Thursday, 18 December 2008

Manchester Congestion Charge

1.03 million people were reported as having voted in a local postal referendum about congestion charging in Manchester, which would effect the conurbation of about 2.5 million people. Of the 1.94 million voters this amounts to a response rate of 53.2%.

79% were against and The Guardian suggests that Cambridge, Bristol and Leeds are now likely to drop their congestion charge plans.

For a Guardian report please click here.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Power of Authority

In the post war years the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram set up experiments that were to lead to an understanding of how individuals could be driven to hurt other people when authorised to do so. Their shocking observations were that about 60 to 65% of us would cause pain to others, despite our better judgment, if encouraged to do so by an authority figure.

Authority is essential for leadership and leadership is an essential ingredient of Interactive Democracy. But in the ID system the gravitas of government or the amplitude of media opinion leaders are somewhat balanced by individual experts who can genuinely claim to know the subject that is up for consideration. Their authority comes not from holding office over all things but through close attention to one.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Undermining Party Finance

Interactive Democracy gives more power to the electorate and less to the political parties. I suspect that this would cause a serious switch of political funding towards campaigns on issues and away from the traditional parties. But would this strangle them?

Political Parties are still important in the ID system. They contribute to Parliament and can become the government. So they still have influence and, I assume, would still garner support and funding. However, if a lack of funding became a major issue for the survival of the parties a debate could be raised about alternative methods of support. Something that has been done in many countries around the world.

Political Finance

Cash for honours??? Cash for influence may be a more serious issue?!
Laws have been developed to limit the influence of political donors but there's a sneaking suspicion amongst the public that deals done on millionaires yachts may have a pernicious influence. Would Interactive Democracy, and its re-balancing of democratic power, have a detrimental effect on party funding? Would wealthy individuals decide instead to create a campaign for laws that benefited them? Would they spend thousands on advertising to persuade us to vote for their proposals?
I suspect they would. But I don't think it would be such a bad thing. In fact it could be a great contribution to debate and would likely be far more obvious to the public than today's opaque political money go round.

Friday, 26 September 2008

How to decide when to hold a referendum

Interactive Democracy is a system of referendums, but, as mentioned in the previous post, it isn't suitable for all situations facing the country. Here are some criteria for holding a referendum.

Referendums should not be held if:
  1. The information is secret.
  2. The situation is extremely complex - beyond the understanding of the typical juror (man on the street).
  3. Immediate action is required.
  4. The action required must be kept secret to be effective.
Referendums should be held if:
  1. The decision requires a social value judgement.
  2. The decision is best arrived at by an expression of individual wants or needs.

It would be sensible if parliament decided if each individual issue should go to referendum or if they, or the government, should have the final say. They will be held to account in the General Election.

The Government Knows What's Best For Us

Is it the case that government knows what's best? Undoubtedly this is true some of the time, because they have access to information and expertise that isn't generally available, or even understandable, by the general population. Witness the recent financial earthquakes or consider the importance of secret military intelligence.
The government needs to be in a position to take decisions in situations where Interactive Democracy will be ineffective and only they can decide when to employ their powers. However, this "emergency" response is balanced by Parliaments inspection and by the voting rights of the general public to sack them at the next general election, or even call for resignations sooner.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Sacking Ministers

In some circumstances the public may well call for the dismissal of ministers. I don't believe that the opposition parties will be perpetually manipulating the Interactive Democracy system to this end, as such a contrivance will be obvious to the general public who will then be in a position to hold them in contempt at the next election... or make an immediate counter claim through the ID process. The dismissal of ministers will only occur if the majority think it correct.

Precipitating a General Election

Growing disillusionment with the government may be expressed through Interactive Democracy and, in theory, could reach the stage of demanding a General Election. I doubt if the joint opposition parties would be in a perpetual state of trying to trigger such an election (through the ID votes of their party members), otherwise they could expect the same "compliment" if they took office. However, news of government mistakes or incompetency may trigger a wider demand for change.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Pressure Groups, Safety Valve

Interactive Democracy creates an avenue for pressure groups, from Animal Rights Advocates to Zoologists, to place their suggestions in front of the electorate. It gives them an opportunity to change the law if they can generate enough support.
Some groups find access to the Parliamentary process difficult and are tempted towards criminal action to achieve their aims. In this case, Interactive Democracy provides a useful safety valve; an easy route to re-engage with the political process.

