Monday, June 6, 2011

Revolutionise the way we govern ourselves

'If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.' - Aristotle

Things are screwed up. There's a process called democracy that is supposed to give everyone the opportunity to participate in government. To hold those in power to account. To influence what happens. Most people are a very long way from the policy making process, while the path to move closer is... obscure. It's no accident.

No matter which part of the machine you look at, corporate interest trumps everything else. The corporate tentacles are everywhere - keeping the public interest as far from the mechanics of government as possible. Money talks.

And we can't blame the corporations for that. They are finely tuned machines designed for one thing, and one thing only - making money. They are operating precisely as designed. There is no self-regulation beyond this design. There is no 'ethics'. It is the job of government to apply ethics and other non-money-making concerns - to legislate and implement policy constraining the behaviour of the capitalist machine in the public interest, to make it work effectively for society.
Corporate Government
simplified model

So we can understand why corporations have their tentacles in every office, guiding each political party, lobbying every policy decision, every department head, and working to keep a sedated and compliant public at bay. They are relentless, and should they fail will try again, and again, and again. It is just a high stakes game, the process of business. A corporation would be negligent not to leverage everything at its disposal. The apparent choice our political system presents us with is an illusion.

Thus we find ourselves in a position where corporate interest eventually trumps everything else. This happens because the public are so removed from the process, because the process lacks transparency, because the process is so inaccessible. We don't stand a chance.

Our democracy is dysfunctional.

A new hope, however, is coming into view - our new connectivity, the steady wiring of the global brain - is an uncomfortable landscape on which to keep the public compliant. People making and choosing their own media, operating person to person, removing the middle-men, expecting transparency - all make things much more difficult for the corporation. Only true, of course, if we don't get caught in filter bubbles. As Eli Pariser notes in that TED talk -
'You can't have a functioning democracy if citizens don't get a good flow of information'.
It's a significant reason why we don't have a functioning democracy. Corporations are not only regulating themselves, but they are doing it behind closed doors.

And so we direct our rage against the corporate machine (how dare they!?). But it's a red herring. All that energy just gets funnelled into the various marketing departments, feeding the beast. The only way to really make a difference is to wrest back control of our government, of policy making, so that we can apply constraints beyond money making to corporate behaviour. Constraints like ethics, transparency, compassion, sustainability, community, diversity and aesthetics.

Lucky then that we have, and have always had, total power to do just that. The reins are right there.

A New Hope

So how can we leverage the internet to resolve our little conundrum? Simple - provide the tools of policy making to the public.

The tools of policy making are collaboration, process, experience, expertise, and knowledge. The public already possess the latter three in vast quantity, while the former are ripe for implementation on the emerging social fabric of the web. It's not a new perspective - in 2009 the UK conservative party had this to say -
There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by government...
It is crazy ... you've got lots and lots of retired health professionals, retired policemen, people in the teaching profession, who have huge knowledge and expertise and had they been able to contribute better to the policymaking process we could have avoided some of these problems. []

Public Government
simplified model
Let's take that concept a little further - such a platform would enable the public to produce policy without  the requirement of government involvement - to form their own think tanks, their own advocacy groups, working with different processes, yet integrating with each other - able to produce actionable policy.

Take this concept further again and these public groups have the opportunity to be directly involved in actual policy implementation. They would, in fact, be better qualified for such a role than just about any other cross section of society.

We should also use 'policy' in its broadest sense here - the outputs might be environment policy, a set of ethical axioms, guidance, recommendations or protocols. Even further - outputs might be new or modified processes and procedures for policy making. A system able to keep itself fresh. The social mechanics of reputation and rating driving an open environment for policy competition. Competition that isn't for money.

Fine grained public participation in government - a global collaborative social structure with the ability to model the policy making process would be transformational.

There is no expectation on the magnitude of public participation. Many people would be happy not to spend time in this way. What is important is that the processes can be clearly seen, and that people can choose to be involved as little or as much as they desire, with the ability to focus their energy on the things that matter to them - the things they are passionate about. In good times the rate of participation would probably be lower, while in bad times it might be expected to increase.

Four key questions need answering:

