The curious case of Erskine May

Erskine May is the name of the book that describes the rules, conventions and procedures for the United Kingdom’s parliament. The book has become part of the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, and it is effectively the staff handbook for the Members of Parliament and the Lords. However, you’ll find very little about the Erskine May rules on the parliament’s website. Instead, if you want to know the rules on how parliament is run, you’ll need to buy it in book form, at a recommended retail price of £381.

The UK has been one of the pioneers of digital government, so I’ve often wondered why these rules haven’t published for the public to see them. From a conversation I had last week, I now understand the reason is because the copyright is held by the book publishers, and not Parliament, and there is little monetary incentive for the publishers to move the content online.

Let’s imagine the Parliamentary Digital Service were able to publish the information online (or even make the content available under the Open Government Licence). It would create the opportunity to make it easier for UK citizens, and even new MPs, to understand how parliament works.

It would also be possible to make it easier to find information, and filter information based on the type of MP or topic. Using metadata and semantic tagging, it would be possible to mark-up sections, by type of audience, topic or other criteria. For example, if all the procedures relating to Scotland were tagged, you could create filtered views or special navigations routes for the rules and procedures relating to Scottish-only matters. This tagging could be carried out by MPs themselves, or perhaps even crowd-sourced.

There could be flowcharts and checklists, to help people understand all the steps in a procedure. It could also help ensure these have been carried out. It might also make it easier to identify area where parliamentary procedures could be improved, streamlined or simplified. It would be good for democracy, too.

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