Challenging ourselves

One of our tasks in the We The People session at the conference is to define the challenge we’re facing in a single slide.

We all know at a basic level how dissatisfied people are with politics at national and European level, and how the crisis all around us demonstrates a serious failure of the political model we’ve lived with for twenty years. However, I think we have two problems with summing up - or even agreeing on - those challenges:

First, we all have our own view of what the political crisis really is, and whether the representative democracy model needs a few repairs, or is completely beyond saving.

Second, the existing power arrangements aren’t going away, and making change happen when it’s against the interests of some well-placed people won’t be easy. I think it can be done, but the solutions we come up with have to be much better than the current arrangements, obviously more democratic, or the big public - the 499,999,900 Europeans who aren’t Edgeryders - won’t be convinced.

So I want to be, perhaps, a bit provocative, and set out a reverse challenge: not what’s wrong with the system now, but what has to be right about the solutions we create. Apologies in advance that these examples are mostly British, that’s the country I know best. It’s a personal worry list - the things that keep me awake at night when I think about my attempts at writing about and doing democratic and participative reform.

I’d be really interested in hearing during the conference or in the comments whether these are the right worries, what I’ve missed, and what projects or ideas out there have succeeded in cracking some of them. Here are my six top worries:

  1. Getting them in

As I said in a mission report on one of our projects, people aren’t that interested in democracy as a concept, and often they aren’t much more interested in democracy in practice.

In the UK, only a third of people would be interested in the chance to have their city development plan drafted by their local community, and only 12% would be interested in becoming involved in the drafting. Perhaps (this is my dark middle-of-the-night thinking) public services have started to behave like consumer product companies because the public want to be treated as consumers. How can we encourage people through the door, or do we need to?

  1. Being representative

Related to that problem is the limited range of participants who come through the door in traditional exercises. Aside from the obvious questions about how you include disabled people, those with low confidence or serious health problems, there is a wider problem of interest being skewed towards a “civic core” who are less diverse, older, richer, and better-educated. There’s some interesting research on what that civic core looks like in Britain - it’s about one third of the population.

Giving the people who are already engaged better tools doesn’t reduce the unequal representation in society, in fact it makes it worse. We don’t want to create tools that boost the voice of those who can already get their voices heard. How do we ensure that the people who are participating are representative of the population as a whole?

  1. Scaling

It takes a village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, but it takes a continent to set a credible energy policy. We don’t have to have the same democratic tools and village and European level, but we need to be able to encourage broader participation among 500 million without drowning the unfortunate policy officials in individual answers.

Similarly, the best democratic mechanism will understand and respond to the sort of issues that human beings have (“I’m worried about climate change”) rather than the sort of issues that organisations have (“what should our rules on maximum road transport axle weights be?”). Can we create a democratic environment that allows issues to be considered at the right level, and speaks human rather than organisation?

  1. Public service change

Lots of money, and lots of power is tied up in current institutions that aren’t always ready or able to respond to citizen pressure. We can’t build a new democracy in a vacuum, how can we support, encourage and drive the public services to reform the way they do their work?

My personal experience is that the most difficult “layer” to manage is the middle, where people want to protect their staff and their budgets, but don’t feel they have the flexibility to make radical changes. These are the places where the walls of the silos are strongest - managers neither junior enough to ignore the rules and work with colleagues, nor senior enough to see the bigger picture. How can we make public services an active ally rather than a passive barrier in democratisation?

  1. Being informed

Should there be a minimum quality standard for democratic discussion? We’ve seen the low quality and bitterness of much political debate online. We know that trolls and “astroturfers” can easily take over discussions with pre-prepared comments or simple abuse. Can we make participatory democracy better than those online examples?

What information do people need to make good decisions? In America, there is concern that fact-check websites have limited effect. Does it matter if a news story is inaccurate, since people might well be reading it only for confirmation of their existing views? How can we support an informed and fact-based democracy, rather than a shouting competition that favours those with time and money?

