Monthly Archives: November 2016

Working for Way Deeper Democracy

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I am excited about a nascent democracy innovation project – called Way Deeper Democracy – for which I am seeking partners, supporters, funders and everyday political visionaries. I imagine partners coming maybe from among media organisations, academic researchers, grassroots democracy activists, progressive foundations and, maybe, even existing politicians or political organisations.

I will provide more details in the coming weeks, though feel free to contact me via my twitter account if you want to know more right away. For now, these are the main elements.

Project Vision

Public decision-making processes reflect citizens’ informed views by way of responsive, transparent, accountable and inclusive processes. Political systems at all levels of government are profoundly more trustworthy and fit for purpose, easing societal tensions, fears and frustration.

Project context

Fairer, more inclusive ways of public decision-making are springing up across different continents, offering people more say in the political decisions that shape their lives. The effect is to free people’s energies, imagination and creativity for themselves, their fellow citizens and communities.

Among the most promising are lottery-based systems – using randomly selected groups of people to reflect on political questions and recommend solutions, much like criminal juries. Another is participatory budgeting, an idea born of efforts to ease extreme poverty in Brazil, which gives citizens direct influence over how sizeable amounts of public money are spent where they live.

Findings from such systems showcase people’s inherent political wisdom and natural sense of social justice. They demonstrate the real possibility of radically better decisions to those delivered by existing political systems. The idea of their spread elsewhere raises enticing prospects of a politics that is way more inclusive, responsive, transparent and accountable for the people affected.

Practicalities

There are currently four categories of project activity – doing (ACT), learning (LEARN), teaching (KNOW) and advocating (ADVOCATE). The “doing” relates to the carrying out of experiments in democratic innovation while “learning” refers to the documentation and  dissemination of related findings. “Knowing” and “advocating” relate respectively to educating people about the fundamental meaning and history of democracy and the championing of better systems of government.

Before all that, there is still a precursor phase to get through, which is now. That involves gathering together trusted partners and allies to turn these basic ideas into concrete plans for action.

That could be you.

If you think it might be, don’t hesitate to get in touch, via twitter, by commenting below this post or by writing an email to me by joining together “patrickchalmers” with “orange.fr” using the “@” symbol.

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Deeper democracy down under

Government of the people, by the people, for the people – seems like a good basic principle for “democracy”. Yet many groups of citizens, in different representative democracies around the world, don’t seem too happy with their current versions of “kratos” in the hands of the “demos“.

Be they UK “Brexit” or Remain supporters, or those voting for or against US President-elect Donald Trump, people on both sides of both arguments seem to agree their governments are serially failing to deliver for the large majority of citizens.

It’s a risky situation for humanity. People’s evident frustrations and anger are readily channelled towards minority scapegoats – a dangerous tactic that unscrupulous politicians employ to our collective peril.

Happily – there are alternative political approaches emerging. They offer more hopeful prospects both for greater harmony in our political processes and for building far wider consensus around the decisions eventually taken.

Carson, a director of Australia’s newDemocracy Foundation, explains how work conducted by her organisation since 2009 has been charting just such an alternative path through real political problems. The radical part is how newDemocracy uses random selection, not elections, to choose its representatives of the people from among everyday citizens. The principle is the same as used for selecting criminal juries.

Doing away with political campaigning and the act of voting for decision makers, or at least the people doing the heavy thinking on a chosen political problem, creates a totally different dynamic to the process. Participants aren’t always looking over their shoulders for guidance from a political party or playing to the crowd based on how they think they might get re-elected. The result, repeatedly, has been the emergence of prudent solutions to previously too-tricky-to-solve problems.

What so far has been pretty much Australia’s gain is now becoming a prospect for Europe’s creaking political systems. Carson says her foundation is looking for partners with whom to run further projects, charting the process all the while and fine-tuning their methods as they go.

She was speaking to journalist, author and democracy campaigner Patrick Chalmers at the Council of Europe’s November 2016 World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, France.

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Some other democracies are possible

democratic-innovations

Next week – I am delighted to be going to Strasbourg, France for the 2016 World Forum for Democracy. It will be a rare opportunity to mingle with fellow democracy enthusiasts, though I use the word “democracy” with reservations given the casual looseness with which it is used and generally understood.

My main aim in going is to find partners with whom to collaborate on a project to promote Way Deeper Democracy. The core work of that will be to run, assess and proliferate democratic innovations so as to remedy the chronic failures of conventional representative democracies and their periodic elections. I will post more detail in the coming days – today’s focus is on the headline measures to determine whether a given political system is democratic or not.

In this, I am hugely grateful to Graham Smith, Professor at the UK’s University of Westminster, Centre for the Study of Democracy and a speaker at the Strasbourg event.

Smith’s book – Democratic Innovations – does an excellent job in helping move debate about the poor state of our representative democracies from the abstract to the practical and real.

His approach is to focus on which of a series of democratic innovations, present or recently past, could best take us towards more democratic modes of government. He takes a refreshingly pragmatic approach, pointing towards how democracy could occur with barely an elected politician in sight, if at all. His examples include the participatory budgets pioneered by the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and the citizens’ jury British Columbia used to deliberate on provincial voting reforms.

Smith runs a cold-eyed rule over the main types of innovation, using measures of what he calls democratic public goods. This is where the book’s real value lies for the lay person – his measures are obvious, good-sense qualities that anyone aspiring to be a democrat would want to see in their favoured decision-making processes.

They are inclusiveness, the extent of popular control over any process, the deliberative nature of decisions taken and process transparency.

Inclusiveness is a critical one. Conventional elections – for various reasons – attract non-representative samples of their potential populations, which skews the nature of decisions taken. Absentees typically include societies’ poorer, more marginalised groups, a problem repeated in most referendums. Smith looks at the extent to which innovations tackle this problem, in terms of including the usually excluded and giving them real opportunities for influence.

The good of popular control relates to how much power citizens have over any given decision. That runs from problem definition, the analysis of options to tackle chosen problems, choosing a preferred option then implementing that choice. Such a start-to-finish analysis of political decision making lays bare how democratically threadbare are our conventional elections-driven systems. We vote for someone on a constrained list of more-or-less attractive candidates then the winners control decision-making throughout their time in office.

What Smith calls the deliberative quality of decision making examines how deeply a chosen approach allows people to get beyond the surface issues of a particular question. That includes whether the process involves people getting an idea of how other sectors of society think about a question and how they  might be affected by one choice over another.

Transparency is at once obvious while also being chronically absent from most representative democracies. In the context of the innovations Smith studies, it refers both to whether participants know the limits of their involvement and if the wider public knows what’s going on or can at least find out.

For the sake of his broader analysis, Smith also includes the additional measures of efficiency and transferability. These help determine if the innovations he studies might be feasible at scale and in different contexts.

For fans of sortition – the selection of citizen’s juries or mini-publics by lottery – there is certainly plenty to chew over in Smith’s book. His choice of public goods, and apparent non-attachment to one innovation over another, opens the door to possible holistic democratic solutions. These could include sortition for certain elements of the overall political process. The pragmatic combination of different innovations, coupled with safeguards to alleviate problems such as media failures to convey political diversity, offers plenty of hope for the potential of positive political changes.

This is a valuable contribution to what is a vital debate for our societies’ futures.

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