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.

2 thoughts on “Digital Democracy at the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture

  1. Pingback: Digital Democracy at the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Pingback: Everyone’s been at it recently… | Helen Milner

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