The technology of democracy

Democracy is in peril with innovations in technology running too far ahead of innovations in democracy’s processes

Arun Maira

[Photograph from]

The Aadhaar project was a tour de force of innovation and organisation. Nandan Nilekani inspired a large network of organisations and individuals to collaborate to provide over a billion Indians with biometric identity cards. These individuals were not in one organisation under his command-and-control, yet they worked together very well. Many technological innovations were combined. Over a billion Indians in towns and villages throughout the length and breadth of India were enrolled with their biometric data. The successful implementation of the Aadhaar project is now raising some contentious socio-political issues that were beyond the scope of the project. Data privacy is one. Nilekani rightly says that how the identity data that is now available is used or misused will depend on other organisations.

The government says that Aadhaar is the solution to problems of leakage in many welfare schemes. It is now possible to ensure that benefits will reach only the intended beneficiaries. However, Aadhaar will not provide the answers to questions of who should be the beneficiaries of the programmes. These questions require complex, and often contentious, considerations of deprivations and entitlements. The concept of a ‘universal basic income’ is being promoted by some economists as the way to side-step socio-political complexities. But, how much is sufficient as a ‘basic’ income? And if everyone is to be given this, regardless of whether they need it or not, the total amount the state must provide can be too large for its budget. Thus, seemingly rational economics cannot side-step emotional, socio-political debates about who should be the beneficiaries of state-provided assistance. Moreover, such complex societal issues do not have digital solutions and technology cannot provide the answer.

Complex societal issues do not have digital solutions and technology cannot provide the answer

Powerful, new technologies inevitably raise issues about the unintended harm they can cause, and about their misuse if they fall into the wrong hands. The Manhattan Project, undertaken during World War II, led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first nuclear weapons, was a remarkable story of technological innovation and teamwork. It unleashed the seemingly limitless power of nuclear energy. It also caused an enormous challenge for regulation of the technology and governance of its ownership and use, which has not yet been solved. Tim Berners-Lee, often called the founder of the World Wide Web, has recounted the remarkable story of technical innovations and collaboration among scientists and administrators in many countries that created the web, in his book Weaving the Web. Lately, he has expressed his dismay about the concentration of economic power along with the commercialisation of the internet.

The proliferation of digital communication and computation technologies is raising enormous issues of data privacy and data misuse. Aadhaar is inevitably embroiled in them. The regulation of the internet, social media, and other so-called ‘smart’ technologies, is a global issue, which will require resolution of contentious issues about citizens’ rights versus government responsibilities, as well as about private property rights vis-à-vis public interests. Contending principles are involved. Computer calculations will not resolve these matters. Democratic deliberation is required.

Process first, then technology

The first wave of proliferation of computational technologies occurred in the 1990s, with the deployment of personal computers and laptops in organisations. Companies appointed chief technology officers and allocated large budgets for purchase and maintenance of computer equipment and training staff. Most were disappointed that the benefits of business performance improvement were not commensurate with their expenditures. Several management gurus rose to point out that merely lathering technology into old processes will not produce results. The underlying processes must be re-engineered to improve outcomes. A large industry of consultants grew to help with process engineering to improve efficiencies and reduce time to market.  

The dynamic changes in industries that were brought about by new technologies as well as more global competition in the late 1990s and into the new millennium raised demands for ‘innovation’. Then companies began to appoint chief innovation officers and tried to improve processes and cultures for innovation. The demands for both, innovation and process efficiency, at the same time, created a management conundrum. Innovation, by definition, must produce something unexpected, something new, at the end of the process. Whereas, processes engineered for efficiency are required to produce a pre-determined outcome without any wasted energy or time. For the latter, ‘six-sigma’, class of processes, variation is the enemy and must be eliminated. Whereas, a process of innovation is successful when it produces a variation and preferably a large one.

It is necessary to appreciate the significant difference between these two types of processes when considering the use of technology by governments. Lately ‘e-governance’ has become a buzzword. Technology firms are winning large e-governance contracts from governments in many countries. E-governance may be a misnomer for what these firms are assisting governments to do. With so-called e-governance, governments are improving service-delivery to citizens. Service delivery processes must produce pre-defined outcomes without hassling consumers. Governments are also improving their internal efficiencies, as they should, to deliver the outcomes. 

For good democratic governance, citizens should speak and be heard

‘Governance’, on the other hand, is a process of making change, shaping policies, and taking decisions. What is called ‘e-governance’ may be better described as ‘e-government’, since it deals almost entirely with delivery of services by government, rather than processes of governance. In designing e-government processes, it seems best to eliminate human interference. Whereas for good democratic governance, citizens should speak and be heard. Human participation is the essence of good democratic governance. Moreover, the purpose of a democratic decision-making process is to take in inputs from many diverse people, and to let their interactions produce an innovative, best solution. Imposing a pre-determined solution onto the public is not democracy.

