Thank you very much for the opportunity to come and speak with you today. Although I'm coming from Canada, my topic is top of mind around the world.
There is a crisis in public consultation . People don't trust the process anymore. They lack confidence in the responsiveness of government to the citizens they represent. This signifies nothing less than a crisis in Democracy itself.
A core principle of democracy is that the will of the people should be the legitimating basis for governmental decisions. However, there is a widespread perception that governments do not serve the common good but rather serve organized special interests. And, the problem is getting worse. In a recent poll, 8 out of 10 Americans said the Country is “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” which is a far cry from “for the benefit of all the people”!
People are also frustrated with the level of partisanship . 65% in a recent poll chose the position: “ The parties fight for their narrow interests, the will of the people is ignored and the results do not serve the people ”. This too has contributed to the severely low levels of confidence in governmental decision-making .
Government is one of the least trusted institutions and politicians are held in very low regard (as opposed to movie stars and rock stars). We used to seek the best and the brightest to lead us. Now you're automatically suspect the minute you run for office.
This was not the case when I was growing up in the late 1960s and 70s. We actually believed we could make a difference. We could fight City Hall! In those days, it was all about Power to the People , overcoming the establishment, and charting a course for civil society and a better life for future generations. We now consider this quaint and naïve.
As a result, the decline in voting since the 1960s has been profound. Many fewer of us believe that voting actually matters. We believe that decisions are foregone conclusions and we are powerless to effect any change. This is at the core of the prevailing climate of anger and disillusionment.
So what do we need to do to address this crisis? Well, it appears that citizens in democracies believe that the antidote is to give citizens a clearer voice by having policy-makers actively consult and engage with the people . This is, of course, easier said than done.
A key problem is that politicians often view their election as endorsement of their policy positions, which is not necessarily accurate. In most cases, voters are presented with a simple choice between candidates and vote for the "lesser of evils" and clearly do not feel that their vote should be interpreted as obviating the need for continued dialogue.
Now, if the system of representation was working well, then public servants would have a pretty good understanding of the attitudes of their constituents and we would not have a crisis. The reality is that they do not . Our governance system supports the status quo of incumbent politicians and entrenched bureaucrats who might well lose power through the increased scrutiny of public consultation.
Lucky for us, the Internet revolution now enables democratic activity in ways not possible since Aristotle when it was possible to manage one man, one vote.
Politics is a forum and therefore crucially involves the persuasion of peers . It’s not about coercion of peers, or the slipping one by peers. It is about transparent and open government. (And these days Open Data ).
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many elected officials do try to understand the views of their constituents. They attend public meetings and take a stab at social media. Given this, why do they have such a poor understanding? There are several reasons. First, the people they encounter are not necessarily representative . Citizens who attend public meetings are often more ideological than average or have specific interest in particular legislation. And, there are the usual suspects that show up at every public meeting to hear themselves speak. Furthermore, individuals who make campaign donations tend to gain greater access and attention, and will have interests that are clearly not representative .
Ok. So how do we make it so? Technology now exists to overcome some of most salient pathologies of democratic governance . The Internet offers fresh potential to reinvigorate civic engagement. Online tools can extend participation well beyond traditional bounds of public hearings. That said, e ngaging the public in a Wired World is a bit of a moving target. This is not just because of the rapid development of new tools or “apps” but because of evolving expectations of government in an environment of dramatically increased social media activity where citizen users organize themselves into communities of shared interest.
Online consultation thus far has met with varying degrees of success. Although there have been plenty of opportunities for public commentary, these have been of limited value because they are not linked to outcomes. Petitions go into a black hole. This is because online consultation has been anonymous and as a result subject to Troll attacks. Anonymity breeds contempt and until consultation is tied to actual observable outcomes people and government will not take it seriously. There needs to be feedback loop where public opinion directly informs policy.
What decision-makers need from public consultation that they do not have is evidence to inform their policies. Anecdotal input from online discussion forums or social media is insufficient to stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, online consultation needs to take a paradigm shift to authenticate the process in such a way to generate defensible data.
My solution for addressing this disconnect is called PlaceSpeak. It has been designed to do something that no other online engagement platform has done, and that is to connect people to place so that they can authentically consult with decision-makers. The flip side is that public policy makers can be assured that they are reaching the right people in the right places . This is absolutely vital. For without the ability to connect people to place, any responses are at best anecdotal and not actionable.
So, how does it work? First, people claim their place – typically their home address. The system runs some automated checks and then asks the participant to verify that they are who they say they are and live where they say they do . The validation process includes email, home phone, cell phone, and postal authentication. People then connect with consultation topics . Proponents of consultations create their topic pages, map out the geographical areas they want to hear from, upload documents, links, photos, videos, discussion forums, polls and surveys, event schedules and contacts. People can choose to be notified of consultations in the area by distance and subject matter keyword. With the act of connecting with a topic, participants become visible to Proponents. Other than that you are just a green dot on a map, as there are obviously concerns over privacy and security. The last thing you want is someone egging your house, if you take an unpopular position. That said, once one is connected, one is counted in discussion forums, polls and surveys. Then it is possible to generate reports containing real data, spatial, quantitative as well as qualitative data, to inform decision-making.
The implications are enormous. If it is possible to consult authentically the crisis of confidence can be ameliorated. It all starts with YOU. Thank you for your time (and power to the people).
Claim your place. Speak your mind.Authenticating Public Consultation Colleen Hardwick