Digital consultation 'advisory, not binding', says Bercow
Large-scale public consultation or policy "crowdsourcing" using digital tools should be seen as advisory, not binding, under the UK's system of representative democracy, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow told delegates this week at a meeting hosted by think-tank the Policy Exchange.
In what was billed as his first speech on digital democracy since the creation of his Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy in 2013, Bercow set out some of the body's initial findings.
The commission was set up to "make recommendations on how Parliamentary democracy in the UK can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world to become more effective in representing the people; making laws; scrutinising the work and performance of government; encouraging citizens to engage with democracy; and facilitating dialogue among citizens."
It is currently taking public evidence on these topics with the intention of publishing a final report in early 2015, ahead of a general election set for 7 May. It will then be incumbent on whatever government comes to power to consider which of the report's recommendations to implement.
"Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what is it to be representative should be re-examined... constantly as our society evolves", Bercow said.
Part of his commission's aim was to "make our methods part of our messages", he said, starting from the point that its terms of reference were "open sourced" and it had made no precise rules about the format for submissions. The result so far has been hundreds of unsolicited calls and emails; face-to-face meetings with more than 200 experts; public streaming of evidence sessions online; social media activity and hackathons, he said.
The commission has also written to the vice chancellor of every UK university, resulting in more than 30 offers of help including the creation of an online forum for politics students from nine universities on five themes, the results of which will be published shortly, Bercow said.
Some early themes were already emerging from the commission's work, he said. These include that "In 21st century Britain there is an expectation of openness and a demand for flexibility... perhaps the time has come for the House of Commons to allow greater choice, more flexibility and public participation."
However it may be that changes to the UK's underlying democratic systems will be required if digital tools are to provide a more effective, dynamic and pluralistic democracy, Bercow said. For instance, if methods such as policy "crowdsourcing" are to be used on a large scale, ways will need to be found to digest views expressed on that scale, which is partly a matter of resources, he said.
It would also be necessary to offer people information about how Parliament works in formats that better suit their needs; and it "may also mean some of the mystery surrounding development of our laws needs to evaporate".
On the other hand, while using digital tools to expand public participation in democracy might change our system, it does not render a representative Parliament "nugatory", Bercow said. And although this might disappoint some, his view is that such consultations should never be binding.
"I do think there should be ongoing dialogue. Do I however think that Parliament should automatically do what a majority of people on a social networking site say at a particular time? No, absolutely not.
"I would argue people's submissions are advisory, but not binding. You must never be frightened of debate, or frightened of opinion - but also never assume that those active enough to express an opinion are necessarily of the right cause."
Ultimately Parliament should always exercise its own judgment and weigh the results of digital consultation in the balance against other views and factors MPs feel to be are relevant, such as the cost of implementing a particular idea, Bercow said.
One subject that generated lively debate at the session was the ever-controversial issue of electronic voting or "e-voting", being considered by the commission in at least two possible incarnations - e-voting in public selections and e-voting within Parliament itself.
At Westminster, while the current method of MPs trooping into small voting lobbies behind the Speaker's chair and being manually counted by the "tellers" dated back generations, this ought not necessarily mean it should never be changed - and MPs should be wary of telling everyone else to modernise and become more efficient while setting their own practices in stone, he said.
"It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to consider how our main activity - voting - might be improved." There are two main arguments in favour of some form of e-voting in Parliament, he said: "First, it would be more efficient, as demonstrated by our counterparts in [devolved parts of UK]... and second, it would clearly demonstrate a commitment to practice what we preach in terms of being a technology-friendly Parliament."
Electronic voting in elections, either from people's homes or simply using digital voting devices in polling booths to boost efficiency, should also be seriously considered, Bercow said. "In an era when many people bank, search for a partner and conduct their most private issues online, why not enable them to vote using online tools, if they so wish? Would it be so bad to let vote electronically at home - as they do with postal voting?"
With the question of election security - inevitably - raised from the floor, he said a fact-finding trip to Estonia had found few people raising significant objections to electronic voting in that country, he said. As someone else pointed out, they do things differently over there, however: Estonians tolerate electronic ID numbers, for example, which underpin secure e-voting but have been repeatedly rejected in the UK on ideological grounds.
In closing, the Speaker invited wide input into the commission's ongoing enquiries into the themes of representation and engagement.
Commission members are Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow; Meg Hillier, Labour MP for for Hackney South and Shoreditch; technology entrepreneur Paul Kane; Helen Milner, chief executive of digital inclusion co-operative Tinder Foundation; Cristina Leston-Bandeira, senior lecturer at the School of Politics, Philosophy & International Studies, University of Hull; Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Rewired State and Young Rewired State; Actor and film-maker Femi Oyeniran; and Toni Pearce, President of the National Union of Students.
Pictured: House of Commons Speaker John Bercow addresses this week's Policy Exchange event, by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com
Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy: www.parliament.uk/business/commons/the-speaker/speakers-commission-on-digital-democracy/
Policy Exchange: www.policyexchange.org.uk