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.