7 steps to a political system we can all be proud of

7 steps to a political system we can all be proud of

One of the worst things about elections is that we all go along with a lie which none of us believe:  “This is the best we can do.”  

We can do far better, and if you’ve ever shouted at the radio or watched the Leaders Debate without believing that they are amongst the smartest people in the country, then I know you agree.

Democracy is ripe for a renaissance

In the last 60 seconds there were 293,000 status updates and 3,125,000 likes on Facebook, and 350,000 tweets.

But you’ll still only vote 14 times in a general election (and only then if you have an average lifespan and don’t miss any.)

All your education, all your knowledge, all your desire to protect those things you care about comes down to just 14 Xs, drip-fed to you every 5 years. Feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth when you put it like that, doesn’t it?

So, how can we make this better?

The ideal goal of democracy is that anyone can equally participate in a deliberative process, which continually checks and refines our goals and trajectory. And when normal people are involved in important decisions, and given the space and time to discuss,  it works very well. More people are happier with the outcomes, fewer people feel hard done by, and (despite our fears) no one brings back hanging or creates tax loopholes.

Until recently, it’s not been feasible to have a direct and continuous representation of public opinion. But now it is. So let’s imagine what that might be like.

1. You could have your say on things that matter to you, whenever you like

Imagine your phone bleeps and shows today’s votes. A simple screen shows a question, and 5 buttons for ’strongly disagree’ through to ’strongly agree’. How would you answer these?

  • Subsidise nuclear-power.
  • Do you think that the NHS would be better for patients if it were privately run?
  • Should the government be stricter in regulation of financial services?
  • Would you like more bike lanes near where you live?

Chances are, you already have an opinion on these and could answer them quite quickly (though you could also read more information before you answer, or just skip it).

Above all, though, doesn’t it feel good to be asked? Imagine how this would change your relationship with government and your fellow citizens if we all knew we were genuinely all a part of something bigger that any of us. We’d actually be able to represent our own values and priorities, rather than have them captured and caricatured by the political parties.

As we all answer more questions, and share more of our thoughts and suggestions, we can refine our thoughts and perhaps change our minds – ensuring that we are able to make sure that we’re represented when we want, not just every 5 years.

2. Your voice would count locally, nationally, and internationally

The truth is that government isn’t very well equipped to handle local, international, or systemic issues. We are missing some key parts governance infrastructure – the departments we need simply don’t exist, and so a lot of what we care about is falling through the gaps.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 22.06.01Thinking at a local scale, imagine a map of results from the ’Would you like more bike lanes near where you live?’ question.  You’d be able see  look at a city and allocate resources. If we knew age and gender as well as postcode, we’d be able to see more patterns and respond accordingly.

And now thinking at the international level: Would it still be legal to import goods which made in factory conditions which would be illegal here? Would we wage the same wars? Would climate change be more robustly addressed? Maybe, maybe not, but one thing is clear:  the current system represents mainly itself, and does not represent you as it could.

3. We’d help our MPs do a better job

Many politicians are brilliant people who care passionately, and desperately want to help make things better for you. But we expect so much of them that it is impossible for them to satisfy us.

What if, rather then flood their inboxes with e-petitions, we could all openly access our constituency dashboard where we can show our MPs what we care about, how much, and how consistent we are (or are not!)?

We could show our opinions break down by age and gender, and  compare against census data to show turnout and representation to ensure that all voices are being heard – and find ways to engage those who aren’t yet represented.

And of course representation is a two-way dialogue, so your MP could also ask you what you think, so they can do a better job of representing you all in Parliament, and have the evidence they need not to let  party whips tell them how to vote.

4. Anyone could ask a question, and everyone can see the answers

Proper democracy isn’t just answering questions, it’s also about being able to ask them, get answers, find compromise, and take action.

Save for a few periods of popular dissent, we have allowed politicians to set the agenda. This has lead to group-think where there is little dividing the main parties, innovation is marginalised, and huge assumptions go unquestioned.

E-petitions have shown us the popularity of a citizen-led agenda, but they suffer from the same democratic flaw as party politics: if you disagree, you have no way to make your voice heard or discuss the issue.

Our goal as true democrats should not be purely to get a bigger, noisier group so that the other side backs down, but to consider and discuss so that we might untangle issues to the find concerns and solutions we can agree upon, to reduce the points of disagreement to a minimum; and then to understand each others concerns and priorities, and seek compromise if we can. Only as a last resort should it come down to a pure majority verdict.

