Digital Democracy at the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture

Helen Milner, Chief Executive Tinder Foundation and Commissioner on The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, spoke at the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture on 24th February 2015.

This is the transcript of her speech, “Digital Democracy”:


Thank you Robin for asking me to step in at the last minute. It’s a real pleasure to be speaking to you tonight.

I was really pleased to be asked by John Bercow to be a Commissioner – it was a way to bring together two things I really care about – digital and democracy – and I was pleased as my role on the Commission was to be the person who knew about inclusion – social and digital inclusion.  I’ve promised Robin I won’t talk about digital inclusion, and I keep my word.

I’m not a policy-wonk, a politicians, nor an academic. My day job is working with people out there in our communities who are struggling with basic technology, through thousands of hyperlocal partners, and in here, with policy people, politicians, and current and future Governments.
I want to start with three simple statements. Just to put them out there straight away. I like simple language. Three important things:

  1. People are just people. Just because someone has a smartphone and uses social media it doesn’t mean they will go on to use a political app. People need to be engaged, they need information, they need to be listened to, they need dialogue.
  2. Technology is just a tool that people use to get things done. Digital only exists with people. It’s not separate.
  3. We can’t talk about digital democracy without talking about democracy.

When I told people that I was a Commissioner on the Digital Democracy Commission one of the things people often cited as evidence of digital democracy was the Arab Spring. So let’s start with the Arab Spring – the ‘internet revolution’.

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I remember the huge optimism we all felt in January 2011 when we read this story – a new born baby (a new life) and a new democracy, with democratic change brought about by a relatively new digital tool – social media.

I slightly wince when people talk to me about the Arab Spring. As a Commissioner I was keen to make sure I knew the facts. In December 2010, a young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire outside a Council building in Tunisia – a very personal protest sparked by police harassment. But what distinguishes this specific act of protest was that his friends and family wanted to get his story shared and in order to get around the country’s heavy censorship they used social media. Later that day a cousin and a friend of Bouazizi’s held a peaceful protest outside the same Council building, a friend filmed it and posted the film on Facebook, along with pictures of Bouaziz in hospital. The Tunisian Government didn’t think they needed to censor Facebook.

The film was picked up by Al Jazeera, sparking other activists to take to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs, to keep up with what was going on and to organise further protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. As a result of the protests sparked by Bouaziz’s self-immolation and the film made and posted by his cousin, less than a month later Tunisia’s ruler Ben Ali stepped down.

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This is a picture that I and thousands of others tweeted in January 201. It’s thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo, again these protests were organised through social media, and again they led to the resignation of their President – Mubarak – less than a month later.

Keen to get below the surface of anecdotes about the role of social media in the Arab Spring I looked at an analysis by academics at the University of Washington. They found that conversations about liberty, democracy, and revolution on blogs and on Twitter did immediately precede mass protests; the 25 January 2011, Tahrir Square protests had 600,000 views on YouTube, and 23 hyperlocal Egypt videos on the protests had 5.5 million views; in the week up to Mubarak’s resignation, tweets from and about Egypt rose from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.

Social media alone did not cause political change in North Africa, but mobile phones and the internet did provides new tools for activists to produce and share information, to inspire one another, and to share hints and tips on how to use digital to start a revolution.

I’m not going to comment about democracy in North Africa; I’m not qualified. But I will say that the initial wave of optimism that followed these internet enabled people revolutions hasn’t materialised into democratic stability. And, it’s clear that people who have had power and wish to keep power are also using technology to their own ends – for example, employing hackers in Morocco, or utilising face recognition software as they have in Bahrain to locate, identify and punish activists.

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There are examples where the desire of the people to be involved in democracy, using technology, and the will of the Government overlaps. This is the “Pots and Pans” revolution in Iceland – 2008 – where people took to the streets in peaceful (not silent) protest about the Government’s will to support the failing banks. These protests led to the Government to subsequently resign.

Following this, it was decided that Iceland needed a new constitution – and the Government decided to draft this using an open crowdsourcing process. In 2011, they choose 25 ‘normal’ people (not politicians, not experts) to form the drafting committee. They shared the most recent versions of the draft constitution online and the general public were asked to comment on 12 successive drafts. They also set up a Facebook page for comments. The resulting constitutional proposal was approved by two-thirds of the voters in an October 2012 referendum, but the bill based on it ultimately stalled in Parliament in Spring 2013.

