Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. It is not an issue just about Parliament, is it, it is the local authority that engages in all kinds of interesting consultation? At some point having done that, having got all of this information in, all the interactive stuff that has gone on, someone has to evaluate all of that and come to a view on the issue.
  (Professor Bellamy) Which is the traditional role of—

  261. The process can be informed by the new inputs but those essential tasks can surely never be displaced?
  (Professor Bellamy) The legitimacy of them and the vitality of them and the vigour of them can be.

  262. But the need for them.
  (Professor Bellamy) The function is certainly there but what I took this Committee to be interested in is the process whereby that— I will start again. The way in which that function has been carried out over the last century is highly dependent upon party politics. Parties are the really true aggregating institutions in this country. The danger of that is that those people who are involved in party politics - and the number of people who are involved actively in party politics is probably going down quite substantially - can deal with that and they may or may not think that the outcomes they arrive at are legitimate or connecting to anybody else's concerns. I thought that the purpose of this exercise was to try to build stronger connections between that kind of political arena and the arena, for example, which is made up at the moment of people getting interested in single issue pressure groups.

  Mr White: So this is another way of getting PR except it is using technology. This is using the technology argument to get it. That is what you are saying, is it not?


  263. I am sorry, I prevented Helen from speaking. Can we hear Helen first.
  (Dr Margetts) It was actually the point before but it relates to this one. I think the difference between this and other revolutions in Government administration, like print or bureaucracy that is a relatively new thing, is that the thing about bureaucracy and print is that Government was good at that, it was leading the field in that, and there is the difference. Here the rest of the world is leading the field and Government is somewhere behind. That has been true of an awful lot of developments in information communication technologies, not just the internet. Why this links to your point is you ask what effect that can have on the decision making capacity of Government and I think quite an important implication. Technology is policy critical. Policy is affected by the kinds of technologies that are used to carry it out. I know that is not necessarily a very attractive idea to the legislators but it does happen. If Government organisations lose control of the technology that they are using, if another organisation is doing that for them, there are some elements of decision making which they will inevitably also lose.

Mr Browne

  264. I am interested in this discussion because I think this is a discussion that we should have had at the beginning of this process of investigation and it would have informed a lot of the other things that we have met. I have to say that almost every conversation I have in this investigation is fresh information as far as I am concerned and I think I am beginning to understand something that I have not understood up until now and that is not the threat that this is but the challenge that this presents to representative democracy. In response to some degree to the Chairman's point and to encourage you to develop this a bit further, I think we have got to look at Government as not being homogenous. There is the Executive, whom I think could comfortably live or could construct a situation where they could live with the consultation and controlled involvement of people through some form of e-communication, and what we actually do in the legislature in terms of bringing the Executive to account. It is in the implications that this has for us as Members of Parliament in representing those who vote for us that I am most interested. I would like you to expand on that and whether you think that this revolution that is taking place— I probably should not use these words because you are probably fed up with them but it seems to me there is a revolution. I am desperately trying to think of some more contemporary analogy because I cannot get my head round Lutheran print and doors. It does seem to me that in this sense in terms of representative democracy we are living through a sort of fall of the Berlin Wall. We watched countries throughout Europe becoming liberalised, whatever that meant. We did not quite know what it meant for them but all of a sudden overnight they were all liberalised and we have discovered what it meant for them as it has evolved over ten years. I think it could be as profound as that in contemporary terms for democracy here in the UK. Are we in any position to do anything about this? Can we move quickly enough to respond to this or will this outstrip us? Will others external to parliamentary democracy use this system to undermine the parliamentary democratic system to such an extent that they adopt the Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, which was a 1970s film, about consulting public opinion where there are the people and the Executive and really very little in between that matters?
  (Dr Margetts) Yes, I think you are in a position. What is different about this sort of technology that distinguishes it from other technologies is it is a kind of learn and build technology. It is possible to use it and learn about it and learn about transactions and citizen behaviour, for example, and then use it some more. You do not do that by watching what is going on in the rest of the world and waiting until it has settled down because it does not settle down, what technology does is it injects constant pressure to innovate. There is a possibility. These are the sorts of technologies that you can start using and learn about them and use them some more in all forms of—

  Mr Browne: I am sorry, I do not mean to interrupt you but we are already in a situation where we cannot modernise this Parliament to have electronic voting. It seems almost impossible to do.

