The UK and digital democracy

by Duncan Smith
Producer, BBC Parliament

Twitter, Facebook, smartphones and iPad-type devices have all contributed to a change in the way many politicians at Westminster work.

The technological revolution has spread visibly into the Commons chamber over the past couple of years, with MPs now allowed to check and send messages using their phones.

In most Commons sessions, including in committees, members can often be seen tapping out messages on their shiny iPhone/Blackberry/Samsung/HTC devices.

The sharp eyed viewer can then check the MP's Twitter feed and see that they were sending a tweet (a message restricted to 140 letters and spaces) letting the world know what's happening and what they think of it.

If you're not going to get called by the Speaker to have your say in Parliament, it can be the next best thing.

The new technology "is exciting and opens up democracy, freedom of expression to loads of people", Conservative backbencher Kris Hopkins said at a Hansard Society event looking at the digital agenda a year on from the general election.

But he added the warning: "They also open up opportunities to nutters to create platforms."

Addressing the meeting Mr Hopkins warned that while MPs welcomed new and innovative ways to communicate with voters - they also received a lot of offensive communications.

It's about liberating all of that data, making it free for people to do creative things with it without the state or market or other people putting constrains on them but giving them the freedom to do something interesting
Julian Huppert Lib Dem MP

He added: "I have to say I have some wonderful constituents who write with amazing issues and dramas and I have got a fantastic office. But I have also got some lunatics out there who think they have the right to abuse me."

Mr Hopkins explained that a lack of control of modern communications led to problems.

"Racists, sexist, homophobic drivel that I get from some members of the public. Some of it is really based around hatred and there is no control of that," he said.

But transparent government is something Mr Hopkins supports.

With reference specifically to money spent by the NHS he said: "We're spending huge amounts of money and we've got to be able to scrutinise it and we've got to make sure individual people are safe from people rooting around just being nosy.

"But when we're spending money like that, it should be transparent."

The idea of more open data was supported by Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, who was also taking part in the debate.

Dr Huppert has nearly 4,000 Twitter followers (people who will automatically see any tweet he sends when they check their Twitter account).

"I find Twitter fantastically useful… it's a very fast way for me to do things," he explained.

Twitter, he said, enabled constituents to find out what meetings he was attending, and to suggest points that could be raised - all in virtual real time.

Voting lobbies

"I want my constituents in four years' time to think I've worked really hard and know what I've done. So people who follow me know the things that I do… it's a very cheap, very easy way to keep that flow going.

He said: "I think Twitter is incredibly powerful as a way of giving people an idea of what some of us do with our lives."

And he said that in general "letting data go free allows people to do some fascinating things with it".

He explained that - unless there were good reasons not to - his view was that government should make all public data free and available for use by the public themselves.

"Ultimately, from a philosophical perspective, it's a great liberal thing to do. It's about liberating all of that data, making it free for people to do creative things with it without the state or market or other people putting constrains on them but giving them the freedom to do something interesting."

One particularly archaic way business is done in the Houses of Parliament was, however, praised by both MPs - despite their enthusiasm for increased electronic democracy: the process of divisions (votes).

Currently MPs have to physically walk through the Aye or the No lobby to register their votes, in a process that takes at least 15 minutes.

"Voting is a very good example of the antiquated way the House of Commons does things," said Mr Huppert.

But that was not a bad thing, he said, because gathering in the division lobbies was often the only time backbench MPs got to meet ministers and allowed a lot of business to get done quickly and quietly.

So even as the new forms of digital communication changes some of the ways of life at Westminster, it seems in some cases at least, some old fashioned face to face networking might yet be best.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2011/06/2011