Open Up! Digitalising UK Democracy


A few weeks ago we saw the publication of an ambitious new report looking into how digital technology can help shape the future UK politics.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, launched a year ago by the Speaker John Bercow had two key priorities. Firstly to consider how technology can improve understanding of how parliament works and secondly, to look at how using technology can enable more online participation in politics.

The Commission was ground-breaking in a number of ways and its’ conclusions are broad and ambitious. I would encourage anyone interested to read it via their impressive interactive website. I also wanted to offer a few thoughts on the five key recommendations they highlighted around digital technology and politics.

Recommendation 1: By 2020 the House of Commons should ensure that everyone understand what it does.

A key challenge to building engagement in politics is the misconception around what government and parliament are. Parliament is where MPs talk about issues that constituents feel passionate about. Whether it’s the NHS or animal welfare, the environment or immigration, I know that people care about issues but don’t see how politics and parliament can help. This ambitious objective of improving understanding is not straightforward, but investing in greater public awareness of Parliament’s work as well as simplifying and modifying some of the outdated procedural language will help to make Parliament fit for modern times.

Recommendation 2: By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.

Particularly for young people, but for all ages, people get their news and information online. Calling for Parliament to integrate better online means more people can find out about the issues they care about on Facebook and Twitter. The Digital Democracy Report suggested this recommendation would also ease online methods of putting questions to MPs. This is something I know and already do! Just a few weeks ago I hosted an ‘Ask Me Anything’ that allowed constituents to ask me questions and get real-time responses via Facebook and Twitter!

Recommendation 3: The newly elected House of Commons should create immediately a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons.

The Commission has proposed the use of including comments made online to be included in Westminster Hall debates, which is where MPs already hold additional public debates to those in the House of Commons. This is very much experimental but allowing anyone to ask questions or share their views during an actual debate has the potential to truly make Parliament, of the people.

Recommendation 4: Secure online voting should be an option for all voters.

As is already the case in some countries such as Estonia, the opportunity to allow online voting at general elections as a positive impact on voter turnout. Many people rely on technology to communicate, do their shopping and check their banking. So long as we can ensure the procedure is secure why shouldn’t voters vote online?

The Commission also appreciated any online-voting roll-out would need improved voter education than exists. In respect of young people, who are the demographic with the lowest turnout consistently at every election, the SCDD suggested a fresh, bold look at the national curriculum in regard to voter education.

Recommendation 5: By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for re-use.

The availability of information for free and in various formats, may not seem too interesting. But as we have seen in our area, when information is easily accessible and easy to share, independent websites such as B31 Voices has the power to transform and inform people’s daily lives. By making parliamentary material available as open data, a whole new avenue of apps on our phones and tablets have the potential to be made by third party developers who may change how we can be updated on issues in politics.

Final thoughts

It would be foolish to think the Commission offers all the answers to improving engagement with politics; not everyone uses the internet yet, plus some of these ambitious proposals will be difficult to implement.

Nevertheless digital technology has improved people’s lives in so many ways: communicating, entertainment, finding jobs, saving money. If a conscious programme is implemented to boost computer literacy, why can’t we create a more open and accessible digital democracy?

I’m interested to hear what you think about digital democracy. You can email me at, Facebook me or Tweet me.




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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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