Deliberative Polling

James Fishkin’s interview with the European Magazine contains probably one of the most exciting views on democracy that I’ve come across lately. It is the perfect antidote for someone who feels equally dissatisfied with over-optimistic expectations of what people should be capable of doing and the resulting cynicism when the unrealistic expectations fall short. It is an incredibly refreshing experience to read how Fishkin reframes the standard issue of what to do with an uninformed and seemingly disinterested public in a democracy.

Below Fishkin sets out the bog-standard way of approaching the issue:

“The choice seems to be between politically equal and uninformed masses, or politically unequal and more informed elites. The latter undermines the idea of popular involvement in politics, and the former involves people only under conditions where they cannot think very much about the choices they make.”

I’d say it’s a fair judgment that most people overestimate their own (and other’s) capacity for staying informed. To actually sit down and read the news we need to have enough energy left over after performing our daily chores. Here it may help to remember the concept of ‘ego depletion’ that refers to the phenomenon of our willpower being an exhaustible resource. After strenuous mental tasks we are less able to make considered decisions, or simply put, most people will agree that after a long and stressful day it’s much more tempting to sit down with a sitcom rather than read complicated current affairs articles. Therefore, instead of expecting people to overcome this inherent laziness by relying only on their inner calling for civic life, deliberative polling aims to create controlled conditions that would allow anyone for to come up with informed opinions.

What they do is the following. An initial poll is performed on a random sample of citizens (usually from around 200). Following the initial poll, the citizens are gathered together for a weekend of deliberation – they are given reading materials on all sides of the issue at hand, they are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with experts or politicians as well as to take part in moderated group discussions. All of the activities are recorded and translated live or edited on television. Afterwards the participants are polled again on the same issue or issues, which allows to observe what kind of opinions the public might form given the opportunity to fully engage with the policies being tackled by the government. Stanford University’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy gives a clear summary (that I’ve relied on above) as well as outlines a couple of selected results from deliberative polling exercises in Korea, UK, and Poland.

I could go on for quite a while listing all the reasons why deliberative polling is a great idea. My inner social scientist is delighted by Fishkin‘s belief that ‘democratic reform should be based on evidence,’ and not just observational data but data derived from experiments. Their approach is also praiseworthy for using sample sizes which can be used for sufficiently accurate statistical estimates while engaging with the participants qualitatively at the level of discussion groups (it must be noted that this is an expensive undertaking, not available to everyone who shares their scientific ethos). At the same time, it’s not just a social science experiment, but also a learning tool for the participants and the wider public given that the process can be broadcast on television or online as well.

Further on, the practice can be used for gathering public opinion in the initial stages of policy design or as an alternative to referenda. It would be difficult to argue against referenda as such, but deliberative polling is a better tool for an egalitarian democracy in a non-trivial way. According to Fishkin:

“The problem is that once you open deliberations to everyone, special interests can exert a larger influence than in a randomized sample.”

While active interest groups are a great part of a pluralist society, public referenda can turn into a tool available only to powerful special interest groups instead of empowering all members of a community equally. The example of California is used by Fishkin to illustrate the point – while it is a welcome development that referenda have become an intrinsic part of political life, the resources needed to initiate them and rally supporters around one’s cause favour established and well-financed interest groups. Through deliberative polling a random sample of citizens are inserted in a controlled environment where what matters is what they think not how much influence someone has been able to buy. Admittedly, while I’m writing this it’s hard not to think that it’s impossible to completely isolate such influence or that in many cases there is nothing wrong with the way interest groups advocate their cause. Yet, I’m inclined to think that deliberative polling should constitute a bigger part of civil society activities.

A final half-baked idea that has has been nagging me since reading the interview is the possibility of relying on insights from deliberative polling to transform the way that we use media. Instead of, again, either hoping that everyone will have the willpower and the necessary interest in reading traditional media formats or concluding that our fellow citizens are a lost cause and essentially qualifiable as manipulable automatons, why not consider presenting media content in ways that makes reading current affairs an accessible learning experience. It might include a combination of traditional approaches and the practices developed in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), or it might involve some sort of life-long learning programs.

In any case, it’s worth the time to think over what James Fishkin says in his interview on deliberative polling. The practice has the potential to, pardon the cliche, disrupt our way of understanding democratic participation and help us move beyond dead-end debates. Read it.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

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Change.org: the business savvy changemakers

A $25 million investment from around twenty different tech figures, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, former Facebook CFO Gideon Yu and others, is not the typical funding source for the ordinary organisation supporting civic activism. Yet Change.org is not your ordinary civil society organisation as it is formally a for-profit corporation. Citing the advantages of “speed and scale” Ben Rattray, the chief executive of change.org, founded Change.org as a profit-making business while committing to reinvest all of its profits.

