Democracy and disillusionment in a digital era

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Above: CPD hosts Simon Willis from Change.org at roundtables in Sydney and Melbourne, with generous support from BCG and ANU House Melbourne.

In February 2016 CPD participated in a number of discussions on democratic renewal in a digital era.

On the 19 and 23 February, CPD in partnership with ANU and Boston Consulting Group hosted Simon Willis from Change.org at two roundtables as part of our Effective Government Program. Simon is Managing Director of the organisation’s operations in Europe and Australia and has extensive experience in and outside the British Government including as Head of Financial Crime at Her Majesty’s Treasury and as Private Secretary to the Minister for Work and Pensions. He joined Change.org in 2015 from the Young Foundation. He is now one the world’s leading experts on digital democratic platforms.

Change.org has evolved from a Californian start-up organisation to a major global online platform for petitioning and awareness raising. The site now has approximately 140 million users worldwide. In Australia, one in seven Australians has signed a petition on Change.org, and a petition is successful in our country once every 24 hours. Even sitting state and federal MPs start petitions on issues of local importance to their constituents.

CPD’s roundtables were attended by key experts and influencers from government, start-ups and not-for-profit organisations. In Sydney, Miguel Carrasco (BCG Partner, Public Sector Practice) opened and co-hosted the event. In Melbourne, Gareth Evans (former Australian Foreign Minister and Chancellor of ANU) co-hosted. CPD as always greatly appreciates their support.

In his opening remarks, Simon argued that it was a fascinating time for digital platforms because there is a crisis about how well democratic institutions serve the interests of the community. He said there has been an erosion in the trust and confidence people place in civic and political institutions. Simon also argued that the internet has begun disrupting and transforming political engagement and empowerment but that the transformation is far from over.

Attendees were invited to discuss the role and impact of digital platforms like Change.org on not just political debate but also policy development and decision making. Participants in both cities also had robust discussions on how such platforms allow the public sector itself to collaborate more effectively with the community in influencing policy and achieving social ends.

One of the more robust elements of the discussion regarded the need for online petition platforms like Change.org to have greater linkages and cross-community collaboration in order to sustain causes and coalitions beyond a single petition, in order to generate holistic change. This includes utilising the community’s experience, skills and diversity to increase legitimacy and credibility. Unquestionably these lines of enquiry will remain at the forefront of democratic renewal for a long time. CPD looks forward to continuing our work on these themes in 2016 and beyond.

On 17 February in Melbourne, Travers McLeod participated in a panel discussion entitled After Russell Brand – Making democracy work better for you. Trav was joined by Maria Katsonis (Policy Director, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet), Nicholas Reece (Public Policy Fellow, University of Melbourne) and Samah Hadid (Human Rights Campaigner). Chaired by Dr Leslie Cannold (Ethicist and public educator), the panel discussed how citizens can have greater and more meaningful power in policy decisions made by government, and how the public sector can better engage the community in deliberative policy discussions that go beyond typical submissions and consultation processes.

Panelists examined the dire state of party memberships around Australia and why there is such disconnection between the parties and the community, the volatile and unpredictable nature of our politics as well as the rise of digital democratic platforms. They boldly attempted to forecast how our politics might change in the years ahead so that, as Travers argues, we can ensure our democratic system is ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st century.

If you are interested to attend the next event in the Melbourne Conversation series, you can find more information here.

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