[L]ook in the mirror and ask “what kind of Parliament are we”? Are we one of the innovators taking on disengagement by the horns or are we one of those happy to gather dust?
To answer this question first you have to know what your own institution is doing, but you also have to know what your peers are up to.
This challenge to Canadian parliamentarians, issued by the former director of the Hansard Society’s eDemocracy Programme, invokes the potential of social media and of “Web 2.0” – that is, “a second generation of Internet communication technologies that provide interactive online environments. Web 2.0 technologies make it easy for users to contribute information to, and personalise, websites.”
Several legislatures have experimented with such technologies in the last 10 years, primarily as a means of communicating with their citizens, stimulating interest in their work, and possibly increasing voter turnout. More recently, some legislative committees – including, in Canada, the House of Commons Subcommittee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities – have used newer technologies to obtain responses from stakeholders. Individual parliamentarians and other legislators in Canada and elsewhere have developed their own websites, podcasts, blogs, microblogging accounts (often on Twitter), and even YouTube channels to communicate directly with their constituents. The introduction to this series describes these different forms of social media, and another publication in the series considers how these media are being used in the political arena. This paper focuses on innovative approaches that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is using to provide information, elicit feedback, and even allow respondents to communicate with one another.
It is noteworthy that both houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom, as is the case in the United States, Australia, and the European Parliament, have been grappling with challenges related to the application of new technologies to institutions that evolved when communications technologies were far more limited. Examples from the realm of committee work include the question of applying the principle of parliamentary immunity to testimony delivered electronically rather than in person before a committee, how electronic input is to be stored and maintained to be able to respond to access-to-information requests, and how the identity of witnesses can be confirmed through electronic means. Yet, similar challenges existed when legislative committees first permitted the use of video conferencing as a way to hear from witnesses, or allowed “walk-ons” in committee hearings conducted beyond the parliamentary base.
2 Applications of social media by the UK Parliament
Since 2005, after two reports had strongly recommended that it begin to promote its activities through information and communication technologies, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has extensively adopted the use of social media to increase public awareness of and interest in ongoing parliamentary events and activities, and to provide education about the institution itself. The following overview describes some of ways in which the United Kingdom’s Parliament, Prime Minister and parliamentary committees have adopted social media to foster greater public engagement with and understanding of parliamentary processes.
2.1 Public Outreach and Education
The UK Parliament uses social media to communicate its activities as they happen. For example, visitors to the House of Commons website will find links to a dedicated UK Parliament page on Twitter that provide announcements of parliamentary and committee reports being released and outreach experiments being undertaken. “Tweets” are posted with links to committee hearings; these take the visitor to the Hansard page that provides transcripts. Anyone wanting an up-to-the minute awareness of the activities of Parliament can register to “follow” tweets on their cell phones or other devices; at the time of writing, more than 17,000 people had done so.
The tweets posted through the professional social marketing facility HootSuite during a week in which Parliament was recessed were as follows:
- Parliamentary Outreach launch drop-in sessions for those wanting to learn more about Parliament.
- Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology publishes briefing on counterfeit medicines.
- Parliamentary Outreach workshops for groups and individuals in Shiremoor, Berwick, Middlesbrough and Newcastle next week.
- Transport Committee report sets out priorities for railway investment.
- An experimental version of the Digital Economy Bill has been developed to help explore ways of presenting Bills.
The UK Parliament has also made extensive use of podcasts to promote off-line efforts, provide information about the history of Parliament, and present major policy questions and issues being considered by Parliament and its committees. Some policy-related podcasts are prepared by researchers, while others include interviews with key parliamentarians. Visitors to the website can “subscribe” to updates of podcasts, using either iTunes or alternative mechanisms. When material is placed on “mainstream” social media sites, visitors have the opportunity to comment on what they are reading, seeing or listening to.
A combination of technologies is used in another outreach initiative of the UK Parliament, the game “MP for a Week.” Housed entirely on the Parliament website and targeted to young people, the game allows “players,” participating individually, to determine how they would spend their time during a week as a parliamentarian and to assess their progress in the context of their performance with constituents, the media and their own parties as they make decisions. The game was promoted with an explanatory video on YouTube that, as of the time of writing, had been viewed more than 6,500 times.
