A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Letter in Harpers Magazine signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals,: “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us….(More)”.

Are Citizens’ Assemblies the Answer to the Climate Crisis?

Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe: “Mathilde Bouyé associate at the Climate Program Of The World Resources Institute: “…the impact of citizens’ deliberation depends on the link to decisionmaking, which varies with each country’s democratic culture. The UK climate assembly informed powerful parliamentary committees, while the French government created a precedent by committing to send the Citizens’ Convention on Climate’s proposals for adoption “without any filter….”

Jan Eichhorn,  Research Director Of D|Part and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The University Of Edinburgh: “The climate crisis is so complex that no single action can be the answer to it. However, because of the complexity, formats that can connect otherwise distant actors meaningfully can play a very helpful role. Citizens’ assemblies fit that bill.

If well designed, such assemblies connect expertise with life realities, broaden the horizon of policymakers on what publics may be willing or even excited to consider, and enable publics to learn about options they did not know about. Rather than stoking divisions between people and businesses or between activists and state officials, they can foster common ground and create shared purpose, which is needed to combat comprehensive challenges like the climate crisis….”

Tim Hughes, Director of Involve: “…they are only one way in which people can be—and need to be—involved in decisionmaking. Underpinning citizens’ assemblies are the principles of participation—people being involved in the decisions that affect their lives—and deliberation—people sharing and testing ideas through inclusive and respectful conversations.

It is these principles that we need to build into decisionmaking at all levels of society in order to develop the ideas, energy, and ownership to answer the crisis.”

Mariann Őry,  Head Of The Foreign Desk And Senior Editor At Magyar Hírlap: “Citizens’ initiatives have proven to be effective in reaching a number of goals, but the pressure they can put on stakeholders is not always enough.

It’s not even the most reliable political force: remember that the enthusiasm and momentum of the climate protests has basically vanished since the start of the coronavirus crisis, as if people simply lost interest—though this is surely not the case. A difference can be made on the level of political leaders and, very importantly, on the level of the biggest actors of industry….(More)”.

A Council of Citizens Should Regulate Algorithms

Federica Carugati at Wired: “…A new report by OpenAI suggests we should create external auditing bodies to evaluate the societal impact of algorithm-based decisions. But the report does not specify what such bodies should look like.

We don’t know how to regulate algorithms, because their application to societal problems involves a fundamental incongruity. Algorithms follow logical rules in order to optimize for a given outcome. Public policy is all a matter of trade-offs: optimizing for some groups in society necessarily makes others worse off.

Resolving social trade-offs requires that many different voices be heard. This may sound radical, but it is in fact the original lesson of democracy: Citizens should have a say. We don’t know how to regulate algorithms, because we have become shockingly bad at citizen governance.

Is citizen governance feasible today? Sure, it is. We know from social scientists that a diverse group of people can make very good decisions. We also know from a number of recent experiments that citizens can be called upon to make decisions on very tough policy issues, including climate change, and even to shape constitutions. Finally, we can draw from the past for inspiration on how to actually build citizen-run institutions.

The ancient Athenians—the citizens of the world’s first large-scale experiment in democracy—built an entire society on the principle of citizen governance. One institution stands out for our purposes: the Council of Five Hundred, a deliberative body in charge of all decisionmaking, from war to state finance to entertainment. Every year, 50 citizens from each of the 10 tribes were selected by lot to serve. Selection occurred among those that had not served the year before and had not already served twice.

These simple organizational rules facilitated broad participation, knowledge aggregation, and citizen learning. First, because the term was limited and could not be iterated more than twice, over time a broad section of the population—rich and poor, educated and not—participated in decisionmaking. Second, because the council represented the whole population (each tribe integrated three different geographic constituencies), it could draw upon the diverse knowledge of its members. Third, at the end of their mandate, councillors returned home with a body of knowledge about the affairs of their city that they could share with their families, friends, and coworkers, some of whom already served and some who soon would. Certainly, the Athenians did not follow through on their commitment to inclusion. As a result, many people’s voices went unheard, including those of women, foreigners, and slaves. But we don’t need to follow the Athenian example on this front.

A citizen council for algorithms modeled on the Athenian example would represent the entire American citizen population. We already do this with juries (although it is possible that, when decisions affect a specific constituency, a better fit with the actual polity might be required). Citizens’ deliberations would be informed by agency self-assessments and algorithmic impact statements for decision systems used by government agencies, and internal auditing reports for industry, as well as reports from investigative journalists and civil society activists, whenever available. Ideally, the council would act as an authoritative body or as an advisory board to an existing regulatory agency….(More)”.

The Data Assembly

Press Release: “The Governance Lab (The GovLab), an action research center at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, announced the creation of The Data Assembly. Beginning in New York City, the effort will explore how communities perceive the risks and benefits of data re-use for COVID-19. Understanding that policymakers often lack information about the concerns of different stakeholders, The Data Assembly’s deliberations will inform the creation of a responsible data re-use framework to guide the use of data and technology at the city and state level to fight COVID-19’s many consequences.

