The next stage of the Digital Democracy Commission has been opened for comment – this one is on engagement and facilitating dialogue.

As usual the DDC has put forward a number of questions for people to address. I’ll answer each in turn.

The first question concerns the Government’s e-petitions system. It’s an odd question as the metrics recorded by the system will be best known by those that run it but, to my knowledge, they have no equivalent of the GDS Performance Platform showing that kind of data. Also, depending on what they want to record I’m pretty sure they don’t record demographic data against those people that respond to a petition. Since you’d want to make the user journey for joining a petition as each as possible I wouldn’t make that mandatory but I’d certainly make it an optional addition as I’d sure it would quickly highlight the demographic gaps (or ‘democracy deficit’ as put by one of the Select Committee attendees). Also, while it’s possible to see how many people have voted for a petition it’s not currently possible to see how many unique people have used the site of if it’s the same people voting for many thing. Perhaps, in future, using something like the GDS Identity Assurance Platform would help with this but – again – it would likely be enough of a hurdle that a lot of people would just not bother.

Either way it’s something that should be the focus of concentrated user research.

Similarly, there’s no displayed metrics of the responses to the petitions divided in areas such as “lead to updated policy” or “influenced legislation”, etc. It’s very hard to tell how successful the system has been for even those very few (I suspect) people who use it. It certainly feels dramatically less influential than 38 Degrees since the people running the site don’t use that organisations main power. That isn’t dropping regular emails into your inbox, although that obviously keeps up awareness – instead it’s the ability to build solid and constructive stories of positive change.

In terms of how either system has enabled those that have used the system to actually engage with parliamentarians – I’d say “not at all” since the point of such sites is so-called ‘clicktivism’ where one is in-and-out in seconds and isn’t looking to engage in dialogue.

The next question concerns the use of video in Parliament. Since I mentored a team at this year’s YRS that produced a project that was designed to let parliamentarians record short videos explaining bills (rather than just the usual cryptic 2-line descriptions on the Parliament website) it’s a good bet I’m in favour of this :-).

There are a number of problems with parliamentarians using video. The first is that the Parliament website still (unbelievably) is using Silverlight for it’s online video. This is a standard that hasn’t been supported properly for years and isn’t available on many platforms. The sooner this is changed to a proper web standard the better.

I agree with the person at one of the Select Committees who said that all video in Parliament should be time-tagged with who spoke and about what so clips on a topic or from a particular person can be quickly aggregated. Like a lot of data in Parliament I suspect this already exists but the issue is the Parliament IT team being allow to / having the resources to use it. If not I would suggest a tool like mySociety’s SayIt for the task.

There follows a question on Parliament and digital inclusiveness. This is, of course, a huge issue as large swathes of the national demographic are not comfortable engaging online in the way that would be required for a mass move to digital channels. The first to move will be the ‘chattering classes’ that already dominate much of the time of parliamentarians and, as usual, the currently disengaged are left further behind.

My suggestion in this area is to immediately combine forces with GDS’s excellent Digital Inclusion team that has already done sterling work in this area and discuss with them constructive ways forward either directly through Parliament or using one or more of the DI’s many partner organisations.

The next question touches on the downsides of parliamentarians using technology. The one one of these is outlined directly above. There needs to be an assurance that those who cannot, or will not, use digital channels still have a voice for both personal and policy discussions.

In addition there is the issue of parliamentarians, especially some of the members of the House of Lords, themselves becoming comfortable with new digital ways of working. As I said in previous blog posts I think the way to achieve this is partly through offering training but also through the extensive use of mentoring – either to other parliamentarians who are already more advanced in this area or to appropriate external individuals.

There’s then two questions on whether Parliament, or the Government, should have a role in facilitating dialogue amongst citizens and if so whether they should provide a digital platform for this. It is interesting that this is stated as ‘amongst’ – meaning between citizens and not between citizens and parliamentarians or government. It’s a very good question which I would answer with a very hearty YES. It’s certainly up for debate as to whether Parliament / Government should be providing a digital ‘national debating platform’ for such discussions but they absolutely should be encouraging them – as I believe they do already.

The Open Policy team in the Cabinet Office would be my favoured organisation to be further expanded to cover this role.

Not long ago I believed strongly that Parliament should provide such a platform but now I could be convinced either way. What I very strongly do believe in though is that any such platform should let citizens raise issues that parliamentarians can indicate their favour (or lack of) on and that citizens can vote up in popularity. I’ve already spoken to the DDC about such a system.

The final question is about whether digital tools will help facilitate dialogue between citizens and also between them and parliamentarians. I would say that is a definite yes – but which significant caveats.

Firstly, the digital inclusion issue outlined above is a major thing to be aware of. It is currently a very large, possibly even majoritive, issue and will be for many years to come.

The other thing to highlight is that building digital tools and then going “look, there it is go and use it!” almost always prompts a spectacular failure. People arrive, find the ‘places’ empty and never go back again. Two things can be used to address this. The first is to start with a small number of users that will post frequently. The issue with that is whether that will engender a clique where it’s hard for new members to get involved. The second, and critically important, is the use of full time community managers (whose job it is to give people something to talk about and make sure that civility is kept online.

I’m attending the Guardian office on the 1st of September for a DDC meeting – I shall look forward to discussing this full range of issues.

[Five posts in six days and my posting backlog is clear – not too shabby :-D]

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