France asks its citizens how to meet its climate-change targets


The Economist on “An experiment in consultative democracy”: “A nurse, a roofer, an electrician, a former fireman, a lycée pupil, a photographer, a teacher, a marketing manager, an entrepreneur and a civil servant. Sitting on red velvet benches in a domed art-deco amphitheatre in Paris, they and 140 colleagues are part of an unusual democratic experiment in a famously centralised country. Their mission: to draw up measures to reduce French greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, in line with an eu target that is otherwise in danger of being missed (and which the European Commission now wants to tighten). Six months ago, none of them had met. Now, they have just one month left to show that they can reinvent the French democratic process—and help save the planet. “It’s our moment,” Sylvain, one of the delegates, tells his colleagues from the podium. “We have the chance to propose something historic.”

On March 6th the “citizens’ climate convention” was due to begin its penultimate three-day sitting, the sixth since it began work last October. The convention is made up of a representative sample of the French population, selected by randomly generated telephone numbers. President Emmanuel Macron devised it in an attempt to calm the country after the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) crisis of 2018. In response to the demand for less top-down decision-making, he first launched what he grandly called a “great national debate”, which took place a year ago. He also pledged the creation of a citizens’ assembly. It is designed to focus on precisely the conundrum that provoked the original protests against a rise in the carbon tax on motor fuel: how to make green policy palatable, efficient and fair.Already signed up?…(More)”.

Belgium’s experiment in permanent forms of deliberative democracy


Article by Min Reuchamps: In December 2019, the parliament of the Region of Brussels in Belgium amended its internal regulations to allow the formation of ‘deliberative committees’ composed of a mixture of members of the Regional Parliament and randomly selected citizens. This initiative follows innovative experiences in the German-speaking Community of Belgium, known as Ostbelgien, and the city of Madrid in establishing permanent forums of deliberative democracy earlier in 2019. Ostbelgien is now experiencing its first cycle of deliberations, whereas the Madrid forum has been short-lived after having been cancelled, after two meetings, by the new governing coalition of the city.

The experimentation in establishing permanent forums for direct citizen involvement constitutes an advance from hitherto deliberative processes which were one-off experiments, i.e. non-permanent procedures. The relatively large size of the Brussels Region, with over 1 200 000 inhabitants, means that the lessons will be key in understanding the opportunities and risks of ‘deliberative committees’ and their potential scalability….

Under the new rules, the Regional Parliament can setup a parliamentary committee composed of 15 (12 in the Cocof) parliamentarians and 45 (36 in the Cocof) citizens to draft recommendations on a given issue. Any inhabitant in Brussels who has attained 16 years of age has the chance to have a direct say in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the Brussels Regional Parliament and the Cocof. The citizen representatives will be drawn by lot in two steps:

  • A first draw among the whole population, so that every inhabitant has the same chance to be invited via a formal invitation letter from the Parliament;
  • A second draw among all the persons who have responded positively to the invitation by means of a sampling method following criteria to ensure a diverse and representative selection, at least in terms of gender, age, official languages of the Brussels-Capital Region, geographical distribution and level of education.

The participating parliamentarians will be the members of the standing parliamentary committee that covers the topic under deliberation. In the regional parliament, each standing committee is made up of 15 members (including both Dutch- and French-speakers), and in the Cocof Parliament, each standing committee is made of 12 members (only French-speakers)….(More)”.

Human-centred policy? Blending ‘big data’ and ‘thick data’ in national policy


Policy Lab (UK): “….Compared with quantitative data, ethnography creates different forms of data – what anthropologists call ‘thick data’. Complex social problems benefit from insights beyond linear, standardised evidence and this is where thick data shows its worth. In Policy Lab we have generated ethnographic films and analysis to sit alongside quantitative data, helping policy-makers to build a rich picture of current circumstances. 

On the other hand, much has been written about big data – data generated through digital interactions – whether it be traditional ledgers and spreadsheets or emerging use of artificial intelligence and the internet of things.  The ever-growing zettabytes of data can reveal a lot, providing a (sometimes real time) digital trail capturing and aggregating our individual choices, preferences, behaviours and actions.  

Much hyped, this quantitative data has great potential to inform future policy, but must be handled ethically, and also requires careful preparation and analysis to avoid biases and false assumptions creeping in. Three issues we have seen in our projects relate to:

  • partial data, for example not having data on people who are not digitally active, biasing the sample
  • the time-consuming challenge of cleaning up data, in a political context where time is often of the essence
  • the lack of data interoperability, where different localities/organisations capture different metrics

Through a number of Policy Lab projects we have used big data to see the big picture before then using thick data to zoom in to the detail of people’s lived experience.  Whereas big data can give us cumulative evidence at a macro, often systemic level, thick data provides insights at an individual or group level.  We have found the blending of ‘big data’ and ‘thick data’ – to be the sweet spot. 

