Building a digital democracy and putting citizens needs first

Chris Skidmore spoke to students in South Korea on how we're working to build a digital democracy that is fit for the 21st century.

Chris Skidmore MP

First of all I’d like to thank you for your kind invitation to speak today: I am delighted to be here at Pusan National University and to have this exciting opportunity to visit the Republic of Korea.

As Minister for the Constitution in the UK, I am in the privileged position of being able to put into action my personal commitment to a democracy that works for everyone.

I firmly believe that we all have a part to play to create a strong democracy that is fair, secure and inclusive. Where every voice matters and here modern registration enables all eligible electors to have their say at the ballot box.

An inclusive democracy that encourages all its citizens to participate, whichever part of the country they live in, or as a citizen living overseas.

Those of you in this room today are, along with your counterparts living in the other great democracies of the world, the leaders of tomorrow, whose job it will be to continue to build even stronger democracies within which future generations will thrive.

Back in the UK, and across the world, your country, Korea, is admired and respected as a leader in commerce and technology. The UK shares a similarly strong commitment to investing in these sectors. But there is much more that unites our two countries and I would like to take a few moments to reflect on some of our shared values.

Earlier today I laid a wreath at the UN cemetery in Busan on behalf of the UK government to recognise all those who fought in the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

Among the tens of thousands who lost their lives was a soldier from my own part of the UK, Lance Corporal George Henry Lawrence, who served in the Gloucestershire Regiment, who died on 25 November 1950, aged just 31.

He was one of over a thousand British fatalities in the Korean War.

He, like many others who served, did so to protect democracy, the people’s right to be heard, and it is this ‘right’ which unites us all, whether you live in the Republic of Korea, the UK or any other free-thinking democracy around the world.

History speaks for itself when we see how far your own democracy has come, transforming into the vibrant constitutional democracy we see today.

Like the UK, your country is founded on strong democratic principles based on mutual respect, tolerance and the rule of law.

Those values in turn have been critical to your economic development - you only need to look around the world to realise how powerful they are as agents of progress and prosperity.

And there is more that underpins our democracies, a positive outlook for economic growth; burgeoning digital economies, and a shared desire to drive global trade alliances.

Our work together through the Digital 5 Forum is a great example of this. It’s the Digital 5 Forum, D5, that’s brought me to Busan this week. Let me explain a little more about the D5 and its aims.

The UK founded the D5 in 2014, inviting the countries that we saw as leading the world in the use of digital technology to transform government services for the benefit of our citizens. Korea is one of those countries, along with Israel, Estonia and New Zealand.

We now work together to share best practice, seek new approaches and promote the benefits of e-government to developing countries.

This is possible because the digital age, sometimes called the ‘4th industrial revolution’, has enabled great feats of innovation that connect us across borders and cultures, and democratised knowledge and opportunity.

The World Wide Web, which was invented by a British person, incidentally, has been an enabler for all of this, and a basic right.

But this global platform is just the first step.

To learn and develop as people, communities and countries, we must use that connection to engage and collaborate with others.

And today I want to share with you some of what my government has learned on our digital journey.

When we began to reform our public services, we realised that we had to do things differently.

This meant designing services that put users at the heart. We set out to build digital services that people would actively want to use.

Unlike a business, which targets only its own niche customer-base, the challenge for governments is much greater: our services must work for everybody.

We need to deliver vital public services, using the simplest designed technology, to everyone.

This is where values of democracy and our digital values coincide. Those values underlie our entire e-government programme, from tax returns to driving licences.

But I wanted today to focus on the ways in which the UK is using digital technology to drive democracy.

In 2014, we introduced the biggest change our electoral registration system had ever seen.

Today we have a secure online system which has made registering to vote easier than ever.

It has been a great success and shows how government can be at the forefront of innovation.

In fact following the EU referendum last June we now have the largest electoral register we have ever seen, with 46.5 million people signed up to make their voice heard.

The EU referendum was the largest single exercise in democracy that modern British politics has ever witnessed, with nearly 3 quarters of the electorate casting their vote.

