Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. The very simple reason was lack of time. I was never able to do it because every time I wanted to do it I did not have the password with me or I simply had other priorities. Is that not one of the problems with the online discussion that the timing of such an event is critical to the validity of the results?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes. Undoubtedly so. There is a problem that if we are going to link these to parliamentary business there are not unreasonable expectations but fairly high expectations on the part of people taking part that there will be some real communication taking place. One of the things we plotted when we coded the responses was that earlier messages spoke much more directly to the Public Administration Committee. A number of the earlier people writing in said "We think you should do this", even in terms of syntax, they were clearly speaking to you. By the end they were speaking to each other. It is quite reasonable that they were speaking to each other. That will change when and if there is a greater opportunity for representatives to take part in this. It is very understandable that there will be constraints to stopping you from taking part.
  (Dr Bratt) Could I just say that I expect you are a fairly atypical user with the demands on your time. The typical pattern for discussion groups is they are slow to set off at the beginning and you have Stephen and people like Stephen as moderator but if and when they do take off the problem is stopping people contributing, not getting them to contribute. The typical pattern is a massive over contribution once it takes off.

  221. One of the things I am interested in is the difference between open discussions and closed discussions. My local paper Milton Keynes Citizen runs a forum and the leader of the council and I regularly read and respond on a number of occasions to the different themes that run through. It keeps me on my toes. Just recently they had a case where the web master was deleting a whole section because of libel issues. Have you considered that in terms of relationships and how people with a particular point of view, trying to get a point across, run into other aspects of the law?
  (Dr Bratt) The whole legal question surrounding things like libel in these discussion groups is a very, very hot topic at the moment. It would seem that if I am the web master I am responsible for trying to make sure that does not happen. Yes, there would be a need to monitor open discussion groups regularly.

  222. Should web masters be regulated?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.
  (Dr Bratt) Yes, I would have thought so although you are asking me, I have not thought about that in great detail. There is a great responsibility and a great power there so clearly attention needs to be given to that.
  (Dr Coleman) In the United States they are now beginning to produce training for people who are moderating public discussions and there are training courses for them. It is very important that this should happen.

  223. Take TV coverage for politics, there has to be a balance, there does not necessarily have to be in the newspapers.
  (Dr Bratt) Yes.

  224. The internet should probably be like the television media rather than the newspaper?
  (Dr Coleman) No, to follow the phone ins, on the phone ins, there does not have to be a balance, there has to be a reflection. There tends to be a reflection of the state of views which exist actually. In an online discussion, what one would want to avoid is a discussion being hijacked by a group setting out to hijack it. Online discussions should reflect the real politics in which there are majorities and minorities. There are views that can be stated more eloquently and views that are manifestly unwise and there are also views and attitudes that are illegal and all of that has to be embraced by the online discussion as offline. There should be a degree of balance in the sense that one wants every discussion to be as representative as possible. One also has to recognise that even representative discussions are by their nature, if they are democratic, not going to be finely balanced.

  225. One of the things that interested me, why did you concentrate on the internet as the way forward? You mentioned digital TV but third generation mobile phones are going to transform the way people access. You only have to look at what is happening in Finland at the moment where the majority of people actually use mobile phones rather than land phones and in place of televisions in some cases.
  (Dr Bratt) Absolutely. We use the technology that is currently available because we had to do this at a certain time in conjunction with your work but it is very much our policy that we will continue to develop as the technology develops. Just to give you some idea of what that means, I run an independent multi-media production company as well, one quarter of my time is taken up, not in production, not in meeting clients but keeping up with the new technology and how we are going to use it. The technology changes all the time and it is my job in relation to the Hansard Society to say how it is changing and how it can be used. It does not matter what the technology is, it is how it makes a difference to whatever communication process we are involved in.

  226. As politicians we just catch up with the internet and you are way ahead of us again.
  (Dr Bratt) I afraid it is moving forward hugely. I cannot kid you any other way, I would not want to. While this protocol is about to happen and all of the other things are about to happen it is moving forward hugely. Yesterday's announcement of the AOL and Time Warner merger shows you that a traditional media company is turning to the internet. The rate of change of technology is enormous and will continue, yes I am afraid so.

