If We Want to Use Technology to Renew Democracy, We're Starting in the Wrong Place
The way we democratically govern ourselves doesn’t make sense. If we are seriously contemplating getting into a car that doesn’t have a driver, for heaven's sake, why on earth would we govern ourselves with a system that has not fundamentally changed in a century or more? It seems preposterous that often on the strength of little more than vague commitments and charisma we send our elected leaders off for years at a time and pay little attention until the next election rolls around. Winston Churchill said “[d]emocracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” but in this golden age of information technology, does it have to be?
The attempt to use technology to improve the electoral process is not new. Long before the infamous hanging chad debacle of the 2000 US election, attention has focused on election day as the place to start the technological renewal of democracy. Election day is just one day out of the 1500-to-1800 days which make up a typical electoral mandate. Once the counting of votes is complete, it is already the day when the breaking of campaign promises begins. A better method of counting who voted for whom is closing the barn door after the horses have bolted. Besides, if the reason we would do that is to improve voter participation, let's do what our Australian friends did in 1924: simply make voting compulsory.
"A better method of counting who voted for whom is closing the barn door after the horses have bolted."
If we are to break the siege of vested interests keeping the system exactly the way it is — that is, those who benefit from its current dysfunction — it is necessary to concentrate the forces of change at the weakest point. At what particular windmill are we to tilt, then? Candidates for public office are at their most vulnerable when the are seeking election -- they will say and do pretty much anything to get elected on the assumption that whatever they say is often quickly forgotten when the campaign ends. Candidates are really counting on this fundamental lack of accountability inherent in the system.
Let us turn this human weakness into a strength. Imagine that promises are made during the campaign are retained with absolute accuracy. Let’s track these over time so progress is clearly understood. Let’s also take performance with respect to the complete list of a candidate's commitments and turn it into an integrated, easy-to-use score that rates overall effectiveness. Finally, let’s put all of that in a place — a mobile device? — where it can be accessed in real time throughout the mandate and right up to election day.
"Imagine that whatever promises are made during the campaign were retained with absolute accuracy..."
There are a host of positive consequences: if promises are recorded and tracked in this manner, candidates are going to be much more careful about the promises they make in the first place. Once politicians realize there will be no spinning failure into success in the face of objective data, they will focus on what they can really do and promise that, next time, instead of something more fanciful. Real-time tracking of progress means politicians will stay focused on their commitments over the entire mandate. When voters realize that promises are going to be easier to understand and taken seriously by those who make them, it will be easier to identify the candidate who most closely matches their own hopes for the future and vote accordingly.
"Real-time tracking of progress means politicians will stay focused on their commitments over their mandate."
Finally, is there ever a good time to break a campaign promise? Absolutely. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously broke a promise to keep the US out of World War II within months of taking office. Many believe it was the right thing to do. However, FDR was an extraordinary politician in extraordinary times which demanded extraordinary measures. But let’s not kid ourselves. For the most part, we would be better off if our generally much more ordinary politicians working in much more ordinary times simply ‘planned their work, and then worked their plan.'"