Dear democracy, you need more hackers

Image by @Theo_Bass

This is my write up from Nesta’s recent digital democracy day — I wasn’t planning to blog but it inspired me, so here you go.

The day included two sessions; one focussed on local government and one in parliament focussed on, well, parliament. At the heart of each session were four fantastic presentations showcasing digital democracy projects from Iceland (Citizen’s Foundation —Gunnar Grímsson), Taiwan (Digital Minister — Audrey Tang), France (Cap Collectif — Nicolas Patte) and Brazil (Chamber of Deputies Hacker Lab — Cristiano Falia). Big thanks to Theo and the rest of the gang at Nesta for arranging :)

My main thought following the day (there was so much — it’s been hard to boil it down…) is that there needs to be more capacity in our democracy to hack. Government can no longer rely on off the shelf solutions to meet democratic challenges but needs to experiment and adapt - something brilliantly illustrated by each of the four projects.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be more capacity in our formal institutions — two of the projects (Taiwan and Brazil) were internal to government institutions while two (Iceland and France) were civic society projects. There are merits for either approach — partnerships with the private sector are an option as well (as long as the right ethos exists).

Anyhow democracy, you need hackers because…

1. Hackers know how to use the tech

Well, obvious maybe, but government often lacks the capacity to make use of what is out there. And there is a lot out there. Whether it’s making use of open source tools like the D-Cent tools that Nesta have been involved in developing or Your Priorities (they even host for free) or tapping into the tech that people are already using.

Engaging with digital democracy means being prepared to constantly review, update, adapt and tweak the tools you are using — you need hackers for that. You do.

2. Hackers are happy to challenge institutions

The tools are not much use if the institutions of democracy are unwilling or unable to respond to them. Nicholas Patte explained how it took a long time to convince the elected representatives in France about their crowd sourced legislation project but, with perseverance, they got there in the end.

I loved that Taiwan has a ‘Minister of Hacking’ who can get things done at the highest level of government — her sage advice is that politicians can be asked to accept ‘those things they can live with’; compromise clearly plays a role.

I also loved hearing about the Hacker Lab for the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil. You got a real sense that that they were not scared to have difficult conversations with politicians — a video in the presentation illustrated this brilliantly where a hacker and a politician found that they had a shared interest in doing something to track the progress of budget decisions.

Cristiano Falia describes himself as a bureaucratic hacker rather than a technological hacker — neat.

3. Hackers design for citizens

In government it can be easy to work for the institution or the party rather than for the citizen — our ‘democracy culture’ is kind of organised to ensure that this happens. Hackers, on the other hand, don’t have the constraints that public officials and politicians often experience and can think about what’s best for the citizens.

I was particularly struck by the willingness to treat participants in the various platforms as grown ups and the rewards that brought. The Cap Collectif example of crowd sourcing legislation placed a lot of emphasis on ensuring that people had access to the right materials so that they could make an informed contribution. In a similar way NHS Citizen (Your Priorities are involved in this) automatically finds and points to documents that link to the comments being made.

It’s worth highlighting that the citizens using the platforms treat them with respect. Cap Collectif, for example, have a moderation rate of less than 1%. Even where citizens are less than respectful this doesn't have to be a problem. I enjoyed hearing from Audrey Tang about how they have a policy of ‘hugging the trolls’ — in other words rewarding the trolls with recognition for their useful contributions while ignoring the bad stuff.

4. Hackers have a digital mindset

As well as placing citizen needs at the centre, a digital mindset means being willing to experiment at a small scale and getting things to work through tweaks and iterations. This is not always the norm in government.

In fact, when it comes to democracy, problem talk comes a little too easily I think. Yes we should worry about representativeness and the needs of the ‘off-line’ — of course - but this shouldn't stop us trying things out. Gunnar Grímsson made this point very well. I also liked Audrey Tang’s rule that something is worth doing if it augments or involves more people than the mechanism already in place. Nicolas got a lot of nods from his fellow presenters when he explained that the aim was to capture a full diversity of arguments rather than a representative population — I like that.

5. Hackers solve problems in the system

One thing I certainly took from the presentations was a confidence that these guys could get to grips with the difficult stuff.

An example that resonated well with the people in the events was how the ‘filter bubble’ had been tackled in different ways. Your Priorities, for example, has used a ‘two column’ approach to debating ideas where people could only express their views in either the for or against column — directly criticising someone from the other column was not possible. The Taiwan example used a Canadian approach called the ‘Focus Conversation Method’ to build consensus without conflict. This creates ‘ a dialogue not a showdown’ as Audrey put it.

6. Hackers build trust

Gunnar Grímsson talked about the ‘trust crash’ that came along with the economic crash in Iceland and I think the idea of a trust recession is one that we can all recognise.

There are ways to counter this however. Providing things open source, making the process transparent and ensuring that there is no ‘black box’ for decisions were all examples of how democratic innovations can promote trust. There was also clear advice about making expectations and processes clear at the start.

Equally important is making the effort to communicate to citizens how their involvement has made a difference. In fact I wonder if this shouldn't be the goal for democratic innovations.

7. Hackers have fun

Well they clearly do. ‘Fun’ was one of the design goals for the latest iteration of Your Priorities. I also loved the hacker bus in Brazil, using Minecraft to engage young people.

And everyone was impressed with Audrey Tang’s emoji presentation :)

8. Hackers change the world

Whether it’s the visible changes created by Your Priorities that the good people of Reykjavik can see around them every day, the crowd sourced legislation being considered by law makers in Taiwan or France or the new ways of working that are transforming the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies — Hacker are making a difference. I'm sure that’s why they do it.

I’ll finish with my favourite quote from the day by Cristiano Falia:

“We are in the childhood of digital democracy so just let people play”

Yep, and we need more hackers to do it.

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