If I can handle my banking online why can’t I run my country online?
Wouldn’t that be better, more responsive democracy? Why do I need politicians to represent me? I can see why they were necessary in the past but why do I need them now? If I can access my online bank account why can’t I access my online Citizen account and vote daily? What do I need politicians for? All I need is an army of civil servants to carry out the wishes of the people?
The idea is pretty simple and started with my wondering about online banking. When I first heard about online banking I thought it was one of those great ideas that hadn’t a hope.
If it was run up the flagpole in a pub, or some other social forum where everyone treats there opinion like a flaccid muscle that needs a good workout, the consensus would be that it would never get off the ground.
“They’ll never be able to make it secure.”
“It’ll be infested with swarms of hackers emptying bank accounts with the click of a mouse.”
But, surprise, surprise, they got it to work. And more than that they managed to convince everyone it was safe to use. Even people who are normally computer averse will still use online banking. My eighty-two year old mother being a case in point; she does all her banking online.
So my thinking ran like this, if they can get online banking to work, something that involves people’s money, then surely it would be possible to give everyone in the country an online citizen account. With our online citizen account we could log into it the same way we log into our online bank account, but instead of moving our money around we could vote, daily if necessary. The results could be tabulated almost instantly and policy could be changed accordingly.
Once we get this system set up we wouldn’t need politicians anymore. Not that I have anything against politicians as such, they just seem obsolete. I can see why they exist historically, back then I might have needed somebody to represent me in government because I was either too uneducated, or too busy surviving to stay informed about upcoming law or policies, but not now.
Now the opposite is true. Most of the problems in Ireland, and the world in general, are made worse by our system of representation.
As things stand we get an opportunity to vote for our representatives once every four years, or whatever it is in your country, then we give them the power to make decisions on our behalf – we allow them to represent us.
And then we’re stuck with them. We sit outside the walls of government hoping they make the right choices, or at least the choices we would make, and generally feel disempowered and removed from the decision making process.
The politicians, for their part, have to twist themselves into knots trying to please all of the people all of the time, particularly in the lead up to an election, then once in office have to put up with us complaining about everything they do. Sure it’s no wonder they need drivers and private jets.
No, hang on. . .
We relate to our politicians as if they were celebrities, which they are not, they are public servants. They have put their hand up and said, “Okay, I’ll run the country if you want me to.” Then we give them all this power and expect them not to be changed or affected by it.
With direct governance we wouldn’t need any of this because we wouldn’t need anyone to represent us. We would represent and govern ourselves directly.
I think the software that runs the online system would need to be open source meaning no company or individual should own or control it. Making the system open source would skip over a lot of the security issues because if the code for the system is open to everyone then ironically the chances of somebody hacking it are less. It would also make the system nimble and responsive, two words not currently associated with our political system.
If the online system is open source then the focus can be on providing integarty to the end user, you and me. If it is operated like any other open source system there would be an army of motivated savy programmers improving the system and also monitoring it to make sure no one was gaming the system or making it biased.
It should also be possible to build a feedback loop into the voting process so that when you cast your vote, the system would send you back a confirmation that your vote has been received into the system and will go into their overall tally for whatever issue it is that you’re voting on.
An online voting system is great but how will we decide what we vote about? Who will shape policy?
There are a lot of words surrounding policy formulation but it boils down to a simple process – our representatives just make it up. Their reasons for making it up are varied, sometimes it will be to do with a pressing issue, sometimes it will be to do with an upcoming election, sometimes it will be prompted by interested groups – money.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Most policy I have read, and that’s not a lot, is written in very convoluted language. It’s almost as if it is written in a way that will intentionally make the meaning and intent of the policy unclear. Often in the run up to a referendum a booklet will arrive in the mail “explaining” the changes to the constitution. This all seems like a load of obfuscation, which is to say bullshit, to me.
We don’t need someone else to formulate policy for us we can formulate policy ourselves.