Friday, 11 July 2008

David Davis - Debating Freedom

David Davis recently won his seat after resigning from parliament and triggering a byelection that he hoped would debate British freedoms. He layed out his concerns:
“We will have the most intrusive identity card system in the world, a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, and a DNA database bigger than that of any dictatorship, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.
“We've witnessed a sustained assault on jury trials, that bulwark against bad law and its arbitrary abuse by the state; shortcuts with our justice system that have left it both less firm and less fair -- and the creation of a database state, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers."
But did the byelection actually debate the point(s)? Or did the electorate vote for David Davis the man with convictions (unopposed by Labour or Lib Dem candidates)?
Peculiarly our whole electoral system has always required a database of voters. It is at the core of every modern democracy. I would rather this was used to facilitate votes (plural) on the points (plural) that he raised using the Interactive Democracy system instead of using the blunt instrument of a by-election.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Too Much Choice

The links below highlight the idea that choice isn't always good. They detail studies that seem to indicate that too much choice actually decreases our happiness and suggest that buying agents (estate agents, financial advisers etc.) can make purchases more satisfying by reducing our choice. They also present evidence that given too much choice many people decide not to choose, because it's all just too complicated.

This highlights a concern with Interactive Democracy: There may be too many ideas presented, especially at the "seconding", ePetition stage, for most people to be able to choose the best.
However, it should be the role of Parliament to discuss and refine the ideas that surround each issue in order to present a limited choice to voters, by referendum.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Regional Assemblies

Today there is a distinct unevenness to the voting by MPs in the House of Commons and Regional Assemblies, with Scottish MPs able to vote on English Law but not vice versa. Interactive Democracy easily solves this problem by allowing all MPs to contribute to drafting laws for their constituents on a national or regional basis, as is appropriate.

Citizens' Initiatives

According to this petition on the No. 10 system, Switzerland, Hungary and 24 States in America operate Citizens' Initiatives. These require the government to offer a referendum when a substantial number of citizens have signed a petition... which is also what Interactive Democracy is designed to do.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Regional Government

In some ways regional governments may be at the forefront of utilising Interactive Democracy: Scotland's Parliament has a system of studying topics raised by petitions.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

View Again

A number of web sites provide view again facilities for TV programmes. This gives voters another tool for easy research and perhaps multiplies the power of the TV stations and their editors in effecting votes!
As our broadband capacity speeds up and digital storage capacity expands the view again facility may become even greater in the future.

You Tube

TV was once the domain of professional broadcasters but You Tube and its brethren allow almost anyone to contribute with video, photographic montage and graphics. Its searchable and ranked format adds immense functionality for anyone researching a subject and there's very little censorship, so you can often see first hand accounts in all their shocking reality. These Internet video systems add another counterbalance to the authority and power of conventional media in effecting election results.

Friday, 27 June 2008


So...The electorate have decided, but over the coming months, as experience builds or new information comes to light, people become convinced that the decision was wrong or that there could have been a better solution. What would trigger a new vote on the issue?

Interactive Democracy would allow new suggestions, or even the re-submission of old suggestions, that may gain increasing amounts of support and force Parliament to look at the issue again. But there may also be another way: individuals may be able to change their minds after the vote was cast and declare that they had made a mistake, switching to another choice on the ballot 'paper' (web site). This wouldn't have an immediate effect, but once the majority has shifted to a different solution it would trigger Parliament to review the situation and ultimately to call a new referendum.