  Mr White: We cannot even get a creche.

Mr Browne

  265. Information is a two-way process. At the moment the media pressurises representative politicians by publishing records in relation to what they do: how many times you turn up to vote annually, how many times you speak or whatever. They decide what are the measures of being a good Member of Parliament and ignore lots of the work that is done in this building and publish raw data. Some people say we do the same with education when we publish the raw data. Information will be available about our response to these developments, how many Members of Parliament have a web site, how do they use it, how quickly do they respond to e-mails, how quickly do they respond to questions that are put, how many electronic discussions do they have. Despite our readiness to do this we will not have the time to respond to this in the way in which you suggest, to innovate, to experiment with it. We will be forced by the pressure of people who will realise the power that they have to mould the way in which we work into working in their way.
  (Dr Margetts) Yes. In fact, that is why I presented two scenarios, because most of them are ideal types, the middle way is a tricky one. Doing nothing is doing something in this area so in that sense I think you are right.

  266. How do we respond to that? How do I as a backbench Member of Parliament with the resources that I have respond to this? You are the experts.
  (Dr Margetts) I do not know. Do you have a web site? Can your constituents e-mail you?

  Mr Browne: Yes, but that is just the beginning of it. As soon as people start to use that method of communication with me to the extent that they can do I will not have the resources to cope with that. How do I control it?


  267. He was telling us about a video conference with some of his constituents this morning so he is way down this road.
  (Dr Coleman) When this technology started relatively recently the immediate political response to it was what I consider to be a fairly immature one by a lot of scholars who started saying "we are now into the age of direct democracy" and all sorts of people started to publish books about the end of Parliament, Government, Town Halls. There was the Newt Gingrich thing in the United States, all of which lacked any kind of serious political sophistication. There was a lack of any connection between the real culture and technological potential. That blighted this whole discussion. Not this specific discussion but one of which it is part. I actually think that this technology, if it is used well, can strengthen the representative process because parliamentary representation has always been a matter of convenience. Right the way back to the Burke-ian defence of Parliament the assumption was always that one had to appoint representatives to act on behalf of large groups of people because large groups of people cannot inform the debate themselves. Even Burke, whilst he said "I am a representative and not a delegate. I will listen to what you say but I will not necessarily do what you tell me to do", did not say "I will not listen to what you say, I cannot listen to what you say". The process of listening more carefully to what people are saying is something that is going to become much easier. How does one do this? I do not think an individual backbench MP can do very much about that because in terms of Government and in terms of Parliament this requires a major change of infrastructure. It is about having policies and having a strategy for developing web sites or making e-mail available. It should not be the job of MPs to have to create their own web sites and update them on a weekly basis. There is no comparable person in a management position in British industry who would be expected to have to create their own web site. There is nobody within Unilever or ICI who would say "I cannot use e-mail because it would take me too long to answer all of my messages every day". It is extremely frustrating if that is the particular point at which this process becomes unmanageable for Members of Parliament. You have to have a strategy for dealing with that information. In relation to the traditional media, I think this is very much the crux of where the changes are happening. In writings of mine I have referred to this as being a process of movement from virtual deliberation to direct deliberation. In other words, we are moving away from a process where the television studio was the locus of public debate, where what was said on Newsnight was what formed the agenda, towards the possibility of making that agenda much more directly open to the public. That is not the same as direct democracy, that is direct discourse, deliberation, agenda forming, which is good for democracy and good for representative democracy. I do not see any conflict between representative democracy and these new technologies, they can only strengthen it if representative democratic institutions like Parliament particularly, which is where it really matters, and local authorities take them up and use them imaginatively.

