Enhancing transparency

Lord Norton

019-2In response to my earlier post on tackling political alienation, a couple of respondents suggested increasing the transparency of Westminster – ‘losing the ivory tower effects of the Westminster village’ (DW) – and informing the public more about the basic operations of Parliament (Troika21).

Compared with many other parliaments, Westminster is a transparent institution.  Votes are roll-call votes (you can see how each MP and peer has voted), legislative committees meet in public, as do select committees for taking evidence, and a record of proceedings (Hansard) is published the next day.  A mass of material is made available online.  In some parliaments, votes are often not roll-call votes (in some cases, voting is by secret ballot), committees meet in private, and a record of proceedings is not published promptly.  When I was visiting a parliament in one central European nation, I was shown a committee room.  I asked where the public could sit.  I was given a strange look and told that the public weren’t allowed in.

Parliament has variously sought to make its proceedings more transparent.  Some of the proceedings and terminology have been changed to be more understandable.  In the Lords, for example, Unstarred Questions are now called Questions for Short Debate.  We could do more to make our legislative process clearer.  It is difficult at times for members – despite access to relevant material – to understand what some amendments are supposed to achieve, so it must be virtually impossible for members of the public.  Limitations will always remain: legislation has to be written in precise form for the purposes of legal interpretation and enforcement.  Nonetheless, I think we should be able to make progress in making what we do more transparent.

Is there more we could do at the basic level of informing people about the work of Parliament?  The Lords has an outreach programme (this blog is part of it) and publishes a great deal of clearly written material, most of it available online.  It has just complemented that material with an excellent guide for visitors.  The Information Office does a superb job with limited resources.  It takes up 1% or less of our budget.  I would like to see us invest more in disseminating information about our work.  Much of the material is available in passive mode – in other words, it depends on others taking the initiative to access it online or collect it when visiting Westminster.  There is some proactive dissemination, material being sent to schools and universities.  But how much more proactive should we be?  Sending material out is one thing; getting people to read it is another.

Should we be doing more?  Is there a market for knowing more about Parliament?  If there is, what more should we be doing to serve it?

11 comments for “Enhancing transparency

  1. Troika21
    08/11/2008 at 7:27 pm

    I think, Lord Norton, that your opinion on the matter is heavily coloured by being within the apparatus itself. Whilst you tell us that the Lords and Parliament have made changes here and there I don’t think that it gets to the heart of the matter.

    Throughout most of my education I knew nothing about Select Commitees, Green and White Papers or how our democracy functions on a day-to-day basis. I believe that even just one lesson on how Britain operates during the course of education would have a big impact.

    The thinking here is that it is not enough simply to make the process more tansparent to those who wish to partisapate, but that most people need to be informed about how to do so. I think that starting it at a young age, whilst in school, would be the best option.

    This could be impossible however, as I believe that reforms are already necessary to help our over-taxed system.

    I think that using new media is a better option.

    Record everything. Every Parliamentary and Lords sitting, every committee meeting, everything. The put it into some Youtube-esque website (not completely YT however, this would still be a Government function and clarity should come before numbers and stupid comments) this would feed a new growth in public awareness.

    I am quite certian of this, I’m a big believer in the ‘Build it and they will come’ school of infomation. After all, this is what happened with this Blog, you built it, and we have come.

    You cannot please everyone, so don’t try. But you can put the infomation out there in such a way so that they can please themselves.

  2. Bedd Gelert
    08/11/2008 at 7:52 pm

    On the topic of transparency and reducing alienation by giving people a better idea what goes on in the Lords, what about extending the breadth of the excellent work you do with some ‘guest bloggers’ from the Lords ?

    What about Baroness Ros Scott, who surely has now escaped from ‘purdah’ following her campaign, so could surely now write for a ‘non-partisan’ blog such as this ?

    Or what about Lord Inglewood and his ‘grey squirrel’ campaign ?

    Of course, there may be others more deserving of a slot to give an insight into current developments in the House of Lords.

  3. lordnorton
    08/11/2008 at 10:11 pm

    Troika21: I was thinking primarily of what Parliament itself could do. In terms of what you are proposing, much of it is already supposed to be delivered through the teaching of citizenship. There are, though, problems in delivering that education. It does not necessarily receive the support it needs; in so far as Parliament has a role to play, it is through making material available for classroom use. The Education Service has been reconfigured and now provides more material online that is valuable for teaching about Parliament. Schools visits to Parliament have also shown a considerable increase. In essence, things are moving in the direction that you advocate.

