Digital News and Information from the Assembly

Twenty years ago this September, the people of Wales voted in favour of having their own National Assembly. It’s the only political institution the people of Wales have ever voted to have. This week we have published our report on how the National Assembly can deepen its relationship with the people of Wales through digital communications and social media.

Our focus has been on the Welsh citizen – the potential user of the Assembly platform and services. Our starting point is that all Assembly communications should be designed with a citizen/user interest at their heart, with a presumption of Open Data, seeking to build long-term relationships with the citizens of Wales.

In our report we set out how the National Assembly can use modern digital communication and social media channels to identify what people are thinking and concerned about, to collect evidence, information and opinion, and to engage in real-time with people in local communities and communities of interest. The same media can then allow the Assembly to share with citizens directly how their elected representatives, individually and collectively, are seeking to respond to those issues.

Our proposals in some areas are radical. We want the Assembly, its Members and staff, to understand that they are content creators: the Assembly is a content platform which captures facts, information, data, commentary, opinion, and analysis, both written and audiovisual, that leads – or sometimes consciously doesn’t lead – to action. Properly organised, this is a profound, valuable and democratic digital space which reflects the nation’s conversations about the issues which are of most concern to it. It should be innovative, creative, and inspirational.

Our group contained people with a diverse range of relevant skills, including the media, education, digital content and social media developments, which has enabled us to make practical proposals for improving the Assembly’s operations.

Our recommendations are diverse. They include these suggestions:

  1. The Assembly should lead the way and establish an integrated content service using social media and other channels (such as dedicated email newsletters) to engage directly with the people of Wales.
  2. The Assembly should put people – rather than the institution and its processes – at the heart of topical news stories and aim for an emotional connection.
  3. The Assembly should create content that helps people understand the connections, differences and working relationships between the Assembly and other key organisations in Welsh public life to address the democratic information deficit.
  4. Senedd TV must be more user-friendly, with a simple tool allowing anyone to quickly find and clip footage which can be included in video packages or embedded on Member pages, external websites and social media platforms.
  5. Smart social media analytics should be adopted to identify online conversations and communities, and allow the Assembly to become involved in these discussions.
  6. The Assembly must exploit every alternative to the press release as a means of promoting its work. Maps, infographics, blogs and neat summaries all have the potential to articulate difficult messaging in a memorable way.
  7. A dedicated, easy to use National Assembly for Wales area should be established on the Hwb resource repository with resources for teaching that are mapped to the needs of the new curriculum currently being developed.
  8. The Assembly should establish strong contacts with Welsh Higher and Further Education Institutions to facilitate easier engagement with the Senedd and explore the potential of developing a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) about its work.
  9. Social media platforms best suited to engage with young people and learners should be adopted, in line with current trends. The Assembly should embrace the potential for digital engagement utilising other platforms such as Skype, Facetime, Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality.
  10. Further thought should be given to the visitor experience at the Senedd and the Pierhead, including the use of projection, video walls, Virtual and Augmented Reality on the estate, inside and outside the Senedd and Pierhead.

We also recommend that the 20th anniversary of the Assembly opening in 2019 is at the heart of a campaign to promote the stories of devolution, and recommend to the Llywydd that she consider organising A Festival of Welsh Democracy to coincide with that anniversary.

In voting for a National Assembly twenty years ago, the people of Wales created a new democratic institution operating, it is fair to say, in a fragmented public sphere. Though the National Assembly was born at the time of digital developments in our media, in practice we built a new Welsh public polity in the absence of a coherent Welsh public sphere. It was not our job as a group to consider the Welsh media and its structural challenges – committees of the Assembly have been looking at those themselves. Our task was to help the National Assembly establish how best to build a deep, genuine and continuous dialogue with the people of Wales. This is our report. Let the debates begin!


Why Theresa May doesn’t get how dangerous the DUP deal could be.

i wrote this for The New European in May.

No UK Prime Minister has attended the British-Irish Council since 2007.

Leighton Andrews

When she met the Irish Taoiseach in January, Theresa May made it clear that she wanted to try to ensure, post-Brexit, a ‘seamless, frictionless border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The UK Prime Minister subsequently made her case for the maintenance of the UK as a ‘precious union’ when she attended the Scottish Conservative Conference. She said that in the UK, ‘we are four nations, but at heart one people’. She claimed that ‘facts and logic’ were on the side of the UK.

At one level, it is reassuring to hear, after the damning of experts and expertise last year by Michael Gove, and the tabloid huffing and puffing over Spain’s claim to Gibraltar, that facts and logic matter. But negotiations, particularly when they involve sensitive issues of national sentiment, require emotional intelligence as well. Informal relationships matter.

