Sunday, December 27, 2009

Measuring Opportunity

In a recent post, I discussed 'compulsory voting' as a powerful tool for measuring opportunity. It is important to note that 'compulsory voting' only mandates that you demonstrate your opportunity to vote, and does not compel you to vote.

Some theorists suggest that democracy is not something that everyone should participate in :
"The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups." - Samuel P. Huntington
There is a perception [Noam Chomsky][Andrew Gelman] that Huntington was proposing a ruling elite - a minority rule in which (as Chomsky puts it) '... the peasants cease their clamor'. From such a perspective it is hard to extract the idea that Huntington saw that everyone should be given the opportunity to participate. The observation on its own, however, could appear to be a pragmatic expression of the statement - 'One should not be compelled to participate, but one should have the opportunity to participate'. To my mind, the latter holds more importance than the former, and thus we arrive at a middle ground ('compulsory voting'), where your participation is required only to the degree that your opportunity is reliably measurable. Alternate mechanisms of measuring opportunity may reduce this burden of compulsory participation.

To this point we have been talking about representative, liberal democracy - where an elected minority have the power to implement policy, under the assumption that they will do so in accordance with the policy platform on which they ran to obtain the mandate of the people. This mechanism is a solution to the scalability problems of direct democracy - i.e. not everyone can have a say on all things all of the time.

Samuel Huntington might observe the solution to another perceived problem - not everyone should have a say on all things all of the time. He might argue that this is a positive side effect of our solution to the scalability problem. There are many reasons why we might want to solve the second problem - some decisions need to be made quickly, some decisions need to be made with expert advice, and some decisions have subtle implications that are not easily perceived without a detailed awareness of the problem.

Largely, in modern democracy, the people do not make policy decisions, for both scalability and pragmatic reasons. For example, an Australian citizen gets two opportunities to do so - voting in elections (Federal, State and Local), and voting in referendums. The opportunity to participate directly in policy decisions beyond this is very difficult to perceive [media][lobbying][big business][nepotism][etc.] - and the transparency of those policy decisions is very often questionable.

It is in this space that Gov 2.0 provides new opportunities for our democracy - public participation in policy. It increases our opportunity to participate at a fine grained level in a far wider range of policy decisions.  It offers us new opportunities to solve the scaling problem.

Of course we also have the problem of pragmatism - who should be eligible to participate? Eligibility to vote is generally determined by citizenship, age and residential address. Becoming eligible to participate in policy at a finer level may not be so trivial - a formal qualification or previous experience might be required. Expert labs offers some insight in to this aspect of policy making. To reliably extend this participatory model to everyone, we must be able to measure the opportunity to obtain the necessary qualifications or experience. And here we see a key element of 'opportunity to participate' - measuring opportunity is hard, even when the rules are very simple, such as for voting. Measuring opportunity when the eligibility criteria are more complex will be even harder.

Almost by stealth, we have begun to discuss two elements of opportunity -
  1. Opportunity to become eligible to participate - women were denied this opportunity until recently
  2. Opportunity to participate once you are eligible - afghani citizens were denied this opportunity under threat of violence
One might observe that these are essentially the two elements of suffrage. However, suffrage applies only to the right and opportunity to vote, and not to more complex processes such as policy making.  Point 2 is largely unchanged in both situations, however point 1 takes on a different meaning - eligibility might be earned, rather than an inviolable right, and we must now measure a group or individual's opportunity to become eligible - we can no longer wave the wand of universal suffrage to satisfy eligibility.

Of course policy making doesn't happen once every four years - it happens in real time, all the time - which is why Web 2.0 is such a great fit. Surely we can't show that everybody had all their opportunity, all the time - in fact we can largely guarantee that they didn't. With government as a platform - a system available on the internet, in the cloud - we have the potential for a new means of 'turning up', of proving your opportunity: log in periodically. This mechanism is a little strange - and highlights vividly the difference between turning up to the polling station on the one hand, and submitting your vote on the other - the former demonstrates that opportunity, while the latter exercises that opportunity. It is a convenient coincidence that they are one-to-one. By logging in to the government platform you could demonstrate your opportunity to do many things - everything the platform offers - a one-to-many scenario.

This also highlights the converse situation - the reason why people are opposed to 'compulsory voting'. Requiring every citizen to log on to a government system periodically is an extreme version of turning up to the polling station - and feels much more restrictive - or does it? If, instead of turning up to the polling station on a designated day for each compulsory election, you could go to your local library, or sit at your desk at home - wouldn't that be easier?

There are a great many additional considerations, especially related to identity [Andy Oram][Gadi Ben-Yahuda], but one of the things we will need to consider is the opportunity to participate in Government as a Platform, and how we measure that opportunity - especially when the requirements for participation are more complex than how old you are and where you live.

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