Thursday 12 February 2015

Too Poor to Protest?

 According to this Avaaz petition British "police have just told a group of climate change campaigners they must hire a private security firm to run their massive demonstration next month -- at a cost of thousands of pounds!"Allowing people to protest is a key pillar of our democracy -- we pay our taxes so the police can ensure public safety. But now several groups are being told to pay for private firms to steward the marches instead!"

Interactive Democracy provides a free format to protest, propose and vote on issues that would make marches unnecessary (but still lawful), while giving the electorate real political power on a day to day basis. If the most popular initiatives were also given publicity in the media (something that could be legislated for) there would also be less need for the publicity generating spectacle of a march.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Diversity Trumps Ability

Lu Hong and Scott Page in their paper "Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers" asked the question:

"Can a functionally diverse group whose members have less ability outperform a group of people with high ability who may themselves be diverse?"

Or, put in another context, can direct democracy outperform a political elite?

They answer yes, but their conclusions are nuanced and aimed mainly at diversity in problem solving organisations rather than whole democracies.

"even if we were to accept the claim that IQ tests, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, and college grades predict individual problem-solving ability, they may not be as important in determining a person's potential contribution as a problem solver as would be measures of how differently that person thinks."
Yet, it seems to me that our political elite are fairly homogenous and highly susceptible to group think in a way that the wider population aren't.

Hong and Page also comment on communication, understanding and learning:

".... Problem solvers with nearly identical perspectives but diverse heuristics should communicate with one another easily. But problem solvers with diverse perspectives may have trouble understanding solutions identified by other agents. Firms then may want to hire people with similar perspectives yet maintain a diversity of heuristics. In this way, the firm can exploit diversity while minimizing communication costs. Finally, our model also does not allow problem solvers to learn. Learning could be modeled as the acquisition of new perspectives and heuristics. Clearly, in a learning model, problem solvers would have incentives to acquire diverse perspectives and heuristics"

Interactive Democracy offers a structured way for any voter to contribute proposals and debate outcomes, helping to solve some of the communication problems highlighted by Hong and Page by categorising debating points as positive, negative and interesting, and ranking them by votes of approval or disapproval. But Hong and Page's final point is perhaps my favourite argument for Interactive Democracy: that debate is a type of education with its own merit, and there's every chance that populations will get better at doing it.

This post was inspired by this blog:

Thursday 4 December 2014

Make Lying in Parliament History - A Petition has a new petition by Jolyon Rubinstein: Make Lying in Parliament History. You can sign it here.

Lying in a democracy reminds me of the old computer programmers saying: GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. But I would go further than just banning lying in Parliament and want sanctions against all political lies aimed at deceiving the public. One way of doing this would be to use the Advertising Standards model (which doesn't yet cover political advertising). I think the harshest sanctions should be for prepared statements with demands for corrections for wrong statements made in interview or conversation. The same should apply to journalists. Corrections should be made with the same "volume" as the original mistake.
Please click here for a more detailed view of how this would work.

Friday 28 November 2014


Demoex (from democracy experiment) has a representative in Vallentuna, a suburb of Stockholm. Any local resident over the age of 16 can vote on issues that the council are about to decide and their councilor then re-presents their view. Anyone can get involved in the preceding online debate if they can write in Swedish. Demoex held this seat for more than 8 years, winning three elections, but lost the recent election after amalgamating with other direct democracy advocates to create a national party, Direktdemokraterna.

Denny de la Haye founded a UK branch of Demoex and ran in the 2010 UK General Election. Please see his comments below (thanks, Denny - I've updated this post).

Demoex also have a presence in Brazil.

Lista Partecipata is an Italian initiative using a similar concept as Demoex. Their slogan is "The control of government in the hands of the citizens (and not only at election time)".

Senator On-Line is an Australian political party which proposes to have no platform but rather to act based on online polls.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Digital Democracy UK

Digital Democracy UK is already up and running. Here's their summary:

"Digital Democracy is a campaigning website that does two things:

1) It lets you start and gain support for !Changes.

