“MPs are talking, not hearing, online” was the BBC News headline last week about a Hansard Society report into how MPs are using new technology to connect with the public.
In fairness, some MPs have embraced new technology and experimented with different ways to use it to engage with voters. A group of peers got together to create a Lords Blog. Dozens of MPs blog regularly, and Twitter is fast developing a strong following among both members and candidates.
However, less than a quarter of MPs are embracing social networking and it seems the majority of parliamentarians have not yet recognised that new technologies will change the way we do politics. The power and potential of social networks is huge.
In January, the government was forced to perform a U-turn on the issue of keeping MPs’ expenses secret, largely as a result of a campaign mobilised through Facebook and Twitter by organisations such as MySociety and Unlock Democracy. The speed and reach of these sites is unrivalled when compared to traditional petitions and letter-writing campaigns. Most importantly, technology can now facilitate genuine two-way communication between voters and MPs, with comment and share functions.
The Hansard report found that nearly one in five MPs don’t even have a website, which is shocking in this day and age. There’s a whole generation of people whose first point of call for information will be to do a search on Google. If their MP doesn’t even have a website, what message does that send about their willingness to engage with their electorate?
MySociety, the team behind sites such as They Work For You and Fix My Street have been campaigning for months for parliament to produce information about legislation electronically with tags so that the data can be easily used by websites to help the public understand what is happening to each Bill. Despite the support of more than 100 MPs for this campaign, the Houses of Parliament authorities have still not agreed to make these changes.
Astonishingly, there is a ban on placing clips of questions or debates in Parliament on YouTube and other video sharing sites. I’ve been fighting this for a year now, and while the copyright issue looks like it could be resolved fairly easily, the real barrier is reluctance from MPs who are worried about the “reputation of Parliament” if clips were manipulated or placed alongside inappropriate content.
There seems to be a total lack of understanding that in the internet age it is impossible to control images of Parliament, and that the reputation of parliament is damaged if it is regarded as an out of touch institution.
New technologies create wonderful potential to engage people in politics. Rather than watching BBC Parliament for hours in the hope something of interest pops up, people could search for clips of questions on topics of interest. Pressure groups could circulate links to relevant clips to their members. The most interesting and popular clips could be promoted virally, through people sharing them with family, friends and colleagues.
Parliament as an institution has made some steps in the right direction, having launched its own Youtube channel (albeit not with videos from the debating chambers), Facebook page and Twitter feed.
However despite the enthusiasm of excellent staff within Parliament’s online team, the lead needs to come from MPs themselves.
Politicians as a class are cautious about engaging with new media. This is partly a lack of familiarity, partly a lack of time and sometimes, sadly, an attitude which treats new technologies with a touch of disdain.
With low election turnouts and badly shaken levels of trust in politics, it is more important than ever that politicians reconnect with people. We should embrace the tools the web offers to help us do that.