Thursday, 16 December 2010

de Bono on Ayer

The recent Radio 4 Head to Head programme reviewed the 1976 debate between de Bono (who I have previously cited on this blog) and A.J. Ayer, about democracy.

A.J. Ayer is famous for logical positivism in which he identifies empirical data as being essential for knowledge and debate. On the other hand, de Bono is famous for his understanding of creative thinking, introducing a whole wardrobe of techniques. I think that both should be part of Interactive Democracy.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Social Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory is neatly summarised by the notion that the flap of a butterfly's wings may result in a cyclone thousands of miles away. It is the idea that even when all the variables are fully understood, small perturbances in their values can result in wildly different results. If we apply this idea to human systems, where the rules of the game feed into changing people's attitudes and behaviours, we may see that the advantages of social science and the types of policy experimentation I have advocated here, may be limited. Nevertheless, chaos theory also explains that patterns can emerge.


"Information is the currency of democracy." Thomas Jefferson.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


Could hacktivists attack the Interactive Democracy system? Could foreign governments attack it? We are, perhaps, seeing the emergence of cyber wars, cyber terrorism, cyber vandalism, cyber coercion.

The main threat to ID wouldn't be the obvious attacks, we can just press the re-set button and vote again, it would be the unnoticed corruption.

Apart from a wide range of technical defences, each individual should monitor their own ID account, much like we monitor our bank accounts, looking for spurious transactions.

Friday, 10 December 2010

In(form) The Public Interest

Wikileaks is at the centre of an international storm of power brokers. Governments condemn, Paypal and Mastercard cut-off, hacktivists attack, courts subpoena, Twitter squawks, journalists blush, pundits pronounce and editors select. Or so it seems.

To my mind this highlights the relationship between information and power and the essential tension between opposing forces that is crucial for democracy: governments versus opposition versus media versus voters, prosecution and defence. To allow one faction to dominate is rarely in the public interest.

"Watergate" is a prime example, one of many, where journalists have taken on governments, but Wikileaks operates beyond democratic boundaries. It is shining a light on an international game of poker.

In a democracy, who decides what's in the public interest? Based on what information?

Friday, 3 December 2010


MoneyWeek reported: "EU competition authorities plan to investigate allegations that Internet giant Google has abused its dominant position in the online search market. One complaint is that it deliberately pushes rivals' sites down its list of search results. It also allegedly prevents advertisers placing certain types of advertisements on other sites."
This highlights the power that search engines and web masters could have in Interactive Democracy, if they weren't supervised by Parliament.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Civil Service Values and Ethics

The Civil Service "supports the government of the day in developing and implementing its policies, and in delivering public services." The core values are Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity and Impartiality.

I think it would be fair for civil servants to contribute to Interactive Democracy while applying these core values to the way they conduct themselves in debates and how they support the government as it implements policy. I don't see a problem with them declaring their employment position, or a conflict between their sworn support for the government and their democratic rights. But I can imagine, given human nature, that to avoid conflict in the work place, they may want to remain anonymous.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Time is Power

A criticism of Direct Democracy could be that votes are cast most frequently by those with time on their hands. Busy people are less able to consider the issues and vote. So, the argument goes, it is fairer to allow democratically elected expert politicians to make the decisions, partly because we give them the time to consider the issues.

The Swiss may disagree with this argument as their Direct Democracy has proven successful over many, many years.

Interactive Democracy provides an alternative route for involving people in direct democracy because it facilitates quick and simple voting and research via the Internet. However, the schedule should also allow plenty of time to consider the issues, listen to the radio debates, watch TV documentaries, read the papers and chat with friends.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Change the Party

Some would argue that today's politics works because anyone can join a party and change it from within, by the power of their arguments. Therefore, they may say, Interactive Democracy is not necessary.

The problem with this is that it doesn't seem to recognise a number of retarding factors inherent in all political parties:
  1. Group think

  2. Entrenched attitudes and philosophies; dogma

  3. Established power bases within the party and its funding mechanisms

  4. Pecking order

  5. The difficulties of gaining credibility

  6. The limits of trying to persuade one party when you may be able to persuade parts of other groups - the constraints of loyalty

Happiness Survey

The government is seeking to understand the nation's happiness, or well being, by instigating a survey. Some have criticised the cost of such an initiative. The Interactive Democracy web site could ask people to complete questionnaires on this issue or any other and would be an efficient method given its low cost, potentially large sample size and demographic accuracy. More here, from the Guardian.

