Friday, 23 November 2012

Reflective not Reflexive

Students who were shown fleeting glimpses of candidates and were asked to judge which looked the most competent were shown to correlate with election results 2/3rds of the time, according to studies by Toderov et al (2005) and Benjamin & Shapiro (2007). This was presented in "Nudge" as evidence that voters make automatic and instinctive decisions about politicians and, generally speaking, don't reflect or deliberate much. I suggest that those instinctive reactions have evolved to be particularly important in judging people, their moods, likely behaviours or social connection. It's an animal response.
Interactive Democracy asks people to judge policies separately from candidates. I hope it would have some success at encouraging people to be reflective rather than reflexive.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy

MP Douglas Carswell's book "The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy" highlights the problem of how to pay for the welfare state "on the back of a diminishing wealth-creating base" as one of the forces that will promote iDemocracy.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Disagreement's Good

This short TED talk by Margaret Hefferanan points to the virtue of constructive disagreement and engaging thinking partners who aren't echo chambers, something that Interactive Democracy is designed to foster. Her book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times/GoldmanSachs Best Business Book award in 2011

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Parliament's Powers to Prosecute Liars

This article in The Independent looks at Parliaments ancient powers to prosecute liars and those in contempt, last used in the 1880s. There have been new calls to employ such powers after witnesses provided contrary evidence to Parliamentary Inquiries.
"In the US anyone found in contempt of a Senate or House Committee can be reported to the US Attorney..."
For Interactive Democracy I propose much wider sanctions against lying in public life to keep public debate clean. This could be operated in a similar way to the Advertising Standards Authority, which responds to public complaints. It could have legal powers to investigate deceit and use a variety of powers, everything from a public warning to jail.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Blood Serotonin and Power Seeking

Douglas Madsen from The University of Iowa reports that whole blood serotonin seems to be linked with power seeking personalities of the type common among politicians. You can read the whole report here.
It seems to me that, though biochemistry may drive people to seek power, it does not necessarily correlate with intelligence, morality, empathy, creativity or communication skills; all things we may prefer in a politician. It reminds me of the old jokes:

"... it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it."
Douglas Adams.

 “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.”
Napoleon Bonaparte.

"Devil's Bargain? Energy Risks and the Public"

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report on risk communication, "Devil's Bargain? Energy Risks and the Public".
"Independent regulators should take a more prominent role in communicating the risks associated with energy generation and distribution because the government is not seen as an impartial source of information, MPs... have concluded." Reported in Nuclear Engineering International.
It seems to me that our distrust of politicians comes from many sources. We may suspect the political class of spin, manipulation, partial truths, hidden agendas, dogmatism, hubris and power seeking. I suggest that, although politics may attract a certain type of person, the adversarial nature of the political arena creates a political culture that is detrimental to public trust.
Interactive Democracy would change the political culture, with every chance of creating the respect enjoyed by Swiss politicians (described by Fossedal in Direct Democracy in Switzerland) and, at the same time, facilitates the limitless contribution of experts relevant to the field of discussion - experts identified by their qualifications in the subject.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Lobbying by the Finance Industry

"An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed the firepower of the City's lobbying machine, prompting concern that its scale and influence puts the interests of the wider economy in the shade", according to The Guardian.
"The British financial services industry spent £92m last year lobbying politicians and regulators...
"...129 organisations engaging in some form of lobbying for the finance sector...
"... the recently departed leader of the City corporation, Stuart Fraser, had contact with the chancellor, George Osborne, and other senior Treasury ministers and officials 22 times in the 14 months up to March this year.
"Beyond the corporation, there are 26 industry bodies lobbying government... with a war chest of at least £34m.
"A total of 124 peers, equivalent to 16% of the House of Lords, have direct financial links with financial services firms.
"Political donations by firms aand individuals connected to the City contributed £6.11m in 2011 to the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties."

I expect that, in my proposed system of Interactive Democracy, lobbyists would spend some of the money spent today on influencing politicians, instead on the public. That's probably a good thing for promoting debate and understanding, transparency and the common good.

"A Tsunami of money hits US politics"

According to Richard McGregor in the Financial Times there are three ways of funding US Presidential candidates. Both donations, capped to $40000, and uncapped super-political action committees, must be disclosed. But "non-profit social welfare bodies... can take as much money as they want, anonymously. These are supposed to operate exclusively for social welfare reasons, but everyone knows their sole purpose is to win elections" (quoted from MoneyWeek 6/7/12).
The problem of hidden vested interests buying political support has the potential of corrupting democracy. If individuals vote on each issue, as I propose in Interactive Democracy, the problem becomes far less.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

"British democracy in terminal decline"

