Technology in Parliament: Opening Pandora’s Box or enabling citizens?

Paper prepared at the invitation of Dr. Asanga Welikala for a preparatory advisory roundtable on a new constitution for Sri Lanka, hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Constitution Building Programme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) inn collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka.

“With a few exceptions, politicians are pretty lame when it comes to social media. In fairness, they have to walk a fine line: they need to be interesting, but they have to do that without setting off (too much) controversy in a medium that thrives on silliness and hyperbole.” – ‘Members of Congress on social media: they just really want us to ‘like’ them’, The Guardian[1]

State of play: Members of Parliament

At the time of writing, over 400 have liked a post by UNP MP Harsha de Silva on Facebook, accompanied by two photos of an official document, that he took oaths as a Member of the 8th Parliament on the morning of the 1st of September [2]. A question posted by the author around the languages used in official documents generated a response from the MP in under one hour[3]. On a related note, the official Facebook account of MP Ranjan Ramanayake noted he had checked-in at Parliament, along with an emoticon that noted the MP was “feeling happy”. Nearly 900, in just over an hour, had liked this post[4]. Just before noon, another MP, Eran Wickramaratne, tweeted “We took our oath as MPs, so did Mahinda Rajapakse. The struggle for democracy and decency must continue” along with a photo, to over 2,100 of his followers[5]. On 29th August, MP Namal Rajapaksa posted on to Facebook again the fact that he had over 4,000 followers on Viber – a mobile based telephony and chat application – that allows him to communicate directly with each of these followers as well as broadcast information and updates to the group. At the time of writing, nearly 6,500 had liked this update on Facebook[6]. Close to 178,000 like MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s Facebook page[7], and his first speech in the new Parliament, posted to his Facebook page, was viewed close to 13,000 times in under an hour[8].

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Twitter as well as Facebook around the parliamentary election conducted on 17th August[9]. In this study, a few politicians including former President and now MP Mahinda Rajapaksa emerge as the most engaged users of Facebook[10]. These accounts engaged with, over just the duration of the study, around 1.9 million others collectively.

 

State of play: Communications landscape

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[11]. Year on year, mobile based Internet subscriptions rose 85.8% and Internet penetration stands at around 16.4%, both according to the Central Bank which itself admits the actual numbers of those connected could be much higher[12]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[13] Jaffna shows the highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka. Video (i.e. TV) consumption is already shifting online, from terrestrial broadcast (which means that citizens are watching content when they want, sometimes more than once, and socially sharing what they view, along with opinions on it). Information in the public domain increasingly suggests the 18-24 demographic in Sri Lanka, vital to engage with around transitional justice and reconciliation, don’t meaningfully engage with mainstream media (MSM) as newspapers, radio or TV. Wherever they are, they engage with MSM content primarily through smartphones, Facebook and chat apps and also produce content of their own, contesting and complementing mainstream media. Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015, notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”[14].

A poll done by Social Indicator (SI), the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in late June and early July this year in the Western Province – as the most developed in the country – paints a picture of digital life other Provinces will mirror and may even leapfrog a few years hence. Asked if web usage if more content/sites were available in Sinhala or Tamil, 57.1% said yes. 79.1% accessed the Internet through their smartphone. Facebook was used by 73.3%. 60.2% said compared to a year ago, they spent more time online. 42.2% said Ministers in government should use social media to engage with the public. Along with this snapshot of access and use comes also insights into Sri Lanka’s discursive frameworks. 50% said that over the past year, they had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because they had read it online. Interestingly, 61.5% said the action they took was to create awareness amongst family and friends. In the Western Province today and in a few years throughout the island, primarily through smartphones and tablets, citizens will produce, disseminate and discuss issues anchored to entertainment and gossip as well as news and current affairs via social media platforms and apps, increasingly in Tamil and Sinhala.

