at the wider parliamentary landscape. There are in effect three channels for realising the recommendations:

  • Operational
  • Procedural
  • Legislative

Operational changes can be taken care of quickly, quietly, by Parliament’s officials, subject to budget and resource, and by others beyond the Palace of Westminster. Procedural changes will require the agreement of Members (potentially of both Houses) to change the way that something is done within Parliament. Realistically, the final category requires the support of government. None of these channels are problem-free and each comes with its own challenges, unknowns and opportunities. Finding synergies with existing projects, such as the Good Law Initiative will help.

It is clear that delivering the Commission’s recommendations will involve a significant and wide-ranging number of stakeholders. Whilst the Parliamentary Service, and not least the new Parliamentary Digital Service, can drive many operational changes, significant change to the way Parliament works can only happen if Members support it. And it is far from clear that they will. There is also the need to consider how we improve the democratic innovation space beyond Parliament and ask how we can involve others in solving the challenges: building better democracy involves all us.

The post-Commission era of implementation within Parliament got under way this week with a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the report’s recommendations. The debate offered both hope and concern for the future. Hope came in the speeches from both government and opposition, who broadly appeared to support the recommendations and were supportive of the report. It also came from the Commission’s two Members, Meg Hillier and Robert Halfon, as well as from Graham Allen, always a strong voice for a more participatory democracy. Concern came not so much from the low turnout for the debate but from the fact that there is significant resistance to modernisation in other parts of the House. Concern is also warranted when asking, ‘where to next?’ It was not clear from the debate where the drive for change will come from and who will take up the challenge the Commission has created. Whilst it’s clear that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, under the Chairmanship of Graham Allen, has been leading a parallel crusade for improving the way Parliament works, their future isn’t guaranteed after the next election.

As we continue to digitise our democracy we must ensure we’re not creating a new technocratic panacea for a digital elite but opening up an outmoded system to wider participation and scrutiny, making parliament more accessible to more people, more of the time. This is about people, not digital, and the greater the resonance the more chance there is of overcoming resistance and creating that momentum for change.

In practice though we are still without an overarching or coherent programme for the democratic modernisation and transformation of Parliament. The Commissioners and others outside the system can challenge, nudge and influence quietly but real change requires leadership. It requires ownership inside Parliament and it needs scale, pace and momentum. There remains a strong risk that the recommendations the Commission have made will be lost, left hanging or, at best, that they will be picked up piecemeal by enthusiastic officials or championed by individual members. My fear is that this will not be enough. The Digital Democracy Commission has produced a set of useful and realistic recommendations that can bring Parliament closer to the people and make democracy more accessible and relevant for the 21st Century. Surely this is too important to leave to chance?

Note: This post originally appeared on the Constitution Unit blog and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Dr Andy Williamson is a consultant and researcher with extensive international experience in digital democracy, innovation and transforming engagement. Focussing on digital and social media, society and policy, he brings a passion for finding innovative ways to engage. Previously Director of Digital Democracy at the Hansard Society, Andy is the Founder of Democratise and DemocracySpace, a Governor of the Democratic Society and Chair of Do It UK.

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