It's also interesting to note that, according to one academic survey, direct democracy enhances the happiness of the Swiss, presumably by giving them the feeling of greater control over their lives.

Monday, 29 November 2010


With coalition governments, does it becomes harder to hold politicians to account for their promises; does proportional representation make coalitions more likely and further reduce the relevance of the manifesto? I think it probably does. Yet, even with a majority government election promises aren't always kept. The solution could be Interactive Democracy.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Direct Action or Direct Democracy

There have been two cases in recent years when juries have acquitted vandals who, in one case, damaged the nose cone of a Hawk jet being sold to Indonesia and, in another, attempted to prevent B52s flying on a bombing mission to Iraq. The court seemed to think that their direct action prevented a greater crime. Is this a symptom of the ineffectiveness of our democracy and would direct democracy help?

I suspect it would. Sure, there will likely be a small proportion of the population bent on destruction, but these people may lack the support of a wider group that otherwise gives them the backbone to proceed. Also, a jury may be more likely to convict vandals who could have otherwise pursued their objectives by easily accessible democratic means, by persuasion and debate.

Monday, 22 November 2010


"Government services to be online-only" states The Observer (21.11.10).

"Officials say getting rid of all paper applications could save billions of pounds. They insist that vulnerable groups will be able to fill in forms digitally at their local post offices."

"Around 27% of households still have no Internet connection at home and six million people aged over 65 have never used the web."

Libraries also provide public access to the web and librarians will help people get on-line. Both libraries and post offices may, in the future, offer access to Interactive Democracy. We will also see increasing numbers of households getting connected.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Prejudicial Web

There has been simmering concern in our law courts that jurors are being prejudiced by information they have surreptitiously discovered on the Internet. If we take trial by jury as analogous to Interactive Democracy, judges as Parliament and jurors as voters, then doesn't the Internet pose equally serious problems for direct democracy?

If the ID site is designed to present the opinions of MPs and their approved sources of data, then this balances the free for all nature of the rest of the Internet. The millions of voters involved in ID also mean that false information discovered on some obscure filament of the web is unlikely to sway the final decision.

Government Spend on Opinion Polls

The government has released figures for their expenditure between May and September 2010 and the Guardian has created a tool for mining the data. Searching for "opinion polls" shows payments of about £5m to Market and Opinion Research international Ltd, otherwise known as MORI. That's £5m that could better go toward funding Interactive Democracy.

The annual £60m or so that goes to operate the House of Lords would easily cover the development and operation of ID.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Conservative councillor Gareth Compton has been released on bail after his arrest for writing on Twitter "Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I won't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really." A joke, off the cuff remark or criminal incitement to violence?

On the one hand intimidation has no place in a functioning democracy, on the other, many was the time my mother, exasperated at my behaviour, would say "I'll murder you!". Of course she didn't. And I never took her literally.

You may imagine the scope for abuse on a political debating site such as I am advocating for Interactive Democracy, it could get really out of hand. In order to promote rational debate I think that such a site should be very rigorous about punishing calls for aggression, against persons or property, and should come down hard on personal abuse and swearing. The system could be policed by users complaining about the behaviour of others. Sanctions could include banning individuals from the site for a period of time and/or removing their right to vote (if Europe would allow it). It needn't involve the police or judiciary, but should be overseen by Parliament.

Student Protest

Violence against property and the police certainly grabbed the media's attention. At least one policeman was hurt. It's yet to be seen if it will have any effect on government policy.

I advocate Interactive Democracy (or any direct democracy) as a way of avoiding such protests. It would give protesters a more effective voice, encourage debate, avoid destructive behaviours and reduce the cost of policing.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Election Courts

Phil Woolas has lost his appeal against the Election Courts' ruling that he lied and stirred up racial tensions in order to win the close run election for Oldham East and Saddleworth. He has been stripped of his seat and banned from standing for election for 3 years.
To my mind it is essential for democracy that candidates face the wrath of the law if they lie and deceive. Otherwise votes are cast on false information. This is the first conviction for 99 years, perhaps we should encourage more.
In a similar vein, I would also like to see the media held to account for lying. In this previous post I outline how it could work.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Barriers to Brainwashing

