03 February 2011 - 05 February 2011

Democracy and the power of the individual

Chair: Lord Bichard of Nailsworth KCB

For the second conference of 2011, Ditchley looked at the relationship between democratic governments and their citizens in the age of the internet and new social media. With respect for politicians at a low ebb in many countries, and the coalition government in the UK promoting the ‘Big Society’, how should the links between state and individual evolve?  Were individuals, while better educated and more assertive in general, ready and willing to take on more responsibility, and if so how? And how would this relate to government decision-making?  What did people now expect from their leaders, if they were less keen on central control?  Internationally, we were looking at this issue at a particularly relevant moment, given the demonstrations of people power and evident thirst for greater democracy in Tunisia and Egypt. Much discussion turned around the role of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.  Were they just better, faster and cheaper means of communication, or would they transform our whole way of behaving, giving people a new active role as agents of change and a different means of personal self-determination?

The last issue was where we started and where we spent a lot of our time. Some participants suggested that, while the new social media had perhaps not yet transformed society as a whole, and the digital/generational divide between those who used them and those who did not was still wide, it always took time for major new technologies to produce their full effects.  They would in a few years usher in profound change and a new era of decentralisation and openness.  People would be ‘human in a different way’.  While in the past the traditional media and politicians had ‘moderated’ or ‘mediated’ information and discourse, both would now reach people in increasingly direct ways, for better or for worse.  People would want different leaders, or perhaps even no leaders in the current sense at all, since they wanted to control their lives themselves.  Citizens had a right to more and better information on the issues which were important to their lives, and on how decisions affecting them were taken, and the social media provided excellent tools to ensure this. Secrecy was an enemy of democracy. Power would increasingly come from sharing knowledge, not just possessing it. Governments might be fearful of all this, and some were already reacting by trying to restrict the new media. But this would prove a vain effort.  The internet was an opportunity not only to circulate information much more widely and efficiently but also to hold governments to account in much more effective ways, and to protect individuals’ rights.

Others pointed out that similarly extravagant claims had been made about other communication tools, but the impact had in the end been much less than hoped/feared.  Governments elected through representative democratic methods continued to make decisions in familiar ways, and old techniques and media were surprisingly resilient.  Opinions coming from the blogosphere and twittersphere could be gathered easily but interpretation and analysis were more complex.  The social media ‘noise’ was not necessarily representative of wider opinion – the silent majority remained a valid concept.  ‘More chattering does not make better policy.’ Meanwhile the new media could easily be manipulated or ‘gamed’, as recent examples such as the abuse of the ‘Trip Adviser’ website had clearly demonstrated. Widespread computer hacking, the vulnerability of systems to cyber attack, and phenomena such as Wikileaks were also potentially destabilising, whatever the attractions of greater transparency.  Moreover which ideas, views or images took hold and ‘went viral’ seemed a less than rational process. People did not want more data or information as much as more meaningful engagement. Ultimately the internet was more fragmenting or atomising, even polarising, than unifying, and the views and ideas which came through it narcissistic and inevitably piecemeal. How could the necessary integration of views and pressures be achieved, if not through traditional political methods?

A middle position was that the impact of these powerful new tools was not yet clear; the jury was still out on how profound their implications would be, and whether they would be in the end part of the problem or part of the solution, or both – the point was that they were only tools and their impact would depend on how they were used.  For the moment they seemed to be more effective in giving citizens a sense of empowerment, because new communities with common interests and views could be readily formed, and in acting as a check on government power, than in helping the more constructive process of policy formulation and development. There was a risk that the social media would make governments more fragile, and the art of governing more difficult, without offering any effective substitute. This was related to the issue of leadership, and where it was to come from in this new age.  The social media could be very powerful in revealing that the emperor had no clothes, but were less good at sustaining constructive trends (and greater cynicism was hardly what we needed at present).

