Electronic communications may permit
direct democracy on a larger scale

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 41
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

The national electronic "town meeting" described in the previous article may sound like science fiction, but in fact we’ve had the capability to do this for many years. One of the people who have been exploring these possibilities is Ted Becker, a lawyer and political scientist, currently teaching at the University of Hawaii. During the past five years he has been using modern communications technologies to improve the democratic process in various places around the globe. He and his wife have also developed the Interpersonal Mediation Movement in Hawaii.

Robert: HOW DID YOU get into using television to help improve the governance process?

Ted: That’s a good question. First of all, it’s not just television. I’m interested in telecommunications in general. That would include telephone, computers, radios, any of the electronic media.

For a long time I have not been satisfied that the American government, at any level – national, state or local – adequately informs and then represents the will of the American public in major issues. The people in power have long argued that part of the reason why they don’t represent those interests and the public will is because the public is ill- informed, doesn’t take the time to deliberate and doesn’t take the time to participate other than to maybe come out and vote once every four years. My feeling has been that if the public were adequately informed and given opportunities that were more convenient to them, there would be much more interaction and much more input on the part of the public.

The best way to do that, it seems to me, is to utilize the electronic media. Every American home is a political communications center. Something like 98% of all homes have television, 98% of all homes have a telephone, 98% of all homes have radios. So there it is. The possibilities of interaction between the public and the government through electronic media exists already; it’s just not being used. Now with the computer, videotex and all the other kinds of informational systems also coming on line, it’s just almost a technological imperative that the public utilize this kind of technology in order to improve the government.

Robert: More specifically, how might the technology be used?

Ted: I can give you an actual example where it is utilized very effectively. The most exciting experiment of this kind that is ongoing, and a very useful model, is in Reading, Pennsylvania, where there is something called Berks County Television Network (BCTV). They have several centers around the county that have two-way television capability; in other words, you can receive television or produce television in the centers. Originally, these centers were started as part of a National Science Foundation project involving New York University and some cable companies in that area. The idea of the project was to get elderly people to be able to communicate with each other about problems that affect them. They started off with just three centers, and they had elderly people learn how to use video equipment. They began communicating with each other, and then, of course, the cable companies put their programming onto the cable so that it could also get into the houses of people in that area. They used a lot of split- screen techniques and this kind of thing so elderly people in their houses could sit and watch other elderly people discussing various kinds of problems. They could call in to one of the studios and ask a question, this would be discussed among the people in the three centers and then aired over the cable into the homes for everyone who was interested to sit and watch.

This was a very successful project, so successful that about a year or so later the city government decided to try the same approach. They became aware of the fact that nobody would come to the public hearings on such things as budget, community development – maybe two or three people would show up – so they decided to try plugging into the Berks County Television System. Since then, they haven’t had a single budgetary hearing or community development hearing other than on television in the Reading, Pennsylvania area. The number of people who have participated has increased dramatically, something like 25-fold.

Robert: Do you remember when it was started?

Ted: I think in 1976. It’s been ongoing, and at this point in time it’s what I call government by television. As I say, they have city council-people on every week, the mayor is on pretty much every week, people call in and ask him questions. Their hearings are on television and people call in with ideas. Why do you have to go down to city hall to listen to this stuff and to have input when you can do it right from your own home? That’s what they’re doing in Reading, Pennsylvania. That’s one outstanding example in action right now.

I think the other most outstanding experiment, in terms of real on-going governmental projects, is Alaska. There they do two things which I think are very illustrative of the value of this sort of thing. One is what is called a legislative tele- conference network, LTN. What they have are centers, all around the state. These centers are linked by satellite, and they have tele-conferencing capability so that people can attend various kinds of hearings from the capital by just going down to their local teleconference centers, and they can observe the hearing. They can call in and have input into the hearings. This system has been in effect since 1977 and is constantly being expanded both in use and the number of centers because the public likes it so much. The only problem they have with it has been its getting overused.

So that’s one. Then they also have what they call the Alaska Town Meetings. The most successful one was done in 1980 through the office of the Governor. What they did is have a television hearing (on capital improvement projects and transportation in Alaska) with a very ingenious design. They had three different groups of people who could call in and participate through using telephone and television, they spread around the state to a random sample of people, consensors, which are little black boxes attached to the television. People could then sit in their homes and view the discussion. Then at certain times they’d ask for a vote, and people in their homes could push these little buttons on the little black boxes that the state had given them; and the results would flash up on the screen instantaneously from all over the state.

So you can see that this isn’t just pie in the sky stuff. It really happens. Not only does it happen, but every time it’s employed, it’s highly successful. It’s also been shown not only that the public likes it, that it works, but actually if you want to do cost-benefit analysis in terms of the time, the expense that people have to use in gas, getting babysitters, or whatever in order to get somewhere, to a central spot, that it probably ends up being cheaper.

