A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Can we fix representation?

It’s election time in both Canada and the US (though the contest North of the Border seems a bit more civilized.) This means conversations about what’s broken, and how to fix it—from the minutiae of corruption to the big issues like tax policy around earned versus investment income, or how we calculate GDP.

I think one of the big issues is representation—who we choose to represent us in the halls of power. It’s time for an update.

Vote For Burns by Ludovic Bertron

Representative government is a hack. By this, I mean it’s a system that was designed to get around the inefficiencies of collecting everyone’s opinion. Rather than have every person in a democracy make their way to London, or Ottawa, or Washington, representation says that a group of people give their vote to someone they trust to represent them.

This has a few problems.

  1. People are misrepresented. The entire purpose of lobbying is to convince someone to vote in a way they wouldn’t otherwise, which is essentially distorting democratic intent.
  2. As the population scales, keeping the ratio of people to representatives becomes unwieldy; there’s only one layer of representation, and as a result the representative gets out of touch with constituents, relying on staff who insulate them from the people they represent.
The U.S. population has grown, but the size of Congress hasn't.
The U.S. population has grown, but the size of Congress hasn’t.

What’s good about representation?

But there is a reason for representation: Representatives have the time to study and reflect. When there’s a complex decision to make, the representative can gather the facts and consider it. It’s their job; most citizens don’t have the time to research everything. (This, incidentally, is how lobbyists defend themselves—as educators and informers of representatives.)

Now that everyone’s connected, we don’t need the hack any more. Everyone can vote directly. In Switzerland, this is called a direct democracy. It solves the problem of unscalable, distant, out-of-touch representatives. But it doesn’t address the problem of studying issues.

Syndicates and vote delegation

I think there’s a way to fix it, borrowed from how Syndicates work in investment. Essentially, you nominate someone else to vote on your behalf about a particular part of government policy—technology, social benefits, taxation, criminal prosecution, and so on. Here’s how it would work.

  • I have friends on Facebook who trust me about issues like technology policy. I’m their source of information; they rely on me—knowingly or otherwise—to tell them when I think something is good, or bad. They lack the time, knowledge, or context to make informed decisions, but know that I do. They’ve delegated their opinions on the future of technology to me.
  • This is similar to how syndicate investing works. I trust Brad Feld to make smart investments in early-stage companies; he has good context, and the time to do due diligence. Rather than being an angel investor myself, I can give Brad some money, and have him spend it on my behalf. I delegate my opinions about entrepreneurship to him.
  • I have a friend named Thanos who’s very smart on how finance works. I’d trust him to give me information on the Canadian government’s economic policies, what they’re doing with interest rates. I delegate my opinions about finance in general to him.

But while Brad and I make a living thinking about technology and entrepreneurship, respectively, Thanos has a day job. He might, in turn, delegate his opinions about finance to someone else. And I’d be okay with that, because I trust Thanos.

Now consider a digital version of this. Each citizen has votes on various topics, which they can delegate to others. Each delegated vote would have to be worth money to the organization voting it. In other words, if (in my example) if Thanos has only 20 people who delegate their votes to him, it’s not worth his while to make decisions all the time. He finds the best representative and in turn assigns his votes to them.

If 60,000 people delegate their votes to him, perhaps he could quit his day job and be compensated for working on those votes. Effectively, he’d get a salary commensurate with the level of trust he’d earned on a topic.

This is effectively identical to voting for a party—except that they can switch their votes to a new trusted decision-maker when they want to. When a person to whom you’ve delegated, say, your healthcare opinions betrays your trust, you take your vote elsewhere.

If he became huge—effectively, a think tank—he’d have to hire people, staff his research, and so on. He’d become a media company, like TechCrunch writing about tech policy or the Pew Internet Research group writing about tech and society.

The result would be a post-party system. And also maybe the future of news media.

Some caveats

This is still direct democracy. If someone wants to be super-engaged in politics, they can retain their own vote and engage directly. But it addresses the problem of the modern, scientific age in which people know more and more about less and less.

This isn’t really that radical. It happens today, but it’s not transparent. Many people just want to be comforted, convinced that their worldview isn’t insane, that they’re understood and heard. They effectively delegate their political opinions to Fox News or MSNBC, and those news organizations are rewarded (in the form of advertising dollars) for the viewership. The current model is just much less transparent and accountable; if the system I’m proposing existed, it would be immediately auditable; we’d know in seconds who the most thoughtful, trusted sources of decisions were.

Issues seldom fall into simple buckets. Is a self-driving car a health, tech, or economic issue? Probably all three. Lobbyists would spend all their time jerrymandering which category a particular vote fell into, and the world doesn’t separate nicely into groups. Defining what belongs where is a philosophical debate, akin to the question of negative and positive rights.

What about those who don’t vote? We might use a system where everyone’s vote is used, but those who refrain from voting side with the winning vote—which would help overcome the compromise of coalitions with a first-past-the-post model. It would also encourage people to exercise their votes, because if they got “dragged along” with a decision they didn’t like, they’d finally take their time to direct their vote.

Finally, this is a proposal for fixing democracy (the worst form of government, except for all the others, according to Churchill. The scope of human impact has extended far beyond our ability to experience it—leading to things like global instability, climate change, pandemics, nano- and astro-scale science, and other singularities. They probably need a more science-driven, stay-the-course decision approach if we’re to survive as a species.

Such decisions aren’t popular, but are necessary, and they certainly aren’t democratic. So there are good arguments to be made for a constitutionally regulated, benevolently dictatorial technocracy, and this isn’t that system. It is, however, a way to get a democracy reasonably close to one without taking away the agency of individual citizens.






3 responses to “Can we fix representation?”

  1. Andy Oram Avatar
    Andy Oram

    This suggestion formalized what already happens informally: people who can’t become policy wonks listen to other people in their circle whom they trust. That’s why, when local elections roll around, I get scads of cards in the mail signed by people in town I know personally. So this may be an intriguing idea–but watch out whenever you say “Each delegated vote would have to be worth money to the organization voting it.” Make sure you don’t set up a situation that encourages graft through vote-buying.

  2. Kris Avatar

    Fascinating thought piece.

    Here was my solution back in 2002 to making representatives more representative:

  3. Sam Johnston Avatar

    I’ve been milling over a similar proposal for years, with a few tweaks; taxpayers value the democratic process so they’re the ones that foot the bill for these proxies (say, a dollar a voter for a wildcard proxy or a fraction for a topic, probably with a minimum in the tens of thousands — still catering for the dinner party politician, but not paying them); voters have a window to override votes (so if your preferred health representative is great except for being anti-abortion you can override their vote in advance or within X hours of being notified of their use of your proxy). I’ve also spent some time thinking about bootstrapping (ie making it available as software or services for individual representatives to adopt, as an advisor or decider), and what could be done to filter “low information” voters (eg simple quiz during vote). I’d like to see this built, even if I don’t do it myself… maybe something we should get some like-minded people to rally around? Obviously there’d be an app for that…