Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



  The Hansard Society has set out to run a series of online discussions involving groups of citizens and legislators. The idea is to link citizens' discussion to key areas of parliamentary deliberation, such as select committee inquiries, legislative scrutiny committees and All-Party committees. This has called for much work in explaining the process to members of parliamentary committees and recruiting appropriate citizens to participate in the discussions. The first in the series of online discussions, held in October/November 1999, involved women scientists and engineers throughout the UK who contributed their expertise and experience to an inquiry being held by the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee. In March 2000 the All-Party Domestic Violence Committee will be taking evidence online from women victims of domestic violence. Forthcoming online discussions will link to new legislation on the conduct of referendums and leasehold reform. These discussions will be evaluated and recommendations for future practice in this area will be made. As an independent, non-partisan body, concerned to promote effective parliamentary democracy, the Hansard Society has taken upon itself the role of organising, moderating and evaluating this process of experimentation.

  To run an online discussion linked to Public Administration committee's inquiry into "Innovations in Citizens' Participation in Government." seemed to be an idea subject to benefit from an online concentrating on the theme of electronic democracy.

  A group of experts and enthusiasts were recruited by the Hansard Society to participate in an electronic conference discussing various aspects of e-democracy. The following specific questions were set at the outset of the discussion:

    —  How have electronic forms of communication been used so far by government to enhance citizen participation in shaping policy or the implementation of government programmes? How have they been used by non-government organisations?

    —  What are the practical or democratic limits on the use of electronic forms of communication for the discussion and debate of issues which are relevant to a whole community? To what extent is this likely to affect traditional forms of representative government?

    —  What are the prospects for further developments in electronic communication—including digital television—to be used to enhance citizen participation in government further:

  Seventy-five people were invited to participate in the discussion; all agreed to do so. Some were approached because their work was known to the Hansard Society's Parliament & Electronic Media programme, others made themselves known to us after hearing that the discussion was to take place.

  The participants came from the following occupational backgrounds:
Community networks: 24
Local/national government:17
IT industry:9

  55 were male and 20 were female.

  The online discussion began on 24 November and continued unitl 28 December (it was supposed to close on 24 December, but ran on a little longer.) Over the four weeks there were 313 messages contributed by39 people. Fifty-two per cent of participants contributed at least one message.

  The discussion was hosted on the Hansard Society's Democracy Forum web site: The side included a number of relevant background documents (which can still be accessed) and a password-protected discussion forum. The software used for this discussion enabled participants to follow it on the web or via email: all contributions to the web forum were automatically distributed by email to any participant wanting that and all contributions made via email were automatically placed in the web forum. This eliminated the long-standing conflict between the benefits of web-based and email-based discussions by allowing participants to use either or both. Contributions were not pre-moderated, partly because one could expect such a group to behave in a responsible fashion and also because all participants were registered so there was no scope for anonymous contributions. A moderator, appointed by the Hansard Society, performed the "chairing" role, attempting to steer the discussion along lines that would help to inform the select committee.


  The full text of all the discussion is archived at A detailed summary of the discussion is available separately. This summary is intended to draw out key points from the discussion that constitute useful evidence for the Public Administration select committee. The online discussion tended to range wider than the terms of the Public Administration inquiry and we have decided not to include here points of evidence arising from this broader content. Specifically, such content related to appropriate technologies for e-democracy projects and public policy issues concerning the delivery of government services. Both of these topics are of great importance in addressing broader questions concerning the new information and communication environment, but fall beyond the boundaries of a discussion about e-democracy.

  Web-based discusions are organised on the basis of "threads". These are headings for strands—or chapters, to use a literary analogy—of the unfolding discussion. Each contributor to the discussion either joins an existing thread to add further points or starts a new one by giving a discrete heading to their message. In this way the discussion is organised into subject areas. In this online discussion, where participants clearly had many issues to raise and the quality of contributions was very high, there were many threads (37 with two or more mesages) and these can serve as a chapter list for the discussion. The most significant threads (in terms of relevance and number of contributions) are listed below, organised thematically into three groups:

1.   Political Issues:

  Opening Government to Citizens

  Parliament v Government

  MPs' tools for email/knowledge management

  Transparency and accountability

  Legislation and e-democracy

2.   Social issues

  Social inclusion

  Charity use of internet

  Market research on internet usage



  Funding and ownership of community systems

  Key points for rural communities

  Political benefits of online communities

  Problems in getting communities together

3.   Evaluating Projects

  Evaluating initiatives

  Best practices from other countries

  Shaping the technology

  R&D for e-democracy

  Best practices for online discussion

  Key points for e-democracy

  Online deliberative democracy

  Digital TV.


