A New Chamber for Parliament?

This is my evidence to today’s meeting of the Digital Democracy Commission in Parliament:

Let me start by saying how delighted I am to be asked to give evidence, and that I think the work of this commission is vitally important.

It feels like the public’s engagement with politicians and Parliament is at an all time low – although not necessarily engagement with political issues. Some of the reasons for this are related to digital technology – the expenses scandal wouldn’t have happened without the ability to leak records digitally; the hacking scandal wouldn’t have happened without intercepts of digital technology.

But it is also true that digital technology is the most powerful communication and engagement set of tools ever invented. The opportunity exists to mitigate some of the disengagement by using the power of interactive communications technology. Ultimately it also needs bigger political reform, but that is not for today.

In thinking about how Parliament might do that I want to avoid the usual mistake of starting with the technology. Instead we need to think about the three main functions of Parliament – the formation and scrutiny of the Executive, of Government; making law, the legislative function; and being the voice of those the elect MPs, the representative function.

I believe that digital tools can help with all three.

Let me start with the representative function, something I now observe rather than participate in.

Parliament spends a fortune on free post for Parliamentarians to assist communication with constituents and the public. The building, especially the Palace, is littered with landlines for the same purpose. Neither of these are means of communication that either of my twentysomething children want to use.
If, however, I want to use reasonable video conferencing to visit a school classroom remotely, or a business or whatever, I can’t book anything. If I want a template and some help in easily creating a YouTube video to communicate with constituents Parliament is silent.

These are all easily fixable and could be funded by reducing the reliance on paper-based communication with outside world.

But there is also a problem that too many Parliamentarians view social media like Twitter and YouTube as additional broadcast medium. They are not. They are means of interaction and exchange. Parliamentarians are inundated with emails but few know how to manage interaction and meaningful feedback to people who correspond with them – beyond employing more staff.

This needs thought, and training in using tools like Storify.

I think we need to offer people the option of voting using the same mobile technology they use for secure online banking. It would certainly be more secure than postal voting. If we were to follow Estonia down that road we could also offer that technology to elected representatives to communicate with their registered voters.

Then thinking about the legislative function, I think the Lords is a good place to experiment. It wouldn’t interfere with the legitimacy of the representative chamber and plays to the Lords strength as the House where legislation is improved.

Experimentation should be around a fourth House of Parliament after the Queen, the Commons and the Lords – the House of the Public.

We should experiment with wiki-legislation to inform the Lords prior to the committee stage of bills, much as public evidence informs the initial stage of committee scrutiny in the Commons. This wiki stage could also be summarised in a report by a citizens’ jury taking evidence from experts.

And then, the scrutiny of the Executive.

When I was a minister the scrutiny I feared most was the select committees. These however mirror the vertical silos of Whitehall rather than the horizontals of peoples’ complicated lives. We should consider a digitally enabled childrens commission, a commission of elderly citizens, perhaps another of disabled people, or parents. Parliament could, through citizens’ juries or another longer term arrangement, form select commissions of the public, like this one, to question ministers. If I was in the Government that would really focus the mind!

Finally, I should mention the additional challenge of how technology is changing our relationship with news – the traditional means Westminster communicates with the public.

Many of us now get a personal newsfeed and watch the national news far less. This amplifies the views of people we follow, who we normally agree with, and interested are in. We are essentially amplifying our own noise and filtering out things we don’t want to hear. That re-affirms the importance of Parliamentarians who try to understand issues in a wider context of the connectedness of things, but is also a huge challenge.

Tackling that re-affirms the need to assist Parliamentarians to engage with their constituencies and communities, and not just rely on traditional communication.

Health, Tropical medicine

More for Less: A Break Through for those on the Frontline Fighting Malaria?

This is a blog I wrote for start up I am helping with, they are testing a technology with a huge potential in the fight against the world’s biggest killer.


Yesterday ianxen.com received many messages from people battling malaria on the ground. A typical example was from Juliana in Uganda, she said:

“The xRAPID is a very good innovation. It will improve and simplify Malaria diagnostics which is one of the biggest challenges of malaria treatment. I am from Uganda and our health system struggles with diagnostics because there are few laboratories as well as few competent personnel. Malaria is endemic in over 95% of the country.

“In Uganda, RDTs (Malaria Rapid Diagnosis Tests) are used at low level health facilities where microscopy can not be conducted. Use of RDTs has challenges of quality, storage, stock management and too many brands which have made RDTs inefficient…xRAPID should adequately address the weakness of RDTs and Microscopy.”

According to the World Health Organisation in 2012 32.7 million people in Juliana’s country lived in a high transmission zone. In the same year the number of confirmed cases soared from less than 10 cases per 1000 to over 70, whilst the test positivity rate remained constant. Malaria related deaths appear to be rising.

In five years up to 2012 the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT procured 77,362,340 malaria RDTs, at a cost of $42,748,752. This is the best bet where microscopy is limited, but as Juliana reminds us the results are limited.

IanXen RAPID is yet to be fully tested, but early trials suggest it is quicker, easier and much cheaper to test for malaria using automated diagnosis through the iPhone. But what of reliability?