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There are other good examples of where activists are challenging the old norms of Government, challenging old ways of looking down Party lines, and of consulting the people. In Argentina, the Net Party, competed in the 2013 election and gained 22,000 votes, a good result but no seats. However, if and when The Net Party secures seats, they say their elected candidates will always vote in line with the consensus of people using their “vote-and-debate online tool” – DemocracyOS. The Net Party didn’t win any seats, but they are now credible; so the Argentine Congress is going to use DemocracyOS for public consultation on three pieces of legislation, and in Mexico they are planning to use the DemocracyOS platform too.

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And of course, Estonia is leading the way in many digital Government areas, and it is the first country in the world to have implemented online voting into their elections system.

I’m not going to talk about online voting as I think it’s more important to focus on what happens in our democracy between elections. There’s too much emphasis on the single act of one vote and not the five years between.

So, what have we learnt? We’ve learned that there are people who are using digital tools to organise, to gain consensus, to crowd-source, to host robust public debates. But for real political change, digital needs to be on the inside of the political process. Calls to change our democracy, to end party politics, to made a radical change, will fall on deaf ears and will not make a difference. Change through influence and persuasion, through role models and prioritised process re-engineering on the inside will make a difference.

So, let’s talk about the Digital Democracy Commission.

We live in a country of early technology adopters. In the UK we love to use the internet. We spend the most per head shopping online than in any other country. At almost £2000 per person in the UK, significantly higher than the next highest valued Australia (£1,356 per head) and the US (£1,171 per head).) More than £1 in every £5 of retail spend – other than food – is now online.  There are more UK Facebook users than  the number of people who voted at the 2010 General Election.

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So in my view the Digital Democracy Commission was about balancing the UK people’s positive appetite for digital tools with an opposing negativity about politics, politicians, including voter apathy, low turnouts – and seeing if we can do something about it!

The headline recommendations from the Commission are:

  • By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.
  • By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  • The 2015 newly elected House of Commons should create immediately a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons.
  • By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  • By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for reuse. Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015.

I’ll go under the surface on a few of the other recommendations, as John Bercow will give you the headlines in his own words later.

We engaged with a lot of people, we wanted to demonstrate the type of methodologies we were suggesting – openness, online-ness, getting to people who are usually engaged, lowest barriers to participating. Practicing what we were preaching I guess. We opened up channels:

  • Input via email, video, a web survey, and a web comment thread
  • Roundtable discussions
  • Interactions on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn
  • A letter to the vice chancellor of every university in the UK
  • Online student forums
  • We held formal, open (and live-streamed) evidence sessions of the Commission
  • We had informal meetings with a wide range of people.

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I ran lots of roundtables up and down the country. On a hot August day last summer I led a roundtable at Taylor’s Fish and Chip Shop in Stockport. The wonderful, entrepreneurial owner, Anne Wallace, even made some of her staff (who she was paying) take part. One lad, Jack, told me he didn’t know anything about politics, he didn’t know he needed to be on the electoral roll, or that there are polling stations. There was a lot of negativity in that room and in other rooms where I led roundtable events, but a lot of it came down to pure and simple information and awareness.

That’s why I’m really keen to see if we can push the Department for Education on the recommendation to improve the political education within schools, through digital means.

Jack, who I met in Stockport, started off joking and laughing, proud that he knew nothing about politics nor Parliament and by the end of the session he was angry that the school system let him down. We should use our education system to prepare our children to take part in our democracy.

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So now to the Cyber Chamber, Open House or the Wiki Westminster Hall – maybe our first task should be to crowdsource a decent name for it!

Westminster Hall offers MPs an alternative chamber for debating issues that interest them – in the past year, topics debated in Westminster Hall have included zero-hours contracts, football club bankruptcy, badger culls, domestic violence, the humanitarian situation in Gaza and voting at 16. You could see this recommendation as the UK’s version of the crowdsourcing of a constitution in Iceland or the DemocracyOS platform in Argentina. Our recommendation is that members of the public could use an online platform to see what debates are coming up, comment on those debates, or just watch what others are saying. MPs would watch what people are saying, also take part in discussions online and then go into the physical Westminster Hall debate better informed about the view of the people. You could see this as a start to co-creating policies and even legislation. The Commission recommends that Parliament does this in 2015 – this year – and it will give us a way of engaging more people to take part in actual political debates through a digital means.

