Digital unicorns and democratic rainbows

The funny thing about bringing digital to play in any organisation, process or structure is that it will inevitably cast a massive spotlight on all the broken processes, lazy practices and how unfit for purpose many institutions have become. It is an ugly magnification mirror held up to the very institutions it is being asked to open up to the vast digital communities of opinionated, but potentially hugely engaged and loyal, consumers.

This is not news. I am just setting the scene.

And so it is to be expected that much of the work of the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy has cast a relentless light on Parliament.

I have spent this year so far on the Commission, speaking to lots and lots of people about digital engagement, representation, legislation and so on. No matter where we start, we always come back to the role of MPs, and representative democracy. Give anyone ten minutes to really think about how it all works and they quickly start talking about ‘broken’ things and not feeling like anyone listens to them. All age groups, all walks of life. Everyone feels disengaged, and the MPs and Parliamentarians feel frustration, almost cornered – caught between overwhelmed and slightly rudderless. Everyone wants to kick stuff out of the way so that we can stop grinding to a halt and just crack on. (If you want to hear a few of these discussions I have recorded and published a couple here and here).

Unicorn to keep you happy whilst you read

I know a *lot* about digital

… strategy, engagement, communities, influence, communication blah blah etc I just have spent so long immersed in this stuff it is more a case of applying common sense.

Increasingly I have been fighting to stop the digital divide, no not between the on and offline people, but between digital and real life. It is real life. Online bullying is bullying. Stealing identity online is a the same as stealing identity offline. Online is a good way to expedite and communicate in some instances, it is not a replacement for everything in the world.

Like radio and TV, analogue (offline) engagement between Parliament and the people is not replaced by digital. They need to sit alongside each other… obvious right? You would be surprised how many people box digital up, and are then irrationally terrified of the perceived monster. But this current work the Commission is doing was really hard, and I could not work out why it was so flipping hard, it went beyond the usual irrational fear of the replacement of everything with robots. I knew to expect that it would throw up messy organisation structures and broken aged processes, but it wasn’t that… it was more important and tangible than that. It took me nine months to realise…

… I do not know enough about democracy.

This is the greatest challenge, democracy in a digital age. Communication; influence; representation; expectation of voice and of the individual; conversing on a global, national as well as hyperlocal scale; exposure to direct audience as well as being able to drum up your own in a few cleverly worded social media pronouncements completely borks the democratic society we sort of know and love.

It is not about putting the digital in democracy, it is about re-settling representative democracy in the digital renaissance.

It is waaaay beyond the remit of the Commission to address the Constitution of this country, and I am not suggesting that representative democracy can’t work – but what I am saying, is that it is fundamental that we all understand exactly how it all fits back together again. Because it will when the digital people know enough about political philosophy and democracy, and the political people know enough about digital communities and the multi-faceted audience.

We get that right and we can all get on with our lives feeling like we have put our family back together again. In my recent cramming on all things democratic, I started my journey on Wikipedia and Plato (the only person I automatically associated with being the go-to guy for political philosophy quotes when I was writing essays at school). I found this statement on the Wikipedia page describing Plato’s five regimes of government:

Democracy then degenerates into tyranny where no one has discipline and society exists in chaos. Democracy is taken over by the longing for freedom. Power must be seized to maintain order. A champion will come along and experience power, which will cause him to become a tyrant. The people will start to hate him and eventually try to remove him but will realize they are not able.

It is the one phrase that has haunted me this week (*cough* Scotland…) I wonder where we are in this swing between democracy and tyranny? Anyway, I shall leave you with that thought, and carry on. I have a tonne of stuff now in my Kindle notes, I will pull out the things that seem to resonate for those who fancy learning a bit with me.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Digital unicorns and democratic rainbows – Emma Mulqueeny | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Pingback: Responding to Emma’s post about the Digital Democracy Commission remit | Desiderium Sciendi

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