Dysfunctional Democracy 1.

I’m unconvinced it’s an especially British trend to reject change.  If you look around the so called ‘democracies’ of the world, the vast majority of them operate in the same way as each other, and in the same way as they have done for many years.  As a town councillor I’ve been shocked over the last 3 years by the difference between how we make decisions in the council and in our families and communities.  Politics at too many levels starts with confrontation and looks for a winner, while in the rest of life we constantly seek agreement and compromise.

As many of us move to adopt social media and more instant means of communication, the gap between this and the grind of council activity steeped in ancient rules seems ever greater.  Even the Members of Parliament themselves must surely feel queasy when they see broadcasts of Question Time with two packs of (mostly) men howling at each other, face to face and two sword widths apart?

Yet radical suggestions for a new form of democracy are proving frustratingly slow to be adopted.  There are some really exciting uses of social media and computer technology emerging that could change things forever by allowing members of the public to let their views be known instantly. People can become decision makers all day every day – not just once every four years.  The work of councillors and MPs is to facilitate the changes we need to see, rather than struggle aimlessly with legacy of history?

Increasingly I see the need to close the gap between how councils behave and everyday life as the key issue. The cynicism of voters is perfectly justified as the system increasingly unravels and the chasm between themselves and the decision making process grows. We’ve only just begun to look at this in Frome – I know there is some great experiences out there we need to quickly discover and learn from. We need to close the gap between what people are asking for and what the council provides – I’d love to hear from you about case studies of where you know this is happening.

 

 

About the author

Peter Macfadyen

Social activist recent Mayor and Leader of Frome Town Council, undertaker, international development consultant, new grandfather...

2 Comments

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  • Peter,

    I was struck by the statement on p80 that “people like to be consulted
    regarding broad direction, by being presented with a number of contrasting
    but viable options”. As it happens, I have been developing a participatory
    process that does just this over the last five years. It is called Crowd
    Wise and is a way to help a meeting of 12 to 60 people identify how much
    consensus there is on an issue and where it lies, in the space of 2 – 2.5
    hours. They are provided with a number of possible answers to a question,
    and can add their own. Through discussion, they amend and sometimes merge
    these options. Through voting, they see which options are supported. There
    are two votes, at the start and end, using a particular form of voting,
    called preference voting. There is a series of case studies at
    http://www.crowd-wise.org/Crowd_Wise/Case_Studies.html I recommend
    especially those on AFC Wimbledon and the Fair Trade Foundation. See also
    the case study on the future powers of parish councils in the attachment.

    Although it is a consensus building method, I wouldn’t use it for a question
    like ‘what are the essential ingredients of a successful independent
    council?’ – as per your p107. It’s use is for deciding on a strategy or
    policy.

    Perry Walker (New Economics Foundation)

    • Perry, many thanks for this.
      One of the things Flatpack Democracy was aimed to do was to share and debate ideas – I’ve had so many ideas and links already that I can’t keep up! A number are essentially the search for sound ways of better engaging with more people in making decisions. And in the process turning from regular but rare choices being made in elections, to ongoing conversations and inputs leading to regular and frequent decisions. Of course there will be no one answer – rather the further building up of a collection of methods. In this I am greatly excited by some open source software developments, and also in increasingly tested methodologies like Crowd Wise.
      So far I have looked at some of the case studies and – unless I have got this wrong – Crowd Wise strikes me as really valuable in being a way of pushing consensus towards its softer end. By this I mean that ‘hard core’ consensus involves total agreement by all….. and the softer end would be where an acceptable resolution is reached where there is buy in by all. I’ll have a better look at the website and more case studies, but thanks a lot for taking me in this direction.
      What this growing package of options will then need is skilled facilitators able to draw from a wide range – rather than just have expertise in one methodology. And more councils with staff or community people able to fulfil this role.

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