Fergus Watson-West

Naked Politics Blogger 


Technological advancement is the great enabler of the human race. Whether its fruits are economising industry, improving the quality of our existence, extending life spans, or changing social patterns, it is the seed to growth, development and improvement in all aspects of our lives and in general, we are embracing it.

However, one area in the UK where the glittering ambit of technological advancement has failed to fully spread its wings is politics and the processes of democratic governance. In a strangely introspective and isolated way, methods, processes and formats in UK politics have remained relatively static compared to the monumental changes we’ve seen in other sectors. Coincidentally (or more likely, consequentially) politicians are seen to be in their own little bubble and no matter where they’ve come from, no matter their ‘normal person’ credentials – once they’re in the bubble, they’re in the bubble and are viewed as part of an elite club entirely (and perhaps willingly in some cases) ignorant of the everyday struggles of ordinary people.

It strikes me as peculiar that politics, a system based on ideas and the communication of ideas (i.e. the perfect environment for technological advancement) hasn’t taken advantage of an epidemic digital upheaval. Yes, social media as a technology, has changed the face of politics (most notably in the last general election), but generally this hasn’t been for the good. Rather than manufacture an environment for real, honest debate, social media has tended to create a ‘filter-bubble’: A self-absorbing room of mirrors which only serves to entrench resolute views and distort, and dissuade the contemplation of any opinion other than your own. Rather than developing consensus, the crooked reflection of social media is that it intensifies extreme positions, promotes abusive language and facilitates the spread of false information.

Putting aside the house of horrors however, there are technological methods and digital platforms around the world which have been used to generate genuine positive change. Look for example at Decide Madrid which gives residents the opportunity to decide how local budgets are spent or e-Democracia in Brazil which has engaged citizens in the legislative process or vTaiwan which has crowd-sourced ideas to resolve regulatory issues. By far my favourite example however, can be found in Iceland where deliberative policy crowd-sourcing has re-affirmed trust, enthusiasm and engagement in politics.

Following revelations of corruption during the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland’s political class was damaged beyond repair sparking a need for something new. Being a digitally developed economy, Iceland had the opportunity to experiment with web-based platforms to help re-build the relationship between citizens and government. Of particular success has been a crowd-sourcing tool called Better Reykjavík (Betri Reykjavík) which has engaged 60% of Reykjavik residents. Via this web-site, citizens can propose ideas which they believe will make improvements to the city of Reykjavík. Users can debate this idea by posting comments marked either in agreement or disagreement. These comments can be rated as either ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ and the idea itself voted ‘for’ or ‘against’. The most highly rated ideas, along with their most highly rated corresponding comments, are automatically added to the agenda of the relevant governing body or committee every month.

Although this may seem simple, it has been cannily designed and overcomes some of the shortcomings of similar models. The first benefit is that it isn’t run by the government or local authority but by an independent organisation with no agenda other than to facilitate better communication and engagement. A second advantage is that it offers opportunity for debate and deliberation but in a constructive and non-abusive way. Because users cannot directly respond to a comment, the opportunity for verbal violation is mitigated. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that ideas are genuinely considered by the relevant authority: indeed over 600 ideas generated through the platform have been implemented by Reykjavík City Council (including for example, a project to increase the provision of shelter for the homeless). This gives genuine value and impact to people’s opinions and ideas: what they say and contribute has meaning and the potential to instigate a tangible difference. It’s exciting, it builds consensus and it allows the collective intelligence of the electorate to be exploited for the general good.

Of course this isn’t the perfect model for every scenario but it, along with similar ventures elsewhere, offers valuable insight for future projects. It demonstrates that it is possible to use technology in politics to advance positive change and it highlights the power of mass consultation. It is logical that the more people involved in solving a problem, the more likely you are to find the best solution. Technology is the lens which can focus, sharpen and concentrate the blurred, chaotic but enlightening picture mass deliberation paints so why can’t we try it?

At a time when our parliament is accused of being an ideas vacuum, now seems like the perfect time to employ technology to help provide answers to the ongoing problems we see in society. At a time when the country seems more divided than ever, now seems like the perfect time to use technology to help build consensus on the issues which really matter.  The UK has provided some of the most transformative inventions of the technological revolution and is a country full of ideas, innovation and problem solvers. Surely we should at least try to harness that creativity and insight to liberate possible solutions and unlock potential transformative policies.

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Last Update: April 22, 2018