Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Pointing at the Wrong Villain: Cass Sunstein and Echo Chambers

David Weinberger – Los Angeles Review of Books

At one level, this is an entertainingly polite but damning book review. At another, it is a case study in how profound expertise in one academic domain does not automatically translate into the distillation of wisdom in another. But beyond both of those, the real value of this piece is in drawing out the point that in the realm of ideas, as with so many others, the internet is a place where new things are happening, not just the old things being done a bit better. We need to get better not just at knowing things, but at how to know things. How, in this new world, do we take advantage of its strengths to come at knowledge in different ways?

I had got to the end of reading this before noticing that it was by David Weinberger. That would have been endorsement enough – he has been sharing deep insights about how all this works for many years and is always a name to look out for.

Personal Data Representatives: An Idea

Tom Steinberg – Medium

In dealing with digital services – indeed in dealing with organisations generally – power is very asymmetric. Amazon does not invite you to negotiate the terms on which it is prepared to sell you things (though of course you retain the power not to buy). Digital services and apps give the illusion of control (let’s think about whether to accept these cookies…) but have developed a habit and a reputation or helping themselves to data and making their own judgement about what to do with it. That’s not necessarily because individual consumers can’t control permissions, but is also because the cost and complexity of doing so make it burdensome. Tom Steinberg brings a potential solution to that problem: what if we had somebody negotiating all that on our behalf, could that asymmetry be addressed? Typically, he recognises the difficulties as well as the potential, but even if the answers are hard, the question is important.

Do social media threaten democracy? – Scandal, outrage and politics

The Economist

It’s interesting to read this Economist editorial alongside Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. It focuses on the polarisation of political discourse driven by the persuasion architecture Tufekci describes, resulting in the politics of contempt. The argument is interesting, but perhaps doubly so when the Economist, which is not know for its histrionic rhetoric, concludes that ‘the stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.’

That has implications well beyond politics and persuasion and supports the wider conclusion that algorithmic decision making needs to be understood, not just assumed to be neutral.

We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads

Zeynep Tufekci – TED

This TED talk is a little slow to get going, but increasingly catches fire. The power of algorithmically driven media may start with the crude presentation of adverts for the thing we have already just bought, but the same powers of tracking and micro-segmentation create the potential for social and political manipulation. Advertising-based social media platforms are based on persuasion architectures, and those architectures make no distinction between persuasion to buy and persuasion to vote.

That analysis leads – among other things – to a very different perception of the central risk of artificial intelligence: it is not that technology will develop a will of its own, but that it will embody, almost undetectably, the will of those in a position to use it. The technology itself may, in some senses, be neutral; the business models it supports may well not be.

Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change

This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.

Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.

 

Treat people as citizens

Nicholas Tampio – Aeon

Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government except for all the others. So far, so good: few find it tactful to disagree. But the practical application of that ranges from infrequent voting to intense participatory involvement. There is, this post argues, an increasing tendency for real decisions to made by experts (or, at least, professional politicians), with citizens reduced to the role of an approving chorus. The claim implicitly made by those experts that they are just better at this is somewhat questionable; a better remedy is to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level.

In a way the post doesn’t quite seem to recognise, this moves the problem around, rather than solving it. That’s partly because everybody is in favour of devolved decision making (subsidiarity is after all a fundamental principle of EU decision making), but almost everybody sees the level they happen to be at as the most appropriate one. But even more importantly it’s because it fails to distinguish between different kinds of decisions. Politics is only surprisingly rarely about making self-contained decisions, straightforward choices between clear options. What makes politics – and democracy – hard is the interaction between decisions, the fact that every decision is constrained by and constrains every other one, that decisions are relative rather than absolute. On that, Catherine Howe’s approach, recently featured here, is a stronger one: the question is how to design for democracy, in the full recognition that decisions are political; it is not best answered by assuming that being local is itself adequate.

How do you solve a problem like technology? A systems approach to digital regulation

Rachel Coldicutt – doteveryone

It is increasingly obvious that ways of regulating and controlling digital technologies struggle to keep pace with the technologies themselves. Not only are they ever more pervasive, but their control is ever more consolidated. Regulations – such as the EU cookie consent rules – deal with real problems, but in ways which somehow fail to get to the heart of the issue, and which are circumvented or superseded by fast-moving developments.

This post takes a radical approach to the problem: rather than focusing on specific regulations, might we get to a better place if we take a systems approach, identifying (and nurturing) a number of approaches, rather than relying on a single, brittle, rules based approach? Optimistically, that’s a good way of creating a more flexible and responsive way of integrating technology regulation into wider social and political change. More pessimistically, the coalition of approaches required may be hard to sustain, and is itself very vulnerable to the influence of the technology providers. So this isn’t a panacea – but it is a welcome attempt to ask some of the right questions.

Designing for democracy

Catherine Howe – Curious?

By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.

But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.

Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Dirk Helbing, Bruno S. Frey, Gerd Gigerenzer, Ernst Hafen, Michael Hagner, Yvonne Hofstetter, Jeroen van den Hoven, Roberto V. Zicari, Andrej Zwitter – Scientific American

There is plenty of evidence that data-driven political manipulation is on the increase, with issues getting recent coverage ranging from secretively targeted Facebook ads, bulk twitterbots and wholesale data manipulation. As with so much else, what is now possible online is an amplification of political chicanery which long pre-dates the internet – but as with so much else, the extreme difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. This portmanteau article comes at the question of whether that itself puts democracy itself under threat from a number of directions, giving it a pretty thorough examination. But there is a slight sense of technological determinism, which leads both to some sensible suggestions about how to ensure continuing personal, social and democratic control – but also to some slightly hyperbolic ideas about the threat to jobs and the imminence of super-intelligent machines,

A Busted Flush in the House of Cards

This is a powerful challenge to everybody who works in any part of government. The system is fundamentally broken because its components were never designed or intended to act coherently and effectively as a system – and they don’t. There is considerable power in that diagnosis, implying if not quite drawing the conclusion that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system. The problem, of course, is that that is both intrinsically very hard to do and never seems to be as important or urgent as addressing specific policy problems – which is where we came in. So the hard question is not whether a better system could be devised (because there can be little doubt that it could be); it is whether the current system has the capability to make the changes needed. It is hard to stop and start again from scratch. That’s not just true of the UK – it has been argued that the most needed amendment to the US constitution is to make it easier to make constitutional amendments, which is probably impossible. None of that makes Straw’s diagnosis wrong, but it does underline that the route to change is as critical as the destination.

Ed Straw

Outdated public services must empower people to achieve change

“All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get” (Arthur Jones, probably)

What government organisations get is hierarchy, slow and often unresponsive decision cycles and a sense that government is done to people, rather than with them, still less by them. There are – or were – some very real strengths in a Weberian rationalist bureaucracy, but Weber was writing a century ago for a very different world. Adaptation is as crucial for organisational evolution as it is for natural evolution – without it, organisations become less and less well fitted to their environment and eventually fail. But that failure can be long drawn out and painful to all concerned.

This essay is about spotting – and encouraging – new approaches to public administration, better suited to new requirements and new contexts.

Ian Burbuidge – the RSA

Better than experts? How citizen deliberation can improve decisions

One of the misunderstanding which often crops up between people who approach problems from a digital service design perspective and those who come more from a traditional policy development perspective is around transactional services – whether fundamentally we are designing services for users or outcomes for society. This post comes from a very different perspective of deliberative policy development, drawing out very clearly that people see their role as citizen more broadly than their role as consumer, even when they are being both simultaneously.

Tony Greenham – RSA

Policy for the future

Good policy comes from good policy making. There is plenty of evidence that good policy making is based not just on the rigorous analysis and evidence assessment which is the best of the traditional approach, but also on effective implementation and deep understanding of the needs and behaviour of those who will be affected by the policy. This post argues for a more broadly based approach to policy making, drawing on The Blunders of Our Governments (which remains compelling reading) to make the case.

The problem with this is not – as the author supposes – that it sounds fanciful – it is that it sounds obvious. The problem is not in recognising that policy were better done differently, it is in the doing of it. The post introduces a more substantial paper which has some useful material, but ends up describing barriers to change without offering much about how to overcome them.

Jake Thorold – RSA

Stormzy 1: The Sun 0 — Three Reasons Why #GE2017 Was the Real Social Media Election

Social media have been playing a part in election campaigns for quite a while now, but this year’s general election may mark a tipping point where for an important part of the electorate traditional media are essentially irrelevant. There’s some proper academic caution in this post – it really is too early to tell – but – but if the trend is confirmed, the implications go very much wider than election campaigns.

Helen Margetts – Oxford Internet Institute

Is Social Media Killing Democracy? Computational Propaganda, Algorithms, Automation and Public Life

Social media first played a significant role in electoral politics during the US presidential election in 2000. The first part of this inaugural lecture traces its development since then, through the Arab Spring, to more recent US and European elections, with some interesting insights into ‘computational propaganda’, the role of bots in moving and reinforcing public opinion, and the fake (or junk) news which is often its subject.

The second part of the lecture turns to the rapidly developing connections between big data, behaviour, and the internet of things. It is increasingly possible to derive political inferences from behaviour, such as purchasing patterns, as well as from overt speech – in the internet we have, privacy has essentially been lost. That could be countered, at least in part, by measures to improve the power balance between large organisations and civic society, but there is little current prospect of those proposed getting any traction.

Philip Howard – Oxford Internet Institute

How Britain voted at the 2017 general election

An interesting analysis of voting patterns in the general election, drawn from a post-election survey with a very large sample size, so should be pretty robust. Age emerges as the strong divider, though with the potential impact strongly damped by differential turnout – leaving as perhaps the key question the relative importance of the age effect and the cohort effect. The movement there is stark: at the beginning of the campaign, the pivotal age above which support was more likely for the Conservatives was 34. By the end of the campaign it was 47.

Chris Curtis – YouGov

Build a better monster

The founding myth of the internet is freedom – primarily free as in speech, but with a healthy dose of free as in beer. The network was everything – small pieces loosely joined, as David Weinberger put it. That meant power would be distributed, the voices of all would be heard, and connections would be based on trust. As Tim Wu then pointed out in The Master Switch, that had been the hope in the early days of radio and television too, before rapid consolidation into a small number of conglomerates – and with every prospect of that being true for the internet. Seven years on from Wu’s book (and fifteen after Weinberger’s), this essay sets out the dystopian view of the result, weaving together the technology, the commercial consolidation and the political and ethical consequences into a challenging narrative.

Maciej Cegłowski – Idlewords

Business is not politics

The efficiency and effectiveness of government is often compared – usually unfavourably – to that of business. From time to time business leaders are brought into government to show how it’s done, usually to withdraw some time later without seeming to have had much impact. One reason for that is that leadership in government and in business make different demands – this post does a good (and non-judgemental) job of explaining some of the reasons why.

John Kay