IServeU: Democracy’s Third Way?

Our NWT correspondent, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, on a new online initiative in Yellowknife that could shake up local politics.

Democracy and technology

During the summer of 2015, a group of Yellowknifers decided to focus their time and resources on developing a computer application that will allow residents to have a direct say in the decisions of their city council. Called IServeU, the group seeks commitments from Yellowknife city council candidates running in the October 2015 elections: namely, that they will follow the decision directions in accordance with majority voting of citizens registered on the IServeU website.

My understanding is that IServeU works like this:

Voters register an account on a website:

  1. The website has Yellowknife city council motions requiring a decision posted;
  2. There is a way to talk with other registered users about how you are going to vote and why;
  3. Similar to the website Reddit, people can vote comments up or down so that the ones most voted for are the ones at the top of the comments and therefore have the most influence on undecided voters.
  4. Once the votes are in, a councillor who has made a commitment will vote in accordance with the IServeU voter’s majority. If too few people vote, the representative can decide on their own.

According to the IServeU website:

Throughout history, societal organization has changed, starting from whoever had the biggest club to where we are today. Many problems we face today are related to a 250-year-old version of democracy conceived when most people couldn’t read and news traveled by pigeon. The world has totally changed, but our system of government hasn’t. We believe this is one of the main reasons people are often either frustrated or disengaged with the current system.

I am not sure that the above assessment of citizens’ dis-engagement with democracy is accurate. And I am definitely not comfortable with that characterization of Western liberal democracy’s beginnings, or the assertion that representative democracy can only work in a certain place and time, and is archaic in view of the technology available to facilitate direct democracy. Can having a computer really change some of the fundamental reasons that direct democracy is generally only strategically deployed in contemporary life?

I want to support the IServeU concept. I met with its founder and a supporter to discuss the concept when it was first developed; its supporters have come to my front door; I have asked several friends what they think and discussed it in meetings. People are talking about it. I respect the thought, the energy, the optimism and the genuine impulse to make democracy better that seems to drive it. I admire the dogged determination of its spokesperson to convert all to the cause. I am impressed by the evident commitment of resources its founders and supporters have made to this initiative.

But something about it doesn’t sit right with me.

As a student of political science (Bachelors and Masters), political anthropology and philosophy (PhD), and Indigenous and Northern politics (my field of work) I’ve had time to think over the years about things like democracy and governance and citizenship. In my daily work I have had to consider on both a philosophical and practical level questions like:  What makes a good representative? What makes a good political system? What are the rights and responsibilities of citizens? How do we strengthen democracy?

The 25% Solution

Lets start with the target of IServeU: the discretion exercised by elected representatives.

IServeU argues that representative democracy no longer makes sense in a world where anyone with a smart phone can conveniently and securely register a vote. This notion seems to understand representative democracy as a holdover from the days when communicating was difficult, and now technology has changed all that: it has rendered representatives obsolete.

Consequently, direct democracy – where each voter has a say on every decision – is instead consistent with a modern, technology-driven society. And that is not insignificant: direct democracy is technology-dependent. No paper ballots here.

But consider that democracy as it was originally conceived in Athens was direct (or as direct as it gets under patriarchy): all male citizens could vote. Leaders were chosen by lot – pure chance. About 6,000 men would hang out, discuss, and vote, with the majority holding sway. Citizens left their homes, jobs, businesses to argue beneath marble pillars, considering all the facts that the best rhetoric could deliver.

Over time, a system evolved where representatives were chosen under free and fair elections: people who the majority believed were suitable to exercise discretion and appropriately represent the people and their wishes. In the contemporary version of representative democracy, representatives are charged with considering decisions publicly, in the context of all of the other decisions they have to make for their countries, provinces and towns to operate effectively. In some instances it is clear what the majority of their constituents want; in others (such as abortion) their main compass is their conscience; in others (such as war) the national interest and ideals such as freedom may be weighted more than local considerations. Still other decisions might find a local representative fighting hard based on purely local considerations. Exercising decision-making discretion is changeable according to needs and context, and in the back of their minds they know the decision is part of a larger picture. Private citizens rely on representatives to make considered and justifiable public decisions, so the people themselves can turn our attention to ensuring the children are cared for, the cows are milked and that the snow plows run.