Here’s how we would formulate or change policy with direct governance. If there is something you want introduced or changed, whether it is a new network of bicycle tracks, yes please, or a change to the abortion laws, you can instigate a policy change through the online system. Like a wikipedia entry, your policy can be modified and refined as more people become aware of, interested in, and involved in the process until a critical mass of interest is reached. A critical mass of interest would be a threshold percentage of the population. For example, if 50% of the population think your policy is worth bringing to a vote. Once your policy had reached this threshold it would go on to the next stage where we vote on implementing the change.
If your policy doesn’t reach the critical mass threshold then it doesn’t get voted on. Not everyone may be as passionate about the rights of garden gnomes as you are.
Once the policy is approved by a majority vote it would be implemented by the army of civil servants already in place.
I’m not naive enough to think that Enda Kenny, Ireland’s current prime minister, is going to call me in the morning and say, “God, that’s a great idea John, lets switch to direct governance right now and I can go on a holiday.”
I think a reasonable model for how it could be introduced is if the online system was set up and run in tandem with the existing system. Once enough people had registered their online citizen accounts I think our existing politicians would quickly see that the online voting system was a much more accurate barometer of what people actually wanted rather than the polls that are currently taken throughout the term of a government.
Speed of response
I think it would also become obvious very quickly that the immediate response of the the online voting system was highlighting the huge difference between what goes on in government and what goes on in the street.
I could see that by the time the next general election came around a host of new independent representatives would emerge with the single agenda of handing representation back to the people through direct governance.
Short distance vision
The distance this idea has to travel is not far. It’s not like when Martin Luther King made his dream speech in 1967 where the distance between where he was and the vision for the future he described was so vast. What I’m suggesting could happen very quickly if we all wanted it to.
End of war
What is really appealing about this idea is that it could prevent wars. For example, if there was a direct governance system in place in America, the chances of attacks on Syria would be significantly less. And if there was a direct governance system in place in Syria there wouldn’t be the conflict there in the first place.
If you have read this far and you think this is an idea that could provide a solution to some of the problems in Ireland, or the world, then share this idea far and wide. Tell your friends. Use it at dinner parties. Take credit for it if you like, I don’t mind, I’d just like to see it happen. Particularly share it with any software engineers or hackers you know that could make it happen.
I’ve just outlined the broad strokes as I see them, add your voice to refining the idea in the comments section below.
I like the idea. But there’s a few of points I’m hoping you can clarify.
Firstly, how does having the software open source make it less hackable? I genuinely don’t understand the technical side of that.
Secondly, would voting be compulsory? One thing I like about the Australian electoral system is that voting is compulsory. I think it’s less susceptible to special interest groups (e.g. those with a religious agenda) getting their ideas pushed through because of voter apathy on the part of those who might otherwise oppose their ideas.
Thirdly, what about absurd ideas that would be almost impossible to implement, but which would no doubt be incredibly popular if put to a vote. E.g. “No individual should pay tax”, or “Every citizen is entitled to drive a government funded Ferrari”. How many people would vote no to those?
An exciting idea John.
Those are some great questions.
I don’t know the technical in and outs of open source systems but from a human nature perspective I’ve observed that we won’t try to break into a fortress if there is no fortress there to start off with
For example, if you search for serial number hacks for Photoshop you will find heaps. These allow you to run photoshop without paying for it. Gimp is an open source equivalent of Photoshop. There are no such sites for it because there is nothing to hack.
That’s not to say that hacking doesn’t happen to open source systems. This website, for example, runs on an open source content management system called wordpress. No one owns it, it’s free and in the 8+ years I’ve been using it there have been many updates, all free, and in each update the security of the system has been improved.
I don’t think open source is perfect but it is better than a corporation or individual owning/controlling the system. We only have to look at facebook to know what that feels like.
Personally I think compulsory voting is great. Mege and I just did our overseas voting at the weekend for the upcoming Australian election. In the transitionary period to direct governance compulsory voting could be introduced as part of that system. Of course once the system was up and running, compulsory voting might get voted out.
That speaks to your last question about unreasonable policy suggestions. I think there could be a bit of that kind of thing at the early stages of policy suggestion. Some policy suggestions might even make it past the critical mass of interest, some might even get voted in. The nice thing about direct governance is that policy could get voted out again relatively quickly if it proved itself to be unsustainable.
