Democracy disrupted: We need a new politics that’s open source and crowd sourced

London’s Houses of Parliament — Politicians are held in low esteem by voters who feel poorly represented and disengaged from the political process

Sometimes we see disruption coming and sometimes it comes straight out of left field. Innovation and opportunity usually create the conditions for it to happen. But when it comes to politics it is surely a matter of necessity.

Public perception of politics and politicians is not favourable, to put it kindly. Britain’s vote to leave the EU is as much an angry protest against the political establishment as a verdict on membership. The leaders of all main UK parties backed staying in. The high 72% turnout is an expression of disdain rather than a measure of typical engagement. The hard-won right to vote is usually exercised by barely half the eligible people in America and Britain. It seems like the distance between us and those we elect to represent us has never been greater — and our opinion of them has never been lower.

Of course, there are many, many politicians — the ones who tend to get written about less — who work hard to represent their constituents. Doing so can come at a bitterly high price, as in the case of Labour MP Jo Cox who was shot and stabbed to death on her way to a constituency surgery this month.

The febrile atmosphere of Britain’s referendum on EU membership was the background against which this tragedy played out. The campaigns for Leave and Remain have been characterised by a cynical disregard for truth and fact in what is a highly complex debate. The events of recent months feel like a low-water mark in British politics. So what now?

We’ve seen insurgent business models up-ending established industries and creating sudden, massive demand for the new where seemingly none existed — just look at the poster disruptors Airbnb and Uber. There is a real sense that the time has come for digital disruption to do something similar to politics. Websites keeping an eye on politicians and offering us tools to help us engage have existed for some years, but they are now growing in number, evolving and — crucially — becoming more visible.

Redefining the political platform

In the US NewGov is an open source platform offering “a way to connect with your community, engage on the issues, and influence politicians”. It allows people to identify and promote issues and to prod their elected representatives to take up causes. On the flip side it allows politicians to gain detailed insight into the concerns of their constituents.

Similarly, Crowdpac positions itself as a “new platform for a better democracy” with a mission “to give politics back to people”. Already established in America, Crowdpac launched in the UK in April, and offers objective information and data on politicians and issues, plus the opportunity to help finance campaigns through Kickstarter-style crowd-funding.

Britt Blaser, the founder and CEO of NewGov, told Internet of Me what is at stake for American politics: “When we hear the words ‘politics’ or ‘government’ that is a black box — people don’t even want to talk about it. What you are really describing is an industry like any other industry — the policy development industry. On one side you have 535 vendors with rent-free offices on Capitol Hill and ignoring the landlord, selling their services — and you can’t be too cynical about this — to businesses so they can make their appeals to the landlord to keep them in office.”

America’s power base — The Capitol Building in Washington DC

NewGov allows voters to highlight or suggest policy issues and galvanise into groups to build influence, with anonymised identity verification ensuring those participating are genuine. Interactive maps reveal information and data on politicians at all levels of government. Crucially, suggestions, posts and other interactions — including social media activity — are pinned to those maps as permanent records of actions and responses. Users are encouraged to get their neighbours on board to support causes, with the cumulative effect of all this being to generate a level of activity and input that cannot be ignored.

Such direct cause and effect has clear potential to ignite pubic engagement in politics. And there is an obvious need for that. While percentages can vary slightly, the Pew Research Centre has America’s turnout for the 2012 presidential elections at 54%, which ranks it 31st out of 34 OECD countries. The UK was 22nd with 61% in 2010 but rallied to 66% at the last general election.

Protests, on the other hand, create plenty of noise but little in the way of nuance which, Britt says, denies politicians opportunities to respond meaningfully to their constituents. A platform like NewGov provides genuine, verifiable feedback from voters which offers politicians a mandate for action. Perhaps such insight would have allowed UK politicians to better address the fears which voters expressed by backing Brexit.

“Most politicians want political ‘air cover’ for the things they want to do but feel they can’t get away with because of their parties,” says Britt. “Those things are often the positive things. For example, a million people marched against the Iraq war in 2003 in the US. The politicians couldn’t see whose constituents they were. If they knew and this service had been in place the senators and congressmen who hated this war concept but felt they had to go along with it because of the fervour of that global war on terror — those people would have loved to have had ‘air cover’ for doing the things they felt were right.

