The Club de Madrid is an independent, non-profit organization of 80 democratic former Presidents and Prime Ministers from 56 different countries founded in 2001. Its members include Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Felipe Gonzalez and Vicente Fox.
The mission of the Club de Madrid is succinctly captured in its tag line: democracy that delivers. As described in its website, it constitutes “the world´s largest forum of former Heads of State and Government, who have come together to respond to a growing demand for support among leaders in two key areas: democratic leadership and governance; and response to crisis and post-crisis situations. Both lines of work share the common goal of addressing the challenge of democratic governance and political conflict as well as that of building functional and inclusive societies, where the leadership experience of our Members is most valuable.”
It holds an annual conference, which this year took place on November 8 and 9 in New York City. The focus for this year’s conference was Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy. The program was comprised of a number of plenary panels and breakout sessions, each of which included experts from business, government and academia as well as Club de Madrid members.
I was invited to attend the conference, and participate in the opening plenary panel on Digital Technologies and the Future of Governance. The panel was moderated by Beth Noveck, Professor of Law at the New York Law School, who until recently served in the White House as Deputy Chief Technology Officer and leader of the White House Open Government Initiative. In addition, Professor Noveck was the conference's overall content advisor and wrote this introductory paper on Evolving Democracy for the 21st Century.
For me, this was a very interesting conference, especially because I got to meet and hear the opinions of former heads of government. For example, the plenary panel I was part of included Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007 and Alejandro Toledo, President of Peru from 2001 to 2006. And, at a gala dinner in honor of President Clinton, I sat next to Kim Campbell, who served as the first female prime minister of Canada in 1993.
The conference covered a wide range of topics dealing with digital technologies and government. The major theme resonating throughout all the sessions was that digital technologies are significantly transforming the nature of citizen involvement. This theme was well described in the conference website:
“Information and network technologies are influencing and changing the world, as we know it: from politics to economics to social habits. The biggest turning point for governments, institutions, media companies, journalists, came when they realized that speaking or telling their own story was not enough, now they had to listen. And not only that, but they had to engage in a continuous dialogue where different voices who had struggled to be heard now started playing an active role that changed, not only the rules, but the game itself.”
“What could benefit more from this phenomenon than DEMOCRACY?”
“New forms of information mediation such as social networks, mobile technology or networked journalism have had a particular incidence in and on the process of democratizing information, increasing transparency and reducing the barriers for individuals to tell their stories. Citizens are given the power to voice their thoughts and exchange in dialogue around the world. They have become journalists, all willing to share their own ushahidi.
“All of this is having tremendous implications on the way 21st century government is working and being implemented. The line that separates different actors, different worlds, is increasingly blurred by constant communications.”
But, while everyone agreed that the empowerment of citizens through digital technologies is a strong positive force for democracies, there were questions raised about the impact of such constant communications on good governance. These empowered citizens express lots of different opinions. And, while it would be nice to be able to say that giving voice to a wide variety of opinions contributes to civic engagement, the ensuing dialogues can at times be anything but civil.
The newly empowered citizens use their technology-amplified voices in many different ways, not always positive and constructive. A lot of negative, shrill, attacking opinions are heard throughout social networks and other information channels. It sometimes appears that our new technology-mediated, free-for-all conversations are more aimed at polarizing the discussions than they are at bringing us together to find common cause to help address tough problems.
How does such a cacophony of voices advance the cause of democracy? Do they lead to wiser decisions by better informed government leaders? Or do the highly diverse, contradictory opinions conveyed by these voices, sometimes accompanied by angry attacks, paralyze our leaders and result in what Tom Friedman called an epidemic of no decision in this November 15 NY Times Op-Ed:
“ . . . No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone - even China’s leaders - seems more afraid of their own people than ever. One wonders whether the Internet, blogging, Twitter, texting and micro-blogging, as in China’s case, has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory, and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own.”
“ . . . At a time when, from India to America, democracies have never had more big decisions to make, if they want to deliver better living standards for their people, this epidemic of not deciding is a troubling trend. It means that we are abdicating more and more leadership to technocrats or supercommittees - or just letting the market and Mother Nature impose on us decisions that we cannot make ourselves. The latter rarely yields optimal outcomes.”
“ . . .Yes, it’s true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing - in theory. But at the end of the day - whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street - someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.”
The optimists in the panels, myself included, pointed out that social media technologies are barely five to ten years old. Democracies have been dealing with freedom of the press and freedom of speech for several centuries now. While the results are often chaotic and messy, most everyone would agree that in the end, these freedoms lead to stronger democratic societies.
The widespread opportunities for individual citizens to express their feelings and opinions, now made possible by advances in digital technologies, are no different. We are in the very early stages of learning the rules of the road for social media. While our digital technologies are advancing at what seem like blinding speeds, it takes significantly longer for individuals, organizations and society as a whole to learn to properly leverage these new technological capabilities.
Over time, we will learn to ignore or marginalize the shrillest of voices, as well as to impose legal curbs on those that could cause real damage to individuals or communities. And, as was the consensus at the Club de Madrid conference, these new digital technologies will not only continue to strengthen existing democracies, but will help expand the number of democracies in the 21st century.