Monday, 22 February 2010

The Pressure Principle

"To some degree it matters who's in office, but it matters more how much
pressure they're under from the public."
Noam Chomsky

Interactive Democracy exerts a constant pressure on politicians that may be more powerful than the elections at the end of each term, when misdeeds may be long forgot. There should be a balance of power between government, parliament and the public that is felt every day, on each decision, not occasionally on an amalgamated and distorted history.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Walter Lippmann

The well regarded writer Walter Lippmann was, at times, critical of too much democracy. Here are some of his quotes and my arguments for Interactive Democracy:
"When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute."

I'd expect leaders to make the complex and fractal truth understandable. Democracy, in general, cannot operate without leadership. But there is another argument against falling into the trap that considers public opinion ignorant: even if it is accepted that one group of voters did not consider all the detailed arguments before expressing their opinion, another group surely made up for their deficit, and the system amalgamates all those disparate views into a common, widely informed, decision.
"The private citizen, beset by partisan appeals for the loan of his Public Opinion, will soon see, perhaps, that these appeals are not a compliment to his intelligence, but an imposition on his good nature and an insult to his sense of evidence."
It's essential to good decision making that there is a system to tease out the evidence and it is crucial to Democracy that the scientific and statistical evidence is subject to careful review. This, along with all of the points made during Parliamentary debate, should be presented on the web site where the public cast their vote. But, if you don't want to vote you don't have to, so it's no imposition at all.

"What we call a democratic society might be defined for certain purposes as one in which the majority is always prepared to put down a revolutionary minority."

Humanity is at its most successful when it seeks mutual benefit. Anyone debating in a Democratic system would do well to highlight the benefits of their proposition to their audience, ensuring a degree of empathy and understanding that begets evolution, not revolution.

"In government offices which are sensitive to the vehemence and passion of mass sentiment, public men have no sure tenure. They are in effect perpetual office seekers, always on trial for their political lives, always required to court
their restless constituents."
Democratically elected politicians "have no sure tenure", but the role of Parliament within Interactive Democracy is to debate, analyse and call for studies into the proposals that are presented by ePetition. MPs in this system will be judged less on their salesmanship than on their contribution to the debate: their points will be catalogued on the ID web site for all to see and consider. Those MPs that make up the government will suffer the gaze of their opposition, the media and the public, as they do today.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Abraham Lincoln

"... government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

Abraham Lincoln, 1863.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Citizen Mundi

Citizen Mundi is a site that simulates how a type of direct democracy would operate. Anyone can join and participate.

In some ways it operates in a similar way to the Interactive Democracy proposed here, with initiatives that may be voted through to a second round debate and final referendum. But, one of its innovations is that your voting power depends on how much participation you have previously demonstrated. This can be measured by the technology. For example "Submitting an initiative is worth 5% towards your participation ratio."

To my mind, the big disadvantage of such a system is that it is prejudiced against in-frequent participants who may have key and detailed knowledge on a certain subject but generally don't get involved in every issue. Imagine if this was applied in the real world: there may be a busy nurse or doctor, with a family to look after, with little time or inclination for politics, but with excellent insight and a keen interest in voting on a health care bill. Indeed some may consider that these people should have more voting power on this issue than a frequent participant with no specialist insight. The proposed Interactive Democracy system doesn't give them any more clout, except that they are free to influence as many people as possible by the power of their well informed arguments.

But to be fair, Citizen Mundi could evolve away from the "participation ratio" system if someone were to propose a change and the vote was carried.

(The name Citizen Mundi means citizen of the world.)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Public Inquiry

Public Inquiries could utilise Interactive Democracy to gather questions that they could put to witnesses. If it were possible to vote for each question then potentially many thousands could be prioritised, getting over the problem of not having enough time to deal with them all.
Chilcot's Iraq Inquiry has been widely criticised for being too deferential to its key witnesses but this proposal would allow hard hitting questions to come from the public and perhaps from the parents of soldiers who sat in the public gallery and were, reportedly, disappointed with proceedings.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Questioning Government Statistics and Reports

Government Statistics and Reports may carry enormous power when presented on the Voter Interface, yet third parties may disagree with them. Perhaps there should be a system that allows complaints against these reports. This would allow journalists and academics to present their own findings and would act as a sort of peer review safeguard by people with specialist knowledge. This would best be supervised by a Parliamentary multi-party committee.

Agreeing with Comments

Should comments placed on the Voter Interface each have a button so that you can agree or disagree with them?

Should comments with the most agreement rise to the top of the list and those with the most disagreement fall to the bottom?

Given that the number of comments is likely to be vast, perhaps there should be some way of organising them other than on a first-come/first-served basis. This could be achieved by this votes per comment system.

It may also be worth dissuading new comments that are similar to previous comments. This may be achievable by automatically matching words in one comment with words in the new one and then presenting a list of similar comments to the commentor. They may then prefer to add an "I agree" vote to an existing one, instead of publishing their own.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ideas for the Voter Interface

The design of the web site interface that would allow us to vote could have an enormous influence over how effective Interactive Democracy would be. Here are some thoughts:

  1. It should be easy to use

  2. It should be split between questions, ePetitions and Referenda for local, national and supra-national votes

  3. Each proposal should allow comments structured around Plus, Minus and Interesting points

  4. Each proposal should allow questions to be asked, creating a thread of answers

  5. Comments arising from Parliamentary debate should be given priority on any referenda issue

  6. Comments from the government should also be highlighted (these may relate to timescales, funding and practical difficulties)

  7. Comments made by MPs should carry their name

  8. Links to Government and Parliamentary web pages should be allowed, to facilitate the presentation of good quality background information

  9. Security should be similar to that used by Internet Banks, with a user name and password system to allow access

  10. The search facility on the site should not introduce bias and should be approved by a Parliamentary technical committee

  11. A complaints system should be available to highlight swearing and abusive comments which can then be removed by the web master - there may be escalating sanctions against repeat offenders

It's worth noting that other web sites may hold alternative debates and present their own information. Obviously these can be found by anyone using a search engine but they shouldn't have links placed on the Voting Interface. Only approved and quality checked statistics and reports should be presented on this central web site.