This led us to ask why there seemed to be such lack of trust in traditional politics and politicians.  The politicians themselves, because of misleading claims and examples of corruption, had to take part of the blame. Destructive journalism did not help.  Factors such as the influence of money on politics in the US were also highlighted.  Young people seemed particularly uninterested in representative democracy, even though community and civic participation was growing in other ways. Normal politics seemed too much like ‘eating your broccoli’, and many institutions seemed remote and unapproachable.  The young appeared to prefer issue-based politics to the fixed menus of traditional parties.  Efforts by politicians to open up new conversations with people through e-petitions or consultations about spending cuts or legislative ideas had not really taken off. There was a keenness on both sides to engage more in a meaningful way, but the right methods were still lacking.  One question was how many resources governments were prepared to devote in practice to tuning into the new social media.  In any case how could you listen to an unorganised crowd?  We could learn from the private sector: some companies had used internet-based structured collaboration to drive innovation very effectively.

Participants from developing countries made clear that for them the debate was rather different.  Peoples who had known both authoritarian governments and democracy, and had ‘earned’ the latter, knew very clearly which they wanted and its value.  In emerging societies and economies, social media could help open up closed spaces, and circulate basic information in ways which genuinely helped accountability.  There tended to be less cynicism in these countries about new ways forward, and more fresh ideas about using the new tools.  Countries like Brazil were for example buzzing with exciting ways of involving people in decisions which affected their lives.  Levels of voter participation remained high in many developing countries, and higher for local than national elections, the opposite of many developed democracies. Moreover in some countries eg in parts of Africa, basic communication tools such as the local radio or traditional political techniques like visiting constituency villages were what could make the difference.

One of our working groups looked more closely at citizen engagement in both developed and emerging democracies. The steady increase in community involvement and volunteering of all kinds was striking.  Excellent examples were cited of involving citizens more in consultation processes, particularly at local level, and bringing alive through games of various kinds what politicians and political institutions actually did (MP for a week, New York Times interactive budget choices, local government speed dating bringing together politicians and young people, etc.)  These could usefully educate people about the real difficulty of government choices and trade-offs, as well as contribute to politicians’ awareness of popular views.  However some of these exercises tended to be ultimately unsatisfactory – people were too often left without feedback and saw no real impact on their lives.  One-off consultations were not much use. Much better methods were needed. Expectations had meanwhile to be managed, or they might only lead to greater disillusionment.  There was also a more fundamental question: what were these processes, and civic education in general, ultimately trying to achieve?  More people voting, and in a better informed way, and taking part in the electoral/governmental process, or just more civic engagement at a local level?  The general view was that it was good news that so many people, the young in particular, wanted to do something positive and make a difference, but ultimately this had to be connected to politics and political institutions in one way or another for it to make a real difference, and not undermine democracy as we knew it.  The test areas were local planning and how public money was spent.

In this context social media certainly made some kinds of engagement much easier, and cheaper (the importance of the latter point should not be underestimated).  But there were downsides too: quality of engagement and exchange could suffer at the hands of quantity; the risk of ‘slacktivism’, in other words engaging on a superficial level, for example through signing up to ‘like’ something on Facebook, but taking it no further; the difficulties of individual leadership emerging, which often was the way to get things done and rally people round a cause in the real world; the differences between a virtual community, where geography meant nothing, and the realities of political geography on the ground e.g. electoral wards, constituencies, towns etc.; the self-validating nature of some virtual communities of the like-minded, with no room for others, again unlike physical communities.  There was also a clear risk that social media, and civic participation programmes, only intensified the engagement of the 20% (many from the elite already) who were already involved, leaving out the rest. At the same time we needed to recognise that if most people were not engaging, it might be because they had no major complaint about what was happening to them.

We discussed extensively not only how existing democratic institutions could and should cope with these new trends, but also whether there was a strong case for alternatives to the current dominant model of representative democracy – direct democracy or deliberative democracy of some kind.  The answer for most participants seemed to be no; there was little appetite for methods which could equate to simple rule by the majority. However some talked of the value of a return to more Athenian-style democratic methods, at least at local level, for example appointing some local representatives by lot. As with swimming, people learned how to be citizens or political actors by doing it, more than by having theoretical lessons. 

