Upgrading Democracy: Opening Doors

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There’s one every election day.
Sometimes you can pick them from a distance. The way she slams the car door and
glances back at it once, quickly, like she needs to remember the location of
her getaway vehicle. The way he approaches the entrance to the polling station
crabwise, nervously avoiding eye contact. But the real giveaway is when they
raise their hands above their heads and charge through the little crowd of
volunteers holding how-to-votes like every card is a cudgel poised to strike if
they don’t run the gauntlet fast enough. As one woman confided to me on November
24, 2007 as she went in to cast her vote, ‘I hate doing this’.

Why do some people hate voting?
Election days should be national holidays. The weather bureau should set the
date for the first hot day of Summer. Water restrictions would be eased for that
one day of the year, so the kids can run through the sprinklers at the local
school or town hall while their parents head in to vote, and maybe catch up for
a coffee with that nice couple they met at the neighbourhood demo last week.
AEC officials could run free refresher classes open to new and aspiring
citizens and anyone who wagged ‘applied civics’ at school. And of course,
everyone would be given the rest of the day and a fair slice of the following
morning off work so they can follow the election results in style.

All in all, elections should be a
knees-up celebration of the fact that people no longer have to be the
playthings of any bloodthirsty slave-monger who decides to slap some bent metal
on his head and call himself a king. In the era of the welfare state it’s easy
to forget that governments didn’t start out as tools of the people, but as
bureaucracies designed to help the powerful to serve themselves more
efficiently. Our franchise was wrested from unwilling hands, and the public
service – government as the public’s servant – was also born from that
struggle. The strongest protection for that historic achievement is a
population of well-informed citizens who enthusiastically defend their right to
have a say.

Despite the appeal of re-engineering
election day, the best way to inspire more democratic enthusiasm has nothing to
do with elections but with what happens in the intervening years. The following
articles look at the second major step towards Government 2.0: opening up the
doors of government and inviting citizens inside to take a more active role in
the decisions that affect their lives.

It’s often said that decisions get made
by those who show up. Whether or not people ‘show up’ is influenced by how much
time they have, how interested they are, how qualified they feel to
participate, and whether they think that their contribution will make a
difference. Obviously not everyone will want or need to participate in every
decision. But we can certainly expand the pool of people who are actively
involved in decision making if we’re willing to open up the process and make it
easier, more appealing, and more rewarding.

While they should not be a replacement
for face-to-face public meetings and hard-copy publications, online tools have
a number of unique advantages for increasing public participation in
decision-making, many of which are outlined in the following articles:

Accessibility: Online forums are often more accessible to people
in remote areas or less mobile people who rarely get a chance to participate in
public meetings

Engagement: Some tools, such as consultation blogs, can be
more informal and inviting than formal inquiries. This can inspire a wider
group of people to be confident enough to contribute

Collaboration: Most consultation processes focus on the
communication of groups and individuals’ ideas to a central committee, with
little opportunity for horizontal communication between those being consulted.
There is enormous potential to use online tools to increase the quality and depth
of ideas that emerge from a consultation process (see the Future Melbourne case
study below for an
example of how this can work).

Cost: It’s cheaper to run a website than a series of public meetings.
Again, this should not be an excuse for holding fewer public meetings but for
having their ‘virtual’ counterparts more frequently.

Ease: GetUp! has demonstrated the enormous untapped energy of busy people
who find it difficult to make time for traditional forms of community
involvement but love having a say through a quick and simple online form. 

Why is this important?

If Government 2.0 was just about making
the same decisions in the same way using a different medium, none of this would
be particularly exciting. What makes it exciting is that we are starting to see
a much-needed upgrade of democracy’s operating system – one that might be more
capable of handling the increasingly complex problems we need it to solve.

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