A model for digital democracy

A photo of the UK's Palace of Westminster seen from across the River Thames at dusk
The Palace of Westminster, home to Parliament

This post was written by Stevie Benton, Wikimedia UK’s head of external relations, was originally published on the Demos blog here

A sense that all citizens of a state have a stake, and a say, in the process of government is in some ways crucial to our sense of identity as citizens. It is something that history suggests we as a nation are both proud and protective of. People fought and died for the rights and responsibilities offered by democracy.

But there is something of a disconnect between the democratic process as it exists and the levels of public engagement with that process that democracy demands in order to be truly representative. There is more to a fully functional, healthy democracy than placing an X in a box on election day.

If the latest from the Hansard Society is any measure, democracy in the UK is in trouble. However, for quite some time there has been an expectation that the internet would welcome a new era of mass participation in the democratic process. Digital democracy is an idea which has been widely discussed, but successful implementation on any large scale remains elusive.

Some international initiatives have proved to be worthwhile, particularly when it comes to politicians and governments increasing their openness and transparency: one example being the Open Government Partnership. The challenge is finding ways to engage with large numbers of citizens in a meaningful way which gives them real power and influence over policy and legislation away from the ballot box.

This is where the wiki model can lend a hand. Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. In just over 13 years it has grown exponentially and now boasts over 4.5 million articles in English, and more than 31 million articles in total across more than 280 languages. Behind the articles there is a vast community of people who write and edit content, share openly licensed images and – the area that’s most interesting in this context – write and enact policy.

Carl Miller, Research Director of The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos, contacted Wikimedia UK to draw our attention to a recent call for evidence from the Speaker of the House of Commons relating to digital democracy, which the Speaker himself discussed at an event last night.

We wondered if the community-driven ethos of Wikipedia could be replicated in a way that could make a meaningful contribution to the digital democracy landscape. (By the way, if you have an interest in this topic then Carl’s recent piece for Wired is a must-read.)

Wikipedia is by no means a democracy. It is not driven by a concept of the most popular idea, or the most popular position, being accepted, either as content or as policy. Rather, it is a consensus-driven process which is open to all. It is rare for either a Wikipedia article, or a Wikipedia policy, to truly be finished. The idea is that all contributions build on those that came before.

Demos and Wikimedia UK want to see if this open, consensus-driven process can work when applied to digital democracy. We have now jointly embarked on an ongoing attempt to take the collective know-how and experience of Wikipedia editors – Wikipedians – and attempt to crowdsource a submission to the Speaker’s call for evidence.

While I’m unsure if this has been tried before, early indications are that this can work. At the time of writing there have been more than 50 edits made to the page and its linked talk page. The call is open for anyone who would like to get involved, and I’d encourage you to do so. Simply follow this link, click the edit button and edit the copy. You can also view, and participate in, the discussion which is helping to shape the evidence, which is here.

What I find personally exciting about this is that neither Wikimedia UK nor Demos know what the finished evidence will look like. Neither organisation is trying to influence the course of the evidence, beyond encouraging as wide a body of participation as possible. It will reflect the collective, distilled wisdom of the crowd – which to me, is the essence of democracy.

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