Is this becoming too complicated? I don't know, but it would be a simple thing to set up in the original design of the ID service, at little extra cost, and may some day be a useful tool within the democratic framework.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Gary Marcus is Professor of Psychology at NYU and author of "Kluge: The Happhazard Construction of the Human Mind", which provides some insight into how our brains fail us. The notion that even the greatest political leaders have fallible brains is central to the idea of improving democracy.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Referendum Unreliability

Recently the Irish voted "No" on the new European Treaty of Lisbon. It has been suggested that this wasn't so much a vote against the Treaty as a condemnation of all the prior silliness, injustices and perceived domination by Eurocrats: all those little rules that prevent grocers from selling a pound of potatoes and ensure that our cucumbers are the right shape! In short, there's a risk that votes are "off topic" - a potential problem for all referendum and Interactive Democracy!
However, I contend that by making referendums frequent, people are more likely to vote "on topic", knowing that there will soon be opportunities to pass judgment on other, separate issues.
Moreover, if voters are given the opportunity to set the agenda for referenda, through the ePetition system, "off topic" protest votes are even less likely.

Friday, 13 June 2008

If it's unclear, vote NO

If a bill is presented for referendum and the content is so abstruse that you can't understand it, then why not vote NO? That's one way of telling the politicians to pull their socks up and write it more clearly!
(It may need to be backed up by a document in legalese.)


In relation to an Irish referendum on the European Treaty of Lisbon the Irish Independent asked "Why should I vote Yes to a legal document I don't understand?"
Lawyers may be surprised to learn that Joe Bloggs doesn't read any of the law he's expected to comply with and if he did (and managed to stay awake through the process) the chances are he'd be utterly confused. But this doesn't stop us from complying. Or approving of it.
There may be good reason for legalese to eliminate loopholes, but there is also good reason for clarity. It's not impossible: just look at the American Bill of Rights! In my opinion each bill requires a simple and succinct "executive summary", approved by parliament.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Government Initiatives BEFORE Public Support

Interactive Democracy is a slow process best suited to careful consideration of social change... but the world can move at a fast pace!

I think that the elected Government should be able to implement new policies without going through the long winded process of ID. This may be especially important in international diplomacy or solving any type of crisis. However, the electorate should wield the ultimate power in a true democracy and policies should be changed if the government loses a subsequent challenge won through the ID process.

I'd expect the Opposition in Parliament to continue in its role of questioning and challenging the government. Undoubtedly with a view to their own electability and future prospects as the new government.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Hierarchy is Important

We live in a hierarchical society which is essential for getting things done. Interactive Democracy doesn't undermine this structure. The people at the top are best placed to manage and coordinate complex systems and to make sure that individual effort is amplified by collective action rather than dissipated in random directions. However, that does not mean that the people at the top are best placed to understand what the majority wants, or even always what's best for them!... This is where ID comes in.

Designed by Customers

Most businesses would love to have the opportunity for customers to be involved in product development. Especially if everyone was guaranteed to purchase.

Interactive Democracy could be viewed as a system that allows customers (the electorate) to help develop new products (laws). Market research (referendum) is then carried out to ensure that it is what the majority wants, even before it is manufactured (implemented) and there is a guarantee that everyone buys it (tax).

This is very different from having a committee (Parliament) design the product (law).

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Government Search Engine

Search engines have a pivotal role on the world wide web and much power because of it. The formula they use for generating search rankings is secret and proprietary and may generate all sorts of biases by accident or design. It is therefore important that the search facility on the Interactive Democracy web site is controlled and approved by parliament and not a commercial add on.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Local Review

Given that voters may be tracked by postcode, reviews of local services may be carried on the Interactive Democracy system. These may generate feedback on police, national health or council services, for example, and the system may be used to measure local support for public works such as by-passes or rail links.
This adds considerably to the value and utility of the ID system infrastructure.

National Review

It would be possible for the Government to use the Interactive Democracy system to involve everyone in National Reviews. For example the government may want suggestions for the National Curriculum in schools. The review may last 1 to 6 months with suggestions organised around topics by the web master as suggestions come in. There may be Government suggestions too and the public could vote their support.

It would be particularly useful, in this example, to allow children to vote and to analyse the votes by age group.

Voting on Tax

Would the electorate always vote for lower taxes, in their own self interest?