  Two related themes were predominant in this strand of the discussion: the provision by government (mainly local authorities) of electronic information and communication channels; and ways of making representative bodies more accountable to citizens.

  Several local government web sites were noted for publishing public consultation papers on the internet. These included Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Hampshire, Poole, Brent, Newham and Lewisham. Sue Webb of Coventry and Warwickshire News Online reported that in a recent online consultation about the Coventry Community Development Plan copies of the plan were downloaded by users 600 times in the first week.

  Alex Bax, Convenor of the London Boroughs Information Network, considered that once a culture of government transactions develops it will be easier to draw citizens in to online local deliberation and decision-making. Roger Wilson, a government IT consultant, suggested that local authorities establish local TV channels that "would allow planning applications to be viewed and debated on TV; that this could feedback to the planning committee; that we could cover the committee meetings; and enable viewers to respond to questions raised by councillors—even to the point of taking a poll." Julie Zielstra, of the London Voluntary Service Council, reported on LVSC's plan to create "a sophisticated ICT system (Action Link London) that will be based on the web and will be able to support consultation, discussion and referenda." It is proposed that this will serve as a communication portal linking voluntary sector organisations with the new London Civic Forum, GLA and Mayor's Office.

  Dan Jellinek, a Guardian journalist and editor of the Internet Intelligence Bulletin ( reported on his project to evaluate local council web sites. His initial findings were that

    (i)  There is an unacceptable variation in the quality of local government web sites. Some have no site at all still; others have little more than a few brochures and a telephone directory online, still more have a small corner of a commercial site which is often insufficient and inappropriate. Some strong direction is urgently needed from central government to ensure all public service bodies offer web services of a minimum quality, and that are fully accessible;

    (ii)  Only a very few pioneers are actually building in a good degree of interactivity to their services, like services where you enter your postcode and can find out your nearest recycling point for example. But in future all information will have to be interactive and customisable in this way, and again it is vital that councils are at the very least made strongly aware of the importance of this;

    (iii)  The Holy Grail is for actual "transactional" sites—which offer real services online without recourse to other media, for example online payment of council tax by credit card, renewal of a library book online via an online catalogue; reporting a street light fault online, and so on. There are still security issues here and so the need is not quite so urgent, but in the next year or two all councils must work towards online services of real value;

    (iv)  Public service sites must have a user focus, not a corporate focus. It is astonishing how many councils obscure the contents (sometimes quite useful) of their web sites by hiding them beneath index structures which correspond to council departments—so for example you have to gues that council tax comes under the Corporate Support Department, or dustbin collection under Environmental Services. Sites must arrange information instead by topic, type of user or even "life episode" such as getting married or visiting the doctor;

    (v)  Public bodies usually do not make good enough use of external linkage in their web sites. It is an essential part of providing a good online public service in an area to research thoroughly what other online resources exist, including public bodies, voluntary or charitable sites and sites put up by local individuals or companies—and link to them. A link to their home page is generally not good enough either—links should go straight to the relevant page.

  Dr David Newman of Queen's University, Belfast argued that there are three stages to a government strategy of becoming more open to citizens:

    (i)  Providing government information to citizens online. This is already being done reasonably well by, and others, although few really set about designing the information delivery to match citizen needs rather than government structure (except Portugal and Victoria);

    (ii)  Interactive service delivery, where much could be learnt from private sector experience in electronic commerce. I have in front of me a copy of the report by Simsion Bowles and Associates for the Department of Premier and Cabinet (of the state government of Victoria), "Online service delivery: Lessons of experience". They went around interviewing people who had attempted to deliver services online, finding out what were the key things they wish they had known when they started. Also, beware of commonly accepted ideas of what can best be done face-to-face and online. There are counter examples (eg on-line disease support groups) and some research with surprising results. Some of my own work found more critical thinking in computer conferencing than in face-to-face seminars;

    (iii)  Facilitating public participation in policy-making and decision implementation. This is what a number of governments are struggling with now. The great advantage of computer-mediated communications is that they allow rapid feedback from citizens, far quicker than you get from setting up a focus group: yet still allowing dialogue to clarify the meanings of the messages. Those TV producers who dared invite online discussions of their programmes were initially shocked by the number and nature of the comments they got, but later came to appreciate the sheer inventiveness of the public, and used their suggestions to improve their programme (eg Illuminations, who produce The Net). Public service can benefit in the same way, if different levels of government focus on enabling and supporting rapid feedback and ideas generation. My advice: concentrate on benefiting from the strengths of electronic consultation at this early, experimental, stage, rather than worrying too much about the weaknesses.