  268. That was the point of the original discussion and that is what I am trying to make sense of, as to whether this is something that you feel is going to blow the traditional methods out of the water?
  (Dr Coleman) You are absolutely right that you have to have a process of gathering together the benefits of discussion. I do not believe there is anyone who reads through the whole of Hansard in the course of a day. Similarly, Christine Bellamy was talking about sending a student to the library to get a book, you send them to get a book, not to bring back the library. We are saying that there is always going to be information overload and there is always going to be a need for knowledge management. I think the problems of knowledge management is a problem of metadata—somebody was telling me recently that a group of school children in London were asked what number they would call if there was a fire in their house and nine out of ten of them said they would call 911, which is the American number, because that was what they had seen on television. There are real problems about going to the internet and wanting to find out about the English Revolution and only being able to get stuff about the American Revolution, wanting to know about the election and only being able to find out about the presidential election. All of that is a question of making sure that knowledge is managed in a way that would benefit democracy rather than harm it. There is a political role in all of this.

Mr White

  269. Does that not come back to one of the points about the subversiveness of the web which you mentioned earlier? It is usually talked about in the context of subverting evil regimes like Iran and China but is it not the case that because of the way it is a small cartel of non-governmental organisations in America that control things like domain names, is that not going to be part of the problem?
  (Dr Coleman) At the moment there is a big discussion about the change of classification of domain names. In a sense, it changes the politics of traditional media debate as it was known during the course of the 20th Century because it is not about who owns the newspaper or whether people own a television channel, it is actually about the very basis of raw information in society.

  270. You have been talking about the web as if it is some archaic form of multi-ownership but in reality it is a small cartel of about six companies that control the web. Does that not have an implication for our democracy and the kinds of things that you are talking about?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.

  Mr White: What do you think should be done about it?

  Chairman: Just in a sentence.

  271. Is not one of the problems that that whole agenda has not actually been recognised as a political issue?
  (Dr Coleman) I think you are absolutely right, I think it is a fundamental problem. One has to ask whether information is an ordinary commodity or something which there is a political obligation to control? If it is an ordinary commodity then there is nothing you can do about it because it will obviously be susceptible to the process of monopoly or at least of oligopoly. If it is going to be something that you can control then the time to control it is now.

Mr Browne

  272. How? No individual government could control this. It has to be done at an international level by governments ceding part of their sovereignty to some international organisation who could regulate this.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes, but—

Mr White

  273. The problem is that it is not an international body that is doing it, it is private American companies within the borders of the United States over which foreign governments do not have any jurisdiction. That is part of the problem.
  (Dr Coleman) I think that is right. The issue is about establishing public spaces and public services, even if there is a tendency towards a group of companies owning the rest of the space. It is even in the interests of those companies to make sure that that public space is available.
  (Dr Margetts) I just wanted to say about this issue of information overload that there are ways round it. If 5,000 of your constituents send you the same e-mail generated automatically that one person has generated, yes that is a problem but there are technological ways around those problems. There are already software packages which can respond to e-mails automatically without anybody having to look at them. Those types of control are not there if 5,000 people send you the letter. Some of the problems generated by the information overload problem are also capable of being overcome with the same sorts of technology so should not be regarded as unbearable.


  274. I read Christine Bellamy's evidence as suggesting that we should not seek to do that kind of thing. I am looking at paragraph seven of your evidence on all these e-mails that we get that we do not want. You are saying presumably if we simply filter out our constituents this will filter out wider expressions of interest on legitimate issues of the day, you want us to be bombarded by everybody on everything.
  (Professor Bellamy) I do not want you to be bombarded. What I do want you to do is to exercise due care and establish clear principles and criteria by which you decide that certain things are managed in certain kinds of ways using certain kinds of technologies and certain kinds of rules. I was very worried about the reports that particularly in the American Congress people were automatically assuming that anything that came from outside their constituency was something that they would not wish to see; that rather unthinking assumption that what you are primarily dealing with there is a problem of overload.