In her book "Brainwashing: The science of thought control", Kathleen Taylor describes 5 (FACET) factors that can help to prevent totalist and dogmatic thinking:

  1. Freedom (of speech etc.)

  2. Agency (freedom of action)

  3. Complexity (the varied mix of human opinion, values and decisions; avoiding cliched thinking)

  4. Ends-not-means (individuals, not cogs within a larger machine)

  5. Thinking

It seems to me that Interactive Democracy reinforces and encourages these factors. Maybe that's a small thing given that Parliamentary Democracy also requires these elements (to a lesser degree) but history shows us that dogmatic beliefs, whether religious or political, have a tendency to emerge and re-emerge, often with detrimental effect, so any extra antidote could be good.

(For more on fundamentalism please see Robert Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform. It may provide some insight into the social psychology of terrorism.)

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Prisoners' Votes

David Cameron conceded that there was nothing he could do to halt the European Court ruling that demands that British prisoners be given the right to vote. (More here from The Telegraph) Obviously prisoners forfeit some rights - for example their freedom - when they are convicted of a crime, but the courts ruled that the right to vote should remain.

It is interesting to note that our elected leader is powerless to effect the decision made by the higher democratic power in Europe, even though the MEP collective is only partly elected by British citizens and remote from them. And it is interesting to consider how prisoners may want to vote en bloc to achieve benefits for themselves. This may be even more problematic in Interactive Democracy if the general public, busy and preoccupied as they may be, don't consider votes instigated by "prisoner unions", who have all the time in the world to become involved. This may be good or bad, but, regardless, with ID the majority can change the system and over ride European diktats. That's democracy!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Black and White

"Some people are driven to simplicity not just by laziness, selfishness or idiocy, but by fear, fury or frustration, negative emotions provoked by a threatening world."
Interactive Democracy provides the opportunity to develop complex debates in the media and on its own web site. The presentation of all this complexity may be ignored by some, perhaps those that are entrenched in their point of view, but it may be used by others to come to a more balanced point of view. Each "fear" used by one side of the debate may be diminished by the other; "fury" can be vented; and solutions for "frustrations" may be found.
(Kathleen Taylor is a research scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford.)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Above the Law?

Four MPs, charged with expense offenses, are arguing that they should be tried in Parliament, not the law courts. While there is some concern about the prejudicial bias in their cases (please see this Guardian article) don't we have to be careful of corruption in any case of self regulation?

It seems to me that one of the strengths of any fully functioning democracy is that the populace have powers over the political aristocracy, but I am concerned that in our democracy we can't exert enough focused and direct pressure for this to be effective. Interactive Democracy (or another form of direct democracy) would be much more powerful.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Suspect Suspension

Paul, Uddin and Bhatia may be suspended from the House of Lords for wrongfully claiming expenses. Shouldn't their titles be removed?
Lords Paul and Bhatia are significant donors to the Labour Party and millionaires in their own right. Is that the smell of corruption at the heart of British "democracy"?
They are not the only ones: Lord Hanningfield has been charged under Section 17 of the Theft Act, relating to false accounting for claims for overnight accommodation; Lord Taylor of Warwick pleaded not guilty at Southwark Crown Court on charges of false accounting; and, last year, Lord Taylor of Blackburn and Lord Truscott were suspended for just 6 months for being willing to accept cash to change laws.
More here from The Telegraph.
Interactive Democracy could replace the House of Lords as a control and check on Commons business, without losing the input of respected Peers.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Gaming the System

"Gaming" is the notion that any set of rules can be played for maximum advantage, often in ways that the original game designer didn't intend. This raises the question: how would Interactive Democracy be gamed?

  • One way is that the issues to be voted on can be selected or written in such a way as to encourage one outcome.

  • Another is to limit the number of choices.

  • If several choices are available, a voting system may be offered that is proportional but biased.

  • Deadlines for votes may be chosen to coincide with sporting events that drag peoples attention away.

  • Wealthy individuals or groups, or the media, may pursue a campaign of persuasion.

  • Individuals may bully others into a vote.

In previous posts I have addressed counter measures to some of these issues - the contribution of an elected Parliament, police powers, balancing media power with information on the voting site - but perhaps the best way to prevent abuse is to make the system adaptable enough for voters to change it in response to problems.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Applaud the Lord?

