Why aren’t we digitally transforming democracy? 

This post was written in Greece, the birthplace of democracy. It’s based on observing the workings of government during my time as a senior civil servant in the UK (Feb 2014-Jul 2016); wondering what the error rate must have been on the processing of millions of ballot papers during the 2015 General Election and 2016 referendum (2%? 4%?); and thinking about the opportunities presented by the Brexit vote. A health warning: I’m just an interested amateur, there are others far better informed than me.

The Government Digital Service is leading the digital transformation of the UK government. It’s great– a bold and unashamed leader of change. But does it go far enough? From what I have seen, there’s great front-end work, but not yet enough of the back-end heavy lifting– the deep business process re-engineering that digital transformation is about. For example, the digital voter registration service doesn’t actually register you; it just sends your application to your local Electoral Registration Office to be processed as it always was. As Prof Weerakkody pointed out, GDS is focused on the operational side of government – how services are delivered to citizens/users– so who’s looking at the digital transformation of the rest of government?

A few examples of how old-school the workings of government are. How ministers communicate: they write letters on headed notepaper,add scanned hand-written signatures, and then email the PDFs to each other. How Parliament works: it recently voted to keep writing legislation down on goat skin, rather than moving to paper –perish the thought of just publishing it digitally.  Mobile working? Maybe not, since MPs are up in arms about the idea of having to relocate whilst the Houses of Parliament are renovated at a cost of £5.7bn.  Shared services? Maybe not, as the Lords won’t even share a canteen with the Common(er)s.  I am sure the Parliamentary Digital Service is battling valiantly to make progress – it’s got to be an uphill struggle.

There are a few more positive signs of genuine digital transformation of democracy, such as e-petitions, opening up a new means of communication between citizens and government. E-petitions are good, but this is tinkering around the edges – understandably, because all these institutions (the civil service, Parliament, political parties) are very good at self-preservation through resistance to change. With legislation set like concrete around the vested interests.

Estonia is often cited as an example of good digital government
They had a great opportunity to design a digital government– because they were starting from scratch after their exit from the Soviet Union.  Designing a process to work digitally from Day 1 is easier than transforming a long-standing non-digital process.

Digital transformation starts with looking at key business processes, and how they can be done better (cheaper, faster, more accurately) using modern tools and techniques. Let’s pick one of the key processes in democracy: voting. How could we do that better?

The voting process

To vote, you potter along to a local community centre, past a big paper “polling station” sign. Inside, you’re greeted by teams of workers drafted in specially for the event, who manually cross your name off a list on a clipboard; hand you assorted pieces of paper, which you mark with a pencil and stuff into a makeshift metal/wooden/plastic box. nswballotThe boxes are driven to a sports hall somewhere, where more temporary workers rush around piling up ballot papers on trestle tables. The process could not be more non-digital.  Even Parliament has said we need to be able to vote digitally by the 2020 general election.

A good part of the ceremony and drama of elections derives from the manual nature and inefficiency of the process: from the need for exit polls, to the “race to be the first to report” results, to staying up all night as “the results come in”, to Swing-O-Meters, to hanging chads.

Even limited attempts to use more modern tools and techniques in the voting process are regarded with suspicion. For example, the “electronic counting machines”which scanned in paper votes in the recent London Mayoral election. This was a partial process re-engineering– always tricky, with glitches: cue Luddite cries of “we told you to stick to pencil and paper.”

Change-resisters will often pick holes in a proposed digital process, and cite lack of perfection as a reason for sticking with the status quo.  “What if it crashes?” What if it is hacked?” “We can’t change unless it is perfect.”  This ignores the facts:

  • Manual handling means higher error rates (lost ballot papers/boxes; miscounting)
  • Capturing data from paper means higher error rates (OCR or keying)
  • There is a risk of fraud in a paper process just as there is in a digital process; and electoral fraud comes in many shapes and sizes
  • Computers can count faster and more accurately than people
  • There is more risk of error when people are rushing

Why don’t we count it as a “system crash” when a Returning Officer orders a recount of manual ballot papers? In a world where we conduct our lives online– and trust the integrity of the online services we use – why is voting a special case, where the old ways are sacrosanct, which cannot be digitised?

It’s not like we’d need to build a digital voting service– there are options out there already in use around the world. And no-one seriously thinks that paper ballots are working brilliantly.

If voting was done online, and via mobile devices, we would save tens of millions of pounds: a paper election costs £85m to administer. We’d also be making the process much easier for citizens and those running the election.  Easier and cheaper means that, potentially, we could do it more often.

