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E-democracy workshop in the UK Parliament

22 May 2014

On 19 May, scholars from the University of Westminster’s Centre for Social Media Research (CSMR) in the Faculty of Media, Arts & Design and the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities joined officials from the House of Commons’ Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in a workshop 'citizen engagement and digital democracy in the work of Parliament'.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy aims to consider, report and make recommendations on how parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world. To aid this work, the workshop focused on the identification and mapping of the range of different opportunities that exist in the work of Parliament to engage citizens through the use of digital and social media. The University of Westminster’s participants were Professor Christian Fuchs (CSMR), Professor Graham Smith (CSD), Anthony Staddon (CSD) and Dr Anastasia Kavada (CSMR), who were able to draw on their interdisciplinary cross-faculty expertise in the study of participation and democracy.

The Speaker, Rt Hon John Bercow welcomed the participants to the Speaker's House and stressed the opportunity that the Commission represents for redesigning the practice of parliament. The workshop identified various intervention points for citizens through the use of digital and social media technologies in the parliamentary process as well as the necessary cultural changes and resources required for advancing digital democracy.

Christian Fuchs, Professor of Social Media, commented: “Digital and social media are often seen as potential solutions to society’s pressing challenges. But there is no technological fix to political and social problems. User-generated videos, wikis, microblogs, online discussions, social networking sites and related technologies can support democratic reforms, but for doing so it is crucial that these forms of political communication are embedded into institutional reforms and offline interactions and that digital media experts and interdisciplinary research support and analyse their introduction."

Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, commented: “It is a real pleasure to work across academic-practice boundaries on an issue of real political importance. The aims and motivations of the Speaker’s Commission are to be applauded and I await its recommendations with interest. The practices of Parliament need to be reformed as a matter of urgency. The challenge will be to institutionalise forms of digital democracy that are meaningful to citizens, parliamentarians and officials alike.”

Anthony Staddon, who has consulted parliaments and parliamentarians around the world, said: “Many parliaments around the world are taking steps to use a range of ICT tools to strengthen their own internal management and improve the accessibility and transparency of the legislature.  While this is a welcome trend, the application of ICT to enable citizens to actively contribute to parliamentary proceedings and processes has the potential to revitalise the work of parliament and rebuild interest and trust in traditional democratic institutions."

Anastasia Kavada, whose research focuses on the use of digital media by social movements and non-governmental organisations, noted that “Increasing the citizens’ sense of political efficacy and the parliamentarians’ responsiveness and accountability to the people they represent cannot be effected solely through the introduction of digital democracy tools, but require a more sweeping cultural change on the part of both citizens and politicians. The Speaker’s Commission should be commended for exploring not only the quick and easy to implement digital solutions, but also the broader democratic and cultural reforms that need to accompany these solutions."

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