Robert: Is there any indication of the kind of influence that it has on the government officials?

Ted: That’s a hard one. The situation where it will be most effective is where the results of these become law, like initiative or referendum. Then it’s directly converted. Public opinion becomes law. You don’t have to worry about whether representatives are paying attention to it or not. In the situations where it’s been done, I would say that it probably influences them, but it’s hard to actually determine whether it actually controls their votes.

Robert: What would you see as some of the steps that could be taken beyond these current examples?

Ted: Number one, I think the public has to be better educated about these things through the popular media, particularly about how successful they have been, so that there is more pressure to do more of it. These things have been going on for a long time. You’ve never heard of them, right? How come? What’s the secret? The major media, they don’t talk about it. There’s lots of resistance out there to this sort of thing, particularly in terms of people who already have power, whether it be economic, political, or social, to begin to educate the public as to the tremendous political capacity they have right in their own homes, to their own electronic political communications-mix that they have in their own homes.

Robert: What are some of the arguments that are raised against doing this?

Ted: I don’t think anyone raises arguments because no one’s pushing much to do it.

Robert: They just drag their feet.

Ted: Right. Like here in Hawaii, for example. Hawaii would be a perfect state to have this legislative teleconferencing network, especially with Alaska already doing it very successfully. So, how come Hawaii doesn’t do it? They’ve had committees appointed to study teleconferencing here for the last six years, and nothing happens. The reason for that is, who’s pressuring them to make it happen? Nobody.

Robert: How do you see the relationship between what you are talking about and Duane Elgin’s work with trying to get the television media to carry more socially relevant programming…?

Ted: And politically interactive is another thing he pushes for. That’s really where we connect. Duane’s interested in more informational-stuff. That’s fine. I’m not opposed to that, but I don’t think that’s going to make much difference. I think the thing that will be different is where we begin to use the electronic media interactively to start getting the public, first of all, into lateral communications, so the public can see what the public is thinking constantly. Secondly, to at least pressure and influence those in power to begin to yield more to what the public is thinking and wanting, on various kinds of issues. Can you imagine if that were done on a regular basis over network television, what impact that would have upon our political scene?

Robert: One of the problems I can see is the problem of numbers, of volume. Especially if you were to be dealing with a system like this for millions of people, or tens or hundreds of millions of people, how do you then begin to allocate time and access to the technology so that there can be some reasonable representation?

Ted: Frankly, I think that’s a canard. If you want to put the money into it, the hardware and the software and the human manpower – I’m not saying there wouldn’t be a million little problems and glitches to be ironed out – but if we worked on it for a couple years, putting in a substantial budget nationwide, into making this thing work, we could have an interactive system set up that would boggle the mind. Give me the budget of Jaws, or give me the budget of any Stephen Speilberg movie, I’ll set up a system that will be tremendous in the space of two years. Or one B-1 bomber.

Robert: We’ve been talking about getting citizen- opinion out and more visible. That’s important, but one of the challenges in government is to not only find out what people think about existing options but to develop better options, better policies; and I’m wondering to what extent interactive television can be used in that process?

Ted: First of all, I am much more in favor of moving toward the consensual rather than adversarial democratic system, particularly where you get the public involved. I’m not interested so much in doing public opinion polls and finding out 55% is for this, and 45% is for that; therefore, the 55% wins. I’m much more interested in getting information out into the public domain, letting it swirl around for a bit, doing a couple of polls on it, maybe sequentially, and then trying to see where there might be a consensus in terms of a variety of alternatives. When I say consensus I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, maybe something over 80 to 85%, something like that. Or more. We find, in a lot of the interactive stuff we do on television, what we get back is substantial consensuses, 90-95% as matter of fact here in Hawaii on a number of issues. So my feeling is that once you systematically get information out, systematically develop a discussion on the issue, systematically get various alternatives out to the public, that the process will maximize the possibilities of identifying and measuring public consensuses in various areas.

Personally speaking, I believe that the public is best able to determine what is best in the public interest, not representatives and politicians. So, as much as people have faith in the free market, private enterprise system, for developing the wealth of a nation, a la Adam Smith, I have that same faith in the free market of ideas and the free interaction of the public in general in developing the public welfare. It’s the system that we have now that’s so tremendously elitist and run by small groups of people that are special interest groups. That’s what’s not producing the best public policy, and that is the log jam that has got to be broken. I believe that the telecommunications hardware and our software techniques are quite capable of doing that.

Robert: How do you see this applying internationally?

Ted: Are you talking about the nuclear, the big problem? Let me tell you about something I’m working on right now with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Cambridge. Last spring the UCS did a National teleconference. They supplied the television up-link from a group of experts in Cambridge, including Carl Sagan and Admiral Noel Gyler, who were discussing the pitfalls and dangers in Ronald Reagan’s Star War’s proposal. This feed was offered free to various of their network of activists around the country. There were, I think, ten down-links set up around the country, one in Atlanta, one in Denver and others around the country. The people at the down links observed the discussion going on in Cambridge and a six- minute animation that they also had on the Star Wars thing. Then the UCS opened up phone lines back to Cambridge, where the people in the audience then could ask questions of the panel; and they just went back and forth for an hour after that.