  1. Barcelona 1936

I can’t remember where I read it, but I was struck by a recent description of the Internet as Barcelona in 1936 - a brief period where revolutionary outcomes seemed a real possibility, and control by either state or established institutions had disappeared.

The corollary of that is that the next stage is the re-imposition of “normality” - a concerted attempt by governments and corporations to take over the Internet and push its use towards commercial and consumer ends, or the continuation of current power and economic structures. Is this going to happen, and if it is, would that be such a bad thing? How can we ensure that democracy and participation online isn’t crushed by Facebook or an authoritarian regime?

Legitimacy is a self-endowing property

1 - Getting them in.

My belief is that people aren’t interested because they are content with this ‘best of all possible worlds’, which is not perfect but that 1) the outputs broadly are satisfactory and 2) the personal effort/input to effect change would be either negligible in effect relative to cost.

But that is the ‘status quo’. We are on the cusp of change, massive change which will see a decrease in both satisfaction and perceived cost/benefit ratio of effort.

So, I believe that we won’t have to do much to ‘get them in’…after all, classically, Governments lose elections rather than Oppositions winning them.

The winner in this ‘change’ will be the platform that most effectively gives voice to and harnesses that motivation and energy. Traditionally, that platform is called ‘a revolution’ and it has a poor track record.

EdgeRyders see the change coming and can build something to take advantage of the discontent and the changes so as to shape a better outcome.

2 - Being representative

In an era of ‘big data’ and in a movement taking openness and transparency as watchwords then assessing metrics of representation is, surely, a trivial exercise.

3 - Scaling

We are at the point of failure of large scale governance especially given the speed and scale of the changes that are about to unfold. Subsidiarity is a custom that is paid massive lip-service and little implementation but that is what we are going back to…big time, in my opinion.

Villages will have knowledge and knowledge is power.

4 - Public service change

Your personal experience is the norm for interactions between civil servants and taxpayers/citizens/consumers. You are fully aware of the problems of ‘agency theory’ and of bureaucracies tendency to self-preserve at the expense of their hosts.

I’d suggest being prepared to go around these silos than try to reform them….agencies don’t destroy their infrastructures …they just are the last things to change allegiance….but they can actually do so in a heartbeat.

5 - Being informed

This is the greatest danger you have elucidated IMO.

The only answer that I can see is the old communist revolutionaries tactic of trained, disciplined, dedicated cadres who know how to stay on mission and not get distracted.

6 - Barcelona 1936

I am not as good a student of history as I ought to, given the inherent tendency for repetition. But, in a phrase that reminds me of one of the awful/awesome scenes from “The Graduate”…." “let me say one word to you……Meshes”.

Yes, totalitarianism is the biggest risk we face as most of the world wants to keep taking the ‘blue pills’. But almost every home has its own radio transmitter/receiver these days, better known as a WiFi-enabled router. Also, there are lots of home brew GSM kits being developed.

It is not going to be as hard to counter the ‘FUD’ tactics as it was in 1939. However, the experience of seeing the ‘authorities’ commit the UK to two pointless wars in 2003 should give even the most optimistic of us serious pause for concern.

Time to get cracking on equipping our cadres with the new tools of revolution….

Make that 5

Antony, I would like to contend that your concern number two might be less serious than most people think. Here’s why: representation is a statistical concept. The idea behind it is that participation should be weighted by population numerosity, but not by how much individuals care about whatever they are participating in. If one European in ten thousand keeps a snake as a pet, then we should have a snake-lover each ten thousand city councillors, and that’s that.

An alternative concept is self-selection. People should participate according to how much they care about what they are participating in. Snake lovers might be more overrepresented in animal rights fora, and underrepresented in defense policy fora. Like in a barcamp, whoever walks in is by definition the right person.

Processes that work by self-selection, in my experience, are waaaay more efficient than those that work by statistical representation. Of course, you risk some elitism too. My personal choice has been to fight that by combining self-selection with an inclusive stance, and to use self-selection based processes more for information processing than for decision making.

