Since 2007 I’ve set up and managed over 20 web forums on the Parliament website to help committees of MPs gather evidence for their inquiries. These targeted web forums have helped Parliament engage with diverse groups including Armed Forces personnel, university students, engineers, Post Office users, prison officers and also hard-to-reach groups such as victims of domestic violence.
Helping to connect MPs and the public
In October we set up a web forum on brain tumour research funding on the Parliament website. It enabled people who had been directly affected by brain tumours, and who had signed the e-petition on brain tumour research funding, to share their experiences with Parliament. The forum received over 1100 posts in ten days and the submissions gave MPs on the Petitions Committee a powerful and moving insight into the lives of individuals and families affected by brain tumours.
Committees have sometimes struggled to attract evidence submissions to their inquiries from individual members of the public but our web forums generally receive hundreds of responses. For example in 2013 I set up a web forum on access to transport for people with disabilities for the Transport Committee. The web forum received 332 posts from people with disabilities, who shared their positive and negative experiences of using public transport. Prior to setting up the forum the Committee had only received a handful of written or email submissions from members of the public.
What makes a successful Parliament web forum?
The web forums that are most effective often have two things in common: they target a very specific audience and they focus on experience. Parliament web forums are unusual in that they are not specifically designed to facilitate a conversation (users often leave only a single post). Instead they look to encourage people to share their personal experiences, rather than opinions, with MPs in an open and supportive online space (the forums are pre-moderated using the Parliament online discussion rules). The key measurement of success is the depth of experience and insight they provide, rather than the quantity of posts. MPs can often use these first-hand accounts to powerful effect.
The power of experience
In 2008 I set up an anonymous web forum to help the Home Affairs Committee hear from individuals who had been directly affected by domestic violence. The forum ended up with more than 200 registered users and these contributors gave the Committee a valuable insight into the impact of domestic violence and the support available to victims from the public and voluntary sector. The Committee quoted extensively from the web forum in their final report Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and "Honour"-Based Violence (PDF: 5.3MB) and these quotes powerfully illustrated the Committee’s findings and their recommendations to the Government.
Similarly in 2009 I set up a web forum for the Justice Committee for their inquiry into the role of prison officers. Who knows more about the role of prison officers than prison officers themselves? Again, the Committee used quotes from the forum in their final report Role of the Prison Officer (PDF: 2.9MB) . The Justice Committee followed this up by running web forums linked to inquiries on the Role of the Probation Service (PDF: 1.6MB) in 2011 and Interpreting and Translation Services (PDF: 3.1 MB) in 2012. In this way the Justice Committee were able to hear directly from prison officers, probation officers and court translators about how they had been affected by particular issues and policies.
Reaching the right people
The success of these web forums often depends on reaching the right community or audience. All of the forums I have mentioned targeted a very clearly defined community and this significantly helped with their promotion. For example to promote the domestic violence web forum we worked with the organisations Women's Aid and Refuge and were able to use their pre-existing networks to publicise the forum to victims of domestic violence. It would have been very difficult to reach these women without their support. Similarly much of the traffic to the prison officers forum came from a link on the Prison Service Intranet. The broader your audience the harder it is to put your link in the right place. In addition, rather than each time trying to build up an online community from scratch our Outreach team has also successfully experimented with starting threads in pre-existing online communities like StudentRoom, MoneySavingExpert and the Army Rumour Service.
Combining individual experiences with the influence of a select committee can help to highlight an issue to the Government and to the wider public through the media. In 2014 I set up a web forum for the Foreign Affairs Committee to help them hear from members of the public who had first-hand experience of consular services. The forum received an unexpectedly large number of responses about the handling of deaths abroad. The Committee invited a number of forum contributors to Parliament to hear directly about their experiences and the Committee pursued this issue with the Government in their report Support for British Nationals Abroad: The Consular Service (PDF: 1.2MB). The report received significant media coverage much of which focused on the stories of those who contributed to the forum, for example BBC: Bereaved families let down by consular service, MPs say and The Guardian: Foreign Office condemned for failing Britons in need of help
What next for Parliament web forums?
The key thing we’re aiming to do with web forums is help MPs gain an understanding of a situation with which they might not otherwise have direct experience. They can then use this insight to effectively question and challenge the Government. The web forums therefore help select committees perform two of Parliament's primary functions: to represent the public and to hold the Government to account. The forum on brain tumour research funding was the first time we've linked up a web forum to an e-petition and it represents an interesting new opportunity: for an emotive issue like this there is likely to be a personal story behind each of those signatures and this is a way to help MPs hear those stories.
I think there is something extremely powerful here for Parliament to build upon: to me, finding new and meaningful ways to connect the public to MPs can only help to strengthen Parliament. How do you think we could build on this experience? Could we learn from other institutions or organisations doing similar work?