What, I hear you shout! How can the idea of "giving communities a more direct role in decision-making" be a bad idea? Surely this glowing world of empowered and engaged citizens is precisely the point of democracy - harnessing modern technology to transform the way we govern, what could go wrong?
The ideas around citizen participation in the government's new "Civil Society Strategy" sound good:
The Government will also launch an ‘Innovation in Democracy’ pilot scheme in six regions across the country, which could include Citizens’ Juries or mass participation in decision-making on community issues via an online poll or app.Brilliant stuff! The problem is, of course, that this decision-making would be determined by those who turn up (or in modern terms, download the app, set it for notifications and respond when those notifications pop up). And most people don't turn up leaving the field to activists and the wronged - imagine making planning decisions in a world where angry NIMBYs with an app can flood the system?
Even for less contested decisions the app would be biased. When one US city trialed a clever app people could download that measured road impact (and therefore things like potholes and surface quality) they discovered that all their worst roads were in the wealthy quarters of town. The thing is that, using the only "engineer goes and looks" approach they knew this wasn't true, the big data from the app was wrong because people in poor neighbourhoods didn't use the clever app.
It's already the case that political decisions are disproportionately affected by representation - "he who shouts loudest wins" is an old local political adage. As a councillor, I constantly remind myself that my "full inbox" does not really reflect opinion but rather the opinion of a few people motivated enough to write. Nothing wrong with this until these minority opinions become the basis for policy decisions - "we must do something about X because I've had so many people raise it with me". Here, of course, "so many people" might mean a couple of dozen.
What happens with participatory systems is that, because of the bias, we don't actually decide on the basis of what the citizen panel says but rather treat it as a 'consultation'. The problem here is that, having consulted, it can get tricky to ignore the consultation without undermining the whole point of your whizzo participatory systems.
So let's not do this. We already have a tried and tested system for making political decisions in communities (called 'electing local councillors'). Perhaps we should look at ways in which this can work better - more community councils, a return to the committee system, scrapping party whips - rather than introducing systems that ignore local democracy in favour of app-based participation. Especially when, even the most intensive of participatory approaches gets low levels of engagement - in Porto Allegre where participatory budgeting is something of a religion they still only get 3% of citizens involved (and perhaps unsurprisingly these tend to be the older, home owning, wealthier citizens).