Individual interests vs statistics

I totally agree with you, Alberto.

Representative policies have an important downside : it’s like boxes in boxes, folders in folders where individual files must find their place. It can’t take into account the complexity of each person needs and opinions.

It’s obvious when we look at presidential, local or reagional elections as an individual is forced to chose a person who represents projects, goals, budgets in mostly every domain. He has to consider not only the ideas of the candidates, but also their political power which is made visible by another statistic tool : sondages.

When voting in a representative, you have to make compromises as it’s hard to agree with every part of a program a candidate will promote. And you also have to consider voting against a candidate. It happened in france in 2002 at the second tour o presidentail elections : we had to chose between right parti and extreme right parti. A huge part of the population could not feel well represented and had to make compromises and voted against extreme right.

With representative democracy, something weird happens : each individual takes a decision about fields and domains he’s not informed about or simply doesn’t care.

The importance of right parties (especially in france) can be explained by the fact they talk a lot about security of individuals and property and this message found many listeners for whom it is a crucial point. So they vote for it without considering the interest of the few, and are not aware about the consequences for poor people who are just another statistic.

A non representative democracy could be more relevant.

The people involved in social actions are the most informed about the reality on the terrain. They know the needs, the problems, the priorities… These people should be able to take policy decisions about their own field and speciality, not an elected person. Because representative democracy is about compromises. To get the most votes, you have to please the most people.

Representative democracy can’t listen to the few’s needs effectively as the success of a candicate depends on satisfying the many.

Some thoughts

Thanks for pointing out these points, it’s a pretty tough exercice, but i’ll try to suggest some answers or some clues to all of them.

1.How can we encourage people through the door, or do we need to?

I don’t think we need to to encourage people to participate in politics. As you mentionned, not many people want to be involved in it. It’s not about lack of information, and i don’t see how we could encourage them to participate in this.

But i think a lot individuals have a pretty good idea about what’s going well and what’s going wrong in some fields they are involved in. Building a tool to allow them to express that could be an alternate approach and would allow, with semantic analysis, to have an understanding on the reality of each domain.

Each individual can talk about their life and work conditions, but can’t tell what would be best for everyone.

2.How do we ensure that the people who are participating are representative of the population as a whole ?

I think it’s impossible. The world became so complicated it seems impossible for an individual one or a small group to represent the population as a whole. Individual needs can be so different and often be opposite, it seems really complicated to see it as a whole.

People can participate in their specific fields of interest and represent a part of the population, but i don’t see how they could represent the population as a whole. Participating people could represent global considerations : what’s better for mankind, but it doesn’t take into consideration a part of the population which is more interested in personal fulfilment and self-realisation. So it doesn’t really represent the population as a whole.

3.Can we create a democratic environment that allows issues to be considered at the right level, and speaks human rather than organisation?

It’s not only possible, we need to. But i’d prefer to talk about an environment, tools to allow that. As i already argued, democraty is about people, but it’s also about power of a few, decisions made by a few. Even if they are not corrupted byt this power and are looking for the common good and try their best, they can’t take human decisions, but organisational and global ones.

An other approach could be to let concerned people communicate with each others to find solutions at different scales : local, regional and global.

Food production could be a good exemple. There are some measures and european laws that just destroyed some particular productions. These decisions have been made for the interest of the most by taking into consideration health and hygiene issues, but it didn’t take into account some really specific local productions which had to adapt or die. It lead to many local dramas because some farmers don’t have the financial possibility to adapt to some european requirements, even if they don’t put anyone in danger. Moreover, some products are so specific they just can’t adapt to these global laws.

4.How can we make public services an active ally rather than a passive barrier in democratisation?

By simplifying it and changing the goals public services have in mind. The dear funders letter and the discussion about it point loads of relevant issues about getting help from public services.

I can share a personal experience about it. Lately i wanted to find an old and abandonned house to make it live again by renovating it with eco-responsabile goals in mind with some friends. We searched about every public financial helps and we realised that you can get help from public services if only you pay professionals to restore and renovate a building.

