Are the Lords listening? Creating connections between people and Parliament - Information Committee Contents


CHAPTER 3: ONLINE COMMUNICATION AND ENGAGEMENT

The parliamentary website

33.  In 2004, the House of Commons Modernisation Committee called for "a radical upgrading of the [parliamentary] website", and in 2005 the Puttnam Commission recommended that the website "should be radically improved". A full account of the many ways in which the parliamentary website has been developed since then is provided in the submission from Parliament's Group on Information for the Public (pp 131-33).

34.  The Committee received many positive comments about developments to the parliamentary website, including, in particular, the bill pages, the Education Service website and the new content-based architecture, which allows people to navigate more easily to content that is relevant to their specific interest (pp 101,148, 157-58; QQ 72, 76, 112, 197). The Committee welcomes the many improvements to the parliamentary website and stresses the need for the improvement programme to continue.

The Lords of the Blog website

35.  The Committee also received many positive comments about the Lords of the Blog website (pp 12, 103, 110, 121, 139; QQ 6 and 34), including comments made on our web forum:

    "The 'Lords of the Blog' website is doing extremely well in informing people of the work and aims of the House of Lords and its members."

    "For a younger audience (<30) in particular a blog about a particular matter before the Lords or topical political issue is far more likely to get read about there than any speech in the house itself. With suitable links to parliamentary sites, acts, consultations etc it gives a way to pull a wider audience into the process."

    "Lords of the Blog is a good idea and as an outreach initiative I think it's very good."

36.  Dr Nigel Jackson from Plymouth Business School suggested that the website would be even more effective at creating public engagement if others, such as Committee Chairmen, regularly used it to promote ideas and seek feedback. Tom Loosemore, Channel 4, Dr Jackson and Comment Technologies, an organisation that provides digital engagement solutions, suggested that members with a common interest in a particular policy area could set up other similar sites to create "discrete communities of interest and expertise" (pp 103, 106, 140; QQ 100-01).

37.  The Committee welcomes the Lords of the Blog website. We encourage members to contribute to the website and suggest that Committee Chairmen consider posting a blog at the launch of a new inquiry.

Parliament and YouTube

38.  In May 2008 Parliament launched a YouTube channel, which it uses primarily to show short films promoting and explaining the work of Parliament. The Hansard Society praised the videos about the work of the House of Lords (p 13). We used YouTube throughout our inquiry, to update people outside Westminster on what had happened during our meetings and to provide an insight into the views of witnesses and members of the Committee. In June 2009, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and the European Union Committee released videos on YouTube to mark the publication of their reports.

39.  We also used Parliament's YouTube channel in our inquiry to allow people to contribute by submitting their views on video. Dr Jackson said that this development was "very exciting": the fact that members of the public can upload videos gives the channel the potential to be "a powerful interactive instrument" (p 139). Parliament would benefit from the interactive nature of such websites, by treating them not simply as publishers and distributors but as places where user-generated content can be created and displayed.

40.  Members of either House are allowed to post footage featuring the member on the member's own website. However, at present, the two Houses do not allow parliamentary proceedings to be posted on YouTube or any other third-party hosting website. This ban has attracted negative publicity; and Parliament has been criticised for not embracing new technology. Last November, we agreed that Lords be allowed to place on YouTube (and similar searchable video hosting websites) clips of their contributions to the House's proceedings. The final administrative and legal steps around copyright are being taken, and the Committee will inform members when they can start to upload their contributions to YouTube. Technical training will be provided for members who wish to take advantage of this new possibility.

Parliament's use of other social media

41.  Over the past year, Parliament has made considerable use of other social media tools, like Facebook (social networking), Flickr (photos) and Twitter (a cross between micro-blogging and social networking).[10] The latest development is the new Yoosk Parliament website, where people can ask questions to a group of MPs and Lords. Tom Watson MP, then Minister for Digital Engagement, emphasised the need for Parliament to use such communication channels, saying that young people "expect us to use these tools and technologies to communicate with them" (Q 245). Channel 4 emphasised the benefits that such tools had brought to Parliament, saying that they had helped "to demystify parliamentary processes as well as promoting an image of Parliament as open, accessible and transparent" (p 103). The Hansard Society suggested that the next step was for Committees to start using social media (p 14). This suggestion was also made on our web forum:

    "Although social media isn't the answer to everything, they allow direct communication with members of the public. The House of Lords should use these established tools regularly with, for example, inquiries."

