What South Park can teach us about civic engagement in policy making

by Eddie Copeland

As a former politics teacher who struggled to give my students a decent definition of democracy, I often found myself turning to the words of Abraham Lincoln. Democracy, he famously declared, is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

With the rise of web-based tools and apps, many have hoped that technology might add a fourth preposition: government with the people.

Instead of merely marking a ballot paper once every four-to-five years, the promise of digital tools was that they could enable politicians and citizens to have a more active, ongoing and meaningful dialogue.

To date, we seem to have fallen woefully short of any such aim.

Put down the megaphone

Politicians all too frequently use the web in general – and social media in particular – to broadcast pre-prepared messages to the public as though they were wielding some sort of digital loudhailer. The idea of a two-way dialogue is mostly fanciful.

Yet all too often, citizens do the same in return.

Anyone who has ever worked for an MP will be familiar with the endless stream of ‘issue’ postcards that arrive each day, asking (or more often demanding) that the Member support or reject a specific law or measure.

Working at Parliament 13 years ago, I recall seeing one set of postcards that demanded more money for the NHS.

“Which MPs wouldn’t want more money for the NHS?” I remember thinking.

The debate wasn’t about whether or not more money was desirable – of course we’d all like more funds to help our chosen cause. The question was: if we did want to allocate more money to the NHS, where should it come from? Should it be taken from schools, transport, or social care? Or should taxes be increased? If so, which ones?

As Californian referenda have taught us, if you ask the public to express their views on single issues they will demand their cake and eat it, voting for lower taxes and greater public spending.

The problem with most digital channels is that they exacerbate this trend.

The government e-petitions website encourages people to express binary support for single issues.

For all Twitter’s many benefits, expressing any nuanced view, question or argument in 140 characters is wishful thinking.

A wide variety of other civic action sites encourage people to sign up to support a view so that a message can be broadcast to MPs on that one issue.

Many of those platforms give the impression that the exercise is about giving citizens more power and control over their politicians, the assumption being that politicians would be forced to act if only they received the message loud enough.

I think that’s naive.

We cannot expect MPs to respond meaningfully if the voice of constituents does not engage in the complexity of political debate. Politics is, after all, the art of compromise.

So how could it be done better?

Show me Heaven

It’s not often that I’d suggest the animated series South Park could offer much insight into how civic engagement in policy making could be improved, but there’s a first time for everything.

The episode in question is called Best Friends Forever (ep. 4 season 9), in which Heaven is under siege by Satan’s evil minions. Seeking a commander to destroy the enemy invaders, Heaven’s leaders design a new game for the Sony PSP which simulates the upcoming battle. They send it down to earth, intending that whoever masters the game and reaches the highest level will be appointed as commander of Heaven’s armies. The successful candidate turns out to be the serially ill-fated Kenny McCormick, whose untimely death can be guaranteed with alarming regularity.

Where am I going with this?

Imagine if instead of the petition, the tweet, or the forum, we could use technology to simulate environments or decisions, to gamify the process so that the public could accurately model the outcomes that would result from one policy decision or another.

In its efforts to crowdsource information, imagine if government could seek out the most skilled or knowledgeable individuals and organisations on a particular area by seeing who advanced most progressively through a virtual reality rules-based decision game.

This is not all that far-fetched.

In Japan, architects have released virtual reality models of train stations online and asked users to try to navigate them to show where blockages occur and where there’s confusion over signage, before they are ever built.

Pilots, astronauts and racing drivers spend months in simulators to finesse their techniques.

Accenture, EMC Corporation, GE Money and U.S. Cellular have all tried recruiting real candidates via their avatars in Second Life.

Smart city simulators allow different transport decisions to be modelled, tweaked and optimised, spotting negative consequences that would otherwise have gone unforeseen.

With the likes of Facebook, Microsoft and Google all investing heavily in virtual reality headsets, opportunities to engage in immersive virtual experiences are growing all the time.

Such virtual reality models would also have the advantage of seeing how people actually behave, rather than how they say they will behave (two very different things, as any pollster will tell you). Simulations could be created for all sorts of things, from complex planning decisions, to balancing budgets to the organisation of future hospital care.

Focusing simulations carefully to solve specific problems would most likely lead to the best outcomes.

In return for people spending their time engaging with these policy games, politicians would need to be serious about using the information and data they produced. After all, effective communication requires knowing that you are being listened to.

Taking first steps

Rolling out these ideas at scale may still be a few years away.

Until then, we at least need to work much harder to develop tools that encourage people to get away from thinking about single issues in isolation, and involved them in the hard compromises of policy making. We should start, as I have argued before, by creating a government data marketplace.

Other low-tech examples that work along these lines include Lambeth’s Park Challenge which enables anyone to help design the layout of new urban green space.

Or take how professional architects and urban planners are coming together with more than 10,000 gamers and interested local citizens to design the future of Stockholm using Minecraft.

Moving to these more holistic models is important because disillusion with politics is rife. The public are frustrated with the decisions politicians make. But politicians are also frustrated that voters do not engage with the hard compromises on which all political decisions depend.

Obsessing over single issues in the absence of the wider context leads to bad policy, and encourages politicians to play games of political one upmanship in who can offer more of X, Y or Z.

“Government with the people” may be a step too far in a representative democracy. But with all the amazing advances in technology, we should at least aim to improve the conversation.

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Image Credit: http://southpark.cc.com/clips/rl1436/heaven-vs-hell

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