Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Swiss Democracy Going Digital

Electronic voting in the national referendum ballot March 2012

Bern, 16.12.2011 - On 16th December for twelve counties the Government approved the use of electronic voting in the ballot timed for 11th march 2012. About 122,000 voters will be able to vote by using the Internet. Already, all of these twelve counties have run tests of Internet voting.

The Government (Bundesrat)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

EU Regulation on Citizens' Initiative

This regulation specifies the security structure of a web site for Citizens' Initiatives.
I think that such a system should allow citizens to change their vote in subsequent sessions yet this regulation demands that data should not be alterable. However, such a limitation can be worked around by having the facility for later dated votes to supersede earlier ones.
The ability to change your vote allows voters to cast a vote at a time which is convenient to them and then change it later if they change their mind. It will reduce the information load on the system as a ballot reaches its deadline, will likely increase voting numbers as it makes the system more convenient and facilitates an increasing amount of debate, closer to the deadline, to have the chance to change the outcome.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

300 Million Minds....

Just come across this book, which sounds a lot like Interactive Democracy: "300 Million Minds Changing America Piece by Peace", by David Frank.
The Amazon Book Description reads "This book is about a plan to bring Americas 225 year old Republic system into the 21st Century. This new system for America is a result of a vision experienced by David Frank, in 1989. This vision outlined a new system for America using present day Communication Technology. By remapping America to look like a honeycomb, each community, looking like a hexagon, will use present day technology to allow the "people" to start fixing America from the ground-up. The new system will allow the "people," not the politicians, to begin to raise, debate and vote on issues that they believe can make their communities a better place to live. 1000 Technological Townhall Meeting systems across America will utilize the knowledge and brainpower of 300 million people, making the world a better place today, for the children of tomorrow."

Monday, 28 November 2011

Bankrupt Democracy

In a fascinating MoneyWeek article Tim Price wrote "A combination of western governments and those countries' banking sectors is effectively insolvent. The problem is one of democracy itself. The system sows the seeds of its own destruction when a critical mass of voters appreciates that it can vote itself privileges. Politicians who can rarely see further than the next election are happy to provide them. A state of entitlement then sets in, with the wealth-creating private sector crowded out and milked for taxes. In one sense government policy is predestined to fail because, as Mrs Thatcher observed, sooner or later the government runs out of your money."
This may be true for most western governments, but the same problems don't exist in Switzerland, which gives voters much more power. Surely, by Tim's analysis of cause and effect, Swiss voters, in their assumed selfishness, would have crashed their economy sooner. But it remains strong. Why? Because their system integrates everyone into a common society with shared responsibilities and, by being involved in politics, they educate themselves about the issues, the pros and cons, and come to balanced decisions. Interactive Democracy has every chance of doing the same.
("Eurozone governments are now too big to succeed" by Tim Price, MoneyWeek, 25/11/2011)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Diluted Voting Power

Here's a thought: the more voters there are for a given "Parliament" the less powerful each vote is.
According to the UK census of 1951 there were about 50 million citizens. By mid 2010 it was about 62 million. It's expected to reach 70 million by 2027. Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that the proportion of the population eligible to vote remains the same, in 2010 your vote was worth about 20% less than in 1951 and by 2027 it will have lost another 9%. But, of course, the proportion of the total population who can vote will be much larger in the future, due to the aging population.
OK, this is a simplistic idea. But now consider the effect of giving powers to a federal European government. Now your vote is merely one in a little less than 500 million.
Our increasing powerlessness is the very opposite of the involved and empowered voters I argue for in this blog.
This post was inspired by Prof. Al Bartlett's lecture "Arithmetic, Population and Energy", available on YouTube. Here's the first part of the series:

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Chemistry of Trust

In this lecture, Professor Paul Zak explains the impact of oxytocin on trust and trust worthiness. He has many fascinating insights into the role of this hormone on people's behaviour and how to boost oxytocin levels. Could it be that giving people the right to vote regularly and a voice in the debates, boosts oxytocin among most people, increasing trustworthiness in society and perhaps adding to social cohesion and economic success??

Monday, 1 August 2011

Crazy Empowerment

In this article, Rhodri Marsden comments on the Government's plan to allow 100 000 on-line signatures to precipitate a Westminster discussion of the subject. In particular he thinks it's too easy: "Registering approval or disapproval of anything online requires a few imperceptible finger movements and almost no brain activity."
He also points out that the previous Government's ePetition system would only have promoted Westminster discussion of 8 petitions, and the premise of one of them was clearly wrong.
He goes on to write "Petition schemes make governments look like they're listening and the electorates think they're being listened to, but it's faux-democratic. Proposals hammered out on a keyboard are generally hare-brained and ill thought out, and politicians regard them with the contempt they deserve."
I partly agree with Rhodri, but I applaud the Government's proposals, yet think they don't go far enough. I think that promoting high quality debate is perhaps the most important role of Democracy and the involvement of Parliamentarians on a debating forum, integrated with a voting system, would help to calm Rhodri's misgivings.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Institutions v Collaboration