Technically Change.org is registered as a Benefit Corporation or B Corporation (or simply B Corp), which means that in addition to maximising shareholder value a corporation commits to making a positive social and environmental impact on the world. Instead of relying on donations or member contributions, the global petition giant relies on investors and sponsored petition recommendations.  Petition initiators will pay Change.org to display their petitions as a suggestion after users sign other thematically related petitions. To borrow from Klint Finley writing for Wired,

“the company is letting nonprofits target potential donors in much the same way Google lets partners target customers through contextual advertising.”

Change-bilde

The incoming money has allowed Change.org to become one of the go to sites for petitions (with the non-profit Avaaz only generating half the traffic), the website attracts around 20’000 petitions per month and they have offices in 18 countries. Notable successes include petitioners convincing Southwest Airlines to cut ties with SeaWorld on the grounds of animal cruelty charges, and a recent petition contributing to the FDA allowing Tekmira Pharmaceuticals to fast track drug and vaccine research for Ebola. Having said that, there is still some way to go in measuring what impact their petitions actually have. One way of going about this is to look at the number of people signing successful petitions, which reached 1 million in 2013 in the US alone. Yet it would be even more important to measure the responsiveness of businesses or governments. One step in this direction is the company’s plan to implement a voting system for petition responses, but commissioning case-by-case impact reviews for the bigger petitions would be a welcome development.

There are those that express concern over the ‘email industrial complex’ that sites like Change.org are creating. Given the suffix “.org,” which is usually not used for commercial enterprises, it’s not hard to imagine that many signatories are not aware of their petition-signing histories and emails being sold for profit. Just the same, the recommendation system isn’t without its flaws. It fosters users to gravitate towards petitions that they would agree with anyway and favours big non-governmental organisations with the funds to promote their petitions.

At the risk of enraging the traditional left, there’s nevertheless something great in the way that Rattray talks about what he wants Change.org to become:

“The psychological effect we want to have,” Rattray said, “is when someone walks outside right now and says, ‘I want to rent an apartment, where do I go?’ Craigslist. To buy a book? Amazon. To address child slavery or climate change or stop the closure of the local park next to me? Change.org.”

His main point here is clearly about him wanting Change.org to be the go-to place for petitions. However, I like the mental image he creates. That in our consumer society civic activism would be in the mainstream, that keeping companies and governments in check would be just as casual an activity as purchasing underpriced books online or overpriced coffee at Starbucks. On that note, go and watch this inspirational video with all the good that people managed to accomplish using Change.org in 2014.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Government Petition Websites: A Lost Cause from the Start?

With the rise in popularity and influence of global petition web sites, those launched by state institutions have remained out of the spotlight. Such sites could be seen as praiseworthy initiatives that nevertheless lack the necessary punch. However, the story behind them is a bit more complicated and worth spending a little time on. The way that We the People in the US and e-petitions in the UK have developed highlights a couple of crucial insights into democracy.

In 2011 the White House launched We the People that was meant to reignite the connection between the government and the people of the United States. Yet after its initial popularity the site ran into foreseeable problems. The low signature threshold that entailed the petitioner to an official government response (5,000 signatures) meant that the White House ended up responding (in quite an amusing way) to petitions demanding NASA to construct a Death Star spaceship or declare Sasquatch as an endangered species. After the subsequent increase in the signature threshold to 100,000, the website has experienced a drop in popularity, and the White House has been criticised for being slow and too general in its response to popular petitions, such as one on reducing gun violence.

Some would argue that a static website such as We the People cannot compete with change.org, which attracts signatories through social media. Moreover, a government-run petition website is fundamentally restricted in its ability to gather support – the government itself cannot really send out reminders to support a petition against itself. As succinctly put by J.H. Snider:

This is because the interests of the public and elected officials differ. The public is inclined to ask politicians to take controversial stands that politicians have no rational self-interest in taking.

But this doesn’t mean that the state itself cannot institutionalise petitions as a way of enhancing democracy. Perhaps, we need to look across the Atlantic to a somewhat different political system whose ‘debating chamber’ type of parliament can provide the right conditions for such sites to reach their intended potential.

