Technology, direct democracy, and lost potential of a truly engaged electorate

Below is an essay I recorded for my podcast TheEmergence.io which can be found at theemergence.io/episode/technology-direct-democracy-and-lost-potential-of-a-truly-engaged-electorate

Welcome to the Emergence, a podcast asking the question, what is possible when we are connected and in control? My name is J. Paul Duplantis and today’s episode will focus on the idea of technology helping give voice to the electorate. A concept of Direct Democracy experimented with for thousands of years yet never fully realized. What is different today is the technology at our disposal to close the gap between the will of the people and actions from the government. Technology to move influence past a reliance on lobbyists, interest groups, and bureaucratic maneuvering.

Civic technologies have existed for years to increase civic engagement but only through a patchwork of applications. In the eyes of the Emergence, what is needed is more of a universal framework to securely connect the electorate with what is being drafted in the name of the people.  A framework to balance the interests of people, business, and government through the sharing of feedback and ideas from the electorate into systems of governance. 

One potential framework on the horizon I believe speaks well to this is the Solid Framework, led by the founder of the web, Tim Berners Lee. In March of 2020, I had reached out to members of the Solid team who had drafted a study on engaging the citizenry of Flanders, Belgium with municipal services securely and directly through Solid Personal Online Datastores or what they call Solid PODS.  I asked Raf Buyle who is a co-author of the study if he believed the technology could be extended to potentially allow citizens to engage with legislation directly, serving as a vehicle for direct democracy. He mentioned in his reply he did feel it was possible which I will cover in a moment. 

It is important to note that at the end of September 2020, the Solid team announced they are now implementing this technology throughout the city of Flanders to allow the citizenry to engage with municipal services securely through Solid PODS. Could this be a first step toward a path of technology framework empowering Direct Democracy? Only time will tell. 

But before I read the essay detailing the technology behind this potential empowerment of the electorate and Raf Buyle’s reply, I would like to provide more of a setup outside the scope of the technology to why I believe the fundamentals of an engaged electorate are important for democracies to thrive. I recently learned of something through a deep dive into the rabbit hole of those critical of the UN’s Agenda 21 to promote global sustainability which I feel might help provide more context. I will stay neutral on my thoughts on Agenda 21 other than the fact I argue for a clean planet and opportunities and justice for all. But I do realize the path to progress can be littered with consequences whether intended or not.

What I learned from the critiques of Agenda 21 is the concern of non elected officials infiltrating local governments through something called a Delphi technique which is a method of group decision-making and forecasting through the judgments of experts influencing legislation.  Even though I do see the conspiratorial nature of the Delphi technique being used as a proxy for the U.N. to eventually depopulate rural areas, the notion of using non elected experts to influence legislation resonated with me and I felt served as an effective lens to see the ideas of direct democracy through. 

Is it too hard to believe there could be a global agenda to push standards for communities all over the world to follow to end in a more sustainable future for mother earth? Personally, I don’t see this as nefarious by nature as I wish for a much cleaner planet but how would these standards impact the labor market, the housing market, and the market in general in our communities regardless of where we live in the world? Are they in the true interest of the people who live in these communities or are they in the interest of the politicians, the contractors, and the institutions who have an ideological or financial stake in the success of the programs resulting from the agenda? Or just as important, the same could be said for those fighting the pursuit of sustainability. Do they have the true interest of the people at heart or are they looking to protect their own business interests over that of the communities that surround them. How would we know when we are not involved?

I also believe there is an agenda to limit competition between information carriers and big tech impacting the affordability, accessibility, and quality of the flow of information to end users. Do the end products of Cox communications, Google, Twitter or Facebook behind the flow of information have the true interest of the people at heart? Or do they serve the interests of their shareholders, the politicians, and other organizations who have an ideological or financial stake in the success of the programs resulting from their agenda. When the net worth of these companies become larger than the GDP of many countries on earth, what are the chances the information they deliver would serve the bottom line of anyone else other than themselves? Is all of humanity at the service of a bottom line and do we want more of a stake in determining the bottom line are the questions to ask.

