We welcome this commission by the House of Lords into Digital Democracy.
Digital has the power to revolutionise our political system. It can provide access to information, offer a means of connecting constituents with their MPs, and help to give people a voice in our democracy. There is huge potential for digital to make politics more accessible, more transparent, more accountable and to increase public participation with Parliament and the democratic process.
Essential Digital Skills are now a free entitlement in English law - putting them on the same footing as literacy and numeracy - making digital literacy a basic need for all adults. However, we believe that digital inclusion is not just about skills as moving from exclusion to inclusion and becoming part of a digital society brings with it a new set of choices and new opportunities. Digital inclusion leads to digital equality, and people cannot engage truly in a 21st century democracy without being equal.
Good Things Foundation is the UK’s leading digital and social inclusion charity. Through the Online Centres Network, made up of more than 5,000 grassroots organisations, Good Things Foundation takes a community and digital blended approach to ensure that no one is left behind.
We have responded to the questions that are most relevant to our work:
3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?
Creating a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy relies on reducing digital exclusion.
There are 11.9 million people in the UK who do not have the Essential Digital Skills needed for everyday life in the UK - including the ability to engage in government services, find a job, and manage money online. Nearly one in ten (8%) have zero digital skills. Those who lack digital skills are the most likely to be socially excluded too - 23% of people in socioeconomic group DE do not use the internet, compared to 6% of people in groups AB. Of the 4.1 million adults who have never been online, 71% have no more than a secondary level education and 47% are from a low-income household. People with a disability are more than twice as likely to be offline as those without one.
Digitally excluded people lack both a voice and visibility in the modern world as government services and democracy increasingly move online. Digital can only have a positive effect on public participation if these people are given the support to develop the skills and confidence they need to thrive in a digital world. This is not just the responsibility of government - the public sector must work collaboratively with businesses and civil society organisations in supporting people to improve their digital skills.
The Online Centres Network, managed by Good Things Foundation, is a 5,000 strong network of independent hyperlocal organisations who are engaging those who are often left behind with digital. Each year this network of local community partners supports over 250,000 people a year, helping them to be digitally able, active, and equal, and helping them to be more able to participate in our democracy.
Helen Milner OBE, Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, was appointed by John Bercow to the House of Commons Speaker's Commission for Digital Democracy in 2013 based on her significant experience of engaging with people who are both digitally and socially excluded. As a Commissioner, Helen spoke to many people who did not participate in politics. There were people who had never voted, people who did not know what an MP did, and one person who did not know how to vote. It was when people were asked what they wanted from Parliament that they became interested.
Efforts need to be made to show the connection between individuals’ lives and politics. There is a lack of political education in schools which interactive digital tools could help to address. The education system - at all ages - must take a degree of responsibility in teaching people how they are represented, how Parliament works, how the decisions that politicians make impact their communities, as well as the basics of how to vote.
The House of Commons Speaker's Commission for Digital Democracy recommended that political education be embedded in the school curriculum. The Speaker wrote to the Secretary of State for Education to request she meet with Helen Milner to discuss the Commission’s recommendation, this request was ignored.
12. How could the Government better support the positive work of civil society organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes?
We’re aware that the House of Commons Speaker's Commission for Digital Democracy was over four years ago and much has changed in the digital and democractic space since then. However, there are some findings of that Commission that are relevant today. The Digital Democracy Commission’s final report, published in 2015, emphasized the importance of ensuring that digital technologies do not simply make it easier for those who are already politically engaged to have more of a say. The Commission recommended that ‘If Parliament is to avoid simply giving a louder voice to the politically engaged and tech-savvy, it must complement its digital engagement opportunities with strategies to reach out to groups who are less likely to engage.’
However, four years on, the Oxford Internet Institute’s 2019 report shows that the UK’s digital divide is widening. There is still a higher proportion of non-users below the median income (£28,400/year), whilst 40% of respondents in the lowest income category (less than £12,500/year) are digitally excluded. Without measures to engage these people, there is a risk that an increasingly digital democracy will further entrench existing political inequalities.
We welcome the fact that the Government has taken responsibility for digital inclusion. This includes the Department for Education’s role in constructing the Essential Digital Skills Framework, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Department for digital skills and digital inclusion, as well as working on media literacy to avoid Online Harms in partnership with the Home Office. However, whilst it is better that too many departments hold responsibility than too few, there is a danger of public servants working in silos resulting in duplicated efforts on one hand and important policy falling down the gaps on the other. It is important that departments work together towards a common goal.
In the Online Harms White Paper 2019, the Government rightly recommended the need for a new regulatory framework to ensure the safety of UK citizens online. It is noted that for adults, there are insufficient resources covering online media literacy, and there is a need for further work to address issues such as the sharing of disinformation, catfishing (i.e. luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona), attacks on women online, and the differing needs of people with disabilities when navigating information.
At Good Things Foundation, we know what a concern online safety can be for people who are digitally excluded. In the OxIS 2019 survey, 60% of those offline said they were worried about their identity being taken, whilst 58% cited data/privacy concerns. This acts as a barrier preventing people from engaging online, and therefore prevents people from engaging in the democratic process as services become increasingly digitised.
By giving people digital skills, and the confidence to continue learning and developing their skills, we can overcome these barriers. We’ve developed a number of internet safety courses on our Learn My Way platform, which helps people tackle online harms such as disinformation. And through the Online Centres Network, we are supporting hundreds of thousands of people each year to improve their basic digital skills, and to become digitally capable. Support for these organisations will be vital to ensuring the government can deliver on its work in the Online Harms White Paper, as well as to ensure everyone in the UK can engage with the democractic process.