At the moment, under our supposed system of representative democracy, citizens elect a local MP for five years, based on a manifesto; a government is appointed from the ranks of MPs; and the ministers in the government instruct the public services (civil and military) what to do. Sovereignty flows from citizens to MPs to government to be implemented by the public services.  What are the odds that manifesto commitments remain valid for five years, in a fast-changing world of economic, political and technological development?

Representative vs direct democracy

Five year cycles and representative democracy isn’t how democracy started in Greece. atheniandemocracyThe Greeks had direct democracy: the citizens voted directly on policy initiatives, rather than giving power to a small group of representatives. Since the eighteenth century, conventional wisdom is that,whilst direct democracy was fine in a small city-state, it wasn’t practical in a nation of tens or hundreds of millions of citizens. During the time of, for example,the French Revolution, there was no effective means for each citizen, over a large geography,to have their say on every major decision a government needed to take. So, instead, the many (citizens) nominated the few (MPs) to take decisions on their behalf.

Does the UK really have a representative democracy – an assembly of the few? Nominally, we’re a monarchy – that is, sovereignty vested in one person’s hands – but that sovereignty is circumscribed, so we look like a lot more like a representative democracy, where sovereignty derives from the people and is vested in an assembly of the few. But, there’s another type of national governance – aristocracy – that is, a ruling class.

In Greece, the aristocracy originally meant the brave soldiers who led their troops from the front. People who put their money where their mouth is. The aristocracy evolved to be more about the hereditary principle – and then evolved further to be more about grace and favour than brave, noble warriors.  Doesn’t the UK have more power vested in a ruling class than in the monarch or the people? A ruling class who put their mouth where the money is.  And if so, doesn’t the UK operate more like an aristocracy than a democracy or a monarchy?  Whilst the word “aristocracy” sits uncomfortably with us, isn’t the reality that our free, democratic, western society is governed by a ruling class – the Establishment? That term is so toxic, that in classic doublespeak, the current US presidential candidates all define themselves as anti-establishment.

If we think “a ruling class that won’t admit it” is a bad thing, is there now a way to get closer to pure democracy – direct democracy, based on popular sovereignty – an assembly of the many?

Digital direct democracy

The Internet enables billions of people across the globe to communicate instantaneously. It’s now practical for citizens to have their say directly. E-petitions is a tiny step towards citizens having their say, often and online. By digitising the voting process – just one process in democracy – could we start to unlock digital transformation of our democracy?

Digital transformation is often about disintermediation. disintermediationThe delegation of authority in our nominal representative democracy is citizens->MP-> minister-> public servant.Why do we need the intermediate layers of MPs and ministers, if there’s a cheap, fast and accurate means for citizens to vote online? In business process re-engineering, the less hand-offs the better – the less scope for inefficiency, delays and confusion. Have the people directly tell the public servants what to do.

A scary thought? Not when you see that Switzerland’s had 131 referenda since the turn of the century and they don’t appear to be lurching from political crisis to economic disaster to knee-jerk populism.

Arguably,the “Brexit regret” syndrome we saw in the UK in late June is because we’re not used to our votes counting. We’re used to elections as drama and sideshow; disenfranchised citizens giving the ruling class a bloody nose; voting based on personality and sound bites. Our mature, western democracy seems quite immature really. Voting more often, connected more directly to the execution of those decisions, could change that.

swissreferendumSo why not a Swiss model, with frequent referenda for key decisions, all conducted online?

Professional civil service

If we did make the leap to digital direct democracy – what would it look like? There would be no MPs, no ministers, no Lords, no Houses of Parliament. Wouldn’t this mean an effective dictatorship by the heads of the public services (the departmental Permanent Secretaries, the armed forces Generals, the NHS leaders, etc.)?

There are lessons here in the corporate governance of large companies. The civil service runs a bit like a business already and those corporate titles and structures are more or less there already. The Cabinet Office = head office. Perm Secs = CEOs.  There is a C-suite in each department.  But the current set-up differs from the corporate sector in one key way.   Some civil servants, in my experience, do have the Sir Humphrey sense of permanence – governments come and go, we remain – jobs for life. Corporate leaders know they live and die by results, which is a good thing.  Under a new corporatised government, we would need to avoid concentrations of power: public servants (particularly at a senior level, but why not throughout?) would all be on fixed term contracts of 3 years’ maximum. GDS already do this quite a lot, and it is a good thing, that should be applied everywhere in the civil service.

Importantly, this change to the civil service contract would reflect the modern world–where workers now have many employers/jobs over a career. It would enable greater cross-fertilisation between the private and public sectors, greater skills transfer, and better accountability.

So, if the citizens are voting directly on major policy decisions; and the civil servants are corporatised; is that it?  What else do we need?