In this TED talk Clay Shirky highlights the differences between the institution and collaboration, and the way they get things done. In particular he compares the costs and values of each and points out that in a collaborative effort some people contribute a lot and others contribute a little. However, small contributions may make a significant difference. I would expect the same in Interactive Democracy: most of the contributions would come from those that are interested in politics with occasional valuable contributions from others.
Clay also describes how Institutions resist the loss of control that collaborative organisation brings. I would expect the same from Westminster.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Anonymous Agression

Randi Zuckerberg, Marketing Director of Facebook and sister to its founder, Mark, commented to Marie Claire magazine "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." This can result in all sorts of immoral behaviour including cyber bullying, harassment and lying.
On the other hand Richard Hall writes in The Independent "Privacy advocates have condemned plans to remove online anonymity, saying it could make it harder for dissidents in countries with poor human rights records to speak out."
Perhaps our society could benefit from parallel systems: Interactive Democracy would provide a regulated forum for debate, with sanctions against bad behaviour, but providing legal voting power; and commercial organisations could provide a more corruptible but freer network that would allow dissidents to have their say.
Another concern is the control that Facebook and the other web monopolies have over our society and culture, as Rebecca MacKinnon points out here.

The Hidden Influence of Social Networks

This video presented by Nicholas Christakis explores his studies into social networks. Although he mentions voter behaviour, the talk relates to many other areas, in particular the spread of obesity in society.
The power of influence within social networks could go a long way to explain the influence of one political party or another in certain areas of the country. It may also provide some insight into how new ideas, debates and opinions could flow through society. Worth a look as food for thought.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Lewd Leadership

The phone hacking scandal, a boil that has finally burst, runs the risk of missing a central point about how the media provides leadership for our country and our culture. In the case of News of the World, and several other newspapers, they realise that "sex sells" and celebrity sex sells more. So a good number of their stories "out" the private sexual exploits of the rich and famous, celebrities and politicians. They pander to base human instincts and debase our culture in the process: they provide lewd leadership.
Until now the political powers have been feeble in their response, despite the Human Rights Act, which states:
  1. "the right to respect for private ... life"
  2. "freedom from ... degrading treatment"
  3. "the right to liberty"
  4. "freedom of assembly and association"
  5. "the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property" (including mobile phones?)
  6. "the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms" (celebrities v general public)
To increase the quality of the leadership that the media provide I think it is essential that we curtail their power to exploit and manipulate, while strengthening the sector as a whole. After all, investigative journalists do some good stuff, but enquiries are often expensive with uncertain rewards.
One way of limiting lewd leadership would be to use the Human Rights Act, perhaps as a class action. Another is to limit media monopolies.
To strengthen print news (including electronic print) perhaps we should be considering some sort of financial support from our taxes: despite not paying VAT, some papers run at a loss. Perhaps we should also curtail the BBCs involvement in web-print and focus their attentions on iPlayer services instead, so that newspapers can better compete on the Web and Kindle.
(This post from January comments on phone hacking.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Inspiring Democracy

"If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

People worry about the yobs that Interactive Democracy empowers; they worry about the dogmatic, the xenophobic, the narrow minded and the greedy. I think these are a small fraction of the population, insufficient to do any real harm. But Goethe highlights a different argument: that empowering people, involving them in the debate and making them responsible can make them better.
The idea is entertainingly captured in this video of Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, who has seen the worst aspects of human nature yet retains his optimism.


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Lords Reform

Parliament has been debating the Lords Reform Bill which proposes an 80% elected House of Lords. One point that has been deliberated is the role of the Lords as a revising chamber, tapping into the long experience of its members to scrutinise Bills proposed by Parliament, which is typically composed of younger Members, some of whom may have just won their seats.
If there is a need for a second chamber my suggestion would be that 100% of its members be elected. Elections should be held perhaps a year or two after the general election. Using an online system people could approve or dismiss any number of Lords, with those most highly rated gaining a seat. Each candidate could provide a summary of their views and a categorised CV of their experience. The system could be searchable for certain phrases, for example Conservative, environmentalist, doctor, business man. (This is another example of how Web based Democracy could allow a novel and cost effective way of voting; others may have better ideas of how to use it.)
To limit the number of Lords each Citizen had to pass judgment on the total could be divided up and allocated to geographical areas of equal population size, but different to MP's constituencies so that a "Lord" couldn't claim a stronger mandate than an MP and usurp his authority: Parliament would therefore remain the premier house.
That's not to say that I particularly approve of the House of Lords. Abolishing it would save about £60m a year that I believe would be better spent on Interactive Democracy. I suspect ID would also help to ensure good quality MPs by making them more accountable, and it would provide the facility for people to devolve their votes to ex-MPs, thereby maintaining the involvement of the most experienced politicians. (Devolving your vote means that instead of voting on each issue your self you pass your vote to another MP or ex-MP for them to use as they see fit.)
More from The Guardian here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Web Lords