Register on the website to make a !Change about any issue you have.

Use the tools on the website to gain support from your family, friends and contacts.

2) It helps identify your local community's priorities.

New !Changes are submitted, debated and ranked by popularity alongside others in their area.

!Changes are ranked by the level of support in each local community.

When !Changes reach certain levels of support the !Change is sent to MPs, MEPs, and councillors who are then invited to respond to the issues."

Monday 24 November 2014

Why Britain should copy Switzerland's referendums

Matthew Lynn has written a piece in MoneyWeek (21/11/14): "Why Britain should copy Switzerland's referendums". Available here.
I'm a fan of the Swiss democratic model. But I'm also a fan of bringing it into the 21st Century by using the internet to make voting cheap and convenient. Interactive Democracy would also facilitate structured debates that could be analysed by voter (age, sex, occupation) and location, allowing voters to aggregate the views of doctors on healthcare issues, for example. Anyone could contribute proposals or initiatives with everyone able to add plus, minus and interesting points and voting if they agree or disagree with each, prioritising and clarifying the issues. Such a system would tap into the creativity and intellect of the population without favour or bias and could, in the future, be considered an important part of our national infrastructure, utilised by many organisations for their own internal issues, as well as at every level of politics.
You can see a mock up of what the ID site could look like by clicking here.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Americans Vote on Initiatives

Alongside the recent Congressional elections Americans also voted on a range of local initiatives including gun controls, marijuana, abortion, minimum pay and healthcare. You can read more about it at NBC, here.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

New Power

In this TED talk Jeremy Heimans describes what New Power looks like. Why should you listen to him? Because he's an ex-McKinsey strategy consultant who helped found " GetUp (an Australian political movement with more members than Australia's political parties combined), Avaaz (an online political movement with more than 15 million members) and AllOut (a global movement for LGBT people and their straight friends and family)."
Interactive Democracy could be described as new power, but for it to work to its full potential it needs to become part of the establishment. That's a challenge, as people in power are unlikely to want to give it up. Perhaps the only way to get there is to establish a new political party as was described in the last TED talk I published. Alternatively, members of political parties should be made aware that ID empowers them, too. Sell the idea to them and their leaders will have to accommodate it.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Baby P: The Untold Story

5 years ago I wrote about the Baby P scandal and how it related to Interactive Democracy. Now there's a new TV programme from the BBC, "Baby P: The Untold Story". I found it a depressing insight into British politics, media and culture.
Perhaps the wisest comment in the broadcast was that a series of small mistakes across multiple organisations caused a failure to protect Baby P from his mother and her boyfriend. Yet it also points out that David Cameron misinformed parliament about the age of Baby P's mother. A small mistake. The Sun newspaper misinformed the public about the number of social service's visits. A small mistake. The media reported that a doctor had failed to diagnose a broken back. Probably a small mistake (his back was unlikely to have been broken at the time of the examination according to a pathologist). Ed Balls expected an emergency inspection and report to take just two weeks when normally it would take months. A small mistake. A significant part of a Great Ormond Street report didn't reach inspectors. A deceitful mistake. Ofsted rated Social Services as good and then changed their minds, possibly after political manipulation (the report was edited numerous times by senior management not directly involved in the inspection and in consultation with Ed Ball's office). A worrying mistake. They then destroyed the evidence supporting their own study, as they do as a matter of course. An admin policy mistake. Sharon Shoesmith was unfairly dismissed and was subsequently awarded damages of nearly £680 000. A costly mistake.
According to the programme, since Baby P's death 260 other children have died. 26 of them were known to social services. These aren't mistakes, they are murder or manslaughter.
All mistakes should be corrected if we are to improve and I believe we should have laws against lying in public life. Incorrect statements should be corrected with as much 'volume' as the original error. I wrote about how this could work, here.
(You can read my original Baby P post here.)

