If you won’t tell us about our MPs, we’ll do it for you

Posted on April 13, 2010 in Governance Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Politics – New websites herald the rise of digital democratic activists who seek to open up government for all to see
Published on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010.   David Eaves

Unbeknownst to most Canadians, some interesting experiments in democracy are taking place in the shadows of the Internet. Across the country, a generation of democratic activists who know how to create webpages and write computer code are pushing to make government more open, accessible and transparent.

Yesterday with little fanfare Michael Mulley, an ordinary Canadian with a passion for democracy, launched openparliament.ca, a website that enables you to search Hansard to see what MPs say in the House, peruse and search bills, look up press stories about any given MP and explore voting records. Suddenly, the entire debating history of Parliament is online, accessible and indexed. Any citizen can find out who said what and when.

Mr. Mulley is not alone. For several months another Canadian, Cory Horner, has maintained howdtheyvote.ca, a site that provides a breakdown on MP statistics including words spoken in a session, frequency with which an MP votes against their party and attendance. Want to know how many days your MP missed last session? Howdtheycote.ca can tell you.

And there are others – all small, emergent experiments by a generation that has been written off as disengaged and uninterested in politics. This of course is partly true; many young people are disengaged and dislike what they see in politics. But these activists represent a growing community defined by progressive, technological thinking coupled with a “let’s see how we can tangibly improve this system” attitude. The results are efforts not to advocate for change, but to see if current forms of engagement and politics can be hacked in a bid to more responsiveness and accountability on the system.

So will these sites change politics? Will they engage new voters? It’s too early to say – but don’t underestimate them. These experiments represent an important part of the future of media. Soon, should a citizen care to, they could have continuous searches running, notifying them any time a keyword (like “Afghanistan” or “human rights”) is mentioned in Parliament. The search could then provide the 500 words preceding and following the keyword, keeping you instantly abreast of what elected officials are saying on the issues you care about. More importantly, letting your MP know your pleasure – or your displeasure – would be only a click away. And with more people up to date on various debates, more citizens could share their views and perspectives, leading to a richer, more vibrant public debate. This type of issue-specific service could be exactly what younger voters are looking for. It might also not take a large number of people participating for MPs to start reacting.

Over the long term, more advanced versions of these websites could help rebalance power in Parliament away from “the centre” (PMO) and back to individual MPs. If citizens are fractured but engaged along hundreds of conversations there are all sorts of information niches for MPs to fill and play important roles within. More importantly, if constituents are able to monitor and create feedback loops via social media, then MPs could have a deeper connection to their local communities, ones that might empower them to be more independent and prepared to occasionally buck the authority of party bosses.

Regardless of the long-term implications, giving Canadians faster, more comprehensive and customizable information about Parliament is something the institution should encourage. Up till now, this has not been the case and consequently these experiments have been rare. This is because the House of Commons does not provide information on its proceedings in “machine readable” format. Consequently, sites like OpenParliament.ca cannot automatically download the relevant information; instead their content must be “scraped,” or painstakingly copied, from Parliament’s website. So despite being more useful than the official parliamentary portal, creating these sites is a labour intensive process. Fortunately, parliamentary staff have promised me – after many conversations over the past few months – they will start releasing Hansard and other information in more flexible formats by the end of the year.

If this promise is fulfilled, expect more experimentation around how Canadians can engage with Parliament, their MPs and the political process in general. Given, as Andrew Coyne rightfully points out, the bleak recent history of Parliament and the executive branch’s evolving disrespect for the institution, these experiments are precisely what’s needed. No one claims technology will save Parliament, but for those who believe in the power of information and political engagement, the future of Parliament may not be as bleak as the present.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

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