If only politicans wanted to listen…

This week’s Economist focuses on the promise and peril of participatory politics. The article “The internet helps politicians listen better to their electors. If they want to” starts its analysis with a skeptical perspective:

“Digital politics carries high hopes. Many think it will help citizens govern themselves more effectively than via a professional caste of politicians. But just as putting cameras in parliaments did not usher in an era of teledemocracy, so digital politics has failed so far to displace the baby-kissers.”

It subsequently features several tools and experiments aimed at increasing citizen’s input (including Germany’s LiquidFeedback experiment, America’s “We the People” initiative and Finland’s initiative in which successful e-petitions bring about a parliamentary vote) highlighting their limited nature:

“Platforms rarely enable users to discuss issues or fine-tune their demands….Crowds of citizens are good at tabling proposals and then voting on them; less successful at the horse-trading required to produce consensus—let alone a law that actually works. The idea of writing legislation collaboratively using “wiki” software (which anyone can edit) has generated headlines but few results. Madison, one such platform released in 2012 by campaigners battling anti-piracy laws, helped American politicians weed out errors in a draft bill but has not been much used since.”

The article quotes Dr. Beth Noveck, co-founder of the Governance Lab saying “ In one year Congress passes just a few hundred laws (when not hobbled by partisan mudslinging), whereas American government agencies pump out up to 8,000 new regulations” illustrating the potential for engaging with citizens to collect ideas on how to improve solutions, spend money and provide for services.

Several members of the Open Government pre-research network are quoted raising the need to improve current experiments so as to prevent a public backlash:

  • “Tiago Peixoto …worries that poorly planned participatory exercises could risk creating ‘a new generation of disillusioned citizens'”;
  • “… handing citizens oodles of data without providing better means to respond is like offering ‘a dashboard without a steering wheel’, says Clay Shirky, a technology writer.”

The article ends with a cautionary note:

“That may not be the direct democracy that Utopians covet, but more modest ambitions are in order. Cool-seeming digital tools can narrow participation by excluding poor, old or disabled people. Researchers in Germany report that e-petitions are mostly created by the same well-educated males who create and sign paper ones. “Move fast and break things” may be a good motto in Silicon Valley, but it is a poor prescription for politics.”


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