Parliament should be fully interactive and digital – is a big recommendation with lots of rich elements to it. This is where we should use more digital tools to target groups who are currently not voting – the politically disengaged who are online.

I met so many people who didn’t know what their MPs did, didn’t know that they were allowed to contact them, didn’t know when or how to contact them, didn’t know what their MP did for them. Also, most MPs I meet are working 6 or 7 days a week, they are rushing from here to there, and can’t cope with the amount of correspondence they get now. We need to increase the engagement between people and their MPs, their representatives. But doing it with current processes, channels and tools won’t work; it would mean an unbearable workload for MPs and probably make things worse for the people too as the dialogue they want just wouldn’t happen. Parliament can’t do this alone. We need companies – big and small – to help our MPs to increase the quantity of dialogue they have with their constituents. MPs and their staff can’t bolt on digital to their current practices, they need help to re-engineer how they communicate and interact with their constituents, and they need new tools to make this possible too. And we need a culture change in Parliament so that politicians realise that this is a need-to-have not a nice-to-have.

We also can’t leave anyone behind.

Why don’t we tell people how they can engage with Parliament?

I never thought I’d be someone getting excited about Select Committees – but let’s put Facebook Ads out to tell people there are Select Committee right now, today, asking for written evidence on Sure Start Centres and Sustainability in the NHS.

Just because people are online, and then we put more parts of our democratic processes online, it doesn’t mean they will see them, think that they’re relevant, or really believe we want their points of view. We have millions of people who are politically disengaged. The Commission recommends that certain groups are targeted – we think that face to face interaction for example in “Democracy Cafes” will help this engagement – and have highlighted groups such as young people not at university, homeless people, and people living in communities with traditionally low voter turnout. Digital will be part of the kit bag to help this to happen. This recommendation is to make politics relevant and local and interactive. This recommendation is to make sure democracy and political engagement is no longer just for the people in the know, no longer just for the people who shout the loudest.

And, we need to make sure all of the improvements made to Parliament using digital are available to the 10 million adults in the UK who don’t use the internet. The digitally excluded. The Commission recommends that local grassroots organisations are supported so that they can act as local intermediaries to help people to get online or to interact using online tools through a proxy. We can’t improve the way our democracy works and leave 10 million people behind. The Commission is clear that nobody should be left behind.

I’m sure May 2015 is an important milestone for digital and for politics. Because in this year’s General Election there are many more contested seats than in recent years, and therefore running a really good, winning campaign matters. Even politicians who are technophobes understand that lots of voters use the internet to find things out and to help them make decisions. Be it volunteer engagement tools like NationBuilder, crowdfunding and donation platforms, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter – all the parties are at it. And if you’re an MP who wins your seat using these tools, let’s hope you also want to use them to be accessible and accountable to the people you represent.

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And finally, it’s time to tell you what I really think. Am I proud of the work of the Commission? Yes. Do I think the report is really radical? No. Do I think implementing the recommendations of the Commission will give us a more responsive Parliament and a more engaged people? Yes I do.

However digital is just the tool. The real conversations are going on today here – in Westminster amongst this elite – and out there – in pubs and front rooms amongst the people. We need more interaction. We need to bring these conversations together. I suggest politicians, and their staffers who help them, stop worrying about the sound bites, and start listening, responding, engaging, and building trust and dialogue. Digital is a tool that makes it possible.

Thank you.

Let’s Get On With It…

On Monday this week, the House of Lords select committee on digital skills published their final report Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future. I like it. It’s yet more evidence, more clever and respected people saying we need more focus, leadership and resources to deliver digital inclusion. The House of Lords select committee on digital skills say:

We consider that the Government has a responsibility to accelerate the attainment of digital literacy across the population. Future governments must have the ambition to achieve this to realise the UK’s economic potential. It must not stop there; changing technologies demand constant updating of expertise. The Government is responsible for ensuring the UK’s population keeps pace with the best in the world.

It’s now exactly a year since we were in the House of Lords at the launch of the Tinder Foundation & Go On UK report ‘A Leading Digital Nation by 2020: Calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all’.

