Democracy is arguably out of step with the way the world communicates. Could open source software and a so-called parliamentary ‘cyber chamber’ help address this disconnect?
Fed up with politics and the options offered by the mainstream parties, web developer James Smith decided to give something else a go. Instead of just “shouting into the void”, he and a small group of others founded OpenPolitics, an online political manifesto, open to contributions from anyone, based on the principles of open source software.
“Politics is very much about people fighting their own little corners,” says Smith. “There’s a demand for greater collaboration and participation and that movement is growing.”
OpenPolitics, which will have its first run-out in the general election this May after being launched in 2013, encourages that collaboration through its simplicity. It’s open to anyone with an account on code sharing site GitHub, which in turn is open to anyone with an email address.
“Anybody can make a change, and then all of us who have already contributed to the project can decide whether it goes in or not,” says Smith.
It remains a small group at the moment, with around 25 contributors, but Smith sees the project as part of not only a specific political movement, but of fundamentally bringing politics into the modern world. “There are a lot of people disconnected at the moment because the world of our democracy is suddenly very out of step with the way that the world is actually communicating.”
“There’s a demand for greater collaboration and participation and that movement is growing.”
There have been some attempts by government to fight this disconnect, despite the old fashions of parliament. The speaker’s commission on digital democracy recommended in January that online voting should be available by 2020 and that the new government in May should immediately set up a public forum, or ‘cyber chamber’, for the public to engage with parliamentary debates.
The recommendations were debated on 10 March where, in a first for the House of Commons, people in the public gallery were allowed to tweet during the proceedings.
Meg Hillier, a Labour MP who was on the commission, led the debate. “As members of parliament, we need to be bold and embrace the change,” she said. “We need to use social media and the opening up of parliament as an opportunity to listen better to our constituents, not simply to broadcast what we do.”
A report by Cambridge University suggested that 46% of people would like to get involved in parliamentary debate, but only 10% do. As MP for the tech hub that is Shoreditch in London, Hillier is in a unique position to see how open data can improve this.
“If we had open data it would allow tech experts to develop, for example, an app that meant that someone could look up a topic that mattered to them and follow through exactly where and when that was being discussed.”
Andrew Miller MP, who chairs the commons science and technology committee, agrees that opening up government to technology is inevitable. “How do you represent all your constituents in this very fast moving world? You need to open up the channels of communication,” he says.
The cyber chamber, he feels, would be an effective way of doing this, and would bypass the middlemen of lobbyists and identikit email campaigns in the process.
Miller does add that parliament has come a long way already. When elected in 1992 he was one of the few MPs with an email address, but it took a whole year for him to actually receive an email from a constituent. Now he deals with around 400 a day.
There is a missing step, however, between this way of opening MPs up to constituents and Smith’s model of collective decision-making. “Without the power then it’s just Twitter,” Smith says of the so-called cyber chamber. He believes that the next step is a form of more direct democracy, again using open source software.
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Liquid democracy, in which individuals can give their votes on individual issues to different ‘delegates’, has had some success in Germany. Delegates are not elected for a fixed term and votes can be withdrawn at any time, if a delegate or voter changes their mind.
LiquidFeedback, an open source platform for liquid democracy, has been adopted by companies, the Pirate Party Germany and as a way of carrying out opinion polls. Axel Kistner, one of the founders of the platform, says liquid democracy is “no alternative” to the traditional government system. Instead, it’s a way of improving its engagement with and representation of the people.
If this is where Britain is headed, the country isn’t likely to arrive there soon. Even if the digital democracy commission’s recommendations are adopted, they are proposed only as a trial for the first five years.
Smith thinks it could take generations, but that once people are involved on a smaller level – such as with the cyber chamber – that will create hunger for more.
Miller says something similar: “People will engage more if they see the benefits.”
Both think that the move towards an open source democracy, whether it’s Smith’s vision or a more inclusive, technological version of modern parliament, is a question of when, not if. As Smith says: “We can still improve democracy. If suddenly the people can talk in new ways, well democracy has to talk in new ways too.”
Photo title: James Smith, founder of OpenPolitics
Photo credit: © Matthew Gilley