Free Radicals

It is a human characteristic that we tend to socialise with people who have similar views to ourselves. This observation is equally valid on the Internet - perhaps more so - as discussion groups tend to cover narrow topics that attract others who hold similar interests and points of view. This can lead to the reinforcement and validation of ideas, radicalisation and extremism; what psychologists call group polarisation.
Interactive Democracy has a number of mechanisms to present diverse view points to counter balance radical points of view without inhibiting freedom of expression:
  1. Parliamentary debate leads to the pros and cons of an argument listed on the web site used to cast votes.
  2. The wider media present diverse arguments, reports and case studies that are easily accessible by the majority of the population. The vast majority are not radicals but can become well informed.
  3. The wider media, through its reporting of radical political groups, may encourage new members to join those extremist on-line communities, ask questions and debate points, perhaps watering down some of their radicalism.
  4. The slow pace of this type of democracy encourages wide debate and contemplation.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Virtual Revolution: Enemy of the State?

In this BBC programme Dr Aleks Krotoski looks at how the web enhances liberty and what states are doing about it. It draws on interviews with some key inventors, examines the history and infrastructure and looks at the case studies of the recent Iranian elections, the cyber attacks on Estonia and how China exerts its power. It doesn't specifically look at direct democracy but provides background information.

Dick Morris

In this fascinating article, Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign manager, wrote "The truth is, however, that politicians routinely ignore polls." He therefore advocates Direct Democracy and goes into detail about the changes wrought on political advertising by the internet. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Religion and Democracy

The debate over the Pope's attack on the UK's Equality Bill has prompted some commentators to suggest that the law shouldn't interfere with religious freedom, yet they don't mention how religions impact on politics and the laws that govern everyone else. For millennia this has been the case. In Britain The Church's power is inherent in the House of Lords and the Queen. It is also pervasive throughout life and death, from religious schools to religious funerals.

Of course, it's natural that a person's beliefs be expressed through how they vote and Interactive Democracy facilitates this very fairly. However, it also removes the need for the House of Lords and the 26 Lord Spirituals, making a break between Church and State.

Many Muslims take a different point of view to most Christians. To them Allah's laws are immutable and not to be molded by mere mortals. This potentially places democracy and Islam on a collision path.

ID creates laws effected by individual voters from these varied religious groups. They may be strongly influenced by foreign clerics or local priests, it doesn't matter, but the flip-side is that religious institutions be governed by majority decisions.... unless the majority decide that the Faiths can opt out.

Pope Power

Pope Benedict XVI urged British Catholic Bishops to fight the UK's Equality Bill with "missionary zeal".
My reason for writing this is to comment that here we have a foreign leader influencing public opinion. I wonder, if this bill were to be voted on by the entire electorate, using Interactive Democracy, how the Pope's Power would measure against other groups?
According to the Catholic News Agency, in 2005 there were 4.2 million Catholics in Britain. From Government figures published in 2005, there are 3.6 million homosexuals in Britain, some of whom, I assume, are Catholic. Obviously there are many more voters who may consider "is this debate about homosexuality or religious freedom?".

Assisted Suicide

The murder charge against Kay Gilderdale for assisting her daughter's suicide has finally been dropped. Panorama did an insightful programme about it, which touched on the recent Lord's Bill and the clarification of the law by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). I find it interesting that such an important Bill started in the House of Lords, which is not democratically elected and carries a religious bias in the form of 26 Bishops of the Church of England. The Church, as far as I am aware, has always been against suicide. That clarification of the law then falls to the DPP, who is appointed by the Attorney General, leads me to suspect that our elected politicians don't have the stomach for such an emotive subject. However, this poll suggests that 73% of people condone Mrs Gilderdale's actions.

For sure, this is a difficult subject and close attention must be paid to protecting vulnerable members of society. But law makers in Oregon, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands have made assisted suicide legal and many other countries have laws that are less stringent than our own (please see this report). This leads me to believe that personal choice and the protection of the vulnerable aren't mutually exclusive concepts.

But this isn't just a moral/legal issue. It is also dependant upon the resources available for palliative care. Given sufficient support the NHS could remove the physical burden from caring relatives and the associated guilt patients may feel in requiring help. In short, this may remove two of the motives that we worry drive assisted suicides.

The poll results, legal cases, media interest and political avoidance suggest that it is a subject that would be well served by Interactive Democracy. Voters may even make suggestions of how to overcome some of the sticking points that the Lords found so difficult to overcome.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Short Cut to War

Clare Short told the Iraq Inquiry about how cabinet was "misled", Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had been "leaned on" and Parliament was just a "rubber stamp" (you can read the BBC report here). It's a frightening indictment of our government and democracy.

Some may say that Interactive Democracy would be manipulated in similar ways, but perhaps they have forgotten the mass protests against war. I suspect that the issue by issue democracy that ID could deliver would enhance the debate, put pressure on politicians not to be seen to be manipulative and slow the headlong rush to decisions. It may have prevented us going to war in Iraq, it may have delayed it until the end of the summer, giving the UN more time to avert catastrophe, or it may have re-focused our attention on Afghanistan. Who knows?

Many would be right to assume that truth in Government, in Parliament and in the Media is an important ingredient for a functioning democracy. I'd like to see laws in place that punish those that lie. More here.