  227. I do about a quarter of my casework by e-mail at the moment and the other main use of my time is research. One of the things that concerns me—it happened in Sweden, in the US and in Australia and it is starting to happen to MPs who use e-mail a lot—is if you get general e-mails from all around the country how do you go about dealing with that? If you get a piece of paper from somebody who is not in your constituency you can throw it in the wastepaper basket. It is easy enough to delete but are there sufficient tools to monitor that?
  (Dr Bratt) The discussion did throw up some issues on that, which Stephen mentioned. It is not quite why we are here today but I am very happy to answer that. It is quite a big issue and I think it probably needs more time than available today. In principle I would answer that in two ways, just like you throw a piece of paper in the bin you can throw an electronic e-mail in the bin, it is probably arguably easier to do and quicker. I think once you are used to e-mail it is easier and faster to read than conventional mail. As Stephen mentioned, and I am not in a position to give you a lot of facts today, there are e-mail sorting pieces of software coming on to the market—they have been round for a bit but the current ones are much more efficient. I am talking `beta test' at the moment which is not released at the moment and that will give you some chance to sort. However, in the end you will still have more mail than you particularly want or desire or is outside your constituency and there will be some human sorting as part of that. Nothing will take some human sorting away but there are some tools to take the worst away for you.
  (Dr Coleman) If I can add one quick supplement to that point. As people find themselves involved more and more in the government services being delivered online they will find themselves having passwords. They have discrete symbols that indicate which ward they live in, which community they live in and that will be very useful in identifying them when they write to an MP or a local councillor because it will enable them to use those discrete passwords or convey that discrete information to you straightaway. If somebody does not come from your area then it would be very clear that they would not have that information.
  (Dr Bratt) May I give you a very quick anecdotal example for 30 seconds? I spoke to somebody about two months ago who said they wanted to e-mail their MP but that MP was not e-mail enabled so they picked the nearest name alphabetically to send it to! Perhaps as more of you become e-mail aware and e-mail friendly, it will reduce slightly.

  228. Can I ask two questions about campaigning? The most successful use of campaigning electronically has to be the disruption of the WTO talks last November in Seattle, which was primarily organised online. Are we seeing different ways of campaigning rather than the traditional way of lobbying a representative?
  (Dr Coleman) It is much more inertia campaigning because a lot of the people who join these campaigns say, "We are interested in this", they are, perhaps, emotionally committed for the moment or whatever, although insufficient research has been done about this. What we do know is that they can then say, "We want to be updated when something is happening". If you are a campaign organisation, that is an ideal relationship to have with a member. You can send them an e-mail at any time when something is being organised. You can also do that in a fairly discreet fashion. From both of those points of view it enables campaign organisers to move fairly quickly in mobilising groups of people to take particular courses of action. Secondly, it enables them to do it in a way that is relatively self-contained and does not give a lot of publicity to projected actions.
  (Dr Bratt) The internet and all of the things surrounding it is an entirely new medium and will be used in new and different ways. It is not a translation of the conventional way of doing things. That applies to absolutely anything and equally it applies to campaigning. Also a slightly different story, when I was preparing this we were looking at a number of sites to show you and we considered looking at the Countryside Alliance site who, for obvious reasons, are using it. You may be interested to know if you type in "" you will get the Countryside Alliance site but if you type in "" without the hyphen you get one of the anti-hunting group sites who hijacked it and registered the name. The medium is different and can be used in very interesting new ways.

  229. Quite right too. When looking at the presidential elections in the US is there a difference between the presidential election, where everybody knows who the candidates are, and the state and the local elections that happen on the same day? Is there a correlation between the medium profile/high profile ones and the more local and less high profile ones?
  (Dr Coleman) I do not really know the answer to that. Certainly the evidence as we have seen from some of the sites in the United States is that some people who have come from relative political obscurity have built a reputation for themselves online. Certainly in Minnesota, with e-politics, which I have studied, that seems to be the case. With the presidential sites the main use of campaign web sites has been to solicit donations. The Federal Election Commission is currently running an online consultation on the subject of campaign finance through the internet which is a separate but related issue. I suspect these things are going to have more effect in relation to local campaigning than they are in relation to presidential campaigning, which is bound to be based much more on the traditional medium.