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Struggling to Upgrade Democracy in Argentina

This fascinating TED talk by Pia Mancini describes how her group in Argentina developed a democracy app, Democracy OS, which they tried to promote among the main political parties. Spurned, they decided to create their own party, Partido de la Red.

 “[Partido de la Red] are a party of the present, looking to the future, who believe in using the tools of today - the internet and other technology – to radically change the current political system.” — The Daily Beast, 2014

Monday 22 September 2014

Referendum, Pressure Release Valve or Pressure Cooker?

I've written before that direct democracy could be a useful pressure release valve for political activists who would be better persuading other voters than engaging in violent protest. On the other hand some commentators have lamented the animosity evident in the recent Scottish independence referendum. So what provokes aggression?
It could be that some people just can't consider that others have different values. Some are traditionalists, others progressives. Some narrowly nationalistic, others not.
Or it could be that people feel that they are being lied to, deceived or manipulated by leaders, politicians and campaigners. Maybe sometimes by design, sometimes by accident or misinterpretation. (Scotland can't have the pound, some said. Of course they can, they have pounds in their bank accounts and pockets. How're you going to stop them? What was meant was that the Bank of England would refuse to be lender of last resort to Scottish banks.)
Then there's the matter of forecasting the future benefits of a decision, and all the assumptions that that entails. Is it rosy or grey? Who knows? There's nothing true about forecasts, they are usually inaccurate, unless by luck, and often wildly wrong.
Maybe we can introduce systems that help to reduce some of these provocations. Laws against lying in public life would be a start. Discussion of the limits of forecasting would be useful. Appreciation of differences in values and respect for others opinions may be a cultural thing that could be learnt. Maybe doing direct democracy, and losing, builds a bit of humility that makes things less fraught next time. And maybe having a system of direct democracy that allows future corrections and amendments to recent decisions takes the edge off disappointment. If Switzerland changes its constitution by referendum then the system is already in place to change it back again, if demanded.
But when I sit back and consider the referendum for Scottish Independence and the state of Eastern Ukraine it's pretty obvious what's best!

Sunday 21 September 2014

Inclusive Institutions, not Culture

In "The Great Degeneration" Niall Ferguson argues that inclusive institutions, not culture, explain the success of the West. "... while culture may instill norms, institutions create incentives. Britons versed in much the same culture behaved very differently depending on whether they emigrated to New England or worked for the East India Company in Bengal. In the former case we find inclusive institutions, in the latter extractive ones." I have previously argued that culture is a significant factor in impeding the tyranny of the majority and persecution of minorities, but Niall has a point. Further proof comes from the structure of the Swiss Federation which protected the rights of the large minority Catholic Cantons against domination by the Protestant majority. If only the same could be created in Syria and Iraq for Sunni and Shia.
(The Human Rights Act may also help.)

Friday 19 September 2014

Budgeting in Switzerland

There has been some concern expressed amongst the financial press that promises made to Scotland will cause budgetary uncertainty and devalue Britain as an economic safe haven (click here). But Switzerland shows that that need not be the case. The OECD published this detailed analysis in 2005. Things may have changed since but reading it reveals a number of things. They have a constitutional commitment to debt containment. The limits are defined mathematically and compensate for the business cycle. 75% of the budget is transferred to sub-national government and social security funds. It's complicated, but shows how detailed financial policy can be implemented in a direct democracy federation by elected, often part time, politicians.
The report also provides a succinct summary of Switzerland's constitutional history:-

"Switzerland came into existence as a national State in the first half of the 19th century as a consequence of a process of political integration of 25 regional communities known as “cantons”. This process culminated in the establishment of the first federal constitution in 1848. This constitution was based on a compromise between a liberal Protestant majority, mostly living in a small number of populous cantons, and a Catholic conservative minority, mostly living in a large number of thinly populated cantons. The rights of the minority were protected through constitutional provisions that guarantee the competences of the cantons and limit the responsibilities of the Federation and through cantonal representation in the federal political system, particularly in the Council of States (the upper chamber of Parliament)."