British democracy in terminal decline, warns a report by the Democratic Audit. Juliette Jowit writes about it in The Guardian and there's a data report here, where you can access the image above.
"A study into the state of democracy in Britain warns that it is in 'long-term terminal decline' as the power of corporations keeps growing, politicians become less representative of their constituencies and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs."
Interactive Democracy allows citizens to vote on policies and politicians in a simple, easy access and cost effective manner. As many TV reality shows have shown, easy access to voting fosters involvement. ID also forces politicians and corporations to engage with the electorate, who hold the real power in the land. Apart from the ID web site that fosters questions, ideas, debate and voting, there are ancillary policies that enhance democracy: laws against lying in public life, rules against media monopolies, mandatory reporting by the state media on the issues raised by the public, sanctions against uncivil contributions to debates and votes automatically devolved to your representative if you don't want to participate. Together such policies enhance the democratic ideal, quash mob mentality and demagoguery, facilitate better decisions by tapping into the immense experience and knowledge of the electorate, and educate us all through debate. Politicians, the media and the electorate can all benefit from the interaction.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Democratic Reform: Silly Games

"Tory opponents of House of Lords reforms are playing 'silly games' that could threaten the coalition [minister warns]" writes Nicholas Watt in The Guardian.
Some Conservative Party MPs are opposed to Coalition plans to reform the House of Lords, making it 80% elected. They are worried that elected Lords will challenge the primacy of The Commons, potentially lose the vast experience of today's appointed Lords and reinforce Lib-Dem power, but their views may be quashed by a three-line-whip and their coalition agreement.
"Nick Clegg's outgoing strategy director warned that the Liberal Democrats would block Tory plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons if David Cameron fails to persuade his MPs to support the measure." (Redefining the electoral boundaries was mooted as equalising the number of voters in each constituency as well as reducing the number of MPs, making each vote more equal to each other.)
So here we have the workings of democracy: coalition horse trading, whipping party members into line against their judgement and reinforcing party power by manipulating the way that elections work. Where are the electorate in this process? Were these things wanted by the majority? Do politicians represent their constituents or their party? Do they vote in line with their convictions or their career prospects? All problems famously defined by Edmund Burke in 1774.
Interactive Democracy is very different. It would allow us all to propose, debate and vote on each issue as we see fit. And, by dint of web based voting, it would facilitate other voting options such as automatically morphing electoral boundaries to make each vote equal or approval voting for "Lords" from different electoral regions, each presenting their CV on the voting site.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Sock Puppets: Government Charities

MoneyWeek comments on Christopher Snowden's "Sock Puppets" report for the Institute of Economic Affairs:
"For example, anti-smoking group ASH is entirely funded by various government bodies. In turn it uses this money to influence public policy. Regardless of your views on smoking, it does seem odd that the government spends our money to lobby itself. More sinisterly, it also means that such charities can potentially be used as a smokescreen for unpopular government policy objectives, concludes Snowdon, by making it seem as though the government is simply yielding to pressure from well-meaning charities, which are in fact acting as "sock puppets" campaigning for greater state power."
Is this yet another corruption of democracy? Death by a thousand cuts!
(Extract from Money Week article "The trouble with charities".)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Turning Debate into Data

One of the difficulties of any debate is how to extract the pertinent points. Interactive Democracy provides a system that can turn debate into data for analysis in many different ways. It does this by allowing people to vote point by point, question by question and on what type of evidence is being presented, from Heresay to Good Quality Empirical. Furthermore, the identity of voters, though hidden from public view, can include their age, location and qualifications.
These classifications allow users, including journalists and politicians, to analyse the debate in all sorts of different ways. It will enable better questions and summaries from journalists, new points from commentators, more focused campaigns from politicians and better law formulation from the legislature.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Complexity Theory and Diversity

In Adapt, Tim Harford writes
" alternative perspective comes from complexity theorists Lu Hong and Scott Page. Their decision-makers are simple automatons inside a computer, undaunted by social pressure. Yet when Hong and Page run simulations in which their silicon agents are programmed to search for solutions, they find that a group of the very smartest agents isn't as successful as a more diverse group of dumber agents. Even though 'different' often means 'wrong'... Both  because of the conformity effect Asch discovered, and because of the basic usefulness of hearing more ideas, better decisions emerge from a diverse group."
Diversity is a central part of Interactive Democracy.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Swedish Theory of Love

This episode of the BBC Radio4's Analysis, Cameron's Swede Dreams, describes comparisons between various economic systems and political cultures and provides an analysis of the successful Swedish Model. Apart from covering individualism, society, capitalism, unionism, homogeneity, immigration and eugenics, it also mentions the Swedish theory of Love: that you can only be sure that personal relationships are loving when the individuals are economically independent and free. The programme also briefly delves into history to explain the idea that the Swedish state is seen as a protector of individuals, not a tyrant: in ancient times the King supported the land owning peasants against the demands of the Lords. It provides an interesting view of political culture and change.

Majority of Politicians in Westminster Unellected

According to this article by Nick Clegg there are approaching 1000 Lords meaning "the majority of politicians in our own parliament are not elected"! Perhaps we should call ourselves a partial democracy.
It isn't necessary to change or abolish the House of Lords or Interactive Democracy to be implemented, but it would save many millions per year, reduce political patronage and bias. The Lords could effect policy through ID along with everyone else but would probably garner more followers due to their experience and position.

