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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Parliament lags behind

On the epolitix site yesterday was less controversial news about Parliament than is currently dominating every newspaper and media outlet, namely their reluctance to engage with on-line democracy.

The site says that a report of the Commons procedure committee has accused Ministers of lacking the will to implement an e-petitions system on the Parliament website. They have called on the government to think again about its failure to take the project forward:

The cross-party committee expressed regret that the government had not approved funding to support the development of an effective system for online engagement with the public.

The report concluded: " We very much regret that the Government has changed its mind and now appears to lack the will to see this project through to its conclusion."

The criticism comes amid continued embarrassment for the government over the use of petitions on the Number 10 website.

A petition calling for the prime minister to resign has now received over 50,000 signatures and is the most popular petition currently open on the website.

In many ways this is two sides of the same coin. Westminister MPs are in trouble over expenses because they have failed to embrace transparency and accountability. They are out of touch with ordinary electors because they have remained wedded to old traditions and failed to engage with new forms of media to interact with the electors they serve.

Both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have led the way in the use of new technology to engage voters. A visit to the Assembly's website will find a high quality TV channel where you can watch live debates in the Senedd or browse searchable archive material of Plenary sessions and committee meetings.

We have an e-petition system that genuinely feeds into the government system. On the 10 Downing Street site you sign a petition and then get an e-mail to tell you that your views are being ignored. In Wales the petition is considered by a dedicated Assembly Committee who may take evidence on the issue, conduct their own inquiry, refer it to another Committee or ask the Minister to respond.

In each case they will monitor progress and seek to get an outcome, though that is not always possible. The system has been so effective that in one instance it is to lead to a change in the law on taxing plastic bags.

On Tuesday, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Assembly's first Plenary meeting we will be relaunching our website with a new interactive front page and the introduction of an innovation, moderated open forums on which registered users can debate the issues of the day and even the future of the Assembly itself. It is an important step forward and one that demonstrates best practise in how to engage voters in my view.

We are also going to use our website to publish a monthly account of Assembly Members' expenses from July this year. We have already led the way in how we handle this issue. The full account of all claims by AMs since 1 April 2006 are already on-line for everybody to see. There was no dragging of our heels as in Westminster, we opted for full disclosure as soon as possible and intend to step that up with a monthly update.

Perhaps if Westminster had adopted that principle earlier they would not now be mired in the quicksand of leaked expense claims and daily embarrassing revelations and politics would be much healthier as a result.
The Welsh Assembly e-petition system has a very serious flaw in that it requires registration before being able to engage with the system, the Westminster relies on a confirmation of email address only.

So though different flaws, the same effect, democracy is compromised, unless it fits with the politicians will.
Why would any petitioner be afraid to register to make their views known unless they were seeking to sign as Mickey Mouse? In Westminster whether you are Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or Donald Trump, if you sign a petition your views and your name disappears into the ether. Here what you think matters.
In addition to what a person might think, full details of the person behind that thought is being collected, collated and what else? Who knows, although you might know, who has access to the information.

The system changed relatively recently from a similar to Westminster system of vote registration to the permanent persons registration. I personally have registered, but how many prefer not to vote because of the intrusive data collection.

In response to your "Mickey Mouse" scenario, are you against the Westminster proposals to monitor data traffic?

Democracy needs encouragement.
Yes I am against proposals to monitor data traffic but this is not the same thing. The information collected by the Assembly's website is subject to the Data Protection Act, it cannot be misused and you have the right to ask for all the details we hold on you together with what we are doing with it. The act of signing a petition is different to browsing a website or making a comment.

It is a participatory act, in which you seek to directly influence the political process by taking part in it. It is only right therefore that your identity can be confirmed as genuine. Just as such registration is required to vote so it is asked of you to contribute to the parliamentary process itself.
When we sign a paper petition we are not asked for our full address.

As the Welsh Assembly e-petition system address is not used to confirm a persons identity it can only be required for an after the registration event process. You might like to determine exactly what the address is used for.

you seek to directly influence the political process by taking part in it etc., an interesting rebuttal, how many e-petitions (numbers of) have been acted upon compared with number submitted (numbers of), you might like to write a blog post about the successes of the e-petition system, in terms of the petitioners but particularly why e-petitions are rejected by the committee.

I support petition systems.
The registration process is used to confirm identity and authenticity nothing more. The authenticity of a paper petition depends on the validity of its signatures so if it is apparent that names are made up it will be taken less seriously. On-line petitions are open to greater abuse in my view.

The registration process will also allow access to forums and other website functions.

As far as I am aware the Committee does not distinguish between e-petitions and paper petitions in the way it treats them. Thus your question is not really a valid one.
When not being interviewed for bra features in the Western Mail, I spent much of yesterday working with Mencap Cymru's excellent Partners in Politics programme on discussing the ways people can interact with the Assembly and politicians.

I was amazed that the programme had produced up to 10% of Assembly petitions.

Their enthusiasm has affirmed (if it needed affirming) the value of the Assembly's petitions and e-petitions process. The latter of course is exceptionally valuable in allowing others to join a campaign - even if they have to go through the "arduous" step of registering.

"As far as I am aware the Committee does not distinguish between e-petitions and paper petitions in the way it treats them."

Yes, you are right. And it also finds out how petitioners feel about the way in which their petitions have been dealt with.

All in all, an excellent system, which has improved democratic interaction and outcomes in a modern Wales.
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