Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Toward a New Democracy

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 22, 2000

There has been a lot of talk about how the internet will revitalize democracy and more than a few sites have been established to promote that concept. But with some few exceptions these sites have dedicated themselves to politics as usual, focusing on candidates, leaders and parties.

There seems to be an unstated consensus among digital democracy advocates that the internet will simplify, but not radically revise, the democratic system of government. Online voting, political campaign websites, special interest group websites, email your representative websites - these form the bulk of democracy online.

But if the internet has taught us anything over the last few years, it has certainly taught us this: that to obtain the best of the new technology, we should think not of new ways to do old things, but rather, of ways to do new things entirely.

Internet democracy should be the same. The potential of online technology affords us an opportunity to revise our democracy from the inside out. In what follows, let me take a look at one way new technologies may move us toward a new democracy.

Why should we do this?

Today's government suffers from many of the same complaints that plagued other pre-internet enterprises. It's too large, say some. It's too slow. It doesn't react to my concerns. It doesn't react at all.

The signs of voter malaise are evident. Voter turnout - especially and regional and local elections - is low. Public meetings are sparsely attended. Politicians are viewed as opportunistic and self serving, bent more on their own interests than the public good.

Some critics argue that this is the essential nature of government, and argue consequently that government should be reduced or eliminated where possible. Others argue that government has been taken over by special interests, and that lobbying or election funding should be restricted or limited.

None of these concerns will be changed through online voting or even through a wider range of online government services. The fact that I can vote online will not change the person I vote for, The fact that I can pay my taxes online will not ensure that these taxes are lower or are spent more effectively.

Today's politicians are already overwhelmed by telephone calls and mail, particularly when a hot issue rises to the surface. Do we really believe that these same politicians will be moved by even more contact through mass email campaigns?

Proponents of an internet-age democracy often point to the virtues of direct democracy and suggest that online voting and political processes will enable each citizen to have a hand in the shaping of policy. But direct democracy so envisioned simply replaces one large dinosaur with another; it replaces mass election campaigns with mass referendum campaigns.

No, the internet will revolutionize democracy only by making government smaller and more localized.

Smaller Government

By smaller I do not mean that government services will be shut down or privatized - there is a role for public policy in everything from roads to schools to health care, and the simple elimination of government departments will not lead to better services.

Rather, by smaller, I mean the breaking up of the government monolith itself. Why should a single public entity control every aspect of government? A voter's interest in housing policy may be very different from that same voter's interest in the environment.

The form of government envisioned here is perhaps best described as distributed government. That is to say, the functions of government are distributed across a number of independent public entities.

We already practise distributed government to some extent. In Alberta, for example, civic affairs are managed by municipal governments, schools are run by school boards and health care is managed by regional health care boards.

There is no reason why we could not envision a further distribution of government on a wider scale. Why not, for example, create independent parks and recreaction boards to oversee our public lands? Or transportation boards to manage highways, railways and airports?

Natural divisions already exist, and are defined in contemporary government as 'ministries' or 'departments'. The idea here is that these entities would be disassociated from the central government, and that their membership would be directly elected by the public at large.

The creation of autonomous entities allows the voter to be more selective when electing board members. An elected official's credentials count for more in such votes, for example; we would be more likely to elect doctors to run the health boards, teachers and principles to run the school board, park rangers to run the parks board, and civil engineers to run the transportation board.

Moreover, because they are smaller, such entities would be more responsive and accountable more directly to the voter. They are less likely to be swayed by conflicting interests originating elsewhere in government.

And finally, smaller entities are more conducive to localized government.

Localized Government

Think of localized government and you probably think of regions, cities and towns, even neighbourhoods. And while these are all important components of localized government, they are not the only component.

Localized government, thought of generally, is government restricted to a limited constituency. A town government, for example, is elected only by the citizens of a particular town, and in turn, governs only those affairs particular to that town.

Localized government is effective because it is able to focus on the specialized needs of a particular community. One town's desire for a revitalized Main Street may contrast with another town's desire to clean up the riverbank.

Localized government needs to operate within a broad set of parameters - local governments should not be able to suspent someone's civil rights, for example, or to declare itself an autonomous republic. But within these constraints a wide range of autonomy is both possible and desirable.

Now while we think of localized government as applying to cities and towns, there is no need to restrict our thinking to geographic entities. The rise of the internet has constributed to the rise of sectoral communities based on subject area rather than proximity.