I have argued on this site that the House of Lords is inherently biased and undemocratic. Further, the £60 million-or-so annual spend on it would provide a nice budget for Interactive Democracy. But do we really want to lose the experience, intellect and insights of those people?

Another way to encompass them in the ID system would be to highlight their contributions, much in the same way that I have advocated that MP's contributions are brought to the fore.

Would they do it for free? I'd hope so. They are, after all, the recipients of decent pensions and typically of retirement age. But alternatively, they may be paid per contribution or for each vote of confidence their contributions receive.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Play the Game

In this lecture Jane MacGonigal, Director of Game R&D at the Institute for the Future, looks at how we may be able to tap into the concentrated efforts of on-line gamers to come up with ideas to solve the world's problems. Perhaps Interactive Democracy could be seen as just such a game?
Here are some of the aspects of on-line gaming that draw people in
  • Common purpose
  • Playing by the same rules
  • Rapid feedback
  • Achievable goals
  • Collaboration
  • Easy access to play the game
Interactive Democracy already ticks most of these boxes. The ID system itself creates the rules by which the game is played and the common purpose is to improve society. By allowing votes to be cast on ideas and comments and facilitating threads that can be linked to other contributors, collaboration and feedback is achieved. The internet provides easy access.
I have previously outlined the notion of the IDeA (Interactive Democracy Award) for successful contributors, but it may also be possible to create other ways of scoring your input. Perhaps the system could track how many votes of approval have been cast on your contributions, keeping a running total on your voting account? Something to be proud of?

Experimentation: The Death of Ideology and Pursuit of Rational

In this TED talk, Esther Duflo (founder of MIT's Jameel Poverty Action Lab) explains how controlled experiments can be used to discover the best ways of fighting poverty. The same principles can be used to test many social policies and I would encourage politicians to become experts in this aspect of social science.
Interactive Democracy can also benefit from controlled and randomised social experiments. Perhaps each topic of debate should include a web site tab to propose and discuss how it can be tested. Apart from setting up experiments contributors may highlight comparisons with foreign government policy in order to shed more light on the subject.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Emotional to Rational

Are rational decisions better than emotional ones? I would say "Yes", because rational decisions may not only include our instinctive responses, but a wealth of other data and opinions.
Are some people much better able to make rational decisions? Would we rather these people were in positions of authority, making decisions for the rest of us? This may be a plausible argument in favour of Parliamentary Democracy and against Direct (or Interactive) Democracy.
So, what factors would increase rationality in decisions made by the electorate in the Interactive Democracy system?
  1. Time: slowing down the decision making process allows us to gather more information.
  2. Truth: collecting hard evidence can undermine our assumptions and give our decisions stronger foundations.
  3. Perspective: our initial decisions are formed from our own perspective, but other inputs, over time, can encourage us to consider other points of view.
  4. Values: understanding what we value most, and realising that others may value something else more, can build a rationale for making a decision.
  5. Cost: carefully predicting the costs involved should have a strong influence on a decision.
  6. Probability: unfortunately, most decisions involve estimates of costs and outcomes; having a clear understanding of the chances involved should impact a decision.
Designing an Interactive Democracy web site that presents peer reviewed data at the point of decision could discourage irrational decisions. The web site could allow voters to rank the most important values, encouraging clarification of ideas. There should be the facility to conduct an online debate, with links, threads and approval ratings, but with the opinions of MPs taking precedence (they are practiced in making a case, communicating it, and are motivated to do it well by the prospect of re-election). Peer reviewed reports and hard data should also be made available and properly audited estimates of the costs involved.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Public Administration Pay

Public administration is often performed by public servants who have never been elected. They may be foreign diplomats or city managers and they work in the name of the public at every level from local to national. This public administration degree site gives a more complete explanation of the roles and professions these bureaucrats perform in government. Recently, the BBC's Panorama programme looked at the pay of top public servants, many of whom earn more than the Prime Minister. I wonder if Interactive Democracy would enable votes 'for' or 'against' top notch pay packages and if the ensuing debate would clarify the benefits that senior employees bring?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rational Decisions?

This entertaining lecture, by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, highlights some ways in which we make daft decisions.

Monday, 13 September 2010

"I'll pay less, thanks for asking."