  230. Can I ask one question about the exercise that you engaged in? At least when you have a discussion you have a topic for discussion, you discuss the topic and you then decide what you have learned from it. What I am not yet clear about is what were these people talking about? What conclusions did they come to? Did you give them a specific task to talk about and is it possible to talk coherently about what the conclusions might be?
  (Dr Coleman) I hope it is possible to talk coherently about the conclusions because that is what I thought I did. The conclusions were a contribution to the formation of what they saw as an agenda for discussion. We presented them with an agenda to get started and we put the agenda into the report we have given to you. They stuck to that agenda, to a great extent, although they expanded on it and they brought their own experiences to it. At the end of it they said, "We think the Public Administration Committee should be thinking about these matters". We had one thread, which is, "What should the Public Administration Committee learn from all of this?" Perhaps one of things we should do is print all of that out and let you have a copy. It is much more difficult to go on from there and say, "Can you arrive at a consensus or a general point of view?" There are two views about how you use this kind of medium. One of them is you use it as a consensus building device, and that is certainly not what I am in favour of. I think we should replicate real politics to a greater extent. We should enable differences to be explored, the agenda to be fleshed out, experiences to be shared so that at the end you have, if not a consensus, a greater sense of where different people are coming from and what sort of things they want. There were some different points of view in the discussion which were conflicting points of view. If we compared this with a meeting called to discuss electronic democracy I suspect there would be more of a consensus about the policy and the important issues for the future at the end of this than there would have been at the end of, say, a two or three hour meeting.

  231. I had not seen your paper until this morning, I had not had a chance to read it properly, I am grateful to you for it. The thing we are after all the time is what is the pay off? Question. I can understand much of the useful information sources, I can quite see that here is an explosion of information sources which people have access to, they did not have to before. Questions about reliability and so on I understand too but nevertheless it is there. In terms of affecting the political process as opposed to—I was going to say—self-indulgent, I do not mean self-indulgence but I mean people liking the process rather than being concerned with the product. What I have not yet been able to quite get hold of is where is the pay off? Where is the product in this in terms of how do people process this? Apart from examples like Brian's example of the campaigning groups who were able to be stirred up through online sources to disrupt the World Trade Organisation talks. I can see that but more generally, can you take us through some of it?
  (Dr Coleman) I think there are three types of pay off. I think there is the pay off in terms of institutions. If they are seen in a very real sense to be more accountable - obviously they are only seen to be more accountable if they are actually more accountable - but nonetheless I think that institutions like parliament which want to seem accountable are going to be much more accountable using this sort of method rather than anything else. Secondly—

  232. Just pause for a second. We all nod our heads, that sounds all very splendid, but what does it mean?
  (Dr Coleman) I think what it means is that one of the things that those of us who have been spending a lot of time, I know you have in fact, looking at public perceptions of Parliament, find that there is a common belief that you cannot get it at it. It is aloof, it is out there. I think that this sort of connection giving the opportunity to take a particular piece of legislation as it is being made and at least have some sort of an informed discussion which links in with other people who are having informed discussions means that you are broadening the traditional connection, the connection between lobby groups, or the connection between civil servants and those deliberations and broadening it into a wider section of the public. That is something you will have to resolve because first of all you do not get all of the public doing that, as you will not get all of the public doing anything political, but you will at least make that opportunity available, you will make that part of this changing perception.

  233. I understand that and that is very positive. More informed discussion, more extensive discussion about things that Parliament might be doing but where is the pay off in that?
  (Dr Coleman) The pay off for parliament or the pay off for the participants, for the citizens?