  Steven Clift, who founded the Minnesota E-Democracy project, widely regarded as a beacon of best practice, suggested that the main value of e-democracy is not in the executive (government delivery) wing of governance, but the legislative wing where links between legislators and the citizens they represent can be strengthened: "What legislatures, parliaments, councils, advisory commissions, etc do to use the Internet as an official input into their deliberative processes is an area we need to develop with gusto and vision. This is not replacing in-person or traditional activities, but about complementing and opening up processes to overcome time-specific and geographic barriers."

  Several contributors considered best practices for representatives who use new information and communication technologies (ICTs.) Victor Perton, an Australian MP and Shadow Minister of Multimedia in Victoria, pointed to his use of automated email sorting. In relation to email overload, tools such as Lotus Notes were recommended, as used by the Irish Government. A Swedish contributor reported that some MPs in Sweden receive up to 300 emails per day. Andrew Hobbs, of the Post Office, expressed an interest in the problem of email overload and pointed out that "the best companies now use automated email reply services based on content analysis of messages received." Hobbs sees a potential role for the Post Office "in helping to facilitate citizen access to MPs, local councillors and ombudsmen as an impartial and trusted channel to government." Steven Clift from Minnesota raised a number of imaginative proposals for research on this subject (see link to

  Contributors did not tend to see ICTs as utopian or technocratic quick-fixes for political democracy. There was a prevalent recognition that political benefits would only occur online if they were rooted in a healthy democratic culture in the "real" world. Lee Jasper, of Operation Black Vote, argued that "E-democracy, if it simply mirrors existing "democratic" activity, will simply reflect the deep alienation from the political process experienced by many communities." Bill Thompson, a veteran UK net-activist, who helped to run the virtual think tank Nexus, argued that "we can't just transplant the existing failing democratic process on to the internet, stick an e on the front and expect the world to be a better place. Those institutions that attempt to do this will find that the people expect something different."

  Only one contributor attempted to scrutinise the concept of e-democracy: Brian Loader, of the Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit (CIRA) at the University of Teeside, urged the discussion participants to recognise the conflicting agendas of different players in the political process: "For example, many politicians have no interest in giving a voice to some or all of the demos. Their interpretation of the new technology will be how it can be used to filter and enable them to set their agendas. How they can gain advantage from it and what threats it poses. In a different case communities and individuals will attempt to shape the technologies to try and wrest power from traditional institutions. Again, the commercial sector has an interest in shaping technologies which are most profitable regardless of how it affects democracy . . . There is nothing new in (this) interpretation of democratic politics and the interaction between these parties will produce a negotiated outcome. Why then does our understanding of democratic politics fail to make much of an impact upon the discussion of e-democracy which is often presented in a political vacuum?" This was followed up by a series of questions put by the moderator, intended to link the political assessment of e-democracy projects to more traditional questions of democratic theory, but these were not taken up by participants. In general, there was an implicit belief running through the discussion that ICTs could increase citizen-participation and that this in itself would enhance democracy.


  There is a widespread assumption that access to ICTs will continue to expand to the point of near-universality. At the moment access is far from being universal and several contributors addressed this problem.

  Andrew Collinge of MORI presented evidence on citizens' access to ICTs from MORI's October 1999 survey: 26 per cent have internet access, with 18 per cent having access in their own homes; 37 per cent own a mobile phone; 8 per cent have access to interactive digital TVs in their homes. Data from the People's Panel shows the telephone as being the most popular means of transacting with government (72 per cent), ahead of the PC (35 per cent) and interactive TV (16 per cent). Andrew Collinge thinks that "digital interactive television will offer the greatest opportunity over the next few years for the provision of government services" and observes that, unlike internet users, DTV users tend not to come mainly from the middle class. Peter Thompson of Wolverhampton Council referred to research conducted by the University of Central England in the seven metropolitan districts of the West Midlands. They found that many citizens have negative perceptions of councils and their quality of service; they believe ICTs can deliver better service, and are generally willing and able to use it, although some still need help in terms of access and training; those who have actually used ICT facilities such as council web sites are often disappointed with what they find; councils need to take this issue more seriously and make the changes necessary to deliver better service through ICTs. Although this research was mainly about service delivery rather than citizen involvement, "one of the main criticisms was that Councils don't listen to their citizens."