Mr White

  275. We chuck them in the bin at the moment in a non-electronic age so why should that be different online?
  (Professor Bellamy) The point I was making earlier was when you do put things online people start questioning them rather more and the very act of going online and having to manage new technologies does provide the opportunity for people to think in a more systematic way about the way in which they behave with communications and information. It does tend to have that effect. For example, if businesses start thinking rather more about the way in which they are handling e-mails, whether they allow their employees to deal with post in all kinds of ways, particularly if they perceive them as junk mail. All I was suggesting was that allowing people to make those kinds of private decisions without having to explain them to anybody else, for example to the people who might be sending them this kind of mail, is rather unhelpful.


  276. You could make a case for saying that the world is overfull of information and what it lacks is understanding. What I would give my right arm for is the names of six people I could trust whose judgments I know are sound in key areas of policy who could do the filtering for me. The idea that I am going to be better off if I spend the rest of my life watching a screen, receiving information from people I do not know on everything, surely that is precisely what we need. What we need is the enrichment of understanding that will enable us to get to grips with some of these issues.
  (Professor Bellamy) That is what you need as an MP.

  277. That is what I need as a citizen.
  (Professor Bellamy) There are other stakeholders in this as well. What the people you represent might need is a better, stronger sense than they have at the moment that they have a way of joining in and being listened to. It seems to me this whole discussion is about getting some kind of balance between the two.

  Mr Browne: I agree with that, I think it is about getting a balance between the two of them. I have been a Member of Parliament since 1997 and was horrified when I was elected at the amount of unsolicited correspondence I got, buried in which were letters from constituents that were things that I really needed to respond to. My concern, to deal with your point, Dr Margetts, is not 5,000 letters about one subject, that is a godsend in fact, 5,000 letters from constituents on the one subject about which I can give 5,000 simple answers and then I know I have communicated with 5,000 constituents. It is only when you become a Member of Parliament that you understand the power of the notepaper with the House of Commons heading on it.

  Chairman: That is why you are very grateful to the League Against Cruel Sports.

Mr Browne

  278. Absolutely. I am very grateful to any private Members who want to move into the area of hunting with dogs. That is not my concern. My concern is that in resource terms I am already overstretched without my constituents understanding to the extent that they will very shortly the power of e«communication. I do not know how we get from where I am today to where I expect I will need to be in a comparatively short period of time to respond properly to people's expectations when they communicate with me as a Member of Parliament. Never mind how I will then cope with that information and translate it into how I act as their representative in voting or policy terms. I do not even know how I will cope with the logistics of dealing with that. If there are intelligent agents, whatever you call them, if there is technology out there that is what I want to hear about. I want to hear about examples of where it works, if it is Australia or wherever, where people who are doing my job are further advanced than I am, even if it is only by a matter of months or minutes, so I can see how they do it and I can get there before my constituents get there.
  (Dr Margetts) It is an organisational point, not an individual point. It is something that the organisation of Parliament should be dealing with and cannot afford not to.

  Mr Browne: Have any parliamentary organisations moved significantly? For example, what is the phrase I saw in here, what is a Dutch digital city and how do we get one?
  (Dr Coleman) There is one. There is a place called Trimdon Digital Village.


  279. Careful now, you tread near our leader.
  (Dr Coleman) Indeed. There are two questions there. There is a technology which will enable a lot more people to speak to their elected representative. One question is do you want all of those people to speak to you anyway or are you more interested in finding out wisdom from another source? The other question is about how you manage it. If there is a source of significant wisdom and information for representatives out there, can representatives cope with it? I think this Parliament is not equipped to cope with it but will need to be. In the Canadian Parliament mail filtering is being used more. In the Welsh Assembly every Member now has a touch screen in front of them during the course of debates. That is not about voting primarily but about accessing information. In the BSE inquiry in this country every person giving evidence had that evidence transcribed and the people who were on the committee of inquiry had that on their screen within a short time so they were able to look at it. Information from select committees could quite easily be available in the same sort of fashion. This is very much about organisational matters but that may not be the main resistance to this. It may well be that there is a resistance to representatives being more open to this kind of pressure from the people who elect them.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 17 May 2000