1. Why would a political party choose to outsource all or part of its platform to public policy forums?
  • Public policy forums transcend election cycles. Over time the quality and depth of their output will far exceed that produced in reaction to short election cycles. One can imagine a future where a policy group has existed for many generations. The transparency on the process of policy construction will also be very high - evident in the history of the social exchanges of the policy group. The consistency of the public policy forum is very high. The lure of a free, quality policy position, backed by research, experts, and public support will be very high for a polictical party seeking office.
  • A political party is a public policy group. Another perspective is that a public collaboration platform of this sort is a tool tailored specifically for the function of a political party, giving them greater efficiencies, greater reach and better capabilities for public engagement.
  • Public policy forums have access to a far greater diversity and quality of input than government managed processes. Quality policy is dependent upon the quality, diversity and freshness of the input. It's a dynamic system with low barriers for involvement - fluid participation in groups on the internet, versus a rigid system with high threshold for involvement - job interviews, employment contracts, and significant time commitments. Lowering barriers to participation means getting passionate, skilled people to the right places when they want to be there.
  • Production of policy is a very expensive undertaking for existing government - focus groups and quangos, research and public outreach, publishing and marketing - you name it. All if this activity is transferred to the public policy forum. The public purse becomes utilised for implementation. More government money for greater public benefit is good for everyone, and allows the party to offer more to the electorate during the election cycle.
  • The public vote for politicians. Choosing quality policy produced by the public is a very easy sell to the public. It would be difficult to compete in an election without also offering this.
  • High profile public figures who are active in policy forums can use their influence to promote the public policy being produced in those forums. Swaying public opinion towards the use of public policy in policy platforms only enhances the previous point.
  • The parties themselves can form their own groups in the same system - indeed they may choose to provide their policy platform in this manner, aggregating some or all of it from the public pool. Being able to offer this kind of transparency to the public would be an easy sell. "Come see what we're doing, get involved, and vote for us" - a hard pitch to compete against.
2. Why would doing so have any impact on corporate influence of government policy?
  • When policy is sourced publicly, the public have an increased interest in watching the path of that policy into action. Making part of the mechanism transparent significantly increases pressure on the remainder.
  • Corporations will be forced to influence policy via the public forums - this will increase transparency on their behaviour. This will occur because the policy group is the 'master copy' of the policy, and variance after the fact through covert, non-transparent influence is a much more direct assault on the will of the public. A party sourcing public policy and failing to implement it raises questions that are far more difficult to answer than when the policy creation process was hidden behind closed doors.
  • Elements of society affected by corporate influence will have the capacity to react by joining debate on associated policy areas, or by forming specific policy groups which highlight the behaviour. When those policy options have actual potential to be taken up, rather than just voices raised against the wind, their power is much greater.
  • Debate about the nature of policy will move out of academia, out of the halls of government and into public forums. It is expected that a quality policy group will contain a wide ranging debate on the constituents of the policy they produce. This will increase public awareness of the broader spectrum of the debate, countering filter bubbles - it will be difficult to join the debate and not be exposed to a full cross section of opinion.
  • Access to the public policy pool makes it incredibly easy to construct a high quality policy platform. This significantly lowers the barriers to new parties and candidates. Candidates can run on ideas, as leaders, as inspirational figures - rather than the size of the wallets, rather than their affiliations to the status quo. Moving away from the 2 party system significantly undermines corporate control of government - you can no longer donate to everyone. Corporations like homogenous environments, not heterogenous ones.
3. Are there any additional benefits?
  • Actual involvement in the execution of government will necessarily eventuate for those public policy groups which were used to source the elected government platform. They could fulfil a variety of roles - supporting the policy, monitoring of implementation, advice, reporting. It would even make sense in many situations for group members to take roles in government or government departments to support the policy implementation. Remember that the group is likely formed of people skilled specifically in areas related to that policy, and more importantly people who are passionate enough about that policy to give their own time. A huge increase in the amount and quality of energy applied in every policy area could be expected, and would transform the effectiveness of our government.
  • Diversity. Elected government function moves from policy definition to administration functions - it is a narrowing of responsibility, and thus makes the job easier, the outcomes better, and suitable for a wider range of people.
  • People can see their output being implemented, having an effect. This has tremendous feedback benefits, and is a driver for increased participation in government. No longer does one have to rely on their vote making a difference - they now have the ability to contribute directly to policy.
  • Better informed public opinion. Like the wikipedia of why we are doing what we are doing and how we are doing it.
  • Every policy forum is like an actively operating opposition. Whether they belong to the chosen policy platform or not, these policy groups continue to present their output, continue to make their case. Greater diversity of opinion enhances the debate.
  • Measurement of government performance focusses much more on the quality of policy implementation.
4. What are the issues?
  • Corporations aren't going to like it. That could get... messy. Loss of power rarely goes down well with the powerful.
  • Existing political parties won't like it - they too have a vested interest in the status quo. One might argue this is the same as the first point.
  • As noted by the UK conservatives above, there isn't any software capable of doing this.
  • The public might get ahead of themselves - a wacky candidate promising the world and using the most generous of policy platforms might win an election. That's democracy for you :)
  • It could be argued that policy creation and maintenance is not a task for the public - there are reasons that we delegate this task to our representatives. It would seem though that the internet gives us new opportunities to scale, opportunities that didn't exist when the current representative system was designed. We are no longer constrained by distance, or by the physical dimensions of a town-hall.
  • Perhaps it is not possible to build software that can model such a complex and changeable adaptive system. Perhaps Facebook is the pinacle of social collaborative systems on the web.
Perhaps one could argue that the chaos of the internet is our model, and we need only watch the future unfold before our eyes. Perhaps, yet we can sense that it is not enough, that it is not sufficiently cohesive to realise the vision. The emerging points of control are corporate in nature - our lives are becoming more ruled by corporate concerns, not less. The collaborative operating system remains absent. The global brain lacks the wiring we need - a fabric that can drive quality of thought, quality of action, and most of all a restore some humanity to the way we collectively operate.

I'm really hoping to have ongoing discussions with people to try and punch holes in this approach. There's also bound to be a great many benefits that haven't been articulated. Hopefully we can reach a point where the need for a system of mass participation is taken for granted, and the only problems are those of implementation - how can you build this system, how do you solve problem XYZ? This is the discussion that we need to have.

It's time to wrest back control, time to revolutionise the way we govern ourselves.