Contribute to the debate…

Lord Norton

pict01211This is perhaps an especially apt post given Lord Renton’s guest contribution.  

I mentioned in an earlier post that I would be trying to get a debate this session on improving the ways in which Parliament communicates with the public.   I am pleased to report that I have been successful in the ballot and have secured a two-and-a-half hour debate on Thursday of next week (18 December). 

The motion is ‘to call attention to the case for enhancing Parliament’s ability to communicate with members of the public’.   I shall be emphasising that this encompasses not only Parliament communicating with the public but also members of the public being able to communicate with Parliament.  If any readers have suggestions they wish to make for improving communications – over and above the suggestions made in response to my earlier posts – then I will be delighted to have them and, as appropriate, to draw on them for the debate.

25 comments for “Contribute to the debate…

  1. 10/12/2008 at 2:53 pm

    I hope someone will raise Free Our Bills –

  2. Troika21
    10/12/2008 at 6:11 pm

    I think that Tom is on the right path. Parliament/Government needs to make MUCH better use of the internet. Something as simple as making Bills avaliable as PDFs through a RSS would be an improvement.

    So please bring up Free Our Bills.

    I would also to know why Select Committee Meetings are not recorded and made avaliable for public viewing using the Internet (are they recorded, or is that just when the press is there?) I think that this could make internet discussion much better and healthier.

    If that is too much, simply boardcasting everything that happens within the Commons and Lords would be useful too, and I don’t mean through the BBC Parliament service, Parliament should take this into its own hands.

    I can think of far more radical solutions, but I don’t think I will get the Net participation, nevermind a overhaul of MP Surgeries.

  3. Howridiculous
    10/12/2008 at 9:12 pm

    Putting on the internet things which in written questions the Government say they are placing in the Libraries of the Houses would be helpful.


  4. David
    10/12/2008 at 10:49 pm

    Congratulations on securing this debate! It is an important subject. Of course, the communications will always have to be both ways, ie Public to Politicians and vice versa.

    I think there is a lot of improvement possible with services provided on the internet. In particular to documents that are refered to in the House, but are not available, like manuscript amendements and documents placed in the Libraries, as Howridiculous pointed out. Furthermore, I think it would be a huge improvement if petions were to be debated, or at least to be submitted via the internet.

    This blog and other blogs are a good way for politicians to communicate to the public and to receive comments. Why not a MPsoftheBlog? It could help explain some of the arcain procedures in te other place.

    The channel is a huge improvement, espacially now video of the last 12 months instead of 28 days is available. It would be great for openess as every public (select and standing) committee meeting would be broadcast with video link-up, and not only audio. This would give a better view of proceedings.

    Just some thoughts there.

  5. 11/12/2008 at 9:27 am

    I’d just like to add my voice of support to the suggestion to bring up the Free Our Bills campaign.

    I did write to my MP, The Speaker of the House of Commons, to ask him to sign the EDM and received a reply saying he’d bring it up directly with the Leader of the House of Commons but I suspect he may be a little too busy trying to salvage his career to chase up a reply from her.

  6. 11/12/2008 at 9:30 am

    I think the public-to-representative channel is vitally important and often overlooked at the moment. I don’t have much to add to that here, as I think this site is one of the better ones – demonstrably reactive to user input, in my experience.

    I’d love it if the recordings were available in Ogg Theora (video), Ogg Vorbis (audio, for podcast players) and easier to search and download without javascript (energy-saving and open to more browsers), but now I’m aiming for the stars!

  7. 11/12/2008 at 2:45 pm

    A great topic! I’d ask consideration of two aspects: accessibility and availability.

    For me availability means that the source materials are available to the public. Some good points have already been made here. The technology is there to record and publish as a podcast, or stream live audio from – I’m most impressed with parliament tv. Let me add that (from a technology perspective) we are not far away from speech-to-text systems that would be able to take audio recordings of any sessions that are made and convert them to a text document. I would second many of the points made in David’s comment, and add that these services probably need to be more discoverable and accessible. Let me try and explain.

    Accessibility is often used in terms of enabling people with disabilities to gain access to digital resources, and clearly that is highly relevant. Let me extend that to another challenge that many like me have. Without having had a career in parliament or government services, it is very hard to figure out which resources are relevant to me, as a citizen and a business owner. Parliament has a language all of its own. Understanding language is a key part of communication, and I suspect that many documents are almost impenetrable to most members of the public.

    A final word on accessibility: communication is a two way process. It is wonderful to see things like this blog and many others from members, which enable two way, public dialogues.

  8. 11/12/2008 at 3:26 pm

    Troika21: (whatever one thinks of the site itself) does appear to have Select Committee meetings on it?

    Howridiculous: Sounds like might be of use to you (though being able to have the written question linked directly to the right entry would of course be a big improvement!).