And it summarises their unique system:-

"The Swiss budgeting system is characterised by three special features that differentiate it from most other OECD countries:
● the political environment, characterised by direct democracy (referendums), federalism and a tradition/system of achieving consensus;
● the debt containment rule, which is a constitutional provision mandating a balanced budget over a business cycle (structural balance);● the nature of the Swiss federal budget as a transfer budget."

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Information Democracy

What's most important, accurate information or democracy?
Democracy allows us to express our values and wants but it also expresses our ignorance unless fed with accurate information. This entertaining TED talk and quiz by Hans Rosling shows just how wrong our intuitions about the world can be.

So how do we ensure good information?
Firstly, there should be a law prohibiting lying in politics, as I have written about before.
Secondly, Parliament should commission studies relevant to the issue at hand.
Thirdly, the ID system should encourage the referencing and linking of studies and data to the ID site, enabling people to debate the numbers, correlations, assumptions, etc.
Finally, each new policy should be measured for its effect, with that information supplied to the public. This is akin to the 6 Sigma quality management system (define, measure, analyze, improve and control) and may lead to further improvements in policy.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Ineffective Democracy

Could one of the reasons for a substantial number of Scots wanting to split from the UK be that we have an ineffective democracy? On several occasions I've seen and heard interviews with Scots who point out that in the last election they only returned one Conservative MP yet are now lead by a Conservative Prime Minister (in a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition).
Would the earlier introduction of new powers for Scotland's parliament have avoided the devolution referendum? It may have done.
Would Direct Democracy, like Switzerland, have empowered Scots? Probably. The Swiss have long prospered with a system of Cantons speaking different languages and doing local government.
Seen in this light, the possible break up of the UK can be seen as an indictment of our political system by the Unionist side. Too little, too late. Too central, too out of touch.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Sacking Politicians

There's a problem with sacking politicians. For example, Councillor Robert Bleakley of Tyldesley ran up bills of £2400 calling sex lines on a taxpayer funded phone. He is also accused of sexism. Yet a democratic principle is that an elected politician shouldn't be sacked by an official. They should only run the gauntlet of public opinion at the next election.
Interactive Democracy provides another, more immediate solution as it can be deployed quickly and efficiently to run a ballot on his dismissal and the employment of an alternative representative, without waiting for the next election cycle.

New Deal

Gordon Brown has announced a new deal for Scotland to encourage the 'No' vote, despite postal votes having already been cast, probably to the annoyance of some. If we used online voting this would not be a problem. Even those that had already cast their vote could get back online and change it, right up to the deadline. So Interactive Democracy supports the sort of changeable policies that we are seeing in Scotland far better than the existing postal voting system.

Friday 5 September 2014

The Rational Voter

"I can't see how anyone can be a rational voter without some grasp of how economies work. This has been brought home to me by the miserably low level of debate about the Scottish referendum.
"Very few people seem to know the difference between the pound and the Bank of England. The UK government hasn't said that Scotland can't use the pound. Anyone can use the pound. What it has said is that Scotland can't use the pound and, outside a formal currency union, use the Bank of England as a lender of last resort and set monetary policy. This key point appears to have been passed by many voters. So have the mechanisms by which interest rates are set; the difference between government deficits and government debts; and the way countries raise money in the international markets. This means that far too many people will be voting on something hugely important on 18 September without the tools to understand the implications."
Merryn Somerset Webb, MoneyWeek Issue 707, Editorial.

Merryn is arguing for better financial education, but surely the same rationale could support the view that there shouldn't be referenda because the electorate aren't educated enough to form a rational view. I disagree, but I'll come to that in a moment. First, here's another perspective:

"7 out of 10 Members of Parliament think that only the government is able to create money"

Tuesday 19 August 2014

"Democracy's not all it's cracked up to be..."

