Scaling Participatory Democracy
By Rufus Polson at Nov 17, 2010
This approach will not work. Indeed, it is far from a new approach and it has never worked before. The lowest-level elected people may manage to avoid being distant “representatives”. The local group may make sure that in their day-to-day activities they only enact what the group has decided on. But second and third level representatives cannot. They are too distant, and concerns will come up at the upper-level bodies that the grassroots groups know little about. Going back to them to consult will be too time-consuming; inevitably to function they will have to begin making their own decisions independently. And voila, they are now representatives, who will begin having concerns and interests distinct from those of the grassroots people sending them. Worse, they may well be representatives of representatives. Even that is an optimistic assessment, discounting very real motivations among many people to gain status and control—motivations which gain more room to be gratified the greater the distance representatives have from the general public.
This is basically how many large modern unions and associations of unions operate. They are less undemocratic than if there were no representation or voting at all, perhaps, but they are very far from being grassroots-controlled organizations. It is also as I understand it more or less the original concept behind the “Soviet” in the early days of the Russian revolution. I'm not totally clear on the details, but I understand that didn't end well. Overall, this approach does not begin to attack the problem of scaling direct people's control to large sized organizations.
The problem I think is that the left, in building up from small organizations, necessarily starts from how those small organizations work. So in a small organization, if you are lucky you can run it pretty democratically with a local elected council to take care of the details and general meetings to make decisions. So then the first thing anyone thinks of is “Oh, we'll just do that again bigger, and if we have to we'll do it again bigger than that.”
But it's fairly obvious that it can't really work, and it surprises me that there seems to have been hardly any thinking past this one basic idea. What's needed is an approach to political decision making that tackles the objectives and as many pitfalls as possible head on, coming up with a strategy that allows for as much participation as possible, as much control directly from the grassroots as possible, and avoids as many blockages to such control and participation as possible. It's a serious problem and it deserves ground-up solutions, seriously worked out in the sense that participatory economics has been seriously worked out. But I haven’t seen anything even close. Most visions that have been advanced, if they pay attention to the nature of existing problems at all, seek at a maximum to reduce the slippery slope pulling towards elite rule, making the pull hopefully more resistible. Ideally we need institutions whose characteristics reverse that slope, making the natural “pull” towards more popular power and away from elites. Here then is my idea of a tentative solution, along with a description of some of the objectives and barriers any solution needs to deal with.
The main objective in my opinion is to maximize direct control of decision-making by ordinary citizens. That does not just mean that people at the grassroots level must have the final say in decisions in the sense that they can vote yes or no to any given policy proposition. That isn't real control. Even at the local level, it's noticeable that those who decide the agenda are the ones in control. If you decide what decisions will be made and how they will be defined and presented, you have most of the power already. Ordinary people must be in a position to initiate policies and define alternatives in the first place, as well as making the final call. Ideally, this should be true not just for local decisions but for regional or national ones—control should not be mediated by representatives or middlemen but exercised directly.
Utopian, I know. And very difficult—some might consider it frankly impossible. But I think with the right technology it can probably be done surprisingly well. Before I get to specifics, and to defending the idea of a technology-dependent approach at all, I'd like to talk about obstacles and pitfalls.
One I've alluded to already: Control of the agenda. Even at the local level, elites can form readily when individuals or small groups are in a position to define just what decisions will be made and what decisions will not be made. The frustration of having an idea which the executives of a group consider naïve or wrongheaded and therefore block from ever being considered by the membership is a common one. A related problem is the “rules of order”. Meetings can often be dominated by those with a good grasp of whatever formalism is used to control their flow. These problems are well recognized. Another major difficulty applies at all levels and sizes of currently existing governance structures, from union locals to national legislatures to US state votes on “propositions”: The trap of binary solutions. So many decisions are framed as yes/no, or at best either/or. Yes/no is particularly bad. Once a solution to a problem has been proposed, it becomes the focus of everyone's thinking at the expense of all other possibilities; the question becomes this, or not-this. Worse still, it becomes this or nothing, leading to the dominance of the sarcastic cliché “Something must be done! This is something, therefore this must be done!” This kind of thinking accentuates the dominance of elites. Whoever can get a proposal on the agenda, or on the meeting floor, or is the first with the organizational muscle to get a proposition on the ballot, gets to define the issues and the terms of engagement. The yes/no mode also encourages polarization, hardening of positions and so on. Many people find it necessary to support flawed positions because they are the only available alternative to truly terrible positions. Of course in the real current society there are also major problems of money and power differentials, but I don't mean to deal with those. This system assumes societies, organizations or processes in which that sort of problem has been at least temporarily overcome.
So then, what's my idea? Well, first of all, just as anyone advocating renewable energy sources should probably emphasize that conservation is also important, I'd like to say that before you even reach the broader levels of decision-making, you need to acknowledge the importance of localism. Part of the problem with grassroots participation in wider decisions is that the society is too entangled. If we maintain a more localized economy and more local political autonomy, broader decisions will be more manageable in the first place. Still, we can't just wave a magic wand and make broader concerns disappear. If everyone uses a different gauge of railway, it's a massive pain.