A lot of that kind of impossible policy suggestion comes from a desire to get one over on “The Man.” Direct governance is about removing “The Man,””The System,” “The Establishment,” and so on, so it should diffuse a certain amount of that kind of thinking.
I think once it is up an running it will be more apparent to people that they are responsabile for themselves, their community, their country and their planet.
Hi John, I personally like representative government in principle for the same reason I like farmers – someone to specialize in an important and vast task so I can specialize and focus on mine. I’ve seen the California Proposition system fail much more broadly than elected officials, because the people who pay attention and vote directly are not often representative at all, just louder. That said, as a good scientist, I’m always eager to see results of an experiment, and your ideas seem strong to me, so could they be implemented in local governments to test the efficacy and work out the inevitable details and kinks?
I think the vast task you referred to is mostly handled by public servants. The current political system is just another layer of complexity on top of that vast task which,far as I can see, doesn’t need to be there.
You, like the farmer, make it your business to stay informed about what is happening in the country and the world. Direct governance wouldn’t add to that or take away from your focus.
I had a quick look at the California Proposition system and it seems very complicated. From what I can gather it seems like ordinary citizens have to get very organised in order to get permission to have a change brought about. I think everyone is too busy to jump through those hoops and I can see why the process is hijacked by interest groups.
Also, John, you’ve identified a problem, outlined a solution, and reasoned through implications – very cool!
I suspect much of voter apathy arises from a feeling of powerlessness. With direct governance I think there would be more engagement. Failing that we could alway introduce compulsory voting like Australia.
Sure, and to your point, voter participation at all is greater than it was, say, under Elizabeth I, or in a particularly poignant case for the United States, George III, when we didn’t have voters over here! In any case, I’d be a fan of seeing your plan in action with a increasingly larger communities, because I like the shape of it, and I suspect a hybrid plan would emerge – which I say because of my experiences with practical evolution of engineering designs – that would be very adaptable and increasingly efficient. Can we pick four towns in four countries to start the experiment?
As I said above I would be surprised if any existing administration, big or small, would switch over straight away. I think it would be a case of running the system parallell and seeing how it went.
I’m afraid I have to agree with Kevin’s initial point. Direct governance assumes a group of individuals with enough free time to participate at a very activist level. Thus, under such a plan, power does not shift to “the people” but rather shifts from the possibly corrupt representatives to a demonstrably vocal minority. The values focus would not shift to some egalitarian ideal but rather from one set of special interests to another. Not saying it would be worse, but I don’t think it would be better either. And there is a comfort in the devil you know.
Hello Scott and thanks for your comment.
How much time it would all take, day to day, remains to be seen. I suspect it wouldn’t be much more than we already spend informing ourselves about issues. Do you think if voting was mandatory it would get around the problem of interest groups?
I’d rather let the devil I know go for the possibility of a better devil or maybe even no devil at all, just a few minor deamons and a poltergeist or two.
John, there is still a digital divide. Giving everybody direct online access also means providing the physical access.
With all the money we would save by not having politicians we could put a citizens centre on every town. In these citizens centres there could be computers and a few staff to help the internet challenged.
Those city centers mostly exist, we call them libraries. As a third space they provide amazing information access, and most offer some computer access, but they are woefully under funded.
The digital divide can be bridged.
The question of freeing up time to participate can be answered.
We’re looking at this from the point of view of how it could fit into the system we already have. Direct governance however is a game changer. It would change the way we live our lives from the ground up. We couldn’t be citizens first in a system like that.
We’d be government officials first and citizens after.
Realistically a system like this needs to work with the infrastructure in the country. After that it doesn’t matter. We’ve got the infrastructure to support something like this. It’s a pretty idea. Would it work? Probably. Will it happen? No.
But hey. Enda Kenny is doing a great job. Not as great a job as many hoped!! but still a damn site better than Cowen and I don’t imagine Bertie being of any use during a recession.
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I’m curious about this movement John, thanks for your thoughts on the topic.
What do you think would be the pathway to transition into a “direct governance” democracy?
What would be the steps? What would be the critical parts of the technology you are eluding to?
Im curious to hear more of your thoughts on this!