The work of national parliaments offers a wealth of opportunity for democratic innovation. Yet, being bound by decades if not centuries of tradition means that it can be difficult to establish different ways of working or easily adopt new technologies.
This lack of innovation wouldn’t matter so much if our democratic institutions were working as they should be. But with rising populism, an increasing sense of division and decreasing faith in formal institutions, the imperative to innovate, improve public trust, and find new ways to involve people in national politics is stronger than ever.
This month marks 40 years since the establishment of the current select committee system, and while many parts of Westminster are struggling to hold themselves together, select committees have proven their worth as a crucial forum for gathering evidence from the wider public to improve parliamentary scrutiny.
Committees have brought us some of the most significant parliamentary events in recent memory, from the full exposure of incompetence behind the BHS collapse to Amber Rudd’s resignation as home secretary after questioning by the home affairs committee. As ex-MP Andrew Tyrie puts it, select committees pose the questions the public want asked and answered.
But while committees’ public engagement function has increased in recent years, there’s far more they could do to exploit digital tools and technology to grow participation in Parliament.
While committees’ public engagement function has increased in recent years, there’s far more they could do to exploit digital tools and technology to grow participation in Parliament.
Technology is often in the news for undermining or hijacking our democracy, but what is less well covered is its potential to strengthen democratic decision-making and engage people productively in national politics. Recent advances have made it possible to significantly widen the scope of communication and knowledge that can feed into policymaking, and parliaments and governments around the world have been testing many of these in an effort to create meaningful new channels for citizen engagement.
The Commons itself has begun to trial some of these methods. E-petitions for instance act as a touchpoint with Parliament for millions of people across the country. Beyond simply signing with an email address and a postcode, deeper forms of engagement are also emerging that amplify the committee’s reach and draw more on people’s knowledge and experience. One committee gathered 5,000 questions from teachers and other members of the public on Twitter to grill the education secretary, while others have started using “evidence checks” that crowdsource expertise to try to challenge the evidence underlying a particular government policy.
These have had mixed success, sometimes drawing more attention for their novelty value than a genuine desire to meaningfully engage people.
In our recently published report, we provide a number of practical suggestions for designing digital participation in select committees, from starting with a clear articulation of purpose to more distinct roles for staff, and better digital marketing and tools for engagement. The best examples don’t just encourage aimless and open debate, but ask meaningful questions and target specific stakeholders who have the relevant knowledge to participate.
We also recommend a number of longer-term strategies for using digital to create conditions for public engagement to take root and grow. Committees should improve standards for gathering and tagging information, sharing recommendations as open data, and they should establish better-shared resources for building institutional memory of public engagement. The development of the new parliamentary website offers a good opportunity to rethink how people can explore issues and find relevant knowledge about how committees operate, boosting transparency and public awareness.
To make all of this a reality, stronger ambition and commitment by senior staff and MPs, as well as experimentation and learning through trial and improvement, will be essential. We recommend that the UK Parliament commits to running at least five pilots for digital participation, with suggestions in the report which build on positive experiences within the Commons or parliaments elsewhere.
Reflecting on this anniversary of the current system, the time is ripe to re-examine this vital parliamentary function and to ensure committees are fit for the 21st century. If committees want to maintain relevance for another forty years, then MPs and senior staff must embrace technology as a route to reinvigorating democracy and bringing trust back into parliamentary processes.