The goals of such policy are obvious : promoting local companies, making sure the work done will match with building rules and help the economical circuit grow.

We realised that, sadly, you need a lot of money to get help from public services in this particular domain (but i think it’s the same elsewhere), and if you want to do it without their help, you need a lot of money as well.

Public services are too involved in actual economics considerations and it doesn’t help moneyless people who are capable and have a strong willing to build things.

5.How can we support an informed and fact-based democracy, rather than a shouting competition that favours those with time and money?

There are a few things that could help :

  • no more politics on televisions. Seems radical ? The format of this media isn’t good for politics as it encourages shouting competitions. Last presidential elections in france have been considered by a lot of people as a bad and silly joke. The campaign was mostly about individual fights. Programs and ideas were not really discussed, it was  more looking like a puppet show or childish fights. It’s because of the media : television is about entertainment because of advertisments, and litlle by little, it has deeply changed politics.

A good reading about this phenomenon is Amusing ourselves to death written nearly 30 years ago by Neil Postman.

  • getting back politics to the lower level : local issues and individual needs.

We need tools for that, and a lot them already exist or are being designed. There are so many of them, it’s fascinating. As i can’t make yet an exhaustive list, i can tell my actual contributions : i’m actually trying to design a serious game which has various objectives. Another possible tool is demopolitique, which was designed to let anyone take part of a collaborative discussion about societal issues. And we need a lot more tools to understand what are local, regional and global needs and problems and to sort things out. Semantic web approaches are a relevant way to have a better understanding of what politics (as the affairs of the city) need to be.

The more various and different approaches and tools we can get, the more people will find a way to contribute to politics and the more politics will be close to reality.

6.How can we ensure that democracy and participation online isn’t crushed by Facebook or an authoritarian regime?

As someone said at the we, the people session : we don’t need a facebook of democracy, we need an internet of democracy.

A semantic web linking all the different websites and approaches would allow to have a decentralised, free of forms, internet of democraty.

Emergent Governance

I guess that when one talks about politics,

one often means so called “representative politics” ?

Which is a form of delegation of a certain kind of decision making power ?


I may join some of the ideas already expressed in this thread, and then suggest one approach :

I believe everyone is involved in politics,

though not necessarily in representative politics,

through every individual action,

though these actions are certainly influenced by context.

Hence what I wish is for people to make informed choices,

about the economic networks they choose to support,

enabling each individual to choose the intentional economic networks they wish to contribute to,

by having access to an information system that enables them to do so,

collaborate with each other, express their needs , their conditions, enable contracts,

and progressively build up a reputation which itself becomes the true currency.


This is unlike the current monetary monopoly.

The current monetary system does not in my current understanding provide such opportunities,

as it is systemically based on artificial scarcity, and rests on the goodwill and decisions of a centralized private banking system,

enabling a minority of the population to choose the context they are willing to create.

The current economic system is not democratic.


I suggest using existing protocols, such as semantic web protocols,

to express the kind of interdependencies we need and wish to contribute to,

and visualize existing interdependencies and their consequences.

Some ongoing work done to enable an interface to input and visualize such data :

( Transaction Graphs - )


Such tools, from my point of view, can enable emergent forms of governance,

including all existing transactions,

and enabling each of us to truly understand the consequences of the current system,

and the alternatives we can create and wish to support.

For example, current money is created through contracts ( it is , in effect, a form of metadata )

By creating alternative forms of metadata, we can reduce our dependency on the current monetary units,

and progressively overturn the ( in my view destructive ) effects of the current dominant information system.

Cracking the patterns

Guys you have made my day!

