Towards a 21st Century Parliament


Some thoughts on The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy – something I’m interested in being on too

It almost seems appropriate that I’m reading this as BBC Parliament TV broadcasts “Wednesday in Parliament” – with Ed Miliband using the words “Hashtag Green Crap” (or #GreenCrap) during PMQs.

I followed the election of the current Speaker very closely at the time while I was in the civil service. Not least because from inside the system, it was clear that both Parliament and Whitehall was broken as the Duckhouse of Commons limped towards the 2010 general election.

John Bercow standing out from the crowd

It’s worth looking at the transcripts of the candidates in the June 2009 debate here – as well at this digital video at a Hansard Society Hustings produced by Catch21. (Catch21 has a number of very good short clips on engaging with politics (See here)). Also, have a look at John Bercow’s candidature speech here. Bercow by no means had universal backing – he was seen in the Westminster bubble as alienated from his own party – the Conservatives. This article from the time gives a flavour of this.

I remember watching the Hansard event at the time – listening to the speeches made by the candidates (listed here). Out of all of the candidates there, the only two from memory that stood out were Anne Widdicombe and John Bercow. Widdicombe because she was the only one at the time that had a significant public profile outside of politics’ watchers, and Bercow because his plan seemed much more coherent, and also he had travelled a very long way from his political youth.

A House of Commons that shows its teeth but rarely bites the government of the day

Under Labour’s administration, the House of Commons seldom showed its teeth. A reflection of the massive yawn-fest that was the 2001 general election campaign? (See here, when turnout collapsed to under 60%). Remember in those days, the leaders of political parties and their closest advisers decided who would be chair of select committees – rarely being overturned by MPs. When this did happen, it hit the headlines – see here. The guillotining of Commons’ scrutiny of legislation was also something that curtailed MPs’ ability to scrutinise legislation. As this written PQ from 2000 indicates, the House of Commons was failing to carry out its duties to us, the people – bill after bill having scrutiny time curtailed.

Little John, big changes

For me, the biggest changes that have impacted not just on ministers, but on the civil servants that advise them are the following:

  1. Select committee chairs elected by secret ballot
  2. The regular use of urgent questions, where ministers are summoned to the Commons to make statements and answer questions from MPs
  3. The habit of insisting on ‘short, sharp questions’ from MPs
  4. Greater pressure on ministers to abide by the convention of changes of government policy being announced to the House of Commons first, rather than to the press.

From a civil service perspective, 2 & 3 are particularly significant because it means they have to be on their toes, ready to brief ministers for such questions. This often means only having a couple of hours to between the request for advice and having to submit it, before the minister reads the statement in the House. If you’re a relatively junior policy adviser, it’s quite a nice buzz watching a minister from either inside Parliament or on TV reading out the lines that you have written for them. The shorter, sharper exchanges means that a greater variety of policy areas get covered. The more talented MPs have become more disciplined in how to put questions to ministers with a view to getting a substantial answer. In my view though, too many MPs fall into the trap of making a very good preamble – citing solid evidence to a problem, then falling down with a weak political point-scoring question.

…but the Executive still runs rings around MPs all too often…

The whipping system does not help. I can understand why its there from a party co-ordination point of view, but I’ve spoken to a number of MPs that have told me they often don’t know what they are voting on when the division bell rings – they are simply ushered through the lobbies by the whips. And the whips are the tools of the leadership.

Again, as I’ve said previously, there is an inherent conflict of interests in having ministers being MPs. Being a member of a body you are also charged with scrutinising and holding to account is an inherent conflict. Both Labour and the Coalition made/make use of unpaid roles that bind MPs to vote in line with their leaderships’ wishes. Whether being a parliamentary private secretary (first (unpaid) rung of the ministerial ladder, special envoy for cuddly toys or head of party policy think-force on tiddlywinks (I jest!) – you get the point.

Ultimately, ministers don’t really have to answer questions put to them. They just have to respond. That respond all too often is ‘Well under the previous administration…’ or ‘Well under the council controlled by his/her party…’ – and you wonder why people get frustrated.

