Free our data, says Lords info committee

I blogged previously about the House of Lords Information Committee’s inquiry into ‘People and Parliament‘: their final report came out this week, and couldn’t really have been more in favour of the ‘free our bills‘ agenda. Among its recommendations, as listed in the press release:

  • information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format (not pdf) that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data
  • the integration of information on Parliament’s website, eg biographical info on Members to be linked to their voting record, their register of interests, questions tabled, etc
  • Bills should be presented on Parliament’s website in a way that makes the legislative process more transparent and easier to understand
  • an online system enabling people to sign up to receive electronic alerts and updates about particular Bills
  • a requirement on the Government to start producing Bills in an electronic format which both complies with ‘open standards’ and is readily reusable
  • an online database to increase awareness of Members’ areas of expertise
  • an online debate to run in parallel with a debate in the Lords Chamber
  • greater access to Parliament for factual filming
  • a trial period during which voting in the Lords is filmed from within the voting lobbies
  • all public meetings of Lords committees to be webcast with video and audio
  • a review of the parliamentary language used in the House of Lords to make it easier for people outside the House to understand

But there’s a lot more good stuff in it than just that (!). I note in particular the recommendation to take the Lords Of The Blog website further – incidentally, its recent facelift is a dramatic improvement (and I’ll be mentioning it in my WordCamp talk at the weekend); and the explicit commitment to allow people to embed video clips on their own websites, in a direct challenge to the existing (YouTube-centric) ban. (In fact, in their list of ‘action already taken’, they say ‘We have approved members uploading their contributions to the House’s proceedings onto YouTube.’ – so maybe the ban’s gone already, at least on the Lords’ side?
Never let it be said that politicians as a whole don’t get it.

Lords committee on online engagement

Did you know the House of Lords is currently inviting opinions on how it, and Parliament generally, can relate better to the public? No? Neither did I, which kind of proves something in itself.
It’s the Lords’ Information Committee, it’s called People And Parliament… and it closes in two days. The deadline for full written submissions passed on 5 May. Having bumped into details about it earlier today, I’ve been looking at the transcripts of an April session featuring such luminaries as Ben Hammersley and Tom Loosemore. It was a feisty session at times – listen to it here. I was particularly taken by one contribution by Tom, which I will probably find myself quoting in business meetings to come.

I used to run the BBC’s message boards and forums and it is a thankless task because you end up spending millions of pounds censoring people, and I fear you will do the same, if you are successful. I do not think you will be successful as being the home for those national debates, a genuinely democratic cross-section of the country coming along and discussing issues in a constructive way. I do not think Parliament’s website itself will ever be the home for that debate.
Having said that, what I think the Web does do is open up all sorts of possibilities for you, as representatives in this place, to go out and consult. So if you want to go and find out what people think about immigration, there are many, many places on the Web where there are constructive conversations about immigration and you can go and join in and listen there. You do not have to insist that everybody comes here. That is how the place has always worked. It does not always rely on five people sat in front of a table talking to you.
So I would encourage you as Members and as Lords of this place to go out and use the Web to engage with the different issues and avoid like the plague hosting conversations on your own website. When I left the BBC I left them with a document which said, ‘Do not host conversations on the BBC’s website, link to them instead.’

There’s not a little irony, then, in looking at the forum set up by Parliament to discuss the subject: only to find a handful of responses, whose quality is, to be frank, mixed. Not for the first time then, Tom Loosemore shows he knows what he’s talking about. He also made some fine points about making Parliament’s data easily reusable as a first step towards wider engagement, and handled questions about sustainability with great tact. I heard his name mentioned as a possible Director of Digital Engagement; for the record, I think he’d have been fantastic.
There are two more meetings scheduled: one happens to be tomorrow, and features none other than Tom Watson. It’ll be streamed live online, and archived for later viewing: you’ll find it here.

