Opening up the Assembly….

In September, it will be twenty years since the people of Wales voted, by a small majority, to have their own National Assembly. It’s the only political institution the people of Wales have voted to have. Since it came into being in 1999, the Assembly has grown in power and responsibility. Six year ago, the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly to trust the Assembly with the power to make laws in Wales.

But how aware are people of the work done by the National Assembly as an institution, and its individual members as AMs? We know that sometimes people confuse the legislature, the National Assembly, with the executive, the Welsh Government. Late last year the Presiding Officer established a small group to look at how the Assembly can deliver engaging and accessible news and information about its work. That’s a big task, particularly at a time when news organisations are under increasing pressure and are focussing less on coverage of politics.

Our task force includes people with expertise in the media, open democracy projects like My Society, forward-thinking public institutions that have put digital communications at their heart, and specialists in digital learning and political communication. We’ve been asked to look at how best to increase levels of public understanding and engagement with audiences currently disengaged with politics and Welsh affairs.

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, can help the Assembly meet the needs of different audiences and customers;
  • how the Assembly’s committees communicate the work they are doing.

Interest in issues addressed by the Assembly, from health to housing, education to the environment, is high – but the Assembly doesn’t necessarily present itself in way that allows people to find things out simply and accessibly. Too often the Assembly seems institutional in its presentation, rather than being issue-led. People care about issues more these days than they care about institutions.

There may be other things which the Assembly needs to do to ensure it is communicating effectively with the people of Wales. People are now consuming information and news about politics in different and innovative ways, mainly through digital platforms. Most people now get their news online and increasingly from mobile, more and more frequently via news feeds such as Facebook’s. Young people overwhelmingly get their news in mobile form, often through social media such as Snapchat. How can the Assembly serve up its news in more digestible form using these platforms – or allow others to do this?

All media organisations are under pressure, and one of the newspapers previously covering the Assembly with a dedicated reporter has now cut that post. Most people will get their television and radio news from UK channels which rarely cover Wales and often rarely explain where policies in Wales differ from those in England, except in passing. The London newspapers, widely read in Wales, rarely mention Welsh politics or the Assembly. Does the Assembly, therefore, need to provide its own digital news platform with a small team of journalists providing news about the stories that are coming out of the Assembly? Such a platform could also provide material for the scores of local and hyperlocal news publications around Wales. This would not be a ‘government’ mouthpiece – quite the opposite. It would be the platform for what is happening in the place where the Welsh Government is scrutinised – the National Assembly – and headed by an impartial editor.

The Senedd’s physical design was intended to be symbolic of its role as a transparent public space for the people of Wales. It’s one of the most visited buildings in Wales, with more than 80,000 visitors every year. How can that visitor experience be improved, and how can people keep in touch with what is happening in the Assembly after their visit? Thousands of school students visit the Assembly every year: how should the Assembly link up with students, teachers and schools, possibly making use of the Welsh Government’s hugely successful Hwb+ bilingual learning platform hosting 580,000 teachers and learners? That’s something we’re asking the National Digital Learning Council to look at.

There are lots of ways the National Assembly seeks to read the pulse of the people of Wales – crowdsourcing responses to Brexit and other issues, polling people on inquiries and receiving thousands of responses. The taskforce’s work will complement this, seeking to ensure the Assembly behaves as an innovative democratic forum.

At the end of the day – it’s your Assembly. We want to hear your views on how the Assembly can best communicate with the people of Wales. Email us on digisenedd@assembly.wales with your views. We want to hear from you – after all, it’s a big year for the Assembly. In May, the Assembly celebrates its 18th birthday. That’s a milestone in any life.

Leighton Andrews is chairing the Presiding Officer’s Digital News Taskforce.

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