Is Online Civil Participation Sufficient to the Institutional Crisis?

Peter JonesCivil media, Social Innovation, Transformation Design

My last post left off with “We have experience and world-class methods that reliably achieve consensus in social systems to organize stakeholder commitment. The next missing step then is the courage and ambition to reach through the benign neglect, the cynical stalling, the aligned interests in current economies, and to help stakeholders move forward on a chosen strategic path that best reaches our societal, human, and developmental visions.”

Financier, socialist former punker, and Bond-style playboy Matthieu Pigasse comes forward with as much in his new book, Révolutions.  He relates a European view of the need for democratic action to re-envision institutions, if not civilization.

We are living through a turning point, in great confusion. Nothing of what seemed obvious yesterday is evident today. Nor are there any signs to tell us what future certainties will be. The great points of reference — the Nation, the State, Morality — seem to have disappeared. The great hopes of tomorrow remain invisible.

He shares with the Occupy movement the urgency of engaging citizens in the public sphere to re-envision his culture and nation as a society of equals. A new practical politics requires more than a voting franchise, we must co-create hope for a future we can own, and take action as political participants.  Pigasse urges a radical democratic leadership necessary for the political crisis of the time:

It is marked not only by political disengagement, abstention, and the rise of extreme ideologies, but also by an institutional crisis. To be more precise, a crisis of the political model. The crisis of the political model is the extreme concentration of power … The real power of a sole individual versus the actual power of all. It is marked as well by a crisis of decision and a weakened legitimacy of institutions, government, ministers and other authorities.

As in the US and Canada, the engaged European knows their vote is a weak purchase on rights and representation. Power – everywhere – now appropriates a majority vote and reifies a divided populace as “their mandate.” We end up with Republican governors in US states winning close races and shutting down unions and services and making unilateral claims for austerity. No study needed, no facts are necessary, no participatory decisions are allowed. We get Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s right wing  agenda, totally unfit for the world’s most diverse city. We get George W. Bush’s two ugly and unverified elections, stealing a mandate and a nation’s soul, because “elections happen.”

The rich diversity of an opinion cannot be reduced to the choice of one person at a given time (in the vote). The result is a legitimate feeling of not being represented. The demand for better representation must be met with more participation, the submission of governments to intensified surveillance, to more frequent rendering of accounts, to new forms of inspection. It is not possible to keep an eye on every decision, but everyone must be entitled to participate in the collective power through a system of evaluation.

How can we create an effective participatory citizen review, as Beth Noveck suggests in Wiki Government?  Online civic discourse has not demonstrated a good track record –  a small number of passionate “trolls” can easily disrupt and prevent meaningful engagement by thoughtful participants. A tragedy of the commons in online participation emerges when anyone can claim to be a stakeholder for any issue, we have no way to qualify positions and make judgments with respect to the public interest.

At some level, yes, we are all stakeholders for every public decision. But for policy guidance and real decisions, participants in the public sphere must be qualified actors. Citizenship is not an opinion game, it requires research and argument. Stakeholders should be required to demonstrate evidence of standing, as the Western tradition requires for legal action. A collective and public evaluation system can be designed, of course. But the social system of legitimate standing for evaluation must be worked out for the evaluation to be credible and action-worthy.

We have such a system today in the Colaboratory of Democracy.