Legacy Report - Liaison Contents

5  Going digital

34. This Parliament has seen a major change in committees' use of digital technology, in particular as a tool for engagement and influence. Much has been done to improve committee websites so their work is more accessible to interested parties. Committees have used more varied content on websites to inform and engage different audiences, including greater use of audio-visual material. Written evidence to committees is now submitted electronically via the website and published more quickly on the internet. This has enabled savings to be made in no longer printing evidence on paper. Many committees now receive their documents not on paper but through iPads. Committees have started to experiment with publishing the outcome of their work in different ways, with greater focus on, for instance, infographics and audio-visual material which is primarily accessed and used digitally. In the next Parliament, the increasing emphasis on digital outputs and reduced emphasis on printed reports is likely to change the way committees work and have implications for the procedures which support and enable that work.

35. The Energy and Climate Change Committee is the first Committee to explore a "digital first" approach for the publication of a committee report. Its legacy report, Fuelling the debate: Committee successes and future challenges, was scoped from the outset with consideration given to the digital output. The report includes an infographic on Committee activity over the last five years, video case studies of Committee successes in specific subject areas, and video interviews with key stakeholders on the challenges for the next Parliament. The report is hosted on a standalone website that is device-responsive and it is also downloadable as an interactive pdf or ePub.

36. We recognise that we are at the early stages of a long journey in terms of the transition to "digital first". We expect select committees to take further strides early in the next Parliament, and the key appointments of new staff to head the Parliamentary Digital Service and the Department of Information Services to provide an opportunity for committees to learn from the experience of other organisations and do even more to harness what technology has to offer.

Social media and public engagement

37. The first example of a committee using Twitter was the Education Committee with the hashtag #AskGove to encourage people across the country to suggest questions which could be put to the then Secretary of State for Education in an oral evidence session before the committee. That example has been followed by others and many committees now use Twitter to publicise their inquiries and evidence sessions and also to engage with other users of Twitter. Committees are followed on Twitter to varying degrees.

38. While there are some risks in committee staff using Twitter in a politically controversial environment, we believe the benefits of them doing so have proved worthwhile. Some committee members themselves have been active in using Twitter to promote their work.

39. Dr Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Senior Lecturer in Legislative Studies, University of Hull, told us that select committees had improved both their website and social media presence since 2012 but that greater presence of committees outside Westminster and better integration with schools was needed.[14]

40. Towards the end of the current Parliament there have been important innovations in the use of digital media as part of committees continuing efforts to improve and broaden their public engagement. The Education Committee has experimented with an additional member of staff concentrating on social media work. This has allowed the Committee to use a wider range of tools to engage the public and others in its inquiries, ranging from a web forum which attracted over 500 contributions to online videos which received several thousand views. The Committee now has in excess of 7,500 twitter followers, who engage in live twitter conversations about evidence sessions and reports. Social media activities are built into all inquiries and this has enabled the Committee to increase awareness and to encourage participation in its work, although we appreciate that those committees with small teams of staff may not be able to provide such a level of service.

41. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has used enhanced social media activity alongside a series of events, surveys and competitions to maximise public participation in the consultation it launched on the United Kingdom's future constitution under the banner of A new Magna Carta? The Committee and the organisations with which it has worked have managed to multiply the levels of engagement with this work, including very welcome participation by students at schools and universities.

42. We are aware of the recommendations of the Speaker's Digital Democracy Commission, whose report was published on 26 January 2015.[15] Many of these recommendations chime in closely with the recent initiatives to which we have referred and they help to give us a clear steer for priorities in the next Parliament as well as endorsing the progress committees have made since 2010. The main proposals were:

·  Increasing awareness and understanding of Select Committees and their work

·  Increasing the accessibility of Select Committee communications and publications

·  Encouraging greater public participation in Select Committee work, including among under-represented groups

·  Making information available in an open format and without charge.

43. Not all public engagement initiatives need be digitally based. The Science and Technology Committee has pioneered an annual event called Voice of the Future in which young scientists are recruited through the learned societies to sit at the horseshoe and put questions to the Committee as well as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, the Shadow Science Minister and the Science Minister. All four events this Parliament have been opened by the Speaker and recorded by the BBC; this year it was broadcast live on BBC Parliament. The event has worked to both engage young scientists with policy issues and with the work of the Committee.

Planning for how we communicate with the media and the public

44. The last five years have seen select committees grow in their public profile. In 2012 committee evidence sessions on parliamentlive.tv overtook the Commons Chamber in terms of the number of viewers. There has been a significant increase in the range of media coverage of the work of select committees, which is not an end in itself but helps to broaden public understanding of the work of Parliament and to focus minds in Whitehall. In 2012 we recommended that select committees introduce media and communications strategies as part of inquiries, so that more consideration is given to the audiences for the work of select committees, and to enhance engagement throughout an inquiry and subsequently, moving away from undue focus on report publication as an isolated event.

45. We expect there to be further changes in approach in this area in the next Parliament, building on recent developments including the greater use of audio-visual material about individual inquiries. This is unlikely to involve a major change in the levels of coverage, after the step change achieved in this Parliament. It may involve exploring further the support given for chairs, on whom the main burden of communicating with the media and the public usually falls. We also need to develop linkages between support for social media activity and the continuing support for other media and communications activities.

46. To assist select committees in communicating their reports, it would be helpful to widen the range of people to whom committees can provide embargoed copies of reports. At the moment, other Members, for example, unless they were also witnesses, are not included. There is a case for relaxing the present requirement that embargoed copies are released no more than 72 hours before the time of publication. It would also be consistent with practice elsewhere to allow, but not require, committees to give advance notice of intended personal criticism to individuals. This practice is commonly adopted by other forms of public inquiry, but is not currently available to select committees.

47. We recommend that SO No. 134 (Select committees (reports)) be amended to read:

    All select committees shall have power:

    (a) to authorise the clerk of the committee to supply copies of their reports under embargo to such persons as those committees consider appropriate after those reports have been reported to the House; or

    (b) to make known to any individual whose conduct the committee intends to criticise the nature of such criticism, before it has been reported to the House.

14   Dr Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Senior Lecturer in Legislative Studies, University of Hull (SCE 0023) Back

15   The report can be accessed at www.digitaldemocracy.parliament.uk Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015