  4. 09/11/2008 at 1:47 am

    It would help to have a dedicated visitor centre for Parliament.

    At the moment both Houses are not at all geared up to work as showcases for democratic debate and all the functions that the legislature performs.

    The experience of visitors – UK citizens, overseas visitors and (most importantly) school-children – should be analysed and compared to other Parliaments, to see where lessons can be learned. Most of the Parliaments I have been to have far superior public access than our own. Public visitors and school trips to the Scottish Parliament, for example, formed a major and symbolic part of the design – so visitors can get up close to see how their political representatives work.

    This wide and exciting access through the building could not be simply transplanted to Westminster. Modern Parliaments are built with access very much in mind, and there are limits due to the age of the building (although not Portcullis House or other Parliamentary buildings) and also due to security constraints.

    But a well-presented, modern visitor centre for Parliament would be a great start, explaining its story and operation. At the moment, most visitors to Parliament don’t even get inside, they merely take photographs of the astonishing architecture and clock tower at a distance and then go elsewhere, without any clue as to what goes on inside, in their name.

    We could do so much better. The idea of a visitor centre is one that was pursued by Parliament but dismissed due to cost – a decision that displayed a sad misunderstanding of the importance of allowing people better access to what our MPs and Peers actually do. Both Houses could start by taking a leaf out of the Scottish Parliament’s book.

  5. Rob
    09/11/2008 at 3:32 am

    Lord Norton, let’s suppose a member of the public dedicates 30 minutes of their time a week to tracking parliament, how can they:

    1) find the issues being addressed in parliament that concern them

    2) register to receive alerts of parliament events related to an issue, or subscribe to an RSS or Atom syndication feed for that issue

    3) find other organisations or individuals that are tracking an issue and maybe providing opinions on the issue

    4) be notified of points in the process where they can give feedback to parliament on an issue

    5) be assured that parliament has considered their feedback.

    Parliament could build a service to faciliate all of the above. You could use the Web to enhance not only transparency, but also discoverability, filtering, social and inter-organisational collaboration and feedback.

    One possibility is for parliament to add to each hansard page or bill page of your website an “I’m tracking” checkbox. The checkbox would allow a user to mark that they wanted to track the bill, or ministerial portfolio, etc. A user could be an individual, or an organisation like Amnesty International, or an MP’s research assistant.

    They then could configure to receive email alerts of events. Or subscribe to an RSS or Atom syndication feed per issue.

    Perhaps more importantly you could make publicly viewable a list of all users tracking each issue. So I could see for a particular bill, which organisations and individuals were tracking it and how many. Or I could choose an organisation like Liberty or Open Rights Group, and see which bills they were tracking on your website.

    In New Zealand, every bill has a public submission period when it is before select committee. The submissions are now being published online by the New Zealand Parliament. It is possible to see which bills receive more submissions, and which issues each organisation is submitting on. How does the UK parliament work with regards to public submissions during the bill or pre-bill process?

    Social tracking of things such as events is already happening at sites like upcoming, for example here you can see 10 people tracking an E-Democracy ’08 conference happening in London on Tuesday: http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/1074972

    These social tracking concepts can easily be ported to tracking parliament activity. The Web is a new tool. It can be used for more than just ‘publishing’ information. It can be used as a market square for people to find what they are interested in, and also to find and communicate with others. Parliament could directly facilitate this.

    Parliament needs to break down information into logic pieces and services that aid people with 30 minutes a week to find and track their issues through parliament.

    Parliament needs to build services to aid Networked Democracy.

  6. howridiculous
    09/11/2008 at 8:58 am

    Dear Lord Norton,

    I see one of your colleagues has been out and about spreading the word:


    Happily for me, I am now beyond being taught ‘citizenship’.

    I laughed my way through most of key stage one:


    Key stage two is almost as amusing:


    Indeed, looking at what that subject is meant to impart most of it seems to me to be ‘stuff’ parents should teach their children.

    If we want to teach ‘citizenship’ we should surely do away with most of the bunkum and balderdash detailed above and return to the days when schools taught civics.

    More fundamentally though surely the answer to transparency, and to tackling alienation, is for our politicians to behave in a more transparent and non-alienating way?


  7. DW
    10/11/2008 at 9:12 am

    It could be much more inclusive in who it employs!
    For example, quite a lot of those in the high ranking facilitating positions within Parliament are of a similar type. Even though there has have been improvements under New Labour (a women sergant-at-arms for example), there is much that can be done.

