The Essay: System error

Parliamentary democracy was invented in the days of the horse and cart, and perfected during the steam age. In a world of ATMs and the Internet, isn't it time governments found a new way to let the people decide, asks Richard Askwith

In a shabby old house in one of the shabbier streets on the north side of Cambridge lives a shabby old man who thinks his time has come. His name is Fred Allen, and he is 63 years old.

You can tell at a glance that he is a failed inventor. From his long grey beard and glittering eye to his stained clothes and the mountain range of electronic junk blocking his front room, he is unmistakably a man lost in theoretical rapture; and a man who has not had the best of luck in life.

Despite a piercing mind that earned him two degrees, the friendship of many leading academics and innumerable entries in directories of inventions during the Sixties and Seventies, Fred Allen has spent most of his life unemployed, his professional ruminations on what might be increasingly interrupted by reflections on what might have been.

But Fred Allen does have one claim to immortality - for this is the man who invented the first principles of the cashpoint machine.

More than 40 years on, Allen still beams delightedly at the simple beauty of the idea. "All it really comes down to is that you have to have two numbers, both unique to the user: one on the card, the other memorised by the user," he explains briskly, like Q briefing James Bond. "Each is useless without the other, and the chances of both numbers being guessed by an outsider are infinitesimal."

ATMs - automated telling machines - have had billions of pounds dispensed and earned from them since. But Allen hasn't made a penny from their success. "I wrote to everyone I could think of and received brush-offs, as you always do. I'm not sure if I could have patented it, but even if I had, the patent would have expired before it was developed commercially. In 1956, the idea was thought to be totally ridiculous."

The other drawback was that it never occurred to him that such machines could be used for dispensing cash.

"I thought it would be a voting machine. It was the time of Suez, and what started me off was thinking that if people had had a chance to vote on the decision of whether to invade Suez or not, we wouldn't have done it. But no one had a chance to vote on it."

The idea of such a vote was absurd then. It isn't now.

Forty-three years after the Suez crisis, and roughly 48 hours after my meeting with Fred Allen, I'm sitting at my desk at home advising the Government on European Monetary Union. I don't know anything about EMU. But my computer has led me to the website of UK Citizens Online Democracy, and it seems a shame not to take advantage of this opportunity.

So I post a fairly meaningless message about parallel currencies (don't ask me what they are) and, while I'm waiting for it to appear on the site among the other public discussion messages, I realise that I'm in the early stages of web page rage. I've been on-line for nearly an hour, most of it at this particular page. I've waited for 56 postings to make their weary way on to my screen and, in most cases, have been rewarded with ramblings that would have been lucky to make it to the letters page of a local newspaper. I've glanced at the "invited discussion" and the links to half a lifetime's worth of EMU background information, but I've still got eight other topics to work my way through and I'm beginning to worry about my phone bill and about all the more productive things I could be doing with my time. It's also occurred to me that none of this is going to make the blindest iota of difference to Britain's future relationship with Europe. I disconnect abruptly, with a self-disgust that reminds me of addiction; and then, almost immediately, connect again. A thought has occurred to me.

In the all-too-familiar pause while the modem does its ritual dance, I try to think away my rage. Is frequent anger a sign of approaching middle age? Anger about politics certainly is. What were once the irrelevant antics of alien grown-ups eventually become outrages perpetrated by your contemporaries. The specific irritants vary - mine include the Kosovo shambles, freedom of information and closed lists in Euro elections - but the resulting symptom is common to millions: the dumb rage of impotence. Everything our government does it does in my name, yet what say have I ever had? One vote in five years, for a choice of scarcely distinguishable bands of disingenuous careerists. What kind of choice is that?

Which brings me to my thought. Our current way of doing politics was developed in the age of the horse and cart and perfected in the age of the steam train. Every other sphere of human activity is now being turned upside down by the Internet, what about politics?

Taking up my previous train of electronic inquiry a few stops before the point where I abandoned it, I hurtle through a tunnel of links that takes me around the connected world in roughly 80 minutes. My journey includes visits to the websites of such organisations as the US-based Teledemocracy Action News & Network, the Swiss-based Campaign for Direct Democracy and the German-based Democr@cy Forum. By the time I disconnect, feeling surfeited but strangely elated, a startlingly obvious conclusion has penetrated my consciousness. The revolution has already begun.

