Democracy: doing it for ourselves

Above is the video of a presentation I made at NESTA in London on 15th November with discussants Claire Mellior and Martin Wolf. I reproduce (AI generated) timestamps in the shownotes of the video below.

00:00 – Introduction and Overview The talk begins with an introduction to the challenges facing contemporary society and the roles of NESTA in addressing them, including applied research, venture building, and policy shaping.

02:09 – The Politics of Policy Solutions The speaker reflects on the difficulties of implementing policy solutions due to the complexities of politics and the need for radical ideas to meet the scale of current challenges.

03:34 – Panel Introduction and Project Background Introduction of the panel members and their contributions to the field, along with a mention of NESTA’s work in collective intelligence design.

05:14 – Democracy and Governance Types The talk shifts to a discussion of different types of governance, with a focus on Aristotle’s typology and the concept of democratic lotteries.

10:43 – Media Influence on Politics Analysis of the impact of media, especially the reduction of presidential soundbites over time, highlighting the influence of media on political discourse.

16:22 – Brexit and Citizen Juries The speaker discusses the impact of citizen juries on public opinion, particularly in the context of Brexit, and how deliberation influenced people’s views.

22:04 – Activism and Nonpartisan Politics The focus shifts to the concept of nonpartisan activism and the importance of citizen juries in representing democratic legitimacy and influencing policy.

28:44 – Embedding a People’s Branch in Government The idea of a ‘people’s branch’ in government is proposed, suggesting a chamber chosen by sampling to represent a check on elected representatives.

37:05 – Panel Responses and Discussion The panel members respond to the talk, discussing their perspectives on deliberative democracy, the role of citizen assemblies, and the complexities of political change.

50:18 – Q&A Session The question and answer session begins, allowing for audience engagement and further exploration of the topics discussed.

You can access the audio here.

I am not sure why YouTube’s transcript creation hasn’t activated and but I’ve posted a rough transcript beneath the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, History, Innovation, Politics - international, Politics - national, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment

The Voice For John Stuart Mill

The biggest winner from the referendum on the weekend is John Stuart Mill. 

There’s a strand of left-wing orthodoxy these days that deprecates free speech and brands opposing viewpoints as dangerous wrongthink. This firebrand mode of thinking is excellent at producing an engaged cabal of supporters, but its fruits will often face oblivion in the privacy of one’s own voting booth. 

The Yes campaign was undermined by its intellectual siege mentality. In the face of an implacable campaign, only the people already beyond the pale could raise legitimate objections, and so these objections were thought to be invalidated solely by the lack of virtue of those who raised them. 

Although John Stuart Mill is a dead white man, the Yes campaigners could do with reading his arguments for free speech and actually engaging with the viewpoints of the opposing side. When political decisions are made privately, it’s better to reduce the fervent engagement of your own tribe to garner more lukewarm support from the other.

Posted in Democracy, Philosophy | 23 Comments

Sotto Voce: The case for an informal vote

I find it hard to understand how passionate some folks are about voting Yes or voting No. Not because I do not understand passion, but because the cases for either position are so unconvincing.

I am not “barracking” for either side. If the result is Yes I will find it hard to watch the self-satisfied ABC pundits or Albo taking a bow of glory. If the result is No, I will not want to watch Dutton’s fork-tongued opportunism and I will really hate to see the disappointment of our indigenous peoples.

Guess who won’t be tuning in to the watch the count.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

The academy and partners try wellbeing frameworks

I discover that I don’t seem to have cross-posted this old essay previously published in the Mandarin, and since this is my place of record (where I can make notes to myself in the comments of new sources, thoughts or developments) I am doing it now.

This is part three of Nicholas Gruen’s essay series about the difficulty of translating policy into outcomes. Read part one, on wellbeing frameworks, and part two on commonsense hacks government could use to bolster Australians’ wellbeing.

1he sciences we now possess are merely systems for the nice ordering and setting forth of things already invented, not methods of invention or directions for new works.” — Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620.

In the first of these essays I tried to show how little change occurred as the result of the Australian Treasury’s Wellbeing Framework (now abandoned). That’s partly because our policymakers took it far less seriously than those in other countries like the UK and New Zealand. Nevertheless, even those countries’ wellbeing frameworks didn’t focus as productively as they might have done on wellbeing. If they had, they’d have generated sufficient information to allow us to start constructing – both generally and within specific portfolios – schedules of increasingly promising ‘no-regrets’ initiatives as we did with greenhouse emissions abatement curves, as illustrated.

