Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 240 - 252)



  240. Is that what you are saying?
  (Dr Coleman) Absolutely. Yes. I would like to see almost all pre-legislative scrutiny having an online discussion. A civic forum to which people would be invited. Even rather dull technical issues like leasehold reform, we are going to be running something on that. There are a lot of lawyers and there are a lot of residents organisations and landlords organisations and all sorts of other people who desperately want to get involved in this and get it right and they want to be able to inform parliament. It seems to me that what one is doing there is not anything different from what is happening at the moment with lobbyists having that sort of access. We are simply opening it up to everyone. That is the only difference. The technology does open it up to everyone. Certainly every piece of pre-legislative scrutiny - certainly select committee inquiries - could on a regular basis go out to online discussions and perhaps publish those as an appendix to a select committee report. Certainly one could even tie that in with certain standing committee recommendations and of course one could have public discussions on post legislation as well. One could have discussions looking at the effects of legislation. It is, in fact, the public who have the clearest sense of the consequences of legislation and may well be able to provide some very interesting reports on those matters.

Mr Browne

  241. I, like the Chairman, have not read your memorandum. I am glad to see you are coming back this afternoon so I will keep my powder dry until then and I will do some better preparation. I am interested in the observation that this type of communication generates some different form of participation, some different form of lobbying or communication. My experience is not that it generates anything different, it just generates a lot more of what we presently get but in different forms. It reduces the time barriers, it reduces the geographical barriers and it broadens the ability for individuals who do not have the resources to employ political lobbyists to participate. To that extent even my limited experience of e-communication has indicated to me I am shortly going to suffer from some form of overload. What are the technical solutions for avoiding overload that you made reference to earlier?
  (Dr Bratt) There are two answers to give you. In terms of discussion groups, let us assume you had the technology and let us assume you had your own web site for your constituency, a discussion group like this could run on that web site. We built this with very simple technology quite deliberately with the possibility of discussing this sort of thing. This means you could have this discussion on your web site and that would not involve you in very much work, you could look at it from time to time and you could contribute from time to time.

Mr White

  242. If you do not respond you get into trouble. One of the reasons I stopped mine was I did not respond quickly enough for those people.
  (Dr Bratt) I do understand. You could go on site once a day for a few minutes. I know you have very busy schedules, I appreciate that, but you could actually participate in that discussion in the time it takes to write one letter to a constituent. In doing so you could address everybody in this discussion. The point I would like to suggest to you is that the discussions reach their own conclusions, they are not like you are receiving 50, 100, 200, 500 e-mails. There might be 500 contributions on the discussion but at the end they are running towards a conclusion which you can lift out from that discussion. The discussions might make your life easier but they do have to be correctly run and so on; that is one side of it.

Mr Browne

  243. I picked that up, at least. In a sense the discussion moderates itself because people pick up on themes and respond to other people. Common themes or regular responses, no doubt, distil issues out of the discussion as they do in any group discussion, even in a pub—it depends how early the discussion is in the pub. I have another interest in this, were I to do this—I am certainly interested in the idea—is it my responsibility to moderate?
  (Dr Coleman) I think the point about it is that there is a very big difference between these things being run by an independent organisation and these being run by individual MPs. I think you need to have an external organisation running these, whether it is the BBC or whatever. You need to have these discussions organised on the basis of people feeling there is no bias in the agenda setting.

  244. One of the reasons I ask that is, and this is a point that my colleague raised earlier directly, whose responsibility is it if defamatory information is published?
  (Dr Coleman) The person who runs the web site. The person who owns the web site has the legal responsibility. It is a publishing process, would you not agree?

Mr White

  245. This is a bit of a grey area for me.
  (Dr Coleman) As far as the Hansard Society is concerned when we put up a web site and we invite people to speak on it we assume that if anything illegal is said on that we are responsible for it. That gives us an incentive to make sure that does not happen.

Mr Browne

  246. Unlike the letters page in my local newspapers or in the Herald or the Guardian, in an online discussion, what is said, goes instantly into the discussion and is instantly published.
  (Dr Coleman) Not necessarily. You can moderate any discussion. That means that anybody wanting to put something up on to a web site has to have their message seen first by a moderator. When we ran the discussion on women and science it was not something that involved very much defamation or illegality. We had hundreds of messages and we looked at each one of them and there was a gap, only of minutes on the whole, between messages coming in and going up on to the site. There was only one of them, which we did not actually delete but we advised the person putting the message up not to put it up—she got irritated by somebody else and told him she was irritated. We thought it was intemperate and so we wrote to her offline and said, "Do you not think it would be a good idea not to put this message up?" You can pre-moderate, that is something that several Government web sites do.

