Adventuring Thinking

In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.

Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens. 

Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK.


Discussing ideas of an Open UN – one month on

About a month ago I posted a proposal for an Open United Nations web platform. This is the idea of making global governance – the discourse, debates and decision-making at the UN and beyond – more transparent.

I thought it might be useful (to me, at least) to blog about what it’s like to try to start something like this despite having no idea what you’re doing. Here’s post number one.


Imagining an Open United Nations platform

Lisez cet article en français!

The ‘Open’ movement is in full force. There are now projects for Open Governments, Open Budgets, Open Charities, and even Open Corporates.

But, as yet, there are no Open International Organisations. No Open IMF, no Open World Bank, no Open World Trade Organization. 


Reimagining global democracy: from world parliament to global digital deliberation and participation

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong

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.’


Transparency is about people

Numbers are all well and good. But we’re not perfect robot machines. That’d be weird.

People take decisions. Beautiful, irrational people. So transparency in organisations can’t only be about publishing vast amounts of data and hoping for the best.

We have to know who is taking the decisions. And who influenced the people that took the decisions. And whether they took the decision before or after lunch.

So open data is great. It’s lovely stuff. But if we’re to make institutions transparent, it’s going to be about people.

Very few people actually engage with numbers. People engage with people. So if we’re looking for public involvement, participation in or scrutiny of global governance institutions, then the people who work for global institutions are going to have to publish who they meet with, what they’re thinking, what they’re reading. What gets them fired up at work; what they worry about. What they’re doing, right now. 


Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to investors – the governance 2.0 bits

The founder and overlord of facebook on social media and governance. Emphasis added.

Whether any of this can really be upheld in the face of demand for profit, whether Zuckerberg had any specific projects in mind – indeed, whether any of it has actually been an objective for facebook since its foundation – remains to be seen.

There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.

We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other.

Even if our mission sounds big, it starts small — with the relationship between two people.

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want and share what they want, and by doing this we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships.

People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.


We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.

We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Through this process, we believe that leaders will emerge across all countries who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people, including the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them.

Finally, as more of the economy moves towards higher-quality products that are personalized, we also expect to see the emergence of new services that are social by design to address the large worldwide problems we face in job creation, education and health care. We look forward to doing what we can to help this progress.

Full letter via the Guardian

Flickr credit: TonZ


Review of ‘Inside Fortress Bill’ on BBC Radio 4

The point about global governance is that it ain’t a government. It’s just a jumble of people, organisations and states doing things that constitute governance. This includes very rich people essentially providing global public goods like healthcare. The Gates Foundation is a great example of this – in the absence of sufficient WHO/UN spending on health provision, the foundation steps up, with vastly larger budgets. But what does this mean for the private-public divide? Who’s accountable to who? Should global health governance really be set by the whims of a very very wealthy couple?

This radio programme (available until 10 January) was billed as a documentary in which “Katie Derham takes a ‘warts and all’ look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and examines the immense political power and global influence that it now wields.”

Except she didn’t really. She gathered a few critiques (relying heavily on Laurie Garrett of the Council for Foreign Relations) and put some of them to senior staff at the foundation.

They responded as you’d expect: acknowledging that improvements could be made, yet not dealing with the real issue about private foundations – they’re unaccountable to the people.

As the description of the programme put it (which was far more interesting and cutting than the actual interviews): 

“[Gates’ philanthropy] is a sharp contrast with his former persona of ruthless businessman flaunting competition law, buying off rivals and pursuing his goals with a vengeance. Critics believe his market-led philosophies can distort the picture, allowing Governments to be let off the hook, causing a brain drain in countries where they are backing aid, and the way that funds are distributed seems to be at the whim of the co-chairs who are beyond any form of accountability.”

A few points of interest from the programme below.

On the foundation…

  • the money is, of course, staggering: Gates has given $26.1bn, Buffett $36bn. 
  • the foundation sees itself as a catalyst – leveraging its funds by partnering with governments, corporations (which led it to Monsanto, upsetting many)…
  • …and it leverages Bill, too. His media value brings attention to stories otherwise untold. 
  • it places a strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship (as befits its $500m campus, which the presenter shrugged off as ‘Bill’s own money’ – except that the foundation is Bill’s own money too, so that distinction doesn’t make sense)
  • and it places a high focus on tech solutions, such as spending on vaccine research that wouldn’t come from big pharma (e.g. leprosy, TB)
  • as the CEO put it: “we believe in capitalism as an effective approach to allocating resources in a society”


  • Medecins Sans Frontieres choose not to accept funding from the foundation; a ‘strategic decision to keep some form of independence’ and they had ‘concerns about engagement of private sector and resulting conflicts of interest’ (MSF spokeswoman)
  • a majority of funding for global health programmes comes from the foundation, which leads to tremendous vulnerability for associated programmes and fields (Garrett)
  • what matters in global health is is increasingly decided by a small group of Americans in Seattle (Garrett). Ultimately the foundation answers to Bill and Melinda Gates and Bill Gates Snr.
  • “previously you trusted governments to do development, but now things have completely changed” (spokesman of a charity funded by GF) – has it?
  • ‘it shares very little substantive info on what it’s doing and how it’s work is going’ (GiveWell spokesman)


  • there is a ‘responsibility for all of us to hold them to account; for us to help them succeed and stop them doing crazy things that billionnaires sometimes do’ (Matthew Bishop of The Economist and author of Philanthrocapitalism)
  • at least Bill Gates is spending, but perhaps he needs competition from another foundation – perhaps a Larry Ellison or a Steve Jobs Foundation might have done things differently (Matthew Bishop)