UK’s e-petitions website was launched around the same time but has recently taken a somewhat different direction. Initially the website was criticised for suffering the same malaise, namely, the government being in a position where it effectually restricts the diversity of petitions. With a previous average rejection rate of 47%, the UK now seems to be inclined to reach an institutional compromise. New plans aim to keep the petitions serious and hold petitioners to account while limiting the government’s discretionary powers to ignore the people. Starting with the next parliament more power would be given to the House of Commons through the creation of a Petitions Committee which would coordinate successful petitions and e-petitions would be brought directly to the Commons. In addition, petitioners would be called to present their case thus creating a reasonable requirement from the people, which could help to filter out trivial petitions with a lot of support (such as the Death Star request).

The US and UK sites have taken different routes after facing quite fundamental challenges, yet UK’s experience gives hope that a direct link between the people and their state can be institutionalised in the form of such state-initiated petition platforms.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

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A 21st Century Campaigning Community: 38 Degrees

38 Degrees was intended to create a UK campaigning body that would serve a similar function as MoveOn in the States, GetUp in Australia or the global Avaaz. It would not be entirely correct to describe these websites as online petition sites only, rather they aim to filter out causes with the greatest potential and then focus on creating strategic online and offline campaigns for targeted impact. In the past years the UK’s 38 Degrees has been singled out as one of the most notable online activism groups that might soon be constituting ‘the real opposition’ in British politics. Their clever name, “38 Degrees,” which refers to the angle at which avalanches begin (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this bit of science), also adds to their appeal.

38 Degrees is run by a small office and the agenda is set by 38 Degrees’ member community, which simply refers to those people who have registered on their website by signing up to attend a local event or signing a petition. The process starts with the 38 Degrees team gathering together suggestions from the comments on their website, blogs, Facebook and Twitter in order to create a shortlist of most consequential issues. In addition, the team tries to add any issues that might be of interest to their members by keeping a lookout for any urgent matters in the media and with the help of researchers or campaigners in other organisations. Afterwards, depending on time constraints, they either try to poll the entire membership or create a targeted poll with a random selection of members. Once campaigns are chosen it’s again down to members to decide whether they will want to support the cause. If enough members show their support by signing up to the campaign, the 38 Degrees team will then invest proportionate resources in advertising, fundraising and direct contact with relevant politicians or businesses.

E6-38Degrees-pic

Recently, though, they’ve also added Campaigns by You, a new feature on their websites that allows members to start their own campaigns directly without putting their ideas through the process described above.

The organisation strongly expresses its commitment to being a non-partisan body, while their value commitments (“to defend fairness, protect constitutional rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy”) and the majority of the causes championed by the team do seem to reflect more of a left-leaning progressiveness than some conservatives would like to see. Yet their funding is not directly tied to any of the big parties and is entirely member-based, donations averaging at around £12.00. Their most prominent campaign that deserves credit for its cross-party cooperation fought to stop the privatisation of publicly owned forests and was supported by both Conservatives, such as MP Zac Goldsmith, and other more likely candidates from the green-leaning left. The campaign gathered more than half a million signatures and convinced the Conservative government to Conservative government to withdraw its plans.

Above all, what is great about the work of 38 Degrees is that despite them using the full potential of online technologies they also try to keep their feet on the ground by organising occasional member meet-ups, facilitating locally organised events and engaging in offline advertising and door-to-door campaigning.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

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Search for the Common Good: Citizens UK

The Living Wage campaign, started by London Citizens in 2001, is a prime example of what can be achieved when the goal of politics is set to achieving a common ground. The initial campaigners were people working two or more minimum wage jobs yet struggling to keep their families out of poverty (according to latest research on UK done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, half of those living below the poverty line are actually employed). Instead of digging deeper into partisan trenches, people behind London Citizens created a campaign that aimed to bring working people out of poverty in a way that was appealing to employers. The idea was simple – to calculate a new minimum wage that would actually allow a family to take care of themselves given the actual costs of living in London. Instead of making the new Living Wage a statutory requirement the idea was to encourage those businesses who could afford to pay more to their employees to make the moral choice to do so voluntarily. Since then their campaign has gone nationwide and in 2014 there were already 800 employers who had voluntary signed up to pay the higher Living Wage, including Nestle, Nationwide and Aviva.

The driving force behind this is Citizens UK, an alliance of civil society organisations committed to making a vocation out of community organising. Their professionalism is what is striking when one first encounters their website or reads their 2015 Manifesto. While they do not lack the enthusiasm of activists their goals and strategies for achieving them are meticulously prepared and presented in a cool-headed manner. At the core of what they do is channelling the power of local communities to reach for the common good, which, according to them, can indeed be found despite partisan disagreements and cultural differences. Their intention to work with what community members share in common is reflected in the areas of focus for the coming year – children’s health, social care, as well as employment and training opportunities, most of the intended projects again focusing on reaching cross-party solutions.In addition, their commitment to institutionalise channels of communication between community organisations and the British government indicates that they mean business.