For example, the religious community has been able to establish itself as a distinct community on the internet (see The Soul of Cyberspace, for example). True, the community of Pastors and Priests has always had a distinct identity, but online communications have made increased cooperation and collaboration possible.

Today's online sectoral communities encompass professional associations, industry groups, service agencies and more. Such groups already have at least some sort of distinct identity and online communications are melding them into entities in their own right.

The distribution of government departments and the rise of sectoral communities complement each other. The creation of an autonomous public sector transportation agency would draw together those people involved or interested in transportation policy, creating the dynamics of a small self governing virtual city.

The internet itself points to how a distributed system of democracy would work. Independent bodies, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the International Standards organization (ISO) already exist to influence, and in some cases control, the development of policies and procedures.

A system of distributed government is an extension of this model, an extension moving the authority of government from a centralized body to one reflecting the interests and concerns of those directly impacted by such policies.

From Here to There

No fundamental change is easy or sudden, and such also would be the case in the transition to distributed government. The transition of power from a centralized authority would be incremental, with the mechanisms for governance established before a transfer of power would take place.

Because power is being transferred from a central government to a distributed entity, the central government must establish the framework for the creation of distributed entities. Such a framework would mirror the creation of town or city charters: certain things, such as an established population base, a constitution, and founding officers, must be in place before an entity is recognized.

Once the mechanism is in place, the initiative for the creation of communities of interest would originate within that community itself. It would be up to parks and recreation societies, for example, to become sufficiently self organized to present themselves as capable of assuming governmental responsibilities.

Upon the creation and recognition of a community of interest, a gradual transfer of powers and responsibilities would occur. In the first instance, authority for managing relevant legislation would be passed to the new body, then the power to propose new legislation, and finally, the right to approve legislation in certain selected areas.

In order for these to occur, such units would be required to create mechanisms for self government. A wide variety of models is possible, and it is likely no two entities would adopt the same mechanism.

In many cases, such communities of interest would themselves fragment into international, national and regional entities. Legislative authority would tend to devolve to the lowest possible stratum, while issues of wide ranging concern would remain under the mandate of the larger umbrella bodies.

Funding Distributed Government

Under our current system, no matter how much legislative authority is devolved, power remains with the large central government because it controls the allocation of resources. The final stage of a transfer of authority from a centralized government to a distributed government, therefore, would be the transfer of funding mechanisms.

Today, funding flows from taxation through the central authority - which sets priorities - then down to the individual department. In a distributed government, the allocation of funding - and therefore of priorities - would be set by individual taxpayers.

Many mechanisms are possible, but perhaps the easiest and most obvious is to define these priorities at the point of payment. As our taxation system moves online, individuals may determine not only how much they pay, but also, where it will be spent.

The 'how much' question is the stickiest, because people will want to pay the least possible for the most services. Some people - inevitably - would elect to pay nothing. But others would opt to pay a certain percentage of their income, or a certain percentage of sales, in order to pay for government services.

In a distributed government model, the mechanism for setting and collecting taxes would be managed by a taxation authority. Such an authority would probably draw a wide range of interest and participation, and would endeavour to balance between citizens' desire to pay low taxes and their desire to obtain government services.

Funding would be divided into two components: internal, and external, to the distributed authority.

Internal funding mechanisms would vary from authority to authority and would often resemble dues, association fees, or fees for services. Money collected by the authority would be used to fund programs intended only for members of that authority.

External funding is, in essence, the tax money received by that authority. Such funding is, in the first instance, intended to cover the cost of services provided by that authority to the general public. The roads authority, for example, would collect external funding in order to build and maintain roads.

Individual and corporate taxpayers would determine at source how much money to allocate to each authority. When paying taxes, an individual could decide to allocate 10 percent to military, 30 percent to schools, and so on. Another individual, with different priorities, would elect different percentages.


The resulting system of government is to a large degree a system of no government. Government - viewed as the entity which tells us what to do - is replaced by a set of entities which perform publicly funded services for the public good.

As such a system matures, the different branches of government compete for our attention, our participation, and our tax dollars. While preserving the intent of government - that of pooling our resources for the common good - such a system to a large degree removes the involuntary nature of government.

True, zero-government advocates will find even this minimal form of government unsatisfying, but no system of public enterprise would satisfy them. On the other hand, advocates of a centralized and paternalistic system would be unsatisfied, because such a system is much more difficult for self-appointed guardians of the public good to control.

By devolving into what is essentially an anarchy of public goods and services, we obtain as much as we can of both worlds, though - offering choice and freedom to participate (or not), while offering the range and nature of government services needed in an advanced society.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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