Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

In an excellent post Ben Rattray, founder of change.org,  suggest that technology can help improve democracy by addressing  what he calls three core needs:

  1. Mass Civic Participation: Citizens need effective outlets for expressing their voice on the issues that matter to them more often than every 2–4 years, and at the local as well as the national level.
  2. Responsive Government: Elected officials need to be responsive to citizen concerns and directly engage with them in a way that ensures they feel authentically heard.
  3. Trusted Information: We need a new channel of distribution for political information that elevates trusted sources to guide citizens as they take civic action — a trust graph for politics.

Later in the post he elaborates  the idea of a trust graph for politics:

This isn’t something we’ve yet developed, but since we believe it will be a crucial component of any successful democratic system and an important part of our future, I’ll outline our current thinking here.

The foundation of this trust graph for politics is based on asking each citizen to follow the people and organizations whose political perspective they most trust — whether they’re friends, public intellectuals, business leaders, former elected officials, or public interest groups.

We would use this data to create a trust ranking index, similar to Google PageRank. The measure of how trusted a source is would not be based simply on their total number of followers, but on the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, whose trustworthiness would be measured by the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, and so on. The result would be to surface the people and organizations of all political perspectives who are highly trusted both by the trusted members of that community and by trusted people with different perspectives.

There is a striking similarity between this concept of a trust  graph and the notion of “credibility” we implemented in the YourView platform.  

The challenge we tried to address with YourView was that of identifying public wisdom on major public issues. Our idea was to create an online forum  which would encourage large-scale participation in high quality public deliberation, and to divine from that deliberation a collective viewpoint  which gave more weight to those participants who had more credibility which we defined as a demonstrated capacity to effectively engage in public deliberation.  Credibility was calculated automatically by algorithms embedded in the platform.  These had a pagerank-like quality in that  one of the key factors in building a strong credibility score was contributing in a way that met the approval  of high credibility people, particularly those who disagree with you. YourView thus encouraged participants to engage productively with people of the opposite persuasion rather than just preaching to the converted. 

Now, with major funding from the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency we are embarking on a project to build a platform for crowdsourcing intelligence analysis.  our plan is that the new platform will use YourView -like mechanisms, though in much more sophisticated ways, to identify the best analysts and to take advantage of that information in various ways to improve the quality of the results.

My hope is that what we  develop and build in this project will be of sufficient generality that it will also be able to be used  to address problems of democracy in broadly the manner  described  by Ben Rattray  and in our writings on the YourView project.


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[This post is in response to a request from a colleague for “the best thing to introduce someone to YourView”.]

The goal of the YourView project was to develop a platform for identifying collective wisdom, focusing on major public issues, aiming to remedy some of the defects of democracy.  The platform was a deliberative aggregator, i.e. it supported large-scale deliberation and its aggregated outputs reflected that deliberation.  The project was active from around 2011 to 2014, with its moment of glory being when the platform was used as part of Fairfax Media’s coverage of the 2013 Federal Election.

The YourView platform is still alive and can be explored, though there has been no real activity on the site since 2014.  There is a collection of pages and links about the YourView project.

The best theoretical overview is Cultivating Deliberation for Democracy, particularly the second half.  The “The Zone” interview by Fairfax’s Michael Short is a good read.

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A colleague Todd Sears recently wrote:

I thought I’d write to let you know that I used an argument map last night to inform a public conversation about whether to change our school budget voting system from what it is (one meeting and you have to be physically present to vote), to the (of all things!) Australian Ballot system (secret ballot, polls open all day, and absentee ballots available).

So, I went through the articles, editorials, and opinion pieces I could find on the matter and collapsed those into a pretty simple argument, which it is. Simple reasoning boxes get the job done.  Our voters had never really seen this kind of visualization.  It’s nice to be able to see an argument exist in space, and to demonstrate by pointing and framing that a “yea” vote needs to buy into the green points, but also that they need to reconcile the red points, somehow. It had very good response.

Ultimately, the AB motion was defeated by five votes.  Still, it was a good example of a calm, reasonable, and civil dialogue.  A nice change from the typical vitriol and partisan sniping.

Here is his map (click to view full size version):


When I suggested that readers of this blog might find his account interesting or useful, he added:

Let me clarify what I did because it wasn’t a classic facilitation.

1. I reviewed all of the on-line Vermont-centric AB content I could find in the more reputable news sources, and put a specific emphasis on getting the viewpoints of the more vociferous anti-AB folks in my town so that I could fairly represent them.

