Changing democracy: doing it to the politicians

Going to vote in your council elections? Or do you think it doesn’t much matter who gets in? If so, join the majority. Representative democracy’s grip is loosening. That bothers some public-spirited people. Should it?

Representative democracy substitutes for direct democracy — voting on issues by referendum or, in a small electorate, in a “town hall” meeting — and participatory democracy through meetings and “consultation”.

Representative democracy goes back most of a millennium. Representatives are elected to apply their judgment on electors’ behalf. Over the past two centuries, at least in national assemblies, these representatives have been organised into parties exercising that judgment on party lines.

As our society has grown more diverse, once-strong voter loyalties to parties have weakened. Parties and governments have responded by turning to polling and focus groups for guidance on action or inaction.

To a citizen who does not follow the fine detail of politics, this smacks of cynicism — policy reduced to just another product in a crowded consumer marketplace. Voter turnouts have been falling. To politicians this looks like cynicism and some worry how to fix it.

But when Cadbury put suspect palm oil in its chocolate, a vote was taken — in the “social media”, in cyberspace. Cadbury reversed fast.

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton through multi-layered organising and fund-raising through the social media. Andrew Raseij, a United States social media guru ( says that in the 2008 presidential campaign there were 1.5 billion views of online videos with candidates John McCain or Obama in the headline but only one-tenth of those originated in the campaigns — the rest were “by people who were trying to influence each other”.

In other words a sort of pubs-and-clubs chat developed on the internet. Since, Raseij alleged (and many analysts would agree), “most political opinion is formed by people talking to each other”, this demonstrated the potential of the social media to greatly expand the number and range of people involved in that person-to-person opinion-forming.

Appropriately, Raseij made his comments (by Skype) at a Labour party event on Saturday exploring open government policy — by way of an experimental in-person and online day of discussion open to all comers. Internet-savvy MP Clare Curran organised it.

Phil Goff was remarkably open. Noting the much greater availability of government information and statistics (last year’s addition was and improved mechanisms for filing tax returns and other dealings with the state, he said that nevertheless was “mostly one-way communication”.

“The next step is to facilitate two-way engagement,” he said. His examples were skyping an agency, joining a Facebook group of people dealing with an agency or a politician or contributing to a “public sphere” (to take the Australian government’s innovation) discussion on a policy issue. Labour has its Red Alert blog of MP posts, sometimes at odds with Labour policy, as when Raymond Huo defended China’s Tibet position.

Goff backed a “culture change in the way public services are delivered”, said people “need to know that the business of government will not be conducted in secrecy” and committed himself to take seriously ideas the forum came up with for “transparent government”. The forum debated six “themes”: transparency, open public sector data and information, “opening up the public sector”, “collaborative and participative policy development”, “citizen-centric services” and “open infrastructure”. Saturday’s main discussion points are on for public comment.

One participant was sceptical much would come of it. All parties in opposition swear to be more open in government but change once in office, he said.

But that might not be in the hands of the politicians. Raseij cited privately generated “platforms” which citizens have engaged in and which eventually governments have taken seriously. An example, now operating in 50 cities: photos of potholes taken on mobile cameras, posted on a site to alert officials who can act quickly and efficiently.

With a American’s yen for hyperbole, he sees a “renaissance of civic engagement”. But imagine the potential for fast police reaction in emergencies if the platform instantaneously delivered the who, what and where from mobile phones at the scene.

Grant Robertson, a Labour generation-X MP, said cyber-engagement could turn politics around. “For most people, politics is something that is done to them. So they disengage.” Twitter, Facebook, U-Tube and the other proliferating and mutating mechanisms might make politics something people do — or at least that the government does with them, not to them.

Now, what was that about elections? “The medium is not the message,” Robertson said, contradicting Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s aphorism. Someone has to process, decide on and action (or not) the messages. Guess who.