November 22, 2011

The Digital House revisited: "Bootstrapping" parliamentary e-democracy

By Fiona O'Connor

Today guest blogger Kirk Zurell responds to a series recently featured on the Samara blog that explored the possibility of creating a fourth institution of parliament, or "Digital House." Zurell is a technical communicator and computing professional based in Waterloo, Ontario.

Mark Dance proposes adapting the road tested “user-driven curation” model for a digital legislative house, letting average citizens “upvote” legislative proposals. As wonk-sexy as a Digg-inspired parliamentary hopper is, one essential weakness must be overcome.

I deservedly feel uncomfortable challenging Dance on parliamentary democracy. But I have worked in-depth with computers at every level, from embedded hardware to glitzy user interfaces. Digital house participants will need to trust a technocrat like me...but how will they verify my work?

The historic characteristics of parliamentary democracy were moulded by the economics of their day: the cost of travel, of communication, of eating and sleeping. For instance, travel for representatives and their messages was days - or weeks - long. Did that give advantage to adversarial political parties?

Computers are a novel type of economic solvent, turning previously solid realities like traditional jobs into mudslides. They speed up the currents within parliaments through instant, continuous, organized communications. They give citizens faster, better access, but not inherently different access.

Dance’s proposal replaces traditional parliamentary workers with code monkeys. The former can make uncomfortable proposals disappear, and the latter can make uncomfortable posts or comments disappear.

Privileged moderators or administrators can act capriciously or self-interestedly, as they do with popular online systems. The glitz of computing might encourage citizens to trust the system, but they would have no new way to verify the organizers hadn't gamed the results.

Speaking of self-interest, would professional parliamentarians accept political liability for proposals in which they lack substantial participation? A new digital house cannot depend on a legacy house to start or finish its work.

Legislatures struggle to govern themselves and protect their prerogatives. As a result, at each new session, so-and-so performs these or those procedures, then so-and-so are elected, and then the house is underway and can receive new business.

There’s a vaguely similar process in computing. After the switch is flipped, primitive software systems start working, and grow themselves, and grow some more, until they establish an interactive environment that awaits users’ instructions. This process is called bootstrapping.

A digital house needs to bootstrap itself, technically and policy-wise, in parallel. Participants must believe their control over the voting process is secure. This means they must also vote on mundane housekeeping matters, like business rules, membership records, logging and backups, and even starting and stopping the system that hosts the digital house. Fortunately, participants can wear bathrobes instead of ermine robes.

A Great Seal now can be economically sawed into hundreds of little digital signatures. Instruments bearing these new credentials need not be flowery instructions for officers to "interpret”. They can include detailed directions for computers to obey autonomously.

The consequences are profound. A digital house that votes on supply need not rely on a separate government bureaucracy to collect or distribute it. The same underlying system can send out electronic assessments, receive online payments and funding applications, and disburse the cash, each step authorized by appropriate votes.

Could the average citizen compose and understand proposals with live functional elements? This is already an age of user interfaces, email addresses, URLs, Facebook-isms, and Twitter usernames and hashtags. We have yet to exceed “the three pound universe”.

A digital house must be a house, with its own prerogatives, that happens to be digital. The “+1”-ing of popular proposals will be the final step in a self-establishing, self-sustaining e-democracy design.

I am curious to see just how the participants in such a digital house will slam the door in the face of Black Rod...

Kirk Zurell can be reached at [email protected]

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