Nat Wei: Forget moving Parliament to York. It should go fully virtual and innovate to save money.

24 Jul

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

There has been a lot of talk about sending Parliament to York, as a means to reconnect with the public. While it is only right to review the cost of moving Parliament out for refurbishment, my sense is that moving to York is actually not radical enough given what we now know is possible – having moved to hybrid sittings as a result of Covid-19.

Shifting to York, a fairly affluent city in the North, would be costly, at a time when the country can little afford it. Whether it will allow people to feel closer to their politicians is not clear.

What might be better, cheaper and more radical would be to enable Parliament to meet virtually using future technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, wikis, breakout lobbies and Committee rooms that the public can visit, observe and participate in.

These technologies will mature in the coming five years or more, and will be much cheaper to implement than a temporary or permanent move to elsewhere in Westminster, York, or anywhere else.

In fact, why not go a step further and harness this opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to find new ways to engage the public – not just every five years or through the mob that social media can currently represent, or even through petitions?

Why not use this season to accelerate, incubate, and innovate around concepts such as mass participatory budgeting, or betting with real or fake money on what policy ideas will work, or on mass legislative amendments clearly marked with explanations by those in the country and those who need to convey what they think the impact of law and legislation might have on their industry, geography, or lives?

Such lawtech or regulationtech could in turn be harnessed to enable other countries, places and movements to experiment with democracy in different forms, whether representative or direct, whether by seeking to explore whether ideas would be popular, or whether give those ideas a high probability of succeeding or not.

Data, where shared, on whose predictions and votes were actually accurate or prescient, indicating a high degree of judgement, could highlight which citizens might do well to become MPs or peers in future, rather than just relying on the current party selection processes which can be too much of a closed network at the best of times.

Where the private sector has established what are called prediction markets, where – say – employees at a firm bet on the quarterly sales figures of that company weekly or monthly, the market overall learns over time to get to within about two per cent accuracy.

Imagine how many billions could have been saved if there had been such a prediction market in place when Gordon Brown or another leader claims to be able to use tax credits to halve child poverty by 50 per cent by 2020?

Imagine if some of the funds saved could be used to establish low-cost smartphone and Internet-of-things-based ways of assessing if policy actually worked after it has been implemented – so we can all make smarter decisions in future, and learn in real time even where ideas haven’t worked.

Moving Parliament full stop physically could be a costly mistake.

Let’s go online, and have revolving pop-up events around the country if you must (Foster and Partners modular pop-up Parliament concept previously submitted might be modified to enable this) but accelerate the development of the technology so that we can get as close virtually to really being physically together as much as possible.

By using bottom-up innovation this wouldn’t need to cost more than £50 to £100 million to develop. It would certainly cost many, many billions less than moving everyone to York or somewhere else and back.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.