Archive for May, 2010

Close to a Crash

May 30, 2010

The first year with Demoex in the politics was not only a success. One thing made me extra worried. The company Vivarto that made our democracy forum had economical problems. The programmer wasn´t paid in time so he did no work and the system became unstable. Reliability fell and sometimes we couldn´t access the site. Some members couldn´t vote in a City Council meeting because of the problems, which was almost a disaster.

vivarto

I felt a strong loyalty with Mikael Nordfors, the founder of Vivarto. He inspired us with a radically different way of thinking and sponsored us in the election campaign. Without Mikael Nordfors, no Demoex. But without a stable democracy forum, we could not work!

But there was an alternative. Another company, Membro, delivered the same services with another program. They offered us to tryout their democracy forum for a free evaluation. We used both the forums for three months to compare. Then we voted on which we would continue with and Membro won. Shortly afterwards the entire database in the old system crashed, so it felt like we made the right decision in the last minute.

The Trap

May 25, 2010

At one point Demoex endured much criticism from the other parties. Our representative asked for reconsideration of an issue despite the fact that a clear majority had voted for the proposal on the website. The question was about whether the municipality would build a McDonald’s restaurant and a Lidl store next to the high school? When two or more issues merges into one, the number of possible answers reduces. This semantic trap is a trick often seen in politics. “Do you want to stay alive and give me all your money?” If you are forced to answer yes or no, then you will make at least one bad decision.

lidl&donken

When Demoex was new so the system had some childhood deceases. Initially the option to ask for reconsideration did not exist. We could only vote yes or no. A clear majority voted in favor of the Lidl + McDonald’s trap. The debate participants had scored the for- and counterarguments. The strongest for-argument wanted a Lidl store but was reluctant to McDonald’s, and the strongest counter-argument was against McDonald’s only. The trap forced us to vote either for or against both, which did not correspond with the members intentions, as we interpreted it.

Therefore we sought to recall the case, demanding that the issues would be dealt with separately. After this departure from our principles, we proposed a motion to separate the issues on the political agenda. To bake up several issues in the same case is to cut our options and thereby to diminish our democratic power. The council finally said yes to this motion. We also changed our constitution and gave the representative the right to insist on reconsideration to avoid similar situations in future.

Officialese

May 20, 2010

Demoex tries to make it easy to take part in politics, so we fight against the subtle mechanisms to keep people away.

One is an excessively formal language difficult to understand. First summons consisted of a lot of issues written in officialese. Untrained we did not even understand what some issues was about. “Municipal debits levy for the 2003 season.” Do they mean tax increase?

Officialese is often used to conceal or deceive readers. An inconvenient increase or decrease is called an “adjustment amount”. Statistic is misused, arguments are distorted, references to Authorities are used to legitimize decisions and important information is being withheld. This is crucial and calls for a language reform. Democracy presupposes that we understand the political language.

Information Overload

May 16, 2010

One way to avoid debate in the City Council is to gather a lot of important issues to a single meeting. Then the summons come with several hundred pages of appendices that none of the opponents have time to read. Information Overload is a result of centralized government. The leading politicians plan the democratic workflow. They could spread information over time. If they wanted to.

The City Council’s meeting  in April 2010 was canceled. The official reason was that the issues where too few. My opinion is, that this was a poor excuse to avoid discussion. It is not the number of cases that matters, but their magnitude and complexity. The next council meeting will among other issues include the gigantic decision on Municipality Master Plan 2010-2030.

The Master Plan 2010-2030 is a single file, with the size of a book. Together with the EIS, the appendix alone in this particular issue measures over 130 pages. We will consider how Vallentuna will develop over the next 20 years – with roads, water, forests, transportation, housing – everything. Now, along with this issue come another eleven issues in May. We have more than 500 pages to read and discuss when spring is in its bloom and the will to debate is zero.

Why could we not devote the entire meeting in April to the municipality’s future in the next 20 years. Is three hours too long time?