This article, published by the BBC in 2002, reviews the results of Council Tax referendums. Not everyone wanted to pay less tax: in 1999 Milton Keynes voted to increase tax but other majorities chose the least expensive option. In subsequent years the idea of asking voters has been abandoned possibly due to the low turnouts and high admin costs. Croydon Council spent £150k on a referendum on two issues but to put that in perspective it costs about £60 million a year to run the House of Lords.
If Interactive Democracy were in place, utilising secure web sites, the cost of each referendum would be very small indeed. I wonder if ease of access would also boost voter involvement.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Spending Challenge

The Government asked for ideas on cutting public sector spending, in order to reduce the deficit, and then asked you to vote on them. According to their site 45000 ideas were submitted and 250000 votes cast. Unfortunately the process has now closed. Why can't this be an ongoing system? It could easily be part of the ID web site.

Peer Review

The scientific process - observation, hypothesis, experimentation and new hypothesis - isn't the end of the matter. Peer review involves a whole raft of knowledgeable and motivated people in considering the truth of scientific papers. In the initial stages of this review process are editors who send papers out to their selected reviewers before they commit to publishing.

Could this process become part of democracy?

Central to the notion is that editors are able to choose experts who have a greater say over the progress of ideas than anyone else. It is entirely feasible that a cross party committee of MPs could assess the qualifications of people who put themselves forwards for this role, based on academic qualifications or direct experience. These reviewers (who are unlikely to be politicians) could be given the privilege of being able to express themselves on "Experts" pages attached to each issue on the ID website, which voters could then read and judge. This would ensure expert leadership were brought to the fore without undermining the power of voters. It would also form another counterbalance to the power of the press.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Data Democracy

In this TED Talk, David McCandless presents some ideas on data visualisation and shows how it can lend perspective to the raw numbers, present vast complexity in a simple form and illuminate patterns. It could be an asset to democratic debate.
As part of his lecture he also presents a diagram of the left and right in politics, maintaining a balanced approach.

Data images are available from David's website - here.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Choices, Choices...

In the following lecture by Sheena Iyengar, from Colombia Business School, the cultural differences between how people deal with choices is explored. Sheena's work may be relevant to democracy and how it is applied in different cultures (Switzerland? Afghanistan?). She also touches on the relevance of choice to performance and happiness.

Within the proposed Interactive Democracy system, choices are effected by debate, leadership and data. The politicians may act as expert advisers and those that don't want to choose may devolve their vote to other people within the liquid leadership system.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Evolved to be Wrong

Laurie Santos runs the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale. In this video she explains how monkeys make the same mistakes as humans and suggests that our decision making may have evolved to make poor decisions many millions of years ago. Interactive Democracy involves many people in collective decisions, avoiding some of the bias that may be inherent in small groups, but if we all have the same problem behaviours hard wired into our brains by evolution, maybe other decision making systems are required? For example, the theory/experiment approach of science or the 6 Sigma methodology of Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Three Coalition Policies

Three items from the Coalition Government paper:

"We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.

"We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by l0% of his or her constituents.

"We will ensure that any petition that secures l00,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament."


Research in Switzerland has indicated that Direct Democracy can contribute to happiness. The following lecture, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, explores the notion of happiness in more detail, contrasting what we remember with what we experience and the difference between happiness and well being. Finally it briefly examines US poll data and the correlations between income and happiness. This shows that incomes above $60k don't add any more happiness, but incomes below $60k rapidly erode happiness.

Could it be that Direct or Interactive Democracy would naturally adjust policy to achieve the greatest total of happiness in society, given that the greatest number of citizens have lower wages and would benefit most from policies that improved their wealth while richer people may not gain happiness from greater wealth?

(This idea doesn't necessarily point towards wealth redistribution; it may just as easily point to wealth creation via capitalism. I note that Switzerland has the highest per capita income of any country in Europe.)

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

German Referendum on Smoking Ban

Posted to Usenet groups uk.politics.constitution, scot.politics July 2010
Bavaria once had some of the toughest smoking restrictions in Germany.It eased them last year, allowing smoking in one-room bars of up to 800square feet and in beer tents. The referendum approved Sunday overrides that. Those who want to light up in restaurants, bars, cafes or even beer tents will have to go outside instead. A referendum requiring that was approved Sunday by voters in Bavaria. (Associated Press, July 4, 2010)

The new constitution of post-world-war-II Bavaria guarantees citizens the right to propose and obtain a legally binding referendum in the Land(state of the federation). The people have used this right several times, for instance to introduce regulations for direct democracy in cities, towns and districts, also to abolish the second chamber of parliament (Senat). In order to obtain a referendum, 10 percent of voters must endorse the proposal. If the proposal is rejected by parliament then a referendum must be held. A majority of votes cast is needed to approve the proposal as law.

