Technology’s Role In Direct Democracy

Editor’s note: Michael Papay is CEO and co-founder, along with David Timby, of Waggl, a communication tool designed to source input and create engagement with audiences one question at a time.

An influx of communication and collaboration technologies since the beginning of the 21st century has helped to make this the most connected time in human history — and seemingly easier than ever for society to work together. Yet, where is the political yield?

Midterm elections are coming up. Stakes are high and there are big problems in need of solutions; it’s time that politicians stop talking and start listening. We’ve created a 24-hour news cycle, an Autobahn for political-party sound bites and a bully-pulpit for elected officials across state, local and federal levels. There’s not much constructive debate, and political gridlock has become the norm.

Labor productivity – mostly in the service sector – has exceeded 3 percent growth per year since 2000 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). The enterprise has been quick to adopt technologies such as Skype, Citrix, Yammer and Asana to communicate and collaborate, creating arguably the most valuable companies and innovative products ever produced.

Transparency is also on the rise with companies like LinkedIn and Glassdoor leading the way. Employers and employees increasingly know more about each other and are landing on important business decisions faster, leading to better employment matches, productivity and profitability. The stock market is at an all-time high and amazing startups are born daily.

On the consumer side, companies like Amazon can deliver what we need the next day at the lowest price. Want it sooner? Google and their Shopping Express does it within a few hours in the San Francisco Bay Area. Don’t live in San Francisco? See who does it best on Yelp and hire TaskRabbit to go get it for you.

Now, if only politicians could be as nimble and effective.

Lady Liberty Be Nimble?

Self-interest and preservation are baked into our political system. There’s not much incentive for elected officials to go out on a limb and propose novel solutions to the most pressing problems. The status quo keeps them employed and simple majorities ensure we don’t stray too far from center.

The key to solving problems though is this: seek a diversity of options, encourage a free exchange and competition of ideas and use an efficient mechanism/technology platform to narrow the choices until one – the best – remains – then rally around the decision and act cohesively.

All too often, after a vigorous debate and an agreement is reached, half of elected officials and their electorate continue to advocate for their point of view. Perhaps we just need a better mechanism/technology platform for people to engage and participate in the direction of our country. A system that not only helps leaders source the best ideas but also taps into the true sentiment of their constituents … a technology-driven direct democracy.

Forms of direct democracies do exist today. Voters can approve or reject laws passed by elected officials, remove representatives from office and even propose and/or pass laws. California adopted a modern direct democracy in 1911. South Dakota did it in 1898. Utah, Oregon, Montana and Oklahoma are other examples. Are they direct enough, though? Even the “directest” of democracies – California – still needs formal elections to capture the voice of the people. Perhaps that’s why voter engagement is so low? People’s energy around important issues is not timed with their opportunity to participate in doing something about them.

Imagine a real-time technology driven democratic process – similar to town hall meetings – where everyone is invited to participate when the issues are most poignant. Leaders facilitate decisions instead of exerting their influence and the solutions are as diverse as the population that serves them up. Debate is transparent and contributes to knowledge growth. There are no headstrong people who stubbornly lobby for their point of view despite diminishing favor. And once a quorum is reached, everyone aligns around the decision and moves with speed as a cohesive group.

Political Precedent

Some of our elected leaders have already started using 21st century technologies to create consistent and engaging conversation and involve their constituents on a daily basis.

Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California, has over 1.2 million Twitter followers and outlines in his book Citizenville how Americans can transform their government by taking matters into their own hands to dissolve political gridlock. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a big proponent of net neutrality, has hosted an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit to stay on the pulse and better align with the people on key issues. Barack Obama practically won the presidency in 2008 by using social media to connect his campaign to the emotional pulse of the electorate.

Never before, in the history of time, has our ability to collaborate and communicate on a massive scale been so achievable. The time seems ripe for broader adoption of technology to make this type of direct democracy a more formal part of the process.