- Members of Parliament in the UK need to be tempted online and into the age of electronic communications with such IT goodies as email filters and free handheld wireless computers, according to a report published by the highly influential House of Commons Information Select Committee.
It seems that, just like the rest of us, MPs in the UK don't like spam. But MPs are so fearful of being overwhelmed by emails from constituents, mass email campaigns from pressure groups and general solicitations, that they simply refrain from making their email addresses public, the committee said in the report "Digital Technology: Working for Parliament and the Public" released last week.
"A member might decide to rule out the use of new communication channels on the basis that there is no capacity to deal with them," the report said. For those MPs that do make their email addresses public, on average, 10% to 20% of their correspondence is received electronically, though that is expected to soon grow to as high as 70%, the report said.
In some cases, when MPs do receive a mass posting of emails from a group protesting a particular issue, rather than dealing with each email either personally or through a member of staff, MPs "may decide to delete each one without reading it first; but care will need to be taken to identify and preserve mail from constituents," the report said.
The House of Commons Information Select Committee said it plans to look into email filtering software to "weed out 'junk' email." Specifically, the committee will look into the email filtering system from EchoMail of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is currently being tested by some US senators including Edward Kennedy.
MPs are not currently supplied with an "official" email account or address by the government, and those who do use email do so at their own expense. The Information Committee will investigate and make recommendations on "potential mechanisms to enable all Members to be accessible to the public electronically," the report said.
It is also essential that MPs have reliable remote access links from outside the Houses of Parliament and that they are trained in using such technologies as VPNs (Virtual Private Network), the report said.
"We acknowledge that the 'remote access' service occasionally performed poorly in the past. A considerable amount of work has since been undertaken by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate to develop this project (a VPN for MPs), including an upgrade to the link between Parliament and the internet. We are optimistic that members will have the benefit of improved links between Westminster and constituency offices before long," the report said.
Another possibility for luring MPs into the digital age is to supply them with handheld wireless computers and the Information Committee has already held talks with British Telecommunications (BT) and Compaq (now Hewlett-Packard) to discuss recent developments in technology to support handheld devices.
"There is a case for including a suitable mobile device as part of the standard set of equipment issued to members, funded centrally; the Speaker's Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances may want to consider this possibility," the report said.
The report did point out that MPs would have to be trained in how to use the devices. MPs also need training in how to deal with emails from constituents, the committee said.
"The House Administration could, for instance, usefully draw up guidelines for members and their staff (and indeed House staff) on how to meet expectations of quick response times and on storage of emails," the report said.