The prototype has proven to be 98% accurate. If this is verified with industrial production this will be a real break through. It will deliver what policy makers anywhere and everywhere want – more for less. More reliable testing, for more people, more quickly – and at a fraction of the cost.

Watch this space!

digital, education

Tech is all very well but the inspiration comes from the people

I have been in Atlanta since Friday night for the ISTE conference.  It has been a great chance to catch up with new and old friends, make some business contacts and reflect on this education business I am working in.

First thing is that maybe the US is getting civilised! They have given so much to the world, for better or worse, but it is nice to see the Americans importing some great things.  When I lived in Detroit 30 years ago you had to work really hard to find any decent beer – I had to go to Mexico to find good dark beer.  But now, even in Atlanta the home of Coca Cola, they have so much really good local beer from IPA to brown ale.  Where there is good beer, football is not far behind and this country is currently World Cup mad! We’ll see at 4pm local time how long that last when the USA plays Belgium.

In between soccer games I have also been having an extended discussion about teaching and teachers.  Last week I was part of an Education Fast Forward debate on the latest OECD TALIS results.  I led a session on this here at the conference yesterday.  This survey of over 100,000 teachers in 34 countries told us a lot including:

  • the esteem of teaching is very variable and correlates to higher student achievement, and…
  • most teachers value 21st century pedagogies but teaching practices don’t always reflect that, and..
  • the more teachers collaborate with each other the higher is their self esteem and job satisfaction, and…
  • appraisal and proper feedback improves teaching, and…
  • behavioural issues equate to lower job satisfaction, but class size doesn’t

On Sunday I also led a discussion on how we get a common narrative across the Atlantic on digital education.  We had started this in London as I sought to bring together the eLearning Foundation and the One to One Institute, and were delighted that Brian the head of ISTE invited us to continue the discussion here. Thanks to Intel we also had dinner together and were lucky enough to be joined by Guy Hoffman.  Guy’s TED Talk on robots with soul has been watched over 2.4 million times.

Guy’s work in giving robots body language is telling us so much about ourselves.  He gave me so much to think about with his inspirational technology, and how he is relating it to people.

But probably most inspiring in this sea of education technology has been the people.  The great thing about ISTE is the thousands of teachers giving up time to be here.  This is best encapsulated by the VW Camper Van positioned as you enter the exhibition area.

The very simple technology of wipeable pens is capturing what teachers think education will look like in 25 years.  Plenty see it being student centred, 24/7, schools without walls, teachers as facilitators etc.  Always positive and always believing in children.  And then my favourite:

it will be what we make it, so let’s get cracking!!

What better way to sum up why we are all here.

digital, rural policy

The Politics of the Periphery

IMG_0985Three years ago in Progress, I wrote about the need for what we would now call One Nation Labour. Welcome as this approach is, I remain unconvinced that we have a coherent rural and coastal programme to campaign on that makes the new brand credible.

Whilst the Tories take their rural heartlands for granted, and ideologically reject non-market solutions, these areas feel on the periphery. They feel on the edge physically, economically, and in social policy. Without the volume of consumers, services are unviable and the market increasingly just delivers retirement and second home communities.

Labour is the party that believes that where the market isn’t working, and social injustice follows, we should intervene. However rural areas are too often on Labour’s emotional periphery.  And yet the powerlessness, misery and injustice of rural poverty in Britain is as profound as anything in our urban areas.

So it should be no surprise that many in peripheral areas feel that none of the major parties offer any solutions. The cost of living crisis means that they are living on the edge financially as well as geographically.

But it need not be like this. We are now living through a technological revolution that is redefining geography. Industrialisation and urbanisation happened hand in glove, and were driven by the new ways of connecting people by canal, then rail and then road. We are now living through a digital revolution that is also about connectivity, as online and globalisation work as one.  Our personal geography is being redefined.  We now have to realise this opportunity to refine our sense of space in public policy.

Some of our cities are shrinking. As this BBC article discussed, some of the iconic cities of the industrial age in the Mid-West, like Detroit, are unviable in the post-industrial age. They are being reclaimed by nature. Industrial pollution saw off beavers from the Detroit river two hundred years after the city was founded as a centre for the beaver skin trade. But fast forward another hundred years to today, less manufacturing means less pollution – and now the beavers are back.  At this extreme we see re-ruralisation, an opportunity we could start to manage.

By contrast, London increases in size by two double decker bus loads of people each day. It cannot cope. Should we not be looking at how the new connectivity revolution can revitalise our rural areas as places for families to live and work, and thereby reduce pressures on our cities? Including making the Department for Transport the department for connecting people online as well as offline? Perhaps then the Department can decide which is the bigger priority for us socially and economically – high bandwidth connection for the many or HS2 for the few.

If we can change the culture of presence in our offices, as Dave Coplin discusses in this animated RSA talk, and measure productivity on output instead, then we could work wherever is convenient. If rail franchises included mandating a three day a week season ticket, some would choose to work from home or the town coffee shop instead. Mutual workspaces could be incentivised with great connectivity, video conferencing and fabulous coffee. Suddenly less pressure on the railways, on the cities, and a more viable rural economy.

