Associations’ Digital Democracy Dilemma
As the Labour leadership contest proved, the merest hint of uncertainty over the conduct or legality of a selection process can seriously damage the credibility of an election in the minds of the voters. Even a whiff of mismanagement will leave a bitter taste of dissent lingering amongst the electorate.
Cock-up or conspiracy all become one in the minds of those who have begun to question the validity of the process and therefore the result. My recent experience confirms that some associations’ procedures are in desperate need of independent scrutiny. And history has shown us that governments adopted on the basis of a dubious selection process almost always fail to maintain the trust of the people. Except, of course, for dictatorships, and they just don’t care!
So, electing governments is one thing, what about day-to-day decision-making? How many times have you, as a trade association manager, been asked your membership’s view on a particular issue, policy, or piece of legislation, only to realise that you are completely in the dark? And, in all honesty, how many times have you responded to such an enquiry – possibly from the press – with your own best guess; hoping that the majority would tow the party line and follow you over the barricades into the thick of battle?
We’ve all done it, and because we’re all seasoned campaigners – with our ears to the ground – we generally get away with it. But what if your judgement call goes awry? Second-guessing the mood of your constituency is a risky business, and careers can be seriously dented by getting it wrong. Why not limit the risk by asking your members what they really think? Most often, the answer to that question is that to do so would be costly, time-consuming and possibly wasteful. But what if it was none of these? Enter the digital democracy!
A couple of years ago, during a fascinating IofAM discussion, – which utilised SMARTvote devices to take quick polls from the floor and encourage discussion around various points – Electoral Reform Services (ERS) asked participants to consider if digital technology could be applied to democracy. Along the way they demonstrated that online voting is an effective way to reduce an association’s printing costs, provide wider communication choice for members and be more environmentally friendly.
However, not everybody is comfortable with computers and it is vital in a democracy to ensure that no voter is disenfranchised: the right mix of communication methods need to be employed. Maximising communications and using social media within an election context is a powerful way to raise its profile and foster engaging discussion with the electorate. But unfettered it can also backfire badly leading to the dissemination of half-truths, falsehoods, and even character assassination.
So digital democracy is about much more than just social media. There are other barriers to voting online. These include lack of trust in the security of the process; technophobia; and voter fatigue or cynicism. However, as more commercial transactions take place digitally, and security improves, electorates may become increasingly comfortable with online voting. And if the effective capture and use of data allows for targeted communications it may also increase the ‘buy-in’ to online polling and elections.
But where does that leave Association management skills? Will there be any further need for judgement and experience once all options can be tested – Swiss style – by referendum and all decisions can be digitally ‘crowd sourced’? Can we really trust the wisdom of crowds to get us through? Or is a wily CEO with his / her ear to the ground still the best barometer of member opinion?
Michael Hoare FIAM