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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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