Tag Archives: collaboration

The Internet vs. the democratic deficit: can online collaboration break the ice between citizens and international institutions?

Global problems demand global governance: we have been repeating it for years. And truly, after World War II, international institutions have proliferated and ended up playing important roles in almost every field. It’s not just the United Nations, with their galaxy of agencies, but also the Bretton Woods twin institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; OECD; OPEC; the World Economic Forum; the structured military alliances like NATO and SEATO; the Club of Madrid; the International Atomic Energy; the WTO and many others. In Europe, this tendency is amplified by the continent’s unification project, and Brussels’s influence on public policies of EU member states has come to be very important. By some calculations, 70% of the activity of the average European country’s parliament consists in signing and stamping directives discussed and decided upon in Brussels and Strasbourg – which would make those parliaments little more than expensive decoration.

This system is extremely efficient. With 736 MEPs (the German Bundestag has 622) and a bureaucracy of only 33,000 employees the European Union runs the world’s largest economy, with 500 million inhabitants (Oxford Economics estimates public sector employees at 2.5 million in the UK in 2009, though the two figures are of course not directly comparable). But such efficiency comes at a price; many Europeans perceive the Union’s institutions as distant, inaccessible, unaccountable – at least to them. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is not elected, but appointed by the member states. The European Parliament is elected, but MEPs find it hard to reconcile the day-by-day work in Brussels with the need to stay in touch with their constituency, which tend to be very large. As a result, these institutions feel like they are working in a vacuum. They study official reports from far-away places, but the everyday life of citizens is perceived as some remote radio transmission with a lot of static on top. The combination of isolation and need for high quality information creates a space for lobbying, and, unsurprisingly, lobbying ensues. In the European political jargon, this problem is called democratic deficit.

The social Internet, I believe, has the potential to break the barrier separating the women and men working for international institutions from citizens. Social filtering allows to entertain massive-scale conversation without too many information overload problems. My past experience with Kublai showed that a central administration can open a direct dialogue with individuals in peripheral territories, leapfrogging all the local administrative levels, and that such disintermediated discussion is an very effective learning tool for the institutions that engage in it. My team and I are trying to enact similar tactics at the European scale with Edgeryders. Individual elected and appointed officials are exploring this space in a more agile way than large organizations can: Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes are notable examples.

International institutions are interested. Tomorrow (November 29th 2011) the European Parliament – led by its vice president, Gianni Pittella – hosts a discussion on this issue, with a lively program: I have the honor of presenting Edgeryders. On December 9th I will hold a webinar with United Nations Development Programme/Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It is a promising path: I hope it takes us far, because we are are in dire need of reinforcing supranational governance with democratic legitimacy.

Professor Keane’s tractionless democracy

Recently I have had the good fortune of listening to a conference by political theorist John Keane. In a nutshell, what he told us is this after 1945 democracy started to morph into a model that he calls monitory democracy. In this model, the control functions are not only allocated to the legislative power and variously representative institutions arranged in the classic checks and balances scheme, but are also arrogated by citizens through media. The present phase of media democratization and pulverization is greatly increasing the effectiveness of this second type of control; furthermore, it is taking it to a global level, thanks to Internet-native organizations like Wikileaks, that have no national allegiance. The presentation’s key slide was the image you see above, with Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. Keane used this image as an allegory of monitory democracy: with many ties, though each one is hair thin, the Leviathan can be immobilized.

With all due respect, I find this model unconvincing. Firstly, it is inadequate as a positive model: it does not describe reality accurately. According to many thinkers (including Clay Shirky, extensively quoted by Keane himself), the main novelty of the networked society is not an augmented ability for monitoring and blocking (though that is there too), but an augmented ability for barn raising on an unprecedented scale. Granted, the Internet gave us a great many blog that can sustain prolonged wrangles with public authorities on very specific issues, like no instantiation of traditional media could ever do. But above all it gave us Wikipedia, Ushahidi, Katrinalist/Person Finder and many more tools for building commons. This is no patch: it opens up radically new paths for development.