The Data Assembly will hold deliberations with civil rights organizations, key data holders and policymakers, and the public at large. Consultations with these stakeholders will take place through a series of remote engagements, including surveys and an online town hall meeting. This work will allow the project to consider the perspectives of people from different strata of society and how they might exercise some control over the flow of data.

After the completion of these data re-use deliberations, The Data Assembly will create a path forward for using data responsibly to solve public challenges. The first phases of the project will commence in New York City, seeking to engage with city residents and their leaders on data governance issues. 

“Data is increasingly the primary format for sharing information to understand crises and plan recovery efforts; empowering everyone to better understand how data is collected and how it should be used is paramount,” said Adrienne Schmoeker, Director of Civic Engagement & Strategy and Deputy Chief Analytics Officer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. “We look forward to learning from the insights gathered by the GovLab through The Data Assembly work they are conducting in New York City.”…(More)”.

The practice of democracy: A selection of civic engagement initiatives

Study by the European Parliament Research Service: “Public powers are currently facing extraordinary challenges, from finding ways to revive economic growth without damaging the environment, to managing a global health crisis, combating inequality and securing peace. In the coming decades, public regulators, and with them academics, civil society actors and corporate powers, will confront another dilemma that is fast becoming a clear and present challenge. This is whether to protect the current structures of democratic governance,despite the widespread perception of their inefficiency,or adapt them to fast-changing scenarios (but, in doing so, take the risk of further weakening democracy).

The picture is blurred, with diverging trends. On the one hand, the classic interest-representation model is under strain. Low voter turnouts, rising populist (or anti-establishment) political movements and widespread discontent towards public institutions are stress-testing the foundations of democratic systems. Democracy, ever-louder voices argue, is a mere chimera, and citizens have little meaningful impact on the public decision-making process. Therefore, critics suggest, alternatives to the democratic model must be considered if countries are to navigate future challenges. However, the reality is more complex. Indeed, the decay of democratic values is unambiguously rejected by the birth of new grassroots movements, evidenced by record-speed civic mobilisation (especially among the young) and sustained by widespread street protest. Examined more closely, these events show that global demand for participation is alive and kicking.

The clash between these two opposing trends raises a number of questions that policy-makers and analysts must answer. First, will new, hybrid, forms of democratic participation replace classic representation systems? Second, amid transformative processes, how will power-roles be redistributed? A third set of questions looks at what is driving the transformation of democratic systems. As the venues of political discussion and interaction move from town halls and meeting rooms to online forums, it becomes critical to understand whether innovative democratic practices will be implemented almost exclusively through impersonal, ascetic, digital platforms; or, whether civic engagement will still be nurtured through in-person, local forums built to encourage debate.

This study begins by looking at the latest developments in the academic and institutional debates on democratic participation and civic engagement. Contributing to the crisis of traditional democratic models are political apathy and declining trust in political institutions, changes in methods of producing and sharing knowledge, and the pervasive nature of technology. How are public institutions reacting to these disruptive changes? The central part of this study examines a sample of initiatives trialled by public administrations (local, national and supranational) to engage citizens in policy-making. These initiatives are categorised by three criteria: first, the depth and complexity of cooperation between public structures and private actors; second, the design of procedures and structures of participation; and,third, the level of politicisation of the consultations, as well as the attractiveness of certain topics compared with others.

This analysis is intended to contribute to the on-going debate on the democratisation of the European Union (EU). The planned Conference on the Future of Europe, the recent reform of the European Citizens’ Initiative, and on-going debates on how to improve the transparency of EU decision-making are all designed to revive the civic spirit of the European public. These efforts notwithstanding, severe political, economic and societal challenges are jeopardising the very ideological foundations of the Union. The on-going coronavirus pandemic has placed the EU’s effectiveness under scrutiny once again. By appraising and applying methods tested by public sector institutions to engage citizens in policy-making, the EU could boost its chances of accomplishing its political mandate with success….(More)”

Toward Inclusive Urban Technology

Report by Denise Linn Riedl: “Our cities are changing at an incredible pace. The technology being deployed on our sidewalks and streetlights has the potential to improve mobility, sustainability, connectivity, and city services.

Public value and public inclusion in this change, however, are not inevitable. Depending on how these technologies are deployed, they have the potential to increase inequities and distrust as much as they can create responsive government services.

Recognizing this tension, an initial coalition of local practitioners began collaborating in 2019 with the support of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. We combined knowledge of and personal experience with local governments to tackle a common question: What does procedural justice look like when cities deploy new technology?

This guide is meant for any local worker—inside or outside of government—who is helping to plan or implement technological change in their community. It’s a collection of experiences, cases, and best practices that we hope will be valuable and will make projects stronger, more sustainable, and more inclusive….(More)”.

Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions

Report by the OECD: “Public authorities from all levels of government increasingly turn to Citizens’ Assemblies, Juries, Panels and other representative deliberative processes to tackle complex policy problems ranging from climate change to infrastructure investment decisions. They convene groups of people representing a wide cross-section of society for at least one full day – and often much longer – to learn, deliberate, and develop collective recommendations that consider the complexities and compromises required for solving multifaceted public issues.