Adapt: The Palchinsky Principles

In his book Adapt:Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Tim Harford writes
"What Palchinsky realised was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think. They have a human dimension, a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change. His method for dealing with this could be summarised as three 'Palchinsky' principles: first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along."
The first Palchinsky principle chimes well with the potential creativity of Interactive Democracy. The second suggests that local government and local trials may allow lower risk, perhaps faster feedback and smaller impacts if things don't go to plan. It may also allow data from more "experiments" to be fed back into the system. Thirdly, measuring the performance of policies against their objectives provides one type of feedback but individuals can also present their experiences on the ID site, pointing out problems and proposing changes.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Science and Politics

On the BBC Radio4's Start the Week Andrew Marr asks how far scientific evidence can influence the political agenda. Professor David Nutt is a respected researcher working in the field of drugs, but is best known as the government advisor who was sacked by the Home Secretary for comparing the risks of horse-riding with taking ecstasy. He argues for a rational debate on drugs policy based on objective evidence. Mark Henderson despairs that this will never happen while only one of our 650 MPs is a scientist. But the former Labour minister, David Blunkett, defends his profession, arguing that even evidence-based policy must take into account public opinion and perception.
One of the dangers of all forms of democracy is that it ignores evidence. Or that only the evidence that supports a preconceived policy is used. Interactive Democracy has a number of ways of dealing with this problem:-
  1. It provides an open, free and fair forum for everyone, including all the scientists in the country.
  2. It allows leaders to emerge from all fields, not just from the political class.
  3. The debate provides the opportunity to change people's minds, raise questions, challenge and clarify.
  4. The system gives the opportunity for all to rank the type of evidence presented, from heresay to empirical and everything in between.
  5. Contributions to the debate can be filtered by the type of evidence and by demographics, including the qualifications of the contributor. This provides both citizens and politicians the ability to filter the debate as they see fit, for example by those holding PhDs.
  6. Politicians can both contribute to the debate in its early stages, in order to shape opinion, and analyse the debate in order to help formulate referendum options, request further study or instigate limited trials and experiments.
  7. New laws and policies should have clearly defined measurable objectives, reviewed by the Office for National Statistics. Progress against the objective would be published on-line as part of the ID site, which would highlight failures of policy for reassessment.
  8. This should all be done under the umbrella law against lies in public life.
Such a system may not be perfect, it may be quite a 'bun fight', but it goes some way towards counteracting today's problem of politicians wielding the power to silence evidential truth.

The Bicomponent Free Market

Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out many fallacies of free market capitalism in his book "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism". You can watch his summary lecture here.
He paraphrases Winston Churchill's comment about democracy, "capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others" and he points out that no markets are entirely free: they are all limited by politics, laws and social norms.
Yet we feel free to choose how to spend or invest our money. The market alocates resources and makes choices by a process of individual choice and approval, punishing bad choices with loss and supporting good choices with gain. It's survival of the fittest. The best products and best investments win.
I suggest that the second layer of free market capitalism is how we 'spend' our votes. And I suggest that if we can choose policies freely, from a wide range of 'suppliers', then the best ideas will emerge. These ideas may define the boundaries of capitalism, moulding it in ways that best suit the common good. Furthermore, if the ideas are only produced by a small political oligopoly, the major parties, it is unlikely that society will evolve and adapt as quickly and as effectively as the entrepreneaurial politics that Interactive Democracy fosters. Oligopolies may be as retarding to politics as they are to markets!

The Men Who Made Us Fat

In the BBC programme The Men Who Made Us Fat, Jacques Perreti describes how some key policies in the USA led to a rise in the consumption of corn syrup.
What relevance does that have to democracy?
He describes how the economic power of the corn syrup suppliers dominated the science, leading politicians by the nose. It's a small insight into how money can corrupt politics.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Human Hive

Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures, The Human Hive, proposes that our institutions determine our national success or failure.
In the first lecture of the series he points out that the social contract between the young and old, and the funding of our pensioners by debt that must be repaid by the young, has a major impact on our economies. When the old outnumber the young, the issues are poorly understood and politicians 'buy' votes with policies, democracy may fail to solve the problem.
I suggest that the wide and detailed debate that Interactive Democracy would foster may tap into the wisdom of the elderly, their love for their children and grandchildren and their old style thriftiness to restrain profligate spending, even at their own expense. I suggest that it is dumb politics that is the problem.
I found the first lecture of the series fascinating (the others are yet to be broadcast), yet the initial premise, that the West is falling behind China, may not indicate a deterioration in our institutions. It may be that we are improving, it's just that China is improving faster from a lower base, catching up. And what's wrong with that?... I'm looking forward to Niall's next lectures.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Someone's Lying!

Ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's testimony to the Leveson Inquirey into "The Culture, Practice and Ethics of The Press" directly contradicts that of former Sun editor, Rebekah Brooks. Someone's lying!
Such lying strikes at the very heart of democracy. It's one thing having freedom of speech but if lies go unpunished, democracy is merely an apparition, conjured from the lips of those in power!
Who do you trust? And why?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

People Aren't Smart Enough For Democracy To Flourish

Research led by David Dunning of Cornell University inspired this article, People Aren't Smart Enough For Democracy To Flourish. To summarise, his research suggests that many of us are poorly equipped to judge the brilliance of the best ideas or the best leaders but are able to detect bad ones. This results in leaders and ideas that are just above average.
An alternative view is to give experts and technocrats the leadership roles. But, democracy isn't just about good decisions, it is also about agreeing fair values that may have no independent criteria except what a majority of individuals want.
Democracy also serves to counteract tyranny: the dominance of the majority by an individual or small group that impose their values and decisions. Experts may be just as tyrannical as megalomaniacs, or may become so. The ability for democracies to dismiss their leaders not only allows those that have been proven to be incompetent to be removed but ejects tyrants from office, too.
Politics is also about solving problems and perhaps this is where Interactive Democracy has some merit. By allowing everyone to contribute we may come up with far more creative ideas and solutions. It taps into the vast well of experience and practical knowledge that resides in the population as a whole.
The debate that Interactive Democracy offers is intrinsically educational too, as point is parried with counter-point, raising the abilities of those involved along the way. It may also build consensus and grassroots support that foster the effective implementation of policies.
However, as I mentioned on a previous post, measuring the results of each new law and initiative against the objectives declared for it provides an empirical feedback loop that should also impel the "majority" to reassess their decisions, fostering continuous improvement.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


LiquidFeedback is a German site that advocates a similar form of Interactive Democracy to this site. While I have tended towards delegating your vote to your MP whenever you want, LiquidFeedback proposes that you can delegate your vote to any other person, and a different person for each topic.
I don't necessarily object to this, but delegating to your MP may be a smaller step in implementing Interactive Democracy. At a later date any aspect of ID can be changed through the Initiative/Referendum process itself.

The Interactive Democracy Development Site

You can click here to see the Interactive Democracy Development Site, constructed by Stephen. It's a work in progress where we are experimenting with the design elements.
You can read our design discussions here and your input will be welcome.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Politics is more like Religion than Shopping

Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University's Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind, writes in The Guardian"from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping." He explains how our political views are based on our deep seated values.
He also writes "One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe." Which leads us back to the important role of accurate evidence in the decision making process.
The Interactive Democracy system must integrate and clarify the evidence from a wide range of sources. But government should also monitor the effect of each decision and new law, to see if they are achieving their objectives. (This is the C in the Six Sigma DMAIC process: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control.) Policies that are failing shouldn't be hidden in fear of damaging the governments credibility but celebrated as opportunities to learn and improve. To this end, a web page report for each decision should be added to the Interactive Democarcy site, with peer reviewed data showing how policies fair compared to their objectives.

Expert Political Judgement

In his book "Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? how can we know?", Philip Tetlock shows how experts are no better than average in their predictions. This is a corollary of the findings from "The Wisdom of Crowds" which shows how large groups of independent people, when their views are averaged, can provide better predictions than professed experts, and very accurate estimates of the weight of an ox or the number of sweets in a jar!
Maybe this is one reason why we should involve more people in political decision making.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Journalism and "The Price of Free"

MoneyWeek magazine summarised Mary Ann Sieghart's article, from The Independent:-
"If you read online without paying, you are 'hastening the demise' of well-informed, independent journalism.Online advertising doesn't cover the costs of a decent newspaper. Journalists are professionals who spend decades building their specialist knowledge and nurturing contacts. Without skilled journalists, 'the people in power would behave a lot worse'. The 'price of free' is that, before long, good journalism may cease to exist."
It seems to me that the interactiveness of new media has the potential to boost sales and create content. We see this in talent shows, reality TV and the comments that follow online articles.
Can we tap into the desire for interactive media in order to deepen the debate? I think we can, by designing a democratic website that promotes rationalism, empiricism and fairness.
The ideas and debates on such an Interactive Democracy site provide free fodder for journalists, everywhere. The debates may be summarised, analysed and commented on, promoting further interaction.
It doesn't eliminate the need for "specialist knowledge and nurturing contacts", nor should it. Neither does it secure a diverse and free media industry, but it does have the potential to give it a boost and to add diversity for the benefit of all.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Graphing the Evolution of Debates

This TED talk by Hans Rosling, though fascinating in its own right, shows how computer generated graphs can help make sense of complex information. The same type of technology could be used to show how an Interactive Democracy debate evolves. For example, if each debating point grows or diminishes in approval, or is superseded by a counter point, this could be shown in a similar way as Hans Rosling's examples. If the data is open source, other people may create enhanced displays which may include demographic information about voters without divulging their identity (e.g. qualifications, age, sex and geographical location).

