Making it hard to ignore complaints

All it needs is some imagination - and a refusal to accept the status quo - for new, effective solutions to come into being. Democracy is about feeling empowered individually; and not only about the power to empower leaders.

The thing about democracy is that there are no experts. It assumes that a decision for a public action cannot be made in isolation without everyone who is involved and affected taking part. This differentiates democracy from other forms of governance. A democracy therefore relies on the participation of the people – each one of us – to ensure that power is not monopolised by one or a few leaders.

Yet we assume democracy will work for us on autopilot. We take it for granted that without conscious and deliberate demand for accountability from the system, a democracy will still be a democracy. Around the world today, even in the so-called model democratic countries in North America and Europe, we see how the system has failed to uphold the interests of the people over and against the interest of the privileged few.

In last December’s issue of this magazine, I wrote that often, we outsource our problemsolving either to the government or to corporations. That is, we prefer to let the “experts” do the job. When the people allow governments or corporations to totally take away their inherent responsibility of decision-making in a democracy, we allow the development of an unhealthy and unilateral dependency on our government or big businesses.

Civil society must renegotiate the distribution of power from governments and corporations. It must not allow itself to be reduced to a few campaigning associations and clubs, i.e. the non-governmental organisations (NGOs); rather, civil society must reclaim its wider definition of encompassing the whole "demos", that is, the people, in democracy. People must be empowered to participate, to jointly set the agenda and direction of the way things should be.

The good news is, we are living in a time when “wiki-collaborations” are possible, where millions of people around the world can interact to create content in a domain previously assigned to scholars, the experts. The rapid evolution of information technology has influenced the areas of governance and politics. Resources and tools once owned and controlled only by the privileged few are now accessible to the masses, thus levelling the ground for ordinary people to compete with the ruling class. Nevertheless, tools will remain tools if we do not rethink our attitude towards democracy, reclaim our roles and renegotiate the delegation of power.

Bernard Cheen.

A local wiki-collaboration in action

The story of Bernard Cheen is inspiring and reveals the shape of a healthy democracy, even if in a relatively small and personal way. Cheen lives in Seberang Perai, where I am a local government councillor. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) provides an online complaint system for the public to lodge complaints on municipal issues.

Cheen thought that the existing system was very complicated and tedious to use. Before users could lodge a complaint, they were required to register themselves on the website and in order to do that, they had to provide all sorts of personal information. Many would-be users were discouraged by the troublesome procedures. He also discovered other limitations to the online complaint system including the fact that each user was dealt with "in a silo". This meant that each user could only know the status of the cases he or she reported, and thus, the public never knew the overall number of complaints lodged and the status of these.

Cheen felt that the online complaint system could be simplified and be made more transparent. Normally, one would take it for granted that the government knows best, and therefore see no point of “competing” with the government in the area of their expertise. Yet Cheen decided he wanted to have a say in determining how services are provided to the residents of the municipal by the local government. He proposed an alternative “competing” system.

Based on his experience, Cheen came up with a simple “snap-tag-post” solution where he created a Facebook page called MPSP Watch. This allows users to snap a photograph of a bad road or a broken sign, tag the location of the case and post it on the page. Anyone with a Facebook account could now post a complaint without having to register on another website. Moreover, complaints posted are visible to all Facebook users and unresolved complaints put pressure on the local authority to act.

Cheen's MPSP Watch is proving to be popular; barely six months old at the time of writing, the site has already recorded about 10% of the total number of cases lodged through the official system. The local authority, at the same time, responded to this new citizen-led initiative by instructing its officers to monitor and attend to the cases uploaded on MPSP Watch.

Cheen dared to challenge the conventional solution provided by the government and was bold enough to offer an alternative out-ofthe- box solution. In the same way, we must not assume democracy will always work for us, much less work for us in autopilot. If we take our hands off the steering wheel and give up our role to participate in decision making, sooner or later, we’ll all be driven to places against our will.

Steven Sim is the senior executive officer of the Penang Institute and a councillor of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council Penang.

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