Write-up: Hitting refresh on the Digital Democracy Commission

By Ben Pearson.

dsc01864On the 26th January 2017, the Institute for Digital Democracy (IDD) launched it’s most recent report, Democracy 2.0, in the Thatcher Room, Portcullis House. Alongside our panel discussion with Areeq Chowdhury (IDD), Hannah Bardell MP (SNP), Emma Mulqueeny OBE (Digital Democracy Commission), and Carl Miller (Centre for the Analysis of Social Media), we held an open forum with our attendees on how best to advance the digital democracy agenda.

In case you missed it, here’s a write up of what was discussed.

Oliver Sidorczuk (Advocacy Director, IDD) opened the event and chaired the discussions, and Areeq Chowdhury summed up the background, findings, and recommendations of the Democracy 2.0 report, which explores the progress made over the two years since the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy published ‘Open Up!’

Emma Mulqueeny, Chief Executive of Rewired State, emphasised how there is still some way to go in advancing this agenda. Alternative facts and fake news, in her view, has shown the potential weaknesses of politics as a mediated entity and that online behaviour has to be better understood by Parliament. She believes that Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that media consumed is accurate and that channels remain open for holding the Government to account.

Echoing one of the headline recommendations of the report, Emma said the ability to understand the political process should be a human right in a democracy. Not enough was being done to educate young people and believes political education should be made compulsory in schools.

Hannah Bardell underlined the vast differences between the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament. As a newer entity, she said the Scottish Parliament has found it much easier to modernise than the UK House of Commons. She believes we should start with the introduction of electronic voting for parliamentarians.

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She praised the IDD for gaining wide, cross-party support, in its group of Political Ambassadors, and echoed the call to engage young people. Touching on cyber-abuse, Hannah said we have a responsibility to ensure that on the communications channels people are using that they don’t feel threatened.

Carl Miller believes that in recent times the legitimacy of our democratic model is being challenged. He thinks the central question should be ‘what other democratic models can technology present us with?’ not just how we use it to enhance current models. He called for a mixed model – using different ways of putting people in charge, and keeping democracy fresh and relevant.

In the open forum discussions, it was raised that e-petitions are good but often ignored. They were said to be a ‘missed opportunity’. One of the report’s recommendations is to implement a ‘cyber chamber’, an organised online debate taking place prior to the petition being debated in Westminster Hall.

Voter advice was a key theme of the discussions. A lot of work was being done in this space, and the difficulty of ensuring the information is presented in an unbiased form was a challenge. Areeq said that there shouldn’t be competition in this space between different voter advice applications and that they should collaborate.

In response to a point made by Rachael Farrington from Voting Counts, Emma said that the Department of Education needs to be mandating voter education and that the support of teachers, parents, special advisers, and Ministers needs to be won. The main recommendation within Democracy 2.0 was that political education should be mandatory.

It was highlighted that innovation is alive and well, but the execution, decision making, and deployment of power to make decisions is not.

As for what should be prioritised, Areeq said making sure people understand politics is most important, and that there needs to be Government investment in this area. Emma backed the IDD’s call for a Government Digital Democracy Czar to provide continual pressure on this agenda. Hannah called for a dual pronged – internal and external approach. Digital engagement within the parliamentary processes, and powers for the public to be able to bring forward a piece of legislation.

Carl’s final thought was that we need to get these related phenomena on the Government’s agenda. Currently they’re not taking it seriously and opening it up as an issue. He believes the Government has to consider that there’s another way of doing democracy, and that the huge weight of constitutional precedent and history is inhibiting modernisation.

Download and read the Democracy 2.0 report here. Let us know your thoughts, and take a minute to complete our UK Digital Democracy Survey.

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