A Tragedy of the Commons


“The fears of embracing digital democracy and how to overcome them”
— or  —
“How I learned to stop worrying and love democracy”

“There is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good
government should quietly harness” — Thomas Paine, 1791

What would you do if you could redesign Government for a modern world? Imagine if you could take all you know about people, motivation, local and global challenges, justice, and balance. Would you embrace technology? Encourage mass participation? Have MPs? How would you defend against populism? Would you seek to maximise subsidiarity or central control? What role would artificial intelligence play in decisions or service delivery? And most challenging of all: how would you transition from what we have now to the system you create?

As the founder of the digital democracy platform Represent.me we tackle questions like these every day as we work to increase civic participation in decisions, and deliver clearer information to public sector.

We are not alone. ‘Politech’ (providing services to campaigns and parties) and ‘civictech’ (providing citizen-centric services) are taking their place alongside the likes of fintech and biotech as new organisations across the world leap forward with tech-led innovation.

Startups don’t wait for permission to innovate and they’re not making an exception for Government. Profound digital disruption of political parties, Government, and public services is a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’, and measured in months and not years. The gap in the market is too big to pass up.

This carries a huge risk for democracy. Startups – whether it’s Uber or UKIP – are designed to play fast and loose. They get the attention because they can be more exciting and offer a bolder vision. But they innovate without regard to their inheritance or their enduring legacy: they live to push the boundary and gain territory.

The traditional response from incumbents – whether it’s black cabs or the Conservative party – is to downplay the threat and weather the storm. The logic runs that if the newcomers aren’t able to provide an enduring or existential threat they aren’t a risk. Cabbies and Remainers will (un)happily tell you why this logic is flawed.

Civic/Politech got off to a shaky start. It was a young field led by young minds: petition spam and twitter storms were its righteous teenage years: lots of passion but little depth or responsible expression.

But it is maturing and learning how to deliver change in a modern society.

The politech branch is used to create partisan advantage (eg Cambridge Analytica) or engagement and community building (eg Momentum).

The civictech branch is more neutrally positioned to deliver better ‘civic goods’ for all; such as  clearer political information (theyworkforyou.com), innovative public services (apolitcal.co), or more accessible democracy (represent.me).

Both branches demonstrate the need for parties and government to evolve to meet public expectations.

The business case for politech is easy to make since self-interest comes into play. But what of civictech to improve the infrastructure of democracy for citizens?

Let’s explore what could happen if a party, government, region, or country were to embrace tech and lead the way on use in governance.

As a worked example let’s use recommendation 18 from Parliament’s own Commission on Digital Democracy that Parliament should create a “Citizens’ Advisory Parliament”. In this, each paragraph and amendment of every Bill going through the House would be open to public discussion and voting online in a purely advisory capacity.

This innovation needs no permission, nor legal standing to start. But it does need legitimacy to have impact.

The benefits of open and digital

By allowing the public to discuss and vote on any Bill or amendment they immediately have more voting freedoms than MPs do (whose ability to vote granularly is denied by the Speaker’s editorial control, the Whip, and the House’s non-electronic voting system).

It’s worth pausing to reflect on this for a moment. One straightforward development would give MPs and public alike more voting power than any other change in the last 100 years. Nothing speaks to absence of political innovation in the UK as much as the fact this hasn’t happened yet.

It would completely change the perception of the relationship between parties, government, MPs, citizens and – crucially – voter turnout.

Perhaps that sounds terrifying. Here’s why it shouldn’t:

There is huge untapped expertise and knowledge distributed throughout the country. This is not so much the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, but the ‘wisdom within the crowd’. We’re not expecting 40 million  adults to develop public health policy, but there are 500,000 doctors and health care professionals who already dedicate their lives to solving these problems. Now we have the technology, we can effectively and responsibly harness that passion, knowledge and experience.

Such a voting and deliberation platform will give unprecedented and detailed insights into trends and preferences. The data can be analysed by age, location (e.g. urban-rural / north-south), the correlations between issues, and any census metric you choose – from deprivation to education level.

And because identity is verified, we know who is participating where – and who is not – telling us how significant, representative, and informed the engagement is.

If needed, campaigns can be targeted precisely to boost participation. But such targeted campaigns may not be required at all. We know that voter turnout increases when they know it counts, eg in marginal seats.  

People are desperately keen to meaningfully collaborate with decision makers in order to bring around a better world. Across Europe only 8% of people think politicians care about their opinions. But when politicians support a purposeful process, as they do in Madrid, 90% (yes, NINETY percent) of adults regularly and actively participate in urban regeneration decisions, local politics, and the allocation of a €100m local budget.

Having detailed insights also makes it easier to treat public policy as a science.

We can find the best places to run, learn from, and replicate experiments which can become tested policy. It provides guidance on how best to boost the role for businesses. It brings clear information and direction to deliver service efficiency opportunities to local authorities and national government alike. It provides the opportunity to secure public support for tough decisions by engaging people maturely in the choices and trade-offs rather than imposing ‘solutions’ and facing the inevitable backlash.

In addition to the cost savings and increased democratic participation, just imagine how useful this can be for elections. Candidates will already know local priorities, and constituents can compare their candidates’ voting record.

The same citizen-centric process of deep democratic participation can scale seamlessly to address issues from ward to city to constituency to country – even to the EU…

Our company, Represent.me, makes it easy for people to be involved by going directly to where people are. People can vote from facebook, twitter, SMS, and more. We can surface more issues, find swifter consensus and resolution, and identify and empower the most trusted influencers to help shape and deliver the solutions. And MPs have a platform to engage constituents directly, avoid the misrepresentation and over-simplification inherent in the current systems, and move beyond petition spam to collaborative democratic engagement.