Thanks to INIREF for this post.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Motivated Reasoning

In his book "Kluge", Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology at NYU, writes:

Our tendency to accept what we wish to believe (what we are motivated to believe) with much less scrutiny than what we don't want to believe is a bias known as "motivated reasoning", a kind of flip side to confirmation bias. Whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don't like them than if we do.

Are the political elite better equiped to avoid such traps or can democracy do it better?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Picture the Data

How information is presented can have a significant impact on the debate. This image, produced by The Guardian, is an excellent example (apologies for the small scale). If you look at it with a view to reducing our budget deficit perhaps it will clarify your values: perhaps you will want to compare the value and cost of the Department for International Development and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Will other voters agree? Will it cause an analysis of the benefits from each department?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Lost Art of Democratic Debate

In this entertaining lecture, Michael Sandel, teacher of Political Philosophy at Harvard, highlights the importance of morals and values in democratic debate.

Thanks to TED for this lecture.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Formulating the Problem

"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution...." So said Albert Einstein.

Could it be that Interactive Democracy would benefit from a "Problem Page": somewhere people could register their complaints about government or society, without having to come up with a solution. Perhaps it would also have a vote facility, to provide an indication of the numbers of people sharing that point of view, and each problem may initiate a thread to enable others to re-frame it. The site may also enable suggestions as to how to solve the problem, which in turn could be voted on and would feed into the ID process for generating reform.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Californian Referendum on Cannabis

A referendum on legalising and taxing cannabis in California is expected in November. The referendum was given the green light after 694000 people signed a petition calling for the question to be added to the states general election ballot paper. According to some reports this could save $200million in public order costs and reap $1.4billion in taxes. The debate on this contentious issue is also likely to cover health issues, use while driving and the slippery slope argument. The details of the Initiative can be read here.

More from The Telegraph here.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Two Wolves and a Lamb

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding on what to have for dinner."

This quote, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin but more likely from James Bovard, succinctly captures the "tyranny of the majority" argument. But people aren't wolves. Nevertheless, to stretch the analogy, thousands of years ago human hunters began to domesticate animals for their food supply. They realised that short term satisfaction doesn't always lead to long term gain. And today, many vegetarians would avoid slaughtering animals on moral grounds. Foresight, morality and empathy apply just as much to democratic decision making.

"Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote" is the second oft quoted follow on sentence. It highlights the ethic of fighting for freedom and justice that underlies our society. But it doesn't encompass all the elements of law and order in modern democracy; it ignores the firmly established laws and independent institutions, including the police and the courts, that help to avoid tyranny and underpin our way of life.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Queen's Speech

The government sets out its agenda for the next parliament in the Queens Speech, which is really nothing more than a grandiose rubber stamp, all pomp and ceremony. This wouldn't be necessary in the Interactive Democracy system because each new Bill would be driven by voter demand: voters would set the agenda, not the politicians. ID is different to the Swiss system of Direct Democracy which allows the government to play its own tune unless a petition greater than 50000 voters demands change.

You may assume that ID subverts the role of the Queen, but that's not the whole picture. The royals can continue to have a role under ID, much as they do today. They may even expand their remit and initiate their own petitions for change, being well positioned to garner public support.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Kluge - Gary Marcus

Gary Marcus writes in his book "Kluge",

"Humans can be brilliant, but they can be stupid too.... Every one of us is susceptible.... as books like Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" and Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly" well attest."

One of the great strengths of the parliamentary process is its ability to reduce the risks of mistakes that a small autocracy of similar people are likely to make. Direct or Interactive Democracy can further reduce those risks by the pressure it puts on MPs and by opening the debate to an enormously varied population.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Dan Ariely - Dodgy Decisions

Behavioural economics shows that man isn't quite as rational as perhaps Adam Smith thought. In the following video Dan Ariely shows that how our options are laid out effects our decisions. It hints at the corruptibility of referendum.

