Monday, 29 March 2010

Trust, Politics and Motivation

It would be great if we could trust politicians, but the evidence suggests otherwise. So how can we separate the wheat from the chaff; who can we trust?

Obviously, if there is hard evidence about what someone says, then trust comes easier. And, being social animals, we tend to trust a consensus of opinion, even if this isn't well founded. Another way is to try and understand the motivations driving an individual or organisation. Understanding the pressures that people are under can allow us to better judge what they are saying.

Now lets consider a general election. The motivation is to win the election and gain power by garnering as many votes as possible, especially in the marginal seats that matter the most. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Concentrate resources on marginal seats and the issues that are key to those voters
  • Make sure that your party is credible and trust worthy and point out every folly of the opposition
  • Dig up the dirt on the opposition
  • Offer promises that are attractive to voters. If you can't deliver them you can blame it on other factors and by the time the next election comes around it will likely all be forgotten
  • Be different to the opposition. Especially in matters of forecast: argue that they have got it wrong and you are right - and better. It doesn't matter too much if your forecasts aren't very accurate, because none are, but why not take the opportunity to undermine the opposition? If you gain power and your forecasts are proved to be wrong then you can blame it on a changing scenario... and by the time of the next election it will all be forgotten anyway
  • Don't swim against the public mood - which may be propagated by the papers. Instead, go with the flow of public opinion
Within the Interactive Democracy proposal, or most forms of direct democracy, there will still be general elections and most of the issues of trust and skepticism will continue. However, ID does put pressure on politicians to be more trust worthy, because the electorate can, at any time, trigger a (good)bye-election, without waiting for the next general election.

For an alternative perspective on the role of trust in politics please see Anthony Seldon's programme "Trust Politics", available on iPlayer.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Secret Deals

In light of the Al Megrahi affair, do international relations rest on secret deals done between leaders? Would Interactive Democracy hamstring our international policies by granting more political power and control to the electorate in an open forum, accessible to foreign governments?
I suspect this is a mute point and that the banishment of secret deals would be good for international relations in the same way that the demise of bribery was good for business.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Making Institutions Accountable

Gordon Brown has commented that it is very important to make all of the countries institutions accountable. I wonder if he means those private institutions, the banks, or public institutions, including the police forces, Bank of England and MOD? Could the remit include charitable institutions or the Church?

Interactive Democracy could make all of these institutions accountable in a way that has never before been seen, as petitions may be launched to demand investigations into their behaviour or even demand the sacking of their senior officers. I doubt if many of these petitions would garner sufficient support to force the government to react, but this system may cause changes in these institutions, nevertheless, as they will be able to monitor the public sentiment and can change accordingly.

It is also interesting that this system gives customers, investors and workers a voice that they may not otherwise have.


There is concern about the proliferation of political lobbyists. This is one area where money meets politics. Barrack Obama understands the threat and has banned lobbyists from appointment to agencies they have lobbied in the last two years.
Interactive Democracy would reduce the power of political lobbyists as the population as a whole would need to be persuaded if an issue was going to referendum.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Foreign Influence

According to this article from the BBC "More than 20 MPs broke rules on declaring hospitality... on more than 400 occasions..." Is this another example of the ability of foreign influence in our political system? Isn't representative democracy about representing British Constituents?

The former commissioner for Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham said it "demonstrated the failure of the self regulating system". But who is to regulate the regulators?

Interactive Democracy allows the public the power to deal with errant MPs swiftly, without their misdeeds becoming lost in the rhetoric of electioneering or the complexities of multiple issues, manifestos and party politics. But it would be nothing without the power of a free press to bring such issues to light. Good on the BBC.

Income for Influence

There was once "Cash for Questions" and now 4 MPs have been caught in a sting set up by The Sunday Times and Channel 4, suggesting they could influence government policy for the payment of some extra income. Is this how Representative Democracy has always been?

Interactive Democracy ensures that power comes from voters, not from well funded political lobbyists via subversive MPs. In ID, if pressure groups want to influence policy they will have to influence the electorate themselves.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Interactive Democracy Award

One of the common human motivations is to be recognised for your achievements and contributions. To encourage involvement in Interactive Democracy perhaps there should be an Interactive Democracy Award. This could be awarded for contributions of ideas to the ID system if those ideas added to a Parliamentary debate. Any MP could highlight those contributors, which may be many. Winners of the award would be able to use the letters "IDeA" after their name.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Direct Democracy Elsewhere

Other countries already do Direct Democracy. This site campaigns for its introduction in Britain.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Veil of Ignorance

The veil of ignorance is a concept first introduced by John Rawls in "Towards a Theory of Justice". It is an imaginary veil behind which you know nothing of your race, sex, abilities, etc. and you become an unbiased, moral person able to exert free will. From behind "the veil" you can make decisions that aren't designed to benefit yourself but are based on "higher" criteria of justice and fairness.
But the real world doesn't work like this. We all have our biases, some of which we may not even be aware of. As this attorney writes, pressure groups manipulate democracy to formulate laws to benefit themselves. They may be well funded and powerful. Perhaps the only way of undermining their power is to implement more direct democracy. Interactive Democracy gives us all a chance to come up with a majority view less distorted by money and political connections. It doesn't use a fictional "veil of ignorance" to achieve justice, but balances one bias against another to get a similar effect.

