Could parliament’s move out of the 19th Century Palace of Westminster be used to embrace 21st Century technology? Rebecca Hill reports.
The Palace of Westminster, dating from the mid-1800s, is creaking. A joint committee of MPs and peers recently recommended that the building be vacated for six years so that extensive restoration work – which could cost in excess of £4bn – can be carried out.
The report recommended that MPs move to the Department of Health while the peers shift to a conference centre on the other side of Parliament Square from the palace.
Space will have to be found for everything from debates and committee hearings to ceremonial activities, as well as room for some staff and the journalists that monitor parliament’s activities.
The move is sure to be a logistical nightmare. But many feel that it also offers an opportunity to shake things up.
Parliament is not known for being particularly forward-thinking in terms of technology, but this could change as it’s forced to think different about how it brings together parliamentarians, staff and the public across disparate sites.
Speaking at an event hosted by the independent organisation the Hansard Society this week, the group’s director Ruth Fox described the move as “the nearest we’ll come to having a blank space for reforming parliament”.
It offers the chance “not just to catch up [on its use of technology] but to innovate and experiment”, she said.
Victoria Boelman, a researcher at innovation charity Nesta, agreed, saying that the new spaces that parliamentarians would move into should be “used as a lab” to test new ways of engaging citizens with digital technologies.
Indicating that parliament needed to take an agile approach to projects during the period, Boelman said that it should expect to “iterate fast”, adding: “We might fail, but that’s OK.”
Because the move out of the palace is likely to mean parliamentarians and their staff are more spread out across London, speakers said there was an opportunity to invest in different ways of engaging both within policymaking circles and with the public.
Rebecca Rumbul, head of research at mySociety, noted how much time MPs and peers already spend moving between meetings and votes in the house: “Wouldn’t it be a better use of time to vote remotely?”
In words sure to appeal to technologists, Rumbul added that parliament needed to look beyond “new fangled screen and [improved] WiFi”, to user-centred design.
There needs to be a “more permeable membrane” between the public and their representatives, she argued.
Boelman, meanwhile, said that although they might not want to go as far as creating a “virtual reality parliament” there was no reason they couldn’t bring people closer to that side of the policymaking process.
This might include using digital to help more people engage with the process, for instance by making it possible for people to give evidence to select committee hearings remotely.
“Experts are generally London-based, drawn from a common pool,” she said. “If we can use digital to hear voices from elsewhere then that’s enhancing not detracting.”
Other ideas mooted during the event included greater use of machine learning to help citizens decipher complex policy documents – opaque documents with archaic phrasing is a major stumbling block for encouraging people to engage in the process.
Participants also discussed making better use of alert systems, so that people could follow policies in areas of particular interest, and platforms for them to discuss policies.
Culture change and honesty
However, parliament will not become a hot bed of experimentation without buy-in from politicians: increased use of technology requires a culture change across the board.
For instance, it’s not yet clear how parliamentarians will engage with the new opportunities that technology offers, or how it will fit in with some of the more traditional parts of their work, such as casework.
Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy said that she was inundated with emails from constituents with problems she couldn’t fix – like issues with transport or council-run services – as well as round-robin emails generated by people using campaign sites like 38 Degrees.
She said that this stopped her from seeing important emails, as well as noting the time it took to check if the email was sent from someone who was a resident in the first place.
Although audience members suggested customer relationship management tools could fix the problem, with one person suggesting a linking system in emails, Creasy was not convinced.
“I have to write back, because if I don’t respond they don’t feel like I care,” she said, adding that people might feel they were being “fobbed off” otherwise.
Creasy noted that she had tried solutions like Google Docs and Reddit, but that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what MPs’ are responsible for that could not be answered with technology.
“It’s not quite as straightforward as saying ‘here’s the technology’,” she said.
“Technology can help, but if the fundamental message at the start is confused, it doesn’t matter how great [a technology is], people will feel frustrated and that there was no point engaging in the first place,” Creasy said.
She pointed to the parliamentary petitions scheme as a bad example of engagement, saying that it leads people to think that there will be a debate and change in policy when it is really just to generate debate.
“It’s about honesty – so saying this is about conversation, not about legislation,” she said.
Avoiding the fads
It is also crucial that in experimenting with new technologies parliament doesn’t get too caught up in the ‘newness’ and lose sight of the end user.
As Elizabeth Linder, former government and politics specialist at Facebook, said, the tech sector “can fall into being a bit faddish”. (Just look at the seating options in any start-up, she said, surely bog-standard chairs are more conducive to meetings and wouldn’t involve watching participants spend the first 10 minutes fidgeting.)
Linder urged parliament not to reinvent the wheel, and look to work with tech giants like Google or Facebook that have had success in engaging with people.
And Paul Walland, innovation director at the University of Southampton’s IT innovation centre, echoed this sentiment, saying that always seeing tech as the answer “is a real problem”.
The focus for parliament should be to make sure that it considers the social implications of the technology and remember that “people are still people” and will use the tech that they like the best and engage with each other, and their parliament, in a range of different ways.
Of course, as Walland noted in his final comments, this sort of work involves a lot of different groups and won’t “happen by magic – or for free”.
Nonetheless, speakers were clear that parliament must take this once-in-150-years chance to reinvent itself as a tech-savvy and transparent body that engages citizens in the policymaking process.