UK Parliament Education and Engagement Team – written evidence (DAD0083)

 

This evidence has been prepared by the UK Parliament Education and Engagement Teams and mainly focuses on the work of this team and the wider Participation Team it sits within and the departments across the UK Parliament that they regularly interact with. The Education and Engagement Team is a bicameral team designed to give the public voice, engage the public with the work of the UK Parliament, and shape UK Parliament in the interests of the public.

 

This response will answer the following questions from the terms of reference:

 

12. How could the Government better support the positive work of civil society organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes?

13. How can elected representatives use technology to engage with the public in local and national decision making?  What can UK Parliament and Government do to better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process?

14. What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?

3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?

 

1.      The UK Parliament works towards supporting the positive work of civil society organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes in several ways; including through the Petitions Committee[1], digital engagement through select committee work, the Digital Engagement Team, the Education Centre and UK Parliaments use of social media.

 

2.      The Petitions Committee invites and encourages the public to engage with it through digital means. For example, signing an online petition, participating in online surveys and forums, visiting the website, or tweeting the committee. Petitions are promoted organically via the general public and civil society organisations and can reach many people in a short amount of time. There is a recent example of the Petitions Committee blending online engagement and offline engagement through their inquiry into Fireworks.[2] The Committee created an online survey to gather people’s views. The online survey highlighted specific groups in society who were particularly impacted by fireworks informing who it would be valuable for the committee to hear from in face to face events to share their experiences further. For example, events were held for veterans and for people with health conditions and disabilities and the attendees were partly sourced from those that took part in the online engagement.  The signing of a petition can be a participant’s first engagement point with the UK Parliament and this should be utilised more to offer these participants further opportunity to engage, for example, signposting them to UK Parliamentary business such as making them aware of Select Committee inquiries they could contribute to linked to the petition they have signed.

 

3.      The Digital Engagement Team within Participation are a small team of 4 people but have had 182k engagements with their work between April and August 2019. The team run online activities such as digital debates, online discussion cards through the use of Facebook and external forums.[3] Digital discussions happen most weeks in preparation for Westminster Hall debates and take the form of comments under Facebook posts. Examples include those on authorised absence from schools, child food poverty, teaching LGBTQ+ acceptance in schools and several others. For sensitive topics, they have also enabled people to submit comments through a private platform.

 

4.      Digital debates happen live and are based around debates taking place in the chamber or Westminster Hall. The MP leading the debate leads the digital debate and lasts for an hour – these are done much less frequently then discussions as they’re more difficult to organise and work best when they’re focused on a topic which has gained a lot of attention. Two good recent examples are those on hedgerow netting and new build houses.

 

5.      The team have recently trialled the use of AMAs (Ask me anything’s) on the website Reddit; one with the Digital Engagement Team itself and one with Tonia Antoniazzi, Labour MP for Gower. It’s not something they plan to do more of, but it helps to engage the audience on Reddit who enjoy the different content to that which they are usually asked such as “Tell us your experience about xyz.”

 

6.      Select Committees currently use technology in a number of ways, for example they cultivate their own online communities through Twitter and can use the platform to quickly and easily communicate with their stakeholders, engaging them with their activities and helping with scrutiny. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee used Twitter to source video testimony from journalists around the world for their inquiry into press freedom[4] and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee used Twitter to ask for ideas for future inquiries, using the hashtag #MyScienceInquiry[5]. They were then invited in to pitch their ideas to the Committee in person. In 2013 the Commons Education Committee used the hashtag #AskGove to collect questions for the then Education Secretary, which were then asked in an evidence session.[6] The issue here is to reach beyond these communities that actively seek them out and engage with those that don’t follow them on social media but would be interested in their activities.

 

7.      Committees often create their own online forums or are hosted by a third-party provider to ask groups about a topic or question. Using third party forums. For example, The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee had launched an inquiry into the Child Maintenance Service and used Mumsnet to speak to parents about the service.[7] This allows committees to reach beyond their normal audiences. Using technology can be an effective way of engaging with targeted groups who may not otherwise feel able to take part. The issue with the current forum technology is that it has poor functionality so committees can be reluctant to use it as it doesn’t do what committees would like it to do. There are also issues around resources and moderating the formats; for example, some committees are worried that if they receive too much information, they won't have enough staff or resources to efficiently deal with the extra data.

 

8.      The Education Centre uses technology such as Zoom to connect the Speaker of the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords to school groups remotely, allowing them to speak to groups of young people that they couldn’t reach otherwise. For the academic year 2018-2019, 27 schools took part in the Ask the Speaker programme, reaching 1220 students. These sessions took place around the Speakers other duties.

 

9.      Outreach Officers, the Education Centre and the Select Committee Engagement Team have started using voting pods to poll people's views and thoughts on a wide variety of questions and inquiry topics, providing opportunity for the audiences that the Outreach and Education Centre teams are already delivering sessions to the chance to feed into UK Parliamentary business. The groups being reached using this technology tend to be young people and members of groups UK Parliament finds hard to reach. The use of the pods also allows a change of relationship between officers and the groups they poll; switching from broadcasting information about UK Parliament to actively participating in its work. Voting pods have been used to collect peoples views for a number of different inquires including those on fireworks[8] for the Petitions Committee and the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health.[9] Voting pods and polling are a quick, easy and fun way to engage with groups on a topic whilst raising their awareness about committees and inquiries.