The quality of public services in Indian cities is very poor. Technology can improve service delivery and therefore the government is rightly pushing the use of technology in service delivery processes to make cities ‘smarter’. A deeper problem in Indian cities, however, is the lack of a plan that addresses the needs of all citizens and resolves the many trade-offs that must be made democratically to satisfy them. For example, what should the limited road-space be used for? More space for pedestrians? Or space for small businesses that serve local citizens (hawkers)? Or more space for the movement and parking of cars? Or, where should a waste-disposal facility be located? In whose backyard? These are the difficult, and necessary decisions that must be made to make the city a good city for everyone.

Technology’s unintended consequences for democracy 

Some people believe that technology can provide the solution for democratic decision-making. When everyone has a smartphone, all can give their preferences on any issue with the click of a button. Thus, they say, governments can easily determine what the people want.

For direct democracy to work, those called upon to vote on an issue must understand the implications

However, for direct democracy to work, those called upon to vote on an issue must understand the implications of the decision proposed. They must be explained these implications in terms they understand. And they must be willing to give their time to understand these implications, and not merely vote for what they instantly like.

The problems with direct democracy have become evident in the referendum for Brexit in 2016. All the people who voted did not have all the facts. In a discussion in New York in 2004 about the condition of democracy in the world that I participated in, a woman from California bemoaned the deterioration of democracy in her state into a series of direct ballots on various issues, each explained either in thick documents that nobody had time to read, or in contentious, partisan media debates that illuminated nothing more than the hate the opposing parties had for each other. She said that it was a fallacy to think that voters who had been to university (she herself had a PhD) were ‘educated’ about the issues they were expected to vote on. The processes of public debate were failing to educate the people about these issues and hence, all votes, even of the so-called educated elite, were merely an expression of their personal prejudices. In that way, California, she said, was no different to India in that people, whether educated or not, voted according to their identities and their prejudices.

Rapid advances in digital, computational and communication technologies are beginning to have profound impacts on democratic societies. One is intrusion into citizens’ privacy, along with the power of surveillance these technologies give to states and other actors. Another is the concern with the right to free speech that is being misused by trolls, hate-mongers, and other anti-social elements on social media to create an uncivil society. On social media, such people can ‘stuff the ballot boxes’ by using technology to multiply their votes.

Increasingly smart algorithms know ‘who’ each person is and give each person exactly what she wants. They nudge people towards advertisements of products and towards opinions and news that people ‘like’. The efficiency of social media algorithms is a boon for advertisers and sellers, and for political campaigners too. Undoubtedly, the efficiency of algorithms makes life easy for consumers. They need not search too far to get what they want. The problem is that while people get more and more of the ‘same’, they become more isolated from people who do not think like themselves. They no longer hear those across the walls of the boxes into which algorithms have put them. Thus, social media is exacerbating the problems with direct polling of citizens’ views, rather than easing them. It is accelerating divisiveness in societies, just when, in an increasingly global world, we must learn to live together harmoniously.

Social media and the internet are providing too much technology while too little attention is being paid to the architecture of processes of democratic deliberation. As in the 1990s, when organisations realised that they must fix the process design first before applying technology, so too now, the processes of democracy require more attention.

The architecture of democracy’s processes

Democracies require an architecture of institutions and processes to support them. Some institutions provide the vertical pillars. Other institutions provide the lateral binders that give strength and stability to the democratic structure. In the popular discourse about democracy, and while spreading around the idea of democracy that the West, especially the US, has made its mission, too much attention has been given to the vertical institutions required for people to elect their leaders, and too little lately to the lateral institutions required to create harmony among diverse people.  

Majoritarian democracy is not designed to find solutions for complex problems with many points of view

Universal franchise, elections, and political parties fighting each other to win elections are institutions that enable a society to determine who is in the majority and has the right to govern. The problem with majoritarian democracy is that it is not designed to find solutions for complex problems with many points of view. A government with a majority, especially a large one, can become as authoritarian as a dictatorial one. It can deny minorities their rights for their views to be considered while framing laws and resolving contentious issues. The people have spoken once; that should be enough. Now, they must leave it to the government in power. A government can justify the exclusion of the minority because it was elected by a majority.

However, by excluding the views of the many that did not vote for it—and quite often these may even be the majority in first-past-the-post elections—a government reduces its own effectiveness. Those dissatisfied with the governments’ decisions go to courts wherever courts are independent, like in India. However, courts are not set up to find policy solutions to complex problems and must interpret the laws as written. In India, ministers of the government have begun to complain that India’s courts are venturing into matters of governance that they should not. This is a sign that something is missing in India’s democracy. 

