The Westminster parliament might have to decant in the next few years. Here's how it can use this move to reinvigorate democracy.
Moving house is often the time to make a change. Some people start recycling more or throw away jeans that no longer fit. But one forthcoming move could hold a much greater prize: changing our democratic institutions themselves.
To make vital repairs to the Houses of Parliament, it’s likely that MPs and Peers will soon have to move out for a few years. A cross-party committee is currently considering the options - Nesta submitted evidence, and Geoff Mulgan gave oral evidence at a session last night. We think this renovation is an historic opportunity to design a more open, transparent and efficient Westminster - and experiment with new ways of doing democracy.
Democratic innovations have taken off in recent years - although mostly outside the UK. These range from citizens’ juries and mass deliberation exercises to new digital tools that enable citizens to submit proposals or deliberate and vote among options (e.g. Loomio, Better Reykjavik), participate in budgetary decisions (e.g. Madame Mayor, I have an Idea) or get real time alerts on debates and decisions (e.g. in Helsinki).
There’s real potential for these tools to help stem the tide of popular disenchantment and disillusionment of our political system. But so far, they operate at the margins of representative democracy. The restoration of the Palace of Westminster offers a chance to blend these promising innovations with the best of Parliament’s institutions and traditions.
Here are five ideas:
It’s likely that both Houses will decant to a nearby Westminster building while repairs are made. This decant building should be used to experiment with tools for improving how parliamentarians meet and work (such as electronic voting in the chamber or digital tools for meetings described below) and engaging the public (such as crowdsourcing legislation and online deliberative exercises).
Some of these experiments will have to happen in any case. It’s unlikely that MPs’ offices will be close enough to the chamber to maintain the practice of running to vote when they hear the division bell for instance, making e-voting inevitable. Bigger changes, such as involving the public in amending legislation, will be harder to get past the traditionalists. But taken out of their gilded halls and in a neutral space unshaped by history, MPs and Peers might feel more inclined to creativity.
Either way, a major challenge will be making sure there are systematic processes for feeding in the lessons learned to the plans for the Palace itself.
The scope of the redesign is still being debated. But the Committee's focus - on essential repairs and physical changes - risks missing the chance to make Parliament an exciting place for future generations to work in, visit and engage with. Digital technologies need to be a much greater part of this conversation.
For instance, how will technology change the way that debates are captured? Do we need as much space for the archives if everything is online? If electronic voting is inevitable, could the space taken up by division lobbies be used to make room for more people to observe debates? If the programme is too conservative or narrow in scope, additional investments will be needed further down the line simply to catch up with modern day working practices.
As Winston Churchill said, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, was designed to create a less adversarial and more consensual style of politics. Tallinn’s City Hall, in Estonia, will be built with radical transparency and citizen engagement in mind; large panoramic windows give on to the public square, and a ‘huge democratic periscope’ to allow the public to see politicians at work.
It’s time to consider whether Westminster’s layout - from the chamber to public and protest space - is cultivating the type of political culture people want.
The proposed budget for the restoration is a cool £3 billion. With such a chunk of the public purse at stake, it’s important to ensure that the design and procurement process involves as big a constituency as possible - for instance crowdsourcing ideas and then asking the public, parliamentary staff and parliamentarians to deliberate and then rank the options.
There is a growing body of evidence on the types of meeting formats which are most effective for achieving particular goals - such as making decisions quickly, collecting insights, sharing knowledge, coordinating actions and generating new ideas and options. New digital tools make it easier to present complex data in accessible ways or visualise how ideas are connected. Even meetings in the chamber could be transformed by digital tools such as screens with real-time data or live records of parliamentary debate.
Improving meetings could also replenish a precious resource: parliamentarians’ time. For instance, Estonia's e-Cabinet system, a digital organiser, has cut the average length of weekly cabinet meetings from four to five hours to 30 to 90 minutes.
Nesta is beginning a programme of work to understand the landscape on democratic (and especially digital) innovation, and develop options for parties, councils and parliament to adopt digital tools and technologies to help them engage better with the public. Please get in touch if this is of interest or follow Meghan on Twitter @meghan_benton.
 There are various options under consideration by the Committee on Restoration and Renewal, which is due to report in the Summer. The likely options were laid out in the Independent Options Appraisal produced by a consortium of consultants in 2015, although the Committee is considering other ideas.
 Innovative cities are explicitly designing town halls around evolving working practices and digital technologies. For instance, Boston is running a collaborative process to redesign City Hall to free up underused space that was designed for a paper age.
Photo: Blurred Lines, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, London, UK. Credit: Phil Dolby. Licence: Creative Commons. Attribution – 2.0 Generic.