  Sonia Liff, of Warwick University, who has been carrying out ESRC-funded research into community access points to ICTs, suggested that "Providing access is much more than having equipment available for people to use. It is about motivating people to want to get involved, making them feel comfortable about doing so, helping them get started and learn more, and encouraging communication and participation to shape the information society." Julie Zielstra gave an interesting example of an East London youth project connecting young people to local councillors and other officials which failed because it was not funded for long enough to win the trust of the young people. Irving Rappaport, the founder of UK Citizens Online Democracy, outlined the following reasons for people not participating in online discussions:

    1.  Lack of time (by far the most common reason);

    2.  Technical difficulties;

    3.  Lack of computer or internet access while away from their office or home;

    4.  Forgetfulness—because online discussion . . . was too new to feature as part of their normal daily routine;

    5.  Lack of confidence with email and/or web discussion;

    6.  Reluctance to state their views in an open forum.

  Some contributors discussed specific cases of social exclusion. Marion Scott of Women Connect emphasised the specific needs of women and urged policy-makers to "accept that women and specific sub-groups of women (including young women, rural women, older women, lesbians, disabled women, black and minority ethnic women, migrants, refugees, single mothers) have particular or multiple, interrelating needs and most certainly still experience disadvantage, discrimination or social exclusion." Lee Jaspers of Operation Black Vote stated that for e-democracy to have any meaning projects would need to be built within existing communities as a means of empowering them. Emma Aldridge of Age Concern outlined specific problems of access to ICTs facing older people, including the cost of equipment and training to get the best out of new technologies and poor design creating difficulties relating to physical operation. She proposed "More public access points . . . targeted at older people . . . via community/day care centres/GP surgeries/social housing associations/schools, colleges etc. Phil Grierson, who runs the web site for the Young People's Parliament (, provided information about a range of online discussions being run for young people. He stated that "Our initial experiences suggest that the new communications technologies offer stimulating new ways of engaging, and re-engaging, a wide range of young people who, for all sorts of reasons, are excluded from mainstream consultation and participation opportunities."


  There was a general recognition that e-democracy projects are still in an experimental phase. The technology is likely to change, with TV and other applications supplementing or possibly replacing the PC as the principal medium of interactivity. Best practices still need to be established. Lessons can be learned from other parts of the world. A prevalent mood of learning and evolving was characteristic of the discussion.

  Most contributors expressed the view that developing public participation via ICTs was primarily a problem of political culture rather than technology. Indeed, the technologists were eager to conduct research into ways of making it easier to facilitate open discussion. Andrew Mitchell of BT urged participants to "Come up with what needs to be done and the technology will be there to do it."

  Several examples from around the world of successful e-democracy experiments were discussed. Michael Gurstein, director of the Centre for Community Informatics at the Technical University of British Columbia, cited the Campaign for Local Democracy (C4LD) in Toronto, Canada and Jesse Ventura's online campaign in Minnesota. David Newman cited the Minnesota e-democracy project ( and the Rete Civiche Bologna project. John Gotze, of the Swedish Agency for Administrative Development, reported on several local Swedish e-democracy projects and, at a national level, the (Swedish) Commission on Democracy in the 21st Century which has published much material on e-democracy.

  Dan Jellinek observed that "As more people come online, it has perhaps already become impractical to have any kind of meaningful open national debate: hence debates such as this one pick a few people to debate in a password-controlled area." The need for effective discussion mediation was raised by several contributors as a way of ensuring that public debate could be ordered and meaningful. Alastair McIntyre, who runs the Electronic Scotland and Falkirk Today web sites ( and regarded BBC Online's discussion forum rules ( as an example of best practice.

