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Home » Digital Democracy, Elections and Governance

DIGITIZING DEMOCRACY: How technology can help reinvigorate the bond between people and politics

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:48

Following the lead of Estonia and Switzerland, will Britons get to vote online in 2020 General Election? While that might be one of the major outcomes of the The UK Parliamentary Commission on Digital Democracy, the Speaker has bigger plans to shift the power to the people. Rt.Hon. John Bercow, MP, Speaker of The House of Commons, analyses some of key issues raised in the Commission and lays out its key targets and recommendations

Mr Speaker Bercow's Official PhotographMost people know the Speaker of the House of Commons as the person who calls “Order” in the Chamber, and attempts to enforce at least some semblance of it during Parliamentary proceedings. Whilst this is by no means an erroneous perception (although it is by no means a complete job description) I took the view when I was elected to the position in June 2009 that it should be part of the role of any modern Speaker to act as a champion of, and an ambassador for, Parliament. The practical realisation of this ambition was an expansion of the Speaker’s Outreach Programme, my championing of the new Parliamentary Education Centre, and looking at new ways to engage the House of Commons with the people we are paid to represent.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy was a product of this desire to open up Parliament and to improve the way we interact, with a focus on how digital technology could widen participation in politics and a view to encouraging more effective engagement. For over a year, members of the Commission involved in extensive consultation with a wide range of experts from different communities, ethnicities and age and income brackets.

It was this diversity of views that informed the Commissioners, who reported back on January 26, 2015 with five key targets and further recommendations as to how the House of Commons might harness the power of the digital revolution to facilitate better dialogue between politicians and ordinary people. The recommendation that online voting be available by 2020 for all citizens sparked an intriguing debate and, garnered perhaps understandably, the most media interest. However, it was just one aspect of a broader narrative of digital engagement explored at the Commission. Whilst online voting had been piloted on a small scale, it was not available at the recent general election.

At the present moment, there are two ways of voting in the United Kingdom – either in person or by proxy in a polling station; and in advance by post.

During our inquiry commission on online voting, we observed several representatives from the younger generation making a mention about the inconvenience of having to vote in person. In fact, this has often put a lot of people off doing so. On the other hand, several experts flagged concerns about the potential for cyber-attacks and hacking, especially with the possibility of voter impersonation and intimidation becoming commonplace when voting is undertaken online. Yet, those with disabilities, people living abroad and military personnel posted overseas – all of those who don’t get to cast their votes manually, would undeniably benefit from a secure online voting system.

However, at the bottom line, I have always been clear that protecting the integrity of the ballot box is of utmost importance, and I look forward to the discussions that will follow.

Some of the key issues frequently raised within the Commission were that of the perceived barriers to understanding how Parliament works, and access to the decision making process. Clearly, the first feeds into the second. If it is difficult to determine how a system works, it certainly gets harder to engage with it. This is where digital technology can help, and the Commission places a strong emphasis on education, with one of its key targets to ensure that, by 2020, the House should ensure that everyone can understand what Parliament does, in order to enhance public engagement.

One way in which better engagement might be encouraged is by a focus on issues, rather than political participation. The Commissioners recognised that whilst many people would not describe themselves as “party political”, they are interested in issues that have a direct impact on their lives.

The Commission explored ways in which digital can open up the debate on issues to interested members of the public, such as the introduction of a “Cyber Chamber” – one that would give people the opportunity to discuss the topics raised in Westminster Hall. MPs could contribute, or simply observe. However, such an initiative might be helpful in either case, whether for MPs to be aware of or be capable of responding to what people outside are saying. It would at least start to fuse the two parts of the body politic. This approach has already been piloted successfully twice in the new Parliament, and I am confident that it will become a regular feature.

The new House of Commons e-petitions site established in July 2015 was set up in response to recommendations made by the Procedure Committee, but its aims to mirror many of those outlined in the Digital Democracy report. Now the Petitions Committee can either choose to write to the petitioner, meet them in person to discuss their petition, recommend that a Parliamentary Committee look into the issues raised or ask for time for the matter to be debated. This is a mammoth step forward in putting petition issues at the heart of the engagement narrative.

I am extremely proud of the work undertaken by the Digital Democracy Commission and I am looking forward to the debate it will continue to generate, both in the UK and overseas, where it has sparked quite a bit of interest. In 21st century Britain, there is, rightly, an expectation of openness in politics, a need for greater clarity, and harnessing digital to deliver a better understanding of how Parliament works and, crucially, how it can work more effectively with the people it represents.