Secondly, monitory democracy is inadequate as a normative model: it’s not nearly all we need. We are faced with life-and-death challenges: contain global warming, redesign the social contract to make it acceptable for the young generations, bring finance back under control. To make a credible attempt to win them we are going to need effective, resourceful, proactive governance. Like poor tied-down Gulliver, Keane’s democracy feels horribly tractionless: think a car with strong, highly sensitive brakes and a comparatively very feeble engine. Personally, I find that the Internet’s greatest gift is that it increases our power to act collectively, not that it decreases it. By collaborating with them, we can empower institutions, keep them in check if they go bad, and help steering them, all rolled in one package. It would be irresponsible not to use this gift for the survival and thrival of the species. Even Lilliputians came to sense and freed Gulliver, harnessing his giant strength to destroy the menacing fleet of Blefuscu. I hope and believe we will have the same sense.

A people, not a target group: why advertising thinking can damage the collaboration between people and government

The campaign for this year’s municipal elections in Milan left us with a precious legacy: the awareness that many citizens are willing and able to collaborate with their elected representatives in a constructive way. Thanks to the large number of people involved, their great creative energy, and their Internet tools to coordinate towards common goals, the connected citizenry’s potential to contribute to a much needed general renewal of the country is out of the question. The Italian civil society claimed a role for itself; there was no Obama to summon it. As it turns out, it has proven to be at least as advanced as any other in the world, and possibly more so.

This legacy, it turns out, has a dark side. Besides citizens, the protagonists of the Milanese campaign were Internet communication experts, who tend to have a marketing background. The marketing-derived approach makes sense for election campaigns, because voting has near-zero cost; low thresholds for access; and above all is often driven by non-rational, gut feeling motivations. All of these characteristics carry through to the purchase of consumption goods. So, political communication experts speak the language of marketing and advertising: they tell stories like Nixon losing the presidency to Kennedy because, in the key TV debate, he was sweating. Their job is not to help the citizenry to build a realistic idea of what is needed in the next term, but cajole them into voting for a certain candidate, even if they do it for superficial or wrong reasons. Granted, it is not particularly noble, but it works.

Collaboration between citizens and public authorities is very different from competition for votes, and the analogy with purchase of consumption goods does not carry through. Designing and enacting policies is a high-cost, prolonged activity; it requires rational argument, data, competence. In this context the marketing profession’s seduction techniques don’t work well; what’s more, they risk doing damage. In particular, they risk creating participation bubbles: initially luring into signing up people that later, faced with the exhausting wrangle of designing policy, get disheartened and defect en masse – leaving themselves with a bad experience and others with the chore of reorganizing the whole process. Enacting the wiki government is not about attracting large crowds, but about enabling each and every citizen to choose whether to engage, and just what with, while giving her honest information about the difficulties, the hard work, the high risk of failure associated with participation. Indicators, too, have different meaning than in marketing: in the advertising world attracting more people is always better, whereas in the wiki government there is such a thing as too much participation (it entails duplication of information, with many people making the same point, and reduction in the signal-to-noise ratio, with low-quality contributions swamping high-quality ones).

There is a fundamental difference in the way the decision to engage is modeled: in wiki-style collaboration participants self-select, in marketing the communication experts selects a target in a top-down way. In the former the participant is seen as a thinking adult, that needs to be enabled and informed so that she can make the right decision; in the latter the consumer (or voter) is seen as a stupid, selfish individual that reacts to gut stimulation, and that needs to be led to do what we know must be done. The outcome of collaboration, when it is well designed, is open and unpredictable; the outcome of marketing, when it is well designed, is meeting some target set a priori.

All in all, a shift towards marketing of the discourse on collaboration would be a mistake. An increase in the number of participants to a single process does not automatically mean an improvement; a mayor is not a brand; a willingness to help out is not a trend to be exploited on the short run (and if it is we have no use for it, because collaboration on policy yields results on the medium to long run); and above all citizens are not a target, because they don’t need to be convinced: they need to be enabled to do whatever it is they want to do. It is crystal clear that Italians are up for trying out a collaboration with any half-decent public authority; this collaboration needs space and patient nurturing to grow healthy and strong, sheltered from hype and unrealistic expectations. I hope that the leaders of Italian authorities – starting from the new mayor of Milan Giuliano Pisapia, the leader who best synbolizes the current phase – resist the temptation to frame collaboration as a campaign, citizens as voters, rational conversation as hidden persuasion. Yielding to it would mean shooting themselves in the foot, and wasting an opportunity that the country cannot afford to miss.