Regress to the Mean

If everyone votes on every issue doesn't policy just regress to the mean and not benefit from the intellect of the best and the brightest and the decisions they make?
  1. Issues that reach the referendum stage will have been discussed in detail by Parliament. The debate is televised and the plus, minus and interesting points that emerge will be presented as each voter casts their vote.
  2. The choices available to voters will typically be very limited: perhaps yes or no or choice 1, 2 or 3. This isn't a regress to the mean type of scenario: it operates like a switch between one or the other. On the other hand, Political Parties usually try to appeal to the majority of voters and dominate the centre ground of politics. They may avoid contentious issues, radical proposals or decisions that leave them open to criticism. They may "regress to the mean".
  3. Leadership and good quality debate can raise the average persons understanding of the issues and can enhance their empathy with disparate groups. The debate itself could enhance social understanding and the average point of view.
  4. The brightest aren't only found in Parliament; there are many more people with a high IQ score in the rest of the population and they can draw on a wide array of professional and personal experiences that are not often found in the Westminster Village.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Evolving Interface

Interactive Democracy is a type of direct democracy, but at its core is the utilisation of information technology to foster debate. The design of the Internet interface - the web pages used by voters - can add lots of value to the system.
Anyone reading through these posts will realise that various ideas for the voter interface have sprung up:
  • Adding initiatives
  • Adding comments and questions to initiatives to create threads
  • Voting and supporting
  • Changing your vote after it is cast
  • Questioning governments
  • Calling for information and studies
  • Listing Plus, Minus and Interesting Points
  • Using unbiased search engines
  • Linking to government reports
  • Facilitating Liquid Leadership
Given that these ideas have evolved over time, it would be prudent to allow users of the system to make suggestions for new improvements of the system and allow them to register their complaints and problems.

Group Think in Social Networks

Group Think is the tendency for groups of like minded people to reinforce each others point of view. It is a concern that group think may dominate Interactive Democracy (and political parties). Social network groups, perhaps discussing political issues, may succumb to Group Think, engendering widescale conformism.
Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Colombia University has studied this issue. He recruited 14000 people on a social networking site and divided them into groups to rate music played by unknown bands. As the experiment progressed people were given more information about what others in their group preferred. Often songs that started off slightly more popular became even more popular as people within the group became more aware of others preferences. Members of a group eventually converged on the same songs. But other groups chose different songs and it was impossible to predict which groups would choose which songs. There was considerable diversity between the groups.
This evidence should be a warning sign for people who believe that politics should be the reserve of the Westminster Village and at the same time assuages the concern that mass Group Think, accelerated by our increasing internet interconnectedness, will dominate Interactive Democracy. Groups may coallesce around, work, religion, political party or any other institution, but there is sufficient diversity between them to avoid conformist thinking.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Bertrand Russell

"Conventional people are roused to fury by departures from convention, largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of themselves."
Bertrand Russell in "Conquest of Happiness" (1930)

"Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric."
Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Great Undecided

Given that we humans are given to bias and group think, involving the great mass of population that are initially undecided could be a great advantage of Interactive Democracy. They are more likely to listen to the debate with an open mind, offer alternative points of view and "out of the box" ideas. They are better arbiters of argument and may provide better judgment than those embroiled in policy. Ultimately, they may be persuaded to cast their vote one way or another to reach a sound conclusion.


In Estonia all cabinet papers are available online and cabinet decisions are reported on the web as they happen! Their electronic system also allows participation by ministers who may be abroad.
The BBC wrote "With the click of a mouse a new draft law is passed by Estonia's government - welcome to one of the world's most high-tech cabinet rooms."
This early power point explains the issues of direct democracy, Estonian style.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Boosting Newspaper Sales

It seems that newspaper sales in the UK are falling and the trend is accelerating. Will Interactive Democracy boost demand for news? I think it could. The idea is that empowerment of voters generates its own demand for information.
There may also be an opportunity here for newspapers to sell political advertising. Interactive Democracy may cause a wholesale change in political financing as those advocates with money can focus their resources on specific issues, instead of political parties, perhaps by spending on advertorials in newspapers.

More from The Guardian here and here.