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20 December 1999

Democracy goes into cyberspace

New Media Awards 2000 - Imagine an election where you feed your views into a computer, whic

By Stephen Coleman

No, Big Ben will not be displaying digital time. Neither will parliament be opened each year by the Queen’s “virtual webcast”.

The institutions of democracy will change in response to the new technologies of information and communication. But they will do so cautiously, with some resistance and probably at a slower pace than comparably sized corporate organisations. After all, it’s still impossible for MPs to use laptops in the Commons chamber or committees – and most don’t have websites or publicised e-mail addresses. The techno-future is hardly rushing down the corridors of Westminster at lightning speed. But here are some examples of how it will creep along.

The virtual representative
The way that MPs work will change. E-mail will be used extensively and there will be filtering software so that messages from constituents can have priority over those from lobbyists. MPs’ offices in Westminster will be much more closely connected to their constituency offices, with not only text but digital pictures and sound passing from one to the other. More MPs will begin to conduct cyber-surgeries, allowing their constituents as well as local interest groups to meet with them via video-conferences.

Less time will be spent by MPs and their researchers on filing papers and more on exploring databases and trusted web-based information, including closer direct links with government departments. MPs’ offices in the 1990s have not been that different from those of their 1950s predecessors; by 2010 they will look very different, with much more voice-command technology and connectivity to other strands of the web of governance.

Voting
Parliamentary divisions will change. The first stage will be the use of electronic fingerprint-recognition devices, allowing MPs to pass through the voting lobbies much faster than at present. Many of them like the idea of filing, sheep-like, through these lobbies because it provides backbenchers with precious opportunities to lobby ministers. But surely the console-based voting being used by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly – and by most parliaments in the world – will come before long, cutting hours of wasted time from the parliamentary week.

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Electronic voting by citizens in elections will also take off. Citizens entering the polling station – or a secure site on the Internet – will not only be able to vote, but to look through the manifestoes of the candidates. In Finland, voters have had a chance to feed their views into a computer, which tells them the party closest to their own thinking. Election campaigning will take place much more on the Internet, with the 2000 US presidential election probably marking a watershed. Future elections may be fought more on the net than on TV.

Discussion
If citizenship education – which becomes compulsory in all schools from September 2000 – is to make a difference, it will affect not only voter turnout, but broader political literacy. People need to learn to argue and to realise that their experience and expertise is vital to the democratic process. We will see more online discussions linking groups of citizens with parliamentary inquiries, pre-legislative scrutiny and perhaps post-legislative scrutiny.

Select committees will be expected to consult with the public, and there will be well-publicised spaces on the Internet, as well as digital TV, for meaningful public debate to take place. This will require public policy to address the problem of unequal access, which will only be solved when it is recognised that democratic information and communication should not be market commodities but universal rights. Significant efforts to make access more inclusive will be made, some of which are proposed in a far-sighted new Department of Trade and Industry report on new technologies and social exclusion.

Communities
There will be a proliferation of community networks, based not only upon geographical localities and regions but common interests. These will serve to enfranchise social groups who have tended to be peripheral to the political debate: the disabled, ethnic minorities and children are notable examples of groups that could form effective virtual networks.

Media coverage
Ten years of cameras in the Commons have resulted in less terrestrial news coverage of parliament, not more, and certainly no higher public esteem for MPs. Digitisation of the parliamentary record will transform the ways in which citizens will be able to access parliament. They will receive a message each time their MP speaks in parliament and then watch any part of the proceedings that they choose. People will be able to demand digitised video recordings of all debates on a specific subject. MPs’ voting records, personal interests and diaries will be available at the push of a key, as will policy papers, press releases and poll results. Newspaper coverage of parliament will devote more space to expert interpretation, offered by both political and other specialist correspondents, and readers will then be directed to the web to discover a wealth of recommended information. Parties and interest groups will offer the same services, allowing them to compete with the traditional media in offering news and comment.

Digital TV
The political world will not change suddenly when analogue is switched off and digital TV comes into people’s homes, but there will be new scope for universal interactivity, and the political potential of this is bound to be tested. Plebiscitary stunts will take place, based on self-selected voters and inadequate public discussion, and these will be discredited. Lessons learnt from Internet-based public discussions will be applied to digital TV, with citizens’ channels creating new links between previously remote centres of power and the people they are supposed to represent.

Will politics change?
Technologies can facilitate changes, and interactive technologies offer possibilities for transformations in the way that representation takes place, but none of this is guaranteed. Political culture matters more than technology. The extent to which democratic politics will change depends upon how much of the new talk of citizenship is empty rhetoric and how far the implications of an engaged citizenry and a strong democracy are accepted.

Stephen Coleman is director of the parliament and media programme at the Hansard Society

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