The premise of the report, written by independent economic consultant Catherine McDonald, was to put a price on digital inclusion. Much work had been done on economically costing out the benefits, but we wanted to calculate what 100% digital inclusion would cost to deliver, in real terms. In the most basic of summaries, the answer was £875m – yes, for everyone. And we suggested that price should be split three ways between the public, private, and the voluntary and community sectors.

The report, of course, goes into far more detail and you can read it in full here and you can download the mathematical model itself too.

What I can say with some confidence that the report has indeed had some appreciable impact on the digital inclusion landscape in the twelve months since it’s publication – including on the House of Lords report. We may not have secured the £875m investment, but we have provided more evidence for many of the key players in this field about the cost/benefit ratio of inclusion.

Some of the other places the seed of our ideas have grown and flourished include:

  • The Labour Digital Review also used the costings to support their recommendation that the government should use the savings from digital service delivery to fund digital inclusion to ensure that we get as many people online as we can by 2020.
  • Policy Exchange’s Tech Manifesto also used the data to showcase that the government should be digging deeper to ensure that we can end digital exclusion for everyone, particularly those who face social barriers.
  • Tech UK’s in manifesto for growth and jobs – Securing our Digital Future. Recommendation 24 in the report is to Deliver on ‘digital for everyone’ by fully funding a comprehensive digital inclusion strategy, they note that there needs to be a contribution from the private and the third sector however the government will be the biggest beneficiary so need to step up to the plate to get the digital inclusion ball rolling.
  • Meanwhile, the UK Digital Skills Taskforce report published in July last year also referenced the report when commenting that “the possible benefits to the Government, to businesses and to our society are so considerable that we must make this investment”.
  • And of course in the House of Lords select committee report Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future.

It’s fair to say that ALL the evidence collected around digital inclusion has all been part of it’s ongoing development as a policy area – and increasing support. There are other key pieces of work that very recently have contributed to how these issues are understood – like BT’s work to establish the social return on investment for digital inclusion (some £1,064 per person a year).

It seems somewhat ironic to me that a large corporation like BT should have taken on the social benefits angle while a small social enterprise like Tinder Foundation focussed in on the financial argument and economic costs, but I feel this was an important job for us to do. We needed to help people understand the investment bit of the equation, not just the benefits bit, and create a rounded argument.

I have, in the past, been accused of being “a fluffy, left-wing do-gooder” (specifically by an Independent journalist). None of this offends me in the least. Because for me, the people realising the benefits – the Edwards, Charlies, the Maritas, the Bettys – will always be the bottom line. But I do understand that for others the bottom line is the £££ bottom line – it has to be. I am not naive. Sure, I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. And I won’t ever apologise for seeing the reality of the tough lives some people live, or the potential for technology to change those lives them for the better. In reality, though, whatever shade or blend of government we end up with in 100 days time, there will still be a deficit to deal with, and some tough spending decisions to make.

I hope that between us all, we have proven over the last 12 months that investing in digital inclusion – however you look at it – just adds up.

Right now, at Tinder Foundation we’re continuing to think deeply about how we articulate the vision for investment for everyone in Treasury speak, helping those on the wrong side of digital divide to help the UK economy. I strongly believe that a digital nation is a win/win situation – social good AND economic sense – but I am also conscious it still remains our burden of proof.  There are interesting times ahead.

Bring it on.

Digital inclusion – serious business

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know how I feel about the ability of technology to empower individuals, helping the excluded to be more involved in society, encouraging involvement in decision making and democracy, and much more.

What I’m thinking about this week though, is the gap between the organisations – especially small businesses or charities – that are making the most of digital, and those that aren’t.

Our Community How To website was launched with the support of Nominet Trust in November 2012 and continues to encourage third sector organisations to make the most of the free/low cost digital tools out there which could help them do more of what they do best.

More recently, we ran a pilot project with Lloyds, which supported SMEs in the North East of England with their digital skills, and which led to some very interesting findings that we reported at the end of last year – you can read the full report here.

I believe the UK online centres network could and should be continuing to do more to bolster their communities by targeting and supporting local organisations in this way, and it’s something we’re continuing to explore with network partners. For instance, some of our Lloyds lessons will be put into action on a new project with Prince’s Countryside Fund, working with SMEs in rural areas – I expect to tell you more about this and our broader rural work very soon.

What’s been really heartening is to see that government – particularly the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – recognises this as an important area, too.