In the following video former CNN bureau head, Rebecca MacKinnon, points at how governments, politicians and web providers limit the freedoms available on the web, damaging our free speech. From her perspective Interactive Democracy provides a democratically accountable system that links individuals with their government without depending on the goodwill of the web lords: Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. (Famously, Google's motto is Don't Be Evil.)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The God Complex

In this video Tim Harford (writer of "The Undercover Economist" in the Financial Times) explains the God Complex and the importance of making good mistakes. The idea is that many of us think we understand complex systems, in fact we don't. He suggests that all complex systems evolve from trial and error and that they are way, way, way too complex for any individual to understand. You may be thinking that this blog has a tinge of the God Complex as it seeks to enhance British representative Democracy which has evolved over centuries. But, looking at it another way, Interactive Democracy fosters innovation, change and adaptation by integrating many people's views instead of trusting to a few politicians who, Tim Harford would agree, have tendencies towards the God Complex themselves. Here are some ideas about how ID can foster trial and error:
  1. Diverse people foster ideas, debate, learn and innovate.
  2. Divorcing politicians from policy allows them to manage the process without getting tied to risky issues that may demolish their careers, in turn freeing-up innovation and trial and error.
  3. The DMAIC process (Define, Measure, Analize, Improve and Control) provides the framework for measuring the results of each policy and encouraging remedial action
  4. Regional decisions foster comparisons so that we can learn from best practice; policy research must gather experiences from abroad.
  5. The ID web site can evolve to incorporate new ways of analysis, debate and decision making.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Laughing at Democratic Activists

In this short TED Talk, Maajid Nawaz gives an interesting perspective on the need for bottom up democracy as an international movement. He compares his experiences as a reformed Islamic Extremist with his perception of "complacent", "top-down", "xenophobic" democracies. My preferred perspective is that extremism is about the demand for power by disenfranchised people, unable to participate in debate and therefore condemned to following a narrow interpretation of life.
While his views don't entirely gel with national Interactive Democracy, as he talks about the spread of ideas and narratives across national boundaries, he does provide food for thought.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


In Comparative Government and Politics, Hague and Harrop review Referendums:
"On the plus side, referendums do seem to increase voters' understanding of the issue, their confidence in their own political abilities and their faith in government responsiveness. Like elections themselves, referendums help to educate the participants.
"But there is a reason for caution. A surfeit of referendums can tire the voters, depressing turnout."
This last comment hits against Interactive Democracy, which proposes frequent referendums, but if the system automatically transfers inactive votes to the local MP (or other approved person), then everyone remains represented whether they are engaged or not.
Hague and Harrop go on to say that "In addition to these difficulties, referendums can easily be hijacked by:
  • Wealthy companies waging expensive referendum campaigns on issues in which they have an economic interest;
  • Government control over wording as well as timing;
  • Intense minorities seeking reforms to which the majority is indifferent."
The last point is addressed by the transfer vote I just mentioned. The second point loses veracity when an effective Parliament agrees timing and wording, and the electorate can recall Parliament or express their ire at the next general election. And, is the first point any worse than what we have today, when politicians can be secretly manipulated by vested interest groups: Interactive Democracy makes wealthy campaigners contribute to the debate, not politicians' coffers. Furthermore, by having a structured system that rationalises the debate, both money and emotion become less powerful than a good argument.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Political Goods

In Comparative Politics Today, Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton define three levels of Political Goods:-
  1. System Level: "The political system is charachterised by regular, stable and predictable processes domestically and internationally... [it] adapts to environmental change and challenges."
  2. Process Level: "The political system is open to and responds to a variety of forms of political action and speech, which may directly produce a sense of citizen dignity and efficacy... Citizens fulfill their obligations to the system and comply with public law and policy... Equitable procedure and equality before the law... Processes have intended effects and are no more cumbersome, expensive, or intrusive than necessary."
  3. Policy Level: "Growth per capita... health and material goods... distributive equity... safety of person and property... public order and national security... Non-discrimination... protection of vulnerable or disadvantaged citizens... freedom from regulation, protection of privacy and respect for autonomy of other individuals, groups and nations."
I suspect that Interactive Democracy would enhance the System and Process levels, enabling better Policy, as seems to be the case with Direct Democracy in Switzerland. However, the main concerns seem to be that it still requires individuals to drive democratically agreed policy (what if they don't agree with it?) and the majority threatening the liberty of minorities.
  • The first qualm is dealt with by making politically accountable ministers responsible for managing change - they can be removed from office if they don't make every effort.
  • The second point is dealt with by our acceptance of the European Human Rights Act and our evolved culture of accepting and respecting difference.
  • Both benefit from effective national debate.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Buying Votes

"... since the 1930s the technique of buying votes with the voters' own money has been expanded to an extent undreamed of by earlier politicians."
Milton Friedman, 1985

What is more, it may be argued that politicians spend money that they borrow to fulfill their promises, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Democracy and the Fall of the West

