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Have our elected representatives lost their political licence to operate?

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Paul Vittles FRSA responds to the RSA ANZ blogging challenge, hosted in collaboration with 92Y as part of the Seven Days of Genius Festival - a global festival celebrating the power of new ideas. Paul tackles the issues of trust, democracy an representation and asks: have our elected representatives lost their 'political licence to operate?'

Our parliamentary system of 'Representation Democracy' is broken and has been in decline for many years in terms of trust, credibility, efficiency & effectiveness. In times like these, people often look for leaders, including Presidents, to restore their faith but Trump is clearly no source of confidence.

However, thankfully, the past 30 years has seen the inexorable rise of new forms of 'Participative Democracy'. The new kid on the block is still seeking opportunities to take centre stage but it is performing at a theatre near you if you take a closer look.  

I have been heavily involved in, and at times pioneered, the development of Community Engagement & Public Participation as professional disciplines.

The digital age has spawned hundreds of ground-up groups that share the core engagement philosophy that 'people have a human right to have their say and be involved in decisions that affect their lives'; and become more effective at putting this philosophy into practice. 

We engagement professionals learned long ago that 'representative democracy' is a misnomer. 'Representation democracy' is a more accurate term to describe what we have. It is rare that any parliament in any country has elected politicians who are remotely representative of the population they serve. Indeed, fewer than 0.05% of the population ever stand for any kind of public office. As soon as anyone even seriously thinks about standing as a councillor, MP, Senator or President, they are already untypical of the population and guaranteed to be unrepresentative.

Some politicians hold on to the delusion that they are 'representative'. Others accept that this is not the case but that they are 'a representative' of their electors' views. However, the evidence tends to suggest that most elected representatives are not actually very good at representing their electors' views.

The Brexit Referendum and its interpretation was not an example of positive participative democracy in practice, it was an example of the end of any semblance of credibility or validity for a group of elected representatives who cannot lead or listen. 

Thankfully, there are more and more examples of life going on and progress being made despite the politicians, certainly not because of them.

Democracy has to be 'more than a vote' because voting mechanisms are but one or two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needs a dozen pieces before it's clear what the picture is. Voting for councillors, MPs or Senators is no less valid but no more important than a well conducted participative engagement process.

Sadly, we have politicians who don't understand the philosophy and practice of engagement and public participation, even though it is happening all around them every day. They hang on to old beliefs, old institutions, old ways.

We have politicians who think that a referendum is the ultimate expression of citizens' views, and the source of solutions to complex problems as with Brexit. Apart from the Brexit result being split down the middle (and yet politicians keep saying it was a "clear result" when it clearly wasn't and "the people have spoken" when most politicians still don't know what they said) a referendum is a poor tool for participative democracy.

Why do we put up on a pedestal a tool for taking a complex problem and reducing it to a single question and yet dismiss sample surveys as "mere polls" when they can ask 10 questions and provide some insight in the cross-analysis? I would posit that politicians often don't actually want to listen, so they avoid asking the questions that will give them insight rather than just asking one question which simply raises more questions. 

If we gave any credence whatsoever to what these 'elected representatives' say and do, we would be heading backwards and not moving forwards into a wonderful world of 'affordable sustainability'.

It seems heretical to question the legitimacy of elected politicians but question it we must. We often hear politicians challenging energy & utility businesses about their 'social licence to operate' or their 'environmental licence to operate'. Based on their poor track record in recent years, I think we have a right to question our elected representatives and their 'political licence to operate'!

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  • I think maybe we should look to the example of Switzerland which allows for citizen referendums and debates as a matter of everyday political culture.  There people feel empowered as they can have a voice on a regular basis so issues are not suppressed only to surface in one off referenda like the Brexit vote. 


    Paul, what do you think of the Switzerland model?

    • Sorry, I missed this in March 2018 Henry...but lots has happened since then, with citizens' assemblies booming, and lots of other initiatives to widen and deepen democracy. Democracy still in crisis though because, fundamentally, those who have power & influence don't want to share it, and the biggest single source of political power - national government - still a destructive binary bunfight within a broken system. 

  • For democracy to be truly representative, citizens should be directly involved in the decision-making process.  But, none of us has ever been trained in the ‘art’ of decision-making; no de facto standard/process exists for any decision, involving any number of participants and which always makes the best choice. 

    Now, a new, innovative App “Informed Choice – ic!” provides a structured format (for any subject and any number of participants), wherein each person’s views can be expressed in a universally understandable and transparent ‘language’.  From this data the best choice can always be identified.   

    Public accountability coupled with unity and commitment would thus be achieved under the all-pervading, yet benign power of transparency.  Trust would be restored, decisions made on the issues alone (devoid of emotive ‘noise’) and many other, hitherto unrealised benefits would ensue.  For example, in recruitment, a ‘model’ candidate could be introduced to gauge each candidate, innocence could be proven, or discrimination eliminated.  Sunshine is the best disinfectant.  Being freely available on a web-site devoid of commercial influences (like www), ic! is beyond reproach.  Altogether, democracy can be repaired, as well as propelled to new, and better, unassailable heights.  Indeed, through ic!, government of the people, by the people and for the people can be realised, restoring political licences to operate.  

    • Thanks for this reply Michael - which I missed first time around, sorry! 


      I find this comment fascinating: "None of us have ever been trained in the 'art' of decision-making...". 


      I think that many people are trained in the 'art of decision making', whether via formal training or life experience, although it certainly could be improved. However, the best way to strengthen a muscle is of course to exercise it, so let's give people more opportunities.


      I once worked for a council that had the courage to allocate budgets to local communities and let them decide how to spend the money - their money. At the time, we didn't know of any other council doing this, so it was a brave step. In the first year, virtually every community committee wanted to spend almost all of their money on safety and security measures, which made councillors nervous, but they stuck with it, and in subsequent years there was great diversity in choices made. 


      It seems hard to get the level of trust needed to have decentralised decision-making and genuine empowerment.

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