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Sheffield MP launches experiment with digital democracy to build consensus on contentious issues

Heeley MP Louise Haigh wants to use cutting-edge technology to bridge political divides in the city.

Occupy wall street

The pol.is tool was initially developed as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons.

A Sheffield MP has announced plans to use a cutting-edge digital tool to help bridge political divides in the city over contentious issues around transport and the environment.

Louise Haigh will use pol.is, an online tool that works the opposite way to most social media platforms – by working out what people have in common rather than what divides them.

pol.is works by gathering feedback from large groups of people on a particular issue, and then helps participants work out where they agree and where they may be able to compromise.

The Labour representative for Sheffield Heeley will use the tool to explore potentially heated issues around public transport, reducing car use and adopting more sustainable menus in public buildings like schools.

“I want as many people as possible, especially those who may not already be engaged in the climate debate, to share with me their thoughts and views on the priorities and issues,” said Haigh.

“The good thing about this platform is that it takes the debate away from traditional social media which can often sow division and toxicity.”

At the heart of pol.is, which was conceived during the Occupy Wall Street movement, is the use of artificial intelligence to identify areas where people agree.

The platform then offers participants the opportunity to refine and share their viewpoints with the wider group, in the hope that people will find areas of compromise with other people.

Pol.is and other consensus-building platforms could play a crucial role in defusing the so-called ‘culture wars’, which now dominate debate on issues from statues and net-zero to veganism and low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Jon Alexander, a campaigner for participatory democracy and author of the book CITIZENS, told Now Then that he welcomed Haigh’s decision to experiment with pol.is.

“I think it’s great to see an MP looking to involve people and invite their ideas – and even better to see her getting hold of one of the best tools out there, and being prepared to get stuck in and give it a go,” he said.

But he suggested that the challenge for MPs and councils who want to make the most of such tools would be to learn to use the right tools for the right tasks.

“They will also need to develop their facilitation skills to be able to use them, not just expect the tools to produce answers as if by magic,” he added.

“For example, pol.is is particularly suited to use as a tool to support consensus building on a specific controversial issue,” he said, pointing to the example of Taiwan, where the platform was used to debate how Uber should be regulated in the country.

“This feels more like an idea generation or prioritisation challenge, and there might be better tools for that purpose – or at the very least it will require some really good facilitation to make pol.is work in this way.”

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The two opinion groups that have already formed on Louise Haigh's pol.is experiment.

As part of her ‘Big Green Conversation’, Haigh has asked the public for “practical ways to tackle climate change at a time when families and business are facing the crunch of the government’s cost of living crisis.”

So far the tool’s ‘Opinion Groups’ feature shows that participants have split into two distinct groups – one formed of 64 people who support measures to tackle climate breakdown, and another group of six climate deniers.

Alexander says that the risk with using the platform in this way is that “it can make climate seem like a contested space, when it’s really not,” but reiterated that it was great to see MPs starting to explore digital democracy tools.

Haigh said that to tackle the major issues of the day “we need to build consensus”, and encouraged as many people as possible to participate with the project.

“I’m asking people to please be as radical, off-the-wall or cautious as they like,” she said. “We want this to be a space where everyone feels free to say what they think, and we can build a programme for change together.”

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