Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Disrupting Governance: Democracy and leadership in a digital world

Leye - Every other Wednesday 

I was invited to deliver a lecture at University of Cumbria's Institute for leadership and sustainability. Note: institute for leadership and sustainability. Leadership. The relevance of this will shortly become clear. The programme is part of the Open Lecture series in which interesting people are invited to give talks on a wide range of subjects. I was to be November’s interesting person, an accolade I was too humble to reject. Also, how can one turn down a trip to the Lake District?

I was going to be talking to MBA students from across the globe. Mature, very well educated, sharpened minds. It was daunting, considering that for most people, yours truly included, the fear of public speaking ranks above almost all other fears, including the fear of dying.

I was asked to come up with a topic I’d like to talk about. I could have chosen anything, but what do I come up with? “Disrupting Governance: Democracy and leadership in a digital world.”

Ok. I had a topic. It was approved. Next I had to come up with the lecture. Talk time: one hour. Sixty minutes to engage my audience, make my point, hope my jokes don’t fall flat (which they did), and brace for the questions that would follow – or the dreaded awkward silence when not one person in the audience has a question. This, it turned out, I shouldn’t have been worried about.

Without boring you with the minutiae of the lecture, here’s the gist of it:

First, I noted that it was the 6th of November, the day on which the America was having its midterm elections. I noted that a lot of campaigning had preceded the day: The Obama’s had been campaigning. Even Oprah Winfrey had been campaigning for her favourite candidates, and Trump… Well, Trump never stopped campaigning.

I noted that on social media, people had been vigorously supporting their favourite candidates by sharing information, viral posts, quotes, statistics, memes, you name in. Anything to strengthen their candidate’s chances or weaken the opposition. Everyone had been at it, everyone who had a twitter or a Facebook accounts. Everyone including Russia. And at this point I put forward my first argument: namely that elections in the digital age are flawed. What with Cambridge Analytica and foreign governments spreading targeted fake news to sway the way we vote. And when I say targeted, I mean targeted. They know how you are likely to vote or not vote at all, and they know the exact words to use in your very own custom made fake news delivered to your social media feed on your mobile phone to influence your decision. And they are damn good at it. And this is a great threat to democracy. In fact, it is my argument that this makes elections and referendum ineffectual tools of democracy.

Consider that no one votes rationally. No one. Ok, on average no one votes rationally. We do not scrutinise the manifestos of the various political parties vying for our votes, subjecting their claims and promises to diligent fact checking and critical thinking before making objective decisions on who to vote for. No. We vote left because we have always voted left. Right because in our family we vote right.  In fact, cognitive dissonance ensures that we actively seek out information that supports our biases and we automatically ignore information that challenges said biases (unless a foreign power has paid an unscrupulous company to manipulate our biases). In summary, we vote emotionally not rationally, and our emotions are so easily controlled especially in the digital world of targeted manipulation.  

If, in a world of social media, you cannot trust that your emotional decision on how to vote has not been influenced one way or the other by your own government or other foreign governments, how can you trust the outcome of the election? Why bother with elections in the first place?

That was the first of my arguments. My second argument was a challenge of the need for leadership in the first place. I made my case against the need for leaders. I said leaders were obsolete in the modern world. I said this while standing in front of students of the Leadership and sustainability school.

I argued that it does not make sense that one person, chosen through flawed election, makes decisions for millions of other people. I argued that when we did away with kings and queens because we realised that no one has the God given right to rule over the rest us, we simply replaced the kings and queens with elected monarchs to rule over us for a period. Our giant leap forward as a life form landed short of the realisation that we do not need leaders at all.

It strikes me as ludicrous that every few years or so, following a change in government, new politically appointed ministers are expected to ‘lead’ areas of the economy / society such as medicine (the NHS), the foreign office, immigration, prisons, the police, schools, etc. People with little or no relevant experience or even qualification other than being favoured members of the winning party, expected to lead thousands of expert civil servants. Madness. 

An interesting thing happened three years ago following Nigeria’s last presidential election. For six months after being sworn in, the president failed to appoint a cabinet. No minster for defence, no minister for education, no mister of health, no minister of anything. The interesting thing that happened is that the economy continued to function, even thrive. In those six months when the various ministries were free of the disruption of inexperienced, ill-prepared, politically motivated politicians, things got better. Then the cabinet was named and the economy went into recession. The economy is still in recession.

To fill the rest of the hour after the five minutes it took to establish my arguments, I talked about central banks and how we trust the qualified experts who work in them to make decisions on things like interest rates. Imagine for a second if the decision to raise of lower interest rates were entrusted to a politician? Or decided through referendum? I illustrated an alternative system of governance in which experts work collaboratively in ministries: experts with the required qualification and experience, with references that check out, and even with their outstanding CVs they will still need to pass rigorous interviews.

I ended my lecture by conceding space for elections in governance 2.0, as I called it. I proposed that we carry out X – Factor style talent shows in which we vote for who will represent us at international events like the UN world leaders photo-shoot. Like any other talent show, only that we are not electing someone to rule us or make decisions for the rest of us, just someone who has the best answer to the question ‘What will you do if you win this title?’

History is full of bad leaders, a lot of them elected (and a lot of them men). A lot of them, expected to lead their nations to prosperity, and a lot of them failing woefully at this one job. Why? Is it because we fail to elect the right leaders? I think not. I think it’s because we continue to expect that any one person can, or should rule over the rest of us. Every time I’ve expressed this thought, someone has pointed out to me that there have been good leaders (interpreted as leaders they like). I have learnt not to question their love for their great leader. On my part, I continue to question and to challenge the need for leaders in the modern world and I continue to stand by my belief that nations that prosper do so not because of their leaders, but despite their leaders.


  1. A lot of good, seriously good, thoughts, Leye. Where I hesitate to jump off the side of the ship with you, though, is this: there are always (and will always be, as long as there are people) greedy people. Greedy for money, greedy for power, greedy for "name your favorite." But it all boils down to greedy for power, because with power you can acquire whatever you're REALLY greedy for (which is often MORE power). No matter what system we use (create), the greedy will find a way, just as water always finds a way to move. So, some form of "checks and balances" is required, to put the brakes on those who try to wheedle and deedle their way into some form of Lordship position. I fully approve of your 'government' by committees of experts. The question is who determines the experts?

    It boils down to the ever popular, "Who watches the watchmen?"

  2. Oh, Leye. So thought-provoking, as usual. I have from time to time toyed with the idea that anarchy would work better than any form of government I have seen in operation. Without a police force, would the death rate from street violence outpace that of say, the death rate during WWI, for instance. I particularly thought about this in the 70’s, when an anti-war activist named Abby Hoffman was arrested. As part of the complex craziness of the day, there was discussion of the Chicago Police going on strike. Hoffman said, “If the Chicago police go on strike, the crime rate would be cut in half.

    Mostly, I am a democrat with a small as well as a capital D, despite the cogent points you make here. But I am frequently moved to remark about my favorite form of government, as Chesterton (I believe) remarked about Christianity. “It is not that it has been tried and failed. It is that it has never been tried at all.”

    Then. There is the question of the role of money in elections. In the States, in the contest just held, I received 5-8 emails an hour (!!) asking me to donate money to help elect the candidates I backed. It is NOT democracy if the the guy (sic) with the most money always wins.

  3. No doubt Cumbria made the right decision with its invitation. Thought provoking. I just wish there were a philosopher king to call upon, but alas none seems available at the moment. Even less likely though -- in these days of tribal loyalties trumping everything else -- is finding hope in anarchy.

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