House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION Select COMMITTEE
Thursday 8 March 2007
MR TOM STEINBERG, MR ROSS FERGUSON, MR WILLIAM HEATH
and MS RUTH KENNEDY
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on Thursday 8 March 2007
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr David Burrowes
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Charles Walker
Witnesses: Mr Tom Steinberg, Director, mySociety website, Mr Ross Ferguson, Director, eDemocracy programme, Hansard Society, Mr William Heath, Director and Ms Ruth Kennedy, Associate Director, Kable Ltd, gave evidence.
Q105 Chairman: I call the Committee to order and welcome our witnesses this morning. It is very good of you to come along to talk to us at relatively short notice. The Committee has a long-standing interest in issues to do with public consultation. If I could think of the collective noun to describe e.People I would use it. All of you know about e.Government in a variety of ways, and therefore we have brought you together to help us with our thinking on this matter. I would normally ask if any of you want to say something by way of introduction, but because there are four of you if all of you did that it would take a long time. If, however, any of you wanted to say something quickly to enthuse us we would be willing to be enthused.
Mr Steinberg: Is this something that you would rather happen or not happen?
Q106 Chairman: Could it happen briefly?
Mr Heath: Briefly, I am William Heath and the company I founded, Kable, looks particularly at public services and the computerisation of them. We are not technologists and are non-partisan, but our interest lies in understanding the change that occurs when public services go into the information age. Through that work we have some concerns about the clarity of intention.
Q107 Chairman: For the record, I should have said who you are. Mr Heath is from Kable. Ms Kennedy who also represents Kable has a history of working inside government. Ms Kennedy, do you wish to add anything?
Ms Kennedy: I have worked for Kable and have been looking at government from the outside for just over a year. Prior to that I spent six years at the centre of government, most recently at DfES where I was a senior civil servant. Before that I was owned by the Cabinet Office but sent off in various directions such as Defra, the Home Office and also the Number 10 Policy Unit where, amongst other things, my portfolio included e.Government. That goes back to 2000 and 20001 and an earlier stage of the revolution.
Q108 Chairman: Mr Steinberg, you are the founder and director of MySociety.org, are you not?
Mr Steinberg: Yes. My society is a non-partisan and non-profit group based out of a registered charity. It has two equal missions. The first is to give citizens sites and tools on the Internet that provide them with simple but very tangible benefits in the civic and community parts of their lives. The second mission is to teach government and the voluntary sector largely through demonstration and explanation how new and good things can be made that do not just take old things and put them online, that is, how new services can be provided that enable people to take control of their lives and their government.
Q109 Chairman: Mr Ferguson is from Hansard and does government work there.
Mr Ferguson: The Hansard Society is very happy to be here and welcomes this inquiry, particularly those strands that place emphasis on democratic engagement and the role that parliamentarians can play in holding the government to account and involving the public in developing services in future.
Q110 Chairman: One of the stimuli for this inquiry was the argument going on about Downing Street e.petitioning and so on. Mr Steinberg, I gather that you are responsible for this.
Mr Steinberg: MySociety was commissioned by Downing Street to build this.
Q111 Chairman: Can you tell us how works? Whose idea was it? Who approached whom and how was it all set up?
Mr Steinberg: I would be glad to answer those questions, but e.consultation or consultation generally is a rather different thing from petitions. I am happy to answer your questions and talk about petitions. I am proud of the work that we have done as an organisation, but I would not want today to turn into a discussion of just that because consultation is a hard and interesting topic and is not being talked about enough. That is a personal statement.
Q112 Chairman: That is absolutely right, and we shall do so. I just wondered how it started.
Mr Steinberg: We were approached by the Civil Service web manager at Downing Street in the early or middle part of last year. She said she believed that the time had come to bring the petitioning system, which had been in place for as long as anyone could remember, online and into the 21st century. That was how the process started.
Q113 Chairman: What was your response to that?
Mr Steinberg: We expressed interest and said that it sounded like something that would be within our remit. We said they should be aware that in Scotland such a system had been running for years and they could take a look at it, but that if it was the sort of thing they wanted to commission we would have a very good team with perhaps an unmatched record in doing this kind of thing and we could help them do it well and right in terms of it being a transparent, trustworthy service rather than just a tool..
Q114 Chairman: Do you believe it has been successful?
Mr Steinberg: It has kept us busy. I believe that it has been completely successful. It is a beta test site. It existed to experiment and dabble in the waters to see whether petitions could be done online. We had every reason to think that they could be because it had been done very well in Scotland for a long time. I believe that the take-up vindicates the idea that it is a service in which the public is interested in using and one that is good value for money. I do not know whether you are familiar with the recent concept of "the engaged 1 %". Demos, for example, has been writing papers asking whether there will ever be only 1 % of the citizenry that is really politically involved. Should we try to fight that and go for a larger percentage or say that we will never get more than 1 % because, as Wilde said, socialism is taking up too many evenings? The fact that we have 2 or 3 % of the population signed up to and using the service within just a few weeks must be a sign that it has succeeded in some way. It must have broken outside that 1 % orthodoxy of people who are willing to be involved in political processes.
Q115 Chairman: But where does pressing a button to say you do not like something rank on the scale of involvement?
Mr Steinberg: Low.
Q116 Chairman: In that case why is it a success?
Mr Steinberg: Because MySociety believes that the barriers to engagement in the political system can never be low enough. I know that as representatives you think that we get sent too much stuff and we cannot cope with it anyway. Sometimes people ask why we run Writetothem.com which is a service that allows people find out who you are and write to you. One or two MPs have said that they put all their details out there and they are incredibly easy to write to. Why do we get in the way and run this service which is a waste of time? The answer is that that is great for the 40 % of people who know who you are. We exist to service that other percentage. When people do use things like Write To Them they take a very basic step, maybe because they have a problem in their lives or perhaps because they want to express on a petition site that they disagree with something. The ability to make that tiny engagement as easy as possible means that perhaps they can take a second step or do something a bit better, bigger and harder. The classic example using Write To Them is that people write to their politicians; they confirm that the mail gets to a real person. The mail is sent off and it asks whether people would like to sign up to hear their MPs so they can discuss issues with them and not just write. The local MP then has a chance to say what he or she thinks is important, not the other way round. The idea that people can seize the tiniest piece of engagement and that seed can grow and be nurtured so that people become more engaged is one of the foundation stones of what we believe can and should happen.
Q117 Chairman: I am just trying to link the ideology with the practice. I know that you do not want to talk particularly about e.petitioning, but when you talked to them about it did you say that it was liable to produce disaffection? It is liable to produce responses from people who say in large numbers that they dislike something and then nothing happens and so they are more disgruntled than they were before you started. To refer back to the Scottish example you gave, I understand that the Scottish Parliament has a Petitions Committee so that if petitions come in there is somewhere for them to go and be processed and looked at. The issues can then be deliberated upon. That is a million miles from simply registering on a website one's dislike for something, is it not? Ms Kennedy is nodding so I think she is on my side in this regard.
Ms Kennedy: It is not Mr Steinberg's job to work out that end of the system, is it? My observation from the time spent in government is that since the Cabinet Office brought out guidance on consultation - for example, people must be given 12 weeks and so on - that is embedded into the system in a very healthy way, but it is easy to run those things without thinking through the consequences, as you say. When one invites people's views has one thought about what is to be done with those views, be they what one wants to hear or not want to hear? I have not been involved in the Number 10 petitioning site and cannot comment on it, but I think that that is often a mistake made in government. In terms of my involvement in consultations, government moves at great speed. There is huge pressure. Things are announced and you have to make them happen very quickly. It is often very awkward. We have to consult people for 12 weeks and that cannot be done over the school holidays and so on. At times I have certainly been involved in situations where one has to write the submission to tell the minister what the answer is before the consultation period is closed. One thing that needs to be thought through more carefully is exactly what one says. What is it that we do? When one invites people to give their views one is giving them an expectation that those views will be listened to.
Q118 Chairman: When I was listening to the people who went into Number 10 last weekend on the deliberative exercise they seemed to be very happy with it. They were coming out saying, "Gosh! That was amazing. I was actually involved in thinking through these issues. I have changed my view on things. I have heard arguments", and so on. It seems to be a much richer exercise than simply the electronic registering of opinions.
Mr Heath: We start with a democracy which is complicated and we do not understand all that well. We are trying to get our heads round it. Scientists at the instigation of the defence community have invented the Internet which is a fabulous communications media. It is insecure, convenient, interactive and very powerful. We are trying to get our heads round that as well. If one puts the two together one does not suddenly have a brand new thing called e.Democracy; one has a democracy with a set of communications tools added to it. I observed the work on the Downing Street website. One exemplary feature of it was that it was in beta test; that is, it was something that was admitted not to be perfect. There was a note saying that if one used Hotmail the site could not be used. I have observed huge amounts of very expensive government IT projects and government websites which pretend to be perfect and will not admit of anything else. In reality they are very poorly designed and are not very friendly to users. Here is an exemplary piece of online design because of the quality of the team that Mr Steinberg has assembled which is being quite honest about the fact that it is iterative, that it will get better and problems will be sorted out as it goes along; and it is also extremely inexpensive for what it does. It also illustrates the limitations of addressing a complex issue like road pricing with a simple proposition. When 1.8 million people complained we did not know whether they were complaining about an extra tax or about intrusive surveillance of every vehicle. Was that the problem? Should we have an anonymous road-pricing system? We do not know exactly what they were complaining about, so it exposes the limitation of the simple proposition and also starts to expose through the responses the apparently limited extent to which anyone is interested in what people think. I believe that these are useful starting points. The blog that I do is called Ideal Government. It asks the question: what do we want from an e.enabled government in an e.enabled world? It attracts loads of complaints about how badly government is computerised, but the rule on Ideal Government is that anyone who complains must say what they want. They must say, "Wouldn't it be better if?" We are all in this iterative process together. We need to understand the nature of the new communications medium with which we are working and what we are ultimately trying to do with it. With a communications medium usage is a good sign, so if 1.8 million people sign a petition that is an awful lot more than the 60 people who went to Downing Street and had a deeper, richer experience. It does not invalidate that deeper, richer experience but it does say that what MySociety did on the Downing Street website appealed to an awful lot of people and that in itself is interesting, powerful and worth taking further.
