Friday, 30 March 2012

Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity may be an important aspect in improving the decision making of direct models of democracy. The corollary is that conformist societies may not benefit from direct democracy to the same degree.
According to Surowiecki the four key criteria for wise crowds are:
  1. Diversity of opinion based on private information
  2. Independence from the opinions of others
  3. Decentralised knowledge
  4. Aggregation - a mechanism for turning individual judgements into collective decisions
Interactive Democracy does some of this, but the degree of private information, independence and decentralised knowledge is effected by the extent of the public debate. If the debate is broken into separate discussions, perhaps fostered within diverse communities, informed from separate sources, whether by personal experience or diverse media, ID is more likely to be a success. Nevertheless, it will always be more diverse than a Parliamentary, representative system.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Aggregating Diverse Views

According to James Surowiecki in "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why The Many Are Smarter Than The Few", the aggregating of diverse views is an important principle for solving cognition problems (co-ordination and co-operation problems are also effectively solved by crowds). In the book he describes many examples, from estimating the number of sweets in a jar to guessing the location of a stranded submarine. In the latter case the best guesses of various experts were amalgamated together, giving a result that turned out to be far more accurate than any single expert foretold. The book is well worth a read.
Interactive Democracy amalgamates diverse views, but the problem is that wide debate on the same online system reduces diversity of decision making, even though it allows diverse opinions to be expressed. So, my proposal that the debating points, clarified by Parliament, should be required viewing before any vote is cast (even though many may click past such a screen without reading it) may diminish the effectiveness of the system as a whole.
A summary of The Wisdom of Crowds is available here, on Wikipedia.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Why Societies Need Dissent

In Why Societies Need Dissent, C R "Sunstein casts new light on freedom of speech, showing that a free society not only forbids censorship but also provides public spaces for dissenters to expose widely held myths and pervasive injustices."
Interactive Democracy provides one such public space.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Thomas Jefferson - Moral Case

"State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor" wrote Jefferson, "The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has often not been led astray by artificial rules."

Monday, 19 March 2012

Coding a Better Government

"Coding a Better Government" is a TED talk by Jennifer Pahlka in which she describes how the development of simple apps helped government link citizens together to help each other and the community. This is entirely different to Interactive Democarcy. But ID could point app developers in the right direction, by offering a forum that highlights problems and offers suggestions.
Perhaps, instead of employing government programmers to write the code, volunteer experts or students may develop the apps to solve problems. I'd like to see the government recognise such people, perhaps with some sort of award or certificate.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

"7 million offline voters could miss out"

"Millions of people, including the elderly and those living in rural areas, could be at a disadvantage during the November police commissioner elections, if information about candidates is only posted online, the Electoral Commission has warned... it [has] concerns about the government's proposals for a central website to host candidate information, intended to replace candidate mailings and booklets sent to households."
"as many as seven million adults in England (outside London) and Wales are estimated not to have used the Internet at all in the last 12 months."

While it could be argued that Internet access (and training) is available at most local libraries, access to technology remains an issue for Interactive Democracy which is likely to resolve itself in the coming years with the proliferation of Internet devices.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

European Social Values

This report on European Social Values encompasses a wide range of metrics.
According to page 19, 81% of Europeans believe that "people like them" have too little influence in government and only 34% know how to get their voice heard. The figures for the UK are 77% and 31%. Switzerland, reknown for its direct democracy, scored 65% and 46%. Surprisingly a whopping 67% of the Dutch know how to get their voice heard in politics.
This is particularly relevant to Interactive Democracy as a central tennant is empowerment.
From the same page, 75% of Europeans thought "People should involve themselves in politics and current affairs". 73% of Brits and 79% of Swiss agreed. On this metric Sweden came out top with 91%!
Overall the figures suggest the majority want more political power but don't know how to get it. Another observation is that political access is higher in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Denmark than in the direct democracy of Switzerland, but I don't know why. Perhaps public meetings disempower while secret ballots free the individual from social pressure? In Interactive Democracy, voting from your PC may help to solve this problem.

The Wisdom of Crowds

This BBC Horizons programme, "Out of Control?", explores the role of the sub-conscious mind and concludes that it forms a bigger part of our mental activity than many may think. Interestingly it shows an experiment with a colony of ants finding a new home, introducing the phrase The Wisdom of Crowds (also a book by James Surowiecki). The ants found two suitable new nesting sites and together decided which was best. Perhaps this is a valid analogy for direct democracy, especially if our intuitions are more powerful than our rational minds would ever suppose.
In his book Surowiecki describes another experiment in which people are asked to guess the weight of something (I forget what). It was found that the average guess was far more accurate than any one guess. Perhaps this is also group intuition at work.... food for thought!

"In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future."

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Navigator to Direct Democracy

The Navigator to Direct Democracy is a work in progress but already describes how direct democracy or referenda work in many countries. It usefully identifies and classifies the different instruments of direct democracy that are used around the world, based on work done by Rolf Buchi of IRI Europe.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

How The Internet Enables Direct Democracy

This short video presentation by Craig's List founder, Craig Newark, explains how the internet enables direct democracy.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Common Wisdom

One of the arguments against direct democracy is that common people are likely to vote based on their own selfish desires, without considering their long term needs or the benefits to others. Though this may be true of a handful of people I don't accept it of the vast majority:
  • Most people go to the dentists: they accept pain for future benefits.
  • Most people save money, though they would rather spend it today.
  • Most people will offer a helping hand to their neighbours.
  • Many people give to charities and will go out of their way to help others in need.
In a representative democracy we attempt to appoint a wise person. In direct democracy we listen to a wise person and decide if we agree with them. The two aren't very different.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Cheap and Getting Cheaper