Another response was seen to lie in localism or subsidiarity – decentralisation of as many decisions as possible as close as possible to the grass roots.  This would produce better decision-making, greater involvement of those affected, and a better chance of real accountability.  Devolution of fiscal power was seen as particularly desirable. But the risks of this were also clear: less consideration of the general interest (nimbyism), lack of regard for vulnerable minorities, ‘political consumerism’. It was also pointed out that the social media remained a much more national or indeed international phenomenon than a local one for now. Local networks were surprisingly little developed. And while local opinion could certainly be mobilised, it was usually only when the local authorities had made a mess of something or were jeopardising some locally valued amenity – ‘just-in-time’ democracy! If localism was so attractive, why did so few people vote in local elections or put themselves forward for election to local school or hospital boards?

The nature of the knowledge which should drive decision-making was also part of the discussion.  Was the conventional rational, technical approach, supposedly based on facts and evidence, enough?  Was it not too often a cover for self-interested, politically-driven decisions taken by a narrow and self-perpetuating elite? There was a risk of a tyranny of experts.  Decision-makers too often spoke an entirely different language from those on whose behalf they were taking decisions. Should not the wisdom of the community, embodied in ‘socially constructed’ knowledge, more intuitive and experience-based, also be taken into account?  There was no agreement on such ideas but interest in what they might mean and how they might be translated into more effective consultation mechanisms.

On the international side, attention was clearly on developments in Tunisia and especially Egypt.  Was the role of the social media fundamental in promoting the drive for democracy, not least by helping people to overcome their fear of repression? The young could certainly discover they were not alone in their yearnings for greater dignity and freedom, through this hitherto unavailable method for free expression. Or were they rather tools which compressed time, speeded up organisation of dissent and facilitated mobilisation of demonstrators, but could not be considered as real drivers of action? Opinion tended towards the latter. There had been plenty of street-based revolutions in the past which owed nothing to modern technology.  It was also pointed out again that use of social media was a double-edged sword: the authorities could track developments relatively easily, and manipulate them.

No-one knew where present developments in Egypt would lead.  Greater democracy at the end was by no means guaranteed.  History offered examples of success and failure in this regard. But the popular desire for more freedom was meanwhile unmistakeable.  Its strength in Egypt was explained in part by deep frustration at reform processes started some years ago but then progressively shut down from 2005 onwards, as well as by basic economic and social grievances.  Moreover such modernisation as there had been had not been accompanied by democratisation. Unfortunately outside understanding of these issues was limited, since journalistic, diplomatic and other expert knowledge, based on actual experience in the country, had become increasingly rare.

More widely, the big international institutions, whether global (UN) or regional (EU), were valuable in enshrining universal values, norms of human rights and democratic principles of behaviour, but they had little real power to enforce them.  And the increasing number of international meetings on these issues was not necessarily a sign of progress in practice. The optimistic view was that acceptance of democratic rights and principles was nevertheless gradually spreading, and democracy continuing to make its way in the world, despite occasional setbacks, as shown by the existence of international courts where perpetrators of gross abuses could be tried.  Apparently successful economic systems like China, based on authoritarian capitalism, were not actually seen as models to emulate.  No-one was out on the streets in Egypt or elsewhere asking for this – and indeed the Chinese were not promoting it actively. The pessimists argued that the last 200 years were an aberration, and the forces of authoritarianism and national sovereignty were gathering strength once more.  Even apparently shared values concealed wide differences of understanding of what key words like democracy, freedom and tolerance actually meant.

Even more problematic was how individuals could relate to international institutions, which inevitably seemed very remote at a time when even national governments often appeared distant and impervious to individual views.  If individuals could see how to play a role at local level, it was much harder for them to compete with the so-called experts internationally. Ways therefore needed to be found to enable greater citizen engagement with international institutions, probably working through local and national levels on the way.  The European Union was working hard to increase its transparency and engage European citizens in consultation processes, but with limited success so far.  Was that inevitable, or part of its continued problem with popular legitimacy among European citizens? We did not have time to try to answer that question, but noted that for some European minorities, the EU seemed to offer a more reliable guarantee of their rights than national governments.