 

Parliament today: Use of ICTs

In sharp contrast to these developments stands the Parliament of Sri Lanka. Just as much as it is removed in its physical form from society, it’s virtual presence is also poor, at best. There is in fact no social media presence at all for Parliament. There is no live feed of proceedings. The little video of proceedings available on the website is delivered via wholly outdated technology that is incompatible with modern web browsers on the desktop and mobile. The search capabilities on the site are dysfunctional. Descriptions of MPs are rudimentary. The independent website Manthri.lk’s politician rankings and comparison tools[15], based on the Hansard, to produce compelling public dashboards that hold MPs accountable for their interaction in Parliament, remains alien to those in Parliament itself responsible for similar initiatives. The Parliament has no link to or record of social media accounts and interactions of MPs. By extension, there is no archiving whatsoever of these interactions and vital output in the public domain. Key officials connected to Parliament, such as the Secretary General and the Parliamentary Secretariat writ large, have no social media presence and thus, no way for citizens to engage in the manner they now engage with some MPs directly.

Welsh academic, novelist and critic Raymond Williams wrote about a “structure of feeling”, the culture of a particular historical moment. The phrase suggests a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation, and is most clearly articulated in particular and artistic forms and conventions[16]. As Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California avers,

“Often, we think about democracy as grounded in a rationalist discourse and shaped by structures of information, but democracy also has strong cultural roots and is shaped by what Raymond Williams would call “a structure of feeling.” We may ask in the first instance what citizens need to know in order to make wise decisions and, in the second, what it feels like to be an empowered citizen capable of making a difference and sharing common interests with others…”

Though Williams and Jenkins don’t mention social media, the web or the mobile Internet directly, the severe disconnect between what Sri Lankan Parliament fundamentally is as a physical model or idea, and the discursive spaces and conventions of engagement, primarily over social media for so many Parliamentarians today, could not be more stark. In sum and sadly, the Sri Lankan Parliament, as an institution, is peripheral to thriving debates around policies, bills and other matters related to governance taking place across the media landscapes, especially amongst voters between 18 and 34 – the primary users and interlocutors of social media.

This needs to change, and urgently. The 8th Parliament has, to an unprecedented degree, a unique opportunity to give life to Parliamentary proceedings in much the same way that individual MPs engage with their respective constituencies. Ironically, this isn’t a new idea in our Parliament. As far back as March 2008, the Department of Information Systems and Management of Parliament noted[17],

The development of ICT will transform the ways in which Parliament operates together with its representative function. The potential of transforming Parliament to an “e-Parliament” centres on three main areas:

  • Increased administrative efficiency & effectiveness 􏰀
  • Improved information access and dissemination
  • Enhanced interaction with citizens

At the same time technology must be employed creatively; otherwise it merely becomes a more modern way of doing the work of the legislature, perhaps more efficiently but not necessarily more effectively.

Emphasis is mine. The full report has a section on enhancing dialog between Parliament and the public worth reproducing in full (Page 41[18]).

In addition to improving existing practices, there is a growing concern in many legislatures that unless effective channels of communication are established between the institution and their citizens, as well as among legislators and their constituencies, there could be a risk of further erosion of public’s trust in the legislative body.

 The growth of ICT and the newest web applications that allow user generated content have already started to alter the traditional relationship between citizens and their elected officials. In order to respond to these developments, parliaments must define new strategies to avoid marginalization in today’s public sphere. When developing an e-Parliament vision some see the potential to add new means for informing and interacting with citizens in order to re- engage the electorate in parliamentary affairs, in the hope that the negative trends in public satisfaction and participation in elections can be reversed.

While the use of interactive technologies alone is not enough to rebuild political trust, it may be an important instrument for addressing this problem (World e-Parliament report 2008).

Several techniques are now available that can be effectively deployed for this purpose.

E-mail

As e-mail has become a more universally available and widely used form of communication, Parliament can provide public e-mail addresses on the web site to allow direct contact with MPP and the officers. E-mail provides the potential for good two-way communication, enabling citizens to establish a dialogue with their MP without necessarily going through conventional channels.

Online discussions and Blogs

Online discussion groups/forums and Blogs can be effectively used for soliciting comments and suggestions from the public on specific proposals or general topics etc. This feedback could be easily moderated too if needed.