[When a small majority determines how all must go (52% versus 48% for Brexit), referendums become yet another example of the problem with majoritarian democracy rather than a good solution. Photograph by Sam under Creative Commons]

When problems are complex, with many inter-acting forces and several contending stakeholders, good governance requires effective methods for people’s participation. Referendums of the entire electorate give an illusion of good democracy—that the people have been consulted. Because the opinions of masses of people must be swayed, politicians on both sides of the referendum run populist campaigns appealing to the basest of instincts. Whereas, when the issue is complex, voters should be educated about what they are voting for. And then, when a small majority determines how all must go (52% versus 48% for Brexit), referendums become yet another example of the problem with majoritarian democracy rather than a good solution.

Healthy democracies need intermediate processes that lie between the open public sphere of civil society and the media on one side, and the formal, constitutionally established decision-making institutions, like parliaments and courts, on the other side. A free public sphere can raise issues. Social media has made it even freer. However, it cannot resolve them because people are not listening to each other. The formal institutions of democracy have become overburdened, as in India, because issues raised in the public sphere are not pre-digested by intermediate processes and institutions.

Deliberative democracy

In his book, The Price of Civilization: Economics and Ethics after the Fall (The Bodley Head, 2011), Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, laments that in America today, there is little systematic public deliberation and the public’s views are not taken seriously in the political process. He says that policy decisions are being adopted behind the backs of the public, often in direct contradiction of public opinion. Donald Trump was carried to the top by a wave of resentment of US citizens against elite policy-makers and politicians who, citizens believe, do not understand them, and whose arguments citizens cannot understand. A large trust deficit has emerged between democracy’s formal establishment and the people, in the US, and in Europe too, where ‘populist’ leaders are rising on an anti-establishment wave.

“For over a decade, the idea of deliberative democracy has attracted the attention of political theorists,” Michael Rabinder James observes in Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity, (University Press of Kansas, 2004). “The idea presents democracy, the rule of the people, not simply as a process in which citizens vote according to their pre-existing political preferences. Instead deliberative democrats envision citizens engaged in spirited discussions that inform and transform their political preferences before they step into the voting booth. Such discussions should, at minimum, allow citizens to obtain better information about which policies will best satisfy their individual or common interests. But more important, democratic discussion should go beyond gathering information to include dialogues aimed at understanding other participants’ situations, beliefs, and interests, along with vigorous debates meant to assess the desirability of proposed measures. More precisely such discussions should encourage citizens and their representatives to justify the measures they favour while criticising those they reject. The process should, ideally, proceed under conditions that all participants can accept as fair, thus mitigating the danger that more powerful participants will unfairly force others to alter their beliefs, interests, or preferences.”

Methods must be found to engage citizens, thoughtfully, with issues that matter to them

Methods must be found to engage citizens, thoughtfully, with issues that matter to them. How should raw public opinions be gathered from diverse constituents of a democratic society, and what should be the design of processes for their refinement? These are critical issues in designing processes for democratic deliberation in the 21st century.

Innovations to bring richness along with reach into democratic deliberation

The methods we have to communicate with each other can be described along a continuum of diminishing ‘richness’ with increasing ‘reach’. On one end is a dialogue between two persons. Very rich, but with reach only to one other. At the other end, we have the online reach of the internet and social media. Vast reach, but very shallow communication. In between are ‘vision workshops’ of dozens of people, and ‘large group interactive processes’ of perhaps hundreds, and many other such formats. These are designed for deeper deliberations than in conventional business and citizen meetings, and to enable agreements about visions and principles that can only be scratched at in the formality of conventional meetings. 

A selection of formats of meetings for bringing people together, from across the continuum of richness and reach, can be combined into larger processes for democratic deliberation. These processes must adhere to some basic principles of inclusive, deliberative democracy. James Fishkin, professor of communication and political science at Stanford University, describes three principles in his book, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (Oxford University Press, 2009). He says a good process must comply with three principles: political equality, deliberation, and mass participation.   

The first principle, political equality, requires that all who participate are considered equal in the deliberations. Those who have more—power, wealth, or education—must not overpower the voices of others. This is not easy because we are habituated to defer to them.

The second principle, deliberation, requires that people have the information required, that they listen to other points of view, and that they are able to advocate their own views too without being intimidated by the power of others. The conversations must be ‘rich’ in content, and in understanding of issues and of others.

The third principle, mass participation, requires reach for many be to be engaged—perhaps too many to enable richness in the deliberations.

