Twitter, MPs and Select Committees

Yesterday I blogged about Julie Anne Genter live tweeting a Select Committee hearing and asking for people to tweet questions they may like to have asked. I wasn’t the only person to spot it. Cameron Slater over at Whale Oil also saw it. He is not a fan of what happened. He writes:

The Commerce Committee is an important job and process where the parliament scrutinises the government’s budget.

MPs are supposed to have read the documents, prepared questions and be ready to cross-examine the Minister.

You don’t sashay in and start tweeting to ask people what you should ask.

This is not the professional behaviour of someone who earns over $140K.

Clare Curran has also jumped in on the debate, surprisingly agreeing with Cameron Slater:

engagement 1engagement 1

However I disagree. There may be some issues with Julie Anne’s execution of the idea, but I think the idea is sound. Politics is about representing people. For many this is seen as simply representing those who vote for them once every 3 years, or representing the views of the membership of their parties. But MPs are elected to represent everyone, to do what is best for the country, as they see it.


Technology is changing and advancing – it is changing the way we live, it is also changing the way government and Parliament works. 100 years ago citizens would be shocked at the idea that someone not in the House would be able to listen in real time to the proceedings of Parliament. Skip forward 50 years and tell people that you would be able to watch live, video coverage of all proceedings of the House on a portable computer or cell phone and they would think you were crazy. But we can do that now. The rules of Parliament have had to be adjusted to take account of this, just like it looks like they will have to be adjusted to take account of the use of social media in the House.


In New Zealand we have an issue with people not being willing to engage with politics and we need to do something about it. 2011 had the lowest voter turn out ever in New Zealand. The idea that we can see improvements in political engagement while political actors continue behave in the same way is wrong. We should be encouraging MPs and Ministers to try new things. Jacinda is trying her #askjacinda project, which has non social media aspects as well. We still have 17 MPs who are not on Twitter, before we even count the ones who are on there and don’t use it. For many people, the only way they ever get to directly engage with MPs and Ministers is via social media.


Julie Anne’s tweet requesting questions may have come a bit out of the blue for everyone and looked like a cop out for someone who hadn’t thought of questions to ask. I have a feeling that is what Cameron was getting at. If she had planned it out, run it earlier as part of a structured project, the response might have been different.


One of the implications that has been made is that if MPs are tweeting, it means they aren’t concentrating on what is happening. But how is tweeting any different to taking nots during a meeting? It is just that in this case the notes are open to the public, and there is the ability for people to reply to those notes.


I contacted Julie Anne for comment on this issue, one thing she felt the need to point out was that the live tweeting hadn’t been planned, but she felt it was a good idea, due to the fact that “there were hardly any journos there” so she “thought I’d tweet it to get it out there.” If reporters are not willing to cover it, MPs tweeting sections is going to help people know what is going on. Sure MPs will have a more overt bias to what is being said than reporters, but a biased account, with a known bias, is far better for public discourse than nothing. 


One of the common retorts, from both sides of the house, is “focusing on the issues that matter”, which is thrown around when MPs or Ministers talk about issues that the other side think are unimportant. What Julie Anne did offers the chance for immediate feed back, from a section of the community,  on what they feel matters. Julie Anne did mention in her email that she had more questions than she would have a chance to ask, asking Twitter what they wanted asked could help her decide which questions to focus on at the expense of others, with the possibility of someone suggesting something that she hadn’t thought of.


Maybe this highlights an intersection of an issue, lack of engagement, with a potential but not fully realised solution. Is there a place for, and a method to facilitate, citizens being able to ask questions directly to Ministers as part of the Select Committee, or dare I suggest it, Question Time, process? Of course the issue is how do the questions get picked and how do the rude, inappropriate questions get weeded out? Is there also a place to have an official live tweeting of Select Committees? I know I would follow it, I am more likely to follow and engage with it, than I am to watch the live streaming of the small number of select committee hearings that are carried.


There are software tools out there to help with this, but this is beyond the scope of this post. However there is a discussion to be had here to about ways that social media can be leveraged to increase engagement in the politic process, not just at election time, but on an on going, day to day basis. There are only a few sitting weeks left before the House breaks for the election, this makes it a great time to experiment and see if there are tools or techniques that might be useful after the election to help keep people involved and engaged in the political process.


I will let Julie Anne finish this off, with her point of view:

I had not planned to tweet the meetings, but there weren’t many journalists at the TIR hearing at 8am with Gerry Brownlee, so I decided in the meeting to use twitter to share the questions and answers. Many of the people who follow me on twitter are highly knowledgable and enthusiastic about transport, and work in the field. It occurred to me as they were responding to my live-tweeting that I could also ask them if they had any additional specific questions.

I thought it worked well at TIR, so I decided to put the same opportunity out there during the Vote Communications hearing – many people on twitter work in ICT and have specialist knowledge and interest in what the Government is doing in this area. I thought it could help me make best use of my limited questions, and I thought I could feedback directly to those whose questions I used the Minister’s answers, and they would appreciate that.

Before I was in Parliament, I would have loved an opportunity to ask specific questions to Ministers – and I think it’s fantastic that technology allows me as a representative to connect with voters in a way that means I can offer them the opportunity to give direct feedback.

It was a bit of an impulsive experiment – but I think Slater’s criticism is unfounded and betrays a total lack of respect for the public, many of whom have more knowledge than the politicians who represent them. I do my homework, but I don’t claim to have a monopoly on knowledge and ideas about how to hold the Government to account. I think the professionalisation of politics (if you can call it professional – the behaviour of many MPs in the House and SC is the most unprofessional I have ever encountered anywhere…) takes it away from the public. In my view, one of my jobs as an MP is to make the process of government more real and relevant to people, and one of the ways I do this is by trying to be approachable and accessible.

In that context, I can’t see how trying to involve people in the scrutiny of Ministers at a select committee meeting using social media can be a bad thing.