2. I created a map from that information and structured it in a way that spread out the lines of reasoning in an easily understandable way. I could have done some further abstraction and restructured things, or made assumptions explicit using the “Advanced” mode, but chose to focus on easily recognized reasoning chains.

3. I sent the map out to the entire school board, the administrators, a couple of politicians, the anti-AB folks and some of the other more politically engaged people in town.

4. The session was moderated by the town Moderator, who set out Robert’s Rules of Order. Then discussion began. In fact, the first ant-AB speaker had my map in his hand and acknowledged the balance and strength of both sides of the argument.

5. I let the session run its course, and then explained what I did and how I did it, and then reviewed the Green and Red lines of the debate, explaining that a vote for or against means that the due diligence has to be done in addressing the points counter to your own position, and I demonstrated how this should be done. Though I was in favor of AB, I maintained objectivity and balance, rather than a position of advocacy one way or another.

Overall the session was very civil, informed, and not one point was made (myriad rhetorical flourishes aside) that was not already on the map. Many variations on similar themes, but nothing that hadn’t been captured.

And followed up with:

BTW, just 30 minutes ago I received an e-mail which said this:


I love the map of the issues around Australian Ballot that you sent out. Is there an easy way to make such a map? We are tackling some issues that have our faculty at Randolph Union High School pretty evenly split and I think two such maps would be a powerful way for my colleague and I who are leading this change to communicate. It looks as if it was created in PowerPoint. If you are too busy to elaborate that’s fine too.

Thanks for your leadership on the Australian Ballot issue. I appreciate it.

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We knew things were pretty dire, but a new poll has put some numbers onto our fears.

The “Citizen’s Agenda” survey from the University of Melbourne has found that voters are “pretty appalled” at the standard of political debate, with 57% of voters saying things are getting noticeably worse. Not surprisingly, the overall level of interest in politics is sliding as well.

These numbers underscore the numerous criticisms made in recent years by people who’ve been in the political trenches. Diverse luminaries such as Barry Jones, Lindsay Tanner, and Malcolms Fraser and Turnbull have complained that public political debate has never been so bad.

What’s happening here? Why, when Australians are more educated and connected than ever before, is political discourse being degraded?

A natural instinct is to search for somebody or something to blame – some dark force degrading public discourse for its own greedy purposes. The news media and politicians are popular suspects; others point to campaign managers, advertisers and spin merchants; or to television, the internet, or mobile devices.

Alternatively, we can view the problem through the lens of a simple and familiar metaphor: that people are, increasingly, just not playing by the rules.

Consider chess – a game with a limited set of clear and accepted rules. Rule-governed play typically delivers a clear outcome, with everyone agreeing who won or lost.

If we think of public debate as a kind of game, then the rules are the laws and conventions of logic and disputation, as articulated by logicians and rhetoricians over the centuries.

Public debate is of course not a game. It is a deadly serious business, often literally so. But that just makes it all the more important that people respect the rules.

So what’s going wrong?

One problem is that people often don’t really know what the rules are. For the most part, they have never been educated in logic and disputation, and would be pressed to give any account of the rules. It’s hard to play correctly when you’re foggy about what’s OK and what’s not.

Second, there will always be incentives to cheat. This can be straightforwardly foul play, like a rugby player throwing a punch under cover of a maul. Witness climate change deniers who trot out the argument that temperature hasn’t increased since 1998, no matter how many times its flaws have been decisively exposed.

Worse than breaking the rules is subverting them. This amounts to changing the game, or even destroying the game entirely. This sounds extreme, but Paul Krugman and others have been accusing US Republicans of precisely this gambit – of “refusing to live in an evidence-based world.”

Third, there’s no effective umpire. There’s no authority or expert whose role is to judge what’s legitimate and whose calls are accepted by all the players.

Finally, we all suffer from the problem that our mental machinery is poorly designed for the task. Public debates can get complicated, and the brains bequeathed to us by evolution don’t have enough “RAM” to comprehend the evolving state of play. And we are all subject a wide range of cognitive biases which reliably lead us to make errors of logic and to violate norms of constructive debate.

Surveying these factors, the prospects for any substantial improvement seem remote. Three – the incentive to cheat, the lack of an independent umpire, and cognitive limitations – are deep features of what is sometimes called “the human condition.” Education can in principle help people know what the rules are, but is a slow and unreliable way to effect social change.

Fortunately there is another option.

Think of public debate as taking place in various arenas. The floor of parliament is one; commentary in the mainstream media is another. The internet has allowed the emergence of new online arenas such as the blog- and Twitter-spheres.

