Political leaders need to become more digitally savvy if they are to properly represent the electorate, digital inclusion charity Doteveryone has said.
The charity, which was founded by digital guru Martha Lane Fox, ran a mentoring scheme for four MPs between May and July this year to improve their use of technology.
The scheme saw mentors work with MPs Yvette Cooper, Calum Kerr, Matt Warman and Norman Lamb and their staff in both constituency and parliamentary offices, to get them up to speed with some of the new tools that could help their day-to-day work.
“MPs struggle to have time to keep up with new apps, programmes or technology – and that means our offices become out of date too and the danger is that democracy gets left behind in a digital world,” said Cooper.
The mentors assessed the MPs’ needs and showed them different tools and services to better manage their workload and engage with the public, as well as encouraging them to change the way they think about technology.
“It’s about building their confidence, giving them relatively easy things to use that allow them to be more empowered, and helping them to think about tech in a more sophisticated way,” Rachel Coldicott, chief executive of Doteveryone told PublicTechnology.
‘Small, basic improvements’
Much of MPs’ time is dominated by casework – each handles between two and three thousand cases a year – and dealing with inboxes that are inundated by campaign emails sent from sites like 38 degrees.
“We found lots of small, basic improvements in the way staff used digital technology could add up to a much more efficient operation overall,” the report said.
This included using better customer relationship management software for casework that pulls together documents, emails and letters, and using tools to set up different kinds of responses to campaign emails.
Although Doteveryone said this went down well with the MPs they worked with, it may not be widely accepted. When a similar idea was put to Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy – who is an avid user of social media – at a recent event on digital parliament, Creasy responded that if she didn’t personally write back to the senders they would feel like they were being “fobbed off”.
But Coldicott argued that the charity’s solutions would not close a line of communication with residents, but would give constituents a better idea of how to get in touch and make it easier and faster for MPs to reply “so they aren’t just being totally overwhelmed”.
The mentors also showed staff how to use technology to manage their workloads and communicate better with each other, for instance through WhatsApp groups, online task management tools and Google for work.
One caseworker said that having a mentor in the office who understood the tools helped take away the risks associated with using new technologies, “rather than us taking a punt at something”.
The mentors also showed them how to set up security measures and use data analytics tools to monitor trends in local issues.
They also ran tutorials on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with the report saying that social media had “enormous potential” for engaging with the public, but that MPs were not making the most of it.
“It’s about helping them understand it’s a way to understand their constituents, as opposed to thinking of it as a comms channel that’s always broadcasting out,” Coldicott said.
However, Theo Blackwell, Camden Council’s cabinet member for technology and growth, said that he would have liked to have seen the report delve a bit deeper.
“If we’re still talking about how MPs use social media in this part of the decade we haven’t travelled very far,” he said. “I would think that the challenge is about understanding how data and technology will help make public policy more effective.”
Blackwell did, however, add that anything that investigates law-makers’ use of technology has to be a good idea”.
Expanding the scheme
Doteveryone now wants to expand the scheme to other MPs’ offices, arguing that there should be “direct, involved mentoring” for all politicians, as well as for local councillors and chief executives.
The work with councils is still in its early stages, but Blackwell suggested it should focus on helping people understand how technology can make public services more efficient.
“In a sense it isn’t to focus on digital as a set of apps and products, but as a cultural thing,” he said. “Digital is not a test of how good you are at tech, it’s a test of your appetite for reform.”
Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, the body for IT professionals in the public sector, agreed.
“Opening up to change introduces the opportunity to take advantage of new technologies to improve the way that data and information are used, and the manner and efficiency of service delivery,” he said.
Ferguson also noted that there have been a number of other, similar attempts to boost digital skills in the past. “Initiatives to encourage digital engagement have been undertaken in councils from the mid-1980s onwards,” he said, adding that a one-size-fits-all approach would probably not work due to the variety of local authorities across the country.
This is something Coldicott is aware of, saying that the charity is looking for people who were interested in being involved to help them kick off the work.
“I think there’s lots of learning that has come out of the MPs work that can definitely be applied to the councils,” she said. “The next stage is to understand the need in councils and design the right programmes.”