Is democracy as doomed as the Dodo? asks Money Week on reviewing Craig Smith's and Tom Miers' "Democracy and the Fall of the West". Their basic point is "Democracy is no guarantor of liberty because voters often want to take away the liberties of others and will vote accordingly." It's not that they think that the West will crash dramatically but they forecast a "prolonged sunset". This idea runs contrary to Niall Ferguson's idea that the Property Owning Democracy was an essential "killer app." in the rise of the West.
It is clear that there has been no tyranny of the majority in Switzerland, where voters have far more power and responsibility than in other Western Democracies. And the Swiss enjoy one of the highest standards of living of any western country, with a cohesive and supportive society. So I suggest that it isn't Democracy per se that is at fault, but our version of it, corrupted from the ideal of personal responsibility and Citizenship by our disconnectedness from political power and the irresponsibility of spinning, vote hungry politicians.
Smith and Miers suggest that the problem of our expanding welfare system can be dealt with by distributing cash equally to all citizens to spend on welfare services from government or private providers. An interesting idea, though they despair of it ever happening. But it could be an Initiative in Interactive Democracy. However, ID goes further, it distributes political power more equally between citizens (analogous to distributing money in their example) and taps into their creative potential. It encourages innovation, responsibility, learning, adaptability and evolution.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Core News Corp

"If it were left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Thomas Jefferson
It seems clear to me that the media is at the core of democracy, but, as in other areas of the real economy, monopolies seldom act for the benefit of customers or, in the case of News Corp, for the benefit of democracy. So, the emergent political will to stand up against the real or imagined power of News Corp is probably a good thing.
But Interactive Democracy offers a whole new necessity for news. Based on the demand for newspapers in Switzerland, I would expect that the introduction of ID would be a boon for newspapers. Perhaps then they wouldn't feel the need to snitch and snicker about celebrities' personal lives in order to fund their existence.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Falling Crime

Britain and American crime rates have been falling for decades, according to MoneyWeek, reaching 30 and 40 year lows, respectively. But why? The magazine notes that the trend runs contrary to the common wisdom that they are correlated to the economy and posits several alternative theories, including this: "Some commentators have argued that poor black and Latino males (the section of society most likely to see themselves as alienated, powerless outsiders, and who commit a disproportionate number of crimes) feel more connected to America because it has a non-white president for the first time...".
I don't believe that statement to encompass the whole truth, but does a feeling of belonging, of citizenship, reduce crime? Low crime rates in Switzerland, which operates direct democracy, may suggest so.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Moral Roots: Lib Con

This diverse talk by Jonathan Haidt explores the evolutionary benefits of morality and compares liberal moral roots of harm and fairness with conservative ones of harm, fairness, purity, in-group loyalty and authority. I think his insight is an argument for creating a democratic system that enhances the quality of debate in order to achieve moral diversity and counter group think. Interactive Democracy could do this.
"If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worst disease."
Sant-tsian, c700CE.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Mob Mentality

One concern about giving citizens more direct power in a democracy may be a worry about mob mentality. Since the aristocrat LeBon wrote 'The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind' in 1896 there have been theories from many academics including Jung and Freud. Although many different types of crowd have been identified there are three broad theories of crowd behaviour:
  1. Contagion Theory - Contagious joy, fear, anger or other emotion can be passed among a crowd in which individuals feel anonymous and uninhibited.
  2. Convergence Theory - People with similar ideas and temperaments come together to form crowds which then give them the confidence to act in ways they wouldn't alone. Group think can reinforce their beliefs.
  3. Emergent Norm Theory - Crowds, composed of people with mixed interests and motives, can evolve norms of behaviour. These norms may change depending on the behaviour of leaders or first movers.
So, how does Interactive Democracy discourage mob mentality?
Firstly, when people are given a meaningful route to contribute to democracy there may be far fewer protest marches, maybe even fewer strikes. But what of the development of other groups, perhaps coming together on the Internet?
In the ID system people are not anonymous, they can always be held to account, thus dissuading errant behaviour. (The Internet itself may provide a parallel and anonymous forum, depending how privacy laws develop there.) The ID system allows alternative views to be linked to any one's Initiative, proposal or comment, encouraging a balanced debate and discouraging group think. Abusive language, lies and misinformation can result in charges or a ban from the system, encouraging people to take care in what they write and reducing the emotionality of debates. This is policed by other users, who can complain to the authorities, and by automated systems that can prevent certain words. The rules of behaviour on the ID system are set by MPs: they establish the norms. Finally, the ID system is about debate and decisions not the violent action that is associated with mobs.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Agents of Political Socialization

Like most people I like to think that my thoughts are my own and my conclusions are reached by a rational approach, but we may all be effected by "agents of political socialization" as Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton put it. According to them the cultural agents that build our political outlook include the following:
  • The family
  • Schools
  • Religious institutions
  • Peer groups
  • Social class and gender
  • Mass media
  • Interest groups
  • Political parties
  • Direct contact with governmental structures
It may be that the Swiss culture, with its language diversity, its harsh terrain, its mix of Christian churches, its diversity of newspapers, its local government and evolved federalism, its national service and the peculiarities of its history create the culture that allows direct democracy to flourish. But it may equally be the case that direct democracy enables much of the above. The question that springs to my mind is, do we have the right culture for Interactive Democracy?