All over the Western world, "initiatives" are sprouting, giving experimental substance to the idea of direct, electronic democracy. Stick a pin in a map anywhere from Honolulu to Helsinki and, if you avoid the sea, you're as likely as not to pierce a place where politicians, think-tanks or concerned citizens have been attempting to harness the new communications technologies for the benefit of democratic government.

Usually, the names of the experiments give you the gist: Minnesota E- democracy, the New Zealand Televote project, Project Pericles in Athens (whereby citizens can use computers in street kiosks to access information about public policy, lobby politicians and register votes on specific issues), Bologna's IperBolE system (a network of computers and ATM-like devices through which the Bolognese can access municipal services, e-mail their representatives, deliberate and, in theory, vote); the DecisionMaker/ Teledemocracy project in the Netherlands (which will allow Dutch voters to deliberate and vote digitally on specific issues, with the option of "trusting" their votes to parties or other individuals); the EU-wide CityCard project (a less ambitious version of IperBolE, currently on trial in Northumberland in Britain); or UK Citizens Online Democracy (a network of discussion forums - at - through which you can, in theory, make your views known to policy-makers).

All these programmes have sprung up in the past 10 years, mostly in the past three or four; they're all based on the ubiquity of technologies that few of us had heard of 20 years ago; and they're all geared to giving "the people" a more direct say in how they are governed.

Nor is that all. In the same period, a number of new non-electronic consultative mechanisms have been catching on: in Switzerland and Germany, citizens' law initiatives and referenda; in Britain, citizens' juries, deliberative opinion polls, standing panels, consensus conferences. Consider these developments in the same breath as the electronic ones, and it's almost impossible to resist the conclusion that something significant is happening. After decades of exclusion, politics is coming back to the people.

Direct electronic democracy - one issue, one vote, tens of millions of voters - may once have been a gleam in the eye of a barmy British inventor. But it just could be an idea whose time has come.

In a cramped, shabby office in the London School of Economics, another vaguely shambolic English intellectual, Dr Stephen Coleman, is studying the future of electronic democracy. Big, bald and bearded, Coleman, director of studies of the Hansard Society, is steeped in parliamentary tradition, but he's long since given up believing that our current political system can survive unchanged into the 21st century.

"I'm convinced that the future lies in electronic democracy," he says. "New technology is meeting a need, not creating one. There's a greater sense of democratic culture in the air today because of the failures of the politics of the past few decades."

These failures, which recur throughout the developed world, have been well-documented: voter alienation, low election turn-outs, apathy based on the correct perception that all the decisions and discussions that matter are firmly controlled by the elites who run the party machines - who in turn are largely controlled by those who finance them. Ordinary people still care about public affairs: hence the boom in pressure groups. But few of us give a monkey's about politics per se - who's in, who's out - and most feel excluded by parliamentary politics.

"If you were in London in the Thirties," muses Coleman, leaning back on a rickety chair that almost certainly was, "you could walk out of the LSE and within a mile you'd find people discussing politics in parks, on street corners, in Trafalgar Square. But after the Second World War - the war to save democracy - democracy declined. If the new technologies are now reviving the culture of political discussion, that has to be healthy for society."

In recent years, thanks to initiatives such as the Institute of Public Policy Research's Public Involvement Programme - - thousands of ordinary Britons have participated in detailed policy discussions with decision-makers. Randomly chosen citizens' juries of 12-16 people have agonised over details of local health policy. Larger samples, of between 250 and 600 people, have taken part in weekend-long deliberative opinion polls on everything from crime and health to Europe and the monarchy. And scores of self-selected volunteers have taken part in three-to-four- day public "consensus conferences" on matters as abstruse as plant biotechnology and radioactive waste management.

Coleman hopes that such public consultations, preferably representative, will increasingly be incorporated as what he calls "appendages to the parliamentary process", perhaps as alternatives to Royal Commissions or as extensions of Select Committee inquiries. These could take place in the flesh, but on grounds of cost and convenience may well be electronic. The software - originally developed for education - is well-advanced: many seminars take place on-line, with minimal technological input from the participants. We'll soon have the option of universally available, fully interactive digital television, but many experts feel that our current way of doing electronic business, through the rapid exchange of text-messages, is preferable. "The Internet creates opportunities to develop a different style of argument," says Coleman, "which allows not just for discussion but for consideration and reconsideration."

In any case, technologically, we're as nearly there as makes no difference. "We've had three generations of people shouting at television sets," says Coleman. "Now, at last, we're on the point of the television being able to listen." The tricky challenge is to develop politicians with the same capability. "There is," he adds, "a difference between having your say and being heard."