Q119 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Mr Steinberg, how much did you charge Downing Street?
Mr Steinberg: About £27,000; it was below £30,000 and above £25,000, or something like that.
Q120 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is that an ongoing contract?
Mr Steinberg: That covered the development and some hosting. It will need to be extended and it will cost more.
Q121 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is it a yearly contract?
Mr Steinberg: No. That covered the cost of the development and a certain number of days looking after it. There will be a support contract signed to look after it in the future.
Q122 Mr Liddell-Grainger: How much do you think it will be?
Mr Steinberg: We have not done it yet, so I do not know.
Q123 Mr Liddell-Grainger: How much do you think? What are you worth?
Mr Steinberg: Obviously, way more than we have charged, and that is the nature of things.
Q124 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Remember that you are working for Downing Street, so put in some good figures.
Mr Steinberg: How much do we want? I will give you an order of magnitude cost because you want to know. We will probably charge about £30,000 to £50,000 to run this for another year. On the day that the site received most traffic in relation to the road petitions the responses were about twice those of Directgov which cost £50 million. I think that for £25,000 that was exemplary value for money in terms of government e-services.
Q125 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am sure that you look at the Cabinet Office accounts.
Mr Steinberg: No.
Q126 Mr Liddell-Grainger: They are revealing. I suggest that you do look at them. They have computer assets of £122 million. We asked what that was. Can you enlighten us as to why they would have such massive computer assets? We know about True North because we brought it up here. They were sued for £24 million by a company called CompuServe. What is the cost of e.Government? Is e.Government getting out of control on cost?
Mr Steinberg: I run an NGO which employs three or four people. Perhaps you would like to ask the Cabinet Secretary or an expert in the industry.
Q127 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I thought you might know because you worked at Number 10.
Mr Steinberg: I have never worked at Number 10.
Mr Heath: The reason we set up Kable was because government had lost track of what it had spent on IT in 1990. Obviously, there is a market demand for good figures. We produced some figures and we are very happy to share them with the Committee. That can be arranged through your Clerk. Whether government IT spend is justifiable is a big, deep question that I am happy to go into. To make a comparison with the sort of work that Mr Steinberg and MySociety does, we have now probably spent over £50 million on a series of portals or a primary website for accessing government services. Initially, it was OpenGov and then UKonline; now it is Directgov. One of Mr Steinberg's volunteers constructed in 75 minutes for about £60 a search engine which is more effective on government websites than Directgov. If one searches for the word "goat" on DirectionlessGov one gets guidance from Defra about how to register a goat. If one searches for "goat" on the official website one gets information about how to marry a foreign national. There are quick wins which are inexpensive and which can provide people with something much more valid.
Q128 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is that not the crux of it? For £60 instead of £50 million, or whatever was the figure, we can make e.Government work in the private sector as opposed to the government sector. Is that not the answer?
Mr Heath: My observation from engaging in the Ideal Government conversation and with a community of online people who are quite switched on in this field is that, first, there are loads of quick wins that the contemporary Internet offers because a lot of the tools are shared and made freely available. For example, when Google mapped the whole world it allowed anybody to tap into those interfaces and use its maps. There is a philosophy of shared co-creation of which government could avail itself if it had that mentality and mindset. But it is a very challenging mindset for government to adopt because it assumes that everything is top down and it has responsibility for delivering everything and in the chaotic world in which we work together that is culturally quite difficult.
Q129 Mr Liddell-Grainger: That has been created. We have had the road tax debate, but there is also on the site the image of the Prime Minister eating ice cream and standing on his head on top of a double-decker bus. I do not have a particular problem with that. I am sure that the Prime Minister would love to do it, but it is not exactly helping democracy. Surely, there should be a cut off. That is - dare I say - blatantly silly.
Mr Heath: That is what people are like.
Mr Steinberg: Everything about the site changed lots and lots in the first four months. That is how one is supposed to build websites. One does not write a spec which says exactly how it will work and after two years it will be evaluated. One needs to respond. There were two very interesting and different responses from the community. There were users who wrote enormous amounts of emails and said that one should add this and take away that and change it. Lots of members of the public wrote to us and said that people should be stopped from putting on silly petitions.
Q130 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Who are the users? Are you referring to Number 10?
Mr Steinberg: No; the users are members of the public. Therefore, loads of things changed, some technological and some policy. Number 10 changed the policy and said that it would not have silly petitions any more, partly because it did not think they were a good idea and partly because they were getting complaints from members of the public who also did not think they were a good idea. The one you have quoted is a legacy; it is left over because it would have been wrong to delete something that was already on there given the principle of transparency that everything that goes on the site appears either online or, if it is rejected, one explains why. Nothing ever vanishes like that, which is a very important part of the design. But there was another community which consisted largely of journalists and academics who did not write to us to say what they wanted, unlike all the members of the public; they just complained on their own. Strangely, the things that they complained about were not changed because they did not write to us. I implore you to note that there is a support email address. If you want features changed you as well as citizens have the right to write to us and Number 10 and they will get put on the stack of things that can be changed.
Q131 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I had a spat with you over emails. I told you that you were sending them to the wrong number but you did not change it. You must remember.
Mr Steinberg: Yes. You are the only person ever to have gone on record as imputing that my site takes a non-partisan position.
Q132 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Because you were sending them to the wrong place. I did not mind that, but when I said that you were sending them to another number which was not mine and asked that you readdress them it did not happen.
Mr Steinberg: Dare I say that this probably does not belong in this particular session? I stand exactly by that position. If you moved house and office and did not tell people that you had done that your constituents would feel disappointed that their mail was landing on a dead doormat. Your details were on the Conservative Party website, but this is really outside the remit of the Committee.
Mr Liddell-Grainger: The only reason I bring it up is that you started it.
Mr Walker: Mr Steinberg, you do not decide the remit of this Committee; the Members and Chairman decide it.
Chairman: I think I will decide, if you do not mind. I am trying to work out whether there is a wider public interest in this point.
Q133 Mr Liddell-Grainger: There is a public interest. The whole idea of this is to communicate with the public - that is what you and we want to do - and to make sure that it is done on a fair, open basis.
Mr Steinberg: Yes.
Q134 Mr Liddell-Grainger: If there is a mistake or problem with it you try to redress it.
Mr Steinberg: Obviously we do. We take feedback all the time and make changes as fast as we can, but we are human and in some cases it takes time.
Q135 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is the "human" bit that I am happy with.
Mr Steinberg: I believe that nevertheless we are as good at what we do as any group anywhere, and it must be said that is why the things we do are quite often popular among politicians of different kinds.
Q136 Mr Liddell-Grainger: As a matter of interest from my point of view, why have you not put in any accounts to the Charity Commission over the past five years?
Mr Steinberg: Before 2003/04 there was a pre-existing charity that had been set up by some other people. It had the right memorandum and articles of incorporation; it was about democracy and the Internet. It was called UK Citizens Online Democracy. It was set up, did some work and then it was mothballed. For several years the trustees of that organisation said to a couple of people, including me, that setting up a charity was hard and time-consuming and asked whether we could do this. We took it on a couple of years ago. We are now piecing it together. This year's accounts should be there.
Q137 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You did file accounts for 2005.
Mr Steinberg: And you will get them for 2006 and 2007. As I say, it was a different group of people who gave us the organisation. My site started only at the end of 2003/beginning of 2004.
Q138 Mr Liddell-Grainger: And do try to get them to the right place! To move to the Hansard Society, one of the matters that interests all MPs is that the society becomes more e.available and e.open. What would be the cost of opening up the Hansard Society totally to enable it to operate on an open basis rather like Mr Steinberg and Mr Heath?
Mr Ferguson: As a point of clarification, we were named after the Hansard parliamentary record itself but the Hansard Society is a non-partisan independent charity.
Chairman: Are you asking about the Hansard parliamentary report?
Q139 Mr Liddell-Grainger: No; I am asking about Hansard as a parliamentary organisation. You are trying to open it up as an e.port, if that is the right terminology.
Mr Ferguson: No.
Q140 Chairman: Let us ask Mr Ferguson what he is doing.