Monday, 13 June 2011


In "Comparative Politics Today" Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton wrote "When people trust others they will be more willing to work together for political goals, and group leaders may be more willing to form coalitions.... The opposite of trust is hostility, which can destroy inter group and interpersonal relations."
The degree of trust that British citizens have in politicians is undermined by each successive scandal and broken promise, and, behind the smiles and warm words, there may be a common distrust among politicians of the good sense and abilities of voters.
All forms of direct democracy force politicians to take their electorate seriously yet the electorate must take responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions, reducing the emergence of a blame game. This may be one reason why, according to Fossedal, the Swiss like and respect their political class and are proud of their political system.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Life's a Game

This TED talk by Seth Priebatsch introduces some concepts in game design that motivate people to play. It's interesting to note that "appointment dynamics", "status dynamics", "progression dynamics" and "communal discovery" may all be found in Interactive Democracy.

More game dynamics can be found here.

Friday, 10 June 2011

True Tweets?

Blogs and tweets aren't necessarily true. Robin Lustig, of Radio 4's 'The World Tonight', writes in his newsletter about the difficulties of verifying blog reports coming out of Syria and, in particular, the abduction of the author of 'A Gay Girl in Damascus'. Now he's not even sure if she existed. Robin wrote "Does it matter if one blog among millions turns out to be a fake? Unfortunately, it does, especially in an environment where independent reporting is impossible, so that blogs and other online media become the only available substitute."
Can you or I, or any other average citizen, tell the difference between truth and fiction? Doesn't this cause a problem for Interactive Democracy? It's far easier to pressure our media institutions into telling the truth but far harder to do the same for Ms Anonymous self-publishing fiction online.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Subject or Participant?

Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, according to Wikipedia, outlined three pure types of political culture:
  • Parochial - Where citizens are only remotely aware of the presence of central government, and live their lives near enough regardless of the decisions taken by the state. Distant and unaware of political phenomena. He has neither knowledge or interest in politics. In general congruent with a traditional political structure.
  • Subject - Where citizens are aware of central government, and are heavily subjected to its decisions with little scope for dissent. The individual is aware of politics, its actors and institutions. It is effectively oriented towards politics, yet he is on the "downward flow" side of the politics. In general congruent with a centralized authoritarian structure.
  • Participant - Citizens are able to influence the government in various ways and they are affected by it. The individual is oriented toward the system as a whole, to both the political and administrative structures and processes (to both the input and output aspects). In general congruent with a democratic political structure.
I wonder if many voters in the UK feel to be subjects of the political system? I wonder if they feel that their votes have any meaningful power to choose policy or just to change the "rulers"? Interactive Democracy is far more participative.
(Thanks to wikipedia.)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Comparing Cultures

Geert Hofstede, of Maastricht University, compared cultures across many IBM subsidiaries in different countries. The results may provide some insight into the applicability of Swiss Direct Democracy to the UK. He used 5 criteria (only 4 for Switzerland):
  1. Power Distance, a measurement of inequality as perceived from lower levels in the organisation, rated 35 in the UK and 34 in Switzerland. Pretty much the same.
  2. Individualism was scored higher in the UK, 89, than in Switzerland, 68.
  3. Masculinity rated the UK, 66, slightly less than Switzerland, 70.
  4. Switzerland (58) rated higher than the UK (35) in Uncertainty Avoidance.
  5. Finally, the UK (25) had a short term outlook but Switzerland wasn't measured.
Before seeing these results I would have expected Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance to have been much lower in Switzerland. I imagine that Direct Democracy would flourish with a higher degree of equality and lower Power Distance score. Similarly, I would have assumed that frequent referendums would lead to greater uncertainty. However, we should be careful about using these results as they may be more associated with the local corporate culture than that exhibited in the general populace.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Marx on Switzerland?

Does anyone know if Karl Marx wrote about direct democracy and capitalism in Switzerland?
Though Switzerland is perceived as a conservative country with many wealthy capitalists it's political system is rooted in the communes. The Swiss have the highest per capita income anywhere in Europe, low taxes and low unemployment. Their currency is strong. They are ethnically and linguistically diverse, which doesn't seem to hinder them. If Marx were alive today, with the modern example Switzerland offers, would he have commented on how voter power (direct democracy style) can counter balance the ills of capitalism; and, looking at other countries, would he comment on how capital can corrupt representative democracy?
Perhaps he would have compared the money economy with the vote economy. On the one hand there is an unequal distribution of capital that flows where the owner decides, accumulating with a few, and on the other an equal distribution of votes, readily available to be cast in favour of fairness.
(Since writing these questions I've discovered this by Engels about the Swiss civil war: he rants bloodthirstily for centralisation.)