This was made possible partly also through digital partnerships with technology firms. We used those channels to reach out to citizens who might not normally pay much attention to government messages, and encourage them to take part in the democratic process.

The unprecedented levels of participation in the referendum demonstrate that the British public still retain faith that their vote does count, that our democracy can indeed still change the world around us.

Our challenge now is for the UK to build on that unprecedented level of democratic engagement by improving the process still further and by removing any barriers that prevent people from enrolling.

Last month I launched my own vision for a democracy that works for everyone - one that is fair, secure and inclusive, where every voice matters, where modern registration enables all eligible electors to have their say at the ballot box, a democracy where people have an opportunity to participate, wherever they live, in the UK or overseas, and where every vote carries equal weight.

My vision broadly falls into 4 key pillars:

  • equal seats: a review of constituency boundaries in the UK will address current inequalities in their size, ensuring every vote carries equal weight and that we cut the cost of politics. I know this is a live issue in Korea too.
  • votes for life: the government will ensure that British citizens who have moved overseas have the right to register to vote in future elections. Again, Korea has done some pioneering work in this area, including setting up polling stations overseas.
  • every voice matters: we will reach out to all communities, including those who feel socially excluded, to encourage and empower them to have their say – ensuring no community is left behind.
  • a clear and secure democracy: we will continue to drive improvements to our electoral registration system to ensure it is fit for the 21st century, while putting in place measures to make the system more secure.

British expats are part of British society, retaining strong cultural and social ties with their families at home, helping to build businesses abroad, exporting British values across the world.

The decisions that are made on British shores also impact our citizens around the world and indeed many plan to return to live there in the future.

But when it comes to democracy it should not matter where they live.

That is why the UK government will ensure that British citizens who have moved overseas have the right to register to vote in future elections so it’s as representative and inclusive as it should be, including the 6,000 British citizens living in South Korea.

Currently, overseas voters are just one of the many under-registered groups in the UK. People from cultural and ethnic minority groups, those who move house frequently, young people, and those with a longstanding mental health condition or disability are also less likely to register to vote.

Unfortunately lower levels of engagement across certain communities and groups are still found in every UK city and town; individuals that remain silent, whose voices currently go unheard in our democracy. Those who do not register to vote because they feel that the system does not work for them; those who do not participate in our democracy because the barriers that exist between their communities and society are too high.

I want to ensure we have a democracy that treats every British citizen equally.

A democracy that works for everyone needs to include everyone.

I am determined to inspire our future generations to continue this mission - they, like you, are the real pioneers of the future.

I know Korea is a society that values and respects age and experience. But young people also have so much to contribute: a fresh perspective, an active interest in international affairs and, of course, a personal stake in the future of your country and our world. So I encourage you to look for ways of making your voices heard.

I’d be especially delighted if you were to choose the UK as a vehicle to help you in that endeavour. That might be by studying at one of our world-class universities – and I’d encourage you to consider applying for one of the hundreds of Chevening scholarships that the British government awards each year to ambitious young leaders.

Or perhaps you’ll consider working for one of the many world-beating British companies that have seen the opportunities that exist in Korea, whether Standard Chartered Bank, Rolls Royce, GSK, Lush or many others.

Alternatively you may find yourself working for one of the many excellent Korean companies, such as Samsung or LG or Hyundai who have taken advantage of the UK’s excellence as a base for doing business to establish operations there.

Whichever route you may choose in future I very much hope that you will be part of the growing partnership between the UK and Korea.

Our mutual friendship and co-operation dates back 130 years, but Britain has always stood by South Korea in its times of need, and we will continue to do so.

So while today, in Britain we remember the lives who were lost in South Korea 60 years ago, men such as Lance Corporal George Henry Lawrence, we do so knowing that they gave their lives not in vain, but to ensure that democracy came to thrive in your country, and that you too in the future will continue to thrive.

Men such as Lance Corporal George Henry Lawrence gave his today for your tomorrow.

I want our shared past to continue as our shared future, in digital government, in our shared technological economies, and in our mutual understanding that it is democracy and our freedoms that enable us to succeed in our global age.

Thank you for your attention.

Published 11 November 2016