Connecting knowledge to power: the future of digital democracy in the UK

The photo shows a view of the Palace of Westminster across the river Thames
The Palace of Westminster, how to the UK’s Houses of Parliament

Wikimedia UK and Demos are encouraging Wikimedians to participate in an attempt to crowdsource a submission to a call for evidence on digital democracy from the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has established a Commission on Digital Democracy. It will report to Parliament in early 2015 with recommendations on how Parliament can use technology to better represent and engage with the electorate, make laws and hold the powerful to account. As part of their work, the Commission have issued a series of calls for evidence. These are open invitations for members of the public, either as individuals or groups, to submit responses to a series of questions. They have attracted responses from unions, academics, non-governmental institutions and private individuals. The first theme was ‘making laws in a digital age’, and the second on ‘digital scrutiny’. The Commission plans to shortly publish the final three themes.

There is a growing sense that the growth of the Internet has not paid the democratic dividends that it could. Turnout in formal political elections is steadily decreasing, and trust and support in the institutions and offices of mainstream political life are low and falling. Despite many innovative attempts from both within and outside of Government, the daily reality of democratic engagement for most people in the UK would be familiar to generations of British citizens who predate Facebook or email. The rise of the Internet has, broadly, done little to challenge concentrations of power or structures of unequal representation.

Demos is one of Britain’s leading cross-party think tank and it has an overarching mission to bring politics closer to people. They contacted Wikimedia UK to propose an experiment: can an online community be used to source a response to this call? Can the ethos, community and technology like that of Wikipedia be used to engage Wikipedians to come together and collaborate to create a reply? In particular, Carl Miller, Research Director of the Demos Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, wrote this piece for Wired in which he describes Wikipedia as a masterclass in digital democracy.

This conversation has led to what is an experimental attempt to do just that. In theory there are many lessons that any attempt to increase engagement with digital democracy can learn from Wikimedia projects, especially Wikipedia. These include the participatory nature of content development and the nature of content (and policy) being arrived at by consensus. Wikipedians are from a wide array of backgrounds and represent a broad spectrum of views. This could lend itself to effective drafting of the kind of evidence that the Speaker is looking for. Wikimedia UK and Demos would like to establish whether this is indeed the case. In particular, we are seeking answers to the following questions:

  • How can technology help Parliament and other agencies to scrutinise the work of government? 
  • How can technology help citizens scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament? 
  • What kinds of data should Parliament and Government release to the public to make itself more open to outside scrutiny?

Everyone is encouraged to try to answer these questions collaboratively, in much the same way Wikipedia articles are approached – using the main page for content and talk page for discussion. Stevie Benton from Wikimedia UK and Carl Miller from Demos will happily answer any questions on the talk page but are equally happy to let the process take its course.

At this point there is no fixed deadline for evidence on the theme of digital scrutiny. However, the Speaker’s Commission will be publishing publishing a single call for evidence covering our last three themes (yet to be announced). The conversation and crowdsourced evidence will be reviewed at the end of June with a view to either continuing the process or submitting as is. If there is appetite among the community, and if the first attempt is successful, there may be further attempts to develop submissions to the later three themes.

At the end of the process Demos and Wikimedia UK will prepare a report on the process and the effectiveness of this kind of approach to crowdsourcing policy and evidence. This paper will be released under an open licence. It is a real opportunity for Wikimedians to influence the debate about digital democracy and both Wikimedia UK and Demos thank you for engaging with this idea.

You can find the consultation page here and we look forward to hearing from you.

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