According to Dr Colin Finney, the communications scientist responsible for organising the first electronic consultation by a government department (in 1996) and the first electronic citizens' jury (in 1997), the bigger the issue, the smaller the impact tends to be. "There's a marked resistance to letting people encroach on the power of government when it comes to decision-making, especially when the consultation is in electronic form. I was very disappointed with the response to the electronic consultation I organised: it wasn't ignored, but it was devalued."

Dr Coleman organised an electronic public consultation on the Freedom of Information Bill. It was, he says, "really a very good one, except in one respect: the government didn't take any notice of it."

For a government that has been interested to a fault in the views of focus groups (at least until they went out of fashion), this deafness to the voice of the people may seem curious. But focus groups are merely an aid to spinning - you don't have to do what they say. True consultation, which decision-makers have to take into account, is a bit more scary - if the public can decide policy issues for themselves, what's so special about MPs?

For politicians, the point of the Internet, like that of television, is to enable citizens to listen to them: it's a way for the few to reach the many. The idea that the traffic might more usefully go in the other direction has yet to mature. There may be wise and expert people contributing to on-line political discussions, but they're babbling into empty space.

"Part of the problem," says Finney, "is that futurologists have given electronic democracy a bad name." The early prophets of cyberpolitics enthused unthinkingly at the prospect of endless, instant referenda. Buckminster Fuller did so in the Forties, Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler in the Sixties and Seventies, John Naisbitt in the Eighties. "We have outlived the historical usefulness of representative democracy," wrote Naisbitt in Megatrends, "and we all sense intuitively that it is obsolete."

We can certainly sense the attractions of direct electronic democracy, especially now that the interactive technologies that Toffler and Naisbitt dreamt of have become part of the fabric of everyday life ("If you favour a ground war, press one; to stop the bombing, press two") But most of us can sense the drawbacks, too. Public opinion is an unruly and often ugly beast. We admire the direct democracy of ancient Athens, whose citizens were chosen by lot to serve on (and even to preside over) its Assembly; and we envy the inclusiveness of a system which could bring nearly a sixth of the electorate, in person, to a single debate. Yet it was this very pack of citizens that turned savagely on Socrates, and ordered his death. Come to think of it, it was direct democracy - the unmediated application of public opinion - that caused Jesus (rather than Barabbas) to be put to death. And the French terror was hardly undemocratic.

What would happen if we let the people decide the key political questions of today? Think of the last radio phone-in programme you heard; think of The Sun's "You the Jury" polls; think of the hysteria over St Diana, or the hounding of the former England football manager Glenn Hoddle.

Representative democracy doesn't have a brilliant record, either, because of its tendency to produce parties - Nazi, Communist, New Labour - whose power supersedes that of the electorate. But while I yield to no one in my contempt for Tony's phoneys, at least those who tell them what to think tend to discuss and study issues before making up their minds. Unmediated public opinion, by contrast, is sometimes ludicrously stupid. In polls in the US, people regularly claim to feel passionately about the Public Affairs Act of 1975, despite the fact that it does not exist.

But the past 10 years have seen developments in the art of consultation as well as in the science of communication. The new consultative mechanisms, such as deliberative opinion polls and citizens' juries, don't just ask people what they think. They give them the opportunity to discuss things and fill gaps in their knowledge before deciding what they think. And modern polling techniques allow us to select room-sized portions of the population that can reasonably be taken as representative. The breakthrough of the Nineties - pioneered by Professor James Fishkin of the University of Texas - has been to start putting such cross-sections into real rooms and encouraging them to study particular issues, just as MPs do.

The first deliberative opinion poll, organised by Fishkin and sponsored by The Independent, was held in 1994 and televised by Channel 4. Three hundred people gathered for three days to discuss crime, examining expert witnesses and covering issues among themselves, en masse and in smaller groups. After three days of deliberation, their attitudes had changed significantly. For example, 19 per cent fewer wanted to "send more offenders to prison", while 14 per cent more believed in the right to silence.

Thirteen subsequent polls, in the UK and the US, have reinforced the message that uninformed, unthinking public opinion is quite different from public opinion measured, as Fishkin puts it, "in a context where it's worth people's while to pay attention". The next such poll takes place in October, in Australia, with the full support of the Australian government, as a televised precursor to the impending referendum on the monarchy.