Mr Ferguson: My responsibility at the Hansard Society is the e.Democracy programme. We are interested in doing work with Parliament and the Government to explore how it might use contemporary ICT to open up either the policy-making or scrutiny process. We have been doing some work with Select Committees, all-party groups and constituency MPs to explore how they might use things like blogs, forums and webchats and standard more information-based websites. Some research that might be of interest to the Committee, which we submitted to the Clerk, is that based on Digital Dialogues. We have been doing that across central government with about 20 different agencies, departments and ministerial offices. All of these case studies are very small and involve hundreds rather than thousands of people. We are interested in promoting awareness of e.Democracy practice and theory as it exists at the moment, embedding skills of policy officials in the main who run these things, or, if it is on the Select Committee side, with members and their support staff, but also with the public. The public is not used to being consulted in this way, so there is a lot of work to be done to educate and help them develop submissions and to develop benchmarks. What are the demographics of the people who use these sites? What are their attitudes and behaviours when they are on those sites?
Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am not sure that I understand any of that, but I am sure it is terribly interesting.
Q141 Mr Prentice: I want to ask how members of political parties can be consulted. We are talking about the public engaging with government, but I am interested in how party members can use e.Democracy to communicate with Parliament, their MPs and so on.
Mr Ferguson: One can have lots of potential routes for communication within party and between them at parliamentary level with this technology. It has the potential to bring large groups of people such as parties together and encourage structured deliberation around policies.
Q142 Mr Prentice: Do you think that that will happen, because the chair of the Labour Party, Hazel Blears, says that it is not necessary to consult members about the future of the UK's nuclear weapons. I wrote to the general secretary on 4 December when the Prime Minister made his statement to the Commons saying that the Labour Party ought to be formally consulted on Trident. That did not happen. When will we reach a stage when members of political parties will be able to influence decisions taken in their name by the Government?
Mr Ferguson: Technically, it is possible now. In terms of the culture within parties it is for them to decide how to do it, but I think that more critical and deliberate opportunities for Members and citizens to engage in policy are desirable.
Q143 Mr Prentice: Is the Hansard Society making any recommendations that this sort of thing ought to happen; otherwise, people will just walk away from political parties, because being a member of such a body does not influence anything, and instead put their energies into single issue groups and so on? Do you make recommendations along those lines?
Mr Ferguson: Through my programme I do not make any specific recommendations about the way parties conduct their business, but we recommend that people act in their interests on issues but also act at constituency level in deliberating with their Members or other elected representatives who then feed that through the various available processes and groups into the parliamentary system and from there up to government.
Q144 Paul Flynn: I admire the work of the witnesses, especially that of Mr Steinberg who over the years has been very much a guru in these matters. I want to ask about TheyWorkForYou.com. How does it run? It has been extremely useful to MPs and certainly their constituents. How is it financed? There seems to be an enormous amount of work involved in providing the information on that site and there is no sign of any commercial interest, so how on earth does it function?
Mr Steinberg: TheyWorkForYou was built almost entirely by volunteers. It got total funding of about £3,000 from Rowntree at some point when the amount of volunteer labour ran out and it needed to get over a little hurdle. It was set up at the same time as my site and merged with us and came under our wing early last year. It is worth explaining here how the site works. We have a little paid corps comprising a maximum of four or five people and then a bigger community of volunteers, so there is a private and public developers list. The private list comprises very trusted people who can help make decisions. That has 18 people on it. That shows the ratio of unpaid to paid people. I am one of the paid people. The developers who do the bulk of the work are also paid but then people provide a lot of help. TheyWorkForYou is an absolutely virtuoso example of sheer volunteer labour.
Q145 Paul Flynn: How far has it achieved its aim and what have you changed? It was said at one time that it had an effect on the behaviour of Members in this House who sought to speak just verbiage into the air as long as it got to the top of the pile. Have you altered it?
Mr Steinberg: We are sensitive to the fact that the world contains lots of media organisations that do not care if they have a negative impact on the political process. We exist purely because we want to have a positive impact. That story concerned us. We looked at the data very carefully. There had been a statistically significant rise in the number of written questions, but it was impossible to tell whether it was due to a larger environmental factor or there had been an election and a lot of new MPs who had behavioural differences. We just tweaked it a bit to make it seem a little less competitive and put in bigger caveats. We said that it was just information and did not necessarily mean what people might think; they must take it with a pinch of salt and be grown up about it.
Q146 Paul Flynn: You make a judgment as to how easy it is to understand what people are saying, and presumably that can be done easily. Are there any other judgments that you want to make about whether somebody is making the same speech for the hundredth time or whether he is making a speech of some significance?
Mr Steinberg: Computers are rather bad at telling whether or not something is eloquent; they try to keep to simple things they can determine, for example that a person has voted so many times.
Q147 Paul Flynn: Mr Ferguson, I believe you said that the politicians who were running rings round all the others at the moment as far as the use of the web is concerned are the BNP and non-Cameronian Tories. We are very conscious of the work that they are doing. What are they doing that other politicians are not doing?
Mr Ferguson: In this medium with things like blogs in the case of more oppositional politics where one can say what one wants and change it at a later date, and one can be fairly flexible in one's position, I think the Conservative Party has benefited in particular. But technically they are capturing the spirit of the web and with a particular audience online they are moving away from something that is more text-based; they are using a lot more video and audio which is quite engaging. They are also linking to other sites which have existing communities so they have good visibility online.
Q148 Paul Flynn: What can we do as a Select Committee? We are in the Dark Ages. We have webcasts but we do not advertise very much. There are moments of high drama, humour and confrontation on this Committee; it is a very exciting place to be. When we publish our reports, wonderfully written as they are, normally they do not set pulses racing. Should we issue CDs with the reports giving the highlights and those points that we want to get across? At the moment the matters that get into the public domain are the rows in the Committee. It depends on what happens on the particular day, particularly if there is something exciting going on in the House. Do you believe that it should be part of the role of committees both to attract information when they start new investigations and, during them, to inform people of the telling things that have been said, for example the discovery last week that the person administering the minimum wage did not know the level of the minimum wage? There are profound things about the Strategy Unit. We had Lord Birt here. We produced a fascinating report which was not thought fit for the people to see because it was such a good report, which is the essence of communication. It is a report very similar to the one to be published in a few hours which suggests that joint policy does not work. The nature of government work is that things are concealed if they do not suit the agenda of government. As the Select Committee will be the first to do these things what should we be doing to enlarge our role?
Mr Ferguson: The Hansard Society has conducted a lot of work in this area around Select Committee and consultations. There have been busy and quiet periods when Select Committees have stepped forward to take up the opportunity to have their processes evaluated. The public is very interested in engaging with the parliamentary process through Select Committees. There will be times when it is appropriate to go out and try to engage the general public or focus on some expert stakeholders or practitioners. ICTs, definitely the web and potentially in future more mobile-based devices, kiosks and digital television, will open up the opportunities, alongside the offline routes available to engage the public.
Q149 Paul Flynn: Should we have our own website and be putting out the interesting things that happen? At the moment we can put on our own website only those things that individual Members have said; we cannot put on the brilliant things that other Members say and the answers we get. There are all kinds of silly rules. That does restrict the work of the website and the way we try to get our work and its news value across to whoever is running the show on that day?
Mr Ferguson: Some of the most exciting and successful work that goes on in Parliament comes through the Select Committee. People are interested in issues.
Q150 Paul Flynn: What should we do?
Mr Ferguson: I would stream some of your meetings through the site and link up to one another when talking about Select Committee business. Go out more to online communities where one talks about things that are of interest to them; tell them that this work is going on and be proactive as they are, hopefully, proactive in coming to you.
Mr Steinberg: I should like to make three points. First, you may have noticed that currently TheyWorkForYou does not cover committees; it covers the Lords, Commons and Westminster Hall. The reason it does not do that is that all the committees publish their information in completely different and incompatible formats which means that to take any one and put it on TheyWorkForYou is a big piece of work. There are lots of committees and so it must be done dozens of time over. Come up with a consistent way of publishing all the committee transcripts in particular - we can help you do that - and make sure that that is done in a timely way. A great example of what you are missing, if you are thinking of why that is worth doing, is that any of the words we have spoken today may be key words for which people have email alerts on TheyWorkForYou. For example, I get mail if anyone mentions MySociety in the Commons or Lords, but this Committee is not covered, which means that all those people who might have signed up for key words that you have discussed today would not get them because it is too hard to cover it. We are trying to do it but it is a massive uphill struggle because historically you have made it so difficult for us. You would have a huge benefit because all the people who have signed up to get mail when somebody mentions cheese, shoes or Iraq - whatever they sign up for - will get those discussions and hear more about the committees. At the moment 15,000 people a day get these custom alerts and that number will go up in time. The first point is that there should be consistent daily publication of all the Select Committees in the same format. The second point is that one should support the freedom of information file and archive that we shall build and launch this summer. This is a project to make it as easy to file freedom of information requests as it is to write to Members of Parliament. Unlike writing to MPs, it will take copies of the requests and responses and put them online so people can find them and so will not have to refile requests that have already been made 16 times. It is about saving the Government money and giving better service to the public so they can get the information they want faster. Use it and tell people about it. The third point is that today we have talked about petitions. We built the petitions site as a piece of free software so that people can reuse it. I know that there are discussions here and in other committees about the role of petitions in Parliament. I am delighted that one side-effect of the Number 10 site is that it has got Parliament talking about petitions, but there is a free piece of software that has been tested against loads that no other piece of software has ever had to deal with. It is there; it was written by us; it is for you, so please take advantage of it.
