In 2020, the now 315-year-old institution that is British parliamentary democracy embraced a new technological frontier: it held its weekly flagship event, Prime Minister’s Questions, in a hybrid virtual environment. In an event necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, technology excelled, helping the parliamentary process function as it had done for centuries before – albeit in a slightly different way.
Such a situation, where virtual technology would so significantly prop up the government and British politics, seemed unimaginable ten or even five years ago. When the term “metaverse” was first conceived in 1992 by the American author Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash, it was mostly seen within the realm of science fiction. Thirty years later and the metaverse has gone from being a futuristic dream to an active reality. And there are plenty of opportunities for the metaverse to enhance British politics in the coming years.
1. The alignment of workplace collaboration
One of the biggest grievances of many working within the government and the civil service is the frustrating lack of one, uniform platform for conducting official business across departments and agencies. Different departments use different platforms for their work, meaning that cross-collaboration – whether that’s meetings, or document sharing and editing – proves difficult. As a result, processes are slow. The Covid-19 response highlighted how the IT suites of government departments – such as the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care – could not interface with one another for basic activities such as video calls. This is where the metaverse could step in. Provided there are adequate security protections, it could provide a singular platform for meetings with staff across various government departments, while allowing an easier experience for sharing documents.
There are other benefits the metaverse could bring for government and politicians. MPs, for example, could be afforded easier access to constituents by holding virtual surgeries wherever it is convenient for them; local government could hold workshops with national civil servants to discuss best practice – which is increasingly important with further devolution on the cards – and industry could have more accessible policy development meetings with government figures in the virtual world. The private sector is already using the metaverse to enhance workplace collaboration; government will probably be next.
2. Large-scale professional events will go virtual
The metaverse provides an opportunity to change how conferences are conducted – particularly as the government leans towards setting the example for lowering emissions and reaching net zero.
While some things, like trade negotiations and national security discussions, may remain face-to-face, there is great potential to host big international meetings, such as Cop and the World Economic Forum summits, at least partly in the metaverse. If all this sounds very far-fetched, the Economist recently held its Metaverse Summit in the virtual world. There was a physical location for more than 400 attendees in San Jose, California and a metaverse world available for more than 2,000 virtual attendees.
Such a development would save on vast expenses, reduce carbon footprints, help to improve accessibility and provide a viable alternative for those who would otherwise have to travel from afar.
Domestically, events such as Civil Service Live can be integrated into the metaverse, helping public servants explore new ways to engage with each other, learn and network.
3. Increasing representative democracy from within a virtual world
There are myriad ways in which the metaverse can help to engage citizens and journalists in parliamentary processes. A metaverse “twin” of parliament, with areas that are open and accessible to people in public viewings, would allow citizens to better understand the history of British democracy in a new, more accessible way, as real-world parliamentary tours do now.
As we have seen, hosting a virtual PMQs is very much possible. Another option could be to blend physical and virtual worlds so that people can watch a physical PMQs from a virtual viewing gallery.
The metaverse can also bring opportunities for important figures across various sectors, as well as journalists. Select committee sessions – which sometimes feature virtual participants dialling in via video-conferencing software – could also take place in the metaverse, allowing key people to engage with politics in a more convenient fashion. Journalists could also have access to the virtual rooms for reporting.
4. Providing citizen services in new ways
Backlogs are a problem across government. As civil servants have continued to work from home and the government has reduced the size of its estate, the work itself has not necessarily become hybrid – think of the challenges of physical document processing at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), for example.
This is where the metaverse could help. His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are among the departments that could most benefit. They could help people with their taxes, or to find work, in a virtual space immune from the effects of cuts to the physical spaces that once provided people with assistance.
Local government town hall meetings on key issues, virtual city tours to attract tourists and potential investors, and hosting other government events are among the other ways in which the state could transform its offering to people.
5. Recruitment and onboarding will be transformed
Up-to-date recruitment and onboarding of staff is key to ensuring high standards within the government. Civil service open recruitment days held virtually would increase the pool of potential applicants. The metaverse also provides a good platform to screen potential employees en masse while also providing a space for actual job interviews to be held, which could increase diversity and inclusion and, for those applying to the Fast Stream and other technical professions, showcase the public sector as a hub of innovation.
A new, engaging, metaverse-based virtual training programme will also go a long way in helping civil service staff satisfaction. Many staff find it difficult to make time to travel to physical training programmes, while virtual ones often prove underwhelming. The metaverse could help solve both those problems, with its unlimited technical possibilities able to create a fun, engaging, educational experience, to be consumed whenever is convenient.
There will inevitably be people who doubt the potential of the metaverse within politics. But is the government, with its current technical set-up, working as effectively as it could? Some working within government and the civil service don’t think so.
Tradition is important. Virtual tools such as the metaverse won’t completely replace important, in-person processes and could even provide a way to celebrate and increase access to traditions.
Based on our experiences as users of the metaverse, we have a firm belief that immersive technologies have a role to play in the future of British democracy, helping people do their jobs better while staying in touch with contemporary society.