Tom Steinberg: Open house in Westminster

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In January 2009 Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House of Commons, stood up in Parliament, and in clear and confident tones didn’t announce that she was going to let MPs vote to conceal their own expenses.

You read that right. She didn’t announce it, loud and clear. Instead, she said that there was going to be a vote: “To ensure that in respect of allowances paid to Members of Parliament, which is public money, the public can be certain that there is a clear and reasonable set of rules against which money is paid out, that there is a proper audit system to make sure that those rules are obeyed, that the amount is paid under clear headings for each individual Member of Parliament every year and is made public, that it is proportionate and affordable, and that all this is done at a reasonable cost.”

This was her way of saying: “We are going to hold a vote which we strongly expect MPs to pass, a vote which we all know will overrule a High Court mandate to publish all MPs’ expenses, blocking forever their publication, which, incidentally, we’ve spent over a million pounds collecting and scanning so far.” Actually, it wasn’t what she meant to say of course. She meant to say ‘Look! What’s that behind you?’ before running out the door.

As you no doubt are aware, this last ditch attempt to conceal MPs expenses was a failure, partly thanks to fear of the press, and partly thanks to a campaign we ran at mySociety which meant that over 95 per cent of MPs heard protests from their own constituents within just a couple of days. It turned out that the thousands of people who use our Parliamentary transparency website TheyWorkForYou weren’t keen on seeing their representatives pass a law that meant they’d be able to see less about what they do.

Now the talk of Westminster is all about democratic reform. By my count there are over 50 different ideas for changing the way our democracy works being touted by different pundits at the moment. They vary from the classic – introducing proportional representation, to those very specific to this scandal – building a block of flats for MPs so that they don’t end up owning tax-payer subsidised second homes. The ideas are flowing in from all over the political spectrum, some in newspaper articles, some in tweets, some in fully fledged books like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s ‘The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain’.

What all these ideas, though, have in common is that they propose structural reforms that could have been achieved any time in the last 200 years. They are concerned with questions of who has the right to block a new law, who gets appointed to a committee, how many votes it takes to get someone into office. My view is that these proposals are all interesting, and some may be quite critical for a better democracy. But I am also concerned that they do not see Parliament and the process of making laws as a native to the internet would. They don’t ask: “What reforms are possible that just weren’t conceivable ten years ago?”

Problems relating to finding the right information you need are as old as humanity, and they don’t just relate to the traditional questions of when to harvest crops. When the Athenian Demos needed to pick jurists there had to be mechanisms for randomly and accountably allocating roles to citizens. They used a system of specially carved stones and tokens to help them solve this problem. If nobody had been able to carve stone or shape wood the range of options for running their democracy would have been smaller and weaker.

The internet, of course, has transformed our ability to attack information problems, including some just as old as the Greeks. Think of how the internet helps us find people to date, songs to listen to or rare Pez dispensers to buy. It doesn’t just do these things exclusively by replicating offline experiences, although it does do that; it solves some information problems in totally new ways, using mechanisms that just weren’t possible before the existence of pervasive digital networks. It is important that our democracy starts to look at these radical shifts, and not just the offline-becomes-online parts of the internet, like blogs.

To see what I mean by this, consider two features of the online retailer Amazon. Obviously Amazon lets you type in the name of a band or an album you want and buy it. In that way it is little more advanced than a record shop from the 1960s, or a CDs-by-post catalogue company of the early 1990s. However, most people are also familiar with Amazon’s ability to tell you that “people who bought this also bought that”, and increasingly “people who looked at this mostly ended up buying that”. Furthermore, every time you log into Amazon it looks at the complete history of everything you’ve bought and suggests totally new books, songs or other items that it has calculated you might like. This is a totally new way of solving the information problem of finding a good song to listen to.

Parliament, and indeed our wider democracy, is full of interesting information problems, all of them untransformed by Amazon-like ingenuity. How do we know that MPs and officials are acting in our interests, rather than other people’s? How do we know they’ve made their decisions based on good evidence? How do we know what issues are coming along next that need dealing with? How do we know what other people are doing to try and influence the political process? How do the sentiments of large numbers of people get fairly and transparently transformed into new laws? How do we even make sure that people know what the proposed laws say in the first place?