This is a diagram of Policy Lab's model for combining big data and thick data.
Policy Lab’s model for combining big data and thick data (2020)

Policy Lab’s work develops data and insights into ideas for potential policy intervention which we can start to test as prototypes with real people. These operate at the ‘meso’ level (in the middle of the diagram above), informed by both the thick data from individual experiences and the big data at a population or national level. We have written a lot about prototyping for policy and are continuing to explore how you prototype a policy compared to say a digital service….(More)”.

Lack of guidance leaves public services in limbo on AI, says watchdog


Dan Sabbagh at the Guardian: “Police forces, hospitals and councils struggle to understand how to use artificial intelligence because of a lack of clear ethical guidance from the government, according to the country’s only surveillance regulator.

The surveillance camera commissioner, Tony Porter, said he received requests for guidance all the time from public bodies which do not know where the limits lie when it comes to the use of facial, biometric and lip-reading technology.

“Facial recognition technology is now being sold as standard in CCTV systems, for example, so hospitals are having to work out if they should use it,” Porter said. “Police are increasingly wearing body cameras. What are the appropriate limits for their use?

“The problem is that there is insufficient guidance for public bodies to know what is appropriate and what is not, and the public have no idea what is going on because there is no real transparency.”

The watchdog’s comments came as it emerged that Downing Street had commissioned a review led by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, whose chairman had called on public bodies to reveal when they use algorithms in decision making.

Lord Evans, a former MI5 chief, told the Sunday Telegraph that “it was very difficult to find out where AI is being used in the public sector” and that “at the very minimum, it should be visible, and declared, where it has the potential for impacting on civil liberties and human rights and freedoms”.

AI is increasingly deployed across the public sector in surveillance and elsewhere. The high court ruled in September that the police use of automatic facial recognition technology to scan people in crowds was lawful.

Its use by South Wales police was challenged by Ed Bridges, a former Lib Dem councillor, who noticed the cameras when he went out to buy a lunchtime sandwich, but the court held that the intrusion into privacy was proportionate….(More)”.

The Politics of Open Government Data: Understanding Organizational Responses to Pressure for More Transparency


Paper by Erna Ruijer et al: “This article contributes to the growing body of literature within public management on open government data by taking
a political perspective. We argue that open government data are a strategic resource of organizations and therefore organizations are not likely to share it. We develop an analytical framework for studying the politics of open government data, based on theories of strategic responses to institutional processes, government transparency, and open government data. The framework shows that there can be different organizational strategic responses to open data—varying from conformity to active resistance—and that different institutional antecedents influence these responses. The value of the framework is explored in two cases: a province in the Netherlands and a municipality in France. The cases provide insights into why governments might release datasets in certain policy domains but not in others thereby producing “strategically opaque transparency.” The article concludes that the politics of open government data framework helps us understand open data practices in relation to broader institutional pressures that influence government transparency….(More)”.

The most innovative political projects in Europe 2019


The Innovation in Politics Institute: “Since 2017, the Innovation in Politics Awards have been honouring successfully implemented political initiatives – regardless of party affiliation, political level or region. The aim is to strengthen, further develop and inspire democratic politics…

The winning projects by category are:

COOPERATIVE COUNCIL GRONINGEN: Trust is crucial in life – and in politics. The open citizens’ council in Groningen builds trust between citizens and politicians. When they sit shoulder to shoulder in the local council and decide together, a joint sense of responsibility quickly develops. The citizens are chosen at random in order to motivate a variety of people to participate. An evaluation by the University of Groningen showed increased trust on all sides, more active voting behaviour and a stronger community. …

SMART CITY BAD HERSFELD: The “Smart City Bad Hersfeld” project links public administration, citizens and businesses in the city to improve living and working conditions. With 30,000 inhabitants, it is the smallest city in Germany to have developed such a programme. A digital parking guidance system optimises the use of space and the finding of a parking space. Municipal charging stations for electric cars promote environmentally friendly transport. “Smartboxes” on main roads collect data on traffic noise and waste materials for effective environmental management. Free Internet in the city centre motivates everyone to use such services….(More)”

Belgian experiment that Aristotle would have approved of


The Economist: “In a sleepy corner of Belgium, a democratic experiment is under way. On September 16th, 24 randomly chosen Germanophones from the country’s eastern fringe took their seats in a Citizens’ Council. They will have the power to tell elected officials which issues matter, and for each such issue to task a Citizens’ Assembly (also chosen at random) with brainstorming ideas on how to solve them. It’s an engaged citizen’s dream come true.

Belgium’s German-speakers are an often-overlooked minority next to their Francophone and Flemish countrymen. They are few in number—just 76,000 people out of a population of 11m—yet have a distinct identity, shaped by their proximity to Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Thanks to Belgium’s federal system the community is thought to be the smallest region of the EU with its own legislative powers: a parliament of 25 representatives and a government of four decides on policies related to issues including education, sport, training and child benefits.

This new system takes democracy one step further. Based on selection by lottery—which Aristotle regarded as real democracy, in contrast to election, which he described as “oligarchy”—it was trialled in 2017 and won enthusiastic reviews from participants, officials and locals.