Political Culture

I don't doubt that our MPs are reasonably intelligent and accomplished people, so when I watch Prime Minister's Questions why do I see such poor behaviour?
Why is it that the opposition so often seem to talk in empty sound bites, the only purpose seeming to be to "dis" the incumbent government?
The Independent report on it in their article "Oh, Balls... when Cameron lost his temper - again."
Perhaps it isn't the quality of the people involved, but the rules of the political game that create this political culture, full of hubris, demagoguery, sound bites and spin. In "Direct Democracy in Switzerland", Fossedal writes of a different political culture where free and fair debate is underpinned by decency and respect. Interactive Democracy should be designed to foster such behaviour.
How? It focuses on issues not personalities. It seeks evidence, not unsupported opinion. It fosters truth by punishing lying. It is open and transparent; rational and egalitarian. Points made by MPs are written on-line, permanently recorded and easily searchable, forcing them to be considered rather than flippant, and allowing us to judge them. It provides rapid feedback loops that can correct bad behaviours quickly rather than allowing them to fester into new norms.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Picture The Debate

It may be possible to picture the Interactive Democracy debate in many ways. A table format allows you to scan down a list of issues and open the interesting ones. The table could be prioritised by most support, supported by which political party or by the government, most debated or most recent. Issues could be categorised by topic: taxation, law and order, health care, defence, etc. But there are other ways of visualising a debate: by a timeline, by a spider diagram, by a word cloud or perhaps some other creative solution. These methods may not be integral to the ID site, but by allowing people to mine the data (without altering it) our various web developers and media companies may come up with interesting representations that enhance democracy as a whole. The best could be added to the site at a later date.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Anonymous Identity

Interactive Democracy can offer anonymous identity. That is to say, your name and address may be kept secret but the system can allocate you a vote because it knows who you are.
What are the implications of this?
By remaining anonymous you may be willing to express yourself more fully, yet there can still be sanctions against you for lying or bullying. It may free you to state your case or change your mind without feeling stupid. It may free you to make a case against your peers; it reduces social pressures. It may allow you to make a provocative point, to stimulate the debate, without wedding you to that opinion. It may allow you to ask simple questions without feeling daft.
Yet the system may allow your anonymous identity to be accurately attributed with academic qualifications. So, for example, the rest of us may know if you are a qualified doctor, engineer, scientist or policeman, putting your debating points in a personal context.
Should MPs also be given the privilege or anonymity?
I think they should not. Quite the opposite, I think their contributions should be highlighted so that we can give their opinions more weight and better judge them in the next general election.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Political Oligopolies

It seems to me that many democratic systems have evolved in to political oligopolies where two or three political parties dominate all other competition. This reduces the choices available to citizens. It is especially problematic when you want to vote against a government at the next general election and realise your options are limited and often unpalatable.
The main political parties quite naturally play the democratic game to gain power at every turn. And the media may be complicit in this game, whether by accident or design. For example, the BBC does not give airtime to new politicians that can not demonstrate support (often measured by opinion polls), creating a barrier to entry for any new competition. Commenting on the London Mayoral Elections Lord O’Donnell, who ran the civil service as Sir Gus O'Donnell between 2005 and 2011, said the current rules were “ridiculously skewed towards the status quo” (quoted in The Telegraph).
The branding power of the political parties is especially powerful in the long run. The repetition of party names makes them just as trusted as other commercial brands, and just as powerful. Then we may factor in their ability to raise campaign funds, and how one feeds off the other, and pretty soon the dominant parties become an oligopoly.
Interactive Democracy would break this strangle hold without breaking the parties themselves. It could create a new wave of competition among ideas to the benefit of all, just like competition between companies is often thought to improve the economy as a whole.

Debate Changes Attitudes

This article from Europolis shows that debate can change people's opinions.
One concern about the efficacy of Interactive Democracy, or any system of referenda, is that people vote withot much thought and without debating the issues. By requiring that people "pass through" the debating part of the ID web site in order to vote, encourages them to consider the points raised by others. I would also like the state media to show TV and radio debates on each issue. These may include a panel of none political experts.
(Thanks to Amanda at World Leader Proposal for the link)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Blind Access

Interactive Democracy should be accessible to blind people, too. This can be facilitated by commercially available screen readers and refreshable braille displays.
Here's a link which explains more.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Prejudice in People and Politics

It is perhaps a normal human trait to judge people based on their first impressions. It's a type of prejudice that maybe integral to politics.
Instead of face-to-face debates or personal presentations, the Interactive Democracy web site facilitates anonymous debate, point by point, so that this type of prejudice may be avoided. Those that look a bit strange, who dress differently, who appear disabled (like Stephen Hawking), who have a different skin colour, who appear decrepit or youthful, or suffer a speech impediment, can all play their part.
But it does require a certain level of literacy. Badly worded arguments may be dismissed, even if the underlying idea is sound. Therefore, I think the ID web site should allow authors to edit their texts by addition, not subtraction, so that meanings can be clarified, but not changed (people may have already voted their approval of the content and it could be considered deceitful to change it).
(Anders Borg is a fine example of an unconventional looking senior politician - evidence against my argument?)

