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Can designers fix our ailing democracy?

Can designers fix our ailing democracy?

8 July 2015 Written by By James Pallister Journalist

This article is part of The Design Economy series.

Technologists and designers are working together to reimagine what it means to be a citizen in the twenty-first century. While some are trying to fix what we have, others believe the time is right for a complete overhaul.

In his book The End of Power (2014) Moisés Naím writes, “In this era of revolutionary change, where almost nothing we do or experience in our daily lives has been left unaffected, one critical area remains surprisingly untouched: the way we govern ourselves, our communities, nations and the international system.”

From publishing and retail to education and telecoms, our traditional way of doing things has been radically affected by the mainstreaming of the internet. This has brought victory to certain players, and death to others as everyone scrambles to come to terms with the new rules of engagement. Now in 2015 the question stands: is our notoriously slow-moving system of democratic government due an overhaul?

Writes Naím: “Disruptive innovation has not arrived in politics, government and political participation. But it will. We are on the verge of a revolutionary wave of political and institutional innovations. Greek democracy and the wave of political innovations unleashed by the French Revolution are just two of the best-known examples. We’re overdue for another.”

While the internet has already fundamentally changed political communication – allowing politicians to engage with the electorate through social media, for example – and how we interact with certain public services, such as paying our parking fines, the next wave of change is building. “What is new…is the expectation amongst the electorate that things will change and design has a crucial role in this,” writes John Howell, MP and co-chair of the Design Commission’s inquiry into Designing Democracy: How designers are changing democratic spaces and places (2015). From vote-swapping apps to the time bomb of data ethics and governance, we are sailing full steam into uncharted waters.

Democracy and its discontents

May the 7th brought the Conservatives their first majority in 18 years – yet just 24% of the electorate voted for them. The peculiarities of our first-past-the-post system mean that the Conservatives won 51% of the seats with just 37% of the votes cast. UCL anthropologist Aleksi Knuutila’s visualisations on show how, in many constituencies, up to 69% of votes counted for nothing.

Another element indicative of voter disillusionment: voter engagement is on the slide. In 1950, three years after Winston Churchill repeated the adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, turnout was at 83.9%. In 2015 it was down to 66.1%. In Stoke-on-Trent Central, the seat with lowest turnout in the UK, just 49% of the electorate voted.

Furthermore, everyday engagement levels between parties and citizens are poor: in 1983, 3.8% of Brits were members of the Labour, Liberal or Conservative parties; now less than 1% of the UK electorate are members of one of the main political parties. Across the country, brand engagement – as they say – is low.

The Palace of Westminster has so far been spared the matrices, metrics and performance measures of business – but introduce a net promoter score-style ranking, and our MPs would be filing out of the door.

A market filled with disillusioned customers is one ripe for change.

User centred-design and the political interface

Can design help kick-start just such a revolution? Take, for example, the power players that have arisen with the new generation of web-based services like Facebook, Uber and Airbnb, which is today the world’s largest accommodation provider. As Scott Belsky declared in a widely read post published in May, “A new cohort of design-driven companies are adding a layer of convenience between us and the underlying services and utilities that improve our lives.” What the companies all have in common are well-designed interfaces that quickly connect people to each other and provide them with services created with their needs and desires in mind. For sellers and buyers alike, these new marketplaces are designed with user ease as sacrosanct; the term ‘frictionless’ has been added to the designer’s lexicon. The problem with UK politics is, perhaps, one of the interface.

1. Voting advice applications: empowering citizens

The proliferation of web-based Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) in the UK and across mainland Europe is a response to studies showing that citizens abstain from voting when they feel they don’t understand candidates’ and parties’ policies – an increasing problem in our ever more complex and complicated world.

VAAs – websites and apps that help citizens decide which politician to vote for – typically present a series of statements taken from the parties’ manifestos that users can agree or disagree with; they are then informed of which party best aligns with their opinions.

In March, British cross-party think tank Demos teamed up with pressure group Bite the Ballot to launch Verto, a VAA aimed specifically at 18 to 25 year olds, a segment that has historically low levels of engagement. Dubbed ‘Tindr for Voting’ (along with American VAA Votr) thanks to its easy, finger-swipe interface, the app was downloaded 330,000 times before the General Election. Says Louis Reynolds, a researcher at Demos: “Academic studies prove that the use of VAAs helps increase turnout in the order of between 5% to 15%, so it has a significant impact on voting.”

“Design plays a critical role in the relationship between people and politics,” says Kate Jones, Policy Advisor at Design Council, in her essay for Designing Democracy. “It has the power to create successful spaces and systems to increase civic participation in the democratic process.”

Reynolds believes that VAAs ultimately need government backing to reach their full potential. He gives the example of state-backed VAA StemWijzer in Holland, used by 40% of the public. “We need to have some sort of well-resourced VAA from [the UK] government. If it can be demonstrated to be neutral, that makes it easier to become part of the political landscape. You need state buy-in.” 

