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 For example, if each debating point grows or diminishes in approval, or is superseded by a counter point, this could be shown in a similar way as Hans Rosling's examples.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.