Philosopher Edmund Burke conceived of the role of elected representatives in liberal democracies as a four-part responsibility which resonates with a general understanding of a representative’s role in the present day. Specifically, when making decisions, representatives must take into account:

  1. What their constituents think;
  2. A rational and sober consideration of all of the available evidence relating to the issue;
  3. The national (or in our case with City Council, local) interest and situation and how the decision at hand relates to that bigger picture; and,
  4. Their conscience.

IServeU’s stated platform is that it is only the first consideration that really matters: what constituents think. It removes the privilege and responsibility from councillors to weigh the other 3 considerations that should have an impact on their decision-making. Unless that is, no IServeU voters care to vote. In cases where too few people vote, the unguided representatives revert back to what IServeU styles as an archaic approach to decision making, arising from a time when…what was it? “Messages were sent with pigeons”…? In such cases, representatives would use their discretion.

What About the Big Picture?

So, what happens to those other three considerations that Mr. Burke identified as important? Will those considerations influence the tech-savvy voters with IServeU accounts? Will the voters diligently read all the information, hold extensive debates, have a sound conception of the larger picture, and how each decision will affect that larger picture? Or will they engage in occasional one-off voting, without thinking how their decision might relate to other decisions?

For fun, let’s scenario this potential. Let’s say IServeU voters tell their representatives to vote against a capital budget as presented and instead halve our costs. And then weeks later the IServeU voters may tell their councillors: we must spend millions on a revamped 50/50 lot in downtown Yellowknife. That is an example of a very real possibility: IServeU councillors could quite reasonably create situations where they make a series of decisions that contradict each other, or that create problems.

If I had an IServeU account, I know I probably could not engage in the sort of thoughtful oversight we expect of our elected representatives.  Personally, I have been to one city council meeting during my twenty-odd years of residency here, to listen to debate on a decision that directly affected my family. On big ticket items like Yellowknife going geothermal, the city has used direct democracy measures: we all got to vote, and critically, there was a solid information campaign undertaken in support of both sides of the issue which was covered in the media (a necessary and powerful communication tool in a healthy democracy).

It is unlikely that private citizens will vote in accordance with the expectations that apply to the broader responsibilities of public representatives; nor should they. Private citizens represent themselves and their own personal interests. Thus it is unlikely that private citizens will devote the time and energy to understanding the issues they are voting on. I know I wouldn’t – in between work, caring for my sons, volunteering for three different organizations and supporting several others, and keeping my family’s home in order. As private citizens under the IServeU system, our voting decisions are not open to public scrutiny nor are we charged with having to set aside our assumptions or prejudices in our decision-making. None must justify their vote or identify themselves publicly (as far as I can tell from their website) as a voter.

Removing Accountability

This lack of accountability among voters will also spill over to representatives under an IServeU model. It absolves its chosen councillors from that four-part list of the responsibilities of a representative common in representative democracy. Consequently, it removes their accountability to the greater public. If you are an IServeU councillor, you get a free pass when it comes to the amount of work you must do on the most hotly contested issues, and restricts your debate contribution to merely quoting from the comments left by voters on the IServeU website. And that is not a caricature:

Issues with a high degree of engagement on IserveU will be a binding plebiscite for the candidate. On topics where the community does not engage (a fair amount of day-to-day City business), uncast ballots remain with the candidate. When this happens, the candidates will decide the vote. This is basically what happens during our current democratic system, but with the added benefit of IserveU’s conversation helping inform the candidate’s decision.

So IServeU councillors must privilege anonymous, computer-tallied votes over real-life conversations with Yellowknifers, the comments of interest groups or even those directly affected.