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Collaborative Art

This TED Talk by Aaron Koblin shows some of the collaborative art he has been working on. Are there any lessons in it for Interactive Democracy?
Aaron highlights the significance of the interface claiming that if the 19th century was the century of the novel, the 20th was the century of the moving image then the 21st will be the century of the interface. The design and capability of the Interactive Democracy interface should have several objectives: security, enhancing the quality of the debate and ease of use.
The video demonstrates how visual some information can be and how users may be able to drill down into the detail of it. Maybe this type of presentation will become a new opportunity for original insight... or for information to be spun. Despite my note of pessimism, by freeing the data thousands of people may become analysts, feeding the debate in novel ways.
Collaborative Art also demonstrates how willing people are to contribute, even if they know little about what the end result is meant to be, and for little personal reward.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Confidence and Ignorance

In his book "The Moral Landscape" Sam Harris writes "... the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for."
It seems to me that this is a fundamental problem of direct democracy and perhaps central to the argument for representative democracy where power resides with politicians who are expected to study a subject in detail. Yet it's a problem that the Swiss have overcome, perhaps because voters gain an expertise in doing politics through the effort they put into governing their local communes and cantons. At the very least by exposure to many and various views people may come to appreciate the complexity of any particular issue.
Interactive Democracy facilitates a wide spread of views to be presented to the voter on the voting site, with special importance given to those of politicians, in whose interest it is to articulate a cogent case: when it comes time for the next general election the electorate will judge them not only on their values and conclusion but on their rationale.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Too Many Evenings

'George Bernard Shaw once complained of communism that "it takes too many evenings". The same is true of democracy in Switzerland - or Swiss commune-ism, if you will. It takes a lot of evenings.'
"Direct Democracy in Switzerland" by Gregory A Fossedal

One way to assuage this "too much effort" problem may be to facilitate voters involvement as and when they have the time and inclination: the Internet provides a 24/7 system for debating and voting. But what if you would still rather do something else? Perhaps the default setting for your vote could be to transfer it to your Member of Parliament or some other politician of your choosing.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Changing Cultures

Direct Democracy has worked well in Switzerland over the last 150 years but some claim it to be a failure in California. Is this because of their differing cultures: consensus seeking in Switzerland; money is power in America?
Is it possible to design the details of a direct democracy system in order to fit our culture? Can the introduction of direct democracy be done in such a way as to change our culture and change our attitudes?
One way of doing this may be to create a working model without legislative clout, to see how it performs. This would give people the opportunity to learn about the system and to get involved in improving it. It would also encourage politicians to evolve their policies to accommodate the will expressed there, encouraging a more consensual approach.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Lessons From California

In this excellent article The Economist points to the sad state of California as an indictment of direct democracy: "California cannot pass timely budgets even in good years, which is one reason why its credit rating has, in one generation, fallen from one of the best to the absolute worst among the 50 states. How can a place which has so much going for it—from its diversity and natural beauty to its unsurpassed talent clusters in Silicon Valley and Hollywood—be so poorly governed?"
The article goes on to claim that DD initiatives have "limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent... ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications."
The Economist suggests several improvements to the system: "Initiatives should be far harder to introduce. They should be shorter and simpler, so that voters can actually understand them. They should state what they cost, and where that money is to come from. And, if successful, initiatives must be subject to amendment by the legislature."
Interactive Democracy differs in detail, but not in principle, with other forms of direct democracy. A vote of interest ranks initiatives in order of priority in each of the local, regional and national legislatures; there will not be time for many of them. By utilising the Internet administration costs can be kept down but, more importantly, debating points can be expressed by elected politicians on the voting site, explaining the pros and cons, enhancing the debate and providing a separate "channel" from the wider media and well funded lobbyists. The site must include an independent assessment of the costs. Such a system gives elected politicians more traction which they can leverage by involving their party members and activists. These proposals should solve many of the problems highlighted by The Economist while retaining the ideal of government by and for the people.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Civilization's Killer Apps.

In the last of his excellent series "Civilization: Is the west history?", Niall Ferguson mentions a bundle of factors that continue to reinforce western civilization beyond the killer apps. he identified from our history: He mentions political pluralism, freedom of thought and speech, the rule of law and human creativity. All are crucial aspects of Interactive Democracy.
His killer apps. are:
  1. Competition
  2. Science
  3. Property owning democracy
  4. Medicine
  5. Consumer society
  6. The protestant work ethic (including thrift and saving)
Could Interactive Democracy be the next killer app?
Switzerland has the highest per capita income in Europe, is this due to its direct democracy "app."?

More about the series here

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Sweden develops Direct Democracy

Democracy reforms in Sweden offer guidance for Britain

Stronger rights of electors to govern their own affairs now anchored in constitution

For the around 300 local authorities and 26 regions the Swedes introduced from the beginning of 2011
1. Citizens' law-proposal (initiative)
2. Right (improved) to demand a plebiscite (decision by the electorate, "referendum").

These changes strengthen the role of citizens in regional and local government. Before this reform there was a citizens' right to demand a referendum but this could be refused by the governing authority.

