July 30, 2020

The Digital State, Part 3

“Cicero accuses Catiline” 8 November 63 BC, a painting by Cesare Maccari (Public Domaine)

This is the third in the series on the paradigm shift to a digital state. In Part 1, I pointed out that no pillar of government is going to remain untouched. In Part 2, I showed how the technology of elections is changing. And in this article, I look at how law-making is going digital.

Rome, 63 BC

There were no physical distancing measures in the Roman Senate in the session depicted in this painting. The scene here is of Cicero delivering the breaking news that he had uncovered a shocking plot by Catiline to bring down the government of the Roman Empire. Catiline’s motive was that he thought he would be able to have his debts, and those of his supporters, cancelled in the ensuing chaos. Even in ancient Rome, not everyone in power was a stable genius.

In that story we find that the “checks and balances” against power worked – but only in the nick of time, and only because the legislators were able to meet physically. Had the legislators been hiding at home in a lockdown imposed by the executive, things might have turned out differently.

Other cities, 2020 AD

Fast-forward to the year 2020. What grand painting about today’s legislatures might be left to posterity? At the very least, an empty chamber. Despite our advanced digital societies, our legislators were unable to meet at the height of the pandemic. For a while, there were few formal “checks and balances” on executive power. It’s not that the legislators couldn’t arrange a conference call among themselves – they all have access to phones and computers; and it’s not that parliaments do not adopt the latest technology – they have already switched from candles to electric lights; it’s just that their protocols were not written for the digital age.

The existing protocols were handed down from an era when grand halls with marble floors and tall columns defined gravitas and power – like in the painting above.

What would happen to a bank that doesn’t offer e-banking and insists that its customers have to come into a branch? What would happen to a stock exchange that doesn’t permit electronic trading and insists that trading should be done on the marble trading floor? Would they not become irrelevant?

Can there be any doubt that parliaments might now look to tweak their protocols to be able to function during future pandemics? Can there be any doubt that parliaments might now look to move away from the Roman model from 63 BC?

On that there can be no doubt. Here is an overview of some of the parliamentary upgrades being worked on for the digital age. These measures are defined in terms of increasing citizenship involvement and are not sequenced, i.e. they can run in parallel.

Level 1 upgrade: remote voting for legislators

The parliamentary votes by legislators on legislation are usually not secret, which makes the votes personally and publicly knowable and auditable. This transparency makes it easier to quickly set up remote voting systems for members of parliament. The picture below shows one such remote voting application by the e-Government firm, Procivis AG.

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Source: A remote voting application for legislators designed by Procivis AG.

In cases where members of parliament are required to vote in secret (see some examples here), we face the same hurdles that a remote electronic voting system needs to meet, including the ability of each voter to verify that their vote was actually cast and delivered as intended. Some of the considerations in such an upgrade are discussed here.

Level 2 upgrade: more differentiated voting options

In the digital age, parliaments are struggling to reflect the preferences of increasingly diverse societies. Survey after survey reveals that voters are not very happy with their legislature. From the sample data in Figure 1 – for Argentina, Australia, Chile, Egypt, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the United States – the percentage of people who say they have a “great deal” of confidence in their national legislature ranges from a low of 0.4% (Egypt) to a high of 3.8% (Australia).

Figure 1: Legislatures in trouble

% of respondents saying they have “a great deal” of confidence in their national legislature [1]

A close up of a map

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Such widespread unhappiness with a legislature is not a new phenomenon, of course, but it is potentially destabilising. When democracies were imploding in Europe in the 1930s, Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992), who won the Nobel Prize for economics, tried to understand why the shift away from democracy was occurring. Hayek’s conclusion was that “it is the ineffectiveness of parliamentary majorities with which the people are dissatisfied…the higher the education and intelligence of individuals becomes, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values.”[2]

There are numerous ideas how to better align parliamentary outcomes to what the people want. One solution is to change what people vote on and how they allocate their votes. By giving voters a “voting budget”, they can allocate their votes according to their preferences. One such method is called “quadratic voting” and was tested in an experiment for real legislation in the United States.  

Giving voters (both members of parliament as well as the public) more differentiated options becomes easier if the technology is a custom-built digital voting application, as opposed to a pen and paper. As with any proposal to tweak voting arrangements, there will always be pros and cons, and it will be for each democracy to decide what trade-offs they are prepared to accept in order to best align legislative outcomes with what the people want.

We also know that trust in parliament is highest when people are satisfied with their democracy (figure 2). We cannot expect voters to be satisfied with their democracy when every time they go and vote, the policy outcomes of the newly elected legislature and executive do not sufficiently represent their preferences.   

Figure 2: The correlation between satisfaction with democracy and trust in parliament [3]

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Level 3 upgrades: Hybrid systems

Legislatures are slowly but surely being “disintermediated”, in other words, they are losing their erstwhile prime real estate monopoly in the capital city as their clients go online. In practice, this means that at all three levels of government (national or federal, state or provincial, and local or municipal) people are increasingly getting involved directly in the business of initiating, drafting and even approving legislation. Details about these trends can be found under concepts such as the “crowd-sourcing of legislation” and “participatory budgeting” – both links here include examples, from Madrid to New York City, and from Finland to Brazil.

Concluding thoughts

Just as this pandemic has greatly accelerated structural changes that were already under way in the private sector (such as the move to the home office), the same thing is happening with regard to citizen interaction with the state: you don’t have to leave your home. The power shifts are even more radical in democracies: you can now govern from your lockdown.

Of course, not everyone is happy with these trends – and some even fear them – but the point is that digitalization is making them easier and easier. These developments are, in any case, as unstoppable as the move away from the definition of power captured in the painting above: white men in togas.

There is no getting away from the central question, though: In the digital age, how can we better align legislatures with the people’s priorities? Some states will actually figure this out and get it right. It is inconceivable that this won’t involve more power to the people as well as new digital forms of interaction between citizens and their legislature.  

In the next article, Part 4, I’ll look at the digitalization of state-issued money and the implications for financial governance in the digital age.


[1] World Values Survey http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org

[2] Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, pp. 140-143.

[3] http://oecdinsights.org/2018/02/01/trust-in-parliament/