“We need an algorithm that works”

'Second thoughts.'

Clay Shirky: 'Second thoughts.'

I don’t know about you, but this term ‘Goverati’ makes me slightly nervous.

“What is the goverati? It is made up of people with first-hand knowledge of how the government operates, who understand how to use social software to accomplish a variety of government missions, and who want to use that knowledge for the benefit of all.”

I was speaking to a friend recently about the education debate in Northern Ireland. We were discussing the idea of running an ‘unconference’ on the hugely complex issues involved.

He’s a good deal longer in the tooth than I am, and he has a huge amount of experience in the difficult political situations that we were discussing. He pointed out that there is a huge multifaceted divide between the kind of people that would operate well in an ‘unconference’ discussion, and the people and processes by which policies are made. Particularly in Northern Ireland. The kind of processes that we were talking about are not even being negotiated yet – there’s a huge presumptive sell going on here.

On the one hand, politically, I suspect that the ‘Governati’ would tend towards the progressive end of politics. I argue this on the assumption that this is not about getting the hidden hands of the markets to make decisions, but more about getting real participation from rational human beings expressing their rationality in the pursuit of good policy.There is, of course, the more regressive demagogic use of crowd sentiment, but I’ve never heard this being discussed approvingly in such circles.

But in the widespread enthusiasm for new ways of making policy, are we really seeing an attempt to solve existing problems without regard for the new ones such solutions would create?

Charlie Beckett has written up a recent seminar with Clay Shirky:

Discussing the impact of ‘Here Comes Everybody” on democracy, Clay is clearly having second thoughts about the purity of the democracy that the Internet can facilitate:

“But how do you distinguish between the campaign by Mysociety against MPs who tried to cover up their expense claims, with a bunch of potheads trying to get their spliff decriminalised? In Clay’s words, we “need to find an algorithm that works”.”

Regular visitors here will know that there are two sides to the question of the democratic value of MySociety’s campaign. But today we can see, again, the bigger question of how far it is in any way desirable to do anything that promotes direct democracy. There appears to be a genuine chance that the Swiss – in a referendum – will give legal expression to Matthew Parris’ view of what the public believe. Last year, the Swiss nearly decided to do something a good deal more sinister than the current proposal.

Parris argued that the public don’t believe in freedom of movement, and they don’t believe that an immigrant should be allowed to have a job where it may be done by the ‘indigenous workforce.’ I’d find it hard to disagree with him on any of these points.

This begs the question: Social media protagonists seem to generally have progressive views on most subjects. I say this from personal experience – going out and talking to people in this industry. But they are in danger of urging a system of governance upon us that has the potential to be profoundly regressive.

When someone as close to the top of the tree on this discussion is ‘having second thoughts’, (and could get a relatively free ride ignoring this question the first time around) perhaps this is cause for concern? There’s something about the sentence “we need an algorithm that works” that suggests a certain complacency – a sense that centuries of wisdom on how the public can legitimately participate in their own governance will not be taken very seriously.

This is not an implementation detail.


The lust for certainty – a sin?

Bless me Father, I've been certain about something...

Bless me Father, I've been a bit certain about something...

In a very good edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ programme towards the end of last year, the columnist David Aaronovich recounted a programme that he produced in the 1980s featuring the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood.

The Archbishop, as far as I can see, had the kind of views that would appeal to a Guardian reader rather that an Anglican traditionalist.

Jonathan Dimbleby asked him if it wasn’t the case that people needed a bit of certainty about big issues in order to live their lives. the response that the Archbishop gave stunned Dimbleby and Aaronovich. He said…

Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?

The whole programme is really worth listening to – I think that podcast subscribers get the option to download all of the archives and the transcript is here.

One of my favourite political bloggers, Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling has written a great deal about the curse that the apparent need for certainty places upon democratic politics.

Continue reading

Guidelines confetti – a few observations

Subjecting politicians to excessive regulation discourages interactivity.

Subjecting politicians to excessive regulation discourages interactivity.

I’d been planning to do this blog for years, but the thing that finally nudged me to get on with it was this story (my first post) about how an MP’s online allowance was docked by the Parliamentary authorities because he used it in the way that you would expect politicians to use such an allowance.