Iterated Voting Harms the Democracy

May 14, 2010

By iterated voting I mean voting on the same issue in more than one session. Iterated voting is a loophole in the democratic system, so it aims for a reform. The majority decision fails if people are voting several times in the same issue, as shown in the theoretical example below. The majority convince the minority to join their opinion in the next session, and the result is that a minority can win influence. Manipulation is not that obvious in practice, but it exist in every political council because people can do it.

iterated-voting

When Bill Clinton was asked why he had an affair with miss Lewinsky at last he told the truth: “Because I could”. One source of political corruption and power abuse is that we realize a possibility when is shows up. Humanity works this way, that’s why we must try to construct a democratic system with rules impossible to manipulate and misuse.

The Popularly Elected Assembly is Powerless

May 13, 2010

In 2002, Demoex took a seat in the City Council in Vallentuna. It is the only popularly elected assembly in the municipality. It is envisaged that all major decisions will be taken there. One thing we quickly discovered was that Carl Schmitt was right in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. The elected assembly is quite powerless. With a few exceptions the decisions are predetermined from the board.

Many Vikings lived in Vallentuna 1000 years ago. The City Council meeting outdoor on the picture is in an old Viking court named “Arkils Tingstad”. It may look idyllic, but it also veils that the City Council meeting is more of a ritual ceremony than a living parliament.

All issues are prepared by the Executive Council Board where only the leading politicians have a seat. They recommend the City Council to say Yes or No, and the representatives who dares to oppose them will not stay long in the party. The City Council is a  formality that the leading politicians want to finish as quickly as possible. They have already decided what to think. It is inconceivable for them to change their mind because of the debate in the City Council. They perceive debating as waste of time, and debaters who make longer speech are met by coughing and irritation because they prolong the meeting.

The Debate

May 12, 2010

When Demoex entered the City Council so the political debate in our local newspaper took on a new lease of life. In 2003 Hans Strandin from the Swedish Social Democratic Party and I discussed the forms of democracy. Strandin defended electoral democracy while I argued for the Demoex model:

debate-per-hans

Strandin:
The main benefit of parties and general elections is that all voters can influence policy both through involvement in political parties and take part in elections.

Norbäck:
It can also be included among direct democracy – and also you can vote on the substantive issues between elections.

Strandin:
In the party system all who wants can involve in shaping policies which political parties stand for. If you do not have time to cope so at least every four years you can choose between parties that will present a program which shows which direction you want to drive development.

Norbäck:
We do not remove this possibility, only supplement it. Demoex also enables to vote more often – even on the substantive issues between the elections.

Strandin:
With party system voters can influence what kind of society we want. If you choose Demoex you have no idea.

Norbäck:
Well, if you want a society with more democracy you can vote for Demoex!

Strandin:
Demoex policy is unpredictable. You know nothing about the members who vote in your Internet voting.

Norbäck:
No we don’t know, because we don’t register the members voting. It’s a secret, just as in the general election. But average people ain’t that stupid, thats why democracy works – and we trust in it.

Strandin:
You are standing on an impossible combination of representative democracy and direct democracy.

Norbäck:
You use the word impossible wrong. We prove that the combination is possible.

Strandin:
Genuine direct democracy means no City Council and no general election. Then all the issues goes to citizen voting. It is too much to demand. I don’t think for a moment this is possible.

Norbäck:
Firstly, we want to mix the representative and direct democracy. Secondly, during the election campaign, voters are drowning in information. To be familiar with all the party platforms and candidate campaigns both in heads of state, county and municipal elections every fourth year is too much to demand. Then it is better to spread the information throughout the term of office, we think.

Strandin:
Direct democracy would require that all citizens invested much time and effort to become acquainted with, and form an opinion in every single substantive point, and then all would need to vote at least 10 times a month.

Norbäck:
Demoex make no demands. We just want to give opportunities for those interested in political issues to have a direct voice.

Strandin:
In addition you need access to computers and the Internet and be able to express himself well in writing.

