Lessons on trust, democracy and technology
When I was a kid I loved to observe how Shepherds dogs rather than strongly imposing the will on sheep were trying to find a synergy between their movements and the direction they should be heading. Their roles were clear. I imagined that sheep were perfectly free and could go wherever they wanted but they just needed someone to know if it was already time to go home and to sound an alarm if something wrong was on its way. Dogs were there to protect and serve which included some power over sheep but still, it was a relation of mutual trust and cooperation. Also because they all shared a common vision of external danger.
The epidemic is a good time to consider the role of trust in public life. If we are to get out of this situation stronger, it can only happen when we recognize that mutual trust in different constellations is the foundation of modern democracies. Trust or lack of it will also determine in which direction technology will develop – tools of total surveillance or supporting solidarity and mutual assistance.
Trust and solidarity
In the rarely quoted fragment of the preamble to the 1997 Polish Constitution, it was underlined that all those who applied its provisions “should do so, preserving the inherent human dignity, his/her right to freedom and the duty of solidarity with others”. As we know perfectly well, fundamental rights have never enjoyed respect among politicians, especially recently. Maybe naively, but I still assume that this is our common, democratic cultural code and those values are simply the standard on which we want to build a community.
The sense of community is very easy to burst when it is not possible to physically meet and debate offline – even if that offline is waiting at the post office or in a queue for toilet paper. Therefore, a lot of people share a catastrophic vision of losing any sense of common good in the times of social distancing. But we may have lost it a long time ago. Speedy and hidden legislative processes, smooth political declarations instead of access to reliable data, or building technology mainly to control society are much more dangerous for the sense of trust and preserving community. And they are not a new phenomenon at all.
As early as 1789, the authors of the French Declaration on Human and Citizen Rights noticed that “ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt for human rights are the only reasons for public misery and corruption of governments.” That is why I am genuinely hurt by the delight of some journalists and politicians over how China coped with the epidemic, a country that initially concealed data about the virus, thus allowing the spread of the epidemic. What is even more interesting, China has proven that there is no artificial dichotomy between health and the right to privacy. Total control, without trusting your own citizens, ends with a disaster. Therefore, I look with some distrust at the question recently asked by European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski whether we are ready to sacrifice our fundamental rights in order to feel better and to be more secure. For me, the sacrifice of fundamental rights will only make us feel worse. And not only in the state-citizen relations but it will also destroy the community of all citizens.
Building mutual trust seems to be the answer. However, we must learn to trust each other again. And here are the three lessons we can already learn from the crisis.
Lesson 1. Sharing information is the key to gain trust
Ivan Krastev, whom I value for many things, but not very much for his views on the openness of public life, said that “Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust”. I will make an exception and agree that the openness and availability of data is such an important good that it can be used cynically in realpolitik. It is not without reason that the Polish Minister of Health and many other politicians around the world have built up their good image around efficient communication with citizens. When authorities share information, we feel “immersed” to the community, as well as we feel reassured by “controlling” the situation. But they can easily miss the communication directed at particular groups. Polish Minister of Education has hardly ever appealed to pupils who, like their parents and teachers, do not know what ideas the Ministry has for securing their right to universal and equal education when schools are closed. Another example can be when citizens are rightly indignant at the decisions of some public officials not to disclose full epidemic data.
We can also see how a lack of data is changing societal behavior for worse on the example of shopping panic, which cleaned the shelves of toilet paper. It happened because the situation had seemed so unpredictable, that since others are starting to buy out, the individual must line up as well. We are just in this extensive “buying mood” because of uncertainty and lack of information on the horizon.
Confidence in the US political class must have fallen after some politicians who officially ignored the coronavirus problem were also selling shares on the stock exchanges. Keeping information only to yourself increases inequality and a further decline in confidence in the political class. The “pivotal” approach of Boris Johnson’s cabinet resulted in disorientation of the public whether the situation is under control or not.
Lesson 2. Social control is the best way to show trust
Now that we know that people are rarely trusting politicians hidden in cabinets it is time to see how citizens are treated by authorities. The state definitely hits back and treats citizens in a similar way but does it more systematically. It seems that this is the fundamental problem of modern democracies. Authorities do not trust their citizens and like to emphasize it often and ostentatiously. Because of that, we are encountering so many examples of governments using technology for control, and so few to support the community. Can you remember all those tools prepared for participative decision making? Most of them have long been covered with dust. Yet there is a lot of effort put in developing technologies to detect irregularities in access to public benefits, and now to check that the quarantine is being observed.