That leads to another concern: IServeU privileges constituent-with-a-computer (and let’s not kid ourselves, this platform is exclusively for an “Ihuman+”, not just a human, which in itself is problematic) view over non-computer mediated input (one-on-one conversations, interest group positions, public meetings). And that input could trump sober consideration of evidence, how the decision relates to the bigger picture of City Council responsibilities, and each representative’s conscience.

Won’t this only impoverish our democracy? Won’t it restrict councillors’ abilities to weigh the evidence fully and consider and share information provided to them by non-computer means? Won’t point and click, anonymously generated and possibly contradictory voting decisions by IServeU councillors work to erode our sense of community and decision making cohesion, rather than serve to strengthen democracy?

Point and click hybrid direct/representative democracy does not require openness, transparency, dialogue, and the ideal that each vote carries the same weight. Those characteristics lie at the very heart of democracy, and are to some extent undermined by the IServeU approach.

Decisions that affect our whole community should be decided by all of us directly, or by representatives elected by all of us, who in an open public forum engage in dialogue together to reach a decision. It seems to me that you don’t have to run too many complex voting scenarios to begin to understand how this computer-mediated direct/representative hybrid approach to democracy starts to break down. Particularly on the most contested issues our city faces: in such instances our elected representatives have a role to play in publicly building consensus and collaboration through transparent dialogue and compromise. Hiding behind a computer screen would just be another version of technology creating a society that is “alone together”. If we want a vibrant, respectful, tolerant and peaceful society, we need to talk to each other and demonstrate how views are heard and respected. In this light, the IServeU model appears polarizing: providing a voice to an anonymous few at the expense of open public debate and dialogue.

Maybe Technology Is Not the Answer

I started out by saying that I really want to support IServeU. What I support about it is that it is a group of engaged Yellowknifers with a lot of energy and ideas. I support their enthusiasm and their determination to make democracy better. I wish IServeU supporters would put that same energy into running for city council and for territorial politics, and start a real conversation about improving representative democracy by instituting measures achieving the kind of meaningful connection and engagement that IServeU intends to magnify, without gutting representative democracy of its true potential.

Having experienced the great benefits of technology, it would seem natural to many to rely on technology to improve what is arguably a degenerating democracy that we are living in. But if statistics are any guide, it is not that representatives are not listening to voters.

In the last city election, about 49% of eligible voters cast a ballot. In the territorial election, it was about 55%. Will electronic voting make it more likely that citizens will become more interested in telling representatives what they think? Will it contribute to an increase in voting participation rates? According to the NWT Chief Electoral Officer’s report after the 2011 territorial election, the connectedness people feel to their communities is usually a factor in whether they vote. The problem clearly is not so much accessibility of our representatives, or availability of electronic voting opportunities. It is more likely apathy, or perhaps lack of interest in participating in civil society, or unwillingness to take up the responsibilities of citizenship, such as volunteering, and voting. Can IServeU rescue us from our own apathy?

To its credit, IServeU could help make strides toward breaking the cycle of apathy and disconnection for which voting patterns are evidence, and in rampant cynicism around politics we see in social and mainstream media every day. Maybe having a say and seeing their vote reflected in decision making will inspire some voters to exercise their rights and obligations as citizens on voting day as well. Maybe it will inspire the same voters to get more involved in their community, or to champion issues that they care about. I sincerely hope that at the very least, IServeU will motivate greater political connectedness – at least a virtual connectedness – not just between voters and representatives, but between citizens.

Because if it doesn’t do that, I fear it will render our democracy even weaker than it is now.

Dr. Irlbacher-Fox was raised in Inuvik, holds a PhD from Cambridge University, and appointments as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, and as Adjunct Professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. She has worked for Indigenous governments in the NWT for the last two decades on self government, land claim and political development, including as an advisor on NWT Devolution negotiations. Her book,Finding Dahshaa: Self Government, Social Suffering and Aboriginal Policy in Canada(UBC Press, 2009) received award nominations from both the Canadian Political Science Association and the Canadian History Association. She lives in Yellowknife with her husband and two young sons.

Photo credit: Alan Sim (cc).

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