Democracy at the point of use?

23 January 2015

I went to hear Vernon Bogdanor talk about the (first) 1974 General Election the other day. It’s part of a seris about post-war elections that is well worth a watch.

In passing he used a phrase that stuck in my head:

Democracy is government by explanation

Apparently it comes from Prime Minister A.J. Balfour and/or Geoffrey Howe.

What I think it is saying is this: it is a characteristic of a democratic system that people have clear opportunities to be able to understand the workings of that system, and that one of the ways you build trust in government and health in the system is by actively exposing how it works and why things are how they are, be it planning permission, taxation or hospitals.

It reminded me of what Aneurin Bevan was supposed* to have said when setting up the NHS:

The sound of a bedpan dropped on the floor of Tredegar hospital should reverberate in the Palace of Westminster

That normally gets cited in terms of ministerial accountability, but there’s another way to look at it - that there should be a direct link between service delivery and its accountability mechanisms, and that link should aspire to be as understandable and effective for someone using a hospital in Blaenau Gwent or Wesminster.

As public services start becoming digital, both those things - exposing the workings, and providing understandable feedback mechanisms that are useful to politicians and the public - become a lot easier. You can reveal the workings of a policy by clicking a button directly in the service and send feedback from within the service (that sort of integration is just harder with paper forms and disparate organisations).

Maybe rather than some attempt at online direct democracy, or a dozen new ways to do consultations or petitions, this will be the real democracic revolution of the digital age: transparency, accountability and democracy at the point of use.

Democracy at the point of use

  • it’s hard to find a definitive quote