Embedding

42.  'Embedding' is the process whereby a document or file of one type is inserted into a document or file of another type on the internet. Embedding is central to much use of multimedia in web pages, which tend to embed video, animation, and audio files. In our Annual Report 2007-08,[11] we reported the growing number of people asking to embed parliamentary material (such as video footage of proceedings) into their own web sites. Such embedding would, for instance, allow other web sites to include windows within their web pages so that clips of parliamentary proceedings could play within their own pages instead of having to open a separate window and application to view the clips. Under the terms of the current licences, the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Limited (PARBUL) cannot allow any of its licensees to offer embedding. Peter Lowe of Sky News found it "extraordinary" that Parliament did not allow embedding (Q 311).

43.  The BBC asked Parliament to change this policy so that it could include footage from Westminster in its 'Democracy Live' website, which would also include footage from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament (QQ 308-09, 314; p84). Last year, we called for further research to be carried out on allowing embedding of footage of parliamentary proceedings. During our inquiry, it was made clear to us that embedding would allow wider access to parliamentary proceedings through websites and other channels (pp 16, 143). Peter Riddell, Political Commentator and Assistant Editor of The Times, said that it would be "a tremendous help" to journalists preparing articles online (Q 191). Channel 4 said that enabling users "to embed clips on their own sites, and then use social bookmarking tools to promote these clips to others, is an effective and low-cost way of expanding the reach of Parliament—as the easier it is to spread information the more people will see it" (p 104). Jo Swinson MP told the Committee: "we need to wake up and get into the twenty-first century on this. If we can actually get clips of Parliament out there, particularly in two or three-minute pieces which are easy to watch, easy to forward to friends, that is a much better way and a much easier way for people to understand what is going on in Parliament than having to watch the BBC Parliament channel for hours on end until something they might be interested in comes up."

44.  People should be allowed to embed the House's proceedings on their websites, so that our proceedings can have as wide a distribution as possible on the internet. We recommend that a trial start as soon as possible. We have invited the BBC and the House of Lords administration to bring forward proposals for how the House can maximise potential synergies with the BBC's forthcoming 'Democracy Live' website.

Parliament on other websites

45.  A number of people stressed to the Committee that Parliament could not expect people to come to the parliamentary website. "Rightly or wrongly, government or institutional websites are not viewed as an interesting place to visit, especially by younger audiences", explained Tim Hood, CEO of internet company Yoosk (p 34, see also QQ 75, 93 and pp 64, 143). Instead, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) suggested that, Parliament should develop a presence within existing online communities such as Mumsnet, so that Parliament goes to the places on the internet "where the people are as opposed to expecting people to be reading the parliamentary website" (Q 113). Mr Hood suggested that Parliament should create "a national register of online communities", including specific demographic or geographic communities (p 34). Mr Hood also suggested that Parliament go further and "establish an independent body to manage engagement between people and Parliament." The key benefit of such a body would be that it could set up "an independent place [on the internet] for engagement which is 'owned' as much by the public as by Parliament. It would invite fewer accusations of interaction being on Parliament's own terms or of Parliament indulging in online propaganda on its own website" (p 33).

46.  There is a limit to the level of public engagement Parliament can generate on its own website, because some people may not be drawn to interact directly with the parliamentary website. To counteract that fact, we recommend that the administration work in partnership with already established websites catering for interest groups.