This was not a conference where neat conclusions could be drawn or recommendations made.  However some trends in thinking could be summarised:

  • Traditional democracy was under pressure, and traditional institutions were struggling, while individuals had become more powerful and ‘noisy’.  Use of social media had intensified these trends. Democratic governments were finding it harder and harder to take painful decisions – people wanted better services and lower taxes.
  • The current institutions of representative democracy in developed countries were nevertheless proving surprisingly durable. If active participation was in many ways limited, and often middle class, this might be more because the rest of the population were content or apathetic, rather than because they were excluded, though easy elite access to means of influence, including the social media, was a problem.
  • The ultimate impact of the new tools of the social media could not yet be determined. Meanwhile they should be looked at in a balanced way: they enabled new connections, helped people be much better informed, and were a boon for protesters. But they were a burden for legislators, as well as a potential opportunity, and judgment continued to be needed to weigh the views coming from them.  How could sensible plans emerge from them? Individuals were empowered by them but authoritarian governments (and non-state actors/terrorists) could and did also use them.  There was a ‘dark side’.
  • These new tools did not mean the old messy business of political negotiation and decision-making could be bypassed.  And ‘old’ media were by no means dead e.g. the crucial role of television debates in the 2010 British election, and dominant use of traditional campaigning methods even in the Obama internet election of 2008. We needed to understand the new tools better before we changed our institutions to suit them.
  • The current institutions of representative democracy were trying to find new ways of engaging with people but having difficulty achieving success.  They certainly needed to listen more, and open up more.  People wanted to communicate with them; new ways of bringing institutions and people together were desperately needed.
  • Internationally the onward march of democracy had not been as relentless as some had hoped but the spread of the aspirations for greater freedom and democracy was unmistakeable, and developments in the Middle East a fresh source of hope.
  • Localism had attractions, and should be pursued, but with care, since in some cases it could militate against good decision-making in the collective interest.
  • The thirst for social innovation, more transparency and more information would not go away and had to be met. But not everything could or should be made public, since there could be good public safety or privacy reasons for keeping some things confidential.
  • Good, basic things like civic education, citizen participation and political leadership should not be scorned. Schools should do more in this area. But connecting all this to involvement in political decision-making was crucial to democratic health.
  • Overall there were no easy fixes to democracy, even if the current institutions often seemed clumsy and old-fashioned.  And democratic freedoms were too precious to be played with lightly – Nazism had been defeated in Europe only 65 years ago. Current economic strains could create fertile ground for the emergence of new and dangerous ‘saviours’, who could come to power democratically in the first place, as had Hitler.

Did we think democracy overall was stronger now or weaker, given the new tools? We could not reach a simple answer. As the account above suggests, opinions were deeply divided, and not just between younger and older participants. But in any case the social media were here to stay and could not just be ‘kept in their place’. We therefore had to ensure they were well used, and not abused. This was a massive challenge for individuals and institutions alike.

Our final debate was about how examples of best practice in political and social innovation and lessons in creative use of social media and other tools could be most effectively shared.  Constantly reinventing the wheel was a waste of time.  Whatever views were held about whether social media were transformative or not, they could certainly be used for this purpose.  Ideas on this are welcome. Meanwhile we will be trying to ensure that the Note is shared more widely than usual through the new communication tools. And the Director is now on Twitter!

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chair:  Lord Bichard of Nailsworth KCB  (UK)
Life Peer, House of Lords; Senior Fellow (2010-), formerly Executive Director (2008-10), Institute for Government, London; Chair, Design Council (2007-).  Formerly: Rector, The University of the Arts, London; Chair, Legal Services Commission (2005-08); Chair, Soham Enquiry (2003-04); Permanent Secretary, Department for Education and Employment (1995-2001); Chief Executive: Social Security Benefits Agency (1990-95); Gloucestershire County Council (1986-90); Brent Borough Council (1980-86).