House of Representatives 

Under this imaginary digital direct democracy, we would need a House of Representatives to do the job that boards of directors do in large corporations. Setting strategic direction on advisement from shareholders/citizens; monitoring executive performance; oversight and scrutiny.  And, a side note, “House of Representatives” seems a bit more descriptive and respectful than “House of Common(er)s.”

Boards include non-executive directors. Strangely, there are thousands of NEDs already in the UK government. According to GOV.UK, there are 355 departments in central government – each with its own board and NEDs. Add in the NHS trusts, local government, and more. It must cost a fortune, and,weirdly, duplicates the role of both Parliament (such as, scrutiny via the Public Accounts Committee) and ministers (who set strategic direction).

The new House of Representatives would act as a large board, overseeing all public bodies – from the Bank of England to NHS trusts to the corporatised civil service.The House would formulate the wording of referenda questions; make decisions on how to implement the will of the people expressed in those referenda; and monitor the effectiveness of the public services in operational delivery.

Could the House of Representatives be concentrating power in the hands of the few again? After all, formulating the wording of a referendum can strongly influence the decision the people take (see John Howard).  And wouldn’t we just be electing these Representatives as we do now?

Fortunately there are answers in the legal system and corporate world.

Selection not election

Trial by jury is recognised as the fairest means of justice for citizens.  Why can’t our Representatives be selected in the same way that jurors are selected?  In other words, you don’t volunteer, you are volunteered. Serving as a juror is a social duty and public service– why not the same model for Representatives? You serve for a fixed term of, say, a year and then can’t be called again for another, say, 10 years. The obvious challenge is: what if we randomly pick people who aren’t up to the job or whose views we don’t like? Please take a look at the Houses of Parliament now – the same concerns apply. We could apply the same type of juror selection rules that already work well in the legal system.

As a side benefit, moving to this model solves the long-standing “snouts in the trough”/expenses/pay problem with our current Parliament. Representatives need receive no additional remuneration –we just compensate their employer for their salary, or continue to pay their benefits.

The corporate world gives us a refinement to the means of selecting Representatives.  Jury selection is random, based on the electoral register. We now have market research methodologies which enable us to pick representative samples in a far more sophisticated way.

Overall, we have 1 MP per 100,000 citizens, segmented by geographic boundaries. That hides major discrepancies – so the MP for Isle of Wight represents 108,804 electors whereas the MP for Na h-EileanananIar in Scotland represents 21,769 electors (Wikipedia).

More fundamentally, why is the idea of representation tied exclusively to geography? Why not select a representative sample based on a broad range of criteria? Those diverse criteria could include: age, gender, socio-economic group,religion – or even all the characteristics we protect under the Equality Act. Surely such a House of Representatives would feel more representative than a House of Commons where 26% of MPs went to Oxbridge and a Cabinet stacked with Old Etonians?

Digital direct democracy

Summing up, digitisation of the voting process enables a move to more frequent referenda. In turn, this enables disintermediation of MPs and ministers, replaced by a new non-executive House of Representatives, selected to be truly representative. It’s a more modern democracy, unshackled from the eighteenth century.  It’s fairer – citizens genuinely get a say.

How much money would it save?

If digital transformation is about doing things better and cheaper, how much cheaper would this fictional new model be?  It’s difficult to say, but here are some figures to take aim at: the cost of a pencil-and-paper election =£85m; the annual running cost of the Houses of Parliament =£229m; the renovation cost for Parliament = £5.7bn. How much more efficient would the civil service be without ministerial changes of tack and an arbitrary 5 year cycle?  The civil service administration budget is£11.7bn(just 1.7% percentage of total spend); based on my experience, at least half of that is wasted on inefficiency and politicking; so a potential saving of £5.8bn per year.

Could it happen?

It’s a flight of fancy to think this could happen – there are too many vested interests and too much institutional inertia. The civil service is very effective in its resistance to change and closed mindset.pieinthesky Parliament won’t even contemplate leaving the crumbling Palace of Westminster or moving away from legislation written on goat skin.  Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. And, even if it could happen, it would be the biggest project ever undertaken in the UK – changing hundreds of years of “how we do things round here” in a country with a strong respect for tradition.

But Parliament did say there should be digital voting in the 2020 general election. Citizens did just use a referendum to do something inconceivable and vote to leave the European Union.

Leaving the EU brings us full circle back to Estonia, which was able to become an exemplar of digital government, because of the clean slate presented by their exit from the Soviet Union.  Is the UK’s exit from the European Union our Estonian moment– our opportunity to lead the world by creating a digital direct democracy?

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