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How technology can empower Democracy

By Pradeep Ranaweera

Ensuring democratic governance is not taking a bus ride; you get in, buy your ticket, and wait for the driver to take you to your destination safely, while you mind your own business or fall asleep. Instead, it is like becoming a violinist in a symphony orchestra; follow the command of the conductor, and you must also play your part– or there will be no orchestra.

Technology Can!

Ancient Greeks kept their states small so that they enjoyed the power to raise their hand to choose their leaders. Today, technological optimists are notoriously famous for their belief that our future can be shaped by technology for good. However, experience has shown that using technology for assisting complex social issues has not been easy. Instead of a naïve confidence, what requires is challenging new technologies to prove their capacity to deal with the complexity of contemporary issues at hand. Often, fixing the problems and flaws of our democracies through the use of information technology has been experimented and talked about since half a decade now. Often called direct democracy, its mission is to bring back the confidence of the people in their system of governance. The tech world is keen to propose solutions to lack of transparency, increasing inequalities, and the public sentiment that small elite of politicos and corporates have a strong grip over the populace.

This public resentment was evident in the sharp rise of nationalist politics with authoritarian inclinations. Increasing polarization and he erosion of the middle ground seems, quite ironically, not in sync with the times where everything is the world is said to be merging as borders are disappearing. Fostering democracy, as a useful and inclusive way for a country to be governed requires the active participation of the civil society, not just in a tokenistic representation of it, but a wide spectrum of the society from urban centres to peripheral communities. Such broad participation of people in the country’s governance can be made possible by available technology. Some of the potential methods and challenges are discussed below.

Politician in the Age of Information

It is quite an established cliché that we live in an age of information. How has the outburst of media shaped politics? Professional politicians have become masters of playing what can be called a ‘the media  

game’ – listen to the echo of public opinion and shout out it loud and clear so that people are tricked to believe that they are speaking on behalf of the people. This explains why people don’t take political manifestos as seriously as before. As politicians are busy echoing the noise in the room than delivering outcomes in terms of their manifestos or official commitments, it is long-term policy focus and sustained policy consistency that suffer.

However, there are myriad ways that the benefits of ICT revolution can be put to good use by politicians, first to listen to the people better, adjust policies accordingly and improve transparency. A lot of public opinion is expressed on social media platforms that are increasingly called ‘echo chambers’ for, on social media, the algorithms behind what we see works hard to ensure that we always hears what we like to see. Politicians as well as political parties may fall into this pitfall, if they do not employ a device to listen to a fair cross section of the public opinion. What is necessary is a way to empower the public opinion as a single voice that constructively criticises politicians for their actions, statements and decisions. Politicians today need to feel the pressure for what they do or say (or not do or not say). Information technology is the way to do that.

Adopt Measurable Performance Systems

Globally, voters seem to be getting disillusioned. In the developed world, there is, on average, a nearly 10 % drop of voter turn out to elections since early 1990s as revealed in the website of Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). To regain the trust of the people, governments are challenged to adopt a new system. What if we consider running a country as a measurable project, with clearly identified criteria to measure the success? With well-defied macro and micro economic metrics, and clear Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for social welfare etc. can be the foundation elements of such an approach. United Nations has identified the 2030 agenda with clear set of targets that can be locally adopted. Sri Lanka became one of the first countries to identify localised goals when President Sirisena appointed a Committee of Experts to define local goals, taking the UN goals into consideration. Once its final report is released, the government, through Sustainable Development Council, can monitor the country’s performance by employing a transparent and wide-spectrum ICT platform. If Sri Lanka adopts such a framework, all political parties, and campaigns can articulate their position on each KPI and how, when and with what cost they will achieve them?

Implementing these measures need an open and a bold mind. Can Sri Lanka rise to let people decide on policy initiatives directly, through their smart phone and computers?