I recently completed my main research paper for the MA Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
It’s published in full below, but I wanted to provide a quick summary for anyone interested. It features all your favourite digital public participation projects, but tries to set these in the context of global governance, as an answer to the problems of the ‘global democratic deficit.’
I’ll try to put it together in a snazzy slideshare style thing, but for now…
Basically, there’s a whole lot of global rule-making going on that (a) you know nothing about (b) would have no say in even if you did know it was happening; and (c) largely benefits a global elite, perpetuating a global system which inadequately pursues an end to poverty, fails to prevent or reduce the effects of climate change, and cannot stop violent conflict.
Some scholars have suggested that democracy at the global level could be enhanced by creating a global parliamentary assembly. Everyone on earth would get a vote to elect a representative who would then pursue their interests at the global policy-making level. This might sit atop the UN system, advising the UN General Assembly each September, or it might be a separate stand-alone body, issuing statements that would hopefully be observed purely due to its democratic legitimacy. Eventually, scholars argue that this parliament could gain independent power through an ability to tax and spend, financed through global taxes on air travel, currency trading etc.
I argue in the paper that this can’t work. Representative democracy as practised in nation states is inappropriate at the global level, given the distance between the people involved and the sheer scale of the potential constituencies.
Instead, global democracy should be reimagined as a constantly changing process of digital deliberation and participation, in which individuals themselves elect to take part in global governance. Rather than the top down invention of new institutions, a global digital democracy is self-establishing by global citizens acting in a networked fashion across thousands of issue areas and locations.
Democracy starts with equal access to information and an equal voice in decision making. The invention of digital communication is making this a reality for everyone on earth. The first step is the democratisation of knowledge; the second step is the existence of open global discussion space; the third step is the connection of global citizens to participate in global policy-making; the fourth and final step is that these networked individuals actually deliver global policy.
Twelve years into the 21st century, we have mainly seen examples of the first and second of these. But there are growing numbers of small but powerful cases of the third and final steps too. These will grow over time in ways we cannot yet imagine, especially as the global digital divide shrinks over time.
Meanwhile, there is much that can be done to democratise the existing global governance institutions: from international organisations like the UN, World Bank and IMF, to quasi-international bodes like the Financial Stability Board and Bank of International Settlements, to civil society actors and the global rule-making private sector (see, e.g., ISEAL, FSC and MSC).
These organisations currently exercise significant power. Efforts must be made to open these institutions, and increase the (non-electoral) accountability of those who lead them. The use of ICT, such as in the Open Data movement and through social media, can improve transparency, consultation, evaluation and ultimately, correction. This happens when individuals get together to campaign online, build web tools for transparency, or just ask questions of staff in these institutions.
There are some problems with this ‘global digital democracy’ argument. What’s stopping neoliberalism from running the digital show too? Isn’t this the tyranny of those who show up? How can digital networks really prevent banking crises? Isn’t the world a pretty divided place, among languages, worldviews, and access to digital spaces?
I argue that responses can be made to each of these potential issues. The conclusion states that ‘as long as access to digital communication continues to widen, and as long as openness and meritocracy are allowed to flourish, these criticisms do not negate the overall argument.’
Much more research into the points raised in the paper is needed. What happens when different cultures and languages interact in digital spaces? What actually changes when institutions open their knowledge and engage with people directly through social media? What policies should governments adopt to assist people to take part in global deliberation?
If you’ve made it this far, well done. If you don’t fancy the entire essay, here’s the final paragraph:
“This paper took an optimistic view of the development of global digital democracy, with good reason. The world wide web was created only 15 years ago. Its effects on society have been extraordinary. In 15 years time, it is reasonably conceivable that a vast majority of the world’s people will be connected in a shared space using user-friendly, politically-empowering technology. Today, there is much that can be done to realise this democratic vision. Individuals should join existing deliberation spaces and practice engagement with others that they have never met. Global institutions should promote staff engagement in the digital space, be prepared to open their knowledge to the world, and be ready to act on open solutions coming from anywhere. Governments must act to protect the free, decentralised nature of the internet and must join a range of global actors to ensure that the digital divide is closed. If global democracy is built, it will be built by everybody.”
As may be obvious by now, I’m pretty passionate about this stuff. I’m currently interning at the United Nations and spend my time advocating for better social media use and training up members of staff, to slowly create a more open institution. I’m also now starting to think more deeply about how to speed up some of the processes I write about. My next few blog posts will be about a couple of projects I’m considering starting.