So, forgive me if this is not as coherent as it could be. I have a lot of thoughts in this area but haven’t got them clearly arranged in my head as yet. From Emma’s posts (see my previous entry) there are still 3-4 months of opportunity for discussion, which I hope will include a proper online forum and a number of opportunities to attend groups to discuss this in person. So, I have a little time yet.

The main points I want to put over in this post are:

  • The fundamentals of representational democracy should remain unchanged.
  • This consultation should recommend that instead of having a “big bang” approach to changing how Parliament and MPs use digital technologies to interact with citizens they should instead adopt a Government Digital Service (GDS) style approach of continuous improvement.
  • ‘Digital’ is not a thing in-and-of-itself. It is simply a tool – a mechanism that allows implementation of process (or ‘policy’) with a much larger number of people in a much more efficient manner.
  • A very significant part, perhaps the majority, of any post-consultation recommendations should concentrate on handling the ‘change management’ of any new processes / policies / digital tools that are created. As Emma has said – the existing systems have been in place for very long periods of time so any move to something new will require careful handling and an extended period of close support for all concerned.

First and foremost I personally would like to see the work related to this consultation limited to how our existing representative democracy could use new digital technologies to work with citizens and other interested parties on legislation and many other matters. I am a major supporter of representational democracy as a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority and because I hope that our representatives are better skilled and experienced in the kind of decisions they need to make vs. any group of citizens in general. Our MPs should listen and actively engage with citizens, citizen groups and others but in the end they must stand by their own decisions. As I’ve said before I work for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the Cabinet Office. At our last monthly all-hands meeting we had a speaker from a citizen’s democracy group in Brazil. She explained that they had representatives standing in local area elections that have promised to put all of their votes out to digital referendum and vote whatever the outcome is. Leaving aside the possibilities of such online voting being hacked, this is a lead-in to a very troublesome future where many important things could be decided by a majority of extremely busy and not fully informed citizens who chose to have their views lead by a media mouthpiece of their choice or a charismatic online individual. That in turn leads to media moguls and ‘twitter personalities’ who have never been elected having potentially significant sway over policy. For my preference when it comes to the fundamentals of our democratic structure, at least in the Commons, I would leave as it is for the foreseeable future.

I would strongly encourage those writing the outcome of this consultation to pay close attention to the work being done by GDS in the way that it works with departments on implementing the 25 Digital by Default exemplar transactions. While there is a great deal that could be covered here, and may be in another blog post, there are a small number of things I would like to pick out as critically important. The first is the concept of managing the introduction of a change through ‘Discovery’, ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’ and ‘Live’ – this is explained here. The critical thing to absorb here, and a key part of the Digital by Default Criteria, is the ability for any service to constantly updated even after the majority of the work has been been completed. This very much applies equally to process / policy design as it does to updating operational systems such as digital sites. It is extremely important that the outcome of this consultation is not a major change which is then set in stone for the next 20 years. Parliament must adapt to modern ways of working to allow continuous small updates over long periods of time.

The current consultation is almost directly analogous to the ‘Discovery’ phase of a GDS project. The most important thing that happens during that phase is extensive user research. It cannot be overstated how important it is to hire professionally trained user researchers to work on important projects on a full time basis. They will bring a breadth of experience in working many different kids of user and would do the same for prospective users of any new system(s) that come from this consultation (MPs, Lord, Parliamentary staff, journalists, lawyers, civil service, civil representation groups, many many others). They would develop user personas, map out existing process flows and policy decisions and help brainstorm and test new alternatives.

Finally in this area, it’s very important to understand the role of empowered Service Managers as the persons responsible for everything to do with a particular regularised relationship between parties – particularly for digital services. I highly recommend that someone from the consultation approaches GDS with a request to go on the excellent service managers training course to find out more information.

These GDS-like ways of working are broadly in line with the recent recommendations from mySociety about updating the Parliamentary ICT team.

I will do a long blog post in the next few days that covers my thoughts about the high level details of what digital systems could be developed to support representatives and citizens in their interactions. However, I can say up front that any such tools would be the operational implementation of process / policy so it’s work in that area that is critical to get right. Introducing any new digital service will never be an in-and-of-itself solution to any perceived issue. Digital merely brings two things to the table – (1) the ability to have regular many-to-many conversations instead of the previous 1:1 (post) or 1:many (broadcast) and (2) implementing things with very high levels of efficiency including speed, capacity to store, retrieve and process data, etc.

Finally, working as a professional change agent in both the public and private sectors for the last seven years has lead to my having an understanding of just how difficult it is to introduce real change into any organisation where the individual members have a strong operational focus on delivery (in this case translating to helping constituents, passing laws, making policy, etc). As important as it is to have accountable Service Managers for any newly introduced systems it’s also vital to have long-term highly experienced change managers whose sole job is to win over the hearts and minds of the intended users of any such systems.

Oh, and to have an ability to highlight the current position on the change curve

More posts on this to come.