Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Parliamentary Reform Must Be A Messy Process

Over on Lords of the Blog we've been debating whether Constitutional reform is the answer to our Parliamentary woes. "Lordnorton" bemoans the fact that "a great many people have reform agenda, but agenda that have little coherence... We need to look at Parliament, and indeed our constitutional arrangements, holistically." He's called for a commission on the constitution, "open to all, not just the usual suspects; new technology provides the means for wide consultation. The main challenge will not be employing the new technology, but rather persuading people to submit their views."

I agree. Yet this holistic process should not be engineered from the top down in a nice orderly fashion. A dynamic, open, democratic approach which encourages broad engagement by all stakeholders cannot realistically appear neat and linear. The Internet affords the opportunity to capture, rationalise and unify apparently messy data contributed by disparate opinion-holders whose views tend to be missed in the current formal processes. Sites like mySociety already play this kind of role.

While it seems almost trite now, the BBC heralded the shift toward an interactive, dynamic political process at the "E-envoy" conference in 2002:
“Currently…we are all used to… top down provision of information …whether it’s [from] a media company or the Government to you the audience or citizen. What we want to move to is this interactive model which has lots of conversations in lots of directions. Not only do we communicate to the users in this model, they can communicate back to us and they can communicate with each other, both through us and actually independently of us… Through digital media, like interactive TV, SMS text messaging and the internet, we can create very new networks of information exchange, ones we haven’t seen before.”

"...[W]hen the [pension] reforms are explained to people
they will see that they are the right thing to do."
Gordon Brown, Financial Times 8.11.05

He cannot allow them any serious discussion about priorities. His view is that it is just not worth it and ‘they will get what I decide’. And that is a very insulting process. Do those ends justify the means? It has enhanced Treasury control, but at the expense of any government cohesion and any assessment of strategy. You can choose whether you are impressed or depressed by that…
Lord Turnbull,
Permanent Secretary to the Treasury,
referring to Gordon Brown, in 2002 20.03.07

While participation in formal “party” politics has been dissipating, citizens have found alternative ways to assert themselves. Any idea that they have become generally apathetic is a myth, as recent events have shown, and the Power Inquiry noted in 2006:
“There is now a great deal of research evidence to show that very large numbers of citizens are engaged in community and charity work outside of politics. There is also clear evidence that involvement in pressure politics – such as signing petitions, supporting consumer boycotts, joining campaign groups – has been growing significantly for many years. In addition, research shows that interest in “political issues” is high.”
In a long-since deleted press release in June 2007, the Cabinet Office warmly welcomed a report that urged the facilitation of a bottom-up approach to the use of public sector information, stating:
“The Government should work in partnership with the best of citizens' efforts, not replicate them. If we really want to deliver better public services, the best way to do that is bottom up. Change is driven by better feedback, open information and more ways in which citizens can make their voices heard about what matters to them. The challenge is for all public bodies to think about how they can respond to the challenges described here."

Citizens themselves are already helping each other in online communities. If 30,000 parents were meeting in a park or football stadium to share information and tips about parenting, government would take notice. That they are doing it online simply means we have to find different ways to take their efforts just as seriously.”
And George Osborne's remarks in November 2007 have often been quoted since:
“With all these profound changes – the Google-isation of the world’s information, the creation of on-line networks bigger than whole populations, the ability of new technology to harness the wisdom of crowds and the rise of user-generated content – we are seeing the democratisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. … People… are the masters now.”
Lest anyone doubt that a broad-ranging, grassroots, web-based discussion of policies can result in an engaging, unifying event, they should consider Barack Obama's path to the White House.

By all means list your reform proposals in the comments... here are a few from me:
  1. prevent the abuse of secondary legislation as a channel for avoiding substantive debate on legislative measures;

  2. wholly elected Lords;

  3. 4 year fixed terms, with no government discretion as to the precise election date;

  4. publication of expenses, interests, emoluments via Parliamentary web site in a format that readily permits analysis;

  5. restraint on MPs/Lords taking roles in the industries they oversaw for at least 6 months after leaving office;

  6. no second home allowance (but state funded accommodation in a converted local authority housing block reasonably local to Westminster);

  7. requirement for both houses of parliament to approve UK's initial and ultimate responses to proposals for European directives.

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