I’m sure many of you will have seen the billboards around the country, declaring that #BusinessisGREAT and these are all part of the BIS run campaign, Do More Online, which itself is part of the department’s Small Business Digital Capability Programme.

Targeting small businesses and sole traders, Do More Online is helping them find the support they need to do the basics like online banking or establishing a social media presence, to more complex things like setting up a website and using SEO.

The stats for this stuff (which you know I love) are pretty compelling. Close to half of all the small businesses in the UK don’t yet use the internet for their business. That’s about two million businesses – sole traders, or firms with just a few employees – that could be benefitting from having their business online. 33% of business lack basic digital skills, and 29% believe being online isn’t relevant to them. In contrast, 60% of small businesses who are online say the internet helps them attract more customers, and 78% say it saves them time.

The Do More Online campaign has gathered together resources at and is working with our friends at Go ON UK to provide a whole host of resources for businesses wanting to do more online, at

Coming from a major government department, it might be easy to think that the campaign is all about companies building websites and submitting VAT returns online. Of course, that’s part of it, but if you do check out the above links, you’ll soon realise it can also all be much simpler than that.

With advice on making the most of social media for your business, setting up an eBay or Etsy account, and the basics of online banking, it should be clear that what many of us might consider basic steps online can make a big difference to businesses that aren’t currently part of our digital age.

And so I believe that what works in terms of digital inclusion for individuals can work for organisations too – local delivery, flexibility and partnerships with key intermediaries. The required skills might be a bit different – but I think our current work is proving that the UK online centres model can work and work well with this new audience.

Although it’s early days for Do More Online, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the campaign continues to progress in 2015, and how we can offer the support and expertise of the UK online centres network to help it along.

Independent Libraries: Freedom, Equality, Community

Tomorrow is National Libraries Day, where we all get to celebrate the massive contribution libraries make to our lives and communities. Over 400,000 people have joined the #NLD15 ThunderClap. And for the first time, that celebration will include not just Local Authority-led libraries, but the independent community-led libraries which have been saved by armies of loyal volunteers.

From the perspective of someone who sees the power of communities and community action every day, this massive rising of volunteers to keep open some of our most local and most vital community amenities has been nothing short of amazing. Certainly it is something to be celebrated.


I do have concerns over how relevant and how sustainable some of these enterprises are.

I love libraries, but I do think they need to be reimagined for the 21st Century (that’s a link to previous blog on this point). Stagnation will kill libraries and kill their wider influence for good far more dramatically than a few branch closures.

Certainly the Society of Chief Librarians – and associated partners – no longer see themselves as only or even primarily about books. The have developed a strategy for the future based on four key areas of service which today’s users regard as integral to public libraries. The ‘Universal Offers’ include the Reading Offer, the Information Offer, the Digital Offer and the Health Offer. (Find out more here.)  It’s something we’ve strongly supported at Tinder Foundation, not least with training for frontline staff to help support the Information and Digital offers.

Volunteer-led libraries are not encumbered by the rules which govern other libraries, and that could give them the freedom, flexibility, and agility to be MORE.

I expect them to innovate. I expect them to be in, of and FOR their communities. I expect them to be enterprising. To be enterprising – even if it’s just charging for a cup of tea. To hire out their spaces for kids groups, kids parties, and evening exercise classes. To set up clubs, to invite in debt councilors, Jobcentre Plus advisors, and Citizens Advice reps. To host tenant meetings, MP surgeries and Council meetings. To give away recycled books to every child in the local primary schools. To fundraise. To think outside of the library box about their community, its needs, and how they can create a resource so valuable, so well-used and so sustainable, it will still be there in another ten to twenty years.

Our independent libraries need volunteers with business, planning and strategic expertise. Volunteers with vision. Social entrepreneurs. Community leaders.

The good news is that in some community-run libraries, we’ve got them. But while divorce from the library network may offer freedom, it also means there is no peer-to-peer support, sharing of best practice or training. It’s pockets of wonderful, amazing work, reliant on wonderful, amazing individuals. And I wonder, in turn, how we can help those individuals do more, be more, for more people? Grow and thrive wild outside the walls of the more ordered, cultivated public library garden?

If you run or work with a volunteer led library, I’d love to hear from you and about what you do. And I’d love to see what I, Tinder Foundation, and the UK online centres network can do to help you do even more than all of the wonderful stuff you’re doing. If you fancy that.