"Democracy's not all it's cracked up to be you know" is the title of  Tim Worstall's Adam Smith's Institute post, here.
He makes the point that "anti"-homosexual Section 28 legislation matched the majority view, as discovered by opinion polls of the time. Would things have been worse for gay rights under Interactive Democracy?
Who knows? A lot of the outcome depends on the quality of the debate as much as the current zeitgeist or deeper culture. But Interactive Democracy provides a channel for that debate which would be utilised by those that feel strongly on the issue, allowing them to "educate" the rest of us, perhaps changing our views entirely. In contrast, representative democracy provides a closed debate, disengaged from the populace and conducted predominantly by aged males with their inevitable biases and group think. Down trodden minorities are rarely given voice. Furthermore, the rest of us are encouraged to have faith in Parliament's wisdom, discouraging us from thinking for ourselves.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Politics: The Art of Best Compromise

Politics could be seen as trying to satisfy as many people as possible by constructing the best compromise. The government that achieves this assuages fears and provides hope, and has the greatest chance of winning the next election. They know that causing a little pain for some voters can be soothed by other beneficent policies and balanced by the approbation of other groups. Pain at the beginning of a parliament fades over time if the opposition don't rub and needle. It's a messy business. More art than science.
Direct Democracy is different. Each referendum is decided to benefit the majority. But it can also incorporate compromise if the best policy is designed through debate before being sanctioned by the electorate. Interactive Democracy allows voters with a wide range of experiences to be involved in the development of policy, perhaps creating solutions that politicians may not have considered, but at the same time being guided by their expertise. Such a system may provide even better compromises, empowering and educating the electorate, too. It is transparent instead of opaque; immediate not cyclical; accurate not doubtful; incorruptible not dubious; democratic not for sale; technological not archaic... More scientific.

Wednesday 23 July 2014


A thought for the day: disempowerment leads to violence.
Political protests can become riots. One vote per household in Northern Ireland perpetuated the Troubles by disempowering Catholics in large households. Substantial minorities in Northern Spain and Sri Lanka resorted to terrorism. Western Ukrainians fight separatists in the East. In short, and to simplify, the disempowered try to seize power through force of arms, threats and violence.
What's the solution?
One person one vote. Referenda rather than rule by an elected elite. A culture of tolerance and respect for minorities and/or culturally homogeneous political regions with local government. Wide adoption of the golden rule.
Alternatively, wide economic success means less political angst and is also a route to peace.
Interactive Democracy is the epitome of empowerment, but Representative Democracy can be counter productive, centralising power amongst a political elite and disempowering the majority. This is what we have seen in Ukraine, when the West insisted on national general elections despite the Eastern regions wanting a referendum on independence. Much death and suffering could have been avoided.

Friday 4 July 2014

Gagging Law

The Lobbying Act has been dubbed the gagging law by some people as it restricts "the ability of third parties to campaign in election periods" according to The Guardian, here. It reports that Labour are reviewing how big money affects politics and that they have pledged to repeal the Act.
It is my view that the problem isn't one of big money per se, but that money should only be spent on politics in a fully transparent way and that all campaigns should be rooted in evidential truth. Unfortunately, in Britain today, political advertising isn't covered by the Advertising Standards Authority and there are no sanctions against baseless political claims. I don't see the problem if big money were used to research facts and promote them, as Joseph Rowntree did at the beginning of the 20th century, but cash for questions or secret funding of politics is a deplorable corruption of democracy. Instead of a gagging law I want to see a law against lying in politics.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Secret Ballots and Cryptocurrency