Emphasis is mine again. The report pre-figures opening remarks made by Secretary General Anders Johnsson at the World e-Parliament Conference 2009[19], noting that “today’s experiences show that the young population does engage and it does so by using ICT tools” and that “constituents are increasingly interested in learning how their representatives have voted on key issues before parliament, and interrogating them about their actions. For members to have their voting record published, and to be able to give a reasoned defence of their record, is of the essence of political accountability.”

6 years ago, social media apps, services and platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, and other platforms like Vine, Instagram and live-broadcasting apps like Periscope hadn’t been invented. The emphasis on email then arguably is diminished today given the blossoming of discursive spaces over social media. On the other hand, the emphasis on blogs and online discussion fora retains a certain validity, if only for a critical appreciation of the direction the Parliament’s own development with regard to citizen interaction has gone. Instead of becoming a more responsive institution open to participatory mechanisms and open frameworks of citizen engagement, our Parliament – in physical as well as virtual forms – became increasingly closed-off and almost an adjunct in policymaking conducted entirely outside and independent of its chambers.

Parliament tomorrow: Use of ICTs

The self-organisation of citizens into geo-spatial, values based or ideas driven communities has taken root with the spread of the Internet and web. Platforms like CivilHub[20] build on this, allowing rich, real time and multi-pronged interactions to take place between citizens in a virtual space that results in real world action and change. Parliaments as the central loci of key socio-economic, political, cultural and even religious debates is no longer the case, and yet, the legislature does have an important role to play around law-making and policy guidance. Aside from Manthri.lk’s dashboards as the pulse of Parliament, citizens will increasingly engage their MPs directly through social media. This engagement aside, Parliament itself needs a more responsive website – both in the sense of a website that is geared to meet the needs of citizens, and technically speaking, a website that is accessible over any device or browser, from desktop to smartphone. This is not just a question of aesthetics and design – a responsive website requires an underlying information architecture and a comprehensive document management system.

Without relying on purely textual information and responding to social media’s tendency to generate virality over video and photographic content, Parliament must also look at technologies like live-streaming proceedings over the web using YouTube or Twitter’s Periscope app. Structured dialogues via Google Hangouts, automatically archived on the web, can be employed with MPs around key issues or during key policy debates. Twitter Q&A sessions, introduced to Sri Lanka by the erstwhile President and subsequently conducted with several members of his staff and government, can also be more widely and frequently used. Similar interactions can occur on Facebook. For example, Facebook can be used, not unlike the European Parliament, to give a comprehensive historical record of the institution as well as provide up to date information and other services[21]. At the very minimum, our Parliament’s website should mirror the British Parliament’s comprehensive indexing of MPs, including official social media accounts[22]. Questions over one medium (e.g. Twitter) can be answered over another (e.g. answers over YouTube). The Hansard can be visualised through word clouds[23]. All MPs can be made to fill out comprehensive LinkedIn profiles, that are aggregated on the Parliament’s website. Members can be given entry level to advanced lessons in the use of social media so that variance amongst MPs on this score can be reduced and a harmonised approach to the use of social media adopted through consensus. Using annotated photography platforms like ThingLink, official photographs can be augmented with links to bio’s, bills, Parliamentary proceedings and other information. Innovative platforms like Google’s Moderator platform, though relatively unknown, can be powerful mechanisms to really engage public opinion around policy debates, as has been used by Groundviews to elicit ideas around how to democracy post-war[24].  Wikis, not unlike the most famous of them – Wikipedia – can be created around key policy debates, committee based reports and other parliamentary processes that occur over time and get input from a range of internal and external sources.

All of these mediums can accommodate interactions in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

In considering the plethora of easily adoptable and extremely adaptable technology options above, Parliament also needs to consider what information will be made available to citizens, when, how and why. This is brought out clearly in Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy by the Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD)[25],

  • Is the goal to make all authoritative legislative documents publicly available or will some be limited to internal distribution?
  • What are the boundaries between what should be made publicly available versus restricted to parliamentary use?
  • Will the public have access to verbatim accounts of all plenary sessions? Of all committee meetings?
  • Are all agendas for both plenary sessions and committee meetings publicly posted?
  • Will recorded votes be readily available to the public?
  • Is there a time delay between information being made available internally compared to its release to the public?
  • Do members want to provide information on their own activities, in addition to the actions of the parliament, directly to citizens?
  • Is the internal budget of the parliament and its distribution a matter of public record?
  • Are there rules for constraining outside influences and is the implementation of them made publicly available?
  • Do members have to disclose their financial interests and is this information easily accessible?

