Defining and promoting new intermediaries in citizen engagement

The shift towards a technopolitical paradigm has brought a new set of actors with a new set of spaces and instruments into the political arena.

In his book The Rise of Nerd Politics, John Postill defines a new breed of citizens that engage in politics neither by joining democratic institutions (political parties, unions, civil society organizations, etc.) nor by hacking these institutions, but by “clamping”, that is, by using a new set of skills consisting on a mix of computer science, law, arts and culture, media and journalism, and formal politics.

These citizens are a global democracy buffer that is not happy with being a “passive victim” of politics gone wrong. The produce public knowledge at the very heart of the civil society operating in the intersection of technology and politics and caring a lot about the fate of democracy. These political nerds usually work in small groups and often partner with non-nerds for their political actions establishing ‘strategic part-NERDships’. Not all of them are libertarians, but anti-authoritarian, an anti-authoritarianism that comes in different kinds and from many different backgrounds. notwithstanding, they are not cyber-utopians, but look for short-term political impact. On the other hand, they are not rooted on cyberspace, but on local communities strongly linked with other movements at the international level. Nerd politics usually operate in four different but connected fields: data activism, digital rights, social protest, and formal politics.

There have been some other authors that have identified new actors, new spaces and new instruments of political engagement. And, for better or for worse, these new actors, spaces and instruments are increasing in number and in influence. And, I would add, in general they are a positive influence: some of them might just seize the power, but most of them genuinely aim for the power to be applied upon them in a fairer way. That is, they want to improve democracy and its quality.

In my theory of change of citizen participation I included a whole section or “program” devoted to these new intermediaries, as I believe that if their contribution is good, society (and especially governments) should promote them and their activities — as they usually do with other institutionalized actors of liberal democracies.

But defining and promoting are two completely different things. To define something (or someone, or someone’s actions) you focus on the how. To promote them, you need to focus on the why, because this is what you are actually promoting: a cause — and, indirectly, its consequences.

So, what is exactly what one would like to promote by fostering new intermediaries in citizen engagement?

In my opinion, what follows is what make new intermediaries interesting and, thus, worth promoting:

  • They work with informal and non-formal instruments and spaces. That is, they work extra-institutionally, meaning that they are not institutionalized (e.g. a political party) and most of the times they do not work or even circumvent institutions in their activities.
  • They work for the common good. That is, they pursue the benefit of the whole community, not individual benefit — not to speak about individual profit. Obvious of this may sound, it leaves aside some lobbies that work for a specific collective, which is not the whole society. E.g. working for cleaner air is not the same as working for bike riders, even if the latter still is a non-profit aspiration. So, we are looking for people with the whole society in their minds.
  • They increase or improve the commons. This is a precision of the former statement. There are many ways to work for the common good, as advocacy, for instance. But in my opinion one of the main strengths — and differences from former political approaches — of technopolitics is that it creates democratic infrastructure. Of course, infrastructure does not necessarily means a new parliament or a new civic equipment. Citizen democratic infraestructures, in a broad sense, can of course be spaces (physical or virtual) but other devices that can be used and appropriated by citizens to engage politically — with institutions or among themselves: digital platforms and software for deliberation and voting, handbooks and guides, toolkits and procedures… but also other knowledge-intensive devices such as facilitation services, open data, training, visibility or public diffusion, conceptual frameworks, de facto standards and protocols, etc.
  • They work for the improvement of governance. That is, the purpose of these infrastructures is specifically to better rule our collective goals, including a better definition of needs or diagnosis, a better deliberation for an improvement of the political instruments, more inclusive policies by not leaving any actor out, better assessment of impacts and evaluation of outcomes.

Summing up, what we are looking to promote is actors that fly under the radar of institutions (and are, thus, invisible to them), but that pursue they very same goals (the benefit of the whole society), and do it creating things (for the commons) that any citizen can use to improve the way we make collective decisions (governance).

I think this is an operational and functional approach to the new phenomenon of intermediaries and how to publicly contribute to unfold their potential to collectively leverage their work.