This piece is #9 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.

A week may be a long time in politics, but a decade can be a very short time when it comes to political systems. As the old saying goes, there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. Sadly, the years since Involve was set up look closer to the first category, with very little progress at all in how our democracy is organised. While many areas of life have been transformed by digital technologies during this period – from friendship to finance, holidays to work – our great democratic institutions have remained largely untouched.

There are precious few signs of that changing anytime soon, despite the forced innovations of COVID-19. So here I take a more modest route, suggesting some plausible ways our democracy might evolve incrementally rather than through a grand new settlement, using digital technologies to augment democracy rather than transform it. Specifically, I’m interested in ways to amplify the collective intelligence of democracy. By this I mean its ability to tap into the expertise, experience and voice of millions of people in an era when we have vastly more powerful tools for doing so than when our democratic institutions took shape. It’s inconceivable that anyone creating new democratic institutions now would ignore these tools and, as I will show, there are many practical steps that could be taken to markedly improve the performance of our democracy. 

...anyone interested in reforming democracy needs to see it not just as a single moment of decision but rather as a series of stages, each of which has distinct cultures and requirements.

Let me start, though, with three observations from history. The first is that Democracy has never been a single thing. Democracy spread not just as an idea—government by, of and for the people—but also as a cluster of devices and institutions. Some amplify power; others constrain it. Some divide, others concentrate. Some share power with non-elected bodies and many institutionalize Montesquieu’s comment that “power should serve as a check to power.” In a similar spirit, future democracy should also be thought of as a hybrid or assembly rather than as something pure or singular.

Second, we’ve learned again and again that democracy depends on what’s around it. One person one vote is a necessary not sufficient condition for successful democracy and more voting isn’t necessarily better than less – as a previous generation of evangelists assumed. Much depends on the quality of the surrounding ecosystem that shapes the options and how wisely they are considered, which in turn depends on free media and lively civil society, argument and challenge, science and facts. These need as much attention as the formal processes of decision-making, and can go badly awry.

Third, anyone interested in reforming democracy needs to see it not just as a single moment of decision but rather as a series of stages, each of which has distinct cultures and requirements. These include:

  • How questions are framed and determined to be worthy of attention, for example, whether climate change matters and whether it’s soluble)  
  • Identifying and nominating issues that might be amenable to action, like how housing can contribute to cutting carbon emissions
  • Generating options to consider, such as how to retrofit old houses
  • Scrutinizing options, such as using cost-benefit analysis or analyzing distributional effects
  • Deciding what to do, such as whether to implement subsidies or tax breaks, or introduce new regulations
  • Scrutinizing what’s been done and judging whether it’s working 

The key point is that different designs can improve each stage. For instance, on many contentious topics it’s better to separate stages of analysis and option generation from the stage of advocacy and decisions. Some of the stages can be much more open – while others, like decisions, have to be organized much more strictly.   

So, with these thoughts in mind, what could we hope for over the next two decades?

Reforming parliament to make use of free intelligence

If there is to continue to be an unelected second chamber we clearly need more transparent and fair appointment processes and a standard of ten-year terms, renewable once, and based on transparent performance review.  

Let me start with parliament itself. There are plenty of ways to help parliaments access more ideas, insights and intelligence, many of which are being pioneered by other parliaments around the world and by the newer ones in the UK[1]. Taiwan has, for example, shown how to fuse online deliberation with formal legislation, using a series of stages to air options and issues before turning to formal policies [2].  

More traditional parliaments can open up to a wider range of experts to guide their work, particularly in the first few stages described above. This is beginning to happen with Select Committees [3] . The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology showed that it could mobilise thousands of experts through the COVID crisis and France has shown how to make use of thousands of inputs to legislation. On any topic there is rich expertise available across the UK and globally, and there are now many methods for mobilizing it in systematic ways. Current Committee rules that only use submitted written evidence should have disappeared long ago as should the anachronistic current reliance on prose rather than models, data or visualisations.

To improve the quality of debates, another possible, and very useful step, would be live fact checking – so that if a statement of fact is made in the chamber, or a quotation, a confirmation or correction is visible on a large screen within 5-10 minutes. This might quickly raise standards.

A slightly harder step would be innovation in formats so that parliament can sometimes be opened up, allowing citizens to appear in the chamber, particularly if they have petitioned for issues to be addressed – again to shape the phases of framing, nominating and generating options.

The imminent parliamentary refurbishment is a chance to try these ideas out. It would be a tragedy, and a remarkable public relations own goal, if several billions of public money are only spent to replace the curtains and carpets and fix the fittings. An intelligent parliament would use its years outside the building to experiment with new formats: to show it can handle digital as well as analog; to mobilise creative designers and architects to try out different models. There are plenty of ideas here and here.

I also hope that the Lords would at last be reformed so that it might come closer to its self-image as a source of wisdom. The cynicism of appointment processes has never been easy to stomach and appears to have got worse. If there is to continue to be an unelected second chamber we clearly need more transparent and fair appointment processes and a standard of ten-year terms, renewable once, and based on transparent performance review.  

our democracy depends on the environment around it: the state of media, civil society, discussion and argument. At their best these reward intelligent, informed debate and sound decisions. At their worst they circulate half-truths and fantasy ideas.   