Increasing two-way online communication

47.  The internet has moved on since the Puttnam Commission reported in 2005. As the Hansard Society explained, people now have "a different approach to the internet, one which stresses an architecture of participation, whereby users expect to have opportunities for their voice to be heard" (p 13). However, as the Society and others pointed out, the parliamentary website remains, "to a large degree, a traditional information delivery website" (pp 13, 10, 138-40, 158) that online communication should mean two-way communication and that Parliament should use the parliamentary website not just to provide information but also to listen to the public. Rufus Leonard, a brand and digital communications consultancy, said that the "dominant focus of the website is on pushing content (in a variety of different formats) to users and a real essence of 'engagement' is still not visible" (p 158). Involve, a non-governmental organisation specialising in public participation, agreed and suggested that Parliament needed to develop its approach to the internet by building upon its "highly improved '1-way' information broadcast," and committing "to a more engaging '2-way' conversation between citizens and decision makers" (p 136).

48.  Whilst Parliament does well at using its website to inform people, it needs continually to develop the way in which it uses the internet actively to engage with people. During our inquiry, we explored the question: how can the House of Lords use the internet to create opportunities both for the public to engage with the House and inform members about their views, and for the House and its members to demonstrate that it listens to those views?

49.  People raised two fundamental issues. The first was the need for the House to be clear about the rationale for engaging online (p 158). As Dr Jackson, University of Plymouth, put it: "There needs to be a clear, defined and measurable purpose for adopting the internet … Just because new technologies, such as social networking sites, exist is a poor reason alone for adopting them" (p 138). Dr Jackson said that online communication and engagement should support the House in performing its roles of scrutinising the Government and making legislation. Anything which does not support the House in this way "is window dressing. It will not help the House of Lords, or individual Peers, function better and more importantly online users will come to recognise this and disengage" (p 138).

50.  The second issue was how Parliament would manage "the potential risks associated with setting up discussion forums and participating in online group engagements … that are by definition insecure and impossible to control". As Comment Technologies, an organisation that provides digital community engagement solutions, put it: "How can Parliament begin to embrace more actively and in a genuinely engaging online environment the opportunities that social networking technology offers but without exposing the institution to unmanageable risk? Is it not reasonable to want to open up communications with and amongst interested citizens and Parliament but to do so in some structured, manageable and measurable way?" (pp 105-06; see also pp 13-14, 33-35). Although it might be inevitable that a degree of risk would be involved in Parliament increasing the way it uses the internet to communicate, Rufus Leonard and others were clear that such an increase was necessary:

    "Like it or not Parliament and members of both Houses need to move towards two-way communication with the general public and with the specific interest groups who lobby and push for change in key areas of interest. Some of these discussions will still happen face-to-face, but online channels are uniquely well-placed to make these communications prompt, cost-effective and scalable. If you do not embrace this opportunity, then the discussion on key topics will simply take place elsewhere and Parliament will appear marginalized and out of touch" (p 159).

What can be done on the parliamentary website?

51.  We considered a number of options for how the House of Lords could use the parliamentary website to increase two-way communication with people. The Chair of the Brent Youth Parliament suggested that young people should have the opportunity to ask questions of members online (Q 60). Debategraph.org, a project to increase the transparency and rigour of public debate, suggested collaborative, web-based visual policy mapping "to focus the collaborative process on identifying, mapping, distilling, refining, and evaluating the set of ideas being submitted in a visual and collaboratively editable form". The Hansard Society argued for a system of e-petitioning (p 14). Two particular proposals attracted most interest and we explored those in more detail.

ONLINE FORUMS

52.  Rufus Leonard, a brand and digital communications consultancy, suggested that what was missing from the parliamentary website was "a forum for open debate—a medium through which members of the general public can actively converse with representatives of the House of Lords/ Parliament and actively 'get involved'" (p 158). Debatewise, a non-profit debating website, suggested that the House of Lords create "a designated part of the site" to host "debates on issues scheduled to be discussed in the House" (p 111). This proposal for the House to facilitate online debates attracted some support (Q 63). However, a number of people were sceptical about the potential for Parliament's website to host constructive public policy debate. Some people cited the "comparatively low uptake of the online forums" on the parliamentary website (p 137; Q 95). Others, such as Tom Watson MP, then Minister for Digital Engagement, were uncertain whether the benefits would justify the costs involved:

    "When you have any conversation it has to be moderated, so if Parliament took the decision to have a kind of giant conversation with the nation there would be a very large resource issue there because if you are going to do it at scale you need people who will moderate the conversation and stop people doing the sorts of things they can get up to online. So the decision really would be a cost-benefit analysis and the truth is I do not know the answer about whether we would gain, as parliamentarians, great wisdom through that route." (Q 255)

53.  Tom Loosemore concluded that we should not "go anywhere near forums" on the parliamentary website; indeed, he said that Parliament should "avoid like the plague hosting conversations" on the parliamentary website (Q 97). Lord Norton of Louth drew a distinction between conversations and consultation. He advocated "online consultation for select committees", whereby committees would invite input into their work (Q 241).

