Parliament cannot carry on as before, it must join the nation in coming together digitally
We need a digital parliament which people, stuck at home, can engage with, and see their representative standing up and speaking for them. | PA Images
As Parliament goes digital, it must do so openly and transparently.
Parliament is always the centre stage of our nation’s political life and just as the coronavirus epidemic has closed the nation’s theatres so now is Parliament silent and shut. In principle it should re-open on April 21st but few believe the epidemic will be beaten by then. So how should representative democracy carry on amidst social distancing? We all want to pull together at this time of national crisis but without parliamentary democracy and parliamentary scrutiny how can the nation know what we are pulling together for?
As a Chartered Engineer I like to think of myself as a tech evangelist and I believe technology and politics are the twin engines of progress. But it is because I have been intimately involved in the deployment of new technologies for three decades now that I am not a champion of digital by default. The current experience of hundreds of thousands of shell-shocked newly unemployed with the Universal Credit system and more specifically its Verify ‘service’ is a gruelling testament to the capacity for failure of badly designed and disempowering software.
As well as the practical issues, as a matter of principle, the coming together of democratically elected representatives from across the country is incredibly important. Technology, whatever its virtues, is distancing, especially what is currently affordable for most people and social media provides numerous examples that the medium drives behaviours. Behaviours in Parliament are not always exemplary to begin with. And there is the reality of the existing deep digital divides with ten percent of us still not having access to the internet either because of lack of infrastructure, money or skills.
So in principle and in practice having MPs coming together physically is essential in normal times.
But for exactly the same reasons, in these abnormal times we must stay apart. We are asking the entire nation to change its behaviours to an extent never before seen in peacetime and at a breakneck speed. Parliament cannot carry on as if we exist in a parallel universe. We have already seen the virus spread amongst Members of Parliament. For public health and public leadership reasons we must show that we are changing our behaviours, that Parliament is wrestling with technological and organisational challenges just like the many isolated elderly Facetiming their grand-children for the same time and the book clubs going from the front room on to Zoom. As Parliament closed, I wrote to the Speaker to say that social distancing must be accompanied by a digital coming together, and if we are asking the nation to do it, then Parliament has got to do it too.
And we must do it in a way that does lead the nation. There is a deep distrust of technology because the mass innovation market has largely been captured by huge, global companies who pay few taxes and have even less accountability. Tech appears closed, remote, exploitative and, I am sorry to say, a bad citizen and worse neighbour, combining both disinformation with surveillance to a Big Brother extent few states can emulate, although some do.
This is a real opportunity for Parliament to lead and champion the nations tech sector
So as Parliament goes digital, it must do so openly and transparently, in a way which, as I said to the Leader of the House, is effectively ‘open source’ and collaborative. It won’t be easy. There are real challenges over security, infrastructure and people. Parliamentary Digital Services, which supports MPs and Peers in the work we do, is overwhelmed with requests for help with remote working and there are still members of both houses for whom the internet is a dodgy new innovation. Parliament has its dinosaurs, many of whose egos are far from extinct.
But this is a real opportunity for Parliament to lead and champion the nations tech sector. Parliament must work with and make the best use of good technology, with a call out to our great, innovative and ethical tech sector. Can we build a digital parliament in a month? This should not be just about beaming everyone in on a video conference call. Who wants to watch a 650-way split screen? We need a digital parliament which people, stuck at home, can engage with, and see their representative standing up and speaking for them. We have great virtual reality and video gaming technology, made in Britain. And we have groups such as Nesta, the Digital Catapult and Newcastle’s own Digital Civics project which can help Parliamentary Digital Services deliver something quickly and professionally, a Parliament to maintain our democratic traditions in these difficult times.
Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for BEIS.