New Column: Democracy 2.0

Modern communication technologies such as the internet are providing new tools and channels for citizens to use in their interaction with governments – and vice versa. Is it time for citizens and governments alike to accept the changed landscape of politics, and begin opening up the ‘source code’ of democracy to closer inspection?

Democracy has always been designed to be a user-customisable system. Historically, making changes to the way the public interacts with government has been hampered not just by hierarchical power structures, but also by slow and limited channels of communication. In what seems like a relative blink of an eye, that situation has been turned upon its head.

Complex institutional systems are inherently resistant to rapid change, which might be assumed to be a function of human nature at the microcosmic scale. Even the most open-minded of people have probably found themselves in a position where the way they are expected to do their job has been altered, and felt a subconscious resentment – the implication that somehow they weren’t doing it properly beforehand. The tendency to take things personally is a human universal, and as an employee of local government in the UK I see evidence of these traits almost every day, even in myself.

But at the macrocosmic scale, the scale of entire demographics or populations, there is a contrasting hunger for change. That desire has recently been given a voice, or rather a channel that allows that voice to carry further than the other end of the bar or coffee shop; that channel is (of course) the internet. There have always been ways for citizens to talk to their government, but they have been slow, unresponsive and hampered by bureaucracy. They have also been opaque – a letter disappears into the political machine, and may never be seen or acknowledged again, regardless of the fact that it may well have reached its destination and been taken account of.

The internet has brought a transparency to the process, as well as the ability to connect with and mobilise into groups – single-issue campaigns by citizens are more feasible (and hence more popular and prevalent) than ever before, as is the ability of the public to lobby government to a degree previously only available to large organisations. There is a feeling among some analysts that this new sense of audience, an awareness that government now finds it harder to ignore the voices of the public, has contributed to the vigorous turn-out in the recent US mid-term elections – though this is hard to prove conclusively, as there are countless other sociological factors that need to be taken into account.

However, circumstantial evidence in favour of this theory arrives in the form of governments reacting explicitly to the consequences of ‘citizen media’. Here in the UK Matthew Taylor, a former strategy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, has gone on the record as saying that he feels the internet is provoking a crisis in the relationship between politicians and voters. To quote the BBC article:

‘The end of deference, the rapid pace of social change and growing diversity were all good things, he argued, but they also meant governments found it increasingly difficult to govern. “We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government,” Mr Taylor told the audience. Like “teenagers”, people were demanding, but “conflicted” about what they actually wanted, he argued. They wanted “sustainability”, for example, but not higher fuel prices, affordable homes for their children but not new housing developments in their town or village.’

His points are fair, and largely accurate – at least as far as the UK is concerned. He later says that internet channels (especially blogs) seem to gravitate to a mode of discourse that largely involves ‘abusing’ politicians, labelling them as corrupt and mendacious, and making incommensurate demands of them. But he subsequently weakens his argument by describing this as a media conspiracy to keep the public in a constant state of outrage. While there is almost certainly activity of this sort occurring, it seems more likely that this stridency is the result of a frustrated nation releasing years of pent-up discontent – when you take a gag off someone’s mouth, a tirade of anger is the first thing you expect to hear.

Taylor laments the fact that bloggers aren’t helping the public to ‘understand the trade-offs that politicians have to make’. While that is certainly the case, one could argue that it is not the responsibility of bloggers to do so – surely by definition a democratic government should be willing and able to show and explain the workings of its decisions to the people it is ostensibly working on behalf of?

Granted, internet political activism is still in its infancy, and it will take time for the reliable voices to rise above the soap-box fanatics in the reputation leagues. But the same applies to the government as well – if their voters must adapt to the times, so must they. The corporate world, especially in the US, is finding that openness to the public is increasingly necessary due to the leverage of the internet – it’s far better to be upfront and forthright than to be underhanded and get caught out. Reputation is everything, and nothing destroys reputations more effectively than obfuscation or, at worst, bald-faced lying. Hence governments, as institutions, are suddenly finding that the old way of doing things just isn’t satisfactory to their customers any more.

So perhaps it’s time for governments to open up further to the public, to expose the hitherto obscure workings and mechanics of the political process to the bright light of day. Instead of lamenting that the public want to do nothing but accuse you of corruption, why not pre-empt such attacks by making the decision-making process transparent? It’s hard to make the corruption label stick when evidence to the contrary is in plain sight and accessible to all. Possible first steps might be for all representatives to make their affiliations, finances, business interests and employment history freely available for scrutiny on their own websites, and for government budget plans (both local and national) to be made public in an easily accessible location, with explanatory annotations. In an information age, the hoarding of data does little to encourage good faith. Withholding such information merely implies (rightly or wrongly) that there is something worth hiding.

Taylor is right to say that public need to take a more mature attitude to their new-found dialogue with government, but government needs to meet the citizen half-way – if you treat people like children, you cannot realistically expect them to stop behaving in childish ways. Maybe the population isn’t yet able to make full use of access to the workings and procedures of government, but how are they to learn unless given the chance?

These are times of great social change, with technologies bringing new powers and responsibilities to citizens and governments alike. But while it is fair for governments to insist that their citizens adjust to this new landscape, they must realise that change has to be multilateral. Hierarchy is losing ground as the dominant social structure at all levels of society, and governments need to see that transparency and accountability are no longer options, but necessities.

One thought on “New Column: Democracy 2.0”

  1. Taylor laments the fact that bloggers aren’t helping the public to ‘understand the trade-offs that politicians have to make’. While that is certainly the case, one could argue that it is not the responsibility of bloggers to do so – surely by definition a democratic government should be willing and able to show and explain the workings of its decisions to the people it is ostensibly working on behalf of?

    Bloggers (and everyone with an Internet connection) have more power than before, because it is easier to be heard–we can publish to millions, easily. But with power does come responsibility. The idea that it is not a blogger’s responsibility to be evenhanded and reasonable is a cop out. No one should enforce that responsibility (I am not arguing for censorship), but the idea that we should scream foolishness and not be responsible for the result (namely, an ill-informed audience) is wrong. We reap what we sow. And we will deform government in the process.

    Not all “democratization” and openness is positive. In the US, committee votes used to be secret. In the name of government openness, committee votes were made public. This increased the strangle hold lobbyists have on our government, as they can now check up on who voted for or against them. More openness actually increased corruption in that case. This is not an argument against openness, but I do think the government has to be allowed to function.

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