Can Greece become a Rewired State?

We owe Greece big time. We owe Greece for one of the greatest infrastructures upon which our societies have been formed: Democracy.

The irony is that it is because of Greece we are being given a cracking big mirror into why democracy based on land boundaries cannot and does not work.

I am sure many other people are having the same conversations I am: where are the multi-billionnaires so determined to “make the world a better place”? Were I a multi-billionnaire who would not miss 1.6bn I would definitely use it to buy Greece a year to work out how it is going to break itself better.

I don’t have 1.6bn, but if everyone who lived in a democracy gave a few pounds/euros/dollars we would quickly be there. Indeed, here is the Indiegogo crowdfunding page for doing just that (set up by a 29 year old from York).

But instead of asking for olive oil or something from Greece in return, let’s say it is our gesture of thanks to you for democracy.

In return we would like to work with the people of Greece to build a new democracy. That recognises the new world, the geographical borders that become more irrelevant every day, those inconsequential maps that are transcended by the digital Renaissance. We have a chance. A real chance. To rewire this. End the rhetoric. Enter the rubicon. And once again Greece can build the infrastructure of the future.

We cannot laugh it out of Europe as a massive failure. It has provided the basis upon which we stand and scorn. It is once again pivotal.

Here’s how I think it can be done:

For many years now many of us have been talking about how technology can save the world. Rewired State was born out of that rhetoric and its community of both young people and the civic techs. We wanted to break things better, find new ways of making all the stuff we were talking about become reality. Stop talking, start building.

For the past seven years we have been working with governments, Parliaments and industry applying the Boolean logic of “if this, then that” to real challenges and creating and launching real solutions.

We have led debates, found new ways of thinking about things and last year I spent much of it on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, examining what was happening worldwide and giving a baseline for a new form of engagement and representation.

But the Commission could not go far enough. It was bound by its terms. And what we found challenges representative democracy.

Now Greece is in crisis, and people are trying to fix it based on old paradigms and infrastructure that is no longer relevant anywhere.

Rewired State has the community, the connections and the experience to work with the young people, the civic tech community and democratic philosophers of Greece. Our extended community of civic tech organisations and democratic philosophers around the world can form Rewired Greece. In a year we can create a new system of democracy that insures the rest of the democratic world against suffering the way the Greeks have had to suffer.

Here are the actions:

1. Crowdsource the money on indiegogo but forgo the oil (yes — no demands for oil in return please gang! That’s the way wars start — even if it is olive)

2. Join Rewired Greece. I am going to be working on funding this and will host an evening for those who want to come and help work on next steps and making this real. Please email nat@rewiredstate.org with the Subject line: Rewired Greece and I will send you details of the event when I have an idea of numbers.

#CarswellWatch

Here is my theory:

Douglas Carswell is a good man and a great politician. He has thought deeply about what he believes in and what the future might hold for democracy. He wrote his book: The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy after many years of thinking. He thought so deeply and could find no party to match his ideals exactly. In the end I believe that he wanted his own party and had a choice, influence a party, rebrand it and bring his own policies to bear; or start a new one. I think he is cuckooing UKIP. I think he may well be the sleeper we hope is out there.

How I came to this view tl:dr

Cheezburger animated GIF

In the olden days when he was in opposition he came to the same fringe events Tom Watson MP (who was in power at the time) attended. He would chat to the civic tech community and shared his views on democracy. So it started there, I had a chat with him once, in about 2006 I think, next to an assembly stage in some school. I liked his rhetoric, even if I did not agree with all of it.

Then he wrote his book, I read it and then read lots more, but his book was one of the most interesting.

When I was a commissioner on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, he came and gave evidence and he was very compelling, alongside Jim Knight – they were a dream team.

THEN!!!

On my way to visit my Dad, I was listening to the radio and heard that he had defected from the Tories to UKIP. Now I am not a Tory, I am a died in the wool Labour woman, but this coming within weeks of his commission evidence. I was like…

Then on the way home I was thinking, what on earth would make a clever politician do this? And the ONLY reasonable explanation was that he was being a cuckoo. I have told few about this theory, but this news today backs up my theory.

Watch this space #carswellwatch

Open data explained through the medium of Blue trousers (and chickens)

“Yes but *why* is open data important?”

When acting as Commissioner on The Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy I was often asked what was the single most important recommendation we could make. I always replied “open data”, here is why:

You know how if you go online to buy a pair of blue trousers. You have a bit of a mooch around and regardless of whether you bought a pair or not, blue trousers will thereafter follow you around the Internet. In your Facebook page, your gmail, your online news channel, somewhere on those pages you will have blue trousers suggested to you.

