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Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Hansard Society – digital democracy, one year on

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Julian Huppert, Kris Hopkins and Andy Williamson at a Hansard Society debate in Portcullis House

The three panelists at June 15's Hansard Society event

Yesterday I queued patiently outside Portcullis House to get past the MP5-toting police officers and hear what Dr Andy Williamson of the Hansard Society, Kris Hopkins MP and Dr Julian Huppert MP had to say about digital democracy.

The discussion veered from topic to topic a bit so I’ll try and group what I thought were some of the most interesting points raised under the following headings:

  • Parliamentary and Whitehall procedures
  • Open data and its benefits/downsides/obstacles
  • Procurement and development

So, without further ado:

Parliament and Whitehall – what needs changing?

Do MPs need to be physically present at divisions?

The division bell brought Parliamentary procedure to the forefront of debate. An audience member suggested remote voting as a way of ending the time lost by MPs travelling. Hopkins and Huppert riposted that the division offers a good opportunity for backbenchers to talk to ministers and more senior members of the government in person and without interference, seeing it as a necessary back channel for raising issues.

Maybe remote voting could be an option, but how would one prevent it from becoming the norm? There are already some independent sites monitoring MPs’ behaviour (TheyWorkForYou and PublicWhip) – recording how many times they’ve voted remotely could be a way of reining in excessive teleworking by politicians.

Getting data around, into and out of Parliament

Huppert questioned the way information moves around Whitehall and Westminster, saying that when he tables a question to a specific department, it gets printed out, handed over, physically carried to wherever it’s needed and then typed up again.

Both MPs said more needed to be done about access to data. Hopkins said MPs need quick and easy access to the data on government databases, which are fragmented, and Huppert said the public need access to data about Parliament, which at the moment is only comprehensible to Westminster insiders.

He also pointed out that procedure changes at a pretty glacial pace. The Procedure Committee is freighted with inertia since it’s unattractive to new MPs like him who are out to change things in the real world.

But surely a prerequisite for getting things done in a democracy is good procedure? If things are sped up and made more efficient, other causes will benefit. Williamson suggested that there is now a wave of people in government and the civil service who want to improve Parliament’s openness and use of technology – there must be some way of harnessing this collective energy.

Open data

Changing attitudes to data and secrecy

Williamson said it would be “naive” for the UK to present itself as a leading light of open data – but he also said that opening up data means changing attitudes within the whole political and bureaucratic apparatus too. Open data means those people have to think about their jobs in a new way. Both the MPs seemed to have taken this on board, professing a strong belief  that data should be open by default.

Both MPs appeared to recognise post-Cablegate attitudes to classification, while avoiding mentioning Wikileaks by name. Hopkins said that any decisions about secrecy should have to be justified and un-self-interested. Huppert suggested those decisions should be brought to Secretaries of State so as to introduce some democratic accountability.

There was a piece of very good news – a suggestion that UK Parliamentary data may be published under Creative Commons.

Exaggerated fear of legal pitfalls

Both also recalled experiences from local government. Hopkins met stonewalling “justified” with the Data Protection Act when trying to issue library cards to Bradford children, while Huppert remembered a situation on one council where a fellow member was also a lawyer who had literally written the book on tort, and was able to dismiss fear of legal action.

Perhaps more training for politicians on what is technically and legally feasible might help – but both of those change all the time. Politicians need to be able to make policy without being independently-trained experts, as Huppert’s colleague was – maybe there’s a case for having a comprehensive, regularly updated document (maybe even legislation) laying out all the rights and restrictions for tech and data in the same way the Human Rights Act does? Could be an opportunity to push for net neutrality in the UK (although it’s been slapped down before…).

Procurement and development

Who are the gatekeepers for government data?

Hopkins argued that data itself is not stored in arcane formats or otherwise inaccessible, but big suppliers have tended to push expensive custom front ends and hardware. Williamson agreed, arguing that government should be moving on from the monolithic single-supplier, big-computer mindset – citing the many examples of people developing applications and examining government data for free.

SMEs could offer cheaper, better solutions – if government supports them

Huppert suggested that the government should contract ICT work out to more Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) – companies like that are more innovative and nimble, but often lose out to big companies because they don’t have the resources to negotiate with government or navigate the tax credits and other support on offer for them.

He and Williamson said that government should be allowed to do experiments and see if they work – not shy away from trying something and seeing it fail. That government is so afraid of failure is mostly the fault of the gaffe-hungry media, they said.

This seems to chime with Ben Goldacre’s suggestion last month that more policies should be subject to medical-style experimental trials, rather than being introduced as a consequence of ideology. Huppert has a documented interest in evidence-based policy, and if there really is a wave of modernisers, open data enthusiasts and experimenters in government, as Williamson suggested, now could be a great time to really give it a chance.

Here’s hoping for more

So that’s a potted summary of last night’s event – it was unfortunately rather short, but an encouraging demonstration that people are fighting and thinking hard about digital democracy and open data in Westminster. Just remember that for a lot of people in the audience and some MPs, Twitter is still something people use to chat about what they had for breakfast – don’t expect change to roll in tomorrow.


Written by Tom Barfield

June 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm

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  1. […] comment by James Frith on Slightly Right of Centre and by Tom Barfield on his personal blog. Tagged with: Parliament • The Digital Agenda for Change: Where are we one year on? • […]

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