Meanwhile, the incorporation of social media into bureaucratic priorities gathers apace. A while ago, the Local Government Engagement Online blog has helpfully pulled together a set of guidelines from around the world, ones that can be added to the UK Civil Service Partipation Online guidelines.

Now, I’ve not read these all exhaustively, but I have put a fair bit of time in to scan them.

Given the size of the task, I may have not noticed something that I would suggest should be right at the top of each document – certainly each one that has been drafted by any governmental body. Continue reading

Adversarial politics, transparency and independence – some questions.

Ding Dong! An argument can draw crowds. But can it solve anything?

Ding Dong! An argument can draw crowds. But can it solve anything?

Here’s a good post from an Australian blogger on the question: Is adversarial politics damaging to our democracy? (It’s actually an update on a previous post with that title). Here the adversarialism is opposed by a more attractive ‘deliberative’ model of the kind advocated here. The flipside of this argument is put very well by Peter Levine here:

“As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, “Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote.” At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.”

There is, of course, the adversarial politics of Parliament and the media that we are all familiar with. These arguments are fairly well played out, though they are always worth revisiting. The obvious conclusion, for me is a somewhat muddy preference for a bit-of-both.

However, there is the often-overlooked challenge of adversarial legalism’ towards a supposedly ‘elite-dominated’ form of representative democracy in which various minority groups seek to take a role in the political process using courts to secure rights that protect individuals and minorities. Continue reading

How to live in the 21st Century

c21_logo1Labour-leaning ginger-group Compass is inviting policy proposals to be submitted and debated on this site and at meetings around the country.

The site says that the proposals will then be voted on by the Compass membership – forming the policy priorities for the organisation to campaign on. The successful polices will sit alongside the narrative that the organisation will be promoting: How to Live in the 21st Century.

From what I can see, Compass went to a London-based company called Headshift to develop and run with this idea, and they couldn’t have gone to better people. Headshift have forgotten more than most comparable consultancies have learned about the effective promotion of interactivity.

I’d still be interested to see how the voting reflects pre-designed agendas and how valuable that part of the process can be. The key development for me, though, is that the Labour left is getting a little bit away from the formalised deliberations that have always dominated political caucuses.

Surely, in a representative democracy, no membership body can impose policies upon the Parliamentarians that it promotes to the legislature. All it can do is to hold a conversation that Parliamentarians deem to be worth eavesdropping upon? That – at least in part – is what Compass appear to be doing, and that can only be a good thing.


If one argues (and I do) that democracy is at it’s most effective when people who are elected are making decisions, and that those decisions should be made without undue pressure from campaigners and lobbyists, one rapidly finds oneself explaining that this doesn’t mean that the public can have no influence on policy in the years between elections.

In summary, if one argues that civil society has a duty to present elected representatives with conversations that are worth eavesdropping upon, then I believe that this deals with this particular objection. Finding ways of helping elected representatives understand the issues that they are deliberating upon is, surely, the democratic role of the media? And – because the media chooses not to do it very well, increasingly, it is a role that is being adapted by ‘new media’ types.

The other day, I pointed to ‘POV-shifting media’ – a good example of an issue being explained and presented properly. Another example of this is the way that issues are being visualised by interface designers. Here’s an excellent post (thanks to MySociety for the tweet) that shows some of the best visualisations of 2008. There are a few there, but the one I’ve illustrated (above) is particularly good, I think?

In this case, it presents information in a way that we can all add value to it by discussing it. My only problem with this one is that I don’t speak Spanish…. 😉

‘Point-of-view shifting’ media

accesscity_logoHere’s social media being used for a social purpose: AccessCity. It allows us to look at journeys around London from the point of view of someone with access issues. These can include disabilities or reasonable expectations that are unmet. One would reasonably expect to get around London with relative ease if you are pushing a baby-buggy for instance?

It allows people to see things from the point of view of others. This is a way of providing evidence in a simple honest way, and can perhaps have a good deal more influence than any formal campaigning on a particular issue because it can’t by hyperbolised or spun in some way. Spin this kind of message and it will show.

(hat-tip: Dominic)