Most democratic countries use representative democracy – you vote for someone  who makes decisions on your behalf (in the UK’s case your MP). The EU referendum is different, it’s an example of direct democracy. Bypassing their representative, every citizen who is eligible to vote will be asked to make a decision themselves.

The referendum has this feature in common with most participatory design processes (by PD I mean including end users in process of designing a product or service). PD is normally carried out with the stakeholders themselves, not representatives of them. You could think of referendum as a participatory design process, designing a particular part of the UK’s economic and foreign policy.

The EU referendum fails as a participatory design process in two important ways. Firstly, most of the participants are deeply ill informed about the issues at hand, and under these circumstances it will be impossible for them to act in their own best interests. The consequences of their design decision may well run counter to their expectations.

An IPSOS MORI survey shows that on average UK voters believe that 15% of the population are EU migrants, where in fact only 5% are. On provocative issues such as the percentage of child benefit that is paid to children living in Europe, many people widely overestimate the amount by over 100 times (it’s about 0.3%, where 1 in 4 respondents estimated more than 24%).

Richard Dawkins has noted that very few people know all the relevant details to cast a vote, and laments the bizarre logic often used in discussions. He recommends voting for ‘remain’ in line with a ‘precautionary principle’, and has the following quote to illustrate the level of debate on TV:

“Well, it isn’t called Great Britain for nothing, is it? I’m voting for our historic greatness.”

Of course, it’s a question of degree. It would be unreasonable to suggest only a tiny number of world-leading experts can voice meaningful opinions. But there does seem to be a problem when decision makers are systemically wrong about the basic facts.

The second way that EU referendum fails is that the participants do not reflect the makeup of the country as a whole. Much of the speculation on the outcome focuses on turn out – which age groups and social classes will make the effort to cast a vote. Yet it hardly seems fair that such an important decision will be taken by a self selecting group. Criticism of participatory design projects often rightly centres on the demographic profile of the participants, especially when more vocal or proactive groups override others. If young people were more inclined to vote, the chances of a remain result would increase dramatically. If people with lower incomes were more likely to vote, it would boost leave. I take this to be a serious problem in the voting mechanism.

These are difficult problems to solve. How can a participatory process have well informed participants and accurately reflect the demographics of country, while offering everyone the chance to vote?

Harry Farmer has suggested that the rising number of referendums in the UK tells us we need to reform the way we do representative democracy, rather than resorting to bypassing it. Representatives have the time and resources to become well informed on issues so they would in theory make better decisions. However, this does nothing to address the issue of turnout – MPs are themselves selected by voters who disproportionately well off and older. MPs themselves are very far from reflecting the demographics of the UK as a whole.

Two more radical solutions have been put forward by Stanford Professor James Fishkin. In his ‘deliberation day’ model, the whole country would be given the day off to learn about, discuss, and vote on a topic, perhaps on an annual basis. Participation would be encouraged with a $150 incentive. The advantage is that (almost) everyone is included, and that the incentive ought to be enough to ensure most demographics are well represented. The participants would also be well informed, having been given the day to think deeply in a structured way. However, it’s clearly a massive logistical and political challenge implement ‘deliberation day’.

Fishkin’s other suggestion is to throw over inclusion – the attempt to allow everyone to get involved – and instead use ‘deliberative democracy’. In this scenario, a sample of the population, chosen to reflect the demographic makeup of the country as a whole, come together for a weekend, to discuss and learn about an issue before casting votes. This gives us well informed participants who are demographically reflective of the country as a whole. The model is roughly similar to jury service. The drawback is that some people may find it unfair to have a small, unelected group make a decision that affects everyone.

Making participation freely open to all stakeholders while ensuring that the participants are well informed and demographically representative is difficult in any participatory design process. Some may feel that the opportunity to participate is enough, and that if the young, or the less well off, decide not to vote that’s up to them.

However, voters having incorrect beliefs about the basic facts seems to me to point to a fundamentally broken process, where any decisions made are unlikely to turn out well. In classic participatory design projects, approaches such prototyping, iteration and workshopping can help participants improve their understanding of the situation and empower them to make decisions in their own interests.

Are there similar approaches we could take to improve national decision making? Perhaps in the UK we could look at the structure of the press, and ask if having a tiny number of extremely rich newspaper proprietors holding sway over public opinion isn’t perhaps a serious problem for a country pretending to be a democracy.

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