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.