It is a sign of the times that the Speaker of the House of Commons - not the first person that comes to mind as being part of the digital age - has established a Digital Democracy Commission to look into ways to re-imagine democracy for the connected world. With one important exception - that concerning online voting - its recommendations are sensible and to be welcomed. What follows is a selection of some of the more relevant areas for the world of openness.
The early sections are concerned with making the Parliamentary process more transparent, and how the increased use of technology could help - even obvious things, like improving the main Web site's search function. But from about the halfway point onwards (the report runs to 96 pages), openness starts to come to the fore more overtly. Here, for example, are some thoughts about opening up the law-making process:
Parliament has already experimented with public consultation between the second reading and committee stages. These experiments, known as public reading of bills, were successful in attracting interest, but less successful in having an impact on the bills being considered. This was partly because it is difficult to amend a draft law once it has reached Parliament. By that stage, the Government has a firm idea of what it wants the law to achieve and is less likely to be persuaded that changes are necessary.
We believe that the best time to involve the public is in the policy development and pre-legislative stages, when the public could suggest technical and policy changes. However, we would like to see a period of experimentation at various stages of the law-making process with the aim of finding a way to achieve genuine public input.
One of the later sections of the report, entitled "A fully digital Parliament" looks at some of the actions that could be taken. Here's are the recommendations for more open data:
Parliament has recently created an open data service called data.parliament. There is already lots of useful data on the site, such as records of how MPs and Peers have voted, but we would like to see more and more data going up. We welcome the commitment by the Management Boards of both Houses in June 2014 that “parliamentary data will be made easily and freely accessible in an open format for reuse, so that the value of parliamentary data may be fully realised”. The key data we would like to see released as open data as a priority includes:
Hansard (the official record of what is said in Parliament and information about how MPs have voted)
information about who is speaking in the Houses of Parliament
the register of MPs’ financial interests
Its last recommendation is that the House of Commons should formally adopt the principles set out in the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, which reads as follows:
Promoting a Culture of Openness: Parliamentary information belongs to the public.
Making Parliamentary Information Transparent: Parliament shall adopt policies that ensure proactive publication of parliamentary information, and shall review these policies periodically to take advantage of evolving good practices.
Easing Access to Parliamentary Information: Parliament shall ensure that information is broadly accessible to all citizens on a non-discriminatory basis through multiple channels, including first-person observation, print media, radio, and live and on-demand broadcasts and streaming
Enabling Electronic Communication of Parliamentary Information: Parliament shall ensure that information is broadly accessible to all citizens on a non-discriminatory basis through multiple channels, including first-person observation, print media, radio, and live and on-demand broadcasts and streaming.
So that's the good news. The bad news, I feel, is the following recommendation:
The Commission is confident that there is a substantial appetite for online voting in the UK, particularly among young people. It will become increasingly more difficult to persuade younger voters to vote using traditional methods. It is only a matter of time before online voting is a reality, but first the concerns about security must be overcome. Once this is achieved, there will be an urgent need to provide citizens with access to online voting, and the UK must be prepared for this. The Electoral Commission has called on the Government to introduce a “comprehensive electoral modernisation strategy […] setting out how the wider use of technology in elections will ensure the achievement of transparency, public trust and cost effectiveness”. The new online registration system could be a cornerstone of a future online voting system, although it would not solve the problem of verifying the identity of people when casting their vote online.
We support the draft recommendation of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on Voter Engagement in the UK, urging the introduction of online voting by 2020. We agree that this would make voting significantly more accessible. However, we also agree that concerns about electoral fraud and secrecy of the ballot would need to be addressed first.
Enabling people to vote online would indeed draw in many young people who otherwise wouldn't vote, and that's hugely important. So why am I against the idea? Well, the report quotes a good encapsulation of the key issues here by the Open Rights Group:
Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility to vote; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy. Currently, there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem and existing systems are unacceptably flawed.
Another warning [.pdf] comes from a formidable trio of security researchers in their submission to the Digital Democracy Commission:
In our view, the adoption of online voting technology would present extremely grave challenges to the integrity of UK elections, and risk disadvantaging significant sections of the population, which would present a real danger of undermining public confidence in democracy rather than strengthening it as the Commission rightly seeks to do.
Finally, people who oppose the use of new technology for well-established activities are sometimes accused of being Luddites and of letting their ignorance stand in the way of perfectly acceptable change. In the case of e-voting, we believe that the more familiar people are with the technology, the more they understand the very substantial risks that it poses to the democratic process. It is ignorance that leads people to suppose that e-voting is risk-free and desirable; and it is technical experts such as us (and our colleagues whose carefully-argued papers we have cited) who are cautioning against embracing e-voting for the foreseeable future.
For what it is worth, this is my view too, and I regard it as deeply regrettable that an otherwise welcome report should choose to ignore such a clear and strongly-worded warning to avoid online voting completely until its many problems are sorted out. In particularly, setting a specific and imminent date for its introduction is premature and extremely foolish. I hope others join me in urging the authorities to ignore this particular recommendation, while accepting the others.