Digital Democracy

In 2015 the speaker’s commission published a report “Open Up!” recommending a series of changes and policy recommendations to keep parliament up to date in today’s digital world. Some of the changes were radical, some were less so and most of them made sense. The report gives us a fantastic starting point from where we can explore Digital Democracy further in the coming weeks.

Digital Transformation

The UK government has been implementing changes since 2013, where it began the “Digital Transformation” initiative. 25 government services have been moved online, including:

  • Voter Registration
  • PAYE for employees
  • Self Assesment tax service
  • International visas

Millions of people use these services each year.  Shifting some government services online increases the speed and efficiency of departments, reducing costs while maintaining a good service. Most people have become accustomed to dealing with government bureaucracy online. It is hard to imagine going back to frustrating and slow paper systems for relatively simple requests.

The UK parliament is, unfortunately, lagging behind. For many, it is seriously outdated in the modern world. MPs are believed to be hard to contact and hardly accountable to their constituents. Recent scandals and a general frustration with politicians have been exacerbated by plans for a £4bn GBP refit of the Palace of Westminster. This has, for many, emphasised pre-existing class divides and entrenched the idea that politics is wholly unrelatable. Understandably, parliament is desperate to change their reputation and increase public engagement in politics. The speaker’s commission established the Digital democracy Commission to investigate the aspects of engagement that could be helped through digitalisation.

Public Engagement

Indeed, political engagement lies at the core of the 2015 report. Many government initiatives have been established to look at democratic engagement in the face of falling voter turnout. However, none have been as radical as the “Open Up!” report. No one does nor should expect that the digitalisation of a few services will solve the issue of democratic engagement. Increasing engagement and turnout should be a long term goal. The commission identified a few areas in which parliament could do better.

  • Improving public knowledge. This aspect of the report is ultimately the most important in increasing voter engagement. Many people do not engage in politics because they do not understand enough for it to be relatable or even interesting.
  • Reducing Jargon / political language. While arguably a symptom of a lack of political education, the commission reports that political jargon was a serious complaint during their research.
  • Making Parliament information easier to find. Improving the search function and the layout of parliament’s website as well as providing as much audio/video functionality as possible.
  • Reaching out to groups that feel under-represented and tackling digital exclusion. This aspect is to make sure that access to political engagement does not become limited by one’s knowledge of technology.
  • A fully digital parliament. This highlights the inefficient way in which parliament votes are counted and suggests alternative ways of voting.

Updating Elections and Voting Procedures

This aspect of the commission’s report is particularly interesting. It highlights the dropping voter turnout and highlights the need to turn this around. The commission praises the introduction of the online voter-registration tool and notes that online voting could be a way of increasing turnout.

Impact: UK Digital Democracy in 2017

One positive for Digital Democracy is the introduction of the petitions website. This has provided people with the ability to raise awareness for any topic and parliament is required to respond if it attracts over 10,000 signatures. Online voting in the UK is still a long way off – the most digital aspect of voting that parliament has implemented is the release of an app where people can see which way MPs have voted.

It seems, unfortunately, that parliament has not heeded much of the suggestions laid out in the report in the short term. Indeed, parliament must feel it has more important work to be done regarding Brexit and party politics. It is, however, the digitalisation of democracy and a more engaged education policy that can bring the public to engage with politics once more.