Letting the people decide … but will government listen?

 in The Mandarin: “If we now have the technology to allow citizens to vote directly on all issues, what job remains for public servants?

While new technology may provide new options to contribute, the really important thing is governmental willingness to actually listen, says Maria Katsonis, the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet’s director of equality.

The balance between citizen consultation and public service expertise in decision-making remains a hot debate, with South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill warning last year that while expertise in policy is important, overzealous bureaucrats and politicians can disenfranchise citizens.

The internet is assisting government to attain opinions from people more easily than ever before. SA, for example, has embraced the use of citizen juries in policy formation through its youSAy portal — though as yet on only some issues. Finland has experimented with digitally crowdsourcing input into the policymaking process.

The Victorian government, meanwhile, has received blowback around claims its recent announcement for a “skyrail” in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs went ahead with very little consultation…

Indeed, even a direct vote doesn’t mean the government is really listening to the people. A notable example of a government using a poorly designed popular vote to rubber stamp its own intentions was an online poll in Queensland on whether to cut public transport fares which was worded to suit the government’s own predilections.

Giving citizens the tools to contribute

Katsonis said she didn’t want to “diss crowdsourcing”; governments should think about where using it might be appropriate, and where it might not. Directly crowdsourcing legislation is perhaps not the best way to use the “wisdom of the crowd”, she suggested….The use of people’s panels to inform policy and budgeting — for example at the City of Melbourne — shows some promise as one tool to improve engagement. Participants of people’s panels — which see groups of ordinary citizens being given background information about the task at hand and then asked to come up with a proposal for what to do — tend to report a higher trust in governmental processes after they’ve gained some experience of the difficulty of making those decisions.

One of the benefits of that system is the chance to give participants the tools to understand those processes for themselves, rather than going in cold, as some other direct participation tools do….

Despite the risks, processes such as citizens’ panels are still a more nuanced approach than calls for frequent referenda or the new breed of internet-based political parties, such as Australia’s Online Direct Democracy, that promise their members of parliament will vote however a majority of voters tell them to….(More)”