So, the Open Up Digital Democracy Report (PDF of full document hidden top right) was published yesterday. I think that overall it is a very good first step in the right direction by an august organisation that is striving hard to modernise procedures that reach back into 100s of years of history.

It’s possible I’m saying this as I’m in the footnotes of the main report a few times and quoted directly in the electronic version ;-).

At this time I’d like to take a moment to thank the members of the Commission for their hard work over the last year, but to then point them to one of GDS’s many heartfelt truisms:

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As I’ve said many times the most important thing for this work is for it to not be considered a one-off effort, but instead part of a continuous improvement piece that needs to be staffed and given budget for as long as Parliament needs to improve (i.e. forever).

It’s for this reason that by far the most worrying phrase in the report is “Sadly, with the publication of this report, our work as a commission is done for now. Our passion however will continue and we will meet in one year’s time to review the progress that has been made towards these key targets.”

It’s unclear what this means. The report recommends 34 action points but these are supplied without ownership and, for the most part, without measurable success criteria or deadlines. It’s also worth noting that a number of the criteria extend beyond the reach of what could be called “digital” into other areas, for example Parliamentary Procedure, where other existing groups must be the ones to drive any change.

Having read through the details of the report, my own recommendations at this time are be the following:

  1. Parliament should ensure that each of the proposals from the Report has a nominated owner and conforms to the SMART criteria. The concept of Service Management should be used with proposals where appropriate. In many cases, such as introducing simpler language for legislation and simplifying Parliamentary procedures owning groups may already be in place. They should adopt the appropriate proposals ideally nominating a specific person, such as the group chair, to be the overall responsible officer.
  2. Parliament should hire a team of world class user researchers that are not limited in remit to the technology sections of the organisation. They should be given free reign to interview MPs, peers, staff, NGOs, academia, citizens, etc in order to build up a set of personas and users needs that reflect all of the interactions people have with Parliament. Those needs should be used to drive both technilogical and process change.
  3. Whenever possible the work to fulfill the Report’s proposals should be undertaken in using the Agile working methodology (n.b. regardless of the Wikipedia article this can be applied to non-IT projects with great success). This should include regular “sprints” and public “show and tells” to demonstrate that the work towards implementing each proposal is advancing.
  4. Parliament should partner with existing NGOs working in the Digital Democracy space to produce a co-owned public wiki. This should contain a list of organisations, meetings, research, etc that is taking place in this area.
  5. Parliament should create and continue to co-sponsor a regular, perhaps bi-monthly, Digital Democracy face-to-face meet-up in association with NGOs and other organisations. This could be in the style of the “Hacks and Hackers” group (where journalists meet with technical people) that occurs regularly in London. Meetings could start being held in London and potentially satellite ones created elsewhere in the country.
  6. Parliament should ensure that any discussions relating to the improvement in both language and quality of consultation for legislation should also apply to Statutory Instruments. These are often drafted by governmental policy makers and entered into law without further Parliamentary scrutiny.
  7. Positive case studies – where citizen action has lead to either a change in the drafting of a law, cancellation of a proposed law or a change in existing legislation – should be compiled and made readily available. They should be present not just on the Parliament website but as part of any proposed changes related to education about Parliament in the National Curriculum.
  8. Proposals for an “open chamber”, to reflect on debates that take place in Westminster Hall, are warmly welcomed. Parliament should ensure that any forum where these take place should include a number of highly experienced community managers.
  9. The up-scaling of PICT is very much encouraged. It should be encouraged that, as well as the appropriate increase in capabilities and budget, processes are redefined to be broadly in line with those supported by the Cabinet Office on behalf of government. These should include a “service standard”, for example to ensure website accessibility and provision of assisted digital, and a method of programme spend control.
  10. Parliament is strongly encouraged to increase its use of video. The proposal for the videos of the main chambers and select committees to be made available in open formats is welcome. It’s suggested that this is extended – for example an objective to implement a system by which any MP or peer can contribute a short video explaining why they are proposing, supporting or countering any bill before Parliament would be of great value.
  11. In order to support proposal 10 it is suggested that an office in parliament is given over to a “self service video room”. MPs could book the room, log in with their existing ID cards, self-operate a simple system to record a short video with permanently in-place equipment and have that video either emailed to them or automatically added to the appropriate Parliament platform (see 10).
  12. Proposal 17 states “The House of Commons should experiment with new ways to enable the public to contribute to different stages of the law-making process, primarily by digital means.” This should be undertaken in conjunction with the Open Policy work in government lead by the Cabinet Office. Proposals are currently in discussion in GDS regarding the concept of “government as a platform”. This should include the creation of a common platform for consultations that should closely mirror any work done in this area by Parliament.
  13. Proposal 20 states “Parliament should step up its work to build links with community organisations and services to help ensure that the digitally excluded are given local support to engage with Parliament online.” Any time to work on this should be closely aligned with the excellent work done by the GDS Digital Inclusion team.
  14. Much further work should be undertaken in relation to any proposed move to online voting. It is vital that technology security experts and NGOs working in this area are consulted in this high-value, but high-stakes matter and that their responses are openly published.
  15. Proposal 27 states “The House of Commons should identify more areas where a digital-first approach can lead to service improvements as well as increased efficiency.” It is highly recommended that the Technology Transfer Programme that has taken place in Cabinet Office and DCMS is used as a reference for any work done in this area.

Overall I am very pleased with the content of the Report and hope to have an ongoing opportunity to see its proposals progress and to discuss their implementation with those in Parliament undertaking them.

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