A key challenge for those trying to engage a broader public in parliamentary democracy is that the processes often appear closed and opaque (because, often, they are). The language is off-putting, the procedures cumbersome and unfriendly, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. It can be hard to see any value in taking part. Digital can’t fix thefirst problem (though it can help), it should improve the second (otherwise it’s pointless) and it can significantly impact on the final two.
The internet has given us the opportunity for a genuine paradigm shift towards the ‘open parliament’.
Digital tools create opportunities to make democracy more relevant, accessible, engaging and visible: to break down the walls and silos, to get ordinary people more involved in the decisions that affect their lives. But for this to happen our institutions must change, they must undergo significant cultural as well as technological transformation. This is as true of parliaments as it is of any other public institution and, given the history and tradition of many parliaments, sometimes more so.
The digital parliament is an emerging reality and we are seeing a growing number of innovations in parliamentary engagement and transparency, particularly in Europe and Latin America.
Through digital tools, social media and open data, parliaments are becoming more outward facing and more open. Their internal systems increasingly support and enable openness and engagement but too often the culture remains inherently inward facing and risk averse. Many parliaments also remain hampered by a lack of access to good practices and lack critical skills and resources in new and emerging areas. Globally, the challenges facing our parliaments and parliamentarians are not simply ones of technology adoption (though these are very real), they are strategic and need to be addressed at a systemic level. They require strong political as well as institutional commitment. Elected members must provide political leadership in favour of greater openness and widening civic participation.
The challenge is significant but the price of failure is extremely high.
The public is already sceptical of parliaments and politicians, they already see these institutions and those within them as out of touch and decreasingly relevant. Our ability to deliver any significant improvement in parliamentary engagement and democratic scrutiny is reliant on a dramatic, some might say revolutionary, transformation of the underlying processes and the culture of the institution, it’s members and staff. Though digital alone changes little, it can act as a powerful catalyst for effective and sustainable change.
The successful digital parliament must reflect the world around it. It draws on the tools ordinary people use, taking parliament closer to their world.
It involves working with intermediaries, supplying resources and data to help educate, inform and engage. Parliaments must seriously consider how they engage with, support and nurture not just the public but also active and effective partners, who can reach audiences that parliament cannot and add value to the democratic process. Digital tools have become fundamental in helping parliaments deliver participation strategies covering a continuum from passive publishing through to genuine and effective engagement and coproduction.