This “deliberative wave” has been building since the 1980s, gaining momentum since around 2010. This report has gathered close to 300 representative deliberative practices to explore trends in such processes, identify different models, and analyse the trade-offs among different design choices as well as the benefits and limits of public deliberation.

It includes Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making, based on comparative empirical evidence gathered by the OECD and in collaboration with leading practitioners from government, civil society, and academics. Finally, the report explores the reasons and routes for embedding deliberative activities into public institutions to give citizens a more permanent and meaningful role in shaping the policies affecting their lives….(More)”.

Constructing Digital Democracies: Facebook, Arendt, and the Politics of Design

Paper by Jennifer Forestal: “Deliberative democracy requires both equality and difference, with structures that organize a cohesive public while still accommodating the unique perspectives of each participant. While institutions like laws and norms can help to provide this balance, the built environment also plays a role supporting democratic politics—both on- and off-line.

In this article, I use the work of Hannah Arendt to articulate two characteristics the built environment needs to support democratic politics: it must (1) serves as a common world, drawing users together and emphasizing their common interests and must also (2) preserve spaces of appearance, accommodating diverse perspectives and inviting disagreement. I, then, turn to the example of Facebook to show how these characteristics can be used as criteria for evaluating how well a particular digital platform supports democratic politics and providing alternative mechanisms these sites might use to fulfill their role as a public realm….(More)”.

Canadian smart cities: Are we wiring new citizen‐local government interactions?

Paper by Peter A. Johnson, Albert Acedo and Pamela J. Robinson: “Governments around the world are developing smart city projects, with the aim to realize diverse goals of increased efficiency, sustainability, citizen engagement, and improved delivery of services. The processes through which these projects are conceptualized vary dramatically, with potential implications for how citizens are involved or engaged.

This research examines the 20 finalists in the Canadian Smart Cities Challenge, a Canadian federal government contest held from 2017 to 2019 to disburse funding in support of smart city projects. We analyzed each of the finalist proposals, coding all instances of citizen engagement used to develop the proposal. A significant majority of the proposals used traditional types of citizen engagement, notably citizen meetings, round tables, and workshops, to develop their smart city plans. We also noted the use of transactional forms of citizen engagement, such as apps, and the use of social media. Despite the general rhetoric of innovation in the development of smart cities, this research finds that citizens are most commonly engaged in traditional ways. This research provides cues for governments that are developing smart city projects, placing an emphasis on the importance of the process of smart city development, and not simply the product….(More)”.

How Covid-19 Is Accelerating the Rise of Digital Democracy

Blog post by Rosie Beacon: “Covid-19 has created an unprecedented challenge for parliaments and legislatures. Social distancing and restrictions on movement have forced parliaments to consider new methods of scrutiny, debate, and voting. The immediate challenge was simply to replicate existing procedures remotely, but the crisis has presented a unique window of opportunity to innovate.

As policymakers slowly transition back to “normal”, they should not easily dismiss the potential of this new relationship between democracy and technology. Parliamentarians should use what they’ve learned and the expertise of the democracy tech and deliberative democracy community to build greater trust in public institutions and open up traditional processes to wider deliberation, bringing people closer to the source of democratic power.

This note sets out some of the most interesting examples of crisis-led parliamentary innovation from around the world and combines it with some of the lessons we already know from democracy and deliberative tech to chart a way forward.

There are five core principles political leaders should embrace from this great experiment in digital parliamentary democracy:

  1. Discover and adopt: The world’s parliaments and legislatures have been through the same challenge. This is an opportunity to learn and improve democratic engagement in the long-term.
  2. Experiment with multiple tools: There is no one holistic approach to applying digital tools in any democracy. Some will work, others will fail – technology does not promise infallibility.
  3. Embrace openness: Where things can be open, experiment with using this to encourage open dialogue and diversify ideas in the democratic and representative process.
  4. Don’t start from scratch: Learn how the deliberative democracy community is already using technology to help remake representative systems and better connect to communities.
  5. Use multi-disciplinary approaches: Create diverse teams, with diverse skill sets. Build flexible tools that meet today’s needs of democracies, citizens and representatives.

Approaches From Around the World

The approaches globally to Covid-19 continuity have been varied depending on the geographical, political and social context, but they generally follow one of these scenarios:

  1. Replicating everything using digital tools – Welsh Assembly, Crown dependencies (Jersey, Isle of Man),Brazil
    • Using technology in every way possible to continue the current parliamentary agenda online.
  2. Moving priority processes online, deprioritising the rest – France National Assembly,New ZealandCanada
    • No physical presence in parliaments and prioritising the most important elements of the current parliamentary agenda, usually Covid-19-related legislation, to adapt for online continuation.
  3. Shifting what you can online while maintaining a minimal physical parliament – Denmark, Germany, UK
    • Hybrid parliaments appear to be a popular choice for larger parliaments. This generally allows for the parliamentary agenda to continue with amendments to how certain procedures are conducted.
  4. Reducing need for physical attendance and moving nothing online – Ireland, Sweden
    • Houses can continue to sit in quorum (an agreed proportion of MPs representative of overall party representation), but certain parts of legislative agenda have been suspended for the time being….(More)”.