Governments need tax revenue to provide the services that voters want. The real question is "Will the voters want to have their cake and eat it?" or will they understand and appreciate the wider perspective; the difficult decisions that must be taken to prioritise the use of scarce resources. Government cannot be held accountable for "delivering" if they haven't been given the appropriate resources. It is a matter of faith that the majority will put aside their self interest for the good of the nation.

Voting on Public sector Pay

Would voters be able to seize control of public sector pay negotiations?
Voters are customers of the public sector. The ability for the majority to directly influence pay may have a subtle impact on the quality of services being offered. On the other hand it may also reduce the likelihood of disruptive and damaging strikes.

Voting On Interest Rates

Would the electorate be able to seize control of the Bank of England Base Rate? First a law would have to be passed to allow it.

This would have a major impact on mortgages and savings, pitting one group against another for economic benefit. However, many voters would also see the big economic picture and be swayed by arguments from economic experts. Others may pass their votes to those they trust, using Liquid Democracy. They may give their votes to various economics professors, politicians or even the Chair of the Bank of England.

A recipe for turmoil you may say. However, the calming balm is that what is good for the economy is good for all of us in the long run.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Destabilising the Economy?

Karl Marx understood that economics always leads politics. He suggested that government can do little to control the business cycle and that trying to delay it would ultimately make slow downs more dramatic and painful.

Would Interactive Democracy have a negative impact on the political/business cycle? Would it undermine "prudent" financial governance and the control of inflation? Would voters demand action to alleviate short term financial pain only to be worse off in the long run?

To my mind this all comes back to good leaders with good arguments persuading voters of their case. Some may say that it is virtually impossible to explain the complexities of economics to the average voter, but credible leaders don't have to, they just need to identify the consequences of any particular decision.

Internet & Democracy

This essay (from Internet & Democracy at Harvard Law School) looks at how the Internet is already effecting democracy. It looks at the "three faces of power", Emerson's "Mechanisms of Power" and is illustrated by a number of examples. Worth a look!


The police recently voted for the right to strike after the government cynically refused the independent recommendations of a 2.5% pay increase in order to keep inflation under control. Interactive Democracy offers organisations such as the Police Federation an alternative means of putting pressure on government policy, should they be able to garner sufficient public support.

Strikes are usually a power battle between employers and employees with customers as collateral damage. Interestingly, Interactive Democracy gives more power to public sector customers and may reduce the need for damaging strikes.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Stories and Leadership

The internet encourages the emergence of opinion leaders from any 'level' of society. Personal stories may be one of the best contributions an individual can make to a political debate. Unlike academic arguments, moral posturing or statistics, personal stories convey an immediacy of experience that can carry far more weight and may help root policy in reality.

The conventional media tells some powerful personal stories and is supplemented by blogs and video posts that allow anyone to contribute. (An example is this blog by Adrian Sudbury, which was highlighted by BBC Breakfast TV and seeks to encourage bone marrow donations.)

"...the people have spoken - the bastards!"

In December 2003, BBC Radio's Today Programme solicited ideas from its listeners for a new law. The winning proposal 'to use any means to defend their homes from intruders' was supported by 26000 votes. MP Stephen Pound, who was charged with presenting the proposal to Parliament, denounced it as "ludicrous, brutal, unworkable, bloodstained piece of legislation.... the people have spoken - the bastards!"

The proposal was probably a reaction to the conviction of Tony Martin who shot two intruders, but it highlights some important lessons for Interactive Democracy:
  1. Proposals may convey public sentiment on well publicised issues
  2. Proposals may not be written to cover loop holes, as we would expect with formal law
  3. Proposals may not be based on the full awareness of the present law and may not easily integrate with it (e.g. there is legislation about weaponry)
This highlights the need for Parliamentary review and refinement of proposals. Which may lead to a reaffirmation of the current law or, in this case, perhaps, greater clarification of the legal term "reasonable force".

