This morning while I was working from home I listened to my boss giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee for a new report that’s being worked on about digital engagement in government in the UK. There was recorded video at the usually excellent Parliament TV site but it’s broken tonight so I can’t find a link. Google it if you’re interested.
Now, I’m very into this as you can tell from my twitter feed which is largely made up of places like the Government Digital Service (GDS), OpenGov Hub, etc but it’s nice to see MPs finally getting people in to ask the right questions (even if it’s just to ask 38 Degrees to stop sending them so much spam).
However, while there was a lot of good back-and-forth what disappointed me was that, despite repeated questions brushing on the topic, there was no explicit statements by anyone on the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. I am a great fan of the former and deeply suspicious of the latter. As one of the MPs put it, direct democracy quickly leads to “tabloid based voting” and given the make-up of ownership of mass media in this country I find that a very scary concept.
While many on the committee seemed focused on how internet based tools could be used to shape legislation I think their power will next be felt, as Tom put forward, in making MPs lives easier. Tom suggested that an MP could have a tool which showed currently proposed amendments coming up for votes alongside an easy to use list of comments from varying sources (other MPs, the media, specialists, the general public, etc). This is an excellent idea but there is something else I would focus on at the same time.
What I have wanted to see for some time is a system that replaces the painful spamming of 38 Degrees with a simple dashboard based system that constituency MPs can use to see what registered voters in their area think of proposed legislation or particular national (or local) campaigns. Up to now such a site would have been impossible due to their being no system for positively identifying whether a person lived in a particular MPs constituency. However, in what I believe is one of the most important technical projects currently under way, GDS is working on enabling 3rd party identity assurance for government websites and, I very much hope, as a mechanism that then can be used by non-governmental services. Once a website can prove that someone lives in a particular constituency and can vote it’s a short step to a dashboard that says “In the ward of Enfield Southgate 41% of 22,243 voters who indicated a preference (31%) stated that they were not in favour of the Draft Communications Data Bill. Click here for detailed comments”. Comments would be voted up by karma-based commenting in the style of slashdot. MPs would be able to leave their own feedback on the proposition and, importantly, by hooking the system up to They Work For You there would also be a dashboard for voters in that constituency to show how many times, and on what subjects, the local MP differed from local views recorded on the site.
It is absolutely not the job of an MP to always reflect the views of the majority of people in their constituency – they must vote with their conscience. However, it is perfectly legitimate for the voters to record their views on particular issues and then use the response of the local MP to guide how they wish to vote come the next election.