There is growing concern in both the UK and Ireland that the hard Brexit currently being pursued will not only be damaging to the economy north and south of the border but will lead to the re-imposition of border controls. That itself raises fears about historic tensions re-surfacing. Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said last week that there was ‘no upside’ to Brexit. Tony Blair, as UK Prime Minister one of the architects of the peace process, warned in Ireland last week that the potential ‘hard border’ presented a real threat to the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.

In that context, it is perhaps surprising how little engagement has taken place by senior Conservative politicians with institutions like the British-Irish Council. The sitting Taoiseach has only missed one out of the 28 British-Irish Council meetings that have taken place since its inception. No UK Prime Minister has attended since Gordon Brown in 2007. David Cameron never went (though Nick Clegg, as the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM did on several occasions): and the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, has never attended either as Prime Minister or as Home Secretary. Additionally, UK Cabinet Ministers other than what Whitehall used to call the Territorial ministers (the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) have attended roughly just half of the meetings.

The sitting Welsh First Minister has attended 23 out of the 28 meetings and the sitting Scottish First Minister, 21 out of the 28 meetings. Aside from when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, the sitting Northern Irish First Minister has failed to attend only once.

The British-Irish Council is a strange entity. Indeed, Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s chief of staff, described it in his book on the Good Friday Agreement negotiations as a ‘bizarre’ organization. Jonathan says that it was created because the Unionists wanted it as a means of solidifying ‘East-West’ relationships alongside the ‘North-South’ relationships.

Bizarre it may be, but it has now endured for almost twenty years, and held 28 meetings in that time. In my days as a Welsh Minister, I attended two meetings, as well as contributing to working groups and events organised under its auspices. The BIC seemed valuable more for the opportunities to build informal relationships with counterparts from Ireland and the other devolved administrations, rather than for any formal business carried on. What is startling is how little attention has been given to it by senior Conservative politicians. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major is known to be worried that the current Conservative government is paying too little attention to the situation in Northern Ireland.

The presence of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man obviously adds another layer to the meetings, but it is the one formal forum where the devolved administrations, the UK Government and the Irish Government convene together. In the context of Brexit, it could play a useful informal role, if taken seriously.

Internally in the UK, inter-governmental consultative mechanisms such as the Joint Ministerial Committee exist but have significant flaws, as the Welsh Finance Minister told the House of Lords EU Committee in March. There is a strong case for strengthening such mechanisms, ensuring at the very least proper preparation for the meetings.

In her comments on what might happen to powers repatriated to the UK after Brexit, the UK Prime Minister initially sounded as if she were opposed to strengthening the powers of the devolved administrations, saying she did not want the UK to become ‘looser and weaker’ through additional devolution. The Great Repeal White Paper is vague on these issues, but confirms that the devolution settlements will have to be reviewed in the context of the Brexit negotiations. This is not altogether surprising, as membership of the EU is specifically referenced in devolution legislation. But it does raise the consequence of a clash of referendums: the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have endorsed their EU-linked devolution settlements in referendums with results more emphatic than the margin in the Brexit referendum.

The sense, however, of a UK Government determined to resurrect an old-fashioned unionism with a stronger Westminster at the core, comes through at every move by Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues, Her opposition to a ‘looser union’ puts her on a collision course with pro-union politicians such as the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who has argued extensively over past years for precisely such a ‘looser union’ as the best way to protect the UK’s future as a state. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown takes a similar view and has argued that Westminster’s version of parliamentary sovereignty no longer applies.

Facts and logic are all very well – but will Theresa May invest the necessary time and energy in building the informal relationships that could smooth the Brexit negotiations? The data doesn’t lie. Her approach, and that of her Cabinet, to the British-Irish Council, suggests that respect for institutions beyond Westminster is limited. Mrs May is storing up trouble, both for the UK’s long-term relationship with Ireland and other EU members, and with the devolved administrations. It’ll be a bumpy ride.

Leighton Andrews is Professor in Public Service Leadership at Cardiff Business School and a former Welsh Government Minister.

Opening up the Assembly

On Friday and Saturday, we are organising a Senedd Lab to ‘hack the Assembly’ as part of our work for the Presiding Officer’s Digital News Taskforce. You can register for the event here.

I wrote about our work as a group on the Click on Wales site here in January.

In summary, the taskforce is considering how best to ensure that:

• users of Assembly services, like the website, or Senedd TV, the live and recorded searchable ‘feed’ of Assembly proceedings, or the printed Record of Proceedings can more easily navigate around them, take and use data from them, adapt video and other content for their own purposes, and generally give a better user experience;
• online services, including social media, help the Assembly meet the needs of different audiences and customers;
• the Assembly’s committees better communicate the work they are doing