The subtle but critical point is that these various arenas promote or discourage playing by the rules in different ways. Twitter, for example, makes complex chains of reasoning almost impossible, and promotes follow-chambers in which contrary views are all too easily ignored or ridiculed. Another example is comment forums on news websites, which encourage trolling by having the discussion open to all, and allowing anonymity (via pseudonymity).

However the programmability of the internet makes possible a great variety of arenas, and new ones aimed at improving public debate, and democracy more broadly, are proliferating around the world. Oursay, a partner in the Citizen’s Agenda project, is just one example, increasingly prominent in Australia.

Some of these forums are being designed to gently guide participants towards higher quality participation in political debate. One way to do this is to scaffold “nudge” participants to stick to the rules more often, perhaps by giving greater prominence to those who do.

An example is the German “Faktencheck” (Fact Check) project, which works in collaboration with mainstream media entities such as Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung to host public debates on current political issues.

Our project, YourView, is another example.

Forums such as these will continue to evolve and play an increasingly large role in public political debate. Lindsay Tanner has spoken of a “revolt of the engaged”. This revolt can go beyond just online fundraising and petitioning; if the forums are designed correctly, it can start to halt or reverse the slide in the quality of public political debate.

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This is an excerpt from a chapter to appear in a volume edited by Margaret Simons on “new media entrepreneurs”. 

What is the bare minimum a citizen needs to know in order to have a reasonable, informed opinion on a major public issue? This is not a trick question. Boiled down to the basics, a citizen needs to know what the issue is, the basic facts, and the key arguments for and against.

Consider negative gearing of real estate investments. Perhaps you think it is wise economic policy, or perhaps you think it an expensive rort. Either way, you really ought to know what negative gearing is (not everybody does.)  You should know critical facts such as how much it costs the government each year, who gets the benefits, and what other effects it might have, such as making rental housing more available and affordable. You’d need to be aware of the best arguments for keeping it on one hand, and the best arguments for abolishing it on the other.

Of course, having the bare minimum knowledge does not automatically lead to a reasonable opinion, and ideally a citizen would know much more than the bare minimum about the merits of negative gearing as one component of an efficient, equitable and sustainable taxation system.  My point is just that unless you have at least the bare minimum then your opinion is seriously ill-founded.

The trouble is, citizens often don’t have this kind of minimum knowledge. Choose an Australian adult and a major public issue at random and chances are that if they understand the issue at all they will be ignorant of key facts,  or misinformed and unaware of major arguments.

For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of negative gearing; indeed I’d even negatively geared the occasional investment. But when I sat down to draft a succinct summary of the pros and cons of negative gearing as a tax policy, I immediately discovered how incomplete and uncertain my knowledge was. It took the better part of a day of reading online, filtering, digesting, sorting and drafting to come up with a short written summary of what I needed to know. Only then did I really appreciate how half-baked my previous views had been.

Now, I will not rehearse here the reasons why this kind of ignorance is a problem for democracy. Nor will I heap blame on the usual suspects. Nor will I hand wave about how the schools, or the government, or the media, or someone should be doing something about it. Finally, I will not indulge any utopian fantasy of a fully informed citizenry.

Rather, I’ll make a simple suggestion.

It is not too hard for someone with suitable expertise to assemble the bare minimum information on a given issue in a short article with a fairly standard structure. You could call this a “backgrounder,” or an “explainer”. I like the phrase “issue clarifier”.

The suggestion is that for all major public issues, these clarifiers be produced and made easily accessible. Then, any interested citizen could rapidly obtain the most essential information on any issue whenever they wanted it. This alone wouldn’t solve the ignorance problem, but it would surely help.

An issue clarifier is a journalistic product. Writing issue clarifiers is a kind of journalism. Doing it well requires broad awareness of the political landscape, the ability to research, analyse and synthesize, and to write succinctly and clearly for a wide audience.  In our democratic system, we usually regard journalism as having a special responsibility for keeping the citizenry informed. Since issue clarifiers would obviously be useful in this regard, they should already be a mundane feature of the media landscape.

In short, my suggestion should be redundant. But it is not. Nowhere in the major media can you easily find such clarifiers. Very occasionally, something along these lines appears, but it is quickly lost under the torrents of news, the deluges of opinion, and the tsunamis of mass distraction such as sport, cooking, fashion, celebrity gossip, and so forth.

Why? Partly because issue clarifiers can be a bit  dull. They aren’t breaking news; they don’t exploit our appetite for the latest, freshest and most titillating.  Unlike opinion pieces, they don’t incite our tribal instincts. Being even-handed, they don’t comfort by stroking our prejudices, or enrage by challenging our convictions. The media survive by attracting attention, and issue clarifiers will generally struggle to compete.