2. Vote swaps: strategic ballot marks

Another group redesigning the electoral process on a grassroots level is, set up in early April by a broad coalition of centre-left activist volunteers united with one aim – to keep the Conservatives out of 10 Downing Street.

VoteSwap matches voters so they’re able to exchange votes with confidence. In a Labour marginal, a Green voter could vote Labour, safe in the knowledge that their Green vote would be cast by a Labour supporter in a safe seat. Site co-founder Huw Jordan says, “The idea came out of the desire to avoid the negatives of tactical voting in which marginal parties’ vote share is often diminished.”

As there is no money exchanging hands, the arrangement is perfectly legal, much like if two people met in a pub and informally agreed to swap votes – but at scale, says Jordan. “People reacted very well to the idea. They understood that it was a response to a crappy system that didn’t work for many people and that we were trying to hack it,” he says. The site attracted 500,000 visits by polling day and over 21,000 people used it to swap votes for the May election. Not something that could have been arranged around a pub table.

Of course, VoteSwap’s aim didn’t pan out. On their website, post-election, they acknowledged some mistakes: besides technical and logistic problems from attracting more traffic than expected, they labelled nearly all seats at launch as either marginal or safe when some were really in a grey area in between. The team, however, came away from the election optimistic: “We think VoteSwap made a small, positive difference, and is an experiment that can be built on in the future.”

3. Crowdsourcing: virtual piggybanks

Beyond votes, politicians and parties also need money to win – which means fundraising is another part of the election machine being redesigned. The world’s most successful online election campaigns were Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012. In each instance, crowdsourcing small amounts of money, along with local engagement, played a decisive role in his success.

The UK has taken note: in 2015, Jim Messina joined the Conservatives’ battle, while Labour hired David Axelrod. Both men were key strategists in Obama’s past campaigns. Matthew McGregor, Obama’s 2012 'digital attack dog', now political director of strategy agency Blue State Digital, worked on Labour’s campaign this year; he says the party raised approximately £3 million in donations from roughly 150,000 people. (The Conservatives chose a different digital tactic, also borrowed from US campaigns, that focused more on big data and targeted advertising.)

Another key participant in Obama’s 2012 re-election was Harper Reed, who acted as the campaign’s chief technology officer. One of his decisions – a new move for a political campaign – was to enlist developers from companies like Craigslist, Twitter, Threadless, Google and Facebook. Obama’s 2012 campaign was even more successful than his first: the Obama team raised about $690 million digitally in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008, which meant that his overall fundraising far exceeded that of his opponent Mitt Romney ($730 million versus $473).

Techies and the democratic operating system

As much as Reed obviously champions the power of online engagement in government (and business), he also warns of its limits. “Often the opportunities and the conversation envisaged and dreamt up by internet enthusiasts seems great,” he says, “But the danger is that we don’t realise that we are alienating whole communities.” Many people don’t have the luxury of being able to donate to political campaigns – and many aren’t yet connected to the internet in the first place. “When I go vote, I see people of all economic backgrounds running the polling station, volunteering, helping make sure it is safe, accessible and a fair voting place,” says Reed. “When I look at online voting, or I look at places where they are trying to solve democracy through technology, I see white upper-middle-class men.” While there’s much to be gained from digital tools, patching the current system with new digital interfaces between citizen and government will not provide the overhaul the democratic system needs.

1. Pirate Party: peer-to-peer politicos

In 2001 a group of lobbyists representing the film and computer game industry in Sweden – birthplace of P2P file sharing site The Pirate Bay – launched an ‘Anti-Piracy Bureau’ in order to combat pirating of copyrighted works. In response to this, a group of activists founded an NGO called the ‘Pirate Bureau’ to support the open sharing of information and intellectual property. The Pirate Bureau later became the first Pirate Party, in retaliation against a perceived attack on the constitutionally protected right to free speech by censoring so-called ‘pirated’ content. Since then the party has flourished and has representatives internationally, with a German MEP and an Icelandic MP. Among other issues, it seeks to reform laws on copyright and patents, boost digital access, increase government transparency and strengthen the individual's right to privacy, online and in real life.

Cris Chesha, newly elected leader of Pirate Party UK and an IT industry veteran, believes that reshaping the core of digital technology itself can provide democratic emancipation. He explains that there is huge opportunity for technology to help address old problems that have, ironically, been accelerated by new technology: transparency, privacy, unequal ownership (of information) and inequality of access. One such opportunity, he says, is in developing the block chain, the encryption technology that is the basis of Bitcoin, the open-source currency. “The block chain is a means of storing information that cannot be hacked or altered,” says Chesha, “and because the information is decentralised and dispersed over a network, rather than accessed through one server, it is more robust.”