And no, I am not naive, claiming that it is enough to trust citizens that they would not try to fool the tax office or authorities, and that we will live long and in full honesty. But the recent idea of the German Minister of Health that without adequate tracing of those infected it will be hard to relax lockdown sounds a bit like admitting that governments are “naked” without technology.
While introducing technological solutions, and even at the stage of creating their concept, the authorities must do it in a responsible, transparent way as well as guaranteeing protection of human rights. One of the tools which may be useful is the Algorithmic Impact Assessment form. This is a model of checklist to see if specific technology is safe for society and for individuals which is being used already in Canada and gaining popularity in other countries. Civic tech community – often rightly – demands that the source code for such tools should be opened.
A good example of well-managed information happened when The Polish Ministry of Digitization, after deploying the quarantine control tool, quickly realized that it must inform widely how this application works, also in the context of protecting the right to privacy. This way they managed to avoid major controversy. In the context of trust, it is extremely important that the usage of such an app is voluntary, and not pushed – as in many other countries – under duress.
But instead of extensive control, would more information about what quarantine looks like help to convince several dozen or even several hundred people a day not to leave their homes, and not to pose a threat to others? As a society, we could avoid many such cases if we knew what our life under complete lockdown would look like, that someone would shop for us, that someone would be able to watch over our business and support people whom quarantined persons cannot look after.
Positive, trust-based solutions are more appealing to people because we find in them something that we do not notice every day: human solidarity. On the Techkontrawirus.pl website launched by ePaństwo Foundation (which connects people who know the needs of different groups, people who have ideas for specific solutions, and those who can “code” them into apps), the most popular are the proposals for support and cooperation. One of the worst-rated ideas is to create an alert if there are people in the quarantine nearby. The purpose of the tool is not to help them but to protect against them. According to the users of our platform, this is not the direction in which we as a community should be heading.
Lesson 3. When trust should have its limits
The current situation enforces many unconventional – often not having proper legal basis – behaviors and actions. Some courts are beginning to accept letters sent by ordinary e-mail, contractors understand that some payments should be split into installments, citizens are not complaining when the work of many offices is mainly remote. As a FOI watchdog, I am not even too upset by the practically illegal introduction of restrictions for the public who wants to observe in person the meetings of municipal councils. I just understand the current situation and agree for such restriction but only under certain conditions like the possibility of transmission is provided.
The other extreme is organizing meetings in the remote mode, using tools prepared hastily and without proper cybersecurity check. For instance when a former Polish MP got by e-mail logs to access the voting system of the current parliamentary session. For years, NGOs have been denied access to statistics of special services surveillance, for reasons of national security but no one has thought to regulate the issue of making decisions by the parliament in the event that a meeting cannot be held in person. This internal dichotomy and lack of consequences perfectly illustrate the arrogance of those in power. At the same time, it obscures their obvious weaknesses.
As citizens, we trust the democratic power, and we have agreed in many constitutions to introduce extraordinary solutions in extraordinary circumstances (though never violating the essence of human rights). We simply trust the authorities that in justified cases the system will behave in a non-standard way, but only for a limited time. But if the authorities behave in a non-standard way by using solutions not originating from the rule of law, then instead of social solidarity we are facing selfish political particularism.
You can form a certain knowledge of how to build trust, also by watching anti-patterns. The conferences of the Polish Prime Minister and the President are terribly tiring. They seem to appeal to a sense of community, but are in fact a spectacle of empty words and references to documents that are not presented to the public. The peak of communication incompetence turned out to be this week’s briefing, during which the government announced that they are limiting the freedom of movement even more but basically nobody could understand to what extent. It is likely that society will ignore the appeal, and I can see the evidence, when I am looking out of my window.
For cultivating trust, let’s use concrete and reliable data. Let us also be open to unusual activities, while expecting that we will receive a guarantee that human and civil rights will be protected.
For the authorities (central and local government), the current situation is a challenge but above all a democracy test. It is easy to succumb to the temptation of authoritarian action, perhaps effective in the short run, but disastrous for a community sharing the borders of the same state and the same town. If we are to recover from this crisis, we must all have a sense of ownership of the state and its institutions and develop an instinct of care for others. The state must be open to sharing responsibility for this situation. It must also give a signal that it is ready for sacrifices. I would expect that it could take the form of sharing power with citizens and being more open about government’s activities.
Big thanks to Anna Kuliberda for reviewing this article