Andy Williamson will be speaking at the FixEurope Campus in Berlin (October 21-24). He is an internationally recognised expert in digital democracy, innovation and transforming engagement. An experienced facilitator, consultant, researcher and commentator focussing on digital, society and policy, Andy has a passion for finding innovative ways to make democracy work better for all of us. He is the Founder of Democratise, and is amongst others the Chair of Do-it UK and a Governor of the Democratic Society.
What do you call an ‘intimate’ democracy?
Traditional hierarchical, power-based democracy and governance is dying. The old systems are arrogant, controlling and no longer appropriate. These systems are no longer fit for purpose. But it’s not simple to change this because of the power vested in the current system. Whilst society remains stratified, power remains in the hands of the few and democracy focussed on ‘doing to’ not ‘doing with’. It’s more paternalism than partnership. The misuse of power erodes democratic legitimacy yet it, in an ironic twist, the dislocation it creates gives those with power even more of it.
Distributed power, used well, lies at the heart of the opportunity. We talk of civic dislocation but this is dislocation from the formal structures of government and politics, not from civic action, protest or neighbourhood volunteering. Intimate democracy means shifting our democratic systems to a model that values a wider contribution from more people and which lends itself to collaboration and co-creativity. This journey is accelerated by new digital and social media, they bring people closer to the conversation, making it easier to connect, share and aggregate knowledge. But ultimately intimate democracy is a cultural shift supported by new ways of thinking about power relations. It is the human-scale change in our social and cultural relationships and the shifts in power relations that will accelerate, disrupt and embed lasting transformation.
What obstacles do you think prevent individuals from becoming active citizens? How can they be overcome?
To answer this technically, the biggest barrier (when we ask) appears to be ‘time’. However, we can’t take this reason entirely at face value. We can always find the time if our motivation is great enough. What we clearly lack is the motivation to participate in traditional democracy.
Whilst some countries proudly boast higher levels of voter turnout and trust than others, this is just sleep walking behind the crowd, following the dinosaurs towards the comet. Right across Europe we’ve seen voters looking towards parties that challenge the incumbent political traditions on both left and right. You can’t force people to engage on your terms, especially when they are distrusting of you and disengaged from the process. This is also not the fault of citizens, it is the fault of increasingly remote technocratic governments and the emergence of an almost self-regenerating political elite. People have walked away from these out-of-touch systems but they have not walked away from the things they care about, they just do it in ways that the system doesn’t recognise or respect.
If society has changed then we need to ask ourselves how we can harness this power-shift to grow, mature and deliver a new kind of democracy, one that is active and based on deliberation, inclusion and co-creation. On a very practical level we have to consider ways to incentivise engagement, ranging from being genuinely appreciative and responsive of people giving their time and energy and making it clear what is in it for participants through to adopting some principles of gaming theory and gameplay that can provide direct incentives, rewards and even competitions for participants. We have to build collaborative processes where people don’t simply complete a survey or attend a meeting, they co-design the process. All the way through, governments partner with citizens. The process is transparent and open, the results are clear and the actions justified by the process.
What’s the most pressing issue to fix in Europe today?
Modern democracy is complex and complicated. Different places have different challenges, problems and solutions, democracy is at its heart culturally constructed around where we live and reflects our wider societal concerns, norms and expectations. But it is also remarkable that, across Europe at least, we share many of the same concerns and challenges. Trust is falling, voter turnout is falling and, as we saw in the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, there is an increasing disconnect between traditional politics and issues-based democracy.
If we are to turn this situation around, build democratic participation and restore trust, then we have to make democracy attractive to the people it affects, which is all of us. To do this we need news ways of working, new skills and a willingness to let go of control. We have to accept that democracy is not a ‘one size fits all’ commodity and that no one has all the answers. New solutions must emerge from the collective and so we must:
- reconsider our relationship with people and place;
- challenge the elitism of democracy;
- understand that process and interface affect the outcomes of engagement; and
- build spaces for courageous leadership