Just wanna share that I have experienced many patterns working with multilevel stakeholders during my professional / transitional carrier, massively realted to the policy making / implementation / evaluation process… What I have seen is the core luck of communication, cooperation, awareness and knowledge among all parts of the policy community, from individuals to institutions, and basically what I would like to see first is establishment of genuine communication links, as precondition for growth and transformation to take place. Here we have good example of the platform empowering individuals, but I think we should take challenge of expanding it to institutions as well (or incourage / inform them to start using it)…

From my perspective, the good news is that the process of transformation is on-going, and  it can’t be stopped, no matter how hard people resist or ignore it ( there is an old saying “what you resist, persists”). In the end they are “forced” to move from their comfort zones and act… On the other hand, it has become clear, that the system / institutions are disfunctional, unable to respond to the massive accelerated multilevel changes that are taking place… I think we should celebrate this moment as huge growing opportunity on both individual and social level…

What I would like to see as well is merging or integration, if possible (?!), of the “new concepts” and principles of participation, such as self selection, with the decision making process… I truly believe that “whoever comes is the right person” can bring value, open the discussion and involve the people directly into the agenda setting stage of the policy making process, based on reall people’s needs… on the other hand, this can contribute to cracking of the existing useless paterns and mechanisms, as well as become a starting point for the future more flexible, simplyfied, open, and responsive public services…

I’m not sure weather growth and transformation can take place without engagement, i.e. if we walk around  institutions, in vacuum, or in the paralel Universe?! I don’t think so…

us and them old story

The trend here seems to be the old “us and them” categorisation.

The way we tend to talk about institutions at the moment is:

Institutions are “them”, and “they” suppose to help “us” to improve different areas of our lives. But as the crises kick in, “we” tend to say: let “us” do our thing. The outcome is that “we” want to create dynamic “communities” which are “better” than “them”.

But if the community wants something to be implemented in a participatory way, it reproduces the pattern of the institution.

After all “us”, as well as “them”, is subject to variation.

Thinking about it … yes

Have to say I’ve fallen for this trap more than once myself. But you’re right: at the end of the day, there’s not “us” and “them”, we’re all just people. In that perspective, insitutions are just abstractions and organization agreements, they exist in the mind but not as objects in real life … . So what I’d love to see is a get-together for “us” (e.g. Edgeryders) and “them” as people, communicating long enough until our off-center ideas integrate with “their” organizational ties and experience to really create a change. A two-hour “Meet the Policy Makers” session like at the Edgeryders conference does not help here - we still had the “us” and “them” going on there. It needs four weeks of open space collaboration at least, I’d suppose … .

[Edit: removed one paragraph, 'cause I found myself in the wrong thread :smiley: ]

Develop a bit ?

I think we could really use your input in this thread Neodynos, especially because you were one of the panelists and probably have a more hands on perception of what really worked and didn’t in Meet the policy maker session?

May be this dilemma of representation: constitution which supposed to be produced by people and to produce people, is unsolvable, because it is impossible to indoctrinate everyone into participation.

If participation were a stick: there is a small wunch of oligarchs on end and each and every person on the other, it still seems better to be closer to the latter.

If we’re to eat the elephant in one go we are going to be drowned in philosophy and buzzwords.

Take, for instance, the difference between citizens and people with regard of constitution, geeks and non geeks with regard of the concept of e-democracy.

I like the idea of linking local initiatives, when networked they can drive improvement a bit faster. In real life as well as on the internet. (Thats why I have been raving about these events while commenting on “Dear Funders Letter”)

Also, out-of-the-box processes will appear less risky to the institutions if go a bit more mainstream.

There is no unique cure for all of the issues in Europe. Networked change processes is the model for eating the elephant by small pieces I can think of.

Semantic Web, is, as far as I understood, is a similar concept, written in geek.

pimp my ride

To number 5: quality of political rant.

How design-minded political ranter really is?

I heard people say that we don’t want to be simple consumers anymore, we want to be designers. At the same time many of us do not like to design from scratch: we only come up with ideas when we rant about something which is not working.

To number 4: Can the public service become more consumer driven?

- If for the difficult ones in the middle it all comes down to risk: should the processes of change can be presented as non risky for the staff and budgets?

-What if they are?

-Can software release model with different levels of testing can solve this problem?