Deliberation on the big long-term issues

Next to parliament I hope we will see more experiment with methods of deliberation that can help the UK make big difficult decisions, which the main parties struggle with. Again, this is all about mobilizing collective intelligence. We need a new model of commissions to address the big long-term dilemmas such as reform of social care, making recommendations to parliament. 

The commissions themselves need to be few in number to ensure serious media and public attention. My preference then would be for a hybrid of citizens assemblies and expert commissions. There would be a core of prime commissioners and a much larger outer circle of associate commissioners to help synthesise evidence and shape options. Alongside them, there would be a representative panel of the public.  

They then need to work in stages, typically with a first stage that is all about establishing the right diagnosis; then a second stage which explores a small range of options; and then finally a stage of recommendation, all fed by online and face to face open sessions around the country. Such ‘open commissions’ could tap into wide networks of expertise and ideas, as indicated above, using social graph and other tools. These, the 21st century version of Royal Commissions, need to be part of the DNA of democracy, and are vital for unblocking blockages, from local government finance to long-term infrastructure finance, pensions to climate change.

Knowledge commons to fuel democracy 

Third, as indicated earlier, our democracy depends on the environment around it: the state of media, civil society, discussion and argument. At their best these reward intelligent, informed debate and sound decisions. At their worst they circulate half-truths and fantasy ideas.   

My preference would be for stronger legal requirements on major media to support truth and not circulate lies. I appreciate this is contrary to much liberal opinion, and hardly likely while figures like Rupert Murdoch have such a grip on politicians. But it would greatly strengthen democracy.

More modest steps would also help. We know a lot more about how ‘knowledge commons’ can be organized and over the next decade need to do much more to shore them up. We already have a bunch of ‘What works centres’ and observatories providing a systematic distillation of what’s known. In 2019, the US passed its Evidence Act which institutionalizes a similar approach. I hope that these will become ever more prominent so that whenever an issue is being discussed the first question to ask is: what do we know? Politicians have every right to ignore the evidence, but they have no right to be ignorant of it.

A parallel system needs to explore possible futures and scenarios – Finland’s Parliament has long had a Committee of the Future to do this and at times the Government’s Office for Science has done serious foresight exercises. Again, these explorations of the future need to be prominent whenever debates happen. 

I suspect we will also need to strengthen arms-length institutions with a strong commitment to truth: central Banks, scientific advisers and medical advisers are deliberately insulated from day-to-day politics because that way they can serve democracy better. I believe strongly that such institutions – including global ones like IPCC, IPBES and others – serve us well, particularly when they play an active role in educating the public and making recommendations to decision-makers. 

Ultra-local everyday democracy 

Any vision for 15 years hence should also include the very local, the world of the walking-distance neighbourhood. This is the space where many innovations in democracy have been proven to work well, giving citizens more direct say over proposals and decisions, for everything from play areas to public parks. Reykjavik, Paris, Barcelona and others have shown that this is feasible and establishes an everyday habit of taking responsibility. By contrast Britain gives far fewer people direct experience of democracy. I would also encourage cities to copy Paris which set aside a slice of funds for decision-making by school children on the grounds that democracy is best learned through doing it rather than just reading about it.

For local councils there are many simple improvements to be made, making it easier for people to sign up according to their interests; reshaping meetings to allow for more interaction and fact checking; and using meeting design methods to avoid the tendency of existing public meetings to give most voice to the loudest not the most representative (I’ve written elsewhere on the science of meeting design, a science that is largely missing from the design of democratic institutions) [4].

Reformed referendums 

The most influential democratic innovations of recent years have been referendums. I doubt we can overcome the appeal of referendums as a way to make some decisions. But a few simple rules would greatly improve them and help them make better use of collective intelligence. First, they should always be preceded by a phase of deliberation, including to clarify the right mix of questions. Second, all constitutional ones should have a 60% rather than a 50% threshold and should require a confirmatory referendum on specific options.

Stasis and change

Will any of this happen? Unfortunately, the recent pattern has been discouraging. Incumbents find it easy to persuade themselves of the virtues of the system and equally easy to dismiss proposals for reform. Around the world reforms have invariably come from new parties or insurgents, not from insiders. The default is therefore that we may have to await a serious worsening before change will be possible. This is unfortunate. It would be far better if democracy could reform itself without debilitating crises.

There are innumerable other possible options for the decades ahead. I am not yet convinced by, for example, quadratic voting, weighting votes by remaining life expectancy, or  giving voters vouchers they can pass onto candidates. But all of these are worthy of consideration. The best way to explore these ideas is through discussion and then in some cases experiment with an R&D capacity to test out new ideas, starting off with relatively less contentious issues. Many public organisations now have an innovation function. Is it really so impossible to imagine our parliament having something comparable? Or does innovation always have to be forced on incumbents from outside? 

Let’s hope not. Otherwise, there is a fair chance that the recent decline of faith in democracy will continue and confidence will be lower in 15 years than it is now.

[1] I have several times brought leading pioneers from parliaments around the world to do events in the UK Parliament but found surprisingly little curiosity to learn amongst our current MPs and Peers, and am not aware of a single innovation from Scotland or Wales that has yet been adopted by Westminster or even considered.

[2] Nesta brought out several surveys of these experiments including ‘Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement’ in 2017

[3] See Smarter Select Committees’, Theo Bass, Nesta 2019

[4] See chapter 11 in Geoff Mulgan, Big Mind, Princeton University Press, 2017