Norbäck:
70 percent of the population have access to Internet today, and it just gets more. And Demoex is definitely nothing to hold on linguistic swank. Our language is different from the usual role models in politics and administration. We cut the office language and the rhetoric to refine the arguments. Incidentally, there is no need to express himself at all, to read and press a button is enough.

Strandin:
If this is going be the “democracy” so few will guide the development without being elected by anyone.

Norbäck:
If Demoex would have a strong influence, we would probably get a lot of members…

Strandin:
You are about 50 of 25 000 inhabitants. Even if you get a little better, you obviously can not claim to be representative for them all.

Norbäck:
Of course not, but our sample of the population is probably more representative than other parties, because Demoex consists of people with different ideologies and interests.

Strandin:
The idea of direct democracy is not new. A number of extreme socialist parties in particular during the 60’s and 70’s tried it. We were against it then as well as now.

Norbäck:
It’s embarrassing to have to say it, but central forces in your own party would like to see participatory democracy.

Strandin:
In the 70’s you would have big meetings where a few loud persons could dominate without having received any mandate from anybody. The difference between them and you is that there was no internet so they had to meet.

Norbäck:
You are making an association fallacy. The difference between oral and written debate is huge! We can not overpower each other in writing. The content is in focus on the written debate, while the speaker is in focus at oral. You cannot run with fatigue tactics in writing. (Hope that someone will bother to read this dialogue, although it is long! We are talking about important issues.)

Strandin:
The Democratic problem is the same in Demoex as with them. We fought them because we wanted to protect everyone’s equal right to influence. We did not want oligarchy.

Norbäck:
All the big parties suffer from the iron law of oligarchy according to Robert Michels. We don’t have equal right to influence in politics. Me and other non-elected are not in the same power as you and other party leaders.

Strandin:
I am concerned that you as a teacher of Social Studies give evidence on a foggy idea of what democracy is and how it can work in practice. If you do not have a better analysis in your teacher’s offense so I think the school management should look at what you teach.

Norbäck:
I think it’s sad that you as a leading politician slanders a citizen who dares to disagree with you – without any objective justification. If I were just as irrelevant, I could ask how you can have a driving licence? Do you think we should have this level of democratic debate? I do not. You are certainly an excellent driver, but be sure to know the facts before you write a letter to the editor. I am, moreover, not teaching the Civics, but the Philosophy. You are welcome to visit a lesson in argumentation analysis!

Strandin:
I beg your pardon for that. You run the thesis that a few people control the politics and that all members are voting the same way as party leader. But those few who are leading the parties have presented their policy in detail in the election campaign.

Norbäck:
Yes, but we don’t know how they will vote in every single point. Moreover, not all the substantive issues raised in the council of the ideological nature. What does the socialist ideology say of refreshing the Municipality House in example?

Strandin:
Well, we will meet and discuss, and agree on what view to have. The party leader is only a spokesperson. The difference between us and you is that we meet in person and talk to each other and you send messages on the Internet. The personal meeting is, in my view, essential for democracy.

Norbäck:
In my opinion, it is more important for democracy that people have the right to vote, than to meet people in person.

Strandin:
The main difference is that our members still gather before the election and make a program that we present to the voters. It gives the voters a choice.

Norbäck:
Demoex gives voters the opportunity to choose 400 times during a term. Ain’t that a better choice than to have a few view packages to choose from?

Experiences from the practical work

May 10, 2010

Demoex was a new political concept in Sweden – a debut for digital Direct Democracy. From the beginning we experienced a hype. Our concept worked to our great relief. When Parisa Molagholi went up on the podium at the City Council meeting for the first time and argued against the proposal for a sharp rise in political fees, so she spoke against her own interest. She was given a spontaneous round of applause from the visitors that made the Council shiver for a second and so the question went back on remise. We couldn’t have had a better start.

parisa_tal

After a few months we began to find its feet. People saw the new voice in the local politics as positive. Even if we only had one mandate so we influenced other parties indirectly. News of Demoex spread via Internet and the website got visitors from countries like the USA, Czech Republic, Brazil, Israel, Egypt and Taiwan etc.

