Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Digital Democracy: Decisive and Doable?

Elections are a costly, gruelling and time consuming process in any country. Yet, India has been ahead of developed and developing nations in holding countless elections nation-wide, and keeping democracy alive and vibrant. The just concluded elections in certain States of India is one more endorsement of this tremendous capability in India. India’s Election Commission, and other constitutional, governmental and political structures and systems deserve a lot of credit for the election engine that the country has fine-tuned. While there are many criticisms that things could be better on key factors such as turnout, manifestoes, practices, candidates and accountability, this blog post is not about either those issues or solutions for them as the author believes that there are more competent experts and agencies to communicate and work on it.  The purpose of this blog post is to consider the concept of elections in a broader perspective and in a digital context.

Election is a mandated right of all citizens in a democracy of expressing, individually and confidentially through a structured process, their considered opinion on performance and potential of a ruling dispensation. It is, in a sense, applicable to every forum, organization or entity where a few leaders govern the rest of the members based on either agendas or promises. Every organization must start appreciating the election process for what it means to people and introspect as to why they do not integrate the good points in their structures and systems. The several theories in management literature on feedback, accountability and leadership styles do not come anywhere near providing a meaningful template for embedding the power and relevance of a formal election process, in a manner contextually relevant for organizations. Despite huge progress on digital technologies and social media, most organizations are yet to work on, let alone realize, this promise.  

Democracy matters?

The fundamental principle of extending an electoral process into an organization is that democratic and inclusive feedback is an important aspect of competent management and leadership processes. There are arguments for and against it, which are based on the perceived behaviour of members.  The author would like to call these Theory X and Theory Y of Organizational Democracy (OD). For ease of reference, we will use the nomenclature XOD and YOD, respectively.

XOD runs on the following behavioural assumptions of members, all of them in negative interpretation of employee mind-sets and capabilities:

  • Given a choice, a typical employee prefers to avoid responsibility rather than accept it.
  • Not all employees are equally knowledgeable and responsible to opine constructively.
  • Averaging equally expressed opinions misguides managers like the average depth of a river does.
  • A leader’s job is to govern based on structured plans rather than unstructured feedback.
  • Grassroots feedback places undue power in the hands of those whose job is to follow directions.
YOD runs on the following behavioural assumptions of members, all of them positive about the ability of employees to fulfil higher responsibilities:

  • Given a choice, a typical employee accepts responsibility rather than avoid it.
  • Irrespective of knowledge, employees will be constructive and responsible for progress.
  • Collective opinions provide a powerful guidance on organizational health and strength.
  • A leader can reinforce his plans, however thought out they are, with employee feedback.
  • Grassroots feedback empowers those who execute with participative ownership.
YOD assumptions clearly are more positive and have the potential to energize an organization towards a positive culture.

Digital deficiency

Most organizations are well equipped digitally. They have evolved information technology departments. Every organization has an intranet which is open to its members. People have regular access to computers, tablets and smartphones as well as wifi and cellular data services. People attend meetings with their devices invariably in toe, or mostly utilizing them. The digital infrastructure is designed and operated typically as a one-way path from the management to employees rather than the other way. Required information which makes a member more knowledgeable and competent is provided through the intranet: messages from leaders, codes of conduct, organizational policies, standard operating procedures, training materials, team accomplishments, and so on. It is rare, however, to see the available digital infrastructure being utilized for equitable two way communication.

Intranet invariably identifies responses and feedback with persons. Unless the feedback process is entrusted to a third party surveyor like Survey Monkey, it is quite possible that confidentiality is compromised and people will be reluctant to provide candid feedback. If leaders and managers accept the YOD assumptions, and members have self-worth to be confident and self-disciplined to be constructive, an organization’s digital highways and intranet portals can be effectively utilized to collect analyse feedback on a 360 degree basis. Some of the issues of leadership conduct encountered in certain non-governmental agencies and autonomous entities would have been discovered and evaluated in time with digital democracy in such organizations. As with any transformative exercise, the change for a culture of digital democracy and honest feedback can begin with a few small steps. 

Experimental steps

There could be several small experimental steps to usher in organizational democracy. For example, as one logs into his or her computer system, the administrator could ask a set of five simple questions: what do you set out to do today, how motivated you are to carry out your taks today, how supportive is your leader expected to be, how confident you are with your team today, and how happy you are with your organization in the overall today. These are pretty universally applicable questions that would fit any business or operational context and any level. These can be expressed in the past tense as day-end questions on the computer before one logs out. Participation in the questionnaire could be made mandatory by making login and logout impossible unless these questions are answered.

These five questions help the company answer the following central themes: goal focus, self-motivation, leader support, team alignment and organizational morale. If each organization can find a way to encrypt these responses one would feel more confident to provide candid and authentic feedback. An organization and business savvy data analytics group can pick up important perceptions and suggestions from the feedback. While daily responses may not be conclusive, the management will certainly get to know what is trending. As the organization tastes success and builds confidence, questions can become more specific to issues, businesses, projects and people. Over time, digital democratic highways become great instruments of widespread organizational participation and ownership.


Digital feedback is especially useful in promoting corporate governance. Monthly executive leadership committees, usually headed by the CEO of the company, and quarterly board of directors meetings, usually headed by the chairman of the company, are the key institutions that facilitate and influence governance. It would be great if at the beginning of the respective meetings, there could be a digital feedback session `which asks certain key questions: how prepared are you in addressing today’s agenda issues, how collaborative the team has been internally to discuss cross-functional issues prior to the meeting, how supportive you expect the CEO to be with respect to your key concerns, how confident you are with your team on execution, and how happy you are with the overall direction of the organization. 

In respect of board meetings the key questions could be: how informative the company has been in preparing the directors for board meeting, how prepared the directors have been for the board meeting, whether sufficient time has been accorded for discussions for all topics, whether all directors have had a chance to express themselves, whether the board committees have fulfilled their roles, whether there is satisfaction on the strategic direction and execution of the company, and how happy one is to serve on the board of the company. At the end of the meeting, the same questions can be asked in the past tense with appropriate changes, for the executive committees as well as the boards. Taken together, the entry and exit polls would enhance the members’ awareness of their and the company’s conduct in furtherance of the company’s and their aspirations.

Leader elections

The higher step in an organizational setting would be to usher in total organizational democracy through the digital means. Every leader may, in such a system, have both the right and responsibility to seek feedback from the members. Would such a radical system wherein leaders are elected by subordinates lead to loss of authority to execute? Would it force leaders to downplay people performance issues and reward members irrespective of performance just for leaders to stay in position? The answers to these questions may depend on the level of maturity in an organization, and the periodicity with which such leadership elections are held. There could also be other less disruptive or threatening options to the classical organizational hierarchy and power system, such as a collegium system of leadership selection. However, as typically, intellectuals are involved in organizations responsive and responsible electoral systems are probably better.

The ultimate step in a virtuous digital democracy is to elect national representatives through digital processes, anytime it is required. Though difficult to imagine now, a few decades down the road, wifi may be so pervasive that instantaneous digital elections through smart devices may indeed be possible. A more practical and intermediate step would be to create a huge national governance portal, in all national languages, wherein citizens can post their likes and dislikes, convey their issues and seek solutions, and provide feedback and ideas. With the biometric based Aadhar gaining ground and newer end-to-end encryption technologies emerging, it should be possible to ensure authenticity in the digital feedback. A huge data analytics infrastructure would, no doubt, be required to support this but it must be viewed in the perspectives of generating its own higher level employment and organizations, society and nation, creating higher value through better leadership and citizenry with mutual accountability.   

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 17, 2016

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