It might also be argued that issue clarifiers are superfluous. The media already provide far more information and debate about major public issues than could ever be conveyed in a short issue clarifiers. Why add to this abundance?

It was once said that there are two ways to keep decision makers in the dark. One way is providing too little information; the other is providing too much. Similarly, the vast quantity of fast-changing news and vigorous debate in the media may actually be counterproductive, with respect to the goal of helping the public be basically well-informed on most major issues. Rather than educating, the net effect may be to bewilder and alienate; or to leave people under the illusion that they have much better knowledge than they do.

This can be seen as a market failure. There’s an obvious public good, the provision of issue clarifiers, not being addressed by “business as usual” in the Australian media. So, following the adage that a problem is merely a situation which has not yet been turned to your advantage, there is also here an opportunity. Can a new media player t this empty niche?

This is one way of looking at the YourView project…

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A recent survey in the US presented voters with three different plans with regard to the looming “sequestration“, without telling them which political party was behind each plan.  47% of Republican voters preferred a plan called The Balancing Act.   This plan, it turns out, was the one offered by the progressive Democrats.  And the Balancing Act plan was the most popular overall.

Further, a clear majority of Republicans rejected the plan put forward by their own leadership in House.

These results indicate a kind of mis-alignment.  On this issue at least, a substantial portion of the US population supports the Republican party even though their own views conflict with the party position. Crudely put, they’re supporting the wrong party on this issue.

What about alignment more generally?  To what extent do voters support – and vote for – the parties whose platforms are the best overall fit to their actual views?

I’ve been searching for data on alignment in the Australian context.   For example, how many Liberal voters have sets of views which are in fact more similar, overall, to the platforms of Labor or the Greens?  Or would have, if they had a chance to systematically consider what their views were, independently of how the parties stand on those issues?

This being the real world, where nothing is perfect, we can assume that there is at least some degree of mis-alignment.   At least some people, probably unknowingly, vote for the “wrong” party.

But how many?  And in what direction, if any, does mis-alignment tend?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any data on this.  However I did find something which provides at least a clue.

The above-mentioned survey uncovered a second kind of mis-alignment.   The Balancing Act plan had received the least attention in mainstream media’s coverage of the sequestration issue.  So the national public debate was framing issues in a way which tended to exclude the option which voters found most attractive.

What about Australia?  How well do the political debates in the national mainstream media  accommodate the range of views held by the public?

On his Pollytics blog, Scott Steel wrote a very revealing post about this, called “What Australians Believe.”  After a lengthy and nuanced discussion of polling results, he concludes:

What comes out from this broad snapshot is that what Australians believe about the role of government in our society and economy isn’t necessarily what our institutions believe or practice, and probably hasn’t been for a while. Our beliefs as a country are certainly far removed from many participants in the national debate that pretend to speak on behalf of our population and on behalf of our interests.

Whatever the faults, foibles or otherwise of these national beliefs – and this isn’t an exercise in either support of, or opposition to them – our national debates on the role of government in our society and economy are becoming increasingly isolated from what the majority of the country actually believes.

Our public debates assume that the benefits of privatisation have reached a conclusion – the public believes that privatisation was and is a catastrophe and that government should own a larger sector of the economy because we trust government more than large private sector corporations.

Our public debates assume that smaller government and less regulation is universally beneficial – the public supports substantially higher levels of regulation on just about any topic you care to name and struggles to find something they’d like the government to become smaller in.

Our public debates assume that economic reform has been such an obviously beneficial thing to ordinary Australians that it no longer needs explaining – the public believes that corporations took all benefits of that reform, leaving them with little more than a casualised workforce and reduced job security.

In short, Steel seems to have revealed a quite dramatic mis-alignment between the actual views of Australians and the national public debates.   If true, this strikes at the heart of our democratic system.   Steel pessimistically concludes:

If we keep having our national debates like this – excluding larger and larger sections of our population and ignoring what they believe – they won’t be national debates, we’ll just be talking among ourselves generating ever increasing quantities of public opprobrium, contempt and general unhinging. If you haven’t noticed – this is where we are at right now.

Indeed.  Recent years have seen a chorus of complaints about the quality of public debate, and at the same time increasing disengagement by citizens from political parties and from politics more generally.

The mis-alignment between public debates and what Australians believe is not of course the same as mis-alignment in party support and in the polling booth.  But it surely strongly suggests significant such mis-alignment.  It would be strange if people ended up always supporting the parties which best represent their views, when those views tend to be sidelined in public debates which frequently reference party positions.