Reconnecting Parliament with the society it seeks to represent

Paraphrasing Bercow from his 2009 candidature speech, what he announced very recently (see here) is what I see as trying to do just that. Because society has changed and continues to change at a rapid – perhaps a sometimes bewildering pace. The statistics from OfCom here underline this.

In 2012 just under two in three (64%) adult internet users said they had a social networking profile, a significant increase on 59% in 2011. This growth has been driven by users aged 55-64, 35% of whom now have profiles, compared to 24% in 2011.

For me, it’s mind-blowing when I think about the past 15 or so years that I’ve lived through. From being in educational establishments where you had to trust teacher and textbook at their word because there was no internet, to when people were still being kicked out of the military because of their sexuality…to the world we live in today.

The challenge for political institutions is how to come to terms with those changes. Over the past week or so, I’ve delivered a couple of social media workshops to local councillors in Cambridgeshire – my home county. Over sixty people attended, and we had some very lively debates and discussions about the challenges and opportunities with social media, and how to adapt accordingly. This, by the looks of things is the Speaker’s programme to adapt Parliament to the changing expectations that society has of Parliament.

Digital democracy – what is it?

For me, the key concept is interaction. It’s not the technology, nor is it the institution. In the context of the House of Commons, the challenge is this:

How can we improve the interactions that citizens have with our elected representatives?

When you frame the main challenge like this, and have this as a key point of return, things become a lot clearer. It also helps manage the risk of the focus moving either too far towards the technological bit (especially with branded platforms & tools), or too far towards the institutional relations bit (which is policy-adviser comfort-zone). If what is being discussed at any given point is not having an impact on improving those interactions between citizens and elected representatives, what’s the point?

So, who’s going to be on this Commission?

At the moment it’s not quite clear – The Speaker said in his speech (see here past half way) that the Commission is a completely new idea. That said, the approach taken by Richard Heaton at Cabinet Office (who is also First Parliamentary Counsel) provides some ideas – such as the Good Law programme that I was on one of the early working groups for. (See here). Even UKGovCamp provides a template for the unpredictable and anarchic fun we could have with this.

How to avoid a commission full of the usual suspects – and am I one of them?

In one sense I am. An ex-civil servant, former Fast Streamer who has advised on two Whitehall initiatives since leaving. (Good Law being one, the 2012 civil service guidance on social media being the other). I’m also a freelance trainer, sometimes delivering training for civil servants too. All that separates me from being a fully-paid-up member of the usual suspects club is a permanent job say in a think tank.

But then on the other hand, I’m not a usual suspect. My day-to-day social media persona is not as me, but as that of a tweeting politically-aware dragon-fairy. I no longer work in London but am now ensconced back in my home town of Cambridge – noting that I never studied at Cambridge University itself. (Me and Puffles rock up to things happening there every so often though). I suffer from a disability that significantly impacts on the hours I can work. The mental health crisis I had (and blogged through) last year is the sort that can take years to make a recovery from. Thus full-time doing anything is out-of-the-question. A full day’s work takes me a full day to recover from.

Am I interested in being on the Commission? Hell yeah! (But only if Puffles can come along too!)

First dragon fairy mentioned in a debate in Parliament, first dragon fairy to have a recommendation adopted by a select committee. Two parliamentary firsts! How could they not invite Puffles?!?!

Actually, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not necessarily who is on the Commission that matters most, but rather what it does and how it does it. Yes, being on it means you can influence things from the very start. Simply by asking: ‘Have you considered X, Y and Z?’ can have a huge impact later on down the line.

So, yes, I want to be part of it – with an intention of connecting the Commission’s activities far beyond zone one of Central London, and possibly using it as a catalyst to get young people and disenfranchised people (certainly in and around Cambridge) engaged in political and social activism. Because as I’ve found out from community activism in Cambridge (see blogposts here), the potential is there.

"Oh Hai! I iz Monster in Whitehall!"
Puffles leans away from Whitehall & towards Parliament

3 thoughts on “Towards a 21st Century Parliament

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