Future democracy

From a show-of-hands vote to oppose development next to a Philippines slum to internet-enabled democracy in the UK, Martin Wright envisions options for democracy

One evening, many years ago, I attended a meeting on the outskirts of a Philippines slum. A local NGO had discovered plans for a new commercial development on the slum’s edge and wanted to know what the residents thought about it. So the NGO staff invited everyone to a meeting.

Some of the residents — mainly men — were immediately talkative, outspoken. They were clearly used to having their voices heard. But the facilitators gently hushed them and went round the circle, ensuring everyone had their say. They then asked for a show-of-hands vote. The residents elected to oppose the development.

It was a strong example of participatory democracy in action.

Now look at the relatively passive options that pass for democratic action in Britain today: a once-in-four-years trip to a polling station; the odd opportunity to respond to some local consultation document tucked away on a bureaucratic website.

The direct participation I witnessed in the Philippines, while not necessarily evidence of a fully functioning and thriving democracy, was a reminder that in our efforts to streamline the political process, we’ve also lost the opportunity for meaningful engagement.

The real leap forward would involve transforming a voter into a citizen — one with responsibilities as well as rights

It made me wonder whether we could recapture some of the simpler, more genuine attempts at democracy in a digitally enabled future. The options are vast.

For starters, we wouldn’t have to wait for an election to make changes. Decisions that touched our lives – such as determining the route of a new train line – could automatically be referred to us. Perhaps the voting could be weighted so those most affected by the issue had the greatest say.

That could just be the start. Rather than simply marking a preference on paper with an ‘x’ (as neat a symbol of political illiteracy as you could wish for), we could be offered a range of choices, with trade-offs explained and opposing views summarised. But the real leap forward would involve transforming a voter into a citizen – one with responsibilities as well as rights.

At the end of that evening in the Philippines slum, people were invited to volunteer their time or skills to help oppose the new development. Many were keen to demonstrate their willingness. I was told these volunteers were more likely to follow through on their commitments because they had witnesses.

Fast forward to a future, digitally enabled democratic society where we could imagine being invited not just to express a preference but to get involved in the consequences, whether that be serving on a citizens’ jury or helping decide how to spend a budget. We might even see a process of peer reviews, with people’s fitness to be responsible citizens continually assessed by their fellows.

Of course, it will take more than a few clicks to turn us from voters to citizens. But it is surely time to move on from the outdated practice of applying a stubby pencil to paper in a polling both. The internet has given us the tools to engage people in active politics as never before. It’s about time we used them.

Martin Wright is a writer, editor, speaker for organisations including Forum for the Future, Collectively, The Guardian, Ashden Awards and Futerra.

Image: A voting booth in the Netherlands for the provincial elections in 2015. Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg

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