The Limits of Control and Selfishness

Ha-Joon Chang paraphrases a Kobe Steel senior manager in his book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism:
"I have a PhD in metallurgy and have been working in Kobe Steel for nearly three decades, so I know a thing or two about steel making. However, my company is now so large and complex even I don't understand more than half of what is going on within it. As for the other managers... they really don't have a clue. Despite this, our board of directors routinely approves the majority of projects submitted by employees, because we believe that our employees work for the good of the company. If we assumed that everyone is out to promote his own interests and questioned the motivations of our employees all the time, the company would grind to a halt, as we would spend all our time going through proposals that we really don't understand. You simply cannot run a large bureaucratic organisation, be it Kobe Steel or your government, if you assume that everyone is out for himself."
I find this an interesting perspective. I don't see that senior people can ever be held responsible for every detail of their organisations and I don't think that people are always selfish. But I do think that a balance of power, transparency, systems that try and identify the truth and sanctions against cheats are important aspects of organisation and democracy. These mechanisms go beyond cultural mores.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Popular Branch

You can read more about The Popular Branch here. It is an addition to the executive, legislative and judicial branches, incorporating normal citizens who are requested to serve there in a similar way to jury service. These citizens are briefed on each subject and required to debate and vote.
Interactive Democracy could be seen as an on line version of The Popular Branch where anyone can contribute to the structured debate. It too can incorporate briefing papers from government bodies.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Jury Analogy

I have previously suggested that direct democracy is analogous to judge and jury working together in a court of law, the judge being equivalent to the politicians, the jury equivalent to the electorate. Experts and laymen.
But there are important differences. The decisions made in a court room, though complex, may be narrowly defined: guilty or not guilty. The evidence is closely controlled, dismissed by the judge if inappropriate. The jury members must only consider the evidence presented to the court. Advocates from both sides may cross-examine.
Most of these aspects can also appear in direct democracies. Politicians can narrow multiple Initiatives into a single referendum. Opposition parties can present alternative opinions. But to my mind controlling the quality of the evidence is the most important. This is why I want to see sanctions against lying in public life and national bodies that assess and present scientific information.
Garbage in - garbage out may be just as appropriate to democracy as to computer programming!
Yet people who oppose direct democracy may point out that the judge may dismiss jury members for a multitude of reasons, something I'm not advocating for Interactive Democracy, in the interests of fairness, diversity, bias-reduction and empowerment. A single inept juror has much greater power than a whole mass of inept voters. A juror may be 1 in 12, a voter 1 in 40 million. Using these numbers a single juror has the power of 3.3 million voters!


The system of Demarchy, described in this link, "is based on a network of numerous decision making groups. Each group deals with a specific function (i.e. transport, land use, parks) in a given area – so it’s not a “generalist” system. The membership of each group is chosen randomly each year from all those who nominate they are interested in working on that topic."
Interactive Democracy encompasses a flavour of this system, in that it enables citizens to contribute to policies, by instigating them, debating them and voting on them. Those citizens with an interest in a certain area of policy will more likely contribute. But instead of randomly selecting just some citizens from a pool of those that have declared themselves interested, ID involves all of them in a structured form of debate.

Are you qualified?

It would be useful within the debating part of Interactive Democracy to identify points made by qualified people. This may be feasible if databases of academic qualifications are made available on-line, with secure links to each individual citizen's voting ID.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Selecting Political Candidates

How do we ensure that political candidates are good quality? Can we, as the electorate, assess the qualities of candidates through their public appearances alone, or should there be some sort of prior selection process?
Some political parties already utilise assessment centres but should there be a national criteria?
This interesting article, Confucian Democracy, highlights some of the issues.
Who defines what is good quality?
Who sets and assesses the candidates and how are they accountable?
Does such a system inhibit diversity of thinking within democracy?
Does it become elitist?
Wouldn't the publication of candidates CVs do the same job but allow greater diversity, limit elitism and the power of the assessor? The publishing of CVs online could be a useful adjunct to the Interactive Democracy web site.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Randomness Could Improve Democracy

Dr Alessandro Pluchino won an igNobel prize (for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think) for his work that suggested that adding some randomly selected representatives could improve the performance of a Parliament. Though his mathematical model is necessarily simplistic and his assumptions open to criticism, the idea ties in with the notion that an increased diversity of views can enhance a debate. Similarly, The Wisdom of Crowds argues that amalgamating discrete and diverse views improves forecasting and judgment.
Professor Lyn Carson of the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy at the University of Western Sydney says random selection can improve deliberation, as well as representativeness, in democracy. She says, even representatives who don't know much have an important role to play. "They'll be asking really naive questions or playing the devil's advocate.... It's all fodder for deliberation."
Interactive Democracy offers an alternative route to combining diverse views but could also utilise random selection of some representatives. However, they would need the confidence to cope with political life.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Dodgy Postal Votes