Another notable use of social media by the UK Parliament is podcasting from the official websites of the Office of the Prime Minister, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
2.2 The Prime Minister’s Office
Monthly statistics included with the news content of the PMO’s official website indicated that visits from almost one million unique users had resulted in more than three million page views in the months of January and February 2010, indicating broad interest in the site and its offerings. The Prime Minister’s podcasts include major policy announcements as well as audio recordings, often as much as 30 minutes long, from House of Commons question periods in which the Prime Minister or his designate responds to members’ questions. In addition, shorter podcasts, apparently recorded specifically for this purpose by the Prime Minister, are posted on a weekly basis. The official website of the PMO also provides links to video recordings on the Prime Minister’s own channel on YouTube, and photos on a dedicated page on the photo-sharing website Flickr.
In 2004, the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons reported with strong recommendations with respect to the use of technologies to solicit views on draft legislation. However, parliamentary committees in the House of Commons had begun experimenting with online consultation as a means of evidence-gathering as early as 1999, and began using social media in 2006.
At that time, the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons was holding hearings into the criminal justice system. It had a particular interest in hearing from young people; the Committee chair recorded a video (on a mobile phone) that was made available on the Committee’s website and on YouTube, inviting young people to submit their evidence to the Committee by means of text or video messages transmitted over the mobile phone system.
In the same year, the Commons Defence Select Committee ran an online forum as part of its study of education provision for children of military parents. Called “Educating Service Children,” it represented a departure from previous online discussions in that the Committee itself was responsible for designing and managing the forum, rather than relying on the independent Hansard Society (except for the evaluation of the project). The online forum reached people who had not previously been involved in such inquiries (90%) and had not contacted their member of parliament in the past (75%). Another important difference was the direct involvement of half of the Committee members in this forum.
The House of Lords’ Information Committee is mandated to “consider the House’s information and communication services, including the Library and Parliamentary Archives, within the strategic framework and financial limits approved by the House Committee.” In 2009, the Committee undertook a study of access to Parliament by the public, including a review of implementation of the Modernisation Committee’s report of 2004, and considered public outreach, media broadcasting and “online communication and engagement, including www.parliament.uk and channels such as social media sites.” The report also provided a snapshot of how Parliament had been using social media in the year before its publication:
Over the past year, Parliament has made considerable use of other social media tools, like Facebook (social networking), Flickr (photos) and Twitter (a cross between micro-blogging and social networking). The latest development is the new Yoosk Parliament website, where people can ask questions to a group of MPs and Lords.
It is also noteworthy that the Committee itself received testimony via YouTube comments on the Committee’s hearings and reports.
The report outlined what would be possible if its recommendations were implemented. Among other things, the public would be able to:
- watch House of Lords proceedings on YouTube;
- embed parliamentary proceedings on their own websites;
- watch video recordings of Lords proceedings while simultaneously reading Lords Hansard on the same screen;
- participate in online debates in parallel with debates in the Lords Chamber;
- analyze and reuse parliamentary data; and
- access a list showing the Lords’ areas of expertise and particular interest.
3 Moving forward: Parliament 2020
The United Kingdom is involved in Parliament 2020, “a multi-country visioning exercise undertaken to discover how new and emergent technologies are being or could be used to transform the processes of Parliament and, in particular, its relationship with the public.”
Drawing on focus groups with first-time voters, parliamentarians, and parliamentary officials, a report prepared for the Parliament 2020 initiative by the Hansard Society on the basis of input from focus groups in the United Kingdom contained more than 20 recommendations. These included engagement using new technologies and emphasized the importance of other forms of communication, including sending parliamentarians into schools, but pointed to the growing preference among parliamentarians to receive materials digitally.
Canada’s is one of four national parliaments that are partners in this effort; the Library of Parliament is responsible for this initiative within Canada.
* This paper is one in a series on social media prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service of the Library of Parliament. The other papers in the series are these: Michael Dewing, Social Media: 1. An Introduction, Publication no. 2010-03, 3 February 2010; Michael Dewing, Social Media: 2. Who Uses Them? Publication no. 2010-05, 3 February 2010; Alysia Davies, Social Media: 3. Privacy and the Facebook Example, Publication no. 2010-06, 8 February 2010; and Amanda Clarke, Social Media: 4. Political Uses and Implications for Representative Democracy, Publication no. 2010-10, 22 March 2010. [ Return to text ]
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]