"The people can be very wise if you just give them a chance," says Fishkin. But giving them a chance is expensive. A properly conducted deliberative opinion poll can cost well over pounds 100,000. Even a citizens' jury costs pounds 20,000-pounds 25,000 a time. Yet if you could drastically reduce these costs - by, for example, doing the deliberation electronically - this barrier would disappear. And, of course, you can.

A few weeks before I registered with UK Citizens Online Democracy, I found myself sitting in a half-empty council chamber in Birmingham, struggling to keep awake while a panel of the great and the good examined a succession of witnesses from pressure groups and academia about appointments committees and expert scrutiny of legislation. The Royal Commission for the Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, was conducting one of a series of public meetings (completed just over a month ago) on the future of Parliament's upper chamber. And very dull it was too.

A few dozen members of the public - mostly the retired and the unemployed, since the ill-publicised event took place on a Thursday afternoon - strained to make sense of discussions of written evidence which they had not seen, and to put them in the context of other deliberations which they had not heard. At the end, a lucky few were allowed to ask quick, unanswered questions from the floor ("It really would be very helpful to all of us if you could be brief," said Lord Wakeham more than once), before being hustled back on to the streets.

This was public consultation as our forefathers understood it: face-to- face, formal, with the great unwashed kept firmly in their place. Yet it brought home to me the immediacy of the question of how we want our politics to be changed by the communications revolution.

Other democratic nations, faced with such a question, can reasonably continue to flirt with digital democracy without commitment and see if one thing leads to another. But Britain actually has a chamber of parliament desperately seeking a new identity. If we don't inject an element of direct, electronic democracy this time round, when will we do so?

The Royal Commission's deliberations identified the same weaknesses in the current body politic as everyone else - lack of perceived independence in politicians, lack of public confidence in parliamentary activities - while focusing almost exclusively on possible permutations of two proposed solutions: replacing hereditary peers with appointed peers, or replacing them with elected peers. Yet there is, as two of the questioners from the Birmingham floor pointed out, a far more radical alternative.

Best-known as "the Athenian solution", after the title of a paper on the subject published last year by the Demos think-tank, this proposes that the ejected hereditaries be replaced by ordinary people, selected at random like jurors from the electoral roll, who would serve for fixed terms before being replaced by other randomly chosen "peers in parliament".

The attractions of the scheme are brilliantly obvious. The new peers would be independent and free from the corrupting force of political ambition. They would be representative of the entire population, not just of the political classes and the axe-grinders. They would be democratically legitimate, as the current Lords aren't; without challenging the supremacy of the Commons, as the new Lords mustn't. And they would inspire the alienated electorate with a new sense of democratic inclusion.

Yet Anthony Barnett, one of the authors of the paper, says that when he gave evidence to a public meeting of the Royal Commission, "Their appearance was of a group of people who were stunningly unconvinced."

Does the lack of official interest relate to possible practical difficulties, such as how you would get these randomly selected peers to turn up? "I can't see why," says Ted Becker, professor of political science at Auburn University, Alabama, founder of Teledemocracy Action News & Network and author of a book, The Random House, which proposed a similar system for the US Congress nearly 25 years ago. "If you can make them join the army for a couple of years, as most nations can, you can get them to do this. Just pay them properly, like they do MPs in the Commons."

In any case, the peers in question wouldn't have to turn up to Westminster. Chambers of parliament were designed in days when gathering in chambers was the only way in which large numbers of people could deliberate. Today we have the option of a virtual chamber.

Can it really be beyond the wit of our brighter decision-makers to devise a workable system in which, say, 500 citizens would be selected at random each year to spend 35 hours a week in virtual deliberation over legislation initiated by the Commons, perhaps working from specially set-up computers in their local town hall (to avoid discrimination in favour of the PC- owning middle classes), clocking in and out with smart cards like cashpoint cards? Sometimes they might debate as a whole virtual chamber; more often they would deliberate over specific issues in smaller groups; occasionally they might go to Westminster.

Fanciful? The government is already committed to "government direct" - the creation of an electronic "one-stop shop" for government services. Politicians agree that politics should move into the Internet age; what bothers them is the thought that the technologies in question can be tools for the ruled as well as their rulers.

It's true that an electronic Athenian solution might require some minor tinkering with the functions of the Upper House. But if the idea is dismissed without even being put to a referendum, and the old hereditary elite is simply replaced by another (the great and good and/or career politicians), it will be a tragedy for Britain, because the ordinary alienated voter will take it as proof that we live in a democracy in which only party aparatchiks can participate. A democracy, in short, that excludes the people.

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