Under the “Ostbelgien Model”, the Citizens’ Council and the assemblies it convenes will run in parallel to the existing parliament and will set its legislative agenda. Parliamentarians must consider every proposal that wins support from 80% of the council, and must publicly defend any decision to take a different path.

Some see the project as a tool that could counter political discontent by involving ordinary folk in decision-making. But for Alexander Miesen, a Belgian senator who initiated the project, the motivation is cosier. “People would like to share their ideas, and they also have a lot of experience in their lives which you can import into parliament. It’s a win-win,” he says.

Selecting decision-makers by lottery is unusual these days, but not unknown: Ireland randomly selected the members of the Citizens’ Assembly that succeeded in breaking the deadlock on abortion laws. Referendums are a common way of settling important matters in several countries. But in Eupen, the largest town in the German-speaking region, citizens themselves will come up with the topics and policies which parliamentarians then review, rather than expressing consent to ideas proposed by politicians. Traditional decision-makers still have the final say, but “citizens can be sure that their ideas are part of the process,” says Mr Miesen….(More)”.

Decision-making in the Age of the Algorithm


Paper by Thea Snow: “Frontline practitioners in the public sector – from social workers to police to custody officers – make important decisions every day about people’s lives. Operating in the context of a sector grappling with how to manage rising demand, coupled with diminishing resources, frontline practitioners are being asked to make very important decisions quickly and with limited information. To do this, public sector organisations are turning to new technologies to support decision-making, in particular, predictive analytics tools, which use machine learning algorithms to discover patterns in data and make predictions.

While many guides exist around ethical AI design, there is little guidance on how to support a productive human-machine interaction in relation to AI. This report aims to fill this gap by focusing on the issue of human-machine interaction. How people are working with tools is significant because, simply put, for predictive analytics tools to be effective, frontline practitioners need to use them well. It encourages public sector organisations to think about how people feel about predictive analytics tools – what they’re fearful of, what they’re excited about, what they don’t understand.

Based on insights drawn from an extensive literature review, interviews with frontline practitioners, and discussions with experts across a range of fields, the guide also identifies three key principles that play a significant role in supporting a constructive human-machine relationship: context, understanding, and agency….(More)”.

We are finally getting better at predicting organized conflict


Tate Ryan-Mosley at MIT Technology Review: “People have been trying to predict conflict for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But it’s hard, largely because scientists can’t agree on its nature or how it arises. The critical factor could be something as apparently innocuous as a booming population or a bad year for crops. Other times a spark ignites a powder keg, as with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in the run-up to World War I.

Political scientists and mathematicians have come up with a slew of different methods for forecasting the next outbreak of violence—but no single model properly captures how conflict behaves. A study published in 2011 by the Peace Research Institute Oslo used a single model to run global conflict forecasts from 2010 to 2050. It estimated a less than .05% chance of violence in Syria. Humanitarian organizations, which could have been better prepared had the predictions been more accurate, were caught flat-footed by the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in March 2011. It has since displaced some 13 million people.

Bundling individual models to maximize their strengths and weed out weakness has resulted in big improvements. The first public ensemble model, the Early Warning Project, launched in 2013 to forecast new instances of mass killing. Run by researchers at the US Holocaust Museum and Dartmouth College, it claims 80% accuracy in its predictions.

Improvements in data gathering, translation, and machine learning have further advanced the field. A newer model called ViEWS, built by researchers at Uppsala University, provides a huge boost in granularity. Focusing on conflict in Africa, it offers monthly predictive readouts on multiple regions within a given state. Its threshold for violence is a single death.

Some researchers say there are private—and in some cases, classified—predictive models that are likely far better than anything public. Worries that making predictions public could undermine diplomacy or change the outcome of world events are not unfounded. But that is precisely the point. Public models are good enough to help direct aid to where it is needed and alert those most vulnerable to seek safety. Properly used, they could change things for the better, and save lives in the process….(More)”.

Handbook of Research on Politics in the Computer Age


Book edited by Ashu M. G. Solo: “Technology and particularly the Internet have caused many changes in the realm of politics. Aspects of engineering, computer science, mathematics, or natural science can be applied to politics. Politicians and candidates use their own websites and social network profiles to get their message out. Revolutions in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have started in large part due to social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Social networking has also played a role in protests and riots in numerous countries. The mainstream media no longer has a monopoly on political commentary as anybody can set up a blog or post a video online. Now, political activists can network together online.

The Handbook of Research on Politics in the Computer Age is a pivotal reference source that serves to increase the understanding of methods for politics in the computer age, the effectiveness of these methods, and tools for analyzing these methods. The book includes research chapters on different aspects of politics with information technology, engineering, computer science, or math, from 27 researchers at 20 universities and research organizations in Belgium, Brazil, Cape Verde, Egypt, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, and the United States of America. Highlighting topics such as online campaigning and fake news, the prospective audience includes, but is not limited to, researchers, political and public policy analysts, political scientists, engineers, computer scientists, political campaign managers and staff, politicians and their staff, political operatives, professors, students, and individuals working in the fields of politics, e-politics, e-government, new media and communication studies, and Internet marketing….(More)”.