He sees the block chain becoming mainstreamed in the next 10 years, and moving beyond its current most popular application, for Bitcoin. This has potential uses for transparency and decentralisation that are pertinent to our politics, says Chesha, who stood at this year’s general election in Manchester Gorton. While he admits that it’s unclear what exactly these uses will be, the opportunity for him can only come from a fundamental rewiring of digital tools. They can save us or they can undo us, but they cannot be ignored, he says – something which, post-NSA, people are beginning to realise.

Redesigning digital tools with this in mind will take a little time, according to Chesha: “First we need people to care about it, and then we need to educate people. We need to teach people that encryption is not just for criminals, that a centralised communication network is a fundamental threat to democracy. Trusting your entire communications network to one or two entities is a fundamental problem…in the context of privacy and ownership of data, freedom of communication affects freedom of thought.” 

2. The Alternet: wikifying democracy

For Sarah T Gold, whose Alternet proposes a localised network that could operate as a civic space — neither wholly public nor private — this kind of overhaul is critical.

“There are twenty-first century infrastructures that are becoming more crucial to daily life that are largely web-based services,” says the designer, who has a deep interest in technology. “The problem is that at the moment they are working largely in the interests of a very small group of venture capitalists. That may not seem much of a problem now, but it becomes huge when you think of the rise of the Internet of Things – for example, the proliferation of internet-connected household devices.”

It is beginning to become clear that the reliance on data that is about us but we do not legally own may become problematic in the future. Says Gold: “We know that the current way we deal with data is undemocratic. We don’t own the data that is about ourselves. This is a democratic problem and it’s also a problem for businesses.” She believes that without seriously considering how to develop different internet protocols, we are asking for trouble. By relying on centralised networks who deal in our data, we could be unwittingly building ourselves a deeply undemocratic destiny: “It’s not about saying Google or Facebook are evil. It’s about looking a bit further and asking, what kind of future are we building.” 

Gold would like to see a situation where citizens set the rules of engagement – but who will design and build the infrastructure of what can and can’t be shared and empower citizens to make these choices in an easy way? “The Government isn’t going to do this. Commercial companies aren’t going to do it. Ultimately we need a third sector – a kind of BBC for digital technologies and protocols.” Gold holds Wikimedia Foundation, the group that helps millions of authors maintain Wikipedia, as a successful exemplar of an organisation trying to rethink how governance behind the internet may work to benefit the many, not the few.

3. Digital Public Space: BBC 2.0?

The BBC is, in fact, considering the problem: as early as 2010 it was envisioning a Digital Public Space that would give everyone unrestricted access to an open resource of culture and knowledge. Jemima Kiss, in a Guardian article entitled A digital public space is Britain’s missing national institution, describes it as “equally accessible to anyone regardless of status or income, safe and private, and operating in the interests of users and not of the ecosystem itself.” This February the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, in partnership with the Design Council, voiced support for the project.

The idea of a Digital Public Space emerged within the BBC as a digital cultural archive open for learning, enjoyment and contribution: “The gatekeepers of knowledge and culture, the 'experts', realises the need to open this effort up, and to actively engage many actors and citizens.” The concept then expanded and grew beyond the BBC’s confines; BFI, Tate, British Library, Arts Council England, FutureEverything, The Creative Exchange and many other organisations have all investigated it. 

A Digital Public Space is, however, still an elusive, amorphous idea. Kiss blames in part “the mundanity of BBC priorities” but adds that “the BBC is only the shepherd of this project; this is a coalition of the willing.”

And this is where design steps in. Creating such a space is a phenomenally complicated challenge that designers can help make exciting and meaningful for people. Getting them to care, as Chesha put it, will gather the steam that’s needed to create an actual, tangible system-wide solution. 

The future: Zuckerberg for President?

Perhaps Facebook has come closest to this. Although it is, of course, part of the problem (creating disproportionately wealthy entrepreneurs, commercialising personal data…), it also engages people of all different social strata and from across the globe: the company reported a whopping 1.44 billion monthly active users as of the first quarter of 2015. Facebook has transformed our means of communication, our media, our consumption habits. And it shows that designers working hand-in-hand with technologists is an irrefutably powerful, system-changing combination.

Around the world, designers and technologists have begun to work with policymakers in interdisciplinary teams embedded at high levels within central governments; examples of 'innovation labs' stretch from the well-established MindLab in Denmark to Helsinki Design Lab, DesignGov in Australia, Future Publique in the French Prime Minister’s Office and the UK Cabinet Office's Policy Lab. Start-ups aimed at disrupting democracy are no longer the domain of activists – they’re moving from the margins to the mainstream.

When Mark Zuckerberg launched his book club in 2014, the first title on his list was, notably, Naím’s book: The End of Power. Techies and designers have inherited the earth in the boardroom; how long will it be before we see a geek in the White House?

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

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