In Interactive Democracy I would expect Parliament to argue over the options and layout of referendum, ensuring a debate on what goes before the public.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

New Zealand Electoral Reform

New Zealand has shown how to choose a new electoral system in a more democratic manner. In 1992 the people of New Zealand were asked (a) if they want a change then (b) which of four electoral systems they would prefer! The systems considered were: Mixed Member Proportional, Supplementary Member, Single Transferable Vote, or Preferential Voting. This resulted in 70.3% voting for Mixed Member Proportional according to this report.
In one way the ConDem (and Labour manifesto) proposal to hold a referendum on the electoral system is a step forward because the right of a people to decide on matters of constitution is implicitly acknowledged. But the sophistication of the ConDem referendum plans (AV or bust) is far removed from the New Zealand process.
Thanks to INIREF for their contribution to this post.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Safe Seats and Thrones

Nick Clegg claimed that safe seats beget a tendency to dodgy expense claims. Channel 4 Fact Checked it, clarifying that there were twice as many expense villains in the seats with the strongest majorities than in those with the weakest. That's not to say that one causes the other, but it is an interesting result. I hope it is an indication of the power that voters wield.
Safe Seats are allocated by parties to those politicians with the potential to sit on the front bench, indicating the power that parties wield in the careers of candidates and the tension between loyalty to the party and loyalty to the constituency.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Declarations of Bias

In the lead up to election day, Britain's national newspapers declared their support for one party or another. This could be understood as declaring their bias and you may assume from this that their reporting is less than balanced. On the other hand, some papers seem to have switched their allegiance from one party to another, indicating that they are in no party's pocket, and the very fact that they declare where they stand gives readers the chance to factor that into their decisions. More here from Yahoo News.

I'd expect papers to be just as biased about single issues raised through Interactive Democracy and their contribution to the debate is both welcome and worrying, as they may have an all too powerful impact on referendum results. This power can be balanced in two ways:
  1. legal punishments for printing falsehoods;
  2. presenting all sides of the arguments on the interactive web site used for voting.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Alternative Vote Plus

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, chair of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, proposed this system be put to the electorate. It is not used anywhere else in the world. AV+ is a mixed system, using AV to elect local MPs with an additional selection from a list to rebalance the outcome to become proportionally representative. More here.

Referendum on Electoral Reform

Negotiations over who forms the next coalition government have seen both Labour and the Conservatives offer a referendum on the Alternative Vote, not the Lib Dems preferred Single Transferable Vote. Why, because AV is most likely to benefit the larger parties and STV is most likely to benefit the minor parties.

They could offer a referendum on two or three plans for electoral reform from the three main parties and, to my mind, offering a referendum only on AV is a cynical attempt to disenfranchise voters. It says that they really don't trust voters to make a fair and considered decision about the merits of each system, after hearing a broad debate.

Democracy? What democracy?

Driving Fringe Issues to the Centre Ground

Single Transferable Vote may result in the election of more fringe parties and independent MPs. This may encourage the centre ground parties to adopt policies palatable to the extremes. We have already seen environmentalism and immigration become central issues, but with PR the main parties may be encouraged to change that bit quicker.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Left to Right

Did the UK population vote in support of the centre left, only to allow a centre right party to form a government? (Labour and the Lib Dems are centre left parties and the Conservatives represent the centre right). Looking at the results from that perspective, is the country getting the sort of government it asked for? Or is our system of democracy not representing the sentiment of the majority?
It seems clear from the above graph that PR (with several MPs from each Constituency) would likely have resulted in a Labour/LibDem coalition. (The inner ring of the graph indicates votes and the outer shows seats. More here.)
Of course, Interactive Democracy would largely avoid all of these types of issues, because the voters would have to be persuaded on each policy.