I chose the two agendas above as examples to consider as I believe one speaks to the potential of a healthier planet and the other speaks to the potential of healthier minds inhabiting the planet. Two agendas incredibly important to the health of society in general, but when outside the reach of the people, are muted in their full potential.  Potential robbed by dissonance coursing through the electorate drowned out by the illusion of representation.

How prominent is the Delphi technique in politics? Where lobbyists, associations, and NGAs use money and political capital to influence legislation locally and nationally to put forth agendas favorable to all corners of the political spectrum. To use influence to seize private property, bypass environmental standards, or push through tax loopholes to name a few. I would imagine it would be impossible to quantify but it does beg the question when people are not actively involved with their governance, how influential could they really be in their governing? When they are not involved, what business and/or institutional interests are filling this void? Are the legislative proxies of their politicians enough to overcome these forces to build a truly representative government? 

Clearly, what exists today favors the building of systems of governance and commerce to optimize societal outcomes but shouldn’t the people have more of a voice in building these systems? Shouldn’t outcomes be more reflective of those it is built to serve? I know the argument too well that people should not be trusted to participate at a level beyond voting for their representatives. Or that people have better things to do than to be involved civically at such a level. Or that nothing would ever get done with too many cooks in the kitchen. 

I actually shared an email with the founder of Govtrack.us on this very topic where he mentioned this style of technology has been tried countless times to no avail and people have better things to do with their time. Under the current framework, he might be correct, whereas if what we see from the greater web was copy and pasted into civic engagement down to the legislative level, there is a high probability people would be wasting their time as the noise would be deafening.

But there are technologies on the horizon to change the very fabric of the web from a system driven by providers to one driven by people and the Solid Framework is at the front of this push. What would be possible if technology securely aligned the interests and situations of people with legislation and those who crafted it?  Not to match every piece of legislation with every person impacted but to match topics within legislation and procedures being drafted with those highly interested and engaged in the topic. Not only feedback and ideas cultivated from experts and providers in related fields but stakeholders in the communities served. Feedback and ideas not to replace the efforts of experts and politicians but to inform their positions organically from deep within the system of governance. 

Feedback and ideas on cancer research funding coming from a physician’s assistant for an oncologist. On education reform from a teacher or parent who homeschools their child. On a highway expansion through a community from the commuters and homeowners in the area. What could a framework built for stakeholder interests to resonate into laws passed on their behalf do to build a more representative government and society in general? This is the purpose of this episode which is to inspire thought and awareness around these ideas and future episodes to engage technologists, government officials, and community members around what might be possible when technology aligns the governed with the governing more effectively.

Yes, we can vote for a council member representing our community but what percentage of people who vote really understand how the person will represent their interests? And what are the chances, what the candidate promises aligns with what the candidate fights for? Not to say we should not vote for the candidate but I have to wonder if our vote is muted when we are not heard at the process level. Maybe when we are more in tune with the processes of governing, we may finally get to a point where we will begin to demand better choices for representation as well as learn to more effectively sniff out games played by institutions to influence elections or bypass legislation.

The root word of democracy is from the greek word demos meaning a whole citizen living within a particular city-state. Are we anywhere close to being whole in how we are represented? I believe technology reaching deep within the electorate to inform and hold representation accountable could help move us toward a more resonant form of democracy where we are more fully represented.

I will finish up with the essay I had originally written on Direct democracy with a reply from Raf Buyle, the coauthor of the Solid framework study. This essay was published on March 6th, 2020 on my blog EmergentWeb.org 

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A conversation on Solid PODS and Direct Democracy

I recently ran across a study and use case on using Personalized Online Data Stores (PODS) to help the citizens of Flanders, Belgium communicate more effectively with their representative government. Having followed the progress of Solid PODS over the last couple of years and an advocate for decentralizing the web and applications serving the web, I had reached out to the team to see how their technology may one day allow citizens to securely engage with legislation directly. 