  Professor James Fishkin of the University of Texas, Austin offered an account of the 16 deliberative polls that he has pioneered, thus far in collaboration with traditional media. He was interested in setting up an online deliberative poll which "could offer a supplement to other consultations online a) because we could know it was representative (and not captured by some intense group or other) and b) because it would represent the public's informed or considered judgements (not top of the head judgements or even phantom opinions.) For these reasons it would be a public voice worth listening to and worth adding to the dialogue for use by members of Parliament on specific issues (particularly those issues where the public has not been well-informed.)" Fishkin is of the view that the problem of democratic access to interactive technologies will soon be overcome and that "it is worth laying the groundwork now for pilot versions that would demonstrate the viability of future versions of online democracy." Fishkin's proposal was supplemented by useful comments from other contributors and the Hansard Society now plans to run an online deliberative poll.


  The object of this online discussion was for a group of people with expertise in the field of e-democracy to deliberate extensively over a one month period with a view to learning from one another and informing the thinking of a parliamentary select committee. The success of the exercise can be determined by the extent to which it met this object.

  Before the online discussion commenced several assumptions were made:

    —  An online discussion would enable a broader group of experts to be brought together than would be the case for most select committee inquiries;

    —  The discussion participants would set their own agenda on the basis of knowledge and experience;

    —  The discussion participants would be able to offer evidence based directly upon personal experience.

  Other assumptions of a more critical nature, that could have been made at the outset, but were not, include:

    —  The participants would be more interested in giving their opinions than listening to or learning from others;

    —  Much of the discussion would be devoted to implicit or explicit lobbying of parliamentarians;

    —  A few dedicated individuals would dominate the discussion.

  How valid were any of these assumptions?

  It is clearly the case that the range of sources of evidence in this online discussion was broader than is usually the case when select committees receive evidence from live witnesses. (It is true that contributors to this online discussion were not technically giving evidence, but their role was similar to witnesses.) The most obvious reason for this was the capacity of the internet to include participants from any part of the world at no extra cost. In this discussion there were key contributions from Canada, the USA, Australia and Sweden. There were also participants from France and Finland. The cost of bringing these contributors to London would have been prohibitive and could be seen as wasteful if it were only for a short session with a parliamentary committee. In this case participants had a month to deliberate, giving them time to think about the subject, what others had to say and what they themselves wanted to say. The participants came from a wide range of occupational and social backgrounds and almost a third had experience of working in online community networks at the grass-roots level.

  Participants did set their own agenda to a great extent. A large part of the moderator's job was to steer the discussion along the lines of the agenda agreed with the committee. Most of the issues on this agenda were addressed by contributors to the discussion. But there was clear evidence that participants were reading one another's contributions and responding to them. On average, each message submitted was read 44 times. Forty-six per cent of messages contained an explicit response to a previous contribution and 24 per cent referred to previous contributions without responding to them. This suggests that participants were setting a collective agenda and engaging in genuine exchanges rather than mere speech-making. So, the assumption that participants would be more interested in giving their views than listening to others lacks evidence.

  Participants did not seem particularly interested in lobbying parliamentarians. Although they knew that their discussion was linked to a parliamentary inquiry, they seemed to be more interested in talking to one another than addressing MPs. Only 22 per cent of messages contained any policy proposals and of these 3.6 per cent were aimed at a community level and 3.95 at local authorities—only 4.3 per cent were specifically aimed at national Government or Parliament.

  The assumption that a few contributors would dominate the discussion was more true than we would have believed at the outset. One hundred and ten out of the 313 contributions came from just three people. Although this constitutes almost one-third of all messages posted, the average number of messages submitted by each contributor was 7.2 and the average number from all participants was 3.7. In most meetings of 75 people it would be rare for over half to have their say in the course of the discussion. The one-month duration of the discussion allowed time for people to offer considered contributions and to supplement these with further thought or evidence where necessary.

  Participants were able to draw upon empirical evidence and personal experience: 16 per cent of contributions included reference to the former and 27 per cent to the latter. The internet is famous for not respecting borders and this was true of this discussion: 12 per cent of messages included links to other web sites, provided to offer broader evidence for a point of view than could have been fitted into one contribution.

  These results suggest that this was in many ways a model of successful online discussion. There was a high rate of participation from an interesting range of people who were clearly listening to and learning from one another while attempting to inform the Public Administration Select Committee. Of course, the participant group was in no sense typical, in that most were very familiar with both the technology and form of electronic discussions. Nonetheless, we anticipate that interactive communication technologies will become generally accessible and that skills of online public discussion may develop as part of education for engaged citizenship.

(Dr) Stephen Coleman
Director, Hansard Society Electronic Democracy Programme

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