It is often suggested that people are not interested in political issues and that is why they do not vote or otherwise engage with politics. We do not agree. Some of the people we heard from said they were turned off by party or mainstream politics. But when we dug a little deeper, we found that they were interested in political issues, such as education and welfare. Even the most disengaged from the political process, including people who had never voted, could not be described as not caring. As Dr Andy Williamson put it:
“The public are not disengaged. They are disengaged from party politics; they are disengaged from adversarial politics; they are disengaged from wasting their time; they do not feel that they make any difference—but they are not disengaged.”
We hope that opening up Parliament to the public and making it more accessible online will encourage more people to engage. But we are also aware that people who are not currently having their say on political issues are unlikely to start getting involved just because they can do it online. There will need to be other triggers to motivate them. For a start, they will need to believe that it is worth their while, so opportunities to engage must be genuine.
People’s interest in politics tends to be linked to current affairs and issues that are of particular importance to them. We agree with the Hansard Society that Parliament could be better at identifying issues coming up that are likely to be of interest and “seeding links to relevant parliamentary content.” It told us:
“On the most topical issues of the day more effort should be made to curate material from across Parliament in order to create an essential ‘go to’ online resource hub for any person or organisation that is interested in it – e.g. phone hacking or House of Lords reform.”
This kind of issues-focused approach could be applied more widely, so that it is easier for people to tune into what Parliament is doing on issues that they care about. For example, members of our student forum suggested that people should be able to sign up to receive alerts when Parliament is looking at particular topics—“like an rss feed for politics”. Some alerts are already available, but there is an urgent need for more and better digital tools to help people to track Parliament’s activities on issues that they care about.
9. We recommend that the new parliamentary digital service should focus on providing tools to help people to track Parliament’s activities on specific issues. These should be easy to find and register for.
A key message that came through in our discussions with people was that Parliament needed to get better at ‘going to where people are’ to engage with them, by connecting with people in the digital spaces where they spend their time and in the way they like to connect. For example, many people, especially younger people, asked for more video and social media, pointing out that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are where people spend a lot of time.
MPs and Parliament have been steadily increasing their use of social media, and parliamentary staff have been experimenting with the use of hashtags “to raise awareness of the breadth of subjects that are discussed in the Commons and…to help demonstrate the topicality and relevance of the work of the House in scrutinising government.” However, much more could be done using social media—for example, by advertising in social media spaces—to increase people’s awareness of how Parliament’s work is relevant to them.
A big advantage of social media is its ability to give people up-to-the minute information about issues they care about in a bite-sized and informal way. Parliament has been experimenting in this area with live tweeting of Prime Minister’s Questions and committee meetings, and we hope to see this experimentation continue.
10 The House of Commons should make more real-time information available online, including details of who is speaking in debates. It should also experiment further with live social media coverage of what is said in debates.
Another big advantage of social media is that people can respond to meetings and events in their own words. Up-to-the minute information about Parliament does not need to be one-way. Currently, members of the public who watch parliamentary debates are not allowed to use their phones. But people increasingly expect to be able to tweet and blog live from these kinds of events. Allowing people to take mobile devices in with them would allow them to do this. It might also help people to understand what is going on by enabling them to look up relevant documents, procedural rules and jargon. We note the guidance issued by the Liaison Committee in the Commons, which says that people attending committee meetings may use electronic devices as long as this is not obtrusive.
11. The Commission recommends that the current restrictions on members of the public taking mobile electronic devices into the House of Commons chamber and Westminster Hall debates are removed.
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