We know this, we even expect it even though we used to find it creepy. These machine learned behaviours and smart algorithms are just something we accept, something we have come to assume as normal.

But this only happens because that blue trouser data is open to freely move about.

Now in Parliament, the information is not ready yet for this kind of movement around the web. It is *designed* to be destination data, you have to go to it, on the website.

Retro right?!

But way more importantly, more significantly, our learned behaviour pattern means that if something is not actively moved into our digital space, we are more than likely to miss it. When Parliamentary data is open you will find out about what is happening in Parliament that might interest you, using exactly the same voodoo that is used to serve you every variety of blue trouser.

Let’s say you are a lady who is totally nuts about chickens, you have hundreds of them as your pets. A Bill is going through Parliament that is going to make the ownership of chickens illegal. Until that data is open, you will only know about this by seeking out the information elsewhere – yet how could you realistically know about everything going through Parliament? Once the data is open, you will have the Ban the chickens Bill across all your online spaces, and you will be able to then do something to fight your chicken cause. And so it is important.

Digital democracy, online voting and divorce

Yesterday heralded the publishing of the report by the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, I was part of the team that worked on it for the last year – and loved every moment. The report is here should you fancy a quick read, there is a lot in there, but it is all pretty sane – although I am biased (and proud!).

In my last post on this topic, written the evening before the report publication, I mentioned how the work we did became far more about how you re-settle democracy in a digital age, rather than just chucking digital at the democratic system and processes we have in place at the moment. Systems and processes that are not really engaging anyone and have not embraced the digital communities in any immediately obvious fashion.

This has led to people not feeling particularly well-represented, despondent and completely disengaged from what actually happens in Parliament, other than shouting at each other and roaring old fashioned expletives at each other across the floor of the House of Commons. This is an issue that cannot be wholly addressed by a Commission charged with “investigating the opportunities digital technology can bring for parliamentary democracy in the UK”, but one that is pretty easy to recognise.

Heading for the divorce courts

Throughout the last year, conversations have run rife around Commissioners’ kitchen tables, official round tables, formal meetings in Parliament and sports stadiums (stadia for the insistent) around the UK about what is driving everyone nuts. And most of the time this came down to a mismatch in what people were saying in their digital communities and online social spaces, and what they were hearing in Parliament. There was a breakdown in communication and this was really divorcing the people from their elected representatives.

It often felt like we were the marriage counsellors in the initial grumpy meetings of two very unhappy souls: Mr People and Mrs Parliament. Both really want the marriage to work – but neither party were really hearing each other. One had a whole digital life that was being completely ignored, or inappropriately engaged with, by the other. And we had to just sit back and listen for a year before we sketched out a route to resolving the digital element of this.

I know: online voting!!

I will write about a few of the recommendations as I have time over the coming weeks, but I would like to really refocus one conversation thread that has been the almost sole focus of the press reporting recently: online voting.

It was not something that people really complained about, it was just an assumption that one day they would be able to and that this ability would be there. We spoke to a *lot* of experts around the world about this, and it is a focus for many democratic countries but has great challenges for security and anonymity online; as anyone who knows anything about cyber-security will tell you. (Yes we spoke to Estonia!). Nevertheless, it is something that people just expect, and so it is in the report as something that needs to be given priority and attention, under the heading: by the 2020 election people should have the option to vote digitally.

Being able to digitally approve or disapprove of annual marriage check-ins is not the answer to the current crisis in democracy. A change in the way we communicate with our representatives, and the way they communicate back to us is what will make the biggest difference. And digital means can go a huge way to addressing this breakdown, mainly through communication and community, openness and transparency.

The trust has left the marriage. Only vigilance, truth, openness and honesty will bring back the democratic dream.

If there is democracy, there has to be digital…

… and voting is a key element of representative democracy. Therefore digital voting must be incorporated into representative democracy in a digital age. It is not by any means a top story solution, but it is an easy headline, and an easy topic to chew the fat over with digital types – please can we not let it derail or skew the rest of the recommendations?

 

At 00:01 26th January 2015 the first UK report on Digital Democracy will be live

Tomorrow morning sees the launch of the report: Open Up! by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. I have been lucky enough to be a commissioner on this alongside the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MPRobert Halfon MP, Meg Hillier MP, Paul Kane, Helen Milner, Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Femi Oyeniran and Toni Pearce. It has been quite a journey to here, so tomorrow is hugely exciting. In the coming weeks I will write about some of the recommendations we have made and why, but for now I just wanted to remind you what it was we were charged with.

