Parliament's digital work matters.

Tom Forth,

In this post I argue for continued spending by central government, in London, on largely speculative research & development, that will strengthen the UK parliament’s grip on power within the UK.

Seriously.

This will come as a surprise to frequent readers of my blog and to followers of my work.

I typically argue for a reduction in the role of central government in the UK, and for what role it has to be moved out of London. I frequently argue against government digital service spending, especially on complicated processes that don’t seem to deliver value to citizens. (I’m looking at you, user-centred design, and your stack of personas). I think that the UK Parliament is not as good as the parliaments of most of our neighbours. I think that our government, through over-centralisation, is a mess.

But here I explain why, despite all of that, The Parliamentary Digital Service’s work matters, and why it should continue. And since the UK Parliament is still in London for now, it should continue there.

Let me first declare a few interests — I wrote a 2016 report called “Achieving more with open data at data.parliament.uk”. ODILeeds, which I help to run, is a major user of parliamentary data (check out our petition visualiser, it’s great). I also wrote one of the first apps (it was called MyMP and quite a few people really liked it) that told people what was going on in Parliament.

For an outsider, I know a fair bit about parliament and its data.

Understanding the process of parliament

In a recent blog post for The Future Cities Catapult I talked about three phases of open data, arguing that “Open Data Isn't Just About Informing Citizens, It's About Understanding Accountability”.

The TLDR is that over the past five years I’ve seen three levels of how open data makes our country work better. You can simplify the three levels to the answer to three questions (I’ve put some examples in brackets).

  1. What is there? (where are the bus stops near my house?)
  2. What does that let me do? (where do the buses from those stops let me go?)
  3. How was that decision taken? (who set the bus routes and decides how many buses to run?)

I explained how in planning in Leeds we’ve achieved a lot by getting much better at levels 1 and 2, but that we haven’t got far enough with 3.

My piece ended with three things that I think are pushing us forward.

“Ideas such as open contracting are already helping. The UK’s Industrial Strategy commits to increasing transparency on how investment decisions are taken. And UK Parliament’s data team are exploring ways to understand the complexity of politics.”

You can read about how amazing Open Contracting is in pieces like this about Ukraine. I write about the UK’s Industrial Strategy too much. So for now let’s talk about Parliament.

The first addressable order of business in The House of Commons. Ever.

On December 17th, 2018 The House of Commons published its first ever addressable order of business. If your response to that is anything other than “what does that mean?” or “so what?” then I am suspicious… so let me explain a bit.

Over the past few years, while the real plumbing deteriorates, a small team in the UK Parliament having been fixing all of the data plumbing in our national democracy. MPs have names and IDs that follow them around even if they lose seats, change names, get re-elected, and later move to the House of Lords. Debates and votes and questions and select committees have members and minutes and motions, and lots of other things that I don’t really understand. And they’re glued together by names and IDs and places and times and words on pieces of papers. But also now on the internet.

Click around that order of business I linked to above and you’ll start to understand a tiny fraction of the power of it. Do you want to know how many women sit on select committees? And how that’s changed in recent years? And whether that changes their recommendations? Or what times they sit? You answer those questions pretty easily with good linked data. And you can’t answer at all without it.

This work is hugely complicated. In the absence of a proper written constitution, the UK’s parliament is one of the least understandable in the world. There is no way that volunteers and academics will be able to document and organise it properly. And without that documentation there is little chance of people like me and the organisations that I help to keep running being able to connect parliament with the people.

So what?

I don’t like the UK Parliament. It’s full of people who control the school outside my flat, when I think that the Councillor that I elect in Manchester should be in charge. It tells my city that we can’t raise our own taxes to sort out our homelessness problem. It calls in, frustrates, and blocks plans to build homes and business premises that would make us richer and which our local politicians and communities have supported. I don’t like the UK Parliament.

But as much as people like me would wish Parliament to be less powerful and significantly smaller, we are losing the battle. In the last 20 years UK Central Government has grown in size by about 50%, while local government has shrunk by the same amount. Since our vote to leave the EU, the civil service has started growing rapidly with promises that it will grow still further to cope with Brexit. To my enormous frustration, The UK shows no sign of stopping being the most politically centralised large country in the world.

My best hope of dealing with one of the oldest, one of the most complex, and one of the most powerful parliaments in the world is better open data. If the buses in Manchester and Leeds don’t get better. If homelessness isn’t sorted out soon. If homes continue to be blocked, I want to know who to blame, what decisions were taken, and who contributed to taking them. And I want to do it based on analysis of a definitive record of what actually happened in our parliament, not the opinions of time-pressured and partisan journalists who all seem to live hundres of miles from where I do.

The work that the Parliamentary Digital Service have done on this is world-leading. It would be a huge loss if it didn’t continue.

 

 

 

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