Mr Heath: I think the question you are asking is: how does one best communicate in the light of the availability of this new medium? At one level it is more a question for a director of communications than an external expert on technology in government. It is very important to start with the underlying intention and purpose of the Committee and for whom it is doing what it does. If one takes a technology-driven approach and says that there appear to be CDs and new media and asks whether one should be doing it one may get a technology-driven answer which may be confusing. For lots of people in lots of jobs the technology-driven answer is that their jobs are no longer appropriate, which is rather uncomfortable. If one has too much of an existing committee-driven stance, which is to ask how it carries on doing what it does now, one may fail to take into account the possibilities of the new medium. I believe that for the Committee and other parts of government, including public services, the question is: why are they doing what they do? What is possible in the light of this new medium which is a fantastic research tool? It is a brilliant communications mechanism and is low cost; it is very widely available, though not universally. Questions were asked earlier about the role of different parties and who was making best use of this medium. It is quite clear that with a new medium this will favour good communicators who learn and understand the rules of it. All the other media are still there; one still has face-to-face contact on television and radio. I believe that with Mr Steinberg and MySociety you have in the room the exemplary communicators in this new medium globally recognised. History will be very kind to MySociety and what it has done and how it has done it without a commercial agenda and brilliant design, which is good for visually impaired people. It is exemplary in all sorts of ways. You may not like what it does; you may choose to criticise incorrectly addressed emails and stuff, but the fact is that there is a huge amount to learn from its approach.
Q151 Paul Flynn: In the recent judicial review of the Government's consultation on nuclear energy it was suggested that when the Government knew its own mind there was not much point in consulting. This was a change in government policy where in 2003 nuclear energy was thought to be unattractive. There was a PowerPoint presentation given by the Chief Scientist to the Prime Minister. A light went on in his head and he changed his mind and it suddenly became very attractive; and overnight it also became very attractive to all members of the Government, PPS and so on. Regardless of consultation, that policy had already changed anyway. How do you feel about that? The problem with all government consultation, and many governments - there are plenty of past examples - is that it is largely a sham anyway if they have a firm opinion. The only value that they see in it is to reinforce their own views.
Mr Heath: What I have observed is that a new communications medium cannot do much if people do not want to listen. In the areas that I have been looking at the issues are: the introduction of the children's index, Trident, computerisation of health records and how one approaches ID management. In all these areas the new communications medium seems to make more apparent a reluctance to hear outside views, which is perplexing and troubling. I do not think that it is a problem to do with the medium.
Q152 Paul Flynn: Five years ago when Mr Steinberg was writing about the future of these matters one of the great hopes was that we as MPs would be able to do our jobs better because people could communicate with us more easily. I think that already as far as emails are concerned we find that it has defeated itself; the volume of such messages has repeated the experience in America. There is too much to answer. Very few MPs now bother to answer emails from non-constituents except for a few formal words. In the early days in America a wrestler did win an election as a result of his website. He was certainly communicating with potential electors. How do you think things are going here compared with the States? They became awash with emails earlier than we did. Is there anything that the Committee or MPs as communicators can learn from the American experience?
Mr Ferguson: In the US the use of the online medium tends to be concerned with campaigning work. It is clear that through the work Parliament has been doing online, and government is doing increasingly, there is a lot that Britain can share with the US, whereas before we tended to take a lot of our lessons straight from their campaign trails and tried to apply them to our peacetime politics, if you like. I believe that that is an incorrect approach. We have been doing some annual audits of political engagement. Only 14 % of people said that they would be willing to engage in the political process through parliamentary or government consultations and only 4 % had done so. In the main, there are two things that people would much rather do: the first is to vote every five years and the other is to sign petitions. There is a big gap - leaving aside voting - between the more informal approach to political participation and the formal approach. Some of the work that we have seen online carried out by a range of different organisations shows that they can plug that gap. The work that we did in Digital Dialogues was to run case studies around particular policies on which consultation was sought by departments. About 70 % of the people who used those sites engaged in a form of political process for the first time. There is lots of data to show that the more people engage in politics between elections the more likely they are to vote in elections and sustain the participation. I think that one lesson that we should be aspiring to send out is that the more we engage people the more they will stay engaged, and I think that across OECD countries that is an important matter. We should aspire to be the leaders in that process.
Q153 Paul Flynn: Is there any future in politicians being active on YouTube, MySpace and Google video?
Ms Kennedy: You talked about how to get out Select Committee messages. Before Christmas I flipped over by mistake to BBC Parliament and found myself mesmerised by evidence being given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I did not intend to look at it, but it was fantastic. I do not know whether it is possible, but those sorts of pieces when put onto YouTube spread. That is one of the interesting aspects of this new medium, and perhaps it is one of the underlying factors in the Number 10 petitions site. One has the creation of online communities. I received from more than one personal contact an email asking me to sign the petition on road pricing on the Number 10 website. People become interested in the stuff and spread the word through their own communities. That is a powerful development. Therefore, if the Committee has some really interesting bits and they are on YouTube people will rate them and email their friends asking them whether they have seen them because they are very interesting. One of the behaviour changes that the new medium allows, perhaps requires, is that one does not have to push it all from the centre any more. If things are interesting people will pick them up and run with them. The difficulty for government is that there is a lot of control there, but it is also very powerful.
Q154 Chairman: One would have expected that the development of these new mechanisms for communication and participation would produce a greater engagement in the political process. Yet when one looks at the policy review documents prepared for the Cabinet discussion today one of the charts indicates that the headline of political efficacy or people's belief in their capacity to influence the world is in decline. One might have thought that all these new opportunities would have produced a re-engagement and yet it seems not to have happened.
Ms Kennedy: I think that what happened on the Number 10 site is an example of re-engagement. The 1.8 million people might never have engaged at all. Whilst we agree that it is at a low level and is the first point of contact, that is a re-engagement. But people are very savvy at judging what they see online and whether they believe it is real, and so much of the engagement has not been regarded as genuine. Mr Heath has already mentioned the quality of MySociety. One of its powerful aspects is that it is really designed with the end-user in mind, so it works for them. It is designed in a way that is completely user-sensitised and is user-centric. A lot of stuff that emanates from government does not feel like that. That is the challenge for my old boss David Miliband. It is fantastic that he is trying to do a blog, but there are things that curtail his ability to speak on his blog. People see through that; they know that one cannot have the discussion that one really wants with him because of the rules as to what he is allowed to say, collective responsibility and all the rest of it.
Q155 Chairman: Is there not a wider point? Government is a rather complicated business that is all to do with difficult trade-offs, and it is a million miles from the simple approach that if only more people could be made to express their views it would be all right. It will not be all right; it will leave people feeling probably more disaffected than before. Therefore, there is a mismatch between, as it were, the nature of the enterprise and the nature of the technology.
Mr Steinberg: I think that representative technology is great because it forces people to make successful compromises in nice non-violent environments. One cannot just push a button and expect to have exactly what one wants because that is the politics of infantilism, not grown-up democracy. My challenge to you is: go to the parliamentary website and find where it says that, by the way, you should know that to be part of the political process you have to make compromises. That is the first thing you have to know. It should be in the middle of the home page; it should say that government is not a normal consumer business and it will not do exactly what you say but there are ways of working with you and here they are.
Q156 Chairman: Did the Number 10 e.Petition site say that?
Mr Steinberg: It said that you could petition the Prime Minister, as you already could. I believe that Number 10 said that if you petitioned it did not mean you would get automatically what you wanted. I am not completely sure, but I guess they did.
Q157 Chairman: But you are saying that that is what it should do, and it was something you set up.
Mr Steinberg: I think that it did; I am just not completely sure. Maybe you are right and we should go back and put something in the middle of the home page saying that by signing the petition the individual is marking his or her voice to be heard but should be aware that there is a democratic process into which it fits. You are quite right; and maybe we can persuade Number 10 that that is the sort of thing it should do. Crucially, this is the house of representatives. I would very much like you to be in the business of explaining to the public through these new forms of communication that it is messy and complicated and tell them how they can become involved, rather than just imply that if they hang around Westminster long enough they will understand. In the site that MySociety runs primarily we take enormous guidance on what MPs do. You have probably seen the huge documents showing what MPs cover. We try to distil it into about 25 words because that is about the level that people are willing to take in. It is great when one can express things simply, honestly and not lose the nuance and the fact that it is not just about getting exactly what you want. It is not like going into a shop.
Q158 Paul Flynn: Are you going to change the responses so you can sign in favour of it, against it or express doubt?
Mr Steinberg: Personally, I am against that because that makes it look like a poll and petitions are not that. Polls and petitions are great but they are not the same. Unrepresentative polls are genuinely harmful; they have big negative externalities. I do not quite see that normal petitions have such large negative externalities.
Mr Ferguson: I echo that. As much as you should create opportunities for people to participate online you should also provide information about how to participate when those new routes are created. One of my favourite examples of this working well is the online consultation by the Select Committee on Defence last year in relation to the education of service children. That was set up because the people that they wanted to talk to lived outside the UK; they lived all round the world. There was clear value in doing it online to involve them in this consultation. They could have written in but the Defence Committee wanted to be much more transparent and encourage people to deliberate among themselves. The crucial difference between that consultation compared with anything that had gone before was that Members also facilitated the debate. Far from prejudging the findings of its inquiry the Committee explained why things were the way they were, what options there were, and when people made blatant complaints perhaps about the committee system as a whole or the way the military worked the Members fulfilling their role as representatives were able to explain it to them. The satisfaction rate from post-consultation surveys that we carried out was far higher than any we had previously run. I think the reason why technology has not led to greater political engagement is that Parliament and the Government have been largely lacking in that area, particularly the formal opportunities to engage.