 

10.  In the case of the social media and screen use inquiry, committee staff met with a visiting school to UK Parliament (the school were already booked in for a visit to UK Parliament’s Education Centre) and consulted directly with 25 students from year 9 and year 11. These connections were further utilised during this inquiry to trial two innovative methods of engagement. The Committee polled 942 young people (aged 8-16) from 31 different schools visiting the Education Centre at UK Parliament and those being visited by Education and Engagement Outreach Officers across the UK, were anonymously polled using hand held voting pods, where they picked responses to closed questions written by the engagement team and committee staff.  The results of the polling activity were included in the Committee’s final report (Fourteenth report of session 2017-19, HC 822) and helped to strengthen the recommendations.

 

11.  Online voting is the next step in using technology to enhance democratic participation. While there are lots of arguments for and against it, it seems striking that these have not been given the attention and scrutiny that they warrant in a UK Parliamentary setting. It should be the subject of a committee inquiry, so that the relevant issues can be thoroughly assessed by UK Parliamentarians. 

 

12.  We have mentioned above the use of technologies for institutions and elected representatives to connect with remote or rural groups, those that cannot make it to London or to face-to-face events organised in other regions by the UK Parliament. Using tools like zoom would engage remote communities, connecting them to the decision making centre and potentially reducing their isolation; it would allow voices that usually aren’t heard to speak directly to MPs, engage those voices in a positive way and reducing their alienation from the decision making process; and it would add value and improve the decision making process by adding new experiences, ideas and testimony that wouldn’t be heard otherwise.  Before proceeding with the use of this technology, such as Zoom, The Select Committee Engagement Team needs to understand the appetite within committees for using these tools to hear from the public in this way.

 

13.  The Participation team aims to ensure that as much information as possible is available to the public and, through the House of Commons Inquiry Service regularly provides information for the public to be able to understand the processes of UK Parliament and how they relate to current events, for example around the Brexit votes that have taken place in the chamber or prorogation. Some information is online[10] and other information is provided through social media[11] for example, when UK Parliament returned after prorogation was deemed unlawful, the UK Parliament tweeted a thread about what would happen next. A central digital engagement space could be created for people to engage with UK Parliament that includes an online digital toolkit to encourage citizen participation, a consultation platform where people can be reached, their contributions managed appropriately and effectively, and the data they supply used to help make or to inform decisions. It’s also important that this technology helps to close the feedback loop to ensure participants are informed of any decisions taken following their contribution. This platform should be accessible from many different platforms e.g. phones, desktop etc.

14.  The Digital Engagement Team contains team members who currently also work for / have worked for the House of Commons Enquiry Service, and from their experience one thing which would be very beneficial would be a central Government Enquiry Service. While technology provides opportunities to connect citizens with the government, we should not forget that new technologies are not universally accessible. The Government could be contactable by the public via all reasonable channels, with a central phoneline to redirect calls to specific departments where appropriate. 

 

15.  UK Parliament and elected representatives could use the current tools at their disposal, and new innovative tools and forums, to highlight and digitally scrutinise relevant legislation There are digital tools used by various national and local governments and UK Parliaments all over the world (best highlighted in this document created by NESTA[12]) to engage their citizens in scrutinising their laws and decision making. Using open, digital platforms targeted at those most likely to be affected by legislation could produce better, more effective and efficient legislation.

 

16.  The UK Parliament engages people best when its different teams collaborate, and technology can help drive that collaboration. the example of outreach teams and select committees use of voting pods to engage participants with inquiries is a good example of this, linking engagement work to the work of the House. Similarly using the institutions social media channels to inform people of what is happening in the chambers and behind the scenes. The UK Parliament should encourage this continued cooperation between the different teams that exist within UK Parliament; Particularly using the parts that are public facing to encourage people towards the work of the House.

17.  A positive example within the UK Parliament of technology being used to benefit democracy is the petition into funding for brain tumour research[13]. The Petitions system has been criticised for its failures to result in real change, even when petitions have gathered substantial support. This can be seen particularly with petitions relating to Brexit. However, the petition into funding for brain tumour research did result in a tangible change to government policy - the change it suggested was considered thoroughly and acted on relatively swiftly. It is inevitably impossible for all petitions to result in a change to government policy, but any changes, even small and infrequent ones, as a result of direct action like signing a petition show people that engaging with the system matters.  