Here I want to argue that what we see up close in policymaking has its close analogue in the academy. Firstly in the academic literature, I’ve found incredibly little discussion of the kinds of considerations illustrated in the chart. I presume there are others, but this is the only article of its kind I can find, and even here it’s notable that the focus is on developing frameworks for generating lists of interventions rather than the process of identifying obviously high-quality projects to which frameworks can be applied in due course when one finds the need and the time to prioritise.

In this part I take a look at a strangely becalmed Australian wellbeing project going on essentially within the academy – though with multiple stakeholders from the wider world. After around nine years, it seems to be just getting going. Yet even now the priority remains establishing a framework rather than searching for the most worthwhile policy interventions. And, even once it does get going, I’m doubtful as to what it will achieve. I’ll illustrate my claim by looking at the corresponding Canadian initiative, which is much further advanced.

Let me summarise my claims in this part and relate them to the general claims introduced in the previous part of the essay. Almost all the discussion occurs at a very high level. As we saw with the Australian Treasury’s wellbeing framework, it’s easy to announce some attractive principles – that policy advice should be framed with regard to a concept of wellbeing that goes beyond the purely economic outcomes captured in GDP. But if I might use the term, if these fine ideas are to ‘trickle down’ to improve our lives, these high-level ideas need to be operationalised. To do so we need to relate the apex principles in a wellbeing framework to concrete policy advice. This would require the framework to change business-as-usual advice and so change policy priorities in some noticeable way, for instance by changing policy advisors’ understanding of the relative value of different programs or changing their priorities in how existing and new programs are developed.

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The unbearable lightness of grey academia: note to self

Wikipedia defines ‘grey literature’ thus:

Materials and research produced by organizations outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels. Common grey literature publication types include reports (annual, research, technical, project, etc.), working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. Organizations that produce grey literature include government departments and agencies, civil society or non-governmental organizations, academic centres and departments, and private companies and consultants.

Some of it is excruciating or just hard to take in. But there you go, no-one mistakes an annual report or many documents for anything less than bland contentless pabulum with some information that might be useful to someone if they know what to look for. And, on the upside, grey literature is often informative and unpretentious. Reports from ABS, BOM and other technical bodies are grey literature.

But there’s an active academic literature that seeks a similar audience. And here’s one formula for the worst of it. You wade into some topical area. You make some distinctions. You deal in ideas that might be the subject of learned investigations in specialist disciplines, but you take things pretty much as given. You might then do some research to get some ‘data’. You might count up the number of a certain type of organisations who have chosen to do Y and how many have chosen to do not Y. You then give talks and consult to said organisations or to those thinking and talking about them.

It’s all kept at a very general level, there are few if any examples and if they are, they’re cursory — illustrative, rather than to interrogate anything. Then you might call for more research. Here is a blog post whipped up from such an approach.

The rise of Knowledge Brokering Organisations (KBOs) has changed how decision-makers access evidence. Whereas in the past, decision-makers might have relied on internal research services, or favoured academics providing them with the latest research, governments across the world have invested in new organisations that can synthesise existing evidence of ‘what works’.

I’ve thought about What Works Centres. Do they work themselves? I have my doubts and set out what they were here. I’d go a little further here and say that they’re a good idea on a napkin. A good beginning to a discussion that might have led to some worthwhile institutional development. But the kinds of issues I’ve raised should have been a live part of their development. For instance, it’s telling that we speak about What Works rather than who made it work or where it worked and where it didn’t. Because it’s likely that, if something difficult is being done, it will be difficult to narrow it down to a stable, replicable ‘what’ and you might like to think more about promoting the agency of those who’ve done things that work. But then that would be more disruptive than putting out lists of decontextualised tips and tricks.

Of course people continue to say things like I said, but very much at the ‘ideas’ level. The What Works Centres themselves don’t seem to be wrestling with them, trying to transform themselves into things that might work better. (Or perhaps they are and I haven’t heard — that would be unsurprising.)

Here’s some more:

KBOs have emerged in countries with different political and policy systems. In all those countries, governments claim a commitment to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ and have invested funding to develop their capacity to use evidence, be that within government itself (for politicians and civil servants) and/or for practitioners such as teachers, doctors.

Explaining their emergence, our interviewees described various drivers, such as a charismatic individual inside or outside government pushing for the need for a new KBO, and the decreasing internal capacity of government and other decision-makers to fill this evidence function. Others spoke of KBOs being created to show that policy-makers cared about an issue and were aware of the lack of good quality evidence in that area.