One of the basic truths of information technology is that it's cheap and getting cheaper.
A web based democracy has the potential of being by far the cheapest way of operating any ballot, any general election and as secure as your online bank account. This leads to the thought that it's inevitable that it will be adopted if only to save money.
But web voting also opens up all sorts of opportunities: More frequent voting at negligible extra cost; the facility for involving everyone in policy; and the opportunity to rent out the system to other organisations, perhaps businesses, perhaps unions, maybe other organisations, may mean that it actually covers its costs. Interactive Democracy explores how this technology can be harnessed to enhance democracy.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Australian Democracy

In contrast to Britain's democracy, and the Interactive Democracy I advocate, here is a great description of the Australian system, from the World Leader Proposal site:-

"Our system of voting is relatively exclusive to the Australian political system. Most democratic political systems employ the Simple Majority (First-Past-The-Post) system. Our system employs direct democratic representation, preferential representation and proportional representations.

Australia's electoral system is in many respects a shining example of the fulfilment of democratic values. We have been world leaders in many innovations in the provision of democracy. The employment of secret ballots to reduce intimidation has long been referred to as the Australian Ballot and is now seen as ubiquitous with democracy. Not only does it reduce intimidation but negates the practice of people deciding their vote because of a need to be seen as going along with the crowd or a desire to be on the winning side. This was identified as one of the dangers of direct democracy.

Australia led the way with the enfranchisement of all citizens (men and women) over the age of 21 enjoying the privilege (at that time) to cast a vote from 1908. In 1911 after much investigation and debate it was decided that that every single person who is eligible to vote should be heard and that every persons vote has value. This was in response to perceived short comings of the US and British systems whereby the most popular or the wealthiest were dominating politics and that it was possible for a minority of citizens to dictate the electoral outcomes. Hence from 1911 onwards voting became compulsory.

But still there was concern that the will/choice of the greatest majority of the electorate was not truly represented in the outcomes. The solution to ensure that the outcomes were policy based rather than the outcome of the ‘wealth, slick styles and appeal of simple solution to complex questions’, in 1919 preferential voting was introduced to federal politics. This was not just an experiment but as a result of its success and application at a state level and by-elections. All data collected on it showed conclusively that it reflected the desires of the greatest number of the electorate and therefore gave the most detailed indication of majority desire.

As an offset to the possibility of an overwhelming majority giving the incumbent government carte blanche to institute whatever policy they desired the senate was established as a watchdog and arbiter of policy implementation and ensure that the needs (as distinct from their desires) of the electorate were met. We give the legislative assembly a mandate to govern not a mandate to do as they wish. Our senate is elected using a proportional voting system. Proportional voting was introduced for Senate elections in 1949, heralding a new political era where minor parties and independent voices were represented in our parliament.

Proportional voting is used in multi-member electorates. In the Senate, there are 8 electorates: the 6 States and the 2 Territories. The 6 States each return 12 members, whereas the Territories return 2 each.

Being successfully elected to the senate requires winning candidates to secure a quota of the vote. The quota is calculated by dividing the total number of formal ballot papers by one more than the number of Senators to be elected. It is not unusual for a Senate ballot paper to contain anywhere between 30 and 70 candidates. It is more representative of the wishes of the electorate, in that parties win seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive.

The great strength of our political system is its employment of multiple forms of the democratic process. Whilst we in Australia take these for granted and at times show contempt (invariably based on ignorance), it is the reason our economy and lifestyle are the envy of many.

The balance of power has even in recent governments been held by independents. These changes took effect in the Senate on 1 July 2011. More than 14 million Australians were enrolled to vote at the time of the election. The result is a consequence of their choices. A mandate was denied to any one party and reflected a need for compromise between differing ideals as individual parties failed to inspire an overwhelming majority.

The modern democracy that we enjoy is not a form of government reflecting the will of the populous. Our government reflects the trust of the populous in who they believe has the necessary attributes to make informed decisions on their behalf.

Every member of society could not reasonably be expected to have a fully informed understanding of all the issues. How could we distinguish the informed from the mis-informed, ignorant or self interested? Our national policies would be subject to the whims of fashion, propaganda and subversion. We would surely all be anti the cost in money and time that continual plebiscites would demand. Our societies have evolved greatly from the days of ancient Greece. We are not one homogenous people we are a nation of diversity and our political system reflects this.

Our political system is far from perfect and is vulnerable to threats, the greatest threat being poor quality of education of society and undue influence of the media. Democracy’s success depends upon the quality of demands made on our leaders and the quality of their decision making to ensure the improvement of society. If we expect little from our politicians I’m sure they’ll deliver.
Here's the official version.

To help promote direct democracy in Australia, click here.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Elected Aristocracy

"Elected aristocracy" was a term coined by Rousseau. Could it be applied today? After all, most of the front benchers are career politicians with little working experience outside of parliament.
(Here are details of the Lib/Con front bench, from the BBC.)
(Here's the Labour line-up.)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Sham of Democracy

"The Sham of Democracy" is an article by Bill Bonner in MoneyWeek (24/02/2012). In it he writes
"The Italian city states practised real democracy too. In 15th-century Florence, for example, citizens voted on whether or not to build a cathedral. Then, they voted on what shape it should take. A scale model was built, Citizens knew what it would look like. They understood how it was built and how much it would cost them. They cast their ballots and took responsibility for the outcome. American democracy, circa 2012, has no more in common with real democracy than American capitalism has in common with real capitalism. Both are degenerate, corrupt and geriatric."