Direct Democracy is not a new concept and has been experimented with since Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC but the represented have never had the toolset to engage with the inner workings of government in real-time regardless of their location until now. Yet even though the technology is currently possible; the network, AI layer, and application layer remain a toolset outside of user control compromising the relationship between user data and government data. But recently a major push to decentralize this toolset by companies such as Inrupt with their Solid POD framework and Singularitynet’s decentralized AI framework will begin to move controls over to the user.  

As this becomes a reality, what is possible when these tools are used to provide people a pathway to their government not only through their representatives but through the policies and legislation crafted on their behalf. We might be amazed by what may surface from an electorate engaged beyond the promises of their representatives. As there are many flavors of Direct Democracy, this essay intends to elevate awareness and feedback on legislation as it is drafted. Extending this to the actual vote outside of local levels has the potential to invite a tyranny of the majority to legislate, so there are caveats beyond tech to consider.

end

But what is the downside to bringing more of the electorate into the process of governing to help see behind the curtain of the cult of personality? To attach their interests to policy ultimately affecting their lives and their communities. Is an involved electorate healthy for society? How could it not be?

As one can see in the email exchange I will read next, the technology and the talent is upon us. Now, what do we do with our role in government? Do we participate in it or do we anticipate what is drafted for us by it? Thomas Jefferson once said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.” Which leads me to wonder what the enlightenment thinkers of the day would have rendered with this toolset at their disposal?

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My email to the team….

I’m very interested in this paper you have collaborated on where Solid PODS are used for government applications. I had written an essay titled Emergent Representation of the People where I argue for the ability of the electorate to interact directly with legislation as it is drafted.

As I read through your paper, I am wondering if legislation could be drafted in a POD with each Committee Member involved having their own POD and a commenter with their POD attaching feedback to passages attached to the source material. I would envision the legislators being able to turn on layers of commentary and vote up the contributions best speaking to the passages in question. I would also envision some type of citation or badge that would sit in the commentator’s POD to remind the electorate of their contributions.

Does this sound possible? Or more importantly practical?

Curious to hear your thoughts. 

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Reply from Raf Buyle

Dear Paul,

It might be a good idea to facilitate the drafting process of legislation using multiple PODs.

In the region of Flanders in Belgium, almost all departments, agencies and cabinets take part in the preparation of legislation of the Flemish Government. Both before and during the formal decision-making procedure, many institutions and organisations are involved to give feedback on the proposals for decisions and decrees. The decision-making process in the Flemish Government itself usually goes through several formal approval steps. After final approval by the government, decrees go to Parliament. All regulations are translated and published in the Belgian Official Gazette. Finally, they are integrated into the Codex — which is now available as linked open data — and published on the Web.

The process of requesting and issuing advice, budget verification, related decisions, decrees, laws, guidelines, and coordinated legal texts, is supported by various specialised information systems. Thanks to better coordination, the exchange between the different actors could be streamlined with less need for manual verifications of versions of documents. By applying a decentralised architecture based on Solid to the drafting process of legislation, we could raise the transparency of the decision-making process. By applying the principles of linked data — linking the coined semantics to existing vocabularies — legislation would become more ‘harmonised’ and ‘digital friendly’, which raises legal interoperability.

The regional Government of Flanders facilitates a more transparent local decision-making process by publishing local council decisions as Linked Open Data. This initiative — started in 2015 — created an Open Source editor, which supports administrations to write and publish linked decisions without additional efforts. A vibrant community of administrations, companies and academia are involved in the development of the software.

Given the opportunity of streamlining the processes of the different stakeholders involved in drafting and reviewing legislation, the opportunity to involve the citizen and the potential increase in provenance and transparenty, we think it’s valuable to combine the good practices of the ‘Linked Legislation Editor’ with the strengths of Solid.

That is the end of the email reply. I have included the link to the Solid Pod study in the podcast notes.  Thank you for listening to today’s episode. I hope to find interesting people to bring on the show in the future to dig deeper into the potential of technology and direct democracy. 

The paper on Linked Legislation (early start of the project, now in production): https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/8557584/file/8557588

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