The news that MPs have voted themselves £10,000 each to improve communication with their constituents, and understanding of Parliament, has led to a flurry of suggestions about what to do with the money, and varying degrees of cynicism about the possible effects of the decision.
On the e-democracy exchange list Steven Clift draws on his long experience to come up with a tailored set of tools:
1. Set up a one-way e-mail announcement list - used specifically for "governance." I'd gather some basic information on each subscriber - constituent, non-constituent. Along with the option to receive blog posts via e-mail I'd pay an assistant to help me produce twice monthly e-newsletters with a mix of first person and constituent helper content.
2. Set up a personalized WordPress blog installation that allows me to choose whether to send a notification. I'd either ask people to comment privately for possible public quoting via a e-mail/web form or require registration and real names to comment.
3. Record a short introductory video, upload it to YouTube and embed it in the site.
4. Deep link to useful third-party sites like TheyWorkForYou.com and others for people who want to track my comments in parliament.
5. Most importantly - Have an open source e-mail/web form management tool installed. I'd adapt the tools used by internet providers that assign a tracking number to each query so both of us can know that I have responded.
6. Get an account with HipCast.com or PhoneBlogz so I can record audio podcasts for my blog via my mobile phone/telephone. I'd buy a nice USB microphone as well as small mixer. I'd also use HotRecorder with Skype to record occasional guests on my podcasts.
Meanwhile over at mySociety, specialists in e-democracy tools including the No 10 e-petitions site that caused a bit of a stir, Matthew Somerville argues the benefits of a collaborative approach using another of their neat tools, Pledgebank:
MPs must pool at least a little of the money they’re getting to build shared tools and services, if they’re going to have any chance of using this cash effectively. Single tools that cover whole populations are generally much more effective and much better value for money than 646 duplicate, incompatible, technically inferior attempts.
So our modest proposal is this. We want an MP to use PledgeBank to make the following pledge:
“I will pool £2000 of my £10,000 into a competition pot for tools that will help MPs help constituents understand what’s going on, but only if 100 MPs will do the same.”
If it succeeds, individuals, companies, charities - whoever - could vie for slices of cash to build the sort of 21st civic infrastructure that we deserve, and a panel of MPs and advisors could pick the winners. It could be quick, effective and outside the deadening hand of official parliamentary processes.
Although the money can't be spend on party policial campaigning, one Labour MP, Tony Wright, was quoted as saying that any web sites will be used "for shameless self-promotion".
Paul Evans, tireless supporter of representative democracy, appears more positive at first sight saying that:
It could prove to be the most effective piece of electoral and constitutional reform in living memory.
Paul goes on to list seven reasons, from:
The steady increase in political centralisation has many causes, but I would argue that the remoteness of MPs from their constituents is the biggest single factor.
The Burkean model of representative government could be revived by the simple expedient of encouraging MPs to spend more time having a conversational relationship with their constituents. The transformation that this could bring can’t be overstated.
BUT Paul also has a couple of excuses ready in case it all comes to nothing. The first is that over-close monitoring of what can be said will stifle the conversation. The second is that most MPs won't be bothered to do the job properly, so the work will fall into the hands of those associated with political parties.
So, this could be the best thing that could happen to our democracy. But it won’t be. It will, however, provide us with an answer to the following question:
Are MPs motivated to assert the values of representative democracy, or are their short-term interests allied to those who would diminish it further?
Political blogger Ian Dale is against the scheme, urging fellow Conservatives to bin the allowance. Lecturer Darren Lilleker is also sceptical . I haven't tracked any responses from blogger MPs yet. Maybe they are wondering whether they will have to set up another non-politcal site, or can achieve the bloggers dream of actually getting money for talking to people.
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