 

18.  UK Parliament now needs to take the next step and move from using technology to ‘broadcast’ to and inform the public to embracing and embedding, the more interactive ways to engage the public that allow them to have direct engagement, with the potential to shape UK Parliamentary business.  The UK Parliament has launched things like the UK Parliament Explained podcast[14]. This podcast guides the listener through the inner workings of the UK Parliament – what UK Parliament is, how UK Parliament scrutinises the work of the Government, and how they can get involved. Committees have started working with academics to trial digital engagement methods, such as Discourse[15], to improve the conversations and feedback they are getting from forums. Elected representatives need to have adequate training in how to use i new technology

 

19.  Several examples also exist outside of UK Parliament. Estonia is often referred to as a digital democracy. Most government services are fully digitised and available online, and citizens can engage with democracy in a range of areas including online voting in elections.  

 

 

20.  The ‘Talk London’ platform[16] provides London residents with the opportunity to engage with policy proposals, directed both centrally from the Mayor’s Office and from residents themselves. This is something which would be valuable if rolled out in other cities too. It may work to inform whether / how a similar platform could ever exist for national issues.  

 

21.  Participatory Budgeting happens in a variety of cities around the world including those in Spain, Iceland, and some Latin American countries. There is a wealth of research showing how this can be done effectively in a way which prompts citizens to deepen their engagement with democracy.  

 

Education

22.  Young people are digital natives and will expect to engage with the UK Parliament through digital means. A key to engaging with young people will be through the educational process. The Education and Engagement Team engages young people and teaches them about UK Parliament and democracy in numerous ways, including the Education Centre, Outreach sessions in schools[17], teacher engagement through the Teachers Institute programme[18] and online through digital resources.

 

23.  The UK Parliament has been working with Future Learn[19], the social learning platform, to offer a variety of courses on the work and role of the UK Parliament. We have created a Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC, to help those that want to learn more about UK Parliament and in this particular example learn about select committees and how they scrutinise the work of government - UK Parliament Explored: the Work and Role of Select Committees.[20] People work through the course at their own speed, can communicate with other learners through a comments section and ask questions of moderators who can explain more, point towards further reading or give practical examples. Open to all, these free courses are valuable for teachers to undertake Continuous Personal Development but are also suitable for older students looking to enhance their understanding of the UK Parliament and Government.

 

24.  The UK Parliament website allows teachers to download a host of resources for teachers to use.[21] We offer a range of curriculum-based resources to support teaching about UK Parliament and democracy, informed by a development framework.[22] This framework places our key messages in the appropriate curricular context, maximising UK Parliament's educational value to teachers and learners.

 

Recommendations

1.      Connect the large numbers of people that use the Petitions Committee website to the other UK Parliamentary business they can get involved in.

2.      Use technology to help Select Committees reach beyond their core audiences by providing them with the confidence and resources to use innovative new technology and software.

3.      Take advantage of new tele communications software and better internet links and wireless technology to connect remote communities with the work of UK Parliament and to help explain decisions or issues and create real conversation. This means that engagement that traditionally would’ve happened face-to-face or ‘in person’ can now happen online allowing more people to be reached across the UK.

4.      Use technology, such as polling, to gather people’s views and experiences to allow people to invest more in the scrutiny process and use technology to ensure they receive feedback on their engagement.

5.      Make information accessible to all online through a better digital platform that is easy to use. This digital platform should give opportunity for participants to shape and directly participate in UK Parliamentary business.

6.      Increase cooperation between departments in the UK Parliament to better connect the offline work of UK Parliament with online engagement.

7.      Building on the use of online forums to gather experiences, trial and if successful invest in innovative online platforms to help scrutinize legislation.

8.      Encourage online learning and consultation in addition to classroom and face-to-face sessions.

9.      A central Government Enquiry Service, similar to that which UK Parliament runs.

 

 

 

 

8

 


[1] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/petitions-committee 

[2] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/inquiries/UK Parliament-2017/fireworks-inquiry-17-19/ 

[3] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/get-involved/have-your-say-on-laws/digital-debates/

[4] https://twitter.com/CommonsForeign/status/1169211408225046528 

[5] https://twitter.com/CommonsSTC/status/1065905720930037760

[6] https://twitter.com/CommonsEd/status/413275232670322688

[7] https://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/site_stuff/2703400-MNHQ-here-Tell-us-what-you-think-about-the-Child-Maintenance-Service 

[8] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/inquiries/UK Parliament-2017/fireworks-inquiry-17-19/

[9] https://publications.UK Parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmsctech/822/822.pdf

[10] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/offices/commons/hcio/about-our-service/

[11] https://twitter.com/UKUK Parliament/status/1176521596674158598

[12] https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/smarter-select-committees/ 

[13] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/inquiries/UK Parliament-2015/funding-for-research-into-brain-tumours/

[14] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/about/podcasts/UK Parliament-explained-podcast/ 

[15] https://UK Parliament.trydiscourse.com/t/welcome-to-uk-UK Parliament-discourse/7 

[16] https://www.london.gov.uk/talk-london/ 

[17] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/get-involved/attend-an-event/

[18] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/education/teacher-training-cpd-opportunities/

[19] https://www.futurelearn.com/

[20] https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/uk-UK Parliament-select-committees 

[21] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/education/

[22] https://www.UK Parliament.uk/education/teaching-resources-lesson-plans/