Experiments in living democracy

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Democracy in an era of global connectivity needs to include the associated innovations, such as ‘democracy software’ developed to include more people in decision-making, whether in politics, organisations, businesses or the corporate environment.

Why? Because most of us continue to feel alienated from the debates and decision-making process that directly affect our lives in our democracies. In South Africa we see the workings of parliament on TV and we see the sub-committees and the courts addressing the issues – from the President to the SABC, Life Esidimeni, social grant payments …

But where are the voices of the people directly affected? Where are the voices of the social security recipients or the families of the Life Esidimeni patients? Likewise, we hear the heads of Ford making decisions about the Kuga debacle but where are the voices of the people who work for Ford or who have purchased these vehicles?

With new decision-making software being developed by programmers and activists worldwide, our voices and opinions could and should be included in a meaningful way.

On the open democracy website www.opendemocracy.net – which has excellent articles on ‘free thinking for the world’, authors Richard Bartlett – the co-founder of democracy software called Loomio, and participatory democracy researcher from Northeastern University in Boston, Professor Marco Deriis, explain:

“Loomio (https://www.loomio.org/) is a decision-making software developed by a group of activists and programmers based in Wellington, New Zealand, since 2012. Widely used within the Circles of Podemos in Spain (populist alternative political movement) as well as hundreds of cooperatives, social enterprises, municipalities, and activist groups around the world, Loomio’s main feature is to nudge groups towards consensus.”

Loomio is accessed via the internet and depending on the services and options required, it ranges in cost from free to $99 per month.

It has a potentially powerful implication in that it can achieve a collectively agreed upon outcome through actionable proposals. The specific issue at hand is shared with the group online, along with the rationale and any supporting documentation or research. Every member of the group is then able to digest the information and offer their opinion on conclusion on the issue online, either using their name or anonymously.

“The added value of Loomio is that the deliberations and conclusions of the group are displayed side by side (online),” Bartlett and Deriis explain. “The disagreement is visualised through a pie chart, in a way that you must pay attention to it, so that the concerns can be resolved. This is the difference with polls and other voting mechanisms: you can change your mind as you discuss the proposal.”

The group then votes on the proposed approach. They can vote whether they agree, disagree, abstain or block the vote. The ‘block’ is a form of veto, which, if there are sufficient numbers in the group blocking the vote, the group needs to reconsider the initial proposal and amend it until consensus has been reached.

The inclusive decision-making Loomio-type approach can be used in any environment and, most importantly, it includes the opinion of the people on the ground.

As Ron Weissenberg, Non-Executive Chair of Micronised SA Ltd said to me recently, “it potentially gives students and others an organised voice together with a connection to democracy and consensus building”.

It can also help organisations to improve their systems and services. American Julie DiBari gives the example of foster care, as someone who grew up in the foster care system for 21 years. “I was never once asked what I thought works.” She now incorporates Loomio into her work as founder of a consultancy that focuses on strategic planning and evaluation.

Another advantage of decision-making online, she explains, is that everyone in the group can be heard and you don’t have to go through the administrative hurdle of trying to find a suitable physical meeting time for everyone: “When people convene in person, power dynamics and personality differences can inhibit some people from contributing. Often, clients do not feel comfortable speaking up in a room that includes board members, executives, and program staff. Introverts hesitate, preferring time to process new information.”

Expanded democracy tools are critically important to new, truly democratic seeds being sown that dislocate the top-heavy, authoritarian, extractive capitalist values, say Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis of the P2P (Peer-to- Peer) Foundation. Bauwens is a theorist and writer;  Kostakis is a senior researcher at Tallinn University of Technology.

In an article titled ‘Solving the Crisis of Extractive Capitalism’ http://evonomics.com/post-capitalism-rewards-productive-michel-bauwens/, they write:

“The peer-to-peer capacity to relate to each other over the Internet entails the emergence of what Yochai Benkler in the The Wealth of Networks called ‘commons-based peer production’ (CBPP).

“CBPP projects are open systems in which knowledge can be freely shared and distributed, anyone with the right knowledge and skills can contribute. … As an example of such a CBPP ecosystem we may take the Enspiral network. A broad community of contributors are pooling their skills and creative energy to create commons, including knowledge and software.

“Around these commons a web of business ventures creates livelihoods for the contributors, by offering tools and services that enable creative communities like their own to address certain challenges related to democratic governance. For example, Loomio is a participatory platform for democratic decision making, while Enspiral Academy offers intensive training courses on web development.”

Its application in a wide range of communities, companies and organisations where people have online access is a given. Companies committed to a democratic culture, could make excellent use of Loomio-type software to find out what employees think about a particular proposal or need to advance goodwill and commitment.

The management could set up a group to discuss a particular issue. Ford and Life Esidimeni, for example, could have set up a Loomio group to find out what their employees, customers and the families of patients think is an appropriate response to their respective crises well in advance of the extremely poorly handled outcomes. The employees know exactly what is happening on the ground and their views, if listened to, would have contributed to far better collective judgement and decision-making.

Loomio could be effectively used as a consensus-reaching and decision-making tools with student bodies. The government could, and should, present its draft funding proposals online to students, discuss these with them and seek consensus well in advance of announcing their proposals. They need to do the same with the managers and staff at univerisities. If they do this, the debates, discussions and outcomes will be available online for all to see.

If they do not do this, their announcement on education funding, which they are saying will be mid-year, will be met with an all too predictable response. It will be rejected and this will lead to further protests and further disruptions at our universities.

It goes without saying that the Loomio-type approach still has a long way to go before it is universally useful. In South Africa, an obvious issue is how to make it relevant to rural communities where people don’t have computers? That’s an important issue and solutions need to be sought.

The required technology is available to bring the community together at a school or town hall and set up an online system where people can be shown how to cast their vote online after the issue at hand has been discussed. They then commit to the voting process, which most people understand. This way, the voice of the people can be brought into the democratic process, and their opinions can then be presented to parliament or the parliamentary sub-committees.

Of course, Loomio is also not without risk as it is not immune from trolls or those who are inflexible in achieving consensus. Prof Deriis puts it this way: “Whereas I am enthusiastic as everyone else about the municipal experiments, I am not going to be satisfied as long as the national and even the supranational layers remain insulated from these participatory processes.” It’s a global issue, but at least the Loomio-type approach is a start. It’s a worthwhile experiment in representative decision-making and living democracy.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 380, April, 2017. It is reproduced with their permission.