Time for 21st century democracy

Martin Smith and Dave Richards at Policy Network (UK): “…The way that the world has changed is leading to a clash between two contrasting cultures.   Traditional, top down, elite models of democracy and accountability are no longer sustainable in an age of a digitally more open-society. As the recent Hansard Society Report into PMQs clearly reveals, the people see politicians as out of touch and remote.   What we need are two major changes. One is the recognition by institutions that they are now making decisions in an open world.  That even if they make decisions in private (which in certain cases they clearly have to) they should recognise that at some point those decisions may need to be justified.  Therefore every decision should be made on the basis that if it were open it would be deemed as legitimate.
The second is the development of bottom up accountability – we have to develop mechanisms where accountability is not mediated through institutions (as is the case with parliamentary accountability).  In its conclusion, the Hansard Society report proposes new technology could be used to allow citizens rather than MPs to ask questions at Prime Minister’s question time.  This is one of many forms of citizen led accountability that could reinforce the openness of decision making.
New technology creates the opportunity to move away from 19th century democracy.  Technology can be used to change the way decisions are made, how citizens are involved and how institutions are held to account.  This is already happening with social groups using social media, on-line petitions and mobile technologies as part of their campaigns.  However, this process needs to be formalised (such as in the Hansard Society’s suggestion for citizen’s questions).  There is also a need for more user friendly ways of analysing big data around government performance.  Big data creates many new ways in which decisions can be opened up and critically reviewed.  We also need much more explicit policies of leak and whistleblowing so that those who do reveal the inner workings of governments are not criminalised….”
Fundamentally, the real change is about treating citizens as grown-ups recognising that they can be privy to the details of the policy-making process.  There is a great irony in the playground behaviour of Prime Minister’s question time and the patronising attitudes of political elites towards voters (which tends to infantilise citizens as not to have the expertise to fully participate).  The most important change is that institutions start to act as if they are operating in an open society where they are directly accountable and hence are in a position to start regaining the trust of the people.   The closed world of institutions is no longer viable in a digital age.