A good voting system should be free from intimidation, be accurate and assured. Originally I envisioned that an Interactive Democracy account would work a bit like an online bank account: you would "pay" your vote and receive a digital receipt in return, listed on your statement. The electoral board would be the central controlling authority, a bit like a bank. All of this is possible but fallible: the electoral board could massage the figures; or voters could be intimidated into providing access to their accounts. Cryptocurrencies provide an alternative solution, explained in this Telegraph article by Matthew Sparkes.
A cryptocurrency such as bitcoin has a finite number of coins that is predetermined. Transactions using these coins aren't listed on a bank's ledger but exist on numerous decentralised computers using a blockchain system. If votes were counted as cryptocoins there would be no way for central authorities to miscount or manipulate the results without being discovered.
Another feature of cryptocurrencies is that they are anonymous. This means that voters could use their cryptovotes without fear of punishment for how they voted. In short it would be a secret ballot.
Contrary to my original notion of Interactive Democracy including something akin to a bank statement, listing transactions, the cryptovote system wouldn't need it. Instead transactions would be assured through the blockchain. The total number of votes cast would also match the total number of cryptovotes in existance - those not cast by the electorate would be "spent" by their representative.
As more youngsters come of age to vote and older ones die, more cryptovotes would need to be created and defunct accounts destroyed. The best way to do this would be to create new cryptovotes for each referendum, also ensuring that cryptovotes couldn't be amassed and "spent" on a single issue.
While there is some cost to the electricity used in creating and distributing each cryptovote, I expect this to be small in comparison with normal voting procedures. It could be funded via central government taxation. This is in contrast to the creation of bitcoins which are "mined" by numerous private computers for a small fee, paid in bitcoins and sufficient to cover the energy costs (at least initially). This aspect, and the issuing of cryptovotes to elligible voters, remains centralised, but operates on decentralised servers, immune to accident or attack. (Alternatively, I wonder if it is possible for each voter to mine their own cryptovote?) If you don't receive the cryptovotes you are entitled to, you should complain.
Of course, if you allow others access to your voting account (similar to a bitcoin wallet) they may spend your cryptovotes for you. The spending or stealing of someone's cryptovote would be a criminal offense, as would coercing someone to vote against their wishes. Today, similar problems exist with postal voting.
I like the idea that you can spend your vote well before the deadline and then change your mind as the debate develops. This is both convenient and accommodating. Cryptovotes could allow this by only releasing the transaction at the deadline even though the vote was earmarked (or cast) earlier.
My preference is that unspent cryptovotes would accrue to your Member of Parliament for them to spend but it would be possible to give them to others as you see fit, allowing them to vote on your behalf.  Called Liquid Democracy, it may be far less palatable for MPs.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Working the Political System

"In areas ranging from local zoning laws to intellectual property protection, from financial regulation to energy subsidies, public policy now bestows great fortunes on those whose primary skill is working the political system rather than producing great products and services."

Interactive Democracy may help with this problem, too, by making political access easy, ensuring that everyone can vote freely on every issue and by enhancing transparency. It won't eliminate the advantages of the rich, which Mr Summers writes about in his article, but it is a large step towards political equality.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Oligarchs and Poligarchs

MoneyWeek publisher Bill Bonner introduces the concept of "poligarchs".  He explains it in The Daily Reckoning (20/5/14) and how American democracy relates to markets:

"Government’s primary concern is not to protect its citizens or their economy. Instead, it aims to transfer more power, status, and wealth to the elite who control it (the oligarchs). And to do that, it must keep the masses (the poligarchs) sedated. Charles Hugh Smith explains it:

“The State has two core mandates: enforce quasi-monopolies and cartels for private capital, and satisfy enough of the citizenry's demands for more benefits to maintain social stability.

“If the State fails to maintain monopolistic cartels, profit margins plummet and capital is unable to maintain its spending on investment and labour. Simply put, the economy tanks as profits, investment and growth all stagnate.

“If the State fails to satisfy enough of the citizenry's demands, it risks social instability.”"

In my view direct democracy breaks this deceitful relationship. It takes power from the elite and gives it to the masses, who can vote on anything (e.g. the Swiss just voted against spending billions on the Gripen jet fighter and on a new minimum wage - BusinessWeek).

But why would the masses demand more power when they are satisfied with life?

They wouldn't. But I'm sure that large portions of them want their say on matters they feel strongly about. Matters that are often ethical rather than economic. This creates a political opportunity for a direct democracy party to change the status quo and create a more prosperous and equitable democracy.