Thursday, 17 November 2011

Mass online discussion and democracy

“mass online discussion is a tool which can allow a substantial improvement to be made in the quality of modern democracy”
This blog is an attempt to explain why I believe this statement is true.

Key definitions and context
Mass online discussion includes discussion forums and the comments sections of blogs, newspapers articles and the like.
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.  Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law.
 (Definition from the Wikipedia article on Democracy accessed 16th Nov 2011)
A key assumption:That the mass online discussions being considered are  moderated and facilitated in ways which promote free discussion and do not defend a particular view point or propagate abusive behaviour (see the previous blog).  Mass online discussion which are moderated to defend a particular viewpoint or to encourage highly opinionated discussion which is not grounded in evidence will clearly not enhance democracy.

The Status Quo
Many decisions which are taken regarding future plans for our society are highly complex.  Building a picture of the future and considering the implications of decisions which interact with each other is very difficult, so it is inevitable that in decision making processes ‘experts’ will emerge who have a reasonable understand of the future possibilities which are being considered and that people who have not been part of the process by which within which this expertise has emerged may struggle to understand and interact constructively with the decisions being made.
In some cases systems need to be revised and updated and the expertise which understood them in the first place has been lost as people have moved on.
At present it would be considered good practice for those charged with the responsibility of making difficult decisions in these situations to consult extensively regarding the nature of the decisions to be made.  They may create many opportunities where they can listen to perspectives, concerns and suggestions in the early stage of consultation, there may be specific opportunities for consultation related to and pilot studies run and there may be opportunities for the final vision created to be discussed.
Some limitations with the status quo are that the initial opportunities to consult are usually ‘single interaction’ interfaces.  Those being consulted are asked for their insights and opinions as they are at a particular moment in time.   There may be some discussion at the consultation which allows them to develop their thinking in the context of wider issues and perspectives presented but these are usually very limited compared with those available through mass online discussion.
Another limitation of the status quo involves the logistics and costs of getting people to consultations.  People with key insights may not be there.  Pressure groups with financial interests may be over-represented because of the costs associated with participating in consultations processes. 

Introducing Mass Online Discussion into Democratic Consultation
The benefits of allowing those consulted to have multiple interactions with each other:
Probably the most substantial benefit of properly using mass online discussion as part of a consultation process is that it allows the many different interested parties to develop their own level of understanding and insight into the situation because they can easily, rapidly and cheaply engage in multiple interactions with each other.  They can probe each other’s views and discuss their own perspectives and concerns until they come to deeply understand different perspectives on the situation.  It is likely that strong views which are not grounded in real experience will be exposed as being so.
Some concerns disappear while others emerge.  Deeper communalities and insights emerge.  Therefore the quality of the insights being offered to those with the responsibility for making decisions is likely to be much higher and that substantially more progress can be made on the journey from isolated insights being presented to coherent alternative views of the futures being created.
The benefits to the debate of allowing wider participation:
Mass online discussion allows those who cannot attend consultations sessions for whatever reason to participate properly in consultation rather than just to submit their views in a one-off interaction.  Although when people first join in the discussion they may have less understanding than they would have if they had attended a consultation, it is in the nature of mass online discussions that this deficit rapidly self corrects as they engage in conversation.
Many people are unable to attend consultations because they have other commitments or because the consultations are far away and the costs of attending them are prohibitive.  Mass online discussion allows the consulted and developed views, insights and constructive suggestions of these people to be incorporated.  Decisions made are likely to be more robust if more stakeholders have been properly consulted.
Increasing transparency, creating ‘mandates in action’ and the sheer speed of it all:
Most people would agree they would like politicians to do in power what they said they would do in their manifestos.  But life just isn’t that simple.  New problems arise, contexts change and difficult decisions have to be made which take into account circumstances for which no-one had planned. 
Mass online discussion provides a powerful, transparent and reviewable democratic mechanism through which public views can be rapidly expressed and explored.
The ‘undemocratic elites?’
Those who are in positions of power are often accused of behaving in self interested or inappropriate ways.   Are they?  Often we simply can’t tell because we don’t have the expertise to properly discuss and analyse what they are doing or to construct and understand alternative possibilities which describe how they might behave.
Through mass online discusses interested parties who may never otherwise have met can work together to deeply probe and explore what the previously disconnected bodies with authority are doing.  In some cases these bodies may be very pleased to engage in dialogue which is likely to remove suspicion from them and may well further inform what they do. 
In other cases mass online discussion may help identify and resolve issues associated with inadequate ability or inappropriate behaviour.
Reaching out to people and bringing people into society:
One of the things which has inspired me most about mass online discussion is the way it reaches and brings in people on the fringes of society.  People who are in regular employment are usually involved in professional discussion through their work and this challenges and develops their minds.  But people who are not in regular employment for whatever reason often miss out having significant opportunities for type of personal growth.  As unemployment rises and more and more people, especially young people, find themselves without the opportunity to work there is much to be gained by ensuring that people who are in this position feel able to read and engage in the discussion which take place regarding the society they live in.
Most obviously they are more likely to feel included in rather than excluded from society.  Less obviously but of possibly greater important is that those who read and participate in consultations are able to rapidly develop their understanding of and ability to engage successfully in the society in which they live.  
So the benefits of reaching out to more people an involving them in democratic decisions making through mass online discussion should not just be measured in terms of the benefits to the quality of the decisions which are then made (as has already been discussed).  Consideration should also be given to the way in which democracy is improved when people who vulnerable to feeling excluded from society are instead able to feel actively included in it.

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