Proportionality of Power

One of the arguments against PR is that it gives more power to the MPs from fringe parties: for example, the independents and those from single issue parties. This is because the government may need to win over their support to carry a motion or form a government. The fringe thus has a disproportionate amount of power.
But lets be clear, each seat in the House of Commons has the power of one vote, no more, no less. Rather, the influence of the marginals comes about because main party MPs can't act independently, purely in the interests of their Constituencies, because they are governed by the power of the party whips. So, from this perspective, it's not that the fringe parties have more power than they deserve, it is that average MPs have less.
Furthermore, with fair electoral boundaries and PR that allows more than one MP per Constituency, each MP is likely to have the support of similar numbers of voters, underlining the fairness of each MPs appointment.
Whether you agree with this analysis or not may depend on your perspective: if you cast your vote for a party to form a government or you cast it to get a local MP representing local interests. It may be impossible to have both!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Deciding on Electoral Reform

The ConservaTories and LibDems are negotiating about forming a government. One of the central issues is electoral reform. Each party agrees that something must be done to make for a fairer voting system and each have suggested reducing the number of MPs, but they have very different proposals. On the one hand the LibDems prefer a Single Transferrable Vote type of Proportional Representation in which you rank your preferred choices (leaving blank the boxes next to the MPs you don't want). Each constituency can have several MPs. The Conservatives prefer First Past the Post but suggest that each constituency should have an equal number of voters (something that may be deemed fair for a PR constituency, too).

Wouldn't it be properly democratic, and avoid the self interests of each party, to put these choices to the electorate? Should we consider other referendum options too - the Labour Manifesto suggested a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also allows you to rank Candidates but just one is chosen for each Constituency.

Interestingly, if the electorate were presented with more than two options, then should the ballot be counted on a FPTP basis or a type of PR?

The objective of the referendum should be to reach a clear decision, building a consensus from the degree of support for each proposal, yet be simple to operate. It should accommodate views on preferred, acceptable and unacceptable choices. To my mind it would therefore be sensible to allow voters to rank their preferences, if they wanted to, counting 1st place as worth three times the power of the 3rd place and the 2nd place as double the value of the 3rd place (1st is worth 3 points, 2nd worth 2 points, 3rd worth 1 point). No ranking is effectively a vote against that proposal. While the calculation may not be fully understood by everyone, the ballot paper would be clear and simple.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Morphing Boundaries

The objective of Proportional Representation is to give seats in proportion to votes. An alternative system would be to change the electoral boundaries so that each seat represented the same number of voters. The problem is that unscrupulous people may manipulate the boundaries to benefit their own party. But there is a solution: the boundary configuration could be morphed automatically.

With an electronic database of voters containing their postcode software could be developed to add or subtract postcodes until the seats had equal numbers of voters. The logic may be something like this:

  1. Sum votes for each seat

  2. Calculate average votes across all seats

  3. If Seat1 has less than average votes, calculate the deficit. If it has more than the average, repeat for the next Seat.

  4. If it has less than the average seat, look to the first adjoining seat. Does it have a surplus? If not repeat for second adjoining seat.

  5. Take surplus to eliminate the deficit by adding the nearest postcode.

  6. Repeat for each seat in turn until all seats equal the average.

This type of system would probably favour the main parties at the expense of the independents and single issue parties, as it is still a First Past the Post system. It would therefore reduce the risk of a hung parliament and increase the chance of a strong government.

The sort of database that this system requires is just what is needed for Interactive Democracy.

Refused a Vote

Hundreds of people who queued outside polling stations lost their right to vote when they weren't issued with ballot papers before the 10pm deadline, laid down by law. Understandably, many were angry.

While some would suggest that voters should have reached the polling stations earlier, others blame the resources available to support a good voter turn out and commentators on the BBC suggested that those in the queue at 10pm should have been let in.

My question here is Could a web based system suffer the same problems of overload if millions of voters were to make a last minute decision?

Clearly this is partly a matter of resource (servers, broadband and terminals) but also a matter of timing. Allowing a later deadline, perhaps midnight, would encourage people to access the system earlier, before they go to bed, and not wait until the middle of the night. The downside being, what could be an instant result may come too late to feature in the next morning's newspapers.

Whatever the details, a web vote could be easier, quicker, more efficient and more democratic than today's tainted Victorian system.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Interactive Democracy Reinforces the Main Political Parties

It seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that Interactive Democracy reinforces the main political parties, given that it gives voters more power, but it does so in a number of ways:

  1. It removes the need for single issue parties and independent MPs.
  2. It allows the government to blame the people for policies that don't work.
  3. It encourages people to get involved with politics and join the political parties - they can then be updated with emails about issues that are pending.
  4. It gives party members and activists greater power and involvement than they have today.
  5. The party gets real feedback on the reactions of voters to any proposal.
  6. The party leadership can concentrate on their core competencies of leadership, management, governance and diplomacy, without being condemned for one manifesto commitment or another.