There Are Better Ways to Do Democracy


Article by Peter Coy: “The Brexit disaster has stained the reputation of direct democracy. The United Kingdom’s trauma began in 2016, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron miscalculated that he could strengthen Britain’s attachment to the European Union by calling a referendum on it. The Leave campaign made unkeepable promises about Brexit’s benefits. Voters spent little time studying the facts because there was a vanishingly small chance that any given vote would make the difference by breaking a tie. Leave won—and Google searches for “What is the EU” spiked after the polls closed.

Brexit is only one manifestation of a global problem. Citizens want elected officials to be as responsive as Uber drivers, but they don’t always take their own responsibilities seriously. This problem isn’t new. America’s Founding Fathers worried that democracy would devolve into mob rule; the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

While fears about democratic dysfunction are understandable, there are ways to make voters into real participants in the democratic process without giving in to mobocracy. Instead of referendums, which often become lightning rods for extremism, political scientists say it’s better to make voters think like jurors, whose decisions affect the lives and fortunes of others.

Guided deliberation, also known as deliberative democracy, is one way to achieve that. Ireland used it in 2016 and 2017 to help decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in most cases. A 99-person Citizens’ Assembly was selected to mirror the Irish population. It met over five weekends to evaluate input from lawyers and obstetricians, pro-life and pro-choice groups, and more than 13,000 written submissions from the public, guided by a chairperson from the Irish supreme court. Together they concluded that the legislature should have the power to allow abortion under a broader set of conditions, a recommendation that voters approved in a 2018 referendum; abortion in Ireland became legal in January 2019.

Done right, deliberative democracy brings out the best in citizens. “My experience shows that some of the most polarising issues can be tackled in this manner,” Louise Caldwell, an Irish assembly member, wrote in a column for the Guardian in January. India’s village assemblies, which involve all the adults in local decision-making, are a form of deliberative democracy on a grand scale. A March article in the journal Science says that “evidence from places such as Colombia, Belgium, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia shows that properly structured deliberation can promote recognition, understanding, and learning.” Even French President Emmanuel Macron has used it, convening a three-month “great debate” to solicit the public’s views on some of the issues raised by the sometimes-violent Yellow Vest movement. On April 8, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented one key finding: The French have “zero tolerance” for new taxes…(More)”.

Open Justice: Public Entrepreneurs Learn to Use New Technology to Increase the Efficiency, Legitimacy, and Effectiveness of the Judiciary


The GovLab: “Open justice is a growing movement to leverage new technologies – including big data, digital platforms, blockchain and more – to improve legal systems by making the workings of courts easier to understand, scrutinize and improve. Through the use of new technology, open justice innovators are enabling greater efficiency, fairness, accountability and a reduction in corruption in the third branch of government. For example, the open data portal ‘Atviras Teismas’ Lithuania (translated ‘open court’ Lithuania) is a platform for monitoring courts and judges through performance metrics’. This portal serves to make the courts of Lithuania transparent and benefits both courts and citizens by presenting comparative data on the Lithuanian Judiciary.

To promote more Open Justice projects, the GovLab in partnership with the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary (TEPJF) of Mexico, launched an historic, first of its kind, online course on Open Justice. Designed primarily for lawyers, judges, and public officials – but also intended to appeal to technologists, and members of the public – the Spanish-language course consists of 10 modules.

Each of the ten modules comprises:

  1. A short video-based lecture
  2. An original Open Justice reader
  3. Associated additional readings
  4. A self-assessment quiz
  5. A demonstration of a platform or tool
  6. An interview with a global practitioner

Among those featured in the interviews are Felipe Moreno of Jusbrasil, Justin Erlich of OpenJustice California, Liam Hayes of Aurecon, UK, Steve Ghiassi of Legaler, Australia, and Sara Castillo of Poder Judicial, Chile….(More)”.

Crowdsourcing a Constitution


Case Study by Cities of Service: “Mexico City was faced with a massive task: drafting a constitution. Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, who oversaw the drafting and adoption of the 212-page document, hoped to democratize the process. He appointed a drafting committee made up of city residents and turned to the Laboratório para la Ciudad (LabCDMX) to engage everyday citizens. LabCDMX conducted a comprehensive survey and employed the online platform Change.org to solicit ideas for the new constitution. Several petitioners without a legal or political background seized on the opportunity and made their voices heard with successful proposals on topics like green space, waterway recuperation, and LGBTI rights in a document that will have a lasting impact on Mexico City’s governance….(More)”.

Crowdsourced reports could save lives when the next earthquake hits


Charlotte Jee at MIT Technology Review: “When it comes to earthquakes, every minute counts. Knowing that one has hit—and where—can make the difference between staying inside a building and getting crushed, and running out and staying alive. This kind of timely information can also be vital to first responders.