And because we want to untangle complex issues, the answers to everyone’s questions should be open to all. We know companies and parties selectively publish survey results to show only the story they want. In an honest, mature, and fair society that is unacceptable. A politician may dismiss those who object to wind farms as “just a few vocal, old NIMBYs” – a hypothesis which it’s now very easy and very low-cost to check. So let’s get the facts so we can move the debate forward based on what we want, not what someone else is claiming we want.

5. We’d find lots more experts

Quite naturally, we don’t want to have to vote on everything all the time. It would get boring, and we’d have to be massively informed about everything if we wanted to do it well.

It’s odd, then, that we elect MPs to do exactly that. We send them to Westminster not to represent us on ‘only education’ issues, or even ’everything that effects our constituency’. No, we ask them to make informed decisions on EVERYTHING, whilst at the same time ALSO taking care of all the local issues. When you think about it, that’s rather optimistic of us. Do we seriously expect our politicians to be that good? Especially when many of them struggle to answer a straight question…

We’re going to need to make this process simpler. So far we’ve imagined a platform where we can easily participate, give our reasons and make our suggestions. What if you could compare yourself to other people, too? For example, it turns out that Julia and I agree 94% of the time on ’transport’ issues. In fact, I’ve also up-voted 4 of her reasons and 7 of her suggestions. So I could be reasonably confident that if Julia has already answered a ’transport’ question I can probably go along with what she says and save myself some time. (And I might use that time to answer more detailed ’environmental regulation’ questions and share my own expertise.)

We wouldn’t have to know that person before we delegated our vote to them. We could compare with anyone who makes their answers public, and add them into the mix, so that we might end up delegating our votes – topic by topic – to a pool of hundreds of scientists, journalists, friends, thought-leaders … and even politicians.

(You can see now why such a system hasn’t really been possible before – whilst it’s very straightforward, there’s a lot to keep track of. Definitely something for the internet era.)

There are a few great things about this: (1) you can add or remove someone at any time; (2) they never know who they influence so are less corruptible and there’s no one to lobby or hand a brown envelope to; and (3)  it works seamlessly with the existing system so is very hard to object to. If you want to delegate your vote to just one MP every 5 years and forget about politics, you go ahead and do that. But if you want to have more say, and bring more trusted expertise into politics, you absolutely can. It’s whatever scale and intensity of democracy we collectively choose it to be.

6. Don’t forget businesses

If we’re creating a better system, we should acknowledge the role business plays in modern society. After all, many businesses have revenues greater than the GDP of entire countries.

Businesses are like fruit trees. If well attended and kept in check, they blossom and provide nectar and healthy food, and can be a beautiful part of the garden. Unregulated and left to their own devices they gnarl, provide fewer fruits, spread, and suppress new growth.

There are more and more progressive and responsible businesses of all sizes who are changing the game in energy, clothing, technology, transport, healthcare and more.  We can help them by supporting them when they ask for help to improve the rules, and making sure we buy from them when we can.

It turns out that a lot of our money goes – completely unintentionally – to businesses who do not share our values. We would not expect the brands we trust to support unsafe working conditions like Rana Plaza, and yet they do. More than half of us don’t want fracking, and yet 97% of us invest £1000 in it each year via our energy bills simply because we don’t know otherwise. If we have a way to declare our ethics, we can find businesses who share them, and can help us become more responsible customers.

Two-thirds of us actively want to help businesses create better products and solutions. We could use this platform to do just that, opening up new opportunities, speeding innovation, and collectively urging greater responsibility – and even getting a better deal in return.

7. Make it easy.

Finally, it needs to be effortless – a simple and easy part of every day life which feels rewarding and possibly even fun – perhaps a bit like the addicting enjoyment some people get from flicking through Tinder. An experience which lets you know you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and that together we can make choices which are better for all of us.

 

What’s next? Join the Heard.

If the thing we’ve been imagining existed, we’d be able to make our government vastly more efficient and representative, save money, spread better ideas faster, and re-engage everyone who finds politics a turn-off.

Well I’m pleased to say that it already exists.

home

It’s called Represent, and it’s open to everyone, in any country. We’re young and moving fast: growing at about 10% per week, with our average user engaging 62 times per month.

We’d love for you to join in – and spread the word to your friends (the website is https://represent.cc). We believe that with your help we can bring about a renaissance in democracy and business responsibility by making sure our voices are heard.

Try it out – you can start with a question on transport, society, health, or just take pot luck.

Oh PS, naturally we’re walking the talk: if you would like to answer questions that determine Represent’s future we’d love to know your thoughts.

 

Ed Dowding

Technologist and entrepreneur, Ed specialises in social collaboration systems. His work has included building risk analysis services for the insurance industry, and from 2005 to 2010 he developed an SMS alert system which quickly grew into a full emergency management service for London local authorities and blue-lights.

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