    Also like Troika21, I believe that Parliament is not using the internet or New Media to its full potential. The Hansard website is shocking for example, and is a nightmare to try and do a search on. Tom Steinberg who is currently running the Free Our Bills campaign, who created the theyworkforyou website and various other edemocracy websites, has shown that it not just necessary to put the information out there, but to make it user friendly.

    Its all very well to say all the info is out there, but if it is not in a format or a language that people can understand and easily engage with, then I feel it is difficult to say that Parliament is massively transparent.

  8. Jonathan Hogg
    10/11/2008 at 11:20 am

    Lord Norton,

    You mention the difficulty of understanding legislation. If you’ve not already heard of the Free Our Bills campaign I would urge you to take a look and perhaps talk to the guys behind it:


    This is a campaign of the tireless MySociety team behind the excellent They Work For You website. If you take a look at what they’ve already managed to do with publicly available information like Hansard and lists of MPs you might get some idea of what they could do with legislation if it was published in a more modern format.

    An Early Day Motion has been proposed relating to this:


    Perhaps some enthusiasm from the Lords towards modernising the workings of Parliament would help the campaign. This blog is already a big step!


  9. DW
    10/11/2008 at 1:00 pm

    Wow it is quite interesting how most people have said that parliament isnt utilising the internet. Predictable perhaps though, as we are all blogging here 😀

  10. 12/11/2008 at 10:03 pm

    Should we be doing more?

    Not necessarily. Parliament doesn’t need to do more, but it could do some things differently. For example: what information do people want from parliament? And how do they want to interact with it?

    I believe the group feeling this the most are the generation that grew-up with the Internet. Older people appear to get their political information from newspapers, the tv and radio. Journalists and researchers are trusted to know the system and extract information relevant to their audience. I would also guess older people to be more likely to contact their local MP, or write letters than their younger counterparts.

    This seems to be the root of a mis-understanding between the public and parliament-insiders: the ‘Internet generation’ don’t just like to use the Internet for most tasks, it’s expected.

    Is there a market for knowing more about Parliament?

    This seems orthogonal to the main question. I would guess that people don’t wish to know more in general, they wish to know the specifics, what is relevant to them.

    From this blog post, it seems the emphasis is on reproducing general information (visitors guides etc.), particularly printed information online. Browsing around parliament.uk there are a number of pdf files for download.

    While it’s good this information is available, it’s not optimised for the Web.

    Also it’s general information, interesting if one is visiting parliament, but annoying to wade through when trying to find something specific.

    If there is, what more should we be doing to serve it?

    There are three ways to go about providing the information people want on the Web:

    investigate the parliament Web sites’ use cases, and re-structure information around that, add points of interactivity (like this blog), also get a usability specialist to look at the Web sites;
    provide data so people can fulfill their own use cases, scratch their own itch, and build services around government data/APIs;
    a mixture of both the above;

    Perhaps Parliament needs guidelines on what data should be made available and in what formats (some other countries have mandated the use of open formats, for example). The dialogue you have opened here, Lord Norton, needs to be kept open, and maybe expanded too. It’s heartening to see you taking the initiative in this case, but will you always be able to champion these causes?

    What’s lacking most is interaction, not just information. Compare this blog, to the Number 10 blog, for example. Number 10 are using all the right software, WordPress, Twitter, Flickr etc. However, these tools are still being used like they’re newspapers, where are the posts from the Prime Minister? Why is no-one allowed to comment? These are personal, interactive tools, but they’re being treated like a new way to distribute press releases.

    Contrast that with this blog, where members of the public can interact with peers directly, and it’s clear who understands the Internet and who doesn’t: it’s the interaction, stupid!

    Postscript: speaking of blogs, I still haven’t heard anything from Hansard. The grousing will continue, until an e-mail is received. 🙂

  11. lordnorton
    14/11/2008 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for the various helpful contributions. I take the point about making the information in a useful-friendly way. Rob: I will take this up with the relevant authorities. I will also pursue this with those responsible for the development of the parliamentary website. Jonathan Hogg, DW and Liam: Thanks also for your points, which I shall pursue. I am minded to try to get a debate on the subject in the new session.

    Craig: A visitor centre has been approved and will be located under the Commons’ Chamber. It will not be open until 2012, given the time it takes to relocate those who occupy the existing offices and convert it.

    Howridiculous: I take your point about the citizenship curriculum. Again, this is something I am minded to pursue. Citizenship teaching needs a much sharper focus.

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