However, the speed of early warning systems varies from country to country. In Japan  and California, huge networks of sensors and seismic stations can alert citizens to an earthquake. But these networks are expensive to install and maintain. Earthquake-prone countries such as Mexico and Indonesia don’t have such an advanced or widespread system.

A cheap, effective way to help close this gap between countries might be to crowdsource earthquake reports and combine them with traditional detection data from seismic monitoring stations. The approach was described in a paper in Science Advances today.

The crowdsourced reports come from three sources: people submitting information using LastQuake, an app created by the Euro-Mediterranean Seismological Centre; tweets that refer to earthquake-related keywords; and the time and IP address data associated with visits to the EMSC website.

When this method was applied retrospectively to earthquakes that occurred in 2016 and 2017, the crowdsourced detections on their own were 85% accurate. Combining the technique with traditional seismic data raised accuracy to 97%. The crowdsourced system was faster, too. Around 50% of the earthquake locations were found in less than two minutes, a whole minute faster than with data provided only by a traditional seismic network.

When EMSC has identified a suspected earthquake, it sends out alerts via its LastQuake app asking users nearby for more information: images, videos, descriptions of the level of tremors, and so on. This can help assess the level of damage for early responders….(More)”.

Does increased ‘participation’ equal a new-found enthusiasm for democracy?


Blog by Stephen King and Paige Nicol: “With a few months under our belts, 2019 looks unlikely to be the year of a great global turnaround for democracy. The decade of democratic ‘recession’ that Larry Diamond declared in 2015 has dragged on and deepened, and may now be teetering on the edge of becoming a full-blown depression. 

The start of each calendar year is marked by the release of annual indices, rankings, and reports on how democracy is faring around the world. 2018 reports from Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted precipitous declines in civil liberties in long-standing democracies as well as authoritarian states. Some groups, including migrants, women, ethnic and other minorities, opposition politicians, and journalists have been particularly affected by these setbacks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists murdered nearly doubled last year, while the number imprisoned remained above 250 for the third consecutive year. 

Yet, the EIU also found a considerable increase in political participation worldwide. Levels of participation (including voting, protesting, and running for elected office, among other dimensions) increased substantially enough last year to offset falling scores in the other four categories of the index. Based on the methodology used, the rise in political participation was significant enough to prevent a decline in the global overall score for democracy for the first time in three years.

Though this development could give cause for optimism we believe it could also raise new concerns. 

In Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Venezuela we see people who, through desperation and frustration, have taken to the streets – a form of participation which has been met with brutal crackdowns. Time has yet to tell what the ultimate outcome of these protests will be, but it is clear that governments with autocratic tendencies have more – and cheaper – tools to monitor, direct, control, and suppress participation than ever before. 

Elsewhere, we see a danger of people becoming dislocated and disenchanted with democracy, as their representatives fail to take meaningful action on the issues that matter to them. In the UK Parliament, as Brexit discussions have become increasingly polarised and fractured along party political and ideological lines, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that there was a threat of social unrest if Parliament was seen to be frustrating the ‘will of the people.’ 

While we see enhanced participation as crucial to just and fair societies, it alone will not be the silver bullet that saves democracy. Whether this trend becomes a cause for hope or concern will depend on three factors: who is participating, what form does participation take, and how is participation received by those with power?…(More)”.

The global South is changing how knowledge is made, shared and used


Robert Morrell at The Conversation: “Globalisation and new technology have changed the ways that knowledge is made, disseminated and consumed. At the push of a button, one can find articles or sources from all over the world. Yet the global knowledge economy is still marked by its history.

The former colonial nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the rich countries of Europe and North America which are collectively called the global North (normally considered to include the West and the first world, the North contains a quarter of the world’s population but controls 80% of income earned) – are still central in the knowledge economy. But the story is not one simply of Northern dominance. A process of making knowledge in the South is underway.

European colonisers encountered many sophisticated and complex knowledge systems among the colonised. These had their own intellectual workforces, their own environmental, geographical, historical and medical sciences. They also had their own means of developing knowledge. Sometimes the colonisers tried to obliterate these knowledges.

In other instances colonisers appropriated local knowledge, for instance in agriculture, fisheries and mining. Sometimes they recognised and even honoured other knowledge systems and intellectuals. This was the case among some of the British in India, and was the early form of “Orientalism”, the study of people and cultures from the East.

In the past few decades, there’s been more critique of global knowledge inequalities and the global North’s dominance. There have also been shifts in knowledge production patterns; some newer disciplines have stepped away from old patterns of inequality.

These issues are examined in a new book, Knowledge and Global Power: Making new sciences in the South (published by Wits University Press), which I co-authored with Fran Collyer, Raewyn Connell and Joao Maia. The focus is especially on those areas where old patterns are not being replicated, so the study chooses climate change, gender and HIV and AIDS as three new areas of knowledge production in which new voices from the South might be prominent….(More)”.

