CHAPTER 3: ONLINE COMMUNICATION AND
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
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).
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."
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
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 Parliamentas 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"
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"
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
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
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
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
52. Rufus Leonard, a brand and digital communications
consultancy, suggested that what was missing from the parliamentary
website was "a forum for open debatea 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
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.
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
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
First report of Session 2007-08, HL Paper 202. Back
Draft Communications Bill, Session 2001-02 (HL Paper 169-I,
HC 876-I) Back