Discussions of contemporary politics have focussed recently on the so-called “crisis of disengagement” bemoaning the increasing disconnection between the public and holders of political authority. On the other hand, political debate takes place increasingly on the Internet and often within disconnected and polarised “bubbles”, which escalate disagreements and do little to promote constructive discussion and compromise. Both phenomena can challenge established democratic systems and contest traditional representative democracy practices if the public does not feel sufficiently represented by policy makers and if democratic compromises become harder to reach.
In response to these transformations policy makers have sought new ways to engage with citizens, increasingly making use of digital technologies. Digital debates involving MPs and citizens prior to parliamentary debates are one example of such attempts developed recently by the UK Parliament.
However, how effective are these methods of online public engagement? Do these initiatives bring together citizens from different backgrounds who would otherwise not communicate with each other? How can the citizen input be utilised in a meaningful way to inform policy making? When developing this project together with the House of Commons, these were some of the key questions that officials working in citizen engagement raised in collaborative activities (e.g. meetings) leading to this project proposal. The project will address these questions under one main research question: What makes for effective and meaningful parliamentary online public engagement?
In order to answer this question parliamentary online public engagement practice will be first exploratively evaluated through analyses of the “Big Data” that is generated through specific online public engagement activities. Second, a set of field-experiments will be implemented where different online public engagement practices will be tested.
The “Big Data” from these field-experimental approaches will be collected and analysed through a hypotheses-driven approach, testing the effectiveness of specific field-experimental interventions designed and implemented in collaboration with the House of Commons. The goal is to establish effective online public engagement practices and to develop analytical tools that could be implemented in order to help the House of Commons to process and explore citizen input in an effective and meaningful way.
The PhD includes three short placements in the House of Commons. Seeing its focus on e-democratic processes and a Big Data research approach, the proposed project lies within the “Communication, New Technologies and Data” interdisciplinary pathway with its focus on “cutting-edge frameworks and methods to understand” social interactions facilitated by digital technologies and on “making sense of and manage increasing volumes of data”.