The whole world was longing for a successful joint projects as a counterweight to the dominant individualism. The idea of creating an international organization for Direct Democratic Voting has been alive for a long time. Many visitors encouraged us to work Internationally, while others suggested that we should start a National organization in Sweden. Ourselves, we tried to focus on making it work in practice foremost. It wasn’t that easy. We got the feeling that the ruling parties wanted to bust us. We quickly became aware that politics is no clean and honest game.

Our first self-imposed task was to expose the undemocratic mechanisms and personal harassment in the Council that made many elected to drop out. When our first exercise was debated Parisa forgot to press for approval. Councilor asked insidiously if she insisted on approval? Parisa said no. “Since we have only one proposal, the motion is rejected,” he said, and passed the denial. Our answer was to tell about the ugly trick in the local newspaper, and he responded. We debated the forms of Democracy in our local newspaper Vallentuna Steget in a way that few major newspapers do.

Nash equilibrium in politics

May 8, 2010

Demoex was designed to investigate what happens if the political debate is open on the Internet and all citizens that wish may take part and vote. The prerequisite was that the politicians would cooperate and participate. But they did not.

The politics in Vallentuna can be characterized by the Nash equilibrium. It is a game theoretical state named after Nobel Prize winner John F. Nash Jr, which means that no player has anything to gain by changing strategy alone. They must do it together with others to gain on the strategy shift.

Nash equilibrium occurs when all the players know how the others play. If each player has chosen a game strategy, and nobody benefits from changing strategy if the other continues with their strategies, so the sum of all strategic choices forms a Nash equilibrium. I would say it is normal in political assemblies where representatives follow the party line.

The political system prevented the politicians from participating in the democracy experiment. If only one politician joins the experiment, so there will be no debate on the web. A good debate needs separate views. Any politician who chooses to join the experiment takes the risk of being ostracized by the party friends.

Arguments for other parties to join

May 8, 2010

We had to try to get all parties to join the democracy experiment to work as intended, but how would it go? If they just got the arguments presented, the representatives should realize the value of cooperating, we thought. Therefore, we wrote personal letters to everyone in the City Court. We asked them to take part in the experiment for four reasons: For the sake of the Voters’, for your Own sake, for your Party’s sake and especially for the sake of Democracy.

For Voters’ sake
We vote for parties, but even for candidates in Sweden. If the voters will know whom to vote for, so they have to compare politicians’ views with each other. It cannot be wrong to make the comparison easier by debating with each other online. Because your decisions affect the voters, they should also have a right to know why you take your decisions. We need a public debate not only in the election campaign but in the context of all political issues.

For your Own sake
If you are not really familiar with all the issues so you can quickly build up a picture by reading other people’s contributions to the debate. It is instructive to read the arguments instead of listening to them. The arguments are clearly in writing, which means that bad arguments are easier to analyze and thus see through. This will rise the debate quality. There will be more time to think over the decisions. Imagine a council meeting in written form on the internet. It lasts for a week and you can visit it when you have time. You are not left alone with big bunches of paperwork. We help each other to find the relevant and reliable arguments.

For the sake of your Party

Your party has good reasons to win political sympathies. Parties often talks about "reaching the voters", and the experiment is a chance for your party to win respect and confidence of the public.  The voters will vote tactically. If they want to influence policy as much as possible, they vote for "their" party in the election and joins the experiment to vote the same way there. Then they can affects both the mandatory distribution and the independent mandate in the "right direction".

For the sake of Democracy
In all experiments the outcome is uncertain. It may seem dangerous to experiment with democracy, but the purpose is to enhance democracy and not to damage it. An experiment designed to increase interest in policy – how can it be wrong? We are moving towards ever lower voter turnout and less political involvement among young people. That is a dangerous development.

One concern is that the democracy experiment may create a gap between people and elected representatives. To prevent this, you should join and debate! Then the experiment may create new trust between you and your voters instead. If you join the experiment, you also receive a good insight into how it works. You become aware of any deficiencies and can come up with a devastating critique. If the experiment works poorly, so it will close. Then at least we have tried!