  9. ladytizzy
    11/12/2008 at 4:17 pm

    First, please make sure that parliament web links all work and are kept up to date. So annoying when they don’t; the .gov ones are especially atrocious.

    I’m still waiting for an acknowledgment, let alone a reply, of my letter sent to a certain Lord in the summer.

    What happened to ?

    Can you tell me how ‘consultees’ from very specific businesses are a) short-listed and, b) selected to represent the views on secondary legislation such as Codes of Practice?

    Still trying to sort out the mess this gvt has left me in but it’s good to be back!

    Thanks, Tiz

  10. Anon
    11/12/2008 at 5:26 pm

    How about better promotion by Parliament, and greater use of, the social media tools the Parliament website already uses to communicate with the public online? Such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr etc… There is a fairly full list of what’s being officially used here:

  11. Troika21
    11/12/2008 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks Matthew!

    Why are we not told about these things?!

    I get the feeling that addressing ‘Parliament’s ability to communicate with members of the public’ will be a positive endevour

  12. laura miller
    12/12/2008 at 10:33 am

    Hi Ladytizzy, was a pilot, run by the Hansard Society between 2003 and 2005 to promote the use of online forms of engagement by Parliament and to develop best practice in Internet-mediated democratic participation. The evaluation report can be found here:

    Since its publication, Parliament has run its own online forums alongside select committee inquiries.

  13. 12/12/2008 at 3:09 pm

    While I personally welcome all of the things that the Houses are doing to get information to the public, do we need to worry about how it is perceived by some people. Do I remember there being a bit of criticism when MPs voted themselves a chunk of money to communicate with the public?

    I think my view would be that things like the deposits site and this site and twitter etc are great – but that maybe it is hard to justify using taxpayers money on advertising to tell people that these sites are available.

  14. Senex
    12/12/2008 at 8:06 pm

    I made my Christmas wish to Santa asking for a fully empowered House of Lords but then I got to thinking. He is going to think I’m an idiot because how would he wrap such a present and where would he send the bill.

    The prospect of actually being an idiot made me think of its etymology and association with democratic politics. Karl Boyken’s blog says a lot about this but it has a closer contemporary association in that, democracy and idiots together weaken the quality of democracy. So they are excluded from the democratic process.

    However, idiotes also weaken the quality of a democracy but they are not excluded from the democratic process? They can’t be and this is democracies Achilles heel.

    Lord Renton in his podcast alludes to the turnout generally falling from around 70% to 60%. The official responses to this phenomenon are initiatives from the Electoral Society, Hansard and many others aimed at imparting awareness on an educational basis. Such, falls on deaf ears if they are an idiote.

    It is simply not enough to ask for more people to vote. They must have an ongoing interest in politics otherwise they may give a mandate to a political party and then disappear back to being someone who lives an individual life, unconcerned with larger affairs; it can result in ‘X Factor’ type democracy.

    I think the culture of the individual, the idiote, has had a lot to do with the difficulties that we face today. Poor political judgement is the hallmark of the idiote and as such it must be incumbent on unelected second houses to constantly challenge the quality of democracy emanating from their lower houses to the best of their abilities.

    I know, Senex you are an idiot, but hopefully not an idiote?

    Ref: Karl Boyken’s Blog: Ideotes and Ideocracy
    Idiot, History
    X-Factor: John Sergeant quits Strictly Come Dancing

  15. lordnorton
    13/12/2008 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for all the responses so far. I have made a note of all the suggestions, not least those relating to the way in which Bills are put on the Internet (Free Our Bills) and the use that can be made of social media tools (as recommended by Anon). As is clear from the dialogue that has already taken place on this thread, some material is already available on the Internet (as with Deposited Papers)but people are not generally aware of it. It is important that Parliament is proactive and not passive in alerting peoople to the existence of such material. Many parliamentarians do not know how much material is available electronically, so if members are not aware of it then it is not surprising that others are not either.

    I take Michael Parker’s point that there are resource implications. Improving communications is not cost free, either in terms of time or money. However, as the Free Our Bills website argues, the cost need not be substantial. There is an important principle involved. Parliament does not, or rather should not, operate in a vacuum and it is essential that parliamentarians are aware of the views of people outside – and indeed able to draw on the knowledge and expertise of those outside.

    I am also grateful to those who have picked up and emphasised the point I made about communication being a two-way process. Parliament has made great strides in recent years in making material available to the public, but much of the emphasis has been on putting material in the public domain for others to see. We have been less good in enhancing communication between members of the public and Parliament. There have been some moves forward (as, for example, with the report of the Procedure Committee in the Commons on e-petitioning) but this remains the area where the greatest potential exists.

    Please keep your suggestions coming.