Lords Committee talks Directgov, YouTube

Mike Ellam
Mike Ellam before the Lords comms committee

I’m not sure we learned a lot from this morning’s Lords Communications Committee session with Michael Ellam (the Prime Minister’s official spokesman) and Sir Gus O’Donnell (head of the home civil service), part of the continuing review of government communications, and reforms proposed in 2004’s Phillis Review. It wasn’t an intense grilling, and as you’d expect, it was deftly and professionally handled.
Perhaps surprisingly, the internet took immediate centre stage. Chairing the session in Lord (Norman) Fowler’s absence, Lord (Tom) King asked about the apparent doubling of government communications staff. You can guess the response which came back: difficulties of definition, 24/7 demands, more channels, new channels. It was this final point which was picked up by Mike Ellam, who noted the growth of Downing Street’s digital communications operation.
He took as an example the recent ‘Ask The PM’ exercises on YouTube: but it was particularly telling to note the language he and the Committee used. Members of the public asked questions ‘via webcast,’ said Ellam. Lord King checked what he meant – ‘on film?’ Well, er, technically no, but… When Ellam finally dared to refer specifically to YouTube, it seemed almost apologetic.
Asked if it had been worth doing, Ellam said he felt ‘anything that improves direct communications with the public has to be a good thing’; O’Donnell agreed, saying it was ‘good for society as a whole if we can increase engagement in the political process’, and this was one way to reach young people in particular. And since the PM was already being briefed weekly for PMQs, it was ‘not a great extra burden’ for him to answer questions on camera occasionally.
And that was that; things moved swiftly on to familiar matters of the Lobby system, impartiality, the role of special advisers. (Although Ellam raised the subject Robert Peston’s blog, in response to a question about off-the-record briefing, noting how Peston had quoted unnamed bankers as his sources.)
The morning’s proceedings had started with two ladies from the Citizens Advice Bureau, who were asked specifically about the ‘digital divide’ and their experiences with government websites. They were actually very complimentary about Directgov: Fiona (didn’t catch her surname) said she was ‘impressed with the presentation’, and praised its ‘accessible language’. She took a particular interest in search results, noting that DG offered a ‘meaningful list’, unlike many others. But Directgov had its shortcomings: it was quite fragmented, although she acknowledged that it might be a reflection of fragmented systems in government, and it lacked detail on ‘extent issues’ – namely, differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
They talked about their ‘complete dismay’ at the reduction of leaflets being made available in hard copy: if you went to a library to print off a 100-page document on employment rights, for example, it was ‘like buying War And Peace’; and with libraries charging per page printed, the cost could soon mount up. Interestingly, they noted that whilst 35% (ish) of people nationally didn’t have broadband at home, 70% of their customers fell into that group.
But if we’re going to talk about the Lords and technology… I can’t resist pointing you to the apparent death threat (in jest, presumably?) made by Radio 4 Today Programme presenter John Humphrys this morning, when Lord Desai’s mobile went off mid-interview. (Fast-forward to 6m30 for that familiar Nokia refrain.)

Nine Lords a-blogging

Very interesting to see the horrendously-branded Lords Of The Blog, a new group blog co-written by nine peers, each promising a couple of items per week. Prime mover Lord (Clive) Soley writes in his introductory post:

MP’s and Peers need to find new ways of engaging with the public. A blog is not the complete answer to the feeling of alienation from the political system that many feel today but it is part of the answer. In the 1950’ trade unions and the church played a bigger role in informing people about their political rights and duties. That has gone and the conventional media has been unable to replace it.

The selection of participants is rather curious – mainly LibDems and cross-benchers, if I’m not mistaken – but there are a few recognisable names and faces. And as ever, it’s early days, etc etc.
The site is hosted on the service – as, coincidentally, is another HMG blog site I’m hoping to launch before the end of the week. If you’re only looking for standard blog functionality, and aren’t too precious about design, it’s hard to argue with the offering: just $10/year to map your own domain instead of ?, $15/year for the right to use your own CSS styling, if you aren’t impressed by the dozens of available themes.
It won’t give you absolutely everything you want; but it’ll do most of it, and it’ll take care of all the hassle-y bits too.