How Do You Hack Democracy?

Scotland, Europe, The World — it’s time to shake things up!

Hi. I’m Leah. A digital democratic engagement officer, supporting community organisations in Scotland to use digital tools that help local people make collective decisions.

In this article I’ll explore a bunch of new reflections I’ve had around democracy, technology, and society: all sparked through reading Democracy Squared. Followed by my thoughts about how I’m going to try to implement them tangibly on a local level in Scotland.

From the opening pages of Democracy Squared I felt a huge amount of excitement and a fire in my belly. I learned about the book through my social media networks, and was glad to find out that Jon Barnes (author) and Jim Ralley (editor) are mere mortals who self-published through their organisational evolution studio, Flux. I was (and still am) excited when I meet people online through my crazy Venn diagram of networks. People who are often from different professional backgrounds to me, but who are passionate about the same things as me.

Simple lessons from a complex world

Democracy Squared is one giant provocation laying out miles of ideas around decentralising democratic systems, distributing democracy, new decision-making processes, and agile citizen-centred services: all enabled by cutting-edge technology. The civic tech space is growing very quickly and is largely led by entrepreneurs who have no experience working in or around governments. They are people who like to solve problems and who see an opportunity to use their systems thinking and design thinking skills to reboot democracy.

The civic tech space is growing very quickly and is largely led by entrepreneurs.

Conversations about networked democracy and devolved decision making are not new, but the way they are presented in the book is unique because they feel so accessible.

Jon comes across as a peer who is also trying to wade through enormous concepts and ideas around the intersection between technology and democracy.

The book also made it easier than ever for me to zoom out. From always thinking about the use of specific web-based tools and platforms, to more sophisticated thinking about reshaping entire processes.

Reading Democracy Squared enabled me to take what I know about digital engagement, online networks, and web based platforms and scale my knowledge up to a kind of systems thinking.

“It’s so fucking punk.” — me quoting the book on Instagram — follow me @lockhartl

Building a sandbox to play with ideas

Jon spent time with leading figures in 5 different technology-enabled democratic disruption projects:

Through transcribed interviews, we get to hear directly from people who have made great strides in upending binary political systems. They are not superhuman and their journeys don’t take huge leaps of imagination for me to see how they could happen in Scotland.

In Democracy Squared I met people from different industries and backgrounds who are hacking away at traditional democratic processes and coming up against some of the same frustrations and barriers I do (though at a much different scale.)

Reading the book helped me to make time and space to create a kind of sandbox in my head, where I played with idea of applying these global ideas and experiences to Scotland; where commercial and entrepreneurial approaches to innovation in government are welcome; and where the idea of central points of contact that link citizens to governments are totally erased.

As far as inspiration goes, this book has been a powerhouse for me.

“I created a kind of sandbox in my head, where I played with the application of global ideas and experiences to Scotland.”

Are you ready to push back and do some work?

The book is rough around the edges, not totally polished, but it’s been designed as something that will change and iterate over time. It is unapologetically aspirational and overflowing with optimism for the spectrum of possibilities for more direct, more participatory, more deliberative, and more citizen-centred democracies.

Democracy Squared doesn’t discuss the practicalities of how to put its big ideas into motion, and rightly so. To offer solutions would be to fly in the face of some of the main ideas in the book: the future is one of networks making decisions though deliberation and iteration.

The stories and provocations in the book are points of departure, where you can start to create your own solutions. From where I’m sitting, the leap between the theories and case studies in Democracy Squared, and reality on the ground is immense. If you’re not ready to push back and do some work to start narrowing the gaps then this book isn’t for you.

Bringing lessons back home to Scotland

While I was reading Democracy Squared I experienced a couple of things that were illustrations of problematic and evergreen attitudes to re-thinking how public services are organised and delivered in Scotland.

Public servants often dismiss technological solutions to common problems

I found myself in an audience of people who had volunteered their spare time to work together to find new technological solutions to challenges faced by the health service. Impressively, a very senior civil servant learned about the event as it was happening and turned up to give an impromptu talk as an expression of appreciation and acknowledgement of the crowd.

In 2017, people in positions of power should not be wearing ‘lack of basic computing skills’ as a badge.

Not so impressively, this person started their talk with a self-effacing comment about not even knowing how to take a screenshot, so surely the tech being created at the event would go over their head. This is worrying not least because people in positions of power should not be wearing lack of basic computing skills as a badge in 2017.

It signalled to me an common inability to see solutions that happen to involve technology, as simply new ways of making change. In the traditional public service arena, technology is often dismissed as something other people do. The basic tenets of networked systems, shared ownership, trust and openness that make up core values in civic technologies are fundamentally not understood by our current decision makers.

As long as the government runs on an old operating system, it risks being replaced by superior, customer-centric technologies and services.

Public servants don’t trust online participation and engagement

The second thing that cropped up whilst I was reading the book was a series of reminders of just how mistrusting and suspicious pubic servants are of their communities and of basic web based engagement platforms.

I’m currently working on a digital participatory budgeting (PB) programme through which Scottish local authorities are offered my support and guidance in integrating digital voting and idea generation platforms into their hyperlocal PB projects. The idea is to offer citizens additional ways to participate in PB activities, because traditional PB events are generally only carried out face-to-face, or with elements online.

Culturally, our public services have a long way to go before trust in online participation and engagement is the default.

There are many benefits to widening access, but without fail, every local authority I’ve talked to starts our conversation by expressing anxiety around voter fraud, hacking, abusive behaviour, and setting boundaries based on postcodes. These anxieties are not unique to local government — they were also present in my digital participation work with central government policy teams over a year ago. Culturally, our public services have a long way to go before trust in online participation and engagement is the default.

Recent global political events have generated citizen and community activism on an incredible scale. A lot of this activism will be facilitated or carried out online.

New technologies that allow greater civic participation will develop and grow with or without the support of governments.

New technologies that allow greater civic participation and decision making, like the five detailed in Democracy Squared, will develop and grow with or without the support of governments. Legendary civic tech entrepreneur Santiago Siri tells Jon in an interview for the book:

‘How we do governance, how we do digital institutions…100% of the political debate is completely ignorant about this. They are just simply not able to grasp what all this means. I think that the inevitability of the impact of this technology is really there and I think that a lot of us- here in Silicon Valley, but anywhere in the world really, are contributing to this mission.’ (Democracy Squared, p.242)

We need to up our game.

We need to start having more sophisticated conversations about what democracy looks like in 2017; about what interaction between people and governments looks like; about what re-thinking our binary systems can mean for achieving improved cohesion, more empowered, better informed and politically interested citizens.

I’m ready to get to work shaking things up. If you want to join me, get in touch — I’ll be online.

Leah Lockhart is the Digital Democratic Engagement Officer at The Democratic Society. Comment below so we can kickstart even more conversations about deepening our democracy.