To mark Parliament Week – a programme of activities connecting people across the UK with the Westminster Parliament – the Hansard Society hosted a half-day event to look at the problems with the legislative process, and how technology might help solve them.
The latest in our Future Parliament series of research and events, it also looked at how Westminster could best use the rupture of being uprooted from the Palace to drive innovation, including trialing new technology.
Capacity, Scrutiny and Engagement: Challenges and Opportunities
Our first panel looked at the current challenges to the legislative process within Parliament, and those areas where technology might be of greatest use, drawing on the Society’s involvement in the mutli-national EU funded Sense4us technology research project.
Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, chaired a discussion with Emma Allen, Director of Digital Development, Parliament Digital Service; Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow; and Liam Laurence Smyth, Clerk of Legislation in the House of Commons.
All the panelists raised culture change as a major issue for Parliament and technology - whether encouraging people to get involved with legislation, or moving beyond mass-email point-and-click campaigns.
Getting people involved in legislation is the biggest challenge says Liam Lawrence, Parliament’s clerk of legislation. #FutureParliament— Kathryn Corrick (@kcorrick) November 14, 2016
Clearly a need for civil society to think more about how tech can create change without deluging MPs with identical emails #FutureParliament— Victoria Boelman (@vboelman) November 14, 2016
Education was also a clear factor for both the panelists and audience, helping the public understand both what Parliament does and decoding the language it uses.
Opportunities for improvement
With the challenges laid out, it was clear that technology could help improve the process.
With a break for refreshments, the audience was able to learn more about Sense4us, a multi-national technology research project funded by the European Commission to develop new information discovery tools for policy-makers and researchers. The Sense4us toolset includes new tools to support text analysis, social media search and sentiment, linked open data search, and dynamic policy model simulations.
Parliament as an innovation lab: Restoration and Renewal… and beyond
Our second panel looked more closely at the future of Parliament - and the potential opportunities for innovation across the Restoration and Renewal programme.
With MPs and Peers due to move out of the Palace into alternative locations in the Westminster area for a few years, could these temporary new Houses be turned into parliamentary laboratories to trial and test new digital technology?
BBC journalist and technology critic Bill Thompson chaired the discussion with Victoria Boelman, Principal Researcher in Government Innovation, Nesta; Elizabeth Linder, Founder of the Conversational Century; Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety; and Paul Walland, Director of Innovation at the IT Innovation Centre, University of Southampton, and co-ordinator of the Sense4us project.
Regardless of what technologies Parliament might test, the panel was clear that any temporary building presents a chance to be bold and less risk-averse, especially when it comes to space and design.
London's example of using structures created decades/centuries ago, because they were built with great vision, has lessons #FutureParliament— Glyn R Jones (@GlynRJones) November 14, 2016
No silver bullet
Closing the event, it was clear that any technological ‘solutions’ would need to be considered carefully. From online echo chambers to the digital divide, innovation is just one tool at Parliament’s disposal.
Algorithms create echo chambers. Especially problematic when applied to democracy. How do we solve this? From the floor#FutureParliament— Hansard Society (@HansardSociety) November 14, 2016
Sense4us is a project funded from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (contract number 611242)
Enjoy reading this? Please consider sharing it
The recent rearrangement of responsibilities for the government’s handling of EU-related affairs raises questions about future parliamentary scrutiny of these issues. In some respects pre-2016 institutional arrangements are restored, but the post-Brexit landscape presents new scrutiny challenges which thus far MPs have not confronted.
What information and evidence does Parliament need to enable it to oversee government law-making? Is Parliament currently provided with sufficient information and, if not, how can this be improved?
A recent House of Lords debate on a ‘made negative’ Statutory Instrument highlights Peers’ greater appetite and ability to secure such debates compared to MPs. Data on debate lengths suggests parliamentarians are more likely to give more meaningful scrutiny to SIs they wish to debate than those on which they are obliged to spend time by current procedures.
What Covid Regulations will the House of Commons debate on 14 December, and how? Amid backbench unrest, the occasion will be shaped by the interplay between delegated legislation scrutiny, parliamentary procedures, and raw politics. The outcome could have profound consequences for both public health policy and the Prime Minister’s position.
Statutory Instruments (SIs) have been a key tool in the government’s response to shortages of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. These SIs showcase the usefulness of this type of law-making but also highlight again some of the longstanding problems with its parliamentary scrutiny.
Delegated legislation may not be glamorous but it is essential to how our democracy works. Time to treat it accordingly.