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Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
Published: 26 Jan 2015

2 Improving public understanding about politics and Parliament

Without a basic knowledge of Parliament and politics, citizens will have difficulty in engaging with them at the most fundamental level. If you do not know what Parliament and MPs do, you might not see any reason to vote. As one younger person put it, “to care about politics you need to know about it.”[1]

Some of the people we heard from knew a lot about Parliament, but others knew very little. Some told us that they had no idea what MPs did. Others understood that MPs are elected to Parliament to represent their interests, but had little understanding of what this meant in practice or what the day-to-day work of an MP involves. People also confused Parliament with Government, not realising that they have very different roles.[2] Some of those who had the least knowledge about these issues reported having very low levels of engagement.

Young people in particular were seen as a group who may not engage with the democratic process because they did not know enough about politics.[3] For example, one younger person said that they didn’t know anyone their age who had a clue what politicians talked about or did and that this made it difficult for them to vote.[4]

The Commission was struck by the effect that this lack of understanding has on our democratic system, with many citizens feeling disconnected from MPs and Parliament. We welcome the ongoing work to increase public understanding of Parliament, particularly through its outreach and education work.[5] However, very few of the community groups and individuals we talked to were aware of this. We strongly believe that more progress needs to be made on raising public awareness of:

  • Parliament and how it works,
  • the role of MPs, and
  • ways in which the public can engage with Parliament.

This would help to show how Parliament and politics can be relevant to citizens’ lives.

We are setting Parliament the challenge of ensuring that by 2020 everyone can understand what it does. Achieving this goal would go a long way towards ensuring that no one is prevented from participating in democratic processes such as voting because of a lack of understanding.

1. By 2020, the House should ensure that everyone can understand what it does. To map out how it will reach this target, the House of Commons should develop a new communications strategy with the aim of:

  • increasing public awareness of the role of Parliament and MPs and
  • increasing public participation in the work of Parliament.

It should build on previous experience to focus on what works and what is most cost-effective.

2.1 Updating online content

The parliamentary website has a key role to play in raising awareness about Parliament and MPs, but the way information is presented needs to be more accessible. People are becoming more used to accessing information in bite-sized chunks, infographics or video format, and they should be able to do this on the parliamentary website.[6] This would be particularly helpful for people with learning difficulties. One group said:

“People learn and understand information in different ways - not everyone can read lengthy documents. Different media needs to be used so that everyone can understand such as short digestible videos.”[7]

2. The Commission recommends that Parliament’s website should use more infographic and visual data to help provide alternative methods of accessing content and to improve transparency. While the Commission acknowledges the need for intellectual rigour in parliamentary reports and other publications, lengthy documents can act as a barrier to citizen engagement with democracy, particularly for those with learning difficulties, special needs or just limited time. For example, the Register of Members’ Financial Interests could be transformed into a more accessible document for voters by the use of icons to represent data.

Video by Parliament’s Education Service

2.2 Political education

Young people told us that better political education in schools is one of the main things that could improve their understanding of Parliament and politics. Some said that the political education they had received at school had not been very useful and that they lacked the basic information they needed to understand and engage with Parliament.[8] One group recommended that political literacy courses covering issues such as how laws are made and how government works should be provided alongside citizenship education to help prepare young people for “their voting age responsibilities upon leaving formal education.”[9]

We welcome the fact that Parliament’s new education centre will increase the number of school visits it receives to 100,000 a year in 2016. Parliament should continue to work in partnership with schools and other organisations to support political education by providing visits and resources.

3. The Commission encourages the Department for Education to improve the provision of political education within schools using digital means.

[1]Young people discuss e-democracy at Facebook, 9 May 2014

[2]Leicester roundtable 4 September 2014; Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014

[3]Young people discuss e-democracy at Facebook, 9 May 2014; Stockport roundtable 11 August 2014; Model Westminster contribution following workshop on 12 August 2014

[4]Stockport roundtable 11 August 2014

[5]Digi094 [Director of Public Engagement, Parliament] 

[6]Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014; NIACE London roundtable 10 September 2014; Roundtable Leicester 4 September 2014; Chesterfield roundtable 30 June 2014; Secondary students roundtable 18 July 2014

[7]NIACE Leicester roundtable 4 September 2014

[8]Stockport roundtable 11.08.14; Roundtable Leicester 4 September 2014;Young people discuss e-democracy at Facebook, 9 May 2014

[9]Model Westminster contribution following workshop on 12 August 2014