Q159 David Heyes: I want to go back to consultation other than in an electronic sense. I believe that Ms Kennedy said she had been in a situation where she had had to write submissions for the minister before the consultation had closed. I should have been shocked by that admission but I was not. It appears that very often that is what happens because consultation is difficult and time-consuming, for good practical reasons such as schools holidays which you mentioned, and it is inconvenient to get the feedback that may come from it. The reality is that it is a sham and the decision may be made by Number 10. The department or minister is told what it is going to do and then the sham consultation takes place: what was always going to happen was what the directive from Number 10 said. It leads on to the difficulty of electronic consultation being rooted in the fact that consultation of itself is a sham. Perhaps you would talk about that.
Ms Kennedy: I do not say that government consultation is always a sham.
Q160 David Heyes: I am sorry to interrupt. I am not talking simply about central government or Number 10; it seems to me to apply equally in the context of local government, local health services or local education - wherever government exists and pretends to consult.
Ms Kennedy: The factor that is often missing is the desire to listen. I believe that the key question is: what is it that people are trying to find out. What is problematic is that that is not always transparent to the general public, if that is where consultation is being run. If the main policy has already been decided it needs to be clear to the public that you are no longer consulting on whether it is this or that policy but on the implementation, that is, the hows and wherefores of the policy itself. Often that involves not only individual members of the public but NGOs and the third sector - those who speak authoritatively on behalf of some of the groups that it is difficult to reach in consultation. What are the opportunities that the new technology provides to consult in a different way, perhaps at greater speed and with a different range of people. But it is "both and"; that can be done as well as the old methods, but the Government can get much better at being clear as to what it is they are genuinely undecided on and want views on and they are trying to find out what people think about it so they can handle the backlash when it happens. There are different types of things that government wants to find out, and often it is not very clear. One of the reasons for it is that I do not believe there is a very professionalised approach to it. There is not an involvement of people running and designing these things who really understand how to engage with people in the outside world. You might be heading up a policy area and there would be consultation in your area. You and your colleagues work out the questions. That is not the best way to do it, and that is why quite often government consults on preconceived notions rather than engages in deliberative conversations with people. Bodies like the National Consumer Council are fantastic in this area because they come to it from the other end. The results are very surprising. The other day they said to me that there was an assumption by government that if you asked some questions you would get nasty answers so you should not ask them. For example, in the area of housing do not ask people what they want because they will say that they want something tremendous and they want it tomorrow. The NCC's work shows the opposite. People are very realistic about what it is possible to deliver. When you ask them what they want they say they realise it takes a while for repairs to be made but they want people to be honest about how long it will take. If it will take three months tell them that, not that it can be done tomorrow. I think that government would do well to engage much more with those people who really understand how to do consultation well. One fantastic example that the Committee may or may not know about is the Trust Guide co-sponsored by the DTI. Rather than ask people questions about things with which they were not really familiar - this was about what it was that made people trust online services - they took a deliberative approach. They had about 29 focus groups comprising different types of people but gave them hands-on lab experience which enabled them to understand the technology about which they were being asked. Having had that they were asked what they felt about using online services, identity, biometrics and all the very complicated things that the average citizen does not really know much about. The results of that are incredibly powerful and quite challenging. They produce quite different results from when one conducts a poll asking whether people want ID cards. When one really wants to find out what people feel or think about complicated things one needs to do it in a very nuanced way.
Mr Heath: Following that particular Trust Guide experience, it would be fabulous to take Committee Members or senior policymakers through a process to show how chips, pins, biometrics and the Internet worked in order to have informed lay experience of the fact that the Internet is a dangerous place that one should not trust at all. One might then come up with the same conclusion, that you do not trust it but it is so convenient that you will use it anyway as long as someone clears up the messes. Your question about consultation takes us back to whether government can govern better and local authorities and health authorities can provide better public services with better evidence. Consultation is one way of obtaining evidence. My personal experience - I am quite naïve and idealistic - has been very disappointing. The petition is another small hint perhaps about what people really think. The nature of the Internet is that it provides copious amounts of feedback. People who search for anything through Google leave a trace of what they have searched for. You can go to Google and ask what is it in Finland, France or UK that people search for. Anybody who has a website can download three lines of code and suddenly have an automatic map of where their visitors come from. Anything that happens on line produces its own automatic feedback at very little cost and effort. In addition, the Internet is a fabulous medium for providing personalised or deliberate feedback for research or stories. An exemplary use of this is something called Patient Opinion which was set up by a GP in Sheffield. He is a doctor and he wants to improve people's experience of the NHS and make it more responsive. He set up a service called Patient Opinion which asked people what their experiences of the NHS had been. What was it like? People said what had happened to them. Very surprising results have come out of it. More than half of the usage of the service was represented by people thanking their care providers because they could not find a different and convenient way of doing that. That is not nearly as frightening as the practitioners thought it would be. Some of it reflects serious malpractice issues which have to be taken offline and dealt with by the hospital concerned. I think the answer is that one can govern and provide public services better with the rich feedback that the Internet makes possible in all sorts of ways if one understands what the evidence really means - it means different things - if one is prepared to listen to it and able and willing to act upon it.
Q161 David Heyes: When I used the word "sham" you nodded vigorously, so I took that as assent to what I said. How does one move from what very often appears to be sham and fake consultation to the idealistic world that you have just described to us?
Mr Heath: I was so disappointed by the consultations in which either I took part or persuaded people to take part. For example, in relation to ID management consultation I persuaded a Dutch professor working in Montreal to make a detailed submission about the possibility of transacting online in a complex way and maintaining privacy and anonymity with a high level of security. It was not his problem that we wanted to do ID management. He put in a lot of time to do that but it was never acknowledged. The points that he made have never been acknowledged in any of the policy statements since. That was why I nodded vigorously. I was personally upset by that because I found it shameful.
Q162 David Heyes: To continue my thesis, if consultation is often a sham enhanced or enriched consultation in the form of electronic consultation adds to people's feeling that it is all a fake and increases a sense of disillusionment with the political process.
Mr Steinberg: I am dying to get specifically to online consultation. I do not consider that petitions or writing to MPs are online consultation where government is thinking of certain policy and it wants to ask people about them. A lot of people have tried to do this over the past few years. There is a range of providers out there and various parts of the public sector have tried to use them. I do not believe that anyone has got it even nearly right. This is a different point from whether government will listen once it is done. I think that with things like TheyWorkForYou they are getting it mostly right. Obviously, one can always add and improve things, but it turns out that to do any form of consultation well online is terrifically hard. It is probably one of those problems that is genuinely expensive. You write to them at a cost of £40,000 or so. People work for you because there is so much volunteer labour and so it is much less than that. I think that people have tried to build online consultation for about that much money, although I am guessing. Part of the reason it might not have been that impressive is that it is probably the sort of project that needs low millions to have a good shot at it, and even then it may turn out that it is just one of those things, like making pasta, that you cannot do very well on the Internet. Until we have tried with the appropriate budget we will never know whether or not it is possible. My most important lesson is that if you have ever been involved in online consultation and felt disappointed in part it may be because government is not listening but from a technical point of view a big part of it is due to the fact that none of the systems out there is that great. I would love to see Parliament invest directly in trying itself to do it. That is not a plug for work because we have much too much to do at the moment anyway. Can you use technology to make people listen? Can you somehow use the Internet and get people who did not show interest to start to listen? That is a hard and interesting question. If the things are badly delivered, small and underused it makes them very easy to ignore, but if they are intelligently designed and reasonably well used it makes them hard to ignore. I give a tiny example from Write To Them. It is against the terms and conditions and its policy to let people spam Members through that site. It stops and notices if people try to send the same letter 20 times. That is partly because we want you to like the service and trust it, but it is also because we know that if you get 10 letters in exactly the same form you know that 10 people have got together and organised something, whereas if you get 10 letters on the same topic that are obviously all different it may reflect a broader interest in the public. That is one example of where a little technological change is about trying to make people listen more. Sometimes it may work and sometimes it does not. We do not read the mail that people send because it is private and we do not know. I believe that sometimes you can build technology systems that push the right buttons and make people sit back, take interest and listen to it, but it does not come automatically or easily. If you do not design things well you will never get the result that people who plan not to listen suddenly do so. They have to be good before that even becomes a possibility. How to make people listen is your business; it is to do with laws and stuff over which we have no control, for example how you hold the executive to account. We do not have any say in that, nor should we because we are a little NGO, not elected representatives.
Q163 Mr Prentice: When people write to me using WriteToThem.com I reply electronically. The reply is triggered electronically, so everyone hears from me before they get the substantive reply, but I have a very low score when it comes to replies. How does that work?
Mr Steinberg: That is because we ask people whether they got a reply from their MPs. Most people know the difference between an automatic bounce and something else.
Q164 Mr Prentice: When people use WriteToThem.com my electronically-triggered reply says that I do not discriminate between people who use different media to get in touch with me, that is, the phone, fax and so on. I ask people to give their postal address because I do not want to spend a lot of time corresponding with someone in Alaska; I want to speak to my constituents or people in the UK. When I got their postal addresses I write to them using snail mail, but that does not show up.