Dr Peter Parycek 

 Head of the Centre for e-Government, Danube-University Krems (2006-); Chairman, Austrian working group "eDemocracy & eParticipation", Federal Chancellery (2008-); Chairman, Working Group "eGovernment Training Curriculum for Public Sector Employees", Federal Chancellery (2006-).

Mr Eduardo Rombauer van den Bosch 

Mediator, Consultant in large-scale participatory processes and innovative political practices; Co-Founder and Partner, Holon Integrative Solutions.  Formerly: Founder, Marina Silva Movement; Member of the presidential campaign coordination team (2010).

Mr Peter Donolo 

Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Official Opposition, Michael Ignatieff (2009-).  Formerly: Partner, The Strategic Counsel (2002-09); Senior VP, Corporate Affairs, Air Canada (2001); Consul-General for Canada, Milan, Italy (1999-2001).
Mr Weldon Epp 
Canadian Foreign Service; Director, Policy Research, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.  Formerly: postings to Beijing, Taipei and Jakarta; Member, Board of Directors, Project Ploughshares.
Dr Leslie Seidle 
Research Director (Diversity, Immigration and Integration), Institute for Research on Public Policy, Montreal; Public Policy Consultant.  Formerly: Senior Civil Servant, Government of Canada.
Ms Shauna Sylvester 
Fellow, Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser University; Executive Director, Carbon Talks; Founding Executive Director, IMPACS - Institute for Media, Policy and City Society; Treasurer, Mountain Equipment Cooperative; Board Member, Vision Vancouver. 

Ms Annette Hester 

Senior Associate, Canadian International Council (2008-); Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC (2005-).  Author.  A Member of the Program Advisory Committee of The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Antti Peltomäki 

Deputy Director General, Directorate General for The Information Society and Media, The European Commission (EC) (2007-).  Formerly: Head of EC Delegation, Helsinki; State Under-Secretary then State Secretary for EU Affairs, Office of the Prime Minister, Helsinki.

Dr Bassma Kodmani

Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative, Paris; Research Director, Académie Diplomatique Internationale; Coordinator, European Experts Group on the Middle East.  Formerly: Director, Governance and International Cooperation program, Ford Foundation, Cairo (1999-2005).
Mr Mathieu Zagrodzki 
General Secretary, Foundation for Political Innovation, Paris; Professor of Criminal Justice, Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Paris.

Mr Frank Frick   

Director, Future of Employability and Good Governance, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh; Member of LIAISE Policy Advisory Board, Brussels.

Dr George Mathew
Founder/Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

Mrs Teresa Petrangolini 

Secretary General, Cittadinanzattiva, Rome (2002-); Director, Active Citizenship Network.

Mr Ahmed Bilal Mehboob 

Executive Director, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, Islamabad.

Dr Ismael Peña-López 

Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science, Open University of Catalonia; Researcher, Consultant and Speaker on the impact of the Information Society in development, education and governance.

Mrs Anna Lekvall Zaar 

Senior Programme Manager, Democracy and Development, International IDEA, Sweden.

