Seven reasons why parliaments struggle with digitalBy Cristina Leston-Bandeira on 28 March 2014
Parliaments cope badly with technology. This is not specific to one or other specific parliament; in general, legislatures make very poor bedfellows with technology. They cope particularly badly with the internet, due to its very fast pace and associated visibility. And no, it is not because they are traditional, old fashioned and out of touch – easy labels for lazy thinking. It is because of what they are: collective institutions accountable to us all. Following a week when the UK Parliament published the MySociety’s report reviewing parliament’s online services and the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission held a MarketPlace event showcasing digital approaches to parliament, this is a good time to reflect on why parliaments struggle with digital.
Parliaments are unique institutions and nothing in them favours easy adoption of technology, let alone digital, as I have argued here. Digital adaptation requires flexible and rapid decision-making; neither of which are characteristics of parliament. Seven main reasons explain this:
- Collective bodies: parliaments are collective entities. By its nature, this makes decision-making slower. All parts need to be listened to, all points of view need to be considered when decisions are made. Even if a majority may ultimately decide on outcomes, different perspectives still need to be discussed and considered. That’s part of the nature of a collective body such as a legislature.
- Differing and opposing agendas: by their nature, parliaments are bound to include groups of people who don’t agree with each other. People with different views, or even opposing views. And often only too glad to show the inadequacies of their fellow representatives. Again, this leads to slow (and non risky) decision-making. In some parliaments, their members are even opposed to the institution’s own existence (for example, the European Parliament), being only too happy to question decisions made.
- Lack of a single voice: no-one speaks for parliament or makes the ultimate decisions for parliament. Linked to its collective nature, the lack of a single voice means that parliaments often lack the leadership that is needed to introduce new, often seen as risky, technology. Case studies show that new technology is introduced mainly by champions; innovative leaders that push through ideas. Difficult (though not impossible) to apply in a legislature, even in those cases with very active Presidents (Speakers). Parliament’s voice is the collective of all of its members.
- Bicephalous leaderships: As I’ve argued here, parliaments have unique dual leadership structures that combine the political with the administrative, the temporary with the permanent. Whilst the administrative leaderships are usually composed of permanent staff, the political leadership is only temporary and likely to change with every new parliament. Exact structures vary from legislature to legislature, with different weightings to the political voice, but this combination results in risk averse approaches. Either because the permanent staff act as the guardians of the institution, steering away from risk, and don’t have the final say; or because the political leadership may worry about potential drawbacks from ill-fated decisions.
- Visibility: parliaments are often criticised for being closed institutions; but they are often in fact the most visible of our political institutions. Their visibility associated to the characteristics listed above makes these institutions even less likely to attempt new technology. Decisions made are visible for all to see and comment upon. For all of its advantages, visibility also brings with it vulnerability, and further caution in decision-making.
- An a-political voice: this is specific to social media. As I’ve argued here, social media requires a persona behind it; someone to discuss, ideas to exchange, criticise, develop. Parliaments’ social media channels, however, are managed by parliamentary officials – politicians have their own social media accounts where they can express their political views. But a parliament social media channel needs to be a-political, unbiased, at all times, just like all other parliamentary communication. It is very difficult (though not impossible), however, to engage people into a political discussion without being political.
- Only few and far between: Finally, there aren’t many parliaments around for lesson learning. Technology development strives on sharing and lesson learning. But typically, each country has one parliament; maybe a few more if there are sub-national/regional legislatures. But even then, we are talking of small numbers and institutions that are often located far from each other. Whilst some organisations aim specifically to encourage the sharing of good practice between legislatures, such as the ECPRD, the Global Centre for ICT or the IPU, and of course the internet makes communication easier, parliaments do still struggle to learn from fellow institutions. Different languages, different cultures, different political systems, all contribute towards poor lesson sharing between parliaments; even if this is far better today to 20 years ago.
So, there are specific reasons why parliaments struggle with digital, when compared with other political institutions. This is not meant as an excuse to avoid innovation and digitisation; on the contrary, a better understanding of parliaments’ specific characteristics and structures may help to promote innovation and the embedding of digital means in parliamentary practice and communication. And the last few years have in fact witnessed substantial innovation amongst parliaments (see, for example, the Brazilian e-democracia, the UK’s games for children, or the European Parliament’s facebook page); what’s more there is currently in the UK considerable momentum for a step change. But it is always useful to remember that parliaments are unique institutions, with a specific combination of characteristics that make them slow, but also representative of us all.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is a senior lecturer in the school of politics, philosophy and international studies at the University of Hull. She is currently working on an ESRC-funded project on ‘Managing Parliament’s Image.’
Image: UK Parliament CC BY 2.0