Conclusion

As noted by Martin Chungong Secretary General elect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in May 2014[26], “Technology can help to develop strong parliaments. It can provide new channels for parliaments to connect with citizens. But it will not fix processes that do not work. It is a complement, not a substitute, to the hard questions about what it takes to strengthen parliament as an institution.”

The evisceration of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, and inter alia, the culture of interaction, debate and policymaking within its chambers will take political will and time to fully heal. The fear towards ICTs around making Parliamentary processes more transparent and accountable stems from the residual interest of some Members and bureaucracy to keep things as they are. In a way, all this is moot. MPs are already interacting directly with voters, and first time voters quite simply will not engage with parliamentarians and parliamentary proceedings unless they have access to them over the media they use. Between elections, it is the thumb policymakers need to focus on. If access to vital information is denied or somehow debilitated, citizens will react and possibly even revolt. Authoritarianism’s basic design is to deny, decry or destroy. The growth and use of discursive spaces afforded by the web and Internet contests this, and Parliament must lead the way in providing open, state of the art deliberative architectures for citizens to host their own civic minded conversations as well as provide official information around national level policymaking.

In sum, Parliament must move away from an institution that is governed by a mentality that expects citizens to come to it for services or redress, and instead – with the dignity of office, responsibility towards citizens and rights afforded by being part of the legislature – go to citizens, engage in a language they are used to, in places – both physical and virtual – they frequent, over the apps they use.

Technology is a great enabler, but the real challenge is – and has always been – the requisite political will and imagination. Find, secure and strengthen that, and the technology will fall into place.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 1 September 2015

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/30/house-social-media-congress-instagram

[2] https://www.facebook.com/harshadesilvaunp/posts/688088481321133

[3] https://www.facebook.com/harshadesilvaunp/posts/688088481321133?comment_id=688097091320272&reply_comment_id=688100221319959&total_comments=2&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D

[4] https://www.facebook.com/real.rr/posts/10156659742495377

[5] https://twitter.com/EranWick/status/638596889600876544

[6] https://www.facebook.com/NamalSL/photos/a.10152136897244030.1073742060.68916609029/10153515060799030/?type=1&theater

[7] https://www.facebook.com/anurakumara

[8] https://www.facebook.com/anurakumara/videos/vb.267207983433656/499277246893394/?type=2&theater

[9] http://icaruswept.com/2015/08/19/mapping-election-influence-on-social-media-part-two-facebook/

[10] An important distinction here is that accounts with higher numbers of fans or followers may not be the most tuned into their respective audiences. Metrics around engagement trumps numeric strength of followers and fans as a true measure of how invested a user is in cultivating over time, through active participation, his or her audience around key issues, ideas, policies etc.

[11] https://twitter.com/gopiharan/status/624075215396433920

[12] http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/7557-sri-lanka-s-mobile-internet-usage-grows-85-8-pct-in-2014-cb

[13] Can be produced on request

[14] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/polls-social-media-during-the-jan-8th-electioneering-process

[15] http://www.manthri.lk/en/politicians

[16] Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Michael Payne (Editor), 1997, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9780631207535_chunk_g978063120753522_ss1-37

[17] http://www.parliament.lk/files/secretariat/ism/docs/cost_benefit_analysis_brief.pdf

[18] http://www.parliament.lk/files/secretariat/ism/docs/cost_benefit_analysis.pdf

[19] http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/eparl09/abj.pdf

[20] https://civilhub.org/brief/

[21] https://www.facebook.com/europeanparliament

[22] For example, http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/heidi-alexander/4038

[23] http://www.wordle.net

[24] http://groundviews.org/2010/03/15/strengthening-democracy-in-sri-lanka-an-open-invitation-to-generate-fresh-ideas/

[25] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/oppd/Page_8/ICT_FINAL.pdf

[26] http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/eparl14/opening-en.pdf

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