The market, the forum and civic technology

If you are reading the Code for Australia blog there is a good chance you believe in democracy. There is also a good chance that you believe that technology can create better governance. However the entrepreneurialism that many of us expect to push this progress is not native to the philosophy of democracy. Startups, disruptors, companies, and charities have been constructed on the basis of concepts of markets of free association, and transaction amongst other things. Although they are embedded throughout our democratic processes there could be good reasons that they do not necessarily belong in some of them. It would be just as absurd to posit that there can be no agreement between the philosophy of the forum and the market as it would be to posit that there can be no disagreement.

The forum

The forum

The market.

The market.

Let us, for a moment, reflect on the concept of the forum. To make a rash contradiction one could say that there are two types of fora*:

A macroforum such as the electoral system or the mass media and social media are spaces in which democracy can be seen to be the calculation of the public will.  An electoral system in a very clear sense adds up votes of citizens. The mass media, particularly social media, similarly calculate the public will of interest to the citizens. Commercial or charitable interests could be involved by creating software that mediates and facilitating these procedures. However, it seems reasonable to worry about their interests warping the processes of calculation. One commercial mediator might mask or ignore the public will in favour of the interest or ideology rigging the results in their favour or interest.

A microforum such as a court jury or public planning meeting involves the creation of acceptable consensus in public reason. The competitive reasoning of the market and its notions of private consumer preferences can be infectious. Commercial providers of democratic mediation may stand in the way of consensus if they burn the assumptions competitiveness and commerce into deliberation. This form of manipulation, intentional or otherwise, is surely the antithesis of deliberative democratic process.

Should we conclude that money and commerce do not belong with the development of civic technology? It isn’t that simple:

Entrepreneurial consultants can advocate for deliberative technologies of public engagement and thereby grow their sphere influence.  Existing outside of the public sector, commercial consultants may also provide political naivety and process orientation that may release public participants from bureaucratic and political strictures of the day. After all, a democratic process needs advocates and these people need to be financially able to commit to that work.

There is also very popular critique, particularly from commercial spheres of our society, that the public sector is inefficient. I don’t think I have to argue for this notion. However, the public management of public things provides a healthy holding environment for the citizen and its ability to interact civilly with neighbours in other matters^.  Completely divorcing the public sector from the provision of material things is antithetical to an open democratic society because the market is not a forum.

So is it a Faustian bargain to let the market into civic tech?

Article written by Frederick Michna


* Hendricks, C and Carson, L (2008), “Can the market help the forum? Negotiating the commercialisation of deliberative democracy” Policy Sciences, 41, 293-313

^ Honig, B (2012), “The Politics of Public Things” No Foundations, 10, 69-76.