In her Independent article "How dodgy postal votes may decide our next government", Mary Ann Sieghart warns of the abuse of the postal voting system. She points out that because postal votes are not secret in the same way as they would be if you entered a polling booth, voters are open to coercion (however mild) from others, who may be family members. Furthermore she claims there is an imported cultural element to this abuse of the system:
"the Biraderi tradition of clan politics that has been imported into many communities from the Asian sub-continent lent itself to the delivery of block votes to a party. Sometimes these postal ballot papers are taken to "voting factories", to be filled in by party activists."
This type of problem could also affect Interactive Democracy. How could we counter it?
The system could identify IP addresses where many votes are cast, enabling authorities to keep an eye out for vote factories.
The web site could have a call for help button and could include a page about the legality of coercive voting. Perhaps the police could even use the computers microphone and camera to gather evidence of coercive behaviour once the help button was pressed.
The site would include user defined user names and passwords to keep each citizen's account secret.
But despite all the technological solutions this seems to me to be a cultural issue that requires individuals to stand up for their own rights for independent votes.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Interface Design

Thanks to Stephen for mocking-up the first two pages of a voter interface design for Interactive Democracy. This was based on our discussions on the forum, please click here.
Some of the design criteria were:
  1. simple and easy access that could be drilled down into for further detail
  2. the facility to point out problems, suggest initiatives and vote on referendums
  3. the ability to raise points for and against, to point out interesting aspects about the subject and to provide supporting information
This is a work in progress and any comments will be welcome.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Second Superpower: Referendums

In the 2012 David Butler Lecture, "The Second Superpower", YouGov President Peter Kellner advocates Representative Democracy, dismissing Direct Democracy and referendums as "flawed devices, used when politicians lose their nerve". Of course, Interactive Democracy supplants YouGov and all the other pollsters, to which millions of Pounds of tax payers' money flows, and this may account for his opinion, but it's worth listening to his arguments nevertheless.
He identifies several problems with referendums:-
  1. If the choice is not a binary "for or against" and there is more than two choices, then measuring the result becomes difficult. Interactive Democracy can overcome this in two ways: Parliament should refine all the possible options as they do today; and an alternative vote type system can be used to measure the response to multiple options.
  2. Once a referendum decision is made it is hard to change without another referendum, thus mistakes are difficult to reverse. It seems that Peter Kellner only considers infrequent referendums, but ID proposes very frequent referendums with devolved votes to your MP if you don't participate. This makes laws just as easy to change as today. But there's another facility, too: the government could refuse to implement the majority result at the risk of triggering a general election. They may take this option if the situation has changed or they have another good reason.
  3. Referendums tend to maintain the status quo as there is a natural tendency among many to conserve the familiar rather than risk adopting something new that may turn out to be worse. That assertion may or may not be true but it hasn't stopped Switzerland from being a successful and progressive society. In my opinion it all comes down to the quality of the debate, the conservatives (small c) pointing out the risks, the progressives highlighting the benefits. The ID system (indeed any good government) should also facilitate using evidence from other places, local studies or setting up experiments to prove a policies worth.
  4. Referendums stop politicians from being accountable. In ID there are special provisions to identify the arguments that politicians make when persuading us of their views prior to a referendum, by highlighting their contributions on the debating part of the site. This makes them more directly visible to their electorate who will judge them on their performance. It is their responsibility to research and present their views. The government is also accountable for many things, such as international relations or the implementation of policy, that we can judge them on in the usual manner.
  5. How the referendum questions are phrased can vastly effect the result. This is undoubtedly true, but in ID the question is phrased by Parliament, government and opposition together, under the critical gaze of an involved electorate, savvy to their Machinations, who can mobilise real political power to press them for an honourable process. (I consider the pressure ID puts on politicans good for keeping them honourable.)
  6. Peter Kellner also highlights the problem of the expectations gap: the difference between what the electorate expect and politicians have the power to achieve. By engaging the electorate in the debate, encouraged by easy access and real empowerment, the debate its self educates the population - Interactive Democracy IS education!
After all of his arguments, Peter does offer an alternative vision to cope with the general population's low opinion of politics (identified in his polls). He suggests the use of Citizens' Assemblies where people debate a topic, something he says is used successfully in Iceland, which also frequently uses referendums. And that's my point: let's have Citizens' Assemblies, too; they can run along side Interactive Democracy and reinforce it by offering a face-to-face debate that some may prefer. Perhaps the political parties or the media would fund them. Yet Citizens' Assemblies are much more difficult to access for most people than the slow written on-line debate, points collated for and against, that ID provides. This can be accessed from home, a library or even while on the move, at a time that suits you, and it facilitates careful deliberation.
Peter also advocates a People's Veto. This would stop any law if 50% of voters vote against it. That's not empowerment, it's a sop to public opinion and doesn't offer any real chance of implementation. It effectively bans my referendum vote unless a majority of others make an effort to get involved.
What Peter misses from his criticism of conventional referendums is that a low turn out enables a minority of the electorate to carry the day. ID avoids this problem by automatically devolving your vote to your MP if you don't happen to vote, making sure you are always represented and providing a balance of power between MPs and Citizens depending on the degree of public engagement.
Please click here to watch the lecture. I'd appreciate your views.