What was the Commission actually doing?

Set up by the Speaker, the Commission was “investigating the opportunities digital technology can bring for parliamentary democracy in the UK”. We were to focus on specific areas:

Electronic voting

Engagement and facilitating dialogue

Representation

Digital scrutiny

Making laws in a digital age

We spent a year hearing from experts from around the world with results of research, pilots and live activities in each of these areas – to help us learn and make recommendations for what Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, could do to maintain representative democracy in a digital age. All of the contributions and evidence gathered over the year can be read here.

What happens next?

We have made a number of recommendations that will be available for you to read from the links at the end of this page from 00:01 26th January 2015. Those recommendations have dates against many of them, that we feel are reasonable for delivery of the most important activities. Some are easy, some are hard – most are building on work already happening in Parliament, but perhaps not identified as so critical to democracy, and/or could do with renewed vigour and attention.

But it has also become really apparent that this is just the very beginning, and the coming years will see a great change in the way people learn, share and influence, as digital communities become a greater representative voice of the people. If nothing else the breadth of the work covered by the commission and in the report will serve as a heads up that there is a lot to consider once you embrace digital. And the digital communities deserve as much of a voice as those who engage with Parliament through traditional channels.

This is the first time a Commission has been set up in this country to look specifically at democracy in a digital age, indeed anywhere, and I hope that the output tomorrow will lead to a wider conversation with other democratic countries. I am totally up for that and keen to do more.

Repesentative democracy in a borderless age

One of the greatest opportunities and challenges afforded by the digital renaissance is the removal of geographical boundaries and limitations. Borders are physical, the web transcends these. In representative democracies this is a fundamental shift.

It changes and challenges the modus operandi for everything we have become comfortable with. There has been no evidence that I have seen that a representative democracy cannot work in a digital age, but there are challenges that were thrown up during the course of the last year, that went way beyond the remit of the commission – but I think cannot remain unaddressed.

I am passionate about living in a democracy, and being a part of the work of this Commission has been one of the most important things I have ever done. I know a lot about digital, but until last year I did not know enough about democracy and the journey of the last 12 months of learning, listening and finding workable solutions has been what can only be described as passionately challenging! I have read lots of books, watched many online lectures and spoken to many people who know everything that can be known about democracy and have way too many bits and pieces saved on my computer, but I have copied some quote here for you here that I think need to be thought about in relation to digital communities and their voice (these are all from Political Philosophy – A Complete Introduction: Teach Yourself by Phil Parvin, Clare Chambers):

The representative model retains the idea of popular sovereignty (that sovereignty should lie with the citizen body) without requiring every individual citizen to engage in the affairs of state. The business of government is handled by representatives who are charged with the responsibility of legislating in accordance with the will of the people. On such a model citizen participation is limited to certain key activities, such as voting, by which political power is transferred to the representatives…

…. Democracy is a method for making decisions when people disagree. Given the diversity of modern liberal democratic states, it is unrealistic to expect consensus on most political issues. Indeed, populations of democratic states like Britain or the USA rarely, if ever, reach unanimous consensus. People disagree about almost everything: state provision of healthcare, immigration, state funding of the arts, sentencing of criminals, religion and so on. Consequently, the best that democratic states can do is enact the will of the majority of the people. But this means that there will be winners and losers: some people get the leaders and the laws that they want, and others do not. The losers must accede to laws and leaders with which they may profoundly disagree….

In democratic societies we think that everyone should have an equal right to influence decisions about state action. Why? It is not as if political matters are straightforward or easy. On the contrary, states require incredibly complicated and difficult decisions on a range of complex topics which have national and international implications. Democracy seems to hold that there is no role for expertise in the realm of politics, but this seems implausible…

the representative model puts decision-making power in the hands of people who are charged with thinking about these issues on a full-time basis, without abandoning the idea that ultimate power lies in the hands of the citizen body at large. But still, politicians in a representative system are broadly required to act in accordance with the will of their constituents, even if only out of a desire to get re-elected.

This is democracy’s next ‘printing press’ moment, it is not about putting the digital in democracy, it is about re-settling representative democracy in the digital renaissance.

Every single person who strode or stumbled into conversation with me or with the other Commissioners on the topic of Digital Democracy was worked up about some or many aspects of it. I saw no apathy anywhere. Dismay and disillusion, yes – but apathy no.