The alliance has received due praise from Michael Sandel, the American political philosopher who has in the past years gained wider popularity through his online edX course on Justice. Sandel commends Citizens UK for creating ‘a sense of civic responsibility’, which in the case of the Living Wage campaign is encouraged not only in local organisers but also among business owners. For Phillip Bond, another philosopher interviewed below by Sandel in a news segment well worth watching, Citizens UK needs to be recognised for their ambition to consider the common good, the universal values of a good life that go beyond the often divisive tactics of contemporary politics.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

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From Nation-states back to City-states

Perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong patient. Instead of looking for remedies to make nation-states more democratic, perhaps we should re-focus on cities as the locus of our political activity?

Benjamin Barber is one of the advocates of such a paradigm shift. In his view cities are the places where most stuff happens. This isn’t anything new given the growing urbanisation levels since the 19th century and the estimates that in low and middle income countries cities will be growing with an unprecedented rate in the next decades. This on its own wouldn’t be that interesting, yet Barber tries to make a bolder point. For him cities are the places where change for the better can be done in a non-partisan way. Because the bulk of what city mayor’s are asked to do does not really involve making moral choices based on our political ideology (unless you are a libertarian who doesn’t support public goods in any form). In addition, there certainly are shared problems, pollution being the most obvious one, where cities could and should learn from one another.

While readers may have some reservations about seizing the opportunity for technocratic rule that cities offer (and it may just be my partisan leanings that suggest this), there are indeed quite a few innovative practices coming from cities which are worth exploring. Another prominent advocate of city power, Michael Bloomberg, has highlighted practices like participatory budgeting, which we have covered before, and bike-sharing, both of which have originated in cities. Institutions like MIT’s Changing Places research hub are focusing exactly on coming up with more effective and greener ways of organising city life, from foldable cars (the project unfortunately seems to have stalled after 2012) to their latest invention RoboWall that aims to make the most use of small living spaces:

(If you are feeling hungry for more techie solutions to urban problems, have a look at this list from Wired – it includes permeable pavements and pothole patrols. Some innovations are somewhat Big Brother-esque though, I’m talking to you Graffiti-busting drones)

Putting robotic walls aside, Barber’s arguments do seem to be gathering support. The already mentioned Bloomberg was able to cut New York City’s carbon footprint by roughly a fifth of its previous volume in a country notorious for political disagreement, to say the least, on whether climate change exists and if something should be done about it. This concentration of power in mayoral positions can go both ways, with mayors having the means to enact ruinous policies, yet mayors like Bloomberg will make the argument that their work comes with greater accountability than for most politicians. Their policies are enacted on a smaller scale with the whole urban community being able to observe the results, while it’s much easier for MPs and Ministers to shirk from being held accountable for long term nation-wide policies that are much harder to keep track of.

The take-away conclusion seems to be that within cities there’s a lot more that can be done in a non-partisan way, even without going as far as giving up on the idea of a nation-state.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Ask the EU

One thing that’s great in the community of e-democracy activists is their openness to sharing their innovations. AsktheEU.org is the result of such willingness to share among citizens in Spain and Britain. It’s a platform for information requests that is the work of a human rights organisation based in Madrid, Access Info Europe, which was created borrowing the idea from mySociety’s British website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. The website provides an efficient way for EU citizens and residents to make information requests from the EU itself. It’s a much needed tool to make the EU more accessible and recent updates to the website have taken the project one step closer to that goal.

In its essence the website facilitates public information requests whereby citizens and residents can exercise their right to ask for documents from EU institutions. This right was established by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 15) and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union(Article 42), and what’s important to note – also non-citizens and non-residents can make information requests but they do not have the right to appeal to courts (yet they can appeal to the EU Ombudsman and challenge initial turndowns). The website helps with locating the right EU institutions for your information request and has done the tricky legal work for you as well – all requests automatically include the necessary phrases so that the requests are processed without issue.

askeu

The recently added features make it easier for civil society to bring attention to their information requests – they can create campaign pages and include a widget on their own website, which can be used to declare interest in a particular request. Just the same, it’s possible to follow requests in campaign pages as can be seen below with a request on contacts with industry lobbies during EU-US trade negotiations (you can also have a look at their short video explaining how to use the main site as well as these new features).

AsktheEU.org is well equipped to create a more informed European public – it stores information requests publicly, helps to avoid repeating the same questions, as well as provides a way how to draw attention to information requests with wider public significance. What remains is for the site to become the central channel through which information requests are made, only then can a truly useful database be created.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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