But this is just speculation.  What I’d like to see is real data.  Does anybody know of any?

Also posted on the YourView blog.

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Essay co-authored with Paul Monk.  Cross-posted on the YourView blog

Over half of Australians are dismissive about global warming.  That’s the apparent message from a survey on the ABC website, part of its “I can change your mind about climate” programming airing this evening (Thurs 26th April).

With over 20,000 responses, the survey appears to be unusually large and therefore to provide an excellent view into the Australian mindset.

Some might see these results as confirming that Australians are coming to their senses in rejecting the excesses of the “warmist” school.

Others might see the results as revealing the effects of a sustained campaign of disinformation and manipulation by powerful vested interests and their supporters.

They might also suspect that the poll has simply been gamed by the “denialist” crowd, jumping on and pushing their views in great disproportion to their real numbers.

Gaming the survey would actually have been quite easy.  There seemed to be nothing to stop one person responding numerous times.

But more generally, online polls and surveys are of dubious merit, since their participants are generally self-selected and therefore unrepresentative of the population at large.

That’s why, when The Age runs an online poll, it says “Disclaimer: These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.”

Translation: Results are basically worthless.  For entertainment value only.

The ABC’s survey, for this reason, is seriously deficient as a perspective on what Australians really think about climate change.  Indeed it is disturbing that the ABC doesn’t openly admit these shortcomings on the survey site.

The ABC survey does have one merit: it enables participants find out what category they belong to (Dismissive, Alarmist, etc.).  Much like those “What kind of lover are you?” questionnaires found in popular magazines.

The deeper problem here is that uncovering what Australians genuinely think on matters of public moment is actually quite difficult.  Considered as a large group, “the people” doesn’t have vocal chords and can’t speak its thoughts.

Consequently, specially designed processes are needed to elicit this thinking.

Opinion polls, of course, are one common approach.  When properly conducted, they improve on mere online polls in that they at least canvass opinions from fairly representative samples.

But standard opinion polls have their own drawbacks.  The randomly selected participants are typically relatively ill-informed about the issue and aren’t able, in the polling situation, to give the questions any serious thought. Further, the attitudes of the ill-informed are often easily manipulated by the rhetoric doing the rounds at the time of the poll.

At best, these polls provide a statistical snapshot of “off the top of the head” responses.  They don’t ascertain the considered views individuals would have if they were better informed and able to reflect properly.

Much better are the kind of careful surveys conducted by psychologists, such as the 2010 Griffith Climate Survey by Joseph Reser and colleagues.   These by design elicit more thoughtful responses and provide more nuanced insight into people’s perceptions.

That survey found that “less than six per cent of people surveyed were sceptical about climate change”. The stark difference between this finding and that of the ABC poll should give us pause.

However even the Griffith-type surveys are only aggregating what individuals come up with in the 30-60 minutes they spend answering the questions. They don’t provide the collective view, i.e. the view that we would develop as a group if we had the chance to think together about the issue, pooling our perspectives and debating them thoroughly.

The deliberative democracy movement, led in Australia by pioneers such as Lyn Carson and John Dryzek, has long been urging that in a genuine democracy, governments should be guided and constrained by this kind of considered collective view; and that it is best ascertained through a well-designed process in which representative groups of ordinary citizens – “mini-publics” – convene and engage in extended deliberation.

In recent decades, around the world, many such exercises have been conducted.  They reliably show that the considered collective view differs from the results of ordinary opinion polls. They show that under the right circumstances, many people change their minds in informed ways.

Australian democracy would be much healthier if such exercises happened far more frequently and played a much more central role in serious political life.

However there is a prohibitive practical problem with the standard deliberative democracy approach: its exercises are costly and cumbersome, and so happen too infrequently.

One challenge for twenty-first century democratic politics is to design and implement better processes for identifying what we think, not about personalities or political intrigues but about major public issues.

Like the ABC survey, such processes will need to be easily and inexpensively implemented, which means they must be conducted online.

However, like deliberative democracy, they must also able to provide genuine insight into what Australians really think, i.e. the considered collective view.

Reconciling these two demands is far from easy, but the new era of social media is rapidly throwing open new opportunities.

Taking the broadest historical view, the new communication platforms may enable democracy to return, in some key respects, to its Athenian roots – and, indeed, improve on the Athenian model: something that modern representative democracy has always sought to do, but has managed only very imperfectly.

YourView, of course, is our foray into this space.

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