Thought I’d venture into a bit of politics today. The channels of communication and social media that are opening around us, like flowers in spring, invite us to reconsider the role of the individual citizen in decision-making processes, at least in democratic countries. Are we not on the cusp of a transforming technology that allows—not just public debate orchestrated by main stream media—but the possibility of real input by ordinary people in the major policy decisions of our various levels of government?
Please join me today for a short thought experiment. Imagine a government website called mygov.org, where you may navigate to either Federal, State or Municipal government levels. Let’s suppose that we head for the State level. There we find:
- An overview of the structure of the State government—who are our representatives, what are the major departments, who is in charge of what, contact information and links etc.
- A summary of the current State Budget, together with summaries of previous budgets and a range of charts showing budget allocations in graphical form over various ranges of years. The citizen (you or I or our next door neighbour) can get a sense for where the State government gets its money (mostly from us of course!) and what it is spending it on. In particular a summary of the current levels of debt are prominently visible.
- A record of our politicians’ debates in the various houses of government, a current listing of bills being proposed, and written statements from elected representatives as well as public experts on issues of current policy.
- And of greatest interest! The VOTING BOOTH: an electronic portal that allows voting citizens (via a user name and password) input into the issues of the day. For example: Should we decrease the cost of the Airport train link to encourage tourists to use it, keep it as it is, or hike it to make more money? On this issue we can read pros and cons from various groups which have some expertise or direct involvement, as well as summaries from politicians and civil servants that have an opinion. There are threads of comments for public debate. Costings of the various alternatives from Treasury are there, as well as a legal analysis, if relevant. And at the bottom, you have a chance to vote: by using (say) one to three of your 10 yearly STATE VOTING COUPONS. If this issue is one that you feel strongly about, you can assign some weighted allocation of votes to the issue, and all our votes are combined to determine a public response to the topic.
Obviously this last point needs some mathematical and sociological expertise to set up, and tinkering no doubt will be needed to get it working well. During the first years of this tentative real-time democracy, perhaps the government would be legally obliged to follow the electorate if a 75% majority was in one direction or another, but only encouraged to follow us if the range was 50%-75%. The role of politicians would move subtly towards framing questions and providing balanced and detailed (!) views of the different sides to issues, persuading us by providing facts and careful reasoning, not just cliches and wishful thinkings.
But are we, the rabble, sensible and intelligent enough to hold some of the reins of power? Are we really interested and willing? My guess to both of these questions is a tentative yes. We would want to ensure some checks and balances.
And what about all those entrenched and vested interests? That’s also a question.