13. How can elected representatives use technology to engage with democratic processes? What can Parliament and Government do to better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process?
Technology has the capacity to blur the boundary between the Westminster ‘bubble’ and communities in constituencies. The perceived disconnect between MPs and elected officials and the general public could be broken down by changing the Westminster-centric nature of the UK’s political system. A digital solution allowing MPs to debate with one another and to vote from their constituencies would mean that politicians could spend more time in the communities and with the people they represent.
There is good practice amongst MPs of the use of technology to, for the most part, broadcast their views and their news through regular email newsletters, websites, and social media. Matt Warman, for example, has published his views on a number of policies so these are easily accessible for constituents. Labour MP Darren Jones has a similar website with his views on policy areas easy to find, and he has his expenses and salary visible in a tab called “transparency”. This is good practice; technology in these ways make MPs more accountable and more visible. However, this is not enough.
What does real democractic engagement mean? It must mean interactivity, more two-way channels, but not just of communication but of debate that can change outcomes.
Parliament’s own e-petitions portal is a good example of a direct link between people’s desire to demand change and the work of Parliament. Through follow-up emails, those who have signed the e-petition are kept updated with the progress of the petition and any changes in policy. When an e-petition leads to action being taken by the Government, it represents a positive example of technology supporting democratic engagement.
For example, an e-petition concerning brain tumour research funding was started by Maria Lester in August 2015 to the mark the anniversary of the death of her brother, Stephen Realf. Stephen, an RAF officer, was diagnosed with a brain tumour at just 19 and died at the age of 26. The Petitions Committee launched its investigation after the Government's initial response to the petition failed to give it confidence that the Department for Health had grasped the seriousness of this issue.
In its response to the report, the Government said that it now accepted that action was needed to address the serious concerns expressed by the Committee and by people who signed the e-petition. The Government also admitted that not enough research was being carried out to reduce the significant disease burden caused by brain tumours. The Government then announced that it would be convening a working group of clinicians, charities and officials to discuss how to address the need for more brain tumour research.
However, this example shows the exception rather than the norm. All too often, e-petitions are signed by thousands - sometimes millions - of people only to be dismissed by the Government. Parliament and Government may benefit from a review of their stance on e-petitions, to view them as a legitimate channel for democratic engagement, and implement policy change accordingly.
14. What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?
Technology has allowed a degree of transparency which has huge potential to enhance our democracy. Websites such as theyworkforyou.com allow people to check the voting records of the politicians who represent them, and alerts can be set up to keep individuals updated when particular topics are discussed in Parliament. This in turn increases accountability and strengthens our democracy. However, it is not enough to simply have these tools in place.
In 2018, Good Things Foundation created Voicebox Cafés - a positive example of technology being used to promote inclusive political engagement. Voicebox Cafés was an innovative democracy project, running for 8 months and delivered through 34 community centres across England. The programme provided a safe space for women to understand, celebrate and participate in democracy and public life, using digital as an enabler. It aimed to engage women with low levels of educational attainment and women from BAME groups. Between May and the end of December 2018, the Online Centres engaged with 1283 young women aged 18-30.
The project resulted in a considerable increase in the number of young women who said that they understand democratic processes in the UK, rising from 27% to 92%. The proportion of women who said that they were likely to participate in democratic processes rose from 28% to 85%. Of 538 young women surveyed, 26% registered to vote as a result of the programme.
The impact of the Voicebox Cafés illustrates the success of a community and digital blended approach. It shows that for digital to be the democratising force it has the capacity to be, it is not only about expanding digital participation opportunities.
One example from Voicebox Cafés took two cousins - Niamh and Izzy, 18 and 21 - from passive learners to campaigners. Izzy says "When we first came along to the Voicebox Cafes we thought that we were just going to learn about people who had already done things, we didn't realise we'd be encouraged to do things ourselves.” They went onto develop a campaign to tackle period poverty in schools called #sobloodyovait that has raised money as well as awareness for this issue.
Digital only exists with people - and people need to be engaged. They need information, they need to be listened to, and they need dialogue between themselves and the people who are making decisions about the laws and rules that affect their lives. Politics needs to be made relevant, local and interactive. Local grassroots organisations need to be supported so that they can act as local intermediaries to help people to get online and facilitate engagement with the democratic process.
At Good Things Foundation, we strongly believe that digital can strengthen our democracy. Since 2010, we’ve helped nearly 3 million people improve their lives through digital. Our Online Centres Network of more than 5,000 hyperlocal community organisations helps us to reach the people most in danger of being left behind, and gives them a voice.
If digital exclusion persists then we will never have a fully inclusive democracy.
We would gladly offer our expertise and talk with the Commission.
 Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index (2019), p.4
 Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index (2019), p.19
 Ofcom Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2019, p.4
 Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index (2019), pp.4-24
 Helen Milner, 'Open Up! Digital Democracy Commission Report Launched' (2015)
 Digital Democracy Commission, Open Up! Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy (2015), p.31
 OxIS, Oxford Internet Survey (2019), pp.2-6
 DCMS, Online Harms White Paper (2019)
 Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index (2019), p.22
 Good Things Foundation, Voicebox Cafés: An Evaluation (2019), p.12
 Good Things Foundation, Voicebox Cafés: An Evaluation (2019), p.12