  247. Is that an expensive thing to do?
  (Dr Coleman) It is only the cost of the moderator's time.

  248. Which is presumably charged by the hour, and the number of hours involved depends on the number of items and contributions.
  (Dr Coleman) It depends on the traffic coming into the web site. The Welsh Office used to have a web site which they had to take down because a group of young people were abusing it and kept sending messages. They were playing games of trying to beat the moderator. In the end the Welsh Office took down the web site altogether rather than running it. These are real difficulties. Again I come back to the old analogy about phone-in programmes, where there is a similar thing. Everyone who is on a phone-in programme goes through all of the vetting procedures but then they can get on the air and shout out something rude. In the end there is only so much you can do; that is life. I do not think that anybody is going to sue somebody running a web site if an offensive message appears for a short period and then it is taken down. There has to be a lot of vigilance in running all of this.


  249. Can I just ask one or two things? This Committee's inquiry is looking at innovation in a general sense, what I am wondering is if you think of things like citizens' juries, is the suggestion that a citizens' jury in their real form could be displaced by virtual forums? If the point is to have deliberations amongst jurors about issues this could happen online. People do not need to meet, do they?
  (Dr Coleman) It depends on how much people need to look in each other's eyes. The question was asked before about whether something different is happening. I think something different is happening. I think I could demonstrate there is a different style of discourse which takes place online than in a crowded meeting room, for all kinds of reasons. It is largely to do with the amount of time people have. It is also to do with the fact that people cannot look in each other's eyes and that can make for sometimes intemperate comments. On the whole it makes people more considerate because they are not quite sure who they are dealing with. They are dealing with the arguments not with personalities as such. I think that you can probably put most of these forums, deliberative polls and citizens' juries on to the internet. Incidently, it would not make them more or less democratic: if they have flaws in them offline they are going to have flaws in them online. I suspect that citizens' juries online may be more like online focus groups than some of the e-democracy projects that we have been looking at, in which participation is by self-selection. Anybody can theoretically join in these on the basis of declaring an interest.

  250. Yes. It is very interesting as to whether these are the same things or not. What you said earlier on about the question of trust is important too. I am thinking about what you said about receiving information, how select committees could receive information material online. When information is received now it goes through some kind of process. People have looked at it, it is structured in a particular way.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.

  251. People have debated it before it comes. It comes in some kind of finished form. My sense is that a lot of information you are talking about now is almost by definition unstructured, that is one of its claimed merits, it is unstructured, it is untidy, it is messy, it is spontaneous, it is ragged. Does this not absolutely produce the problem just referred to of information overload? How on earth does one go about handling information of that kind?
  (Dr Coleman) I think there have to be intermediaries whose job is to make sense of this but to make sense of it in rather different ways because it is untidy and because the untidiness is a part of the process. I think it would be unwise, for example, for a Select Committee, to take evidence directly from the internet, to take an extreme, that would be absurd. It would make much more sense for this evidence to be taken through a process of deliberation that is then analysed and presented as evidence.

  252. One final question, I would like to know, you talked about Parliament and things Parliament can do which offer concern; you were rather dismissive of the idea of Government, but it is Government that engages in consultation about all kinds of things. If you could tell Government to do things differently on a consultation front, what are the kinds of things it ought to be doing that it is not doing now?
  (Dr Coleman) I think that again it is back to the issue of trust. Government has to be very careful that when it is addressing people it is not both setting the questions and setting the rules of discussion. I am not certain whether there is sufficient public trust in some of the online Government consultations. I am not sure whether people feel that the pay off which you spoke of earlier is actually worthwhile because they thought that when they were speaking to their representative through Parliament the pay off in a sense is "If they will not listen—", you know "I wrote a letter to my MP, he did not reply, I am not voting for him again." It is rather different in relation to Government sites. I think one of the other things is that these discussions have to be very carefully structured so that people feel that they have the opportunity to set the agenda, to expand the agenda and not necessarily be constrained by questions that civil servants think the public want to discuss. Again, going back to the way the traditional media ran some of the audience participation programmes, it was usually unwise to try and say to people "We are discussing this today and you will call in to talk about these things". People do not do it. But if you allow people to develop a sense of what they themselves think the agenda should be they very often come up with some quite interesting good ideas which add value that you might not have known was there.

  Chairman: I know we are very grateful. I think we ought to stop now because we are going to have another go at you this afternoon along with others. It has been very helpful and illuminating this morning. Thank you for coming. I am sorry about the limitations we have on the technical side with the room. You have done a sterling job. Thank you very much indeed.

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