Mr Steinberg: Yes, it does show up. We do everything to make this as fair and useful a system for both you and them.
Q165 Mr Prentice: In that case why do I get such a low score?
Mr Steinberg: I am afraid I do not know.
Q166 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You are probably sending them to the wrong address.
Mr Steinberg: There are dozens of MPs who have had perfect response rates. There are some who have very good and not so good responses. I am sorry I cannot give the reason for that.
Q167 Mr Prentice: It is the person who writes who decides whether or not he or she has received a response. It is not an automated process. I have used Write To Them. I then get an email asking whether I have had a response. If I get one I say yes; if not, I say no. It is the constituents who are the problem, not the system.
Mr Steinberg: I often thought that.
Q168 Chairman: The emailers believe that they have a greater claim on you than the non-emailers, whereas the reverse should be true. Those people who write a letter, buy a stamp at the post office and post it have a much higher claim than those who press a button on a computer, do they not?
Mr Steinberg: That is why we do not hold you to a higher standard on these statistics than the rest of the public sector. We pick the public sector average for response rates for departments. We look at what the departments say is the date by which you have to respond and we give that to you in the same way. We say that this is fair, unless you are sending mail overland or by slow boat to Alaska. You have enough time - two or three weeks - to get back before the people get the mail and they are asked whether they have had a response.
Q169 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You said that you did not read any of the emails. You published mine in the paper.
Mr Steinberg: I will correct that. We read mail only when we have reason to believe that there is something suspicious.
Mr Liddell-Grainger: I understand - for example, Number 10 and cash for honours!
Q170 Mr Walker: Mr Heath and Ms Kennedy, do you believe that our parliamentary democracy is failing because everything you have said suggests that it is?
Mr Heath: Perhaps I may answer that in my own words without a yes or no. What I study is the computerisation of public services and I do not believe that generally it is being well designed for its users. I do not know whether that is the fault of our parliamentary democracy. I suspect that in Parliament for historic reasons there is not a high level of expertise or ease or familiarity with new technologies. You have an awful lot of things to be expert in and learn about IT takes a good deal of effort, and there are not many MPs for whom that is a professional background. I do not believe that Parliament is yet effective in rectifying the fact that all our investment in the transformation of government, e.Government or whatever is not really designed for its users.
Q171 Mr Walker: That is an answer, but what concerns me about the evidence you have given is that you have not mentioned the role of a Member of Parliament. We have a representative democracy in this country where every four or five years people go to the polls to elect Members of Parliament to represent their concerns to the executive. Everything that you have talked about today is bypassing the Member of Parliament and envisaging a democracy where we simply have an executive with which the people communicate directly. I am not against that, but I am just concerned that neither of you appears to believe that there is any role for a Member of Parliament perhaps beyond giving good people like yourselves a hard time.
Mr Heath: I do not want to give that impression at all. Certainly, I have a very lively correspondence with my own Member of Parliament, Mr Jeremy Hunt. Our business studies where the money is spent on technology and that is entirely about the bulk of public services: health, defence, local government, central government and so on. That is not something which MPs directly influence or control very closely. I was very surprised by the experience of a former MP who now works on behalf of a technology company doing lobbying and government affairs work principally in Brussels and who has no doubt that there is a greater effect on legislation coming out in the UK through working on behalf of a company in Brussels than as a Member of Parliament, but that is not something on which I have personal expertise or experience.
Ms Kennedy: I do not suggest that parliamentary democracy is failing. Certainly, when I have engaged with my MP, Harriet Harman, I have found her very responsive. From my various voluntary activities I have found that MPs are generally very responsive to their constituents in taking forward those things. One reflection is that as a former senior civil servant when you write to your MP and he or she takes it up with the relevant department it is pretty irritating to get a typical civil service response from the department in question. As a civil servant I always made it my business to read what people were writing and to try to respond. For anybody it is disingenuous to get a response that has not really engaged with whatever is the issued that has been raised. That takes us back to the question: does the big beast really want to listen? But I do not think that that is a criticism of MPs themselves. There is a good deal of public debate already about parliamentary democracy, and last night's vote is all part of that. I think people recognise that there are ways in which it needs to be made better. I am an enthusiast for that, too. I do not think that it is failing.
Q172 Mr Walker: Mr Steinberg, I believe that you have a great website. I look at two: yours and Conservative Home. I think they are very good and enjoy reviewing them. I am interested in petitions. We are running a petition in Broxbourne regarding the health service. One brilliant feature of the petition is that it re-engages local representatives - councillors, county councillors, activists and myself - with the public. They love that in a non-party-political way. I do not care who takes it around. It is great fun because we get to meet people and have nice chats. This just does not happen on the Internet. MyPetition runs solely through the Internet. Ten thousand signatures secured on the Internet would not have the same value as 10,000 signatures secured face to face because of that interaction. What people say most of all is that they miss people knocking on their doors and seeing their politicians and activists. One of the problems with that is that fewer people become involved in that type of work, but what worries me about the Internet is that it is all very good and exciting; it is fun and it is entertaining. We have framed this conversation in a way that suggests my entire electorate, say, of 72,000 is just glued to the web; it is not. Only a tiny minority of them do that. I think that we are in danger of overstating the role of the Internet and e.communications in how we as politicians interact with our constituents. I would appreciate your thoughts on that.
Mr Steinberg: It is absolutely true to say that it is one channel of many, and it just happens to be the one in which I work. Therefore, it is not surprising that a good deal of what I am talking about today is concerned with it. There are loads of things in life in which paper is better than the Internet and technology, and I would always say that. What would be the number one way to use technology to get people outside the school gate to engage in school boards? Put a sign up outside the gate to explain how to get involved. There is appropriate technology for that. One should pick the thing that suits best. Petitions can still be done online and offline, and maybe in the next few years we will see more combinations. For example, there is no reason why you cannot go to someone's door with a laptop and talk about a petition and then have the person sign it on that. You would then have the benefits of both worlds. That may seem a little cumbersome today but maybe by next week it may appear to be old hat. You never know.
Q173 Mr Walker: I would never take a laptop with me. It might be a BlackBerry or something. I just think that that turns us into technology wonkies, for want of a better word. It is nice to go out with a piece of paper and pen and get people to sign up. You could do it with a laptop but I do not see much advantage in that. You can now scan information and people's signatures into a computer anyway, can you not?
Ms Kennedy: I should like to reiterate what Mr Steinberg said. It is about using the appropriate technology and the mix and maturity of the different things that are used is part of the value of it. A lot of my social policy work has been about engaging with those who are difficult to engage and so on. Clearly, at the moment the Internet is not where many of those people find the ability to communicate, but it is worth noting that it varies across the population. The UK's Internet penetration in households is pretty much the top in Europe; it is about 75 %. Of those who have access about 65 % are on broadband. There are big pockets of population where there is very low penetration, for example in Peckham where I live. I think I am right in saying that last year a survey was done of 16 to 24 year-olds. Of those, 75 % used social networking sites like MySpace, Beebo and so on. For that generation it is very different. This how they communicate with each other and so on. There is a need to be very clever about the technology that is used and for whom.
Q174 Mr Walker: I am still troubled by what I believe are your concerns about representative parliamentary democracy and our role within it. What is it that you think the role of MPs is? What do you think that we do within our constituencies? I would be interested to know whether there is a gap between what we feel we do and what you as experts in this new world of communications think we do.
Mr Heath: I am cautious about this because this is really not my specialist subject. We are not lobbyists and do not deal with parliamentary lobbyists. I like the HearFromYourMP service that Mr Steinberg set up because it reflects the asymmetric relationship between the elected representative who has to make decisions, balance things and take them forward and the individual who may feel that his view is incredibly strong but obviously cannot be reflected. If you look at the richness of the evidence at one extreme, you take the views of everyone in the country on every subject. The triumph of our representative democracy is to reduce it to one vote for every person every five years. That is an enormous simplification and digitisation process. You then have the task of making sense of it and setting laws. The fact is that there is now available a richer evidence base. I do not know how best you act upon it and I shall watch with interest, but I do not have a prescription for it.
Ms Kennedy: My answer is a purely personal one and is not based on any particular expertise. When once in five years I get to vote I choose my MP on the declared range of policy options. In the intervening period I believe that the MP represents me, so I communicate when I feel that things are not working for me in the way they should or when I believe that the MP should hold the executive to account. For example, I last wrote to my MP about maternity services which is something close to my heart. We have fantastic services in Peckham. I do not believe that government is doing what it said it would do in terms of excellence of service and choice. I wrote to my MP on that issue and she took it up on my behalf with the Department of Health. That is one of the ways that I get my voice heard within the executive and across the Civil Service. That was very powerful and I felt that it was responsive.
Mr Steinberg: I think that one thing you do is send loads of emails with really bad tools. The tools that Parliament gives you are rubbish. You need to get together and beat up whoever is in the IT department in order to build something specific for the job.
Mr Heath: Perhaps I may offer you a more thoughtful answer. I think that what you bring to this process should be commonsense and empathy. The world that I look at, which is the computerisation of public services, lacks those two qualities and it is for MPs to introduce them. We can mechanise our instruments of compassion. We can create a society in which people are discriminated against on the basis of some automated rules. Instead of going to the local post office where the postmistress knows my name, my iris is scanned and suddenly I do not get a service and I do not know the reason for it. We need MPs to bring empathy and commonsense into the investment that we are making.