Humanity’s aspirations are reaching much higher than they were at the time of Athenian democracy. The processes of democratic discussion that Athenians used, which for a long time have inspired Western democracies, are now considered faulty. They emphasised deliberation. But did not meet the requirement of political equality and mass participation. For instance, women and slaves were excluded from participation.

How should raw public opinions be gathered, and what should be the design of processes for their refinement? These are critical issues in designing processes for democratic deliberation in the 21st century. The mass of shallow information that comes from social media is too raw and not sufficiently ripe for refinement by deliberation in national assemblies of elected representatives in large countries.  

It is difficult to design an ideal process that fulfils Fishkin’s three principles. He recommends that institutions should be created to research, experiment, and develop new processes. At the Center for Deliberative Democracy in Stanford, Fishkin has been experimenting with a process he describes as Deliberative Polling, which he has tried in many countries, including the US, UK, Japan, and China. Another such institution is the Danish Board of Technology, an office set up by the Danish Parliament to offer continuing capacity to sponsor deliberative consultations. In its case, it is pursuing the concept of ‘consensus conferences’ which has been applied in many settings.

A large, looming threat to continuing growth of GDP globally is environmental degradation and climate change. Countries will simply run out of environmental resources to feed the GDP growth monster—resources of fresh water, land to dump waste, and healthy soil to grow food, etc. India, with its huge population and its accelerating economic growth, is among the most environmentally stressed countries in the world. Studies point out that if all the citizens of the developing world were to attain even the consumption norms of European and Japanese citizens (which are more frugal than average US consumption norms), in the next 25 years, humanity may need at least one more earth to support everyone. But we have only one. Therefore, the burning question for mankind is “How on Earth can we live together, with the one Earth that we have?”

The Bertelsmann Foundation of Germany has done a study of ‘Winning Strategies for a Sustainable Future’. Bertelsmann studied 35 countries around the world that appear to be leaders in developing strategies for sustainable growth. Bertelsmann examined the quality of their strategies, the frameworks for implementation, and results so far. Then the list was narrowed to five countries for deeper study. From the study of these 35 countries, and further insights from the five, Bertelsmann selected five key success factors. Two of these must be highlighted because they are the starting points of the process of faster improvement.

The first is that sustainability policy derives from an overriding concept and guiding principles that are made to permeate significant areas of politics and society. And ‘best practice’ to make this happen is to get specific in national debates about a new scorecard of progress. Effective scorecards are not merely lists of measures cobbled together. They have an overarching concept to integrate measures of growth, social impact, and environmental sustainability.

The second requirement for success is that sustainability policy must be developed and implemented in a participatory manner. Therefore, the task for countries is to develop new participatory formats. Not only must large numbers of people be engaged, but different constituents must listen to each other too. The country must have an integrative vision of its future to unite it and a balanced scorecard to guide it. The task, to be taken up by whosoever political leaders and policy-makers will lead their country, is to lead and facilitate this dialogue among the citizens of their country.

Many new processes are being tried and research into better processes is underway. Work in Stanford and in Denmark has been referred to earlier. Many other organisations in many countries have also become engaged with development of better processes for democratic deliberation that enable both more richness and more reach. In India, the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru is researching ways in which the internet and social media can facilitate democratic deliberations. The Planning Commission had constructed a process which combined techniques at both ends of the ‘richness-reach’ continuum to get inputs for the preparation of India’s 12th Five Year Plan. Nine-hundred-and-fifty civil society organisations, representing a diversity of constituents—women, youth, scheduled castes and tribes, the minority religions, urban poor, children, and transgenders—fanned out to get opinions of their members. Business associations and think-tanks were consulted too. The internet and social media was used to obtain inputs of those who have access to these mediums.

Democracy is in peril with innovations in technology running too far ahead of innovations in democracy’s processes

Innovation as a concept has become excessively associated with only technology. Whereas innovations are required very urgently in processes for citizens’ participation in the governance of their societies. Democracy is in peril with innovations in technology running too far ahead of innovations in democracy’s processes. With democracy in peril, the collective future of humanity is also in peril. India, a vast, diverse democracy, has great need for innovations in processes for democratic deliberation. Such processes must be applied in towns and cities to make their governance more democratic. They must be applied in the governance of states. They must be applied at the centre too to find equitable and effective solutions to the many challenges that India has for achieving faster, more sustainable, and more inclusive growth. Including the challenge, one may add, of better governance of the application of Aadhaar, genetic seeds, and other new technologies.

(Arun Maira wrote Discordant Democrats: Five Steps to Consensus, published by Penguin Books in 2007. His next book Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us, to be published by Rupa Publishers in August 2017, examines the themes in this article further)

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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