I am hugely encouraged to hear Chuka Umunna talk about the potential link between digital exclusion and UKIP voters.  Many abandoning the three main parties for UKIP are doing so as a way of expressing their powerlessness and the extent to which they have been left behind by change.  Politicians must give these people hope if they are to gain their votes.  If you are excluded from the technology that is deskilling you, then you will be angry and fearful and hard right politics will be attractive.  We need to bring these people in from the economic and social periphery and get them skilled and confident online.

These are just some initial thoughts on how we need to paint a compelling picture of change and hope. We are all working, shopping, and socialising in new ways. Equally there are new ways of doing things in government for neglected rural and coastal areas. Labour has to deliver on the politics of the periphery.


This article first appeared on Progress online



Reform the Lords – along with the rest of politics

Last week I was persuaded by the engaging Giles Dilnot to be interviewed for the Daily Politics on Lords Reform. His report rightly pointed out what a stuck record this is, and one I have normally avoided as a huge waste of time. However I have lately been wondering about more radical political reform, including the Lords, and thought I had better explain the context of what I said on camera.

The Lords currently do a pretty good job of using expertise and experience to improve legislation. It is impossible to justify Parliamentarians being appointed for life, but any reform to fix this grotesque anachronism must also improve its function. Electing the Lords would simply create a rival elected chamber to the Commons and would not provide a politically independent improving secondary chamber.

These are the tried and tested arguments for the status quo. But the status quo should not be an option either.

The sense of disillusionment amongst my non-political friends and anyone else I talk to about politics has never been greater. Election results and polling show a total lack of faith in politicians. Protest parties do well as electors struggle to see much to choose between the main parties as they squabble over the middle ground. Meanwhile in Westminster few believe their own party will do well at next year's elections.

The answer to this wholesale disillusion is not simply to reform the Lords. The answer is to go back to what Parliament is for and see how reform of the executive, of representation and of the legislature can help re-engage the public.
We need a government to make executive decisions on our behalf. Currently we vote every five years, always on a Thursday, with a pen and paper in an often unfamiliar community centre in our neighbourhood. That vote is not directly for the the leader of the government. It is for our local representative who is then one of 650 that decides who forms the Government.
This is absurd and confuses representation and executive power. Most people voting for their MP are thinking more about who they want as Prime Minister rather than who they want representing them in Parliament. We should end that confusion and allow people to directly elect the PM.
The PM should then be allowed to choose ministers from beyond the talent pool of Parliament. Take the executive out of Parliament but retain the harsh accountability to Parliament. Representatives will then do their job and legislate freer of the patronage and pressure of Government whips. The Government would legislate less and focus on more competent decisions, co-ordination and delivery.
Most important this change would allow for enhanced representation. Our Parliament is unusually dominated by the Government, especially the legislative programme. Our representatives should be freer to run campaigns and then legislate in their own name. In this Parliament we should have had a Creasy bill in payday loans or a Perry Bill on online safety. Instead Stella Creasy and Clare Perry are dependent on how they manoeuvre the executive to change the law.
A reinvigorated representative function could help spark political re-engagement. And where would that leave the Lords?
If we legislate less and free up the Commons to spend more time on law making, then we need an improving second chamber less. I believe we could then move to use collaborative online tools to ask the public to use their expertise to improve law as it is made. Or we could use citizens juries to do the same.
The Commons must still be the primary chamber. They should continue to overrule the second chamber, but make that a second chamber of the public. Why shouldn't the amending phase be a combination of wiki legislation and a citizen jury that hears evidence and then agrees amendments. Each bill would have it's own jury informed by a transparent online process.
The vested interests in Parliament are very unlikely to agree. And of course I am being provocative. But I am absolutely sure that we will only re-engage the public if the the whole political process is reformed and welcome other ideas that want better processes for the executive, representative and legislative functions of Parliament. Get that right and then we solve the enduring conundrum of Lords Reform.

Before I get started here are some past ramblings

Last month I went to the wonderful Caribbean US city of New Orleans. What's not to like about the mix of cultures, food, drink, music, history and architecture. But just outside the French quarter I went to meet John, a friend of a friend.

I wrote about this inspirational man and his amazing story on Medium.

On the same platform a few weeks earlier I also wrote a review of the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

I am taking a break from frontline politics. I have written on a few political blogs but here is a recent few from the Labour Lords site.

For a while I have been working with another inspirational woman, Lucy Herd, who founded Jack's Rainbow after her son died in their garden pond. Our campaign for bereavement leave for parents got us as far as trying to amend the Children and Families Bill as explained here. We didn't win but ACAS will shortly issue new guidance to employers on the subject – which is progress.

I am a founder of Labour Coast and Country. The kind of issues we campaign on include how to get rural and coastal areas benefitting from the knowledge economy. The other blog the great Ian Parker published on the Labour Lords blog is my crowd sourced speech in the Lords for the anniversary of the World Wide Web.

More to come right here. Must walk the dogs.