Sustainability demands public wisdom

To solve sustainability problems, governments need to know what the people are thinking. Elections aren’t quick enough. John Ager

Australia is currently unsustainable in many respects. Change is coming. Will that change be wisely managed? Or will it be forced upon us in potentially catastrophic ways?

Wise management will require governments at all levels to make lots of decisions, and to make them much more quickly than they have been to date.

In this decision making, public opinion is a critical constraint. For example, an equitable road-use pricing system could solve our congestion problems, but doesn’t stand a chance in the court of public opinion.

Simply put, unless we can improve the relationship between government decision making and public opinion, we’re going to hit the wall. Hard.

Improving it will require, among other things, developing better ways to find out what the public really thinks. We usually assume that what the public thinks can be ascertained using standard opinion polls and surveys. Yet we also understand that those opinions are generally not very thoughtful or informed.

As many have pointed out, respondents are largely ignorant – indeed rationally ignorant – about the issues. Their opinions are subject to manipulation by powerful interests; and their opinions can be “manufactured” by the polling processing itself.

What we should be trying to find out is not the public opinion, in the standard sense, but rather the public wisdom. What would the Australian people think if they had the opportunity to be properly informed, to reflect, and to deliberate together?

In a true democracy, government would be guided and constrained by the public wisdom, not attitudes as gathered by standard polls.

In pursuing this ideal, one major problem is finding out what the public wisdom actually is. This is one of the deepest challenges of democracy. Societies since Ancient Greece have grappled with it in various ways, but none have really succeeded.

The sad truth is that for most issues we never do know the public wisdom. Australian democracy has always been, in a certain sense, flying blind.

The deliberative democracy movement has been making this point for decades. Leading proponents such as James Fishkin and Australia’s Lyn Carson have advocated an alternative way of determining what the public really thinks, involving gathering together representative samples of the public - “mini-publics” – for face-to-face deliberation and the development of a collective view.

When these events have occurred, they have shown that the public is capable of tackling important problems in a sensible and responsible manner. That is, the public can actually be quite wise.

Australia would benefit greatly if these kinds of events were held much more often, and if their outputs were more influential in major decisions.

However, they can’t deliver the public wisdom needed to guide the decision making required for an orderly and timely transition to sustainability. The fundamental problem is that convening mini-publics is too slow, cumbersome and costly.

Deliberative democracy also faces political opposition. Before the last election, Julia Gillard proposed a Citizens’ Assembly to develop some consensus on climate issues. The proposal was ridiculed and quickly dropped.

For many players in our political system, genuine democracy is something to be carefully avoided.

Clearly then we need a better way to generate public wisdom. We need a mechanism which:

  • generates public wisdom in the fullest sense
  • generates that wisdom on all major issues in real time
  • enables any citizen to participate, and engages numerous and diverse citizens
  • is ideologically neutral and independent of government, business and political parties.

In a country the size of Australia, such a mechanism can’t be based on face-to-face participation. It must be some kind of virtual forum.

Thankfully, this is now a serious possibility. The internet makes possible forums supporting large-scale deliberation. In various ways, collective wisdom is being generated around the clock – think about Wikipedia, Amazon.com, and Stack Overflow.

The fundamental challenge is applying these technologies and resources to the problem of building a national virtual forum capable of identifying the public wisdom on the big issues.

Such a forum would face many large obstacles. It would have to engage a critical mass of Australians. Its participants would need to be adequately representative. It would need to be robust against attempts to “game” the system. And it would need to develop the credibility required to become a significant force in the political landscape.

These obstacles may be immense but they are not insurmountable. One such forum, YourView Australia, is already up and running, starting to generate a form of collective wisdom on major public issues such as gay marriage.

A reasonable goal is to build a virtual forum of truly national significance by 2020. Avoiding catastrophe on the path to sustainability requires nothing less.

This story is a shortened version of a chapter from 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Society