“They are the ones saying ‘I want to be the guy who is good at collaborating with my voters and coming up with the right answers and having air cover for the stuff that the voters really want and my party does not’.”

It is this idea of opportunity for politicians that shows how disruption to our systems of government can benefit both voters and their elected representatives. It is not a case of tearing everything down and assuming everyone in politics is rotten to the core. The tools that empower voters must surely help politicians do their job — if the job they want to do is representing those voters. It is accountability as an opportunity.

The party’s over

The ‘air cover’ of popular support for issues that are important to a set of constituents is great for direct democracy, but it tests the efficacy of the party system. That might worry those who see party discipline on key policies as the most effective way to pass important legislation. On the other hand, slim majorities and party in-fighting has also led to legislative paralysis.

Britt holds little sentimentality for the party way.

“Crowd sourced, open source policy is the way of everybody’s future. I would like to see the distinction between Republicans and Democrats be as trivial as distinctions between people with blue eyes and brown eyes.”

He also says politicians are open to the NewGov way of shaking up the system.

“I’d always assumed that if they saw constituents aggregating they would come on board but until then they would be sceptical,” says Britt. “That has not at all been the case. Every time we have mentioned this to a politician — typically at the state legislative level — they have been incredibly enthusiastic, saying ‘how soon can we have this thing?’ That surprised me a lot.”

The NewGov project has been shaped to a large degree by the VRM model — Vendor Relationship Management — pioneered by internet visionary Doc Searls, who told Internet of Me: “What Britt’s trying to do is to give leverage. What NewGov is doing is always about getting the better lever — not just the lever in the voting booth but the lever you have on your phone or your computer or through whatever other means. His work on the way power and influence might flow and finding digital ways to do that are potentially profound if they get adopted.”

NewGov and Crowdpac are capitalising on the ever-growing opportunities offered by technology and digital media. Crowdpac is the brainchild of Steve Hilton, former senior advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He told London’s Evening Standard newspaper: “We live in a platform age and the platforms are where [people] spend chunks of their lives: they are their filter for information. This is how Crowdpac will work . . . I definitely think tech hasn’t even begun to transform politics the way it has other areas of our lives.”

There are other players in the space, too, including theyworkforyou.com, which makes available parliamentary data and information so that people in the UK can see what their MP is doing and how they are voting on debates in the House of Commons. Tools allow users to search on issues and then easily share direct quotes from MPs, and can even set up alerts for comments on specific subjects. It is run by mysociety.org which offers web tools that, in their words, ‘break down the barriers around governments’ in more than 40 countries.

A date with destiny

And then there is Tinder. Yes, Tinder the dating app. Its Swipe The Vote campaign uses a quiz to match users with their ideal candidate — first in the US presidential race and recently in the UK for the London mayoral elections and the EU referendum.

Britt is enthused: “Tinder wants you to swipe the good looking faces right? Now they are occasionally putting up a policy statement — immigration, health — and you swipe one way to support that statement and after you swipe enough of them they tell you which of the candidates you should support. This is similar to what Crowdpac is doing but with gestures rather than complex web engagement. Gestures are the future of this. Gestures are the only way we’re going to speak to each other — aggregated gestures have huge effect as we know from hive mind study. If somebody is moved to swipe a policy or re-tweet a hashtag and they are certified as a constituent in a jurisdiction then that hashtag or that swipe can go on the politician’s map.”

Harnessing our behavioural data in this way has the potential to offer us greater control over — and insight from — many aspects of our lives. Our health, though medical records, apps and wearable tech. Our finances, from the aggregation of disparate account data. Our travel, shopping, social life and much more. So why shouldn’t our data allow us greater control and insight when it comes to the democracy we live in and the public services our taxes pay for?

It’s like any consumer relationship. The more the organisation knows about us the better it can understand our needs and desires in order to tailor its offer. Of course, there is always a balance to be struck between respecting our privacy and engaging us on a truly personal level. But why wouldn’t we want our elected representatives to understand us and what is important in our lives?

Perhaps the best way to test whether our politics really does need disrupting is to ask this question: If we were to design our political systems from scratch to best serve the needs of modern life, would they look like the systems we have today?

If political disruption appeared on a manifesto we would surely vote for it in our droves.

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