Q175 Chairman: But the point is that the technology is driving the pattern of service provision, which is a wider area, and that is one of the laments one hears in terms of providers of services. We attended a Jobcentre in Clapham the other day and heard how people were being deskilled. They used to understand the job in the round and all the legislation and could provide the totality of advice; now they are trained to operate simply one section of a computer programme. On the other side people do not see people face to face any more so they can deal with problems in the round. They are expected to access services electronically. That involves a loss of connection between the citizen and the state.
Mr Heath: It should not be driven by technology but by intention and the needs of customers. We have to get on top of it so we are clear about our intention and what people need in terms of jobs on both sides - the staff who offer the service and the people who need the jobs - so that the technology serves it. The voice of commonsense and empathy would get that under control.
Q176 Chairman: But people have worked out that if one brings IT in one door one can get people out the other door. As many people experience it there is a loss of service involved in the process.
Mr Heath: There is a fundamental dispute, which goes back 40 years, about what the purpose of the technology is. The original assumption is that it is all about automation and that essentially people are ciphers who can be done away with as machines get better at doing the job. That arises out of militaristic thinking about it which is not what we see in reality. This technology is about augmenting people and making them more than they were before, bringing more information to them so they can make better and firmer decisions. That is a matter of personal computing and well designed services, and that is the nature of the Internet. The control freaks are losing out. They are still there and believe that it will work for them, but they are wrong.
Q177 Chairman: Look at the evidence of people's evaluation of their contact with providers, public and private. The lamentations are all about the automated character of the transaction as opposed to the people-focused transaction.
Mr Heath: That is because it is so badly designed, and you need to say that.
Ms Kennedy: The problem is that there are not enough examples of where the process has been changed and there has been an improvement. For example, in relation to the pensions service people were asked how they wanted the service to deal with them. Funnily enough, people did not want to have several hour-long interviews; they wanted a lot of the service to be provided over the phone because it was quicker and easier. But the service still sees a million people face to face every year. What it now tries to do is that when someone comes to your home to talk about your pension there is a person locally who can also talk to you about other useful things that you may want to know about and other services in which you may want to engage. I think that what they are seeing is an improvement in the service, and the bit that is face to face is much more useful and less time-consuming. They have thought it through from the point of view of the end-user at the beginning rather than bring in the technology first.
Q178 Chairman: Last week or the week before we had before us the head of the Inland Revenue who described how the service had reintroduced case workers into the tax credit system. Tax credits have been a disaster in administrative terms because the system has been entirely IT-driven. They now have to bring people back in to sort out the problems.
Ms Kennedy: I met some ladies from Jobcentre Plus who said the same thing. They used to be able to do the totals themselves and say, "We owe you a bit and you owe us a bit and the answer is x." They are now allowed to do that. For me, that is another example of a badly designed system.
Q179 Kelvin Hopkins: I am not as enthusiastic about computers as my colleagues and I try to minimise my use of them. I must say that what Mr Heath and Ms Kennedy have said sounds patronising, manipulative and even sinister. Setting aside communicating at local level, in politics we have a prime minister who finds Parliament and MPs extremely irritating; he would much prefer to communicate directly with the people. Historically, we have had good democratic enthusiasts who have written about the importance of what they call intermediary organisations, a variety of different institutions in representative democracy. It is the dictators and authoritarians who love to communicate directly with the people. Do you believe that if Hitler had had the Internet he would have loved it? Not only would he have sent out nasty questionnaires about what to do about the Jews; he would have been able to trace back the people who were against him. In the wrong hands these things can be very authoritarian and anti-democratic.
Mr Heath: Hitler did not have the Internet but it is well documented that he had Hollerith tabulating machines which he used to mechanise the discrimination that he practised. The thing about the Internet is that it is not a top down communications medium. It is not trustworthy and it is chaotic. One can communicate top down with it, but one can also communicate peer to peer. China finds it quite troublesome. We visited China last autumn. China is petrified about the idea of people communicating on a peer-to-peer basis and sharing their views on what they think is really going on and the loss of control. What they want to learn from the UK, interestingly, is how non-conformists in this country contribute to an active NGO sector. I do not think they want to replicate the British establishment, but they would like to replicate British NGOs in a controlled way. I am interested that you find the world we look at patronising, manipulative and sinister. We are in it and we just try to make the best of it.
Q180 Kelvin Hopkins: I am not making a personal comment but Ms Kennedy has worked at Number 10 and I am particularly interested in her view of these things. Undoubtedly, there are enormous benefits to be derived from the Internet, and for some authoritarians it can be threatening. There might however be populists on the political right who could wish to whip up mass feeling in asking for example, "Shall we go to war?" A Prime Minister might say that there is a very bad man in a particular country who is doing terrible things and we have to go to war. He might ask: "Do we go and get rid of this bad man and restore democracy or give in to the wimpy liberals who do not like to fight?" There might then be a majority vote in favour and we would go to war. That is the kind of politics that we are in danger of embracing.
Ms Kennedy: I find that abhorrent but I do not think that that is necessarily anything to do with the technology. We could have an interesting discussion about cabinet government and so on, but I do not believe that the manner in which, for example, the current Government has conducted itself both in terms of its relationship with Parliament and to the population out there has been driven by any sort of technological developments. I agree with you that every new technology can be used for ill.
Q181 Kelvin Hopkins: Is not the point that it is another medium of communication which must be regarded with care and controlled? Hitler used film, for example the work of Leni Riefenstahl, and loudspeakers at Nuremberg rallies. He controlled the press and destroyed it, but he did it with mass popular support.
Ms Kennedy: I think you are absolutely right that it is a medium that needs to be addressed with care, but interestingly it is schizophrenic. There is no doubt that the Internet allows somebody to have new methods of getting his or her voice heard but, as Mr Heath said, it also provides the opportunity for anyone to challenge in a powerful way from underneath. Both things are true.
Q182 Kelvin Hopkins: There are a number of films, plays and books on this subject, for example 1984. We have had Big Brother on the television as a reference back to Orwell. We have to be very careful. There are lots of examples of how things start gradually, with what seems to be a wonderful democratic process, usually with a charismatic leader, and before we know where we are we have abolished democracy. Are not these things dangerous?
Mr Heath: You are speaking more closely to my deeper concern about how we are computerising government. Obviously, we do have the Internet; we did go to war, and it has not cured that. In what we are doing to change the architecture and basis on which the state deals with people we must work harder to ensure that it is built on an explicit foundation of trust and, when it goes wrong, we can see that everything possible is done to look after it. For example, when we are planning our data-sharing policies, how we do ID management and operate surveillance we need to be really clear that justice, honesty, transparency and accountability are part of it. That is an architectural and deep technical question. There does not seem to be a desire to discuss it or implement it in a really safe way. I do not think that we are heading towards something Orwellian; it is more Kafkaesque and a world in which something bad will happen to you and where it comes from will be untraceable. I think that people will find that really disturbing.
Q183 Kelvin Hopkins: You referred to democracy and - I cannot remember the phrase you used - essentially that it was too complicated for simple folk and therefore you had to simplify it. A little later you said that you really wanted to simplify the role of an MP down to 25 words; it was too complicated to explain it. You also said - you did not pursue it - "that is what people are like." I should like to know what people are like.
Mr Heath: To take the initial point, I believe I was trying to say that democracy was a complicated thing to understand and we were trying to get our heads round how it works in practice because it keeps throwing up surprises. Last night is just the latest example of that. As to the 25 words, I think that was Mr Steinberg's point.
Mr Steinberg: I think that our democracy is complicated and needs to be and the way we explain it is really bad. That was all I was saying. Apparently, for many years in the newsroom of The Times - I do not know if it still applies - rather like the famous slogan "The economy, stupid" in the Clinton campaign, there was a notice on the wall saying "Remember they are 12", meaning the average reading age of the readership. I do not believe that it is patronising to speak in language that people can understand; I think it is the opposite. I was about to use the word "elitist" but I do not approve of that word. I think that it is inefficient and unhelpful to describe things in obscure ways that are hard to find and are locked in cabinets at the bottom of staircases or inside cubicles with signs that say "Beware of the panther", which is the sort of philosophy or explanation that we have at the moment. If you can have a link on the home page of the government websites which says "How do I change a law?" and you are sent through a set of processes and told that you cannot do it on your own; you have to join a bigger group of people and then talk to the MP and need to get together, that is not patronising; it is essential. That is my view on simplicity.
Q184 Mr Walker: Mr Heath and Ms Kennedy, I think that unwittingly you are part of the conspiracy which basically says that your elected representatives are useless so you should go over the top of their heads and go directly to government. The proof of the pudding is in the fact that turnout in general elections has dropped very rapidly over the past 10 years from about 80 % to just below 60 %. I believe that you must have a long think about the ramifications and implications of what you argue for. Unwittingly I think that you are diminishing our parliamentary democracy and the role of elected Members of Parliament within it.
Ms Kennedy: Do you suggest that because there is a move to consult people about stuff and those consultations are run by the local authority or a government department it means that people believe that they have had their say and they do not need to turn out and vote?
Q185 Mr Walker: I think that there is a mood among the intelligentsia, the media and the new media, which would be classed as yourselves, to denigrate the parliamentary democracy that we have had for the past 350 years basically by saying that Members of Parliament are totally useless and are paper-sifters. Therefore, we must have direct democracy and take the people straight to the Prime Minister. Our role as Members of Parliament is to take our constituents' concerns to the executive and that is why one has MPs. I am sorry if this sounds like an attack, but what you are doing is to reinforce the view in people's minds that we now have a quasi-presidential system and the executive operates completely separate from Parliament; MPs are redundant to the whole process and people should be taken directly to the executive.
