Here, we spell out why we need direct forms of online political participation. Note that this document will be revised weekly based on user comments.
(1) Because the current system pushes the focus to the personality of candidates, rather than relevant issues.
Current forms of political participation have a limited ability to collect information, and are therefore geared towards the election of representatives. This pushes the focus of participatory instances on the persona of the candidates, rather than on the issues. In many cases, elections get decided on the charisma, looks and the sexual and personal life of the candidates, rather than on their positions in relevant issues.
Direct participation on issues is agnostic to whether people are in their first or second marriages, whether they have had an affair, or whether they smoked pot during their youth. Direct participation on issues promotes a focus on the issues, and the consequence of decisions, rather than on the personal life of political characters.
(2) Because limited participation reduces the incentive for citizens to get informed.
In a system where the ultimate expression of a person’s understanding of a complex political situation, is a choice between two candidates, there are little incentives for citizens to become informed. In the present day, there are likely many people that are not properly informed to understand the consequences of many political decisions. Direct participation involves two hypotheses in this dimensions: (i) That a choice over issues, rather than candidates, increases the incentives for people to get informed about the consequences of these issues. And (ii), that current forms of participation are not helping people that are poorly informed get better informed.
(3) Because people own the decisions that they make, more than the decisions that are made for them by those that they have chosen to represent them.
Complaining and demanding better solutions is easy in a system where elected officials make decisions on behalf of the population. Direct participation is needed not only to give citizens the ability to decide directly, but also to help distribute the ownership and responsibility of these decisions to the general population.
(4) Because the emergence of relevant issues is more dynamic than a four year cycle.
Current forms of political participation require both, significant resources and planning to be implemented. Relevant issues, however, can emerge over time scales that are shorter than current political cycles. Direct forms of online participation can be more adaptive, allowing the collection of preferences over shorter time scales. Direct online participation does not need to express information by electing different representatives, but can be used to provide just in time information, providing a participation process that can adapt to the time scales of decision, rather than constrain them.
(5) Because the relevancy of the issues is a public decision.
A representative system has little incentives to put on the table the issues that are most relevant to the population. This is because politicians can fail to understand the political relevancy of an issue (see SOPA and PIPA for a recent example), or because politicians’ estimates of how their decisions will affect elections outcomes can be unfavorable for candidates with opposites positions on the same issue. A classic example of this is gun-law. A candidate that disfavors the availability of guns is likely to only loose votes, since people in favor of gun availability puts a large amount of weight in this issue. Yet, since those that disfavor it, do not change their decision based mostly on this issue, there is little incentive for candidates that are against gun-law to talk about the topic. If people are allowed to self-organize and propose the issues that need to be discussed the likelihood that issues that are relevant to people is likely to be large.
(6) Because it can generate more accountable and transparent links between citizens and officials.
Direct forms of participation leave a trail about the preferences of people, about the reasons behind these preferences, about when and where these were expressed, and about the ones responsible to help implement them. The hypothesis is that the concrete nature of the information trail created by direct online forms of political participation will help create a system that is more transparent and accountable.
(7) Because people are not ready to participate more directly, and they need to.
Political decision-making is not easy. Democracy works under the hypothesis that citizen participation is beneficial to the way systems operate. Well-informed citizens, however, are considered key to a well-functioning democracy. Because of the aforementioned reasons, the current implementation of democracy –which is based on low throughput information technologies- does not incent citizen’s to get informed about the issues that are relevant. We propose that generating incentives to learn about the consequences of political decisions is a universal design constraint that needs to be satisfied by all implementations of democratic systems. Otherwise, democracy will be at best, incomplete, and at worst in danger of capture.
First Draft: (June 15, 2012)
Revision 1: (July 6, 2012)