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The Future of Democracy

Pietro Speroni di Fenizio
By Pietro Speroni di Fenizio
Ethical Technology

Posted: Apr 27, 2012

What is the best democratic system for the 21st century? For a world where communication is instantaneous, travel is fast, and search is efficient? A world where people are all connected, are able to read and write and can look up information themselves?

The type of democracy we have in most of the western world is based upon 18th century American representative democracy that came out of the American Civil War. That democratic system was the most efficient government of the people, by the people, with the technology of the time. In that era, communication was slow, most people did not know how to read or write, and going to Washington from the furthest part of the US was a 40 days trip (by horse). It was also a world where search was difficult. If you wanted to look for someone who had your interests you were seriously challenged.

But what is the best system, for today? How can democracy be improved?

People in the 21st century do not trust their politicians, and they want to be more directly involved with both the legislative and the executive branches of government, which require different solutions. In the executive body the main problem is to put together the needs of the people with the ability to do things, within the rule of the law. There is no requirement for everybody to be involved in every tiny decision. In the legislative body, new rules are decided, rules that will affect everybody, so whoever decides must be empowered to take decisions over the whole society.

For each branch there are best practices, problematic stories, a general direction of movement, reasons why things are going in that way, new laws that support the new way of doing things, and finally a vision to guide. (All summed up in Table1.) 

One of the way in which things have changed is the opening of a dialogue between the central government and the people. Through petitions this was always possible, but the internet has really put petitions on steroid. The UK ePetition website collects requests and questions from the government. And all the most popular requests have been answered (although rarely satisfied). This has affected transversally both the legislative and the executive body. People ask for both laws to be changed, or for existing laws to be enacted. Similarly from when he was elected, each year president Obama answers the 10 most voted questions asked by people on YouTube.

On the other hand, trying to deeply integrate more people in the legislative process has been hardly successful. In Russia an experiment in legislative participation drew, in just 5 weeks, about 16,000 registered active participants who posted 21,000 proposals and comments, and cast 40,000 votes. The total number of visitors reached 1.5 million. The simplicity of the site design did not permit the users to efficiently search, comment and work upon the proposals of others; most proposals were simply a repetition of others. In the end the Minister had to employ people just to sort through and integrate the proposals, and the Russians had to trust that their minister was acting in their best interest. It was not for a lack of political will that the minister had to step in (spending more money), it was a lack of technical capabilities!

In the USA, Obama used a private tool (MixedInk) to ask for people’s participation in drafting a request on recommendations on Open Government. People now could write alternative proposals, search for what others had written, integrate it in their draft, and support the proposals they liked. Although the tool was was very well explained in video tutorials, this was also hardly a success. The most successful discussion had 110 people participating, with a final document written by a single person and supported by 63 others. Hardly could this be seen as representative of all the citizens in the United States. Was the tool too complex, or are most people simply unable or too disinterested to dig into the actual fabrications of a complex document?

This duality is general: governments that asked citizens for ideas saw their effort frustrated by not enough participation (the USA), or were overwhelmed by massive participation that they were unable to cope with (Russia). It is not enough to have citizens present ideas, and vote for them. For a website to be successful it is necessary for citizens to be able to search for similar ideas, integrate their ideas with existing ones, avoid presenting millions of times the same idea, and generally work on the shoulder of each other. Simple systems were generally unable to do all this, and complex systems were often too difficult for people to use in a massive way.

In other words, participative democracy is possible, but no one has yet built the right tool to do it. Unfortunately, the exponential speed of computational power will not automatically make this happen. We already have enough CPU power to do it, we just have not found the sweet spot yet, although there is plenty of research being done. An analysis made on the ePart research in Europe  has shown that on average the amount of money spent on ePart projects was so expensive, and the results were so meager, that it was as if each post in every EU supported project was paid 500 euro!

There are also positive stories. A private initiative, a now defunct website called WhiteHouse2, asked people to present their ideas about what their agenda would be if they were the president of the United States. People could read each other ideas, support them (by adding them to their priorities), and suggest changes. People could also declare if they opposed an idea, and add comments both in favor or against it. Probably the most interesting thing about this experiment was what the author told me in private, how at the beginning the number of new proposals grew steadily, almost exploded, but then started to slow down to the point that finally it seemed like they had mapped the space of the citizen requests.

Eventually Gilliam decided to close WhiteHouse2, using the experience to start a business. But first, he shared the code with the world. The code was then taken  by a group of enthusiastic Icelandic programmers, and when the new Icelandic government, the one that emerged from Iceland’s protests over the massive economical crises, asked for a tool to connect to the people, the programmers used their version of Jim Gilliam code. Now it’s employed in two different websites in Iceland - one for the city of Reykjavik, and another for the whole Icelandic nation. In the Reykjavik the percentage of participation is around 10% with a percentage of people who have visited the website before the elections close to 43%.

The same group of people have also tried to scale up the system to the whole world. A website was set up to let people write their priorities on a nation by nation basis. The project has not obtained any significant success so far, demonstrating that in this field even the best practices cannot just be cloned and expected to work everywhere.

Not all governments are really interested in having the people participate in decisions. Oftentimes, the government asks for people to send in ideas (but then has no one read them), or it limits participation in ways in which the result is already decided at the beginning. For example: in Greece the government asked people to comment on the new laws but they were not really interested in major change. The Greek people revolted in mass in Athens, upset that their will was not taken into consideration. In Milan a Facebook group was set up to let people discuss limiting car use in the center of the city. The group expected people to protest (and vent anger) against the rules, but instead the people were supportive, and a true discussion with many new ideas emerged.

Generally, moderated forums are simple systems that seem to work. But they have two inherent weaknesses. They require a moderator, and they don’t scale up well. Plus, if people don’t trust the moderator the system is not much better than a watered down dictatorship.

Where is the Democratic utopia that we would like to have?

I drew a MindMap of it: Imagine a leaderless society where, once a problem has been identified, anyone can suggest a solution. Solutions are then voted on, by everybody, and the most supported solution is adopted.

For this process to be truly fair, a proposal has to have an equal probability of being adopted, independently of who wrote it, and when was it composed. Imagine the whole system as self moderated. Also, a system does not have to be transparent while decisions are being made (sometimes not knowing who has written a proposal will ensure that people evaluate it based on its content and not on its author), yet after each decision is made everything needs to be publicly released. Imagine also that the system is fully decentralized and open source. No central authority can shut it down. In short, it is a society where no single person is ever in charge, but every moment an idea that people support is adopted. The result is that humanity can truly become a global super organism.

This is my vision of a perfect democracy. Maybe we will never fully reach it, but a vision is useful even without being implemented. It is a Polar Star towards which we can measure the innovations we implement.

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