Swedish attention to detail for good governance is illustrated by some accompanying innovations. They propose to build a "comprehensive direct-democratic infrastructure" (Kaufmann), with local advice centres for voters who wish to contribute to governance and exploit their new democratic rights. Also planned is a national institution for political participation, which will inform citizens and support and encourage the newly introduced "direct" democracy.

The rules for citizens' initiative and referendum were laid down by revision of the constitution of state which came into force in January 2011.

Summarised from: Bruno Kaufmann, "A more democratic Sweden": Demokratischeres Schweden md magazin Nr.88, 1/2011 published by mehr-demokratie.de

key words, tags: direct democracy, citizens initiative, ballot
I&R ~ GB Citizens' Initiative and Referendum
Campaign for direct democracy in Britain

Friday, 11 March 2011


In the last post I mused on the notion of separating politicians from ideas in a system that encourages competition in both. This aspect of Interactive Democracy also encourages transparency in that the system would allow you to read what politicians have written on each subject. You may disagree with the proposal yet still appreciate the values, intellect and communication skills of the MP promoting it. You may vote for the MP and against the idea.


The last post suggested that the ability to change and evolve is an important strength of democracy. Perhaps competition is the key ingredient.
Interactive Democracy could be seen as an ecosystem for ideas, where the fittest survive.
Sure, Parliamentary Democracy also promotes competition but it is far less dynamic, being constrained by the protocol of the Parliamentary life cycle. It also usually ties a politician, and their success, to an idea. ID separates the two, allowing each to be examined independently and directly: the politician assessed for political skills and the idea on its own merits. I expect this would foster greater creative vigour, especially as many ideas would come from those without the burden of cultivating a political career or social standing.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Uncertainty and Doubt

Every political decision, every prediction and plan, involves uncertainty and doubt. It may be impossible to fully understand the probabilities and risks involved, and each provision is also subject to the the law of unintended consequences. We would probably all prefer to trust in a gifted seer or oracle, or own a crystal ball, but unfortunately that's not the way the world works and we have ample evidence that leaders are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. But can crowds do better?
The stock market is an example of a crowd of individuals that try to predict the future. The market sets the price for a stock based on all sorts of analytical information, partial understandings and instincts but the markets are beset by irrational exuberance and paranoia, causing wild swings in valuations: bulls and bears, boom and bust. Is the democratic crowd any different?
Maybe it isn't that democracies make better decisions than dictators or appointed leaders. For example, in recent years the dictators in China have presided over the greatest increase in living standards for the greatest number of people, any time in human history. Maybe it's societies ability to change, evolve and correct its mistakes that's more important.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Climate Change

Climate Change is the big issue. It's complex, scientific, economic and emotive, and involves everyone on the planet. There are evangelists and sceptics. The predictions they make are uncertain and probabilistic. So, if we had Interactive Democracy could the average person be trusted to decide on what is the best thing to do?
What I find inspiring by this debate is that leadership doesn't just come from those that have already decided what is the best course of action (or inaction), it also comes from teachers that show how to decide in an uncertain situation. This video by Greg Craven (with 4.25 million hits) is a great example. He shows a system of how to weight the odds (which you may use to come to your own, opposite conclusion).

Friday, 28 January 2011


Utilitarianism has developed over the years from Bentham's hedonic ideal, but there has always been a practical problem, how do you decide what decision maximises utility? This may be a simple problem to resolve if we all share common values and tastes but it is clear that we don't. Indeed one person's heaven may be an other's hell.
Interactive Democracy provides a way of gathering details on voters preferences for one thing over another, yet it fails to directly measure the degree of pleasure or pain that each person expects. This is captured by a second, though imperfect, mechanism: those with strong opinions have the opportunity to campaign for their point of view and effect the result of the ballot.
Utilitarianism oft seems to be about the apportion of utility between alternative courses of action but there is more to it than this: Interactive Democracy facilitates the development of new solutions, increasing the overall happiness of voters. Let's call it creative utilitarianism.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Civic Virtue

For Aristotle, in ancient Athens, the concept of Civic Virtue was central to democratic life. It is one of four elements in The Good Life: wealth, honour, pleasure, virtue. I would hope that each voter would bring to Interactive Democracy their own, personal take on what makes the good life, for themselves and others, but what is genuinely good for one, may not be good for another.
Could it be that virtue lies less with the individual but is rather a characteristic of the system?

The virtues of Interactive Democracy:
  1. It encourages (but does not demand) involvement
  2. It encourages problem solving and creativity
  3. It encourages people to explore alternatives and opposite points of view
  4. It engenders empathy through personal stories and experiences
  5. It draws out underlying value systems
  6. It encourages civic responsibility
  7. It is a type of education
  8. It allows leaders and experts to emerge
  9. It involves the day-to-day experience of everyone
  10. It subverts political tribalism, without destroying it
  11. It fosters transparency and encourages the exploration of data
  12. It subverts the bias of money in politics
  13. It builds on our democratic and cultural heritage
  14. It respects society AND individuality
  15. It is meritocratic
  16. It is pragmatic
  17. It is fair

What other virtues would you like our political system to foster?