  16. Mike
    13/12/2008 at 2:39 pm

    Don’t do debates in Parliament at all, do them online using some kind of Slashcode-like system. An example of what such a debate looks like can be found here:

    Comments are threaded, scored by randomly selected moderators (who are themselves moderated to weed out abusers), and after there are enough comments only the good ones are displayed. Of course you can opt to display the poorly scored comments as well, if you want to.

    Doing debates in writing over a period of say, a day or so, is better than the existing Parliamentary system because you can take more time to consider your position, you can more easily respond to individual points made by other people, you can reference any document that is available online, and the debate can scale to potentially thousands of participants. Once you have that scalability you can then make MPs no more specially placed in a debate than any other citizen – which is surely what a true “contribution to the debate” would look like.

  17. Mike
    13/12/2008 at 2:45 pm

    Oh by the way, you might want to click “Get more comments” a few times. There were over 2000 replies to that question and most are hidden by default to keep things manageable, of course, you can’t get a feel for how it works if you let the system suppress most of the debate.

  18. lordnorton
    13/12/2008 at 3:35 pm

    Mike: I would distinguish between inviting comments and holding a debate. Each serves a particular purpose and one may, of course, complement the other. Comments may help one guage reaction and suggest particular points, but there is no substitute for a well-informed and reflective debate. It is also important in a debate that one has the opportunity to assess the substance of the contributions. One may learn from comments what people think; a debate can help draw out why they think as they do: one can then evaluate their reasoning.

  19. Frank Wynerth Summers III
    14/12/2008 at 3:52 am

    I have not been really diligent. However, I have not found anything truly analogous to this “Lords of the Blog” in any other major government. President Elect Obama’s transition site has a feature called “Your Seat at the Table” which allows access to supporting documents and which they claim will continue onto the official White House site. However, unless it improves a great deal the system will be extremely limiting to say the least. In this current Parliament feature the distinctive reality is that the Peers involved are willing to mix things up and at (least in theory) get a few smudges on their reputations in true open dialogue. That is a quality that places LOTB above all its analogs in many ways. Perhaps that feature can be included in the other forms of outreach in some way.

  20. Adrian Kidney
    14/12/2008 at 5:40 pm

    I would reject online debates. Who gets to determine what’s a good comment? I’d rather have debaters held accountable than hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.

  21. Paul
    15/12/2008 at 5:28 pm

    Like the House of Lords, i’ve always thought the Commons need an information pack to give out to visitors or for staff of MPs to give out to groups of constituents.

    I can see the green bags and mouse mats already…

  22. howridiculous
    18/12/2008 at 8:23 am


    Many thanks for the links to the deposits page. It is enormously helpful.


  23. Matt Korris
    18/12/2008 at 2:55 pm

    The Hansard Society has done a considerable amount of work in the area of Parliament’s engagement with the public, both in the form of research reports and in practical engagement projects such as Lords of the Blog.

    For Lord Norton’s debate we have produced a briefing paper summarising our research and recommendations and outlining what further steps are needed to enhance Parliament’s ability to communicate with members of the public.

    The briefing paper can be downloaded here.

    Matt Korris
    Hansard Society

  24. Mike
    18/12/2008 at 9:54 pm

    Lord Norton, I think you may have been misled by Lords of the Blog into thinking this is what internet discussion must look like. It’s simple but really not the best.

    Threaded discussions can be wide ranging debates featuring back and forth between many people or only a few.

    There are only a few sites that do them well, but the ones that do are way higher quality than the “to me, to you” type debates I see in Parliament.

    Having witnessed these different kind of debates, there’s no doubt which I learn more from – throwing 300+ moderated, formatted, referenced comments, replies to those comments, replies to those replies and so on, has proven over a number of years to create thought provoking, informative and entertaining debates.

  25. lordnorton
    20/12/2008 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the further comments. Mike: Prompted by your comments, I have had a look at a number of online debates, including the slashdot one you recommended. I appreciate that one can get a good exhange with a large number of contributors and I can see they have a constructive role to play. I would regard them as a means of complementing existing means of debate, rather than supplanting them. One particular advantage of online exchanges is that they can draw in people who otherwise would not be able to participate, be it for reasons of distance, personal mobility, or personal inclination. We should be exploring adding them to what we do.

    Ladytizzy: welcome back. It is a good question that you raise.
    I am not sure if there is a structured or rigorous process by which a Department determines which organisations are on its mailing list for consulting when a proposal goes out for consultation. The lists have certainly grown over the years and Departments now are fairly rigorous in consulting external bodies. The problem is that there is a tendency for Departments to stick with their lists of the usual suspects and not be proactive in trying to identify others who may have worthwhile views to express. I think it is primarily a case of an organisation approaching a Department and, in effect, proving its credentials. On your other point, I am sure you will be hearing soon from the lord you refer to!

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