  234. We have got to the point of more discussion, more people are tapping in, they are looking at legislation, they are having exchanges of views but then what happens?
  (Dr Coleman) It depends on how you define discussion. Discussion is expertise, knowledge and experience being organised in such a way as to try and have a political effect. Nobody I suspect takes part in anything that is called a political discussion if they do not think there is some sort of a direct or indirect pay off for them. What they think they are doing is having an influence. They think they are having an influence upon politicians, the people who vote for politicians or upon the media, they think they are entering into a space which is different from just going down to the local pub and saying to somebody "I think this is terrible". In that sense there is a feeling on the part of people participating in this discussion, for example, that something at some stage might shift. In this particular case there is no doubt that one of the reasons that this was a much more legitimate discussion than some of the others I have seen run on the internet have been was because it was connected with a parliamentary committee. That is one of the reasons why when people heard about it they were writing to the Hansard Society and saying "We want to be involved in this". You may say, and I think in candour one would have to say, that it was not that much connected to a parliamentary committee but it was more so than any had been before. This Committee is in fact the first one in the history of the House of Commons that has seen something which is rather like evidence, one cannot necessarily call it evidence because of all sorts of things to do with privilege, but something rather like evidence from people whom you did not choose to ask for evidence, in a way that did arrive and arrived in a fairly organised fashion. Now one of the ways that the process needs to be improved is the means of collecting that evidence and organising that evidence at the end of the process needs to be sharper. In fairness this was a discussion about a very amorphous sort of subject and when you are discussing say the Data Protection Bill or when we are about to discuss Domestic Violence we will get much clearer, much sharper policy recommendations. On e-democracy, on some of the recommendations that people had to make that I have mentioned, most of them were genuinely rather more about spotting future patterns and wanting to inform you of what they saw those patterns as being. That is the pay off institutionally for parliament or councils or whoever and the pay off for participants. The other one, in terms of deliberation, is about good citizenship. I wrote the appendix to the Crick Report on Education for Citizenship, on the use of information technology, and one of the problems that we have is that we are training young people or educating young people to be engaged citizens but we do not actually have enough avenues for them to use in order to be engaged citizens. We are telling them these are all the different things you can do but the connections are not there or they are not seen to be there. Opening up some interesting and rather exciting new connections is one of the things that may well make that engaged citizenship better and make people want to deliberate more. Thirdly, I think that there is a pay off in terms of legitimacy. I think that all of these things ultimately lead to a sense of ownership. I know that is a very trendy and overused term but it does lead to a sense of ownership of the parliamentary process. I think that if one has for example in most select committee inquiries an opportunity for people to give evidence online then a sense of ownership of those inquiries by the public would be much greater than they are going to be when people feel that this is all something going on in the system.

Mr White

  235. What is to stop that happening?
  (Dr Coleman) They cannot send evidence to parliamentary committees. At the moment what they have to do is to write to the committee.

  236. You can e-mail them.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes. I am not saying they cannot do it, what I am saying is there is not the availability for discussion to surround that process. At the moment one sends something in.

Mr Browne

  237. I think it is instructive that we are discussing this and you are reporting to us in a room that we could not put a telephone line in.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.

  238. This online discussion that you conducted on our behalf, we were disconnected from by the infrastructure that we have to work within. I am sitting here listening to all of this. I endeavour to use as much e-mail and electronic communication as I can but that is to the extent that the infrastructure that I operate in from here allows me to and that the finances that I am given to deal with allows me to. In the knowledge that if I buy a piece of hardware to do it then at the end of the year I am taxed upon it. This is madness. It seems to me that if we are to open the democratic process of this Parliament to the people out there who clearly want to communicate with us in this fashion then at the very minimum we need to be given last year's technology to do it if not next year's.
  (Dr Coleman) I agree entirely. One of the other studies that I have been involved in is the use of information technology by parliaments in different countries. This is probably one of the most advanced parliaments in the world in some respects now in terms of the use of information technology. That simply tells you something about the others, it does not tell you about this. One could not possibly ask Members of Parliament to participate in any kind of serious online activity with the current level of technology. If one moves in this direction, which I think parliament should do, there will have to be some significant infrastructural changes in parliament which could happen. They are not huge or very expensive in terms of the possibilities that will exist within say a year or 18 months from now, particularly with some of the digital technology that is available using digital cameras and so on. All of those things are perfectly possible but unless one equips MPs and MPs' offices with that sort of opportunity, it would be unreasonable to start blaming MPs for not being active enough on this front if they cannot be.

Mr White

  239. From what you are saying it is interesting that one of the areas that will benefit is that as we move to more pre-legislative scrutiny that there ought to be this kind of forum for each of the bills in the Queen's Speech.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.

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