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Elite Civil Servants and Common Experience

Oxbridge graduates dominate the highest echelons of the civil service, in all its varied guises, causing some to worry about a lack of empathy with the less fortunate in society and, in turn, the verasity of policies designed to alleviate depravation. Interactive Democarcy introduces the experience of those at all levels of society to each and every Parliamentary Bill. But it doesn't undermine the hierarchy where the brightests and best educated reach the top.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Hierarchy and Getting Things Done

It is thought by some people that Interactive Democracy undermines the hierarchy that is so essential for large governmental organisations to get things done. But ID is designed to decide what should be done, not how to make it happen. It is then the role of the elected government to work with civil servants to implement the new directive.

Granted, not everything we may like to happen is actually possible, which is why parliament and government must help refine and define the practicable choices that may be eventually put to the electorate. Remember, civil servants are voters too and their input to ID is highly valued. The more senior civil servants may be well placed to contribute to the public debate, via the media, and influence the overall vote. They may also make suggestions in the first stage of Interactive Democracy (Ideas Engine).

Friday, 16 May 2008

Opposition and Parliament

It is not he function of Parliament to govern but to "call to account those that do govern", as Gladstone said in 1869. But it's remarkable to me to consider the recent 10% tax rate debacle, not because the Government, which prides itself both on its working class roots and on its economic stewardship, made such a mistake, but because there was such limited opposition to the policy when it was first announced in the Commons. Was it because the Conservative Party leadership missed its implications or did they say, amongst themselves, "Excellent, we can use that to attack Labour at the next General Election, let's save our opposition until then".
The latter strategy may be sensible for getting into power, but does nothing for preventing ill conceived policies from doing damage: even after amendments, the 10% tax policy leaves some of the poorest worse off. Similarly, if the government steals and implements the oppositions best ideas, they must be discouraged from presenting them in the first place, leaving them and us poorer.
The Interactive Democratic process will enable opposition from the electorate, allowing appropriate and timely criticism and helping to avoid party political power plays that stifle strong ideas and allow poor ones to flourish.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Liquid Leadership

The current political system elects leaders who then apply themselves to every issue in society, regardless of their expertise on the subject.

Interactive Democracy may encourage other leaders to emerge - leaders with particular skills or expertise in a given area. For example, on issues of crime some journalists may want to present the views of Police Superintendents. Others may report the views of leading academics who have studied crime and are impassioned by their research to contribute to the debate. And it may not just be the conventional media that does the reporting. Academics can publish their papers on-line and individuals can blog on their own experiences.

Any organisation with an interest in an issue may lead their members to vote in a particular way, whether they be the Church, the Unions or the Political Parties. But ultimately every individual casts their own secret vote... unless Liquid Democracy is adopted.

Perhaps Liquid Democracy could be adapted to grant your vote to someone who's opinions you respect on certain issues, only when those issues arise at referendum? As a safeguard, the system would then notify you of how they voted.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Tough Love Gone Soft?

Would Interactive Democracy scupper the Bank of England's own brand of tough love? Would the electorate demand control over Interest Rates? Could they demand public sector pay rises? Would they be im-prudent?

Again, the principle of leadership is essential in educating voters to make the most sensible choices. However, if such issues were to be addressed by referendum, its outcome may be less than clear, leaving the markets guessing about the result and separating these issues from Party Politics and electioneering in much the same way that the Bank of England does with Interest Rates today.

Liquid Democracy?

Liquid Democracy is a concept where any individual may give their vote to another person, who may then give their vote to yet another. This enables others to vote on your behalf and is a way of deferring to someone you believe in. It is one way of solving the problem of people not having the time to consider every issue.

Liquid Democracy could become part of Interactive Democracy but may leave the door open to coercion and corruption, though such cases would be deterred by the criminal law.

Leasing Interactive Democracy to Other Organisations

Other organisations, public institutions or businesses, could conceivably want to poll their members. They may want to set up their own ID system but the government may consider renting out the national system if it has enough capacity. The ID infrastructure may be viewed in the same way as we consider National Grid or the rail infrastructure today.

The results of using ID for these purposes would be considered private and the security of the polls may carry the full weight of the law.

