11 July 2023

It’s 2017 and the Scottish Parliament is getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Part of the anniversary plans involve the setting up of a commission for parliamentary reform. What had gone well in the first twenty years and what could be improved? Was the parliament fulfilling its mandate to the citizens of Scotland?

Increased levels of public participation in parliamentary work and life were among the resulting recommendations. To this end, a Committee Engagement Unit, dedicated to supporting the development of digital democracy and piloting citizen panels was established. This, together with the existing community outreach team merged in 2020 and PACT was born. Stoddart joined the team in 2018 and explains that he works at “both ends of the spectrum”. He is referring to both mini and maxi publics.

Mini & maxi publics

On the mini side, are the annual citizens’ panels – groups of 20 citizens selected via sortition. They debate a particular topic linked to the work of one of the parliamentary committees. For example, one such panel came up with priorities that should shape the Scottish Government’s approach to COVID-19 restrictions and the strategy in 2021 for the COVID-19 Committee. Last year, for the first time, a panel on the role of deliberative democracy at parliamentary level was requested by the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee. Seventeen recommendations were made. These will be responded to by the Committee in September as they publish their final report.

Stoddart describes these citizen panels as “small but intense and highly empowered”. Nevertheless, he agrees that the pace of parliamentary workflows means that it can take some time before citizens see the fruits of their labours in policy terms. Digital democracy offerings can help bridge the long gaps typically associated with representative democracy. It encourages mass participation, albeit at a more casual level, on a more regular basis.

Expanding digital democracy

When Stoddart arrived at the parliament in 2018, the public engagement via written submission involved a series of questions on a Word document. Citizens were invited to email their suggestions and enquiries to the relevant parliamentary committee. “It’s quite a daunting task to sit down and write to a parliamentary committee” admits Stoddart.

The parliament now has a dedicated website for basic consultation services. Named, Calls for Views, it runs on a platform called Citizen Space by Delib. The challenge then becomes how to process potentially thousands of responses to a proposed bill, sometimes in a very short space of time. For example, a bill on greyhound racing got over 1,300 responses in the space of three weeks. Similarly, a call for views on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which has now passed, got over 11 000 responses. 

Taking public debate further

However, the consultation website only provides citizens with the opportunity to add their voice to what Stoddart describes as, “the big black box” of public consultation. Individual views are aggregated alongside tens, hundreds or thousands of others. They wanted to take public debate further, using online tools to encourage more connected participation. For this reason, they invited civic tech companies to present a mock-up of how the Scottish Parliament could use their product for participation. “In this way we could actually test it” explains Stoddart.

They decided to go with the Icelandic citizens foundation, Citizens.is and their platform, Your Priorities. This tool allows for more nuanced debate. It breaks down proposed bills and also encourages the generation of new ideas. Stoddart points to the hotly debated Fireworks Bill. Broken down into its constituent clauses, it received citizen feedback (thumbs up or down) on each part.

Playing the ball, not the man – online debate

This in turn facilitated a “structured debate” about what citizens liked and didn’t like about the bill. It also allowed them to make comments relating to specific clauses. Others could see these and take them into account when making their own suggestions. One of the more controversial aspects of the bill involved a clause referring to police powers to stop-and-search for fireworks. Participants were able to agree and disagree but not with one another. “It encourages them to play the ball and not the man” explains Stoddart, using a football metaphor.

The tool has also been used by citizens to help parliamentary committees in their work. Currently, there is an online consultation running on the issue of rural health care. The Health Committee has invited citizen input in order to get a better idea of what they should focus on. They have already received over 60 ideas, mainly from those living in rural areas – they can tell this because of the postcode data attached to citizen input. Digital democracy is thus encouraged in a variety of ways.

Digital democracy vs. the digital divide

Nevertheless, Stoddart agrees that the digital divide continues to present a challenge for digital democracy. In response, they aim to provide a wide range of options in order to facilitate participation by citizens from all walks of life. Sometimes tools designed for one demographic may turn out to be useful for other groups too. For example, the Easy Read documents (using words and simple sentences for easy understanding) designed for those with learning disabilities, have also proved helpful for citizens who are less confident with technology.

The bottom line: “We’re working all the time to find new ways to gather information from the public and make good use of it” says Stoddart.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Alistair Stoddart, he is not speaking on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. 

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