Mr Anthony Barnett 

Founder, openDemocracy, now co-edits its UK section OurKingdom.  Formerly: Editor, openDemocracy (2001-06); Co-Director, Convention on Modern Liberty (2009); First Director, Charter 88 (1988-96); Author, Journalist and Blogger.
Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA 
Research Professor, Institute of Contemporary History, King's College London; Fellow, British Academy; Honorary Fellow, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies; Fellow, Academy of the Social Sciences.  Formerly: Professor of Government, University of Oxford.  Author.
Mr David Chaplin 
Member, Fabian Society National Executive, London (2010-); Vice Chair, Research & Publications Committee, Fabian Society (2010-); Governor, Fortismere School, Muswell Hill (2006-).  Formerly: Chair, Young Fabians.
Ms Rowena Collins Rice
Director-General, Constitutional, Deputy Prime Minister's Group, Cabinet Office.  Formerly: Director-General, Democracy, Constitution and Law Group and Chief Legal Officer, Ministry of Justice.
Mr James Crabtree 
Comment Editor, Financial Times; Trustee, MySociety.org.  Formerly: Deputy Editor, Prospect magazine; Policy Advisor, Prime Minister's Strategy Unit; Associate Director, Institute for Public Policy Research.
Ms Linda Duffield CMG 
CEO, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (2009-).  Formerly: HM Diplomatic Service; Ambassador to the Czech Republic (2004-09); Director, Wider Europe (2002-04); High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Maldives (1999-2002).
Sir Simon Jenkins 
Columnist: The Guardian (2005-), Evening Standard (2009-); Chairman, The National Trust (2008-).  Formerly: Columnist, The Sunday Times (2005-08) (1986-90); Columnist, The Times (1992-2005); Editor, The Times (1990-92); Author.
Mr Rajay Naik 
Director of Government Relations, The Open University (2010-); Non-Executive Director, Big Lottery Fund (2009-); Commissioner, Department of Health Standing Commission on Carers (2009-); Governor, City College (2006-).
Mr Paul Ormerod 
Director, Volterra Consulting; Fellow, British Academy of Social Sciences; Visiting Professor of Anthropology, University of Durham; Author.
Mr Rory Stewart OBE MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Penrith and The Border (2010-); Member, Foreign Affairs Select Committee (2010-); Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights (on leave), Harvard University (2009-); Director (on leave), Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School.  A Member of The Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee.
Ms Jo Swinson MP 
Member of Parliament (Liberal Democrat) for East Dunbartonshire (2005-);  Deputy Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats (2010-); Parliamentary Private Secretary to Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (2010-).  A Member of The Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee.
Mr Andrew Thornton 
Chief Executive, Citizenship Foundation, London (2010-); Development Director, Council for Education in Global Citizenship.  Formerly: The Giving Campaign; Advisory Board Member, The Russell Commission.
Dr Adrian Wooldridge 
Management Editor and Schumpeter Columnist, The Economist.  Formerly: Washington Bureau Chief and Lexington Columnist.

Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL

Chancellor, University of Kent (2006-); Founder, Market & Opinion Research International Ltd (MORI); Chair, Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee.  A Governor of The Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Alexandra Acker-Lyons 

Political Consultant.  Formerly: Executive Director, Democratic GAIN (2009-10); Executive Director, Young Democrats of America, Washington DC (2007-09); Campaign Manager, National Campaign for Fair Elections (2005-07).
Dr Lori Brainard 
Associate Professsor and Director, MPA Program, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, The George Washington University.
Dr David Mathews 
President & CEO, Kettering Foundation, Dayton, Ohio (1981-); Board Member: Gerald R Ford Foundation, National Issues Forums Institute, Council on Public Policy Education, Public Agenda.  Author. 
Mr Thomas O'Donnell 
Co-Founder (2007) and Managing Partner, Gephardt Government Affairs, Washington DC.  Formerly:  Partner, Doak, Carrier, O'Donnell and Goldman (1997-2007); Chief of Staff to House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (1989-97).
The Honorable Richard Ravitch 
Attorney, Ravitch, Rice and Company, New York.  Formerly:  Lieutenant Governor, The State of New York; Chairman and CEO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Ms Jan Schaffer 
Founder (2002) & Executive Director, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism; Member, Journalism Advisory Committee, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation; Speaker, Trainer, Author, Consultant and Web Publisher on the future of journalism. 
Mr Kirk Spahn 
Founder & President, The Institute for Civic Leadership, School of International Affairs, Columbia University; Managing Partner, Educare Capital, New York.
Ms Susan Stroud 
Founder (2001) & Executive Director, Innovations in Civic Participation, Washington DC.  Formerly: Founding Director, Swearer Center for Public Service, Brown University; Founding Director, Campus Compact.

Dr Samuel Pisar 

International lawyer, New York & Paris.  Author.  Formerly: Chief Counsel, International Olympic Committee; Adviser, US Department of State; Member, Task Force on Foreign Economic Policy (Kennedy Administration).