James Cartwright | Essays

Can Demagogues be Designed out of Democracy?

Rudy van Belkom, Het Nieuwe Kiezen

Dutch transition designer Rudy van Belkom and Irish digital design agency FrontEnd are leading the charge to combat democratic dissatisfaction. Is it a pipe dream, or can we design a different way?

“Over the past 50 years there has been a shift in how citizens perceive their efficacy over, and relationship with, public institutions. Heightening negative sentiment has created growing distrust; which in recent years has manifested itself in the rise of anti-government populism. There are many contributing factors as to why this phenomenon has developed.”

So begins Rules of Engagement; Design Principles for Civic Dialogue in a Post-Truth Era, a report published by Frontend, a digital design agency based in the Republic of Ireland. Rules of Engagement seeks to explore the ways in which design might have a positive impact on this environment of political mistrust and offer workable solutions to restructure governmental processes.

Our political systems, suggest the authors of the report, have failed to keep pace with the reality of daily modern life. We order fast food on apps, expect 24-hour customer service on social media from multinational corporations, and can pick and choose from an abundant pool of service providers who will cater to our many ever-evolving needs. By contrast, our political systems are flabby, inefficient, and outdated; we don’t expect to hear directly from government bodies or representatives and, between election cycles, governments are free to do as they please without public intervention.

“It’s not that people don’t agree with democracy as a whole,” says Dutch transition designer and educator Rudy van Belkom, who has become Holland’s poster boy for redesigning the democratic process after presenting his vision for doing so at Dutch Design Week in 2017. “The way that democracy is implemented right now, a lot of people don’t feel heard anymore. They want more say.”

Van Belkom cites statistics from his native Holland to prove his thesis, where only 2.2% of the population are members of a political party, and 50% express dissatisfaction with the current system. (In the US, political dissatisfaction stands at a whopping 72%.) “People don’t really identify with political parties anymore. At least that’s my conclusion.”

For van Belkom the solution is simple; nothing but a wholesale redesign of the democratic process will do. Democracy, he believes, should be representative of our times, meaning greater choice and engagement for the voting public. Het Nieuwe Kiezen, or ‘The New Vote,’ is his proposal for a modular voting system, under which the public would choose from a range of policies within “themes” that most directly represent their views, rather than electing a public official who maintains a platform with which they might not completely agree. “For example, if your opinion on education fits Party A perfectly but your points of view on defense match Party B, then you could combine those different points of view.

“I can't really identify myself with one political party because as a human being I'm not left or right. I can't really show my needs. With a modular approach, I could more easily select the points of view that fit my personal needs and my personal identity.”

The idea is not dissimilar from coalition government, or perhaps direct democracy (of which Switzerland is a shining example), but van Belkom’s concept extends beyond the election cycle into the bricks and mortar of government itself. Based on how the public voted across given themes—education, welfare, healthcare, immigration, defense—cross-party chambers would then be assembled to decide and implement policy based on public opinion. This would be, he believes, the best way to facilitate efficacy in the political process and remove the personality politics and cross-party fighting that dominate the political news cycle. If the democratic process is formulated around individual issues, there’s no need for an all-singing, all-dancing commander in chief at the head of state.
If the democratic process is formulated around individual issues, there’s no need for an all-singing, all-dancing commander in chief at the head of state.

“Currently people don't vote on the content but on the people. When you vote on the people, you make the person who is in charge very important—you give them a stage. When campaigning, it's not about which party has the best policy, but who I like the most. But if you ask me which party I’m going to vote for within education, I have to think. I have to think about the content of that party in that theme. Voting more on the content would help reduce the populism in politics.” Issues first; personalities second.

Frontend’s proposal is less radical in scope, and as such, perhaps more pragmatic. The firm suggests maintaining the current political system, but redesigning how the public engages with individual issues, through interfaces that are already familiar as part of everyday routines.

Its approach to rebuilding trust and strengthening democracy is in line with that of the Open Government Partnership, an initiative seeking commitments from governments to “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

Accordingly, they assert six design principles all democratic tools should engage:
  • Immediacy, making government easily accessible and engaging for the citizen.
  • Inclusivity, connecting government to marginalized citizens.
  • Representative politics, which recognizes broader public sentiment.
  • Meaningful interactions, which provides citizens with feedback to demonstrate their individual and collective impact.
  • Informative communications, which combats misinformation and helps contextualize and challenge polarized viewpoints.
  • Transparency, so that each step of the democratic process is clear and open to citizens.

    In essence, Frontend proposes treating government like a corporation beholden to its shareholders; acknowledging and acting upon the needs of the voting public, reporting back on progress and adapting as feedback dictates.

    To facilitate this kind of interaction in a way that keeps pace with the current news cycle and the immediate expectations of today’s consumer, Frontend proposes Moot, an interactive platform that allows users to engage with politicians and fellow citizens in almost real time using a mode of communication they are familiar with: online messaging. Frontend prototyped a “UI powered by machine learning” that allows users to message questions and receive responses conversationally.

    Then, after assessing the general intent of the citizen’s issue, the system delivers the inquiry to an appropriate representative in aggregate, with other questions like it. This would allow representatives to quickly and efficiently gauge public opinion on a particular issue and respond to concerns either collectively or directly. There’s also a corresponding public-facing site, so that the general public can see which types of concerns were raised and when they were resolved. Frontend hopes these direct interactions with government would replace post-truth populism with a more constructive, open dialogue.
    The hope is that direct interactions with government, utilizing a “UI powered by machine learning,” will replace post-truth populism with a more constructive, open dialogue.

    Such a concept is not without precedent. In 2011, in Iceland, a system called Better Reykjavik emerged as a response to the 2008 financial crisis and the country’s plummeting trust in government. It provides an online forum allowing residents to consult on ideas and issues regarding the city’s services and operations, with top-rated ideas debated by a specialist standing committee each month. Nearly 60% of citizens have now used the platform, although trust in government in Iceland remains worryingly low—most likely the result of corruption and recurrent dishonesty from its senior political figures in recent years. Rebuilding public trust, like any upheaval of bureaucratic processes, is a long game.

    Of course Iceland is a country of only 300,000 people, Frontend has only trialled its democratic interventions at a local level, and van Belkom has yet to pilot his modular voting system anywhere. Could any of these systems really be applied to a country like the U.S., with a population of over 300 million people, or would a decentralization of power be required to make them work?

    “I don't know if this new voting system and decentralization have a link,” says van Belkom. “I'm still not sure what I think about decentralization. I don't have the Holy Grail or anything. I believe [The New Vote] is a realistic tool to get the conversation started and to experiment. If it doesn't work the first time say, ‘Okay, this is not working. Let's try something else.’ What’s important is that we start to experiment with new ideas and new systems.” Or as Frontend put it in Rules of Engagement, “democratic institutions must adapt.”

  • Posted in: Design for Democracy, Politics

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