And on it goes. Half-ideas lie strewn around. Another is social impact bonds. A good idea of sorts, but really only the beginning of something workable and obviously useful.

And on it goes. Reportage as analysis.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Philosophy | Leave a comment

From repressive tolerance to repressive diversity

A brilliant illustration of the broad terrain of both concepts. It’s telling (and sad for a left leaning centrist like me) that this comes from the very right wing Claremont Institute. (Though their artist may have got it from somewhere else). John C. Eastman is on the board. He’s the guy who came up with the plan for getting pro-Trump electors to the electoral college, rather than the electors representing people’s votes. And note the great quote from the late, great Abraham Lincoln. “”No policy that does not rest on some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained.”

Herbert Marcuse coined the expression ‘repressive tolerance’. It took off — as well it might. It’s an important idea, providing one keeps in mind that there are very few situations in which repressive tolerance isn’t better than repressive intolerance! Indeed, showing the motivated impatience so typical of Western intellectuals, Marcuse showed how you can take the idea and retrofit it to — well whatever you like.

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.

Voila! Job done. Bob’s your uncle.

Anyway, this leads me to coin the expression repressive diversity. And I’m not sure it is better than its opposite. As the Sydney Review of Books informs us:

Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian essayist and researcher whose writing explores class, capital, intergenerational trauma and diaspora.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with any of these subjects. But how come they so dominate the discussion of difference? Could that be a kind of cultural dominance itself? Note how the blurb could be about any difference or deviance from what was honoured in the dominant culture whether it was based on sex, gender, race, disfigurement, disablement, neurodiversity and on and on. So really, each of these exercises is primarily about the dominant culture and its endlessly rehearsed inadequacies — though those inadequacies are invariably against some theoretical (and so utopian) standard rather than by comparison with other existing cultures.

Should the dominant culture be more broadminded and inviting? Sure should. But then we should all be kinder. I should have been kinder yesterday. So should you. But what about all the things in a person’s history that might be different that might enrich our lives rather than simply provide a benchmark by which to grade our own culture’s intolerance? They’d be particular things, and having articulated them, one might find connections between them, and between them and the dominant culture. But they wouldn’t be, in the first instance, generic ones.

Posted in Political theory | 4 Comments

The Pamela Paul Effect: Books betray us, yet still we cling to them

Echoes of an earlier age

Many of us own thousands of these. They cost too much, too many have too much filler, and our bookshelves allow only the crudest form of search function.

Many of us still venerate books. The evidence says they are not very good at what is supposed to be their primary job: putting new ideas in our heads. We are slowing developing new ways to achieve this old aim.

I’d better just come out and say it: compared to the emerging alternatives, I don’t think most books work very well. In 2023, we have a great many potential alternatives, and we need to keep exploring them. Eventually, I expect that search to pay off, perhaps in a big way.

If you have a view about whether books actually help people take in new ideas and perspectives, tell us in the comments.

But first, here are takes on books’ shortfalls, from four critics.

Deirdre McCloskey: “Look, everyone has this problem”.

The latest person to remind me of books’ weaknesses is Professor Deirdre McCloskey, the polymathic former professor of just about everything (economics, English, communication, philosophy, history and classics) at universities from Harvard to Rotterdam.

McCloskey is not really an enemy of books. She couldn’t be: so far she’s written 18, co-authored another, edited or co-edited nine more, and has another soon to go to press. Her book Economical Writing is widely considered (including by me) to be the best book yet written on the art of writing for the social sciences.

But the last time I talked with McCloskey, she revealed that she often struggles with reading books. She spoke to me for a podcast series I’ve started, called Shorewalker on Reports; indeed, I gave her a whole episode of her own. She’s great fun. Here’s a transcript of part of that episode (and if you like it, please subscribe in Apple, Google, Spotify, Pocket Casts or by dropping the RSS feed into your podcast software):

(David Walker: One of the most useful ideas in ‘Economical Writing’ … is that readers are sort of lost and unsatisfied a lot of the time.)

Deirdre McCloskey: All the time.

(David Walker: Almost nobody ever says this.)

Deirdre McCloskey: You’re always confused. I am, aren’t you? (DW: Yep.) I read something; half the time I don’t know what I’m reading. I forget … wait, wait, what’s …  what’s this mean … what?

(David Walker: And I discovered slowly … that a lot of people, like me, don’t finish many of the books that they start.)

Deirdre McCloskey: I don’t ever finish a book. Continue reading

Posted in Information, Literature, Media, Methodology | 2 Comments