Since ancient times, demagogues have abused direct democracy, and bureaucrats have abused technocratic rule. However, Switzerland and Singapore are now successfully marrying direct democracy with technocracy. ‘Direct technocracy’ requires a new way of thinking about good governance. It is time countries and cities across the world pay attention.
- In Technocracy in America, Parag Khanna names Switzerland and Singapore as the ideal type of government: ‘direct technocracy’ combines democratic inclusiveness with technocratic management.
- Mexico City has unveiled its first constitution, which was partly crowdsourced: citizen engagement and input was especially high online.
- The CitySwipe app presents local residents in Santa Monica, California with images of potential scenarios and simple yes/no questions about urban plans for walking, bike lanes and housing.
- Countable gives a simple overview of the bills U.S. national representatives are debating, and lets citizens instantly send emails to these representatives to tell them how they would like them to vote.
- Maptionnaire empowers Helsinki residents to map directions where the city should grow. The app has provided insights contrary to popular belief and received input from hard-to-reach demographic groups.
Switzerland is the most democratic country in the world. Since the formation of the Swiss confederation in 1848, over half of the world’s plebiscites have been in Switzerland. However, Switzerland also has a highly professional bureaucracy, and rather than a president or head of state, has a Federal Council of seven members. Meanwhile, Singapore is well-known for its top-down rule, as the People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power for over 50 years. However, when the opposition gained ground in 2011, it sparked a major transition to governance through consultation. Both countries are combining expert-rule with democratic inclusiveness: direct technocracy.
In direct technocracy, citizen consultation is more pragmatic than political, and technocracy is more inclusive, data-driven and transparent than in the past
Direct technocracy is an innovation on older ideas of direct democracy and technocracy, which have never gained widespread support. Direct democracy has always been susceptible to demagoguery: it crippled the Roman Republic, and last year a Dutch referendum on a treaty with Ukraine became a tool to reject the government. And technocracy had devastating effects on China during the rule of Mao, while Soviet central planning put the nail in the coffin for the idea of technocracy. Hence, we are suspicious of both direct democracy and technocracy. How then does direct technocracy succeed today?
In direct technocracy, citizen consultation is more pragmatic than political, and technocracy is more inclusive, data-driven and transparent than in the past. Like the above mentioned initiatives, Singaporean and Swiss real-time consultation with citizens, enabled by digital technology, is primarily about discovering popular priorities on meaningful policy, not complex political decision-making such as the Ukraine treaty. Furthermore, these ‘info-states’, as Parag Khanna names them, respond efficiently to citizen’s preferences, learn from international experience in devising policies, and use data and scenarios for long-term planning.
The rise of direct technocracy is linked to the small-state ethos of strategy for survival and adaptability to rapidly changing conditions. Singapore has defied the modernization theory of a wealthier populace which demands political diversity: the rapid transition to consultation has put the ruling PAP firmly in power. Highly democratic Switzerland remains pragmatic as it is now trying to learn from top-down Singapore. The 21st century will be about these small-states and big countries that manage to learn from them. Urban agglomerations could become the world’s power centers of the 21st century, similar to the medieval Hanseatic League. Indeed, China is trying to reorganize itself into a collection of two dozen urban technocratic hubs: an empire of megacities.