54.  If Parliament is to use its website to invite input from people, it is essential that it is clear what will happen to such input. Dr Jackson, University of Plymouth, said that people needed to know that their points would not be ignored. He criticised the select committee forums on the website because "the process for how the information [from the public] will be fed in seems rather vague" (p 140). Lord Norton said that mechanisms inviting input "should not be put in place until there is a clear and transparent process for dealing with such communication" (p 64). Ivo Gormley, Thinkpublic, explained the questions to which clear answers needed to be given: "Where is that information [from the public] going to go and how much will it influence the debate? Who is going to read it and what will they do with it?" He suggested that if Parliament "can clearly demonstrate exactly what is going to happen with that information, where it will go, who will read it and then to what extent it has the potential to influence the decision-making, then people are going to participate and then you get a much more meaningful debate." (Q 96)

55.  Debatewise suggested a model which we consider may meet these criteria. They called for the House to set up "a system where debates created by schools … will link with scheduled debates in the House. The issues would be debated online by young people before the event and the results could be cited by speakers. This would go a way towards de-mystifying the political process for the young people involved: the Lords would become infinitely more accessible and transparent to them, and there would be an obvious pathway from the voicing of their opinions, to the Lords' consideration of their views" (pp 110-11). It is only by running a pilot exercise that we and the public will be able to judge whether such a model should be adopted.

56.  To increase public engagement with our debates, we recommend that there be a pilot exercise in which an online debate, promoted with a targeted section of the public, would be run in parallel with a debate in the Lords Chamber.

57.  Given our view about the limits of what is possible on the parliamentary website (see above paragraph 46), we have also invited the administration to explore the possibility of working with partner organisations to develop online pupil parliaments and spaces for themed topic-based discussions for young people.

COMMENTING ON LEGISLATION

58.  Rufus Leonard, a brand and digital communications consultancy, suggested that web technologies offer significant opportunities for the public to "comment on the wording" of legislation. This suggestion was also made on our web forum:

    "The world is so connected now by means such as the internet, so surely the House of Lords could embrace this by allowing people to comment on legislation and even recommend possible sensible amendments using an online facility."

59.  Similarly, Channel 4 suggested that draft legislation should be made available online for the public to annotate (see also QQ 238-39). Whilst these two proposals are similar, we see an important distinction: bills are considered by the House; draft bills are considered by a committee. This distinction is important, because a committee can more easily put in place a transparent process for dealing with the comments it receives. As Lord Norton of Louth explained, if people were to comment on a draft bill being considered by a committee, there could be a clear process for the committee to consider those comments and take them into account in their report on the bill. People would thereby be able to see that their input was part of "a structured deliberation on the bill" (QQ 237-41). We note that in 2002 the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill ran an online forum for participants to post messages and to respond to questions about the issues covered by the Bill.[12] That model could be developed as technology offers Parliament the opportunity to make the Bill available on line in a format so that allows comments to be made alongside the text of the Bill or amendments to be proposed to the Bill by the public.

60.  As a step to increase public online engagement in how Parliament considers legislation, we recommend that other pre-legislative scrutiny committees should invite the public to submit comments via the parliamentary website on the draft bill being scrutinised.

BOX 2
Recommendations on Online Communication and Engagement





10   The webcentre posted an evaluation of Parliament's use of such tools on 'Parliamentlabs', the production blog of the webcentre, on 11 June 2009. Back

11   First report of Session 2007-08, HL Paper 202. Back

12   Draft Communications Bill, Session 2001-02 (HL Paper 169-I, HC 876-I) Back


 
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