OECD survey reveals many people unhappy with public services and benefits


Report by OECD: “Many people in OECD countries believe public services and social benefits are inadequate and hard to reach. More than half say they do not receive their fair share of benefits given the taxes they pay, and two-thirds believe others get more than they deserve. Nearly three out of four people say they want their government to do more to protect their social and economic security.  

These are among the findings of a new OECD survey, “Risks that Matter”, which asked over 22,000 people aged 18 to 70 years old in 21 countries about their worries and concerns and how well they think their government helps them tackle social and economic risks.

This nationally representative survey finds that falling ill and not being able to make ends meet are often at the top of people’s lists of immediate concerns. Making ends meet is a particularly common worry for those on low incomes and in countries that were hit hard by the financial crisis. Older people are most often worried about their health, while younger people are frequently concerned with securing adequate housing. When asked about the longer-term, across all countries, getting by in old age is the most commonly cited worry.

The survey reveals a dissatisfaction with current social policy. Only a minority are satisfied with access to services like health care, housing, and long-term care. Many believe the government would not be able to provide a proper safety net if they lost their income due to job loss, illness or old age. More than half think they would not be able to easily access public benefits if they needed them.

“This is a wake-up call for policy makers,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “OECD countries have some of the most advanced and generous social protection systems in the world. They spend, on average, more than one-fifth of their GDP on social policies. Yet, too many people feel they cannot count fully on their government when they need help. A better understanding of the factors driving this perception and why people feel they are struggling is essential to making social protection more effective and efficient. We must restore trust and confidence in government, and promote equality of opportunity.”

In every country surveyed except Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, most people say that their government does not incorporate the views of people like them when designing social policy. In a number of countries, including Greece, Israel, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovenia, this share rises to more than two-thirds of respondents. This sense of not being part of the policy debate increases at higher levels of education and income, while feelings of injustice are stronger among those from high-income households.

Public perceptions of fairness are worrying. More than half of respondents say they do not receive their fair share of benefits given the taxes they pay, a share that rises to three quarters or more in Chile, Greece, Israel and Mexico. At the same time, people are calling for more help from government. In almost all countries, more than half of respondents say they want the government to do more for their economic and social security. This is especially the case for older respondents and those on low incomes.

Across countries, people are worried about financial security in old age, and most are willing to pay more to support public pension systems… (More)”.

State Capability, Policymaking and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


Demos Helsinki: “The world as we know it is built on the structures of the industrial era – and these structures are falling apart. Yet the vision of a new, sustainable and fair post-industrial society remains unclear. This discussion paper is the result of a collaboration between a group of organisations interested in the implications of the rapid technological development to policymaking processes and knowledge systems that inform policy decisions.

In the discussion paper, we set out to explore what the main opportunities and concerns that accompany the Fourth Industrial Revolution for policymaking and knowledge systems are particularly in middle-income countries. Overall, middle-income countries are home to five billion of the world’s seven billion people and 73 per cent of the world’s poor people; they represent about one-third of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and are major engines of global growth (World Bank 2018).

The paper is co-produced with Capability (Finland), Demos Helsinki (Finland), HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation (Switzerland), Politics & Ideas (global), Southern Voice (global), UNESCO Montevideo (Uruguay) and Using Evidence (Canada).

The guiding questions for this paper are:

– What are the critical elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

– What does the literature say about the impact of this revolution on societies and economies, and in particular on middle-income countries?

– What are the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in middle-income countries?

– What does the literature say about the challenges for governance and the ways knowledge can inform policy during the Fourth Industrial Revolution?…(More)”.

Full discussion paper“State Capability, Policymaking and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Do Knowledge Systems Matter?”

Democracy Beyond Voting and Protests


Sasha Fisher at Project Syndicate: “For over a decade now, we have witnessed more elections and, simultaneously, less democracy. According to Bloomberg, elections have been occurring more frequently around the world. Yet Freedom House finds that some 110 countries have experienced declines in political and civil rights over the past 13 years.

As democracy declines, so does our sense of community. In the United States, this is evidenced by a looming loneliness epidemicand the rapid disappearance of civic institutions such as churches, eight of which close every day. And though these trends are global in nature, the US exemplifies them in the extreme.

This is no coincidence. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s, America’s founders envisioned a country governed not by shared values, but by self-interest. That vision has since defined America’s institutions, and fostered a hyper-individualistic society.

Growing distrust in governing institutions has fueled a rise in authoritarian populist movements around the world. Citizens are demanding individual economic security and retreating into an isolationist mentality. ...

