Video conference with Mr Reg Alcock, Member
of the Canadian House of Commons
Note by the Clerk of the Committee
1. The Committee held a video conference with Reg
Alcock, a Member of the Canadian House of Commons, on 13 May 2002.
The conference was held in the Grimond Room, Portcullis House,
using equipment owned by the House.
2. Reg Alcock started by describing how he had become
involved in using new technology in his work. He had sensed a
decline in voters' involvement in politics, and he sought re-engage
his constituents, using databases to track voters and get feedback
on issues of real concern to them. As a result, he was better
informed about their priorities. He believed that his efforts
to engage with the electorate had led to an increase in his share
of the constituency vote, against the political trend.
3. Reg noted that his constituency was an urban one
(in Winnipeg) and that a relatively high percentage of his constituents
were regular and confident users of IT. His initiatives had met
with very little resistance. He accepted that people of above
a certain age - nearing retirement perhaps - were less likely
to be comfortable with new technology. He held video conference
surgeries on weekday evenings when he was in Ottawa, partly to
provide a fuller service and partly to reduce the demands on his
time at weekends in Winnipeg.
4. He noted that Parliamentary procedures in the
Canadian House of Commons enabled him to make a one-minute statement
on a subject of his choice before Question Time. Reg e-mails constituents
on his database and invites them to reply and suggest a topic.
5. The Committee asked Reg about the volume of e-mails
which he received. He did not find numbers of e-mails 'crushing';
it was rare to receive hundreds or thousands of e-mails on any
one issue and, when it did happen, it could usually be foreseen
and the necessary staff support could be arranged. All e-mails
were routed to his staff.
6. Richard Allan MP asked what were the barriers
to more widespread use of IT by Canadian MPs in their political
or parliamentary work. Reg Alcock answered that Members 'would
not be led' : technology required investment and some were keener
than others. There was a sense that all MPs had to be 'treated
the same' and that a common service level acceptable to all should
be provided. This was akin to a 'lowest common denominator' approach.
Critical mass was important: he believed that it would take a
generation or two before the methods which he used became standard.
7. The Chairman asked about the quality of the sound
and pictures offered by video conference. Reg Alcock replied that
movements still appeared jerky and sound quality was maybe not
perfect; but this need not be an obstacle and many people related
to him in a conference as if they were in the same room. He was
the only Canadian MP to have his own video conferencing facilities,
and he had raised the necessary funds independently.
8. Gwyn Prosser MP said that certain constituents
contacted him by e-mail and then conducted a dialogue, e-mailing
on a daily or even hourly basis. This was burdensome, and Reg
Alcock acknowledged it to be a 'very real problem'. If constituents
were e-mailing constantly or if they were abusive, he simply ignored
9. Margaret Moran MP asked whether the Canadian Government
had a e-democracy policy. Reg said that there were policies but
no statement of principles such as that formed by the Scottish
10. Ann McKechin MP asked about the social profile
of those who corresponded with him using e-mail. She noted that
most of the e-mails that she received from constituents came from
'middle-class' people or from students. Poorer and older people
made much less use of e-mail. Reg agreed that this was a real
concern. He believed that the usage of technological means of
communication would become universal given time. To some extent,
technology was used more by educated or 'well-off groups', but
this reflected the general tendency of such groups to be more
articulate in airing their grievances and seeking redress by whatever
means, innovative or conventional.