Morality and Social Networks

The BBC Radio 4 programme, The Moral Maze, has as a subject "Morality and Social Networks". Amongst other issues the panelists discuss Trolls, mobs, taking offence, freedom of speech, incitement to violence, identity and anonymity. All subjects pertinent to Interactive Democracy.
ID has some differences to the social media we are familiar with: Identity is clearly defined and audited by the government yet comments are anonymous (apart from MP's). This facilitates sanctions against individuals for abusive behaviour, which may be detected by the web master or flagged up by other users. Penalties would be prescribed in law and could range from temporary bans to custodial sentences (for incitement to violence, for example). The anonymity of citizens on the site would concentrate discourse on the subject matter and avoid many of the problems of personal abuse which proliferate on other social sites. The design of the site should also encourage fair and structured debate, collating points of view and counter arguments; and encouraging reference to relevant sources of information.
Other commercially available social networks with other rules may also enhance the diversity of views and forms of discussion available in society.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust has recently thrown its weight behind proposals to publish scientific papers online, for free. Wellcome indeed!
Today, downloads of scientific papers are charged for. Publishers claim that the charge represents the value they add in editing and distributing the papers. I know from personal experience that these charges put off amateur research.
According to the BBC, 90% of the papers submitted to Nature are rejected. Are the claims of publishers that they provide a valuable quality control service, valid? Or can we use the Internet to do the same job?
Perhaps appropriately qualified scientists should be allowed to rate each paper they read. Allowing PhD graduates to grade the paper and add comments could be very beneficial. They may also advocate links to othe papers they prefer. Such a system wouldn't be impossible: there are already databases of PhD graduates such as this.
Freeing up the scientific information could significantly enhance Interactive Democracy!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


"We have very strong intuitions about all kinds of things — our own ability, how the economy works, how we should pay school teachers. But unless we start testing those intuitions, we’re not going to do better."
Dan Ariely

It seems to me that science should have a large role in democracy and this TED talk shows why, and the whys and wherefores of cheating, just a little bit; effected by in-groups and out-groups. Food for thought!

Moral Behaviour

As demonstrated by the following TED Talk by Frans De Waal, Moral Behaviour in Animals, empathy and reciprocity can be considered twin pillars of moral behaviour. If these are part of our animal behaviour is it true that they work mainly at a face-to-face level or are they effective across IT networks, such as Interactive Democracy?
I ask this question partly because Direct Democracy operates primarily in the town hall, where each citizen has direct contact with their neighbours.
I think that Interactive Democracy can capture our moral sentiments and I suspect that personal stories will have a more powerful effect than cold rationality.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bang Goes The Theory

The BBC's Bang Goes The Theory (episode 4 of series 6) explores some issues relating to crowds and is worth a look. Amongst other things an MRI scan experiment shows the areas of the brain involved in conformity. The biologist conducting the research speculates that our tendency to conform to group norms is an evolutionary development. There's more about conformity here.
The programme also briefly considers how crowds become mobs but can also mollify aberrant behaviour.

Real Democracy NZ

For Real Democracy New Zealand, the Purple Revolution, click here.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

7 Essentials of Democracy

This YouTube video from New Zealand, "Direct Democracy: 7 Essential Principles for Resurrecting Western Democracy", identifies some democratic principles, which I've paraphrased here:

  1. No citizen should live in fear of another citizen
  2. Truth and freedom should not be sacrificed for safety
  3. People should be in control of the most important things in their lives
  4. Equality should not triumph over liberty
  5. Liberty exists to do what is just and good
  6. Central government should relinquish things that can be done locally
  7. Citizens should have equal democratic power

I understand that these principles may be derived from the work of Montesque and Chesterton

Monday, 2 April 2012

Smart Swarm

In his book Smart Swarm, Peter Miller writes "Seek a diversity of knowledge. Encourage friendly competition of ideas. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choices. These are the lessons of the swarm's success. They also happen to be the same rules that enable certain groups of people to make smart decisions together..."
The question is, Does our political system do this effectively?
Interactive Democracy fits the bill!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Truth and Diversity

While there may be diversity in values, in ways of thinking and in creativity, what about truth?
Experiences may be diverse, each person experiencing a direct truth in their own circumstances, which could usefully inform their ballot decision, but there's a danger that untruths will contaminate Interactive Democracy, leading to bad outcomes. As an example, I recently heard on BBC Radio2 the old urban myth that a swan can break your arm! So, my question is How do we improve the truth of information in the public domain?
Firstly we need a definition: Truth is a statement based on substantial evidence. Predictions and opinions are not within its scope.
But who decides what is substantial evidence? I think we need civic systems that weed out falsehood and clarify truth, and I propose two systems: Parliament controlled Offices (e.g. the Office of National Statistics) and Public Inquiries; and a Truth Complaints Commission. The latter would allow anyone to complain about untrue statements in public life, much like the Advertising Complaints Commission and with similar powers of enforcement. The former isn't too dissimilar to what we have today, staffed by public servants who face dismissal if they fail in their duty.