For some interesting insight into radical organisation structures in business see "Maverick" by Ricardo Semler.


Like any other organisation, Unions may utilise Interactive Democracy to mobilise the wider public in support of their aims. Acting together, Union members may establish sufficient support to force Parliament to consider their issues and put their proposals to a national vote.

Friday, 9 May 2008


In 1968 a march against the Vietnam War was estimated to number 100 000 people. In February 2003 British police estimated 750 000 marched against a new war in Iraq (other analysts estimated 2 million were involved), which was reflected in similar demonstrations around the world. It had no visible effect on government policy!
Interactive Democracy provides a system to give demonstrators real political power, should they be able to persuade the majority of their views.


Gladstone told parliament in 1869 "Your business is not to govern the country... But it is, if you see fit, to call to account those that do govern it."

This isn't a role that Interactive Democracy would undermine. In fact, I believe Parliament should be reinforced in its ability to gather information and question the government on behalf of the electorate... as we may express through the Interactive Democracy system.


Some may sense a flavour of the discredited Anarchist movement in the concept of Interactive Democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. ID builds on Law and Order and reinforces collective responsibility not "anything goes" individual freedoms.

Tough Love and Coming of Age

Sometimes parents have to make harsh decisions for the long term good of their children. Sometimes governments may adopt a similar attitude and fly in the face of public opinion. They believe, as rulers, that they are right and their decisions are for the common good. This is an argument sometimes put forward for Parliamentary Democracy.

The electorate aren't children. They have foresight and are willing to suffer for what they believe to be right: witness the efforts and sacrifices made in WWII, for example. They are also capable, as jurors, of dealing with complex decisions with serious outcomes.

Interactive Democracy may be seen, in some ways, as a coming of age: Instead of being ruled, the electorate begin ruling themselves.

Do MPs Represent Voters' Views?

A cornerstone of Parliamentary Democracy is that the elected represent the views of the electorate. Do they really? If so, how do they know what is the view of the majority of their constituents on any one issue?
Though MPs may take heed of the views of those people who attend their surgeries (the typical voter?) and many others that they talk to, that isn't the same as discovering the majority view. In fact it would be impossible to gather that information by conversation alone given the vast range of issues and the fact that a statistically significant sample will typically run to hundreds if not thousands of people, chosen to represent the wider demographics.
Do MPs instigate opinion polls in their constituencies? Very, very rarely!
Sure, electorates exert some pressure on their MPs when it's time for re-election, but who wins may have more to do with personal like ability than policy.... and which of many policies does the vote express an opinion on? How many voters even know how their candidates voted on any particular issue?
Interactive Democracy will give a far truer representation of the electorate's view - put simply, it asks them!

Friday, 2 May 2008

Newspapers in the Modern World

For Interactive Democracy to work there must be the opportunity for people to absorb different points of view. Traditionally the newspapers had a massive influence on peoples votes but that may be changing with multiple TV and Radio news stations and now the Internet. Even emailed Newsletters and Blogs may be powerful tools for credible leaders to convey their message. All of this devolution of influence means that the electorate are better informed and less biased than ever before.

Leadership and Interactive Democracy

In the previous post I mentioned that Paddy Ashdown had called into question the ability of the electorate to make the 'right' choice. My view is that it is the role of leaders to explain what the 'right' choice is.

On the "Question Time" programme Paddy suggested that if it was put to the electorate we may well see the return of hanging, for example.

A leader may say "Imagine your DNA was found at a crime scene, you don't have an alibi, but someone matching your description was seen leaving the crime scene. You knew the victim, in fact you'd argued with him recently. You are about to be hung... only you know you are innocent.
"Imagine it wasn't you but your daughter with the noose around her neck!"

The Internet generation may even view a hanging on You Tube (it looks/feels like murder to me). They may look up and view Michael Portillo's programme about humane killing (a BBC programme I think) and find statistics on miscarriages of justice. Maybe TV companies would show their back catalogue of such films in the weeks leading up to a vote on the subject. And air time would be given to Paddy and his opposition politicians.