And so I am really looking forward to everyone seeing our real recommendations, against challenges they will recognise in their every day lives. And more so, I am looking forward to everyone feeling more and more engaged and represented over the coming five years; feeling that their voice has a place to be heard and that they can easily find out what is happening on topics they care about.

Important links for tomorrow:

The launch is live-streamed from 08:45 tomorrow here

The report will be available live from 00:01 Monday 26 January at http://www.digitaldemocracy.parliament.uk and http://digitaldemocracy.parliament.uk

Digital voting and democracy: a Q&A with myself

Yesterday I was on a panel as part of the BBC Democracy day, discussing all things digital and democratic. I was there partly because I like to hack government and have set up a business based on doing just that, and because I also sit on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy.

(For those who did not click on the link explaining what I mean by hacking government, I suggest you do before freaking out!)

Much was discussed of course, but I was not able to process fully or comment thoughtfully on the extended discussion about online voting. (Stuart Dredge has written this conversation up very well on the Guardian site here but I would like to continue the discussion after having slept on it.)

Those who have read my blog posts over the years will know that I tend to write when I am in the process of noodling stuff, rather than after I have fully formed an opinion. It helps my brain but also your input really helps me understand what it is I am not considering – so please do pile in.

This topic is very clearly divided into:

1. Should it happen? and

2. How will it happen?

The how is the technical conversation, and quickly becomes a topic that few can follow with full understanding of the words people are using; it starts with encryption and gets worse from there. I cannot add to this, nor can I hand on heart take part in this discussion with full knowledge of the facts, examples and technology required, so I would rather leave that to those who do. And I do hear your impassioned pleas to understand more, I am doing my best (the Commission has had a *lot* of input from experts on this).

So let’s stick to the should question… I am going to write this in the form of a Q&A just because it makes the most logical sense in my head right now, feel free to write it up more thoughtfully!

Should people be allowed to vote online, with their phones, tablets or laptops?

I believe that the answer to this is definitely yes

Is this just to increase voter participation?

No. Not at all.

Why then?

This is to ensure that those who prefer to use digital tools are able to, and that the feel-good factor of sharing participation in a representative democracy is extended to the community tools we use in all other aspects of our digital lives. I am passionate about bridging the digital divide: not the one between those who do digital and those who don’t. I mean the perceived separation between online life and offline life. Community interaction, influence, learning and celebration is as valid online as it is offline – and the needs of the multiple digital communities must be met in their own space. This includes being able to vote digitally.

The analogue process of voting is not perfect, indeed as Bill Thompson said on the panel yesterday: “… paper ballots are broken in ways that we understand”, but it does the job and we are familiar with it. But there needs to be a digital way to participate in voting for a representative, because otherwise the most important part people play who live in a democracy is totally absent from where many of us choose to interact, learn, share, influence: in online community spaces.

Will being able to click-vote cheapen the whole process of democracy?

No more so than some of the behaviour we are familiar with in Parliament!! I would hasten to add that (especially young people) voting would be far more rigorously researched in an online environment. I would suggest that actually being able to vote online would do the opposite of cheapening the whole process, I think it would (or could), make people take it more seriously.

How do you stop undue influence being brought to bear with people standing behind others and forcing voting a certain way?

I mean, in the same way that someone could influence you walking into a booth and ticking a box, I see no difference because it is online. It is an illegal practice, and the person who was forced to vote online a certain way will have the same recourse to law as their offline persona has. It’s this old digital divide again – why does digital suddenly make illegal practice OK? It doesn’t.

In conclusion

It is up to those who are a part of a democracy to take their role seriously, both the representatives and the represented – and that has nothing to do with technology. But technology and digital information, communication and tools can greatly enhance and amplify active participation, and it is unthinkable that this could be ignored because it is a technical challenge.

Do we really have such little faith in the behaviour and morals of those in the democracy that they cannot be trusted to play their part unless forced to walk somewhere and be watched over by GUARDIANS OF THE VOTING PROCESS with their flip board and pens? If so, I think we have a greater challenge on our hands than representative democracy in a digital age.

The podcast of the BBC panel is available here for you to listen to the whole debate, should you fancy.

PostScript and disclaimer

I am writing this just purely from riffing the thoughts in my head, I am not writing this as Commissioner for Digital Democracy, although obviously my thoughts on this have fed into the Commission’s discussions. The report on Digital Democracy is being published next Monday, and covers many topics – I shall write more after it is launched about all of the other many ways that a representative democracy can work in a digital age.

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.