Of all these problems it is the last one that I mention here – we need to know more about the laws that are currently being proposed, and we need more people to know about them. Modern politics is clearly mostly about personalities, and a game of who’s up and who’s down. But when push comes to shove and you’re locked up or fined for some unjust reason, it isn’t the personalities who put you there – it’s a poorly drafted clause in an overly ambitious bill, rammed through carelessly during the middle of an unrelated crisis. One of the most pressing information problems the internet can help solve is the problem of producing better laws, and new laws that more people have seen before they’re hit over the head by their practical consequences.

Part of the very reason that politics is about personalities is that laws have traditionally been too boring and incomprehensible to interest people. Over the decades we have seen market pressure amongst newspapers and TV channels force them to admit that they can’t make coverage of new laws of interest to most people. But the internet eats for breakfast tasks that are impossible via traditional media, like writing free encyclopedias. With eggs on top.

The internet, correctly used, can help alert you to a new proposed law that will affect your life, and only people like you. It can help other people annotate the bits of the law that you really probably do care about to make what’s going on more comprehensible, and it can give you tools to see how that proposal to change the law is different from how things are now, and how it would be if people you trusted had their way. It can tell you who is responsible, and it can give you ways of getting in touch, as well as organising with other people who aren’t happy with the putative change. In other words, it can give you the sort of understanding of a new law that currently even most MPs don’t have at the moment, so archaic is Parliament and government’s use of tools to help write laws.

But what about Harriet Harman, standing in front of the Commons and brazenly stating that a vote which will reduce something (transparency) will actually increase it? How can the internet help prevent that sort of travesty happening in the future? Despite the scale of the challenge, the internet can help here too.

First, any proposal to vote on anything can be automatically connected to the laws or court rulings that it will change or overrule. This will enable people with particular interests in certain laws or parts thereof to set up alerts that tell them whenever someone is proposing to change something they care about. One can imagine in future that the moment such a vote is tabled, all around the country activists would be immediately informed and able to mobilise even if they don’t know each other. By the time Harriet Harman stood up there could have been an MP ready to ask why her statement didn’t refer to the substance that the vote was actually going to change.

Second, the process by which bills are tabled can be made more transparent in the first place. Before a motion of the sort Ms Harman presents can be voted on, it clearly needs discussing. Cheap recording and storage should mean that formal policy development meetings involving non-elected civil servants are regularly recorded, by law, and their transcripts and source material made available online, automatically tagged with references to the subsequent vote. If a recording discussing how to prevent the publication of MPs expenses had existed, it is much less likely that the House would have been exposed to such weak excuses.

Finally, MPs can develop a medical doctor-style permanent record which is, like TheyWorkForYou.com’s MP pages, an uneditorialised, automatically generated history of their votes, speeches and interests, but boosted by a full record of their interventions in committees, the amendments they’ve tabled, their involvement in policy formulation sessions with civil servants, plus a record of their election leaflets and statements in media outlets such as newspapers. It should be a substantial risk for an MP in the future to blot their permanent record by saying that a vote was about one thing when the databases clearly showed it was about another.

These changes are much more difficult than learning how to competently use social media services like blogs or Twitter. They require an immersive knowledge of what is possible on the internet, combined with a steely determination to push change through a system that will be deeply unwilling to sacrifice the pleasures and conveniences of secrecy and obscure procedure. The Speaker must appoint a senior clerk whose sole task is both to bring Parliament in touch with the joys of social media, and to take on the much conceptually tougher problem of proposing to MPs how the entire Parliamentary process can be forged anew in the heat of the internet.

Tom Steinber is a director of mySociety



This essay is one of a collection of viewpoints which will be published to launch NESTA’s ‘Reboot Britain’ programme. Reboot Britain will explore the role new technologies and online networks can play in driving economic growth and radically changing our public services. The programme will begin with a one day event on 6th July which will look at the challenges we face as a country and how the combination of a new digital technologies and networked 'Digital Britons' can produce innovative solutions to tackle them. For more information please visit www.nesta.org.uk

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