This post was inspired by Justice: A Citizens' Guide to the 21st Century by Michael Sandel. Please click here to watch on iPlayer.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


In light of the ongoing fall-out of the Clive Goodman case should the Police be investigating other suspects? Why haven't they? Is it that the police need to protect a working relationship with the media? Are they enthrall? Or do they believe that those who have been hacked have been too lax with their own security and don't deserve an expensive investigation? Have senior policeman been hacked too? Is the government scared of taking on the press barons and have they asked the police to back-off?
The latest is that Murdoch's News International Group is doing its own investigation, promising compensation, sacking and police involvement if anything incriminating is found. They suggest that other news organisations should do the same, hinting that the deception may be common.
This is an worrying attack on the democratic process, law and order.
Hack: a journalist.
Hack: to steal electronic information.
Hack: cutting blows.
Hack: make common, hackney.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Going for Bust

Despite their being no guillotine (time limit for debates) in the House of Lords, it seems that the Labour Peers are intent on filibustering the electoral reform bill. Their monotone may yet succeed in lulling the House to sleep.
While Labour support AV they don't want the electoral boundaries tampered with as they suspect the coalition of gerrymandering. Yet, according to the above graph, both the Conservatives and the LibDems won fewer seats, in proportion to their votes, than Labour, which seems to hint that the latter are more concerned with protecting their own bias than establishing a fair "one vote equals another" system. Do politicians always favour power over fairness?
Fairness and transparency are essential elements of Interactive Democracy.
This post on automatically morphing electoral boundaries suggests how technology could be applied to make drawing boundaries fair and unbiased.
More from the Guardian on-line, here.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Net Delusion

The Net Delusion, a book by Evgeny Morozov, provides a repost to the notion that today's Internet benefits democracy. Despite the role of Google, Facebook and Twitter in democracy campaigns in Iran and China he points to those governments exploiting the same technology for their own ends.
According to john Kampfner, writing in The Sunday Times, "... this is a valuable contribution to a debate in which Morozov has become a leading figure. In the new world after Wikileaks, two bulls are locking horns - the neo-anarchic view that all governments are bad and all information is good, versus the increasingly intolerant approach by governments (including now America) to Internet freedom. The bit in the middle, mediated journalism, NGOs and other institutions, is being dangerously squeezed."

Making it Better: A Simple Thought

Farming is a good thing and technology has made it better.
Transport is a good thing and technology has made it better.
Entertainment is a good thing and technology has made it better.
Education is a good thing and technology has made it better.
Health care is a good thing and technology has made it better.
Democracy is a good thing, how can it be made better? Can the Internet be utilised for the advancement of democracy or will it remain separate?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Catching Cheating Scientists

In The Sunday Times, 09/01/11, Brian Deer, who exposed the MMR fraud case, advocates random checking of research data by a professional body to ensure there's no cheating by scientists. Having been peer reviewed twice himself, he feels that that process isn't stringent enough: "Such reviews check plausability, not the truth of the claims."

When science is presented in support of policy change perhaps rigorous checking should be mandatory.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Debate, Hate

The attempted killing of Congresswoman Gifford has caused some consternation about the way political debate has been conducted in America. Some pundits have pointed to Sarah Palin's website, where cross hairs were used to target seats, as encouraging violence. On the other hand the Arizona Massacre may be blamed on the lunacy of the gunman. Nevertheless, this raises the question: Would intense involvement of the general public in the Interactive Democracy system lead to more hate and hate crime?
ID should quell these fears:
  • It empowers individuals, potentially reducing the need for acts of rebellion
  • Is designed to extract rational argument (plus, minus and interesting points and values)
  • Illuminates with evidence and personal experience
  • Is a web system that encourages debate but rules against swearing and verbal aggression
  • Is supported by laws against threatening behaviour, religious hatred and encouraging violence.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Expert Influence

We don't all have the time or capacity to become experts. Most of us know a little about a lot of stuff and would like to listen to experts before deciding, so how are experts identified and who should we listen to?
The following brief talk about the Koran may illustrate the point: Lesley Hazleton was "approved" by TED to give a short (10 min.) talk; their website provides some background about her; her talk explains the research that she has done and touches on her relevant experience; and what she says may be corroborated if you want to look into it. These are the sorts of ingredients needed to trust an expert.

The Interactive Democracy model should allow MPs, from both sides of The House, to recommend experts, giving them "air time" on the ID website. Voters, debating the point on the same site, may also point to other experts other publications.

Effecting Currency

This article, from Money Week, explores the effect of politics and uncertainty on the currency markets. Would Interactive Democracy undermine these markets, and the countries international trading prospects, by begetting uncertainty?

Who knows? But Switzerland has operated Direct Democracy for many, many decades and is renown for its stability and economic success. Is this due to a culture of conservatism (as opposed to radicalism) or is it a function of a political system that balances power between leaders and voters?