I want to start a wide ranging discussion about Online Democracy solutions and what is really required for them to be widely successful.
Some background on me as it relates to this issue:
- It probably helps to understand that I’ve been in software engineering for around 35 years, much of that in software architecture (large scale-able distributed designs) or research roles.
- I wrote down a fairly condensed set of principles and ideas around the workings of a participatory democracy system a while back: http://wiki.polly-project.org/high-level-requirements. I’m not hung up on the details of that too much, but reading it will give you some concept of where I’m starting from.
- I’ve been a member of Pirate Party Australia (PPAU) for over 5 years, 4 years working on Policy Development, 2 of those as elected Policy Development Officer, and this years I am an elected member of the National Council. I think that PPAU does favour participatory democracy as a core value, even if there is no broad consensus on what eventual form that should take. The platform for my election to NC was largely about this.
My largest core issue with all attempts I have seen to date (including Flux, MiVote and Online Direct Democracy (prev k.a. Senator Online), and Pirate Party Germany’s Liquid Democracy solution), is about their structure. They all seem to me to embody similar structural failings. They tend to focus primarily on the issue of giving everyone a vote.
Voting is important, but in any collective decision making system, voting is just the formality that happens at the end when all the consensus building work is done.
It’s like when you make team decisions in a business. Decisions are not made at meetings. They get made before the meeting. The meeting is a formality, as is voting.
There are many reasons why this should be the case, not least amongst them, are predictability, trust and evidence of commitment to action.
Presenting voting as a inflection point in time where a binding decision is suddenly made, makes it a target for corruption.
- Groups with agendas can swoop in at the last moment and overthrow all expectations without ever participating up to that point, instantly destroying predictability and trust. Such actions would be entirely valid as a purely vote exercising concern, and yet utterly destabilising as an institutional trust concern. If you want to see this in action in social media, just watch various sub-Reddit’s “brigading” each other.
- There’s is also the well known effect whereby meetings are controlled by the people who write the agenda. In ‘mivote’ for example, the “impartial” people writing the policy briefings would be an amazingly powerful vector for manipulation. It doesn’t even have to be overt. It may even happen accidentally. It can just be in how the questions are posed. For a classic example of this, look at the way that John Howard scuttled the Republic referendum, just by the structure of the question he posed.
We have watched as the Pirate Party in Germany floundered around the use of their Liquid Democracy system. Here’s a description: http://thegovlab.org/democratizing-policymaking-online-liquid-feedback/. It’s not really in use now. It made some stupid decisions. People lost faith. In their case, I think the problem was that the system tended towards popularity based voting. People mindlessly “jumped on bandwagons”, despite the relative simplicity of informing themselves.
Other examples of related failure modes include getup and change.org. These things flared up for a while as novelties, looking like people power in action, but in effect they are now viewed by the establishment as superficial. A getup petition has little political consequence, because voting in getup is too easy. It doesn’t carry conviction. A politician may see 100,000 votes on a petition from them. In the early days, the politicians didn’t know how to gauge that, because there was no precedence for understanding how much those voters cared about the issue. Now they know, and the answer is that it’s not a good indicator. People sending in their own emails is slightly better, if they’re not all form letters. People sending in actual hand written letters is far more significant, because such letters indicate that those people actually took time out of their lives to take action on the matter, put pen to paper and do the snail mail thing.
Click to vote is too easy. There has to be persistent visibility of people striving to comprehend the issues and their personal commitment to the result.
Commitment to act. Commitment to change governments if necessary. Without this, the simple act of voting means next to nothing.
This is the “evidence of commitment to action” bit.
Another important factor is the human tendency towards tribal grouping. People want to join groups of people like themselves.
Getting beyond the techno-nerds and people who think in abstract about the merits of open democratic process, and out to the general populace, will be damned near impossible unless they can join with groups they feel comfortable with. They don’t need to stay comfortable. We don’t want filter bubbles, but we do need them to join. This is a conundrum.
The obvious question at this point, is: What do I think a real solution would look like?
I’ll describe this by relating and contrasting it to some well known existing solutions.
I’m imaging a system that looks like a hybrid of Wikipedia, Reddit and Flux. The key question then being which aspects of each am I referring to?
The significant aspects of Wikipedia, are in the way that it produces a complex persistent, yet evolving, knowledge artefact, and the way it keeps history.
In Wikipedia’s case, there is only one answer and they strive mightily to take the neutral stance and to be as objective as can be.
By contrast, in this system,
- Many concurrent “complex persistent, yet evolving, knowledge artefact”'s would need to coexist, representing the current consensus positions of groups of citizens.
- They would be linked to alternative consensus positions by other groups of citizens, forming the basis of political debate within the system.
- Like Wikipedia, there should also be history, so we have a record of how and why consensus changed over time.
The significant aspects of Reddit, are the fluid discussions maintain supported by up/down voting of content driving rampant discussion in many threads, and their identity groups in the form of sub-Reddit’s.
In Reddit’s case, the discussions are not grounded in any body of group consensus (except loosely in side docs or imposed by sub-Reddit mods)
By contrast, in this system,
- Discussion threads would need to be grounded in refinement or extension of elements of current group consensus, or to contrast them against positions held by other consensus groups. There is an objective, to find agreement and document it.
- The opportunity exists here to deliberately push back the filter bubble effect, by driving conversations about finding common ground and resolving misunderstandings between consensus groups.
The significant aspect of Flux, is in the way it embraces the distributed trust mechanisms enabled by block-chain technologies.
In Flux’s case, block-chain voting solutions are utilised to remove the need for any central trusted authority that may be corrupted.
By contrast, in this system,
- The distribution of trust should be extended to incorporate all aspect of consensus building and the collective artefacts they produce.
- The only way to alter consensus positions MUST be through convincing the majority of people that they should do so.
- Pseudonymity is also important. One person = one vote, but without exposing them to IRL attack.
In this system,
- A binding vote is really a globally verifiable snapshot of consensus at a point in time. No surprises.
- Attractive identity (tribal) groups get to exist, and yet by design they are pushed out of their comfort zones and exposed to alternatives to help spread consensus.
- Evidence and history will exist for anybody to see the extent of deliberation and consensus behind any externally proposed stance. Politicians would come to understand the demonstrated commitment this embodies.
- Opportunities for corruption are eliminated by the widely distributed nature of the consensus process. Millions of micro-“attack surfaces” instead or a few large ones.