Social Democracy: an idea to boost engagement?

Back in May 2016, Britain last went to the polls as the devolved legislatures of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales held elections, while England citizens voted on Police Commissioners, some Councils, a handful of city mayors and a couple of parliamentary by-elections) but the sad fact was that few people bothered voting.

Indeed, when the UK last held a referendum in 2011 over 60% of registered voters didn’t take part…. I don’t recall whether it was raining then, but apparently for every inch of rain turnout drops by at least 1%. Fortunately the weather wouldn’t have made any difference to me – I, like an estimated 20% of voters who took part did so by post, a concept I understand dates back to 1948. Now as then, I’m sure this method of voting adds both a logistical challenge and a great cost to our exercising democracy.

But this isn’t a post about online voting, far from it – the sad fact that roughly every five years I’m asked to elect a local MP and that once in a blue moon I’m asked to vote in a referendum is just a backdrop. Combine this with a nation that is apathetic to politics in general and the individuals we’ve elected to represent us. I believe now is the time that politics got personal and as citizens, that we get engaged.

This post raises an observation – that each year millions of us using our smartphones, red-buttons and our telephones to vote for our favourite singer, the most popular dance partner or the person we want to stay in the jungle in highly popular televised contests.

Unlike politics, the television companies are enjoying record levels of audience participation in ways that few of us could have imagined when we were encouraged to call into ‘Swap Shop’. Our nation’s broadcaster’s have transformed a solitary observatory activity into live social events that capture the nation’s interest –  at its most popular, a staggering one in six of us voted for the ITV show, the X-Factor.  Indeed you could make a strong case that our nation cares more about who wins these shows than who runs the country and the decisions that affect us all – why? I would notion that it is because someone bothered to ask them (and gave them an incredibly accessible way to respond).

This post therefore proposes the simple concept, if the Government (or indeed Her Majesty the Queen) wants to know what I think about an issue they only need to ask.

Imagine if the Prime Minster stood up at PMQs and in response to a question by the opposite could say, “I know the country is behind me as when I checked a few moments ago millions of citizens told me they were”. Imagine the 10 O’clock news item reporting on any subject; war, the NHS, crime for example and could rely not just on opinion polls, but on actual real data supplied in near real time from its citizens.

200 years ago smartphones and the internet didn’t exist, we elected people to represent our views, now while I’m not sure we can represent ourselves, but we can be sure that our views are recorded, then if our elected leaders choose to not represent these it can be clearly seen.

Wireframe of mobile app screen

Imagine a country where if the Government, the Opposition, Your Local Authority or Local Council could post one question to the nation a week. Imagine an official Government app that had the option to indicate if an election was held tomorrow how would you vote, or how do you rate the performance of the Prime Minister and their Government? This isn’t about making democracy entertainment it’s about using technology to engage a largely apathetic electorate, it’s about making politics personal and its about each one of us engaging in how our country is run, inputting to decisions and holding politicians to be accountable to us, the public.

The aggregated data could be available as charts ‘in app’ after a user has voted in any poll, providing instant gratification in real time allowing you to see how your opinion varies to the rest of the public.

To be fair this data should be available to everyone, aggregated and accessible in as many formats as possible. Government Bodies, Political parties, private companies, news organisations as well as the public, all fed a continuous flow of public sentiment, and perhaps not just from the electorate, but from teenagers as well.

In addition to within the app the aggregated data could be displayed via a dedicated website for free and for ever, the front page could be a live dashboard of news style stories based on the live data backed up with an historical comparison / view of data for those that want it.

But why stop with basic opinion polls, the app could do so much more – perhaps featuring a section that could be updated by the citizen on the “national pulse” where individuals are asked whether they feel key areas such as immigration, the economy, etc, are ‘on track’, ‘off track’, ‘way off track’, ‘don’t care’, etc..

To work this concept needs to be supported both across Government and across political parties. It needs both traditional and new media to support and promote, as well as a technology partner to deliver, but most of all it needs the electorate to demand that access to the political debate be open to all and from any device, anywhere.

Do you agree with this post, could you make this happen? Please do share this post and help refine the idea. We’ve missed the race to offer e-voting, but perhaps Britain can lead the way in e-democracy and citizen engagement.


2 thoughts on “Social Democracy: an idea to boost engagement?

  1. So leaving aside that there would be paedophiles hanging from every lamp post and no parking fines; tonight I had an amazing local social experience where I met my friends and neighbours while voting, some went for a drink afterwards. For me the spirit of the Agora in Athens needs to be kept.

  2. Interesting read, a couple of observations.

    1) Do people voting in popular music contests vote for the best singers, the best acts etc? Is this any more reliable than a TripAdviser or Amazon star review? I’m not sure it is. After all, reversion to the mean means that we will end up with a set of laws that are middle of the road and will continue to offend one side or the other.

    2) we do have this to some extent already with YouGov and other pollsters. You’re talking about disintermediation, which has its merits certainly;

    3) however what kills this is the same thing that forms the nub of your argument against periodic voting: sample bias. Only people who choose to download and use the app have their voices heard. Whilst the demographic take up may alter, fundamentally, only people interested in politics will use it.

    4)There’s then no guarantee that any of these views will be listened to.

    The flipside of all this is that the government are taking steps to engage more directly. The Government petition site is an excellent example of this, and allows a group of like minded people to express a view and guarantee that view will have a fair hearing. That for me is a real social progression.

    What’s quite interesting in this Parliament is the number of uturns the government had made as a result of social/media pressure. This hopefully shows the benefits of a free press that represents its readership.

    So my question is, are these things already in place and are you proposing a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist?

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