This technology represents the epitome of the Conservative model: to create the right conditions for people (and businesses) to work together to help themselves.

Remember: this is just one example of one tech innovation.

So what are the blockers to more use of such tools?

Since civictech offers such potential, why are the tools not being more openly embraced?

There are two key reasons: The tragedy of the commons, and the innovator’s dilemma.

1. The tragedy of the commons

Unlike politech, there are limited business models or direct return on investment for pure democracy. There’s always money to invest in winning campaigns or for running elections, but not for improving the infrastructure of democracy itself.

It is not anyone’s direct responsibility to pay to improve it, or officially endorse its use.

The citizen-first democratic tools outlined here could be run for for two or three decades for the same cost as one election. It would be economically self-sufficient in less than 5 years, deliver a renaissance in civic participation, and provide clear and actionable data.  

The biggest perceived risk that it will lead to instability since it highlights where the incumbents are going wrong and thus provide advantage to new entrants: “Why invest in a ‘level playing field’ when my team is winning?” To these people I say: “You’re looking at the wrong instability.”

2. The innovator’s dilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma is a classic business problem: a disruptive technology brings with it attributes which the incumbents (parties and local authorities) find challenging to accept (the need to relinquish some control in order to gain a greater reward) when there is no pressing imperative to do so.

But the same attributes which make it unattractive to established players are the very ones that make it attractive to new entrants – in this case new parties and the under-represented ‘politically homeless’.

It is here where the risk is underestimated.

‘Authenticity’ is a strong desire – almost a demand – of younger voters. They are being turned off democracy because it is not being seen to deliver solutions or even address the problems they care about.

About 30% of people don’t vote. From their perspective it’s simply not true that a country gets the government it deserves – they are yearning for a government which deserves their vote.

One one hand, citizens are craving political innovation to address the 21st century’s challenges, and to provide them with a common purpose and find meaningful and helpful roles. On the other, the public seeks safety and allies in the face of numerous disruptions.

We will gather to those who are bold enough to name and address our fears or help us step up to the challenges, and who give us the tools and the power to take action. Alas this craving for something beyond politics-as-usual  is so strong that we are less discriminating about who is leading the change – it could equally be authoritarians, radical socialists, or bold centrists who are given the chance at the next election.

What’s the plan? What next?

Business’ normal response to the innovator’s dilemma is for the incumbents to support new developments, but at arm’s length. In this instance, and from e-government experiences around the world, this solution works well here, too.  

Here are our recommendations:

1. Evolve Parliament’s ePetition platform

It’s been great at increasing awareness and participation, but it’s time to evolve. In an increasingly polarised and entitled society we need to make citizens more aware of the implications, realities, and responsibilities of democracy. A few quick wins would be to: add a disagree button (and multiple choice questions), validated user profiles (which can remain publicly anonymous), debate features, and maps and census data to show representation and significance. Additionally it should have an open API to allow people to extend its functionality and make more effective use of the wealth of data.

MPs and local authorities should be able to use it to canvas local opinion, and receive regular updates on the values and opinions of their constituents.

This would have the welcome side-effect of eliminating all petition spam.

2. Create a Citizen’s Advisory Parliament.

Provide the necessary resources to fund the Citizens’ Advisory Parliament outlined above, and ensure triggers are put in place so that points raised by the public can be debated.

This could seamlessly integrate with the updated petitions platform, and help keep constituents informed of their MPs voting record and activity in Parliament more faithfully than current systems which are prone to misrepresent important nuance and procedural points.

The pool of expertise it creates can easily be tapped into by willing MPs who want to draw upon the experience and counsel of its most trusted participants in each topic.


The technology to run an evolved petitions platform and a citizen’s parliament already exists and is already in regular use by 20,000 people at www.represent.me (or you can try the chat-based version on facebook messenger at m.me/representlive). We already have the tools to let individual MPs poll constituents in real time and for local authorities to slash their research budgets and create a more meaningful relationship with residents. The wealth of data we have built up over the last year is freely available to all.

But the barriers to successful innovation in the public sector are counterproductively high and it’s infuriatingly hard for new ideas to take root.  

As such these recommendations need the following to succeed:

  • Legitimacy: the public needs to know this isn’t just another futile petition platform and that their participation is worthwhile. This means going beyond the “100,000 signatures and we’ll debate it” to commitments to experiment with solutions, allocate budgets, and review regulation once certain criteria are met.
  • Authenticity – The Big Society failed because it was all responsibilities and no rights, freedoms, or resources. There was no authenticity or reciprocality to the shift in the social contract.  open neutral
  • Publicity – so that citizens can understand the shift in mentality of government, and trust that the process has value.

Whilst these ideas could be run by Parliament, it might help increase trust and participation if a new independent organisation were created to act exclusively for citizens with a goal of increasing meaningful public participation and oversight of governance – a “5th estate” if you will.

You can easily imagine that such an organisation could nurture a number of civic projects, and become self-funding within a decade. This leads to a bonus recommendation: Create a civictech innovation gateway to work with innovations and shepherd them through their early stages of use with the public sector.

It would take just a small cohort of MPs to take such a project under their wing and lead the way.

To paraphrase Jean-Claude Juncker “we all know what to do, we just don’t know how to [be confident we’ll be] re-elected after we’ve done it.”

The recommendations above help bridge that dilemma.

By investing to modernise democracy for all we can, with one simple action, prevent a divisive and polarising politech arms race, nurture the core values of our society, empower society’s change-makers, and act swiftly and accurately to tackle the challenges and improve people’s lives.

Political gains will go to those who are brave enough to treat citizens like adults, have faith in the better angels of our nature, and bring us on a journey of reform and responsibility.

The world has moved beyond the left and right of political inheritance. It is time to move forward.


This was first published in a CivicTech pamphlet for the Conservative Party Conference. 

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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