Ms Kennedy: I am sorry if anything I have said suggests that that is what I believe because it is absolutely the opposite. I would love to see a massive increase in the quality of engagement between MPs and their constituents. They know their local areas and the local people; they are engaged with real people and real lives in a way that civil servants sitting in departments are not. There needs to be more of that. The sorts of things that Mr Steinberg and his folk do, which I hope are understood to be an effort to provide tools to help people to engage at local level, are really important. I speak as a former official working in complicated social policy areas. I believe there is enormous value in people developing policies understanding what those policies mean to people and how they would be interpreted and would work on the ground. I am talking of people as individuals but also civil society, NGOs and those who are important in local communities. The two should be happening; they are different but both are critically important. But in terms of the sustainability and health of our democracy it is a matter for you, and that is absolutely where it must sit.
Mr Heath: I hope it is absolutely clear that I respect MPs as much as anybody else.
Q186 Mr Walker: You do not have to respect us, and I do not care what you think of us.
Mr Heath: I have taken a morning off work to join your deliberations because I think that the work of Select Committees is really important. We enjoy and take a great interest in the output of such committees. It is simply a matter of historical fact that the Internet has been invented and computers are becoming massively more powerful. This is a new medium which is changing things. Our job is to try to research and understand this change as it affects public services in the UK. This may come up with certain challenging insights. I suspect that greater clarity in these processes may support the notion that we can all do our jobs better. If that is a difficult message that is regrettable, but we ought to try to understand it to the best of our ability and have a good dialogue about it.
Q187 Mr Walker: Perhaps the two of you should spend time with some Members of Parliament so you understand what it is we do. Surely, that would help you in improving the service that you offer to your users.
Mr Heath: That is a kind invitation, if that is what it is.
Q188 Mr Walker: It is not an invitation but a suggestion.
Mr Heath: That is not part of my core job but I am sure that it is something I would find very interesting.
Q189 Mr Burrowes: I certainly support the moves in terms of e.Democracy and the fact that it is bottom up. Is not the problem we have identified that the communication top down has the potential to discredit the value of electronic communication? The problem is that one has the David Miliband blogs and other blogs that essentially are self-serving. The value of MySociety is that it has been driven by volunteers and that essence of it starts to become lost and, in a low-level way, essentially becomes corrupted top down, whether it is the Government or individual politicians using it for their own purposes. We are unfortunately self-serving essentially.
Mr Heath: I do not think that e.Democracy is a helpful term because we have democracy and we add a communications to it. We still have democracy but just another tool. In this very transparent world things like censorship or spin become more painfully evident. For example, if there is a webchat and only half the questions are answered it is pretty obvious; or if one receives a formulaic email response that simply does not answer the question it is pretty obvious. That may indeed give rise initially to more dissatisfaction.
Mr Ferguson: If one looks at the deliberative end of politics online, where it involves elected representatives, even in the case of David Miliband's blog, people may not always be satisfied necessarily with what they get; they may find it bland and perhaps a bit boring but they learn a lot from it. The point was made that potentially we are giving government more access to our lives; they capture more data. There is a bit of a paradox here because we are also able to use the same technology to spread information and make elected representatives more accountable and the process more transparent. A common thread running through all this is that at either side of the bridge there are elected representatives and citizens and both need to come together and the technology can be used to do that. But we are at an early stage and it needs to be treated with care. The process needs to be evaluated and we should not let the technology run away with us.
Mr Steinberg: One thing to be optimistic about here is that if one tries to use the net basically to communicate in a dumb broadcast way it is really bad; it is rubbish. I have often told people that I do not believe the Internet is terrifically useful at elections. I think that the real power of the Internet in politics and democracy lies in the millions of decisions that happen between each of those five years. At election time buying advertisements on bus shelters is probably still better value for money. One optimistic note is that those are the places where the discussion is more frank and people can do what they want and are not controlled - they can file their own petitions, even though the Government will not like them - to which people flock and they grow. That is great and means that the natural tendency is to produce non-broadcast politics but more interesting and constructive, some anarchic, discussions.
Q190 Mr Burrowes: The value of it lies in the fact that it is generated by people; they generate it among themselves and their peers. To pick up some of the scepticism, is not the problem that, whilst things like 18 Doughty Street have their place, if it is said that in terms policymaking the Internet is the only game in town that is going to an extreme level.
Mr Heath: I agree
Q191 Mr Burrowes: Looking at the limitations, what are the characteristics of the person who is using electronic communication? I appreciate that it is extending but there are limits in terms of the number of people who become involved and other hard-to-reach groups, but what are the particular characteristics of the people who respond to the David Miliband blogs who are bloggers and are involved in this system of communication with Members of Parliament? Have you seen a particular characteristic developing? We see people coming into our surgeries carrying carrier bags. We do not see that on the Internet. I am not sure whether there is an equivalent in cyberspace of inboxes full of emails or anything like that. Is the characteristic one where the individual likes the barrier of electronic communication which perhaps creates some limitations?
Mr Steinberg: Are you asking what sorts of people we think are using this medium?
Q192 Mr Burrowes: Yes. Does it develop a particular type of person who will be in the forefront of the communication?
Mr Steinberg: I think that if there were not intermediaries like us trying to build things specifically for less engaged people it would tend towards the already more engaged, knowledgeable people who know who their own MPs are. To introduce an optimistic note, I started off by talking of the 1 % of people Demos think can be engaged and the 3 % who had signed up to the petition. A company analysed this and looked at just that enormous petition related to congestion-charging to find out what sort of people had signed up. I do not know how good their methodology was, but they said that the biggest group were aged over 55. Leaving aside whether or not one agrees with those petitioners and what they said, that is a change from the norm. That fights the idea that it is only elites who respond. Just under half the people who send messages to Write To Them tell us that they have never written to a politician before. One can just about go out and build things that target mainly that audience. In the case of Parliament if you do not start really hard you will always get written to by the elites and the well organised people. If one tries really hard one can sometimes get people to talk who might not otherwise have written in, but it is not easy. One has to work quite hard and use all the other offline channels for those who hate computers. I hate computers and so I understand that. The point is that it is not just for geeks.
Ms Kennedy: It is not just about computers and the Internet; it is also about mobile technology. There was a very interesting social exclusion report about a year ago which talked about the extent to which homeless people have mobile phones and use them to get services. I believe that it is quite diverse.
Mr Ferguson: It is much more diverse than one might appreciate. There are online communities for just about every sort of marginal group you can think of. Some are bigger than others. A lot of them discuss politics online and the work that you do in Parliament. I recently came across an interesting site called MuslimYouth.net where there are some vibrant and very diverse discussions taking place about a whole host of political issues that are not necessarily immediately associated with young Muslims. Go there and engage with them. Sometimes there is perhaps a reason for government to create its own sites to consult, but there is also work to be done in going out and using existing online communities. It may be a better use of time to go out and reach unusual suspects. I refer you again to Digital Dialogues where we have been able to capture a bit of demographic information, but those are small case studies and the subject definitely needs more evaluation.
Q193 Mr Prentice: Mr Steinberg, are there MPs out there who do not have websites?
Mr Steinberg: There must be a handful. I am more familiar with those who do not have emails. There are about two or three who do not accept emails. When I have phoned up and asked about it I am told that if I want to contact them on the Internet I have to go to WriteToThem.com. We have reached the 99th percentile.
Q194 Mr Prentice: We read recently that the Government had closed down 500 sites. What was the problem? Was the proliferation of websites confusing people?
Mr Ferguson: A lot of the information was outdated. Each of those sites has a hosting cost, so it was to bring down the overheads.
Mr Heath: I think that there is more to that decision than meets the eye. There is no point in spending public money on a poorly designed website, but sometimes there is a very good purpose in having a separate one that may have very low traffic but is the right way to communicate with a specialised community. I think that it is worth looking behind that decision to see whether it is based on fitness for purpose.
Q195 Mr Prentice: Is there a publicly available document that explains why the Government decided to close down those 500 sites?
Mr Heath: I think that the Varney review would be the closest to that.
Q196 Mr Prentice: I have been told that there is such a document. Someone mentioned - perhaps it was Mr Heath - that Directgov cost £50 million.
Mr Heath: That is an estimate of the accumulated expenditures since the first government website was launched which, from memory, was in about 1995.
Q197 Mr Prentice: Are we getting value for money from Directgov?
Mr Heath: I have doubts about that because I do not believe that a government portal should be about editorialising; it should simply be about efficient access, so it is a different approach. I do not think that it is good value, but maybe a case can be made that it is.
Chairman: That is perhaps for another day. We have had a longer session than I thought we would have and that is a tribute to all of the witnesses and the intrinsic interest of the subject. I am sorry it seemed to be suggested at various times that you were responsible for the decline of parliamentary democracy, which is not the official position of the Committee. We are very interested in what you are doing and trying to make sense of it. Ms Kennedy's comment about "both and" is crucial as is Mr Steinberg's point about making the process richer all the time but not thinking that one can substitute for the other. We are all thinking our way through how we can make this work better for us. Thank you very much for coming along and your time this morning.