And yet we know that “user engagement” works, as shown by countless studies and human experiences. For example, an evaluation conducted in Uganda found that the more citizens participated in the design of health programs, the more the perception of the health-care system improved. And in Indonesia, direct citizen involvement in government decision-making has led to higher satisfaction with government services....

While the Western world suffers from over-individualization, the most notable governance and economic innovations are taking place in the Global South. In Rwanda, for example, the government has introduced policies to encourage grassroots solutions that strengthen citizens’ sense of community and shared accountability. Through monthly community-service meetings, families and individuals work together to build homes for the needy, fix roads, and pool funds to invest in better farming practices and equipment.

Imagine if over 300 million Americans convened every month for a similar purpose. There would suddenly be billions more citizen hours invested in neighbor-to-neighbor interaction and citizen action.

This was one of the main effects of the Village Savings and Loan Associations that originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within communities, members have access to loans to start small businesses and save for a rainy day. The model works because it leverages neighbor-to-neighbor accountability. Likewise, from Haiti to Liberia to Burundi and beyond, community-based health systems have proven effective precisely because health workers know their neighbors and their needs. Community health workers go from home to home, checking in on pregnant mothers and making sure they are cared for. Each of these solutions uses and strengthens communal accountability through shared engagement – not traditional vertical accountability lines.

If we believe in the democratic principle that governments must be accountable to citizens, we should build systems that hold us accountable to each other – and we must engage beyond elections and protests. We must usher in a new era of community-driven democracy – power must be decentralized and placed in the hands of families and communities.

When we achieve community-driven democracy, we will engage with one another and with our governments – not just on special occasions, but continuously, because our democracy and freedom depend on us….(More)” (See also Index on Trust in Institutions)

How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny


Jon Askonas at The New Atlantis: “The rumors spread like wildfire: Muslims were secretly lacing a Sri Lankan village’s food with sterilization drugs. Soon, a video circulated that appeared to show a Muslim shopkeeper admitting to drugging his customers — he had misunderstood the question that was angrily put to him. Then all hell broke loose. Over a several-day span, dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes were burned down across multiple towns. In one home, a young journalist was trapped, and perished.

Mob violence is an old phenomenon, but the tools encouraging it, in this case, were not. As the New York Times reported in April, the rumors were spread via Facebook, whose newsfeed algorithm prioritized high-engagement content, especially videos. “Designed to maximize user time on site,” as the Times article describes, the newsfeed algorithm “promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.” On Facebook in Sri Lanka, posts with incendiary rumors had among the highest engagement rates, and so were among the most highly promoted content on the platform. Similar cases of mob violence have taken place in India, Myanmar, Mexico, and elsewhere, with misinformation spread mainly through Facebook and the messaging tool WhatsApp.

Follow The New AtlantisThis is in spite of Facebook’s decision in January 2018 to tweak its algorithm, apparently to prevent the kind of manipulation we saw in the 2016 U.S. election, when posts and election ads originating from Russia reportedly showed up in newsfeeds of up to 126 million American Facebook users. The company explained that the changes to its algorithm will mean that newsfeeds will be “showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation,” and “less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” But these changes, which Facebook had tested out in countries like Sri Lanka in the previous year, may actually have exacerbated the problem — which is that incendiary content, when posted by friends and family, is guaranteed to “spark conversation” and therefore to be prioritized in newsfeeds. This is because “misinformation is almost always more interesting than the truth,” as Mathew Ingram provocatively put it in the Columbia Journalism Review.

How did we get here, from Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”? Riot-inducing “fake news” and election meddling are obviously far from what its founders intended for the platform. Likewise, Google’s founders surely did not build their search engine with the intention of its being censored in China to suppress free speech, and yet, after years of refusing this demand from Chinese leadership, Google has recently relented rather than pull their search engine from China entirely. And YouTube’s creators surely did not intend their feature that promotes “trending” content to help clickbait conspiracy-theory videos go viral.

These outcomes — not merely unanticipated by the companies’ founders but outright opposed to their intentions — are not limited to social media. So far, Big Tech companies have presented issues of incitement, algorithmic radicalization, and “fake news” as merely bumps on the road of progress, glitches and bugs to be patched over. In fact, the problem goes deeper, to fundamental questions of human nature. Tools based on the premise that access to information will only enlighten us and social connectivity will only make us more humane have instead fanned conspiracy theories, information bubbles, and social fracture. A tech movement spurred by visions of libertarian empowerment and progressive uplift has instead fanned a global resurgence of populism and authoritarianism.

Despite the storm of criticism, Silicon Valley has still failed to recognize in these abuses a sharp rebuke of its sunny view of human nature. It remains naïvely blind to how its own aspirations for social engineering are on a spectrum with the tools’ “unintended” uses by authoritarian regimes and nefarious actors….(More)”.