This fall, the UCS is going to try to increase the scope of what it’s doing along these lines. Here’s where I come in. For the last couple years they’ve had what they call the Week of Education around the country on various items like the nuclear arms race and the nuclear freeze. As part of the week of education, in October of this year, they’re going to have another tele-conference and electronic town meeting on the nuclear stalemate. They’re going to start off with a tele-conference out of Cambridge again offering it free to anybody who wants to pull it off, for any of their organizers who can get a down link and have people watching the tele- conference. They are also – and this is the idea of the project director, which I thought was really brilliant – going to offer it free to community cable programmers all around the country, too. This way it can start to get into the homes of the American people as well. They also want to have feedback coming back into Cambridge. They’re going to have the phone bridge system set up again from the centers, as they had in the spring, but also they’re thinking of perhaps using the dial-vote system, which is the 900 number that AT&T has, where people can then vote from their homes on the issue, after watching the tele-conference and listening to the discussions through the phone bridge. So we’ll start to have a national tele-democratic discussion and debate, trying to locate the areas of consensus on what the problem is and what the solutions are.

I think this is a step in the direction of what you’re talking about, talking in terms of international issues. This could be done also with the Soviet Union, but so far all we’ve got is Reading, Pennsylvania, a tele-conference in Alaska, and a couple little experiments going on around the country. Now we’re moving – finally – into trying to do something nationally in terms of setting up some kind of tele-conference, electronic town meeting. Internationally, yes, I can see that way down the line. Everybody is operating on such little, pinched budgets, to do this kind of thing, because, again, the people in power don’t want to do this kind of thing. They talk about it. And God help us if they really do do something along these lines. I would feel it would end up being terribly biased and stilted one way or the other. In the meantime, we have to kind of do this patch-quilt, low-budget to no-budget, kind of stuff that we’re doing and see the way it evolves.

Robert: It does seem that there’s some real health to going ahead and doing it and not waiting for the approval of government agencies?

Ted: Not only not wait for the approval, but to do it without them, just develop it without them. Although,… actually when you take a look at it, a lot of these experiments that have been done are being sponsored by governmental agencies, like the office of the Governor in Alaska. By the way, you folks up in Washington had a terrific one about ten years ago. It was called Alternatives For Washington. Dan Evans set it up. It ran for about a year or a year and a half, and it was a terrific exercise in modern tale-democracy. It’s a kind of model. Of course when Dixie Lee Ray came in, she scotched the whole thing.

Robert: So, you would say that while the initiative needs to come from a Grass Roots level, at least in some situations, there has been help from government sources?

Ted: Definitely. These cases are a big exception, but there are some exceptional people in government and very enlightened; and they’ve certainly moved it along a lot. Also I had an experience in New Zealand where we did a nation- wide thing we called Tele-Vote, and that, too, was basically paid for by a government agency. I’m not saying that all people in government are the enemies of tele-democracy. It’s not the case, but certainly there is much resistance to developing this coming out of the ordinary run of people who are in government.

Robert: Do you see a connection between your personal mediation work and tele-democracy?

Ted: Yes, that’s kind of what I said back a ways in terms of developing consensus and presenting alternatives for people to judge, and not focusing on where the division is, on where the problem is – focusing instead on what the workable solutions are that people can agree on. That approach is the mediation approach, and we’re using the telecommunications media to do that.

Robert: Could you translate that mediation-approach into a series of steps?

Ted: Getting consensus on what the problem is, exploring a range of alternatives that might be workable, and then getting people to agree on what the best workable solution is, finding out where there can be the maximum amount of agreement on what the best workable solution is.

I believe that American governments today respond mostly to organized interest groups, whatever they may be, whether it be the National Association of Manufacturers or the Sierra Club. When you start really to pit those kinds of groups against each other, you know where the major money is. It’s coming out of political action committees, corporations, the Petroleum Institute, stuff like that. If you just go on the basis of bucks, you see the way the policies go, you see who gets elected to office, you see the composition of Congress, you see what’s happened.

My feeling is that once you get the public involved in dealing with the issues that you’ll get a different set of values that are going to come to the fore in the decision-making process. This isn’t to say that the public is always going to be wise and good, but it is to say that the public-at-large has a definitely different set of values than people who are running our country. If we are going to move forward, if we are going to have a sustainable society, it’s going to have to become a more democratic society. This country will rise or fall on the amount of democracy that we have in the future. The greatest hope of having far more democracy in the future is through our technology, so that the technology, properly used, and used by all, has the greatest promise for a sustainable society in the future.

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