Picture of a police woman in riot gear

Edward Andersson considers why it takes a crisis for us to think innovatively about democracy.

With parts of London going up in flame and the Prime Minister cutting his holiday short it seems appropriate to write a blog about crisis and its role in democratic innovation. I wasn’t planning to write about the riots. Instead I wanted to reflect on the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly, a group of 25 elected citizens who have been busy over the past few months drafting what the media is calling ‘the world’s first crowd sourced constitution’.

The Assembly has now handed in their recommended constitution to the Althingi (Icelandic parliament).  This has rightly been hailed as a major democratic innovation; Iceland is rapidly establishing itself as a world leader in Open Government and e-Participation. Unlike examples of crowd sourcing we’ve seen elsewhere which have used a simplistic approach (akin to throwing something online, calling for anonymous comments and hoping for the best) the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly has avoided the risk of flame wars and interest group capture by complementing online engagement with face to face deliberation and in depth discussion. Writing a new constitution is serious business and the Icelandic organizers have risen to the challenge admirably.

I would love to see a similar level of inventiveness and boldness from UK policy makers. A similar approach to that taken in Iceland could have made the referendum on electoral reform more meaningful for example. Annie Quick wrote a good piece on why deliberation was vital back then.

The thing is democratic innovation at the moment seems to be largely driven by crisis; game changing innovations follow system shattering events. In Iceland the galvanizing crisis was the financial meltdown in 2008. Known locally as ‘Hrun’ (Icelandic for ‘downfall’) the country found itself owning over ten times its annual GDP, with an almost worthless currency and at the mercy of the IMF.  This led to unprecedented uproar in the otherwise stable small nation of 320,000 inhabitants. Protests and demonstrations led to the fall of the government followed by soul searching and a growing realization that something had been systematically wrong in society. This is the background which helps explain Iceland’s efforts to involve citizens in rewriting its constitution. Without the crisis Iceland would probably have muddled through with the constitution they had before.

It is a similar story with many other democratic innovations across the world.

Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, possibly the most quoted (some would argue over quoted) example of democratic innovation in the world. In the celebration over the past decades we easily forget that the innovation only happened in 1989 when city was on verge of bankruptcy.  In hindsight politicians are quick to claim that Participatory Budgeting was the result of foresight and genius, whereas at the time it was an act of desperation.

Another rightly celebrated innovation is the 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform. This great example of far reaching deliberation around voting systems  only occurred after the 1996 election where the party which won the largest percentage of votes got fewer seats than its main rival and was unable to form a government.

There are also good examples from the UK where long needed innovation only happened after things went badly wrong; for example in 2001 riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley led to much needed investment in community cohesion and engagement (hopefully we can expect to see the same thing happen in London post riots). In the same year the general election had a record low turnout which prompted politicians and policy makers to take action on citizenship and democracy. This was an area which had needed attention and investment for a long time, but only received after things clearly went wrong.

So we clearly don’t innovate just because something is important; it has to be urgent as well. Is this a problem? After all, most of us probably procrastinated at school – delaying essays until the night before – and we survived. There’s even a school of thought which celebrates crisis as a driver for change. Rham Emmanuel (Obama’s former chief of staff) famously said “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.

I think that relying on crisis to provide the impetus for innovation is dangerous and the Obama administration shows why. Buffeted by too many crises that have been allowed to grow too big (including the political gridlock, the downgrade of credit rating and discord around health care reform) the administration is overstretched, underfunded and understaffed. Innovations driven by crisis can be tokenistic, ill conceived and demoralizing.

The wide range of project ideas submitted to NESTA for the Creative Councils programme shows that democratic innovation is alive and well in local government. However, many of these ideas have only become politically possible in the context of the economic crisis, which ironically means that it is hard to fund them. How much more effective could these innovations have been if they had been implemented in a time of economic wealth?

Surely it shouldn’t need to be like this? How do we innovate and democratize without having to see things taken to a crisis point beforehand? There must be a way to pick up on the signals that change is needed before the economy tanks, public trust nosedives or storefronts erupt in flames. Something for me to ponder as I carefully cycle home on streets strewn with crushed glass and shattered trust…