Also before I go further I'd like to briefly defend technological dependence. The fact is that all political systems and decision-making methods beyond the smallest are already technologically dependent. Paper ballots require paper and writing. Voting over a given territory requires communication across that territory in reasonable time frames, both to conduct the vote and to define the issues, candidates or whatnot. There's no reason to draw arbitrary lines and say “we can be dependent on this level of technology for our decisions, but nothing more modern than that!”
The basis of what I'd like to see is basically a kind of web-based decision making. We currently have various specialized software for communication and social interaction, but not much that really facilitates decision making. About the closest we have is polling software. But the kinds of capabilities you see out there today could be repurposed and organized a bit differently to get something that would enable very transparent and democratic decisions. Starting with a relatively local group, let's imagine you're a member. You've got a concern—an issue, and a solution you think might be a good idea. You go to the site and click an appropriate button. It asks you to describe the issue in one box, and in another to offer at least one possible resolution. Now the first rule here is that the original issue description has to be just that—a description of a situation or problem. It's not in itself a proposal of what to do about it. OK, so you've done your bit. An email will now go out to all the members, with your problem and proposed solution/s and a link to the page created for the issue. For a certain length of time, perhaps a couple of weeks, the members can add other possible solutions, debate and discuss on the page, and perhaps object to the formulation of the problem. Eventually you end up with the problem description and a list of possible policies to deal with it. Once there's a freeze on suggesting alternatives, you might have some process for dealing with any that are too similar—but any removals would require consent from those who proposed them in the first place; culling the list for redundancy isn't that important. Allow some more time for discussion. Then you vote on the list of proposals using an STV (Single Transferrable Vote) system, ranking the different proposals, which is why duplication isn't that big a deal. If there are three similar proposals that I like best, I vote for them as preference 1, 2 and 3. If the one I thought had the best wording isn’t popular, my vote is not wasted; the STV or “preferential” voting system is very handy for this sort of thing, as it allows multiple options to be considered without problems of vote-splitting.
Obviously this isn't in itself a complete solution. Over a large territory, the number of decisions to be made would be too unwieldy if everyone were involved in all of them. But as a starting point it gives major advantages in terms of process. First, nobody controls the agenda—anyone can propose ideas, and once ideas are proposed anyone can suggest alternatives. If the interface is simply designed, it will be no harder to use than current discussion forums and people will be naturally led into participation; getting an idea into the mix does not require mastery of when to move an amendment or how to cut off discussion and move straight to a vote or what's in order and what's out of order. And of course it strenuously avoids the trap of dualism. It’s also geographically independent, allowing for far-flung groups to collaborate.
As I've said, while everyone might be involved in all the decisions affecting, say, one communal council sized entity, as you scale up not everyone can decide on everything. That's what gets people doing councils of councils of councils. How do I propose to retain direct control while nonetheless keeping most decisions out of most people's hair? Well, I suggest dividing decisions up to start with, and then expanding the decision-making group as needed. I would do the dividing initially based on a mix of expertise, interest, and randomness. So for instance, you would have a decision-making group that dealt with forestry, and a different one that dealt with water infrastructure, and so on. So for the group dealing with forestry—we'll give it an innovative name like “Forestry Working Group”. So you've got your Forestry Working Group. People involved in forestry, whether harvesting or conservation or planting, are part of the group, maybe especially if they have certain educational qualifications, professional credentials or whatnot. Plus, anyone who is interested is part of the group; all these groups are open to join. Plus maybe some tiny percentage of the general population at random is designated part of the group—a number large enough to have some impact, but small enough not to swamp the regular members.
Now, normally the Forestry Working Group just goes along making forestry decisions. They do their thing and nobody else cares that much; the rest of the population can happily assume that they're doing a decent job. The stakeholders, people who will be impacted or have an interest, are handling it. But some forestry decisions have a wider impact, and it's a bad thing if they just get made in the narrow confines of the group. So for any given decision, which is being made using the system I defined above, if say 10% of the group members move it, the decision is restarted at a wider level with more participants. Like voting, this should probably be done anonymously. You’re at the site and you just hit the button for it.
This again would be with a combination of expertise, interest and randomness. There might be a sort of “expansion pool” of people who are signed up only to see issues pushed out beyond the core group. Say I'm interested in forestry, but not enough that I want to wrangle with it every day. I join the expansion pool, so then I'm guaranteed that I'll see the important issues of broader interest, but not the minutiae or deeply technical stuff. Or let's say I'm in a group that deals with conservation issues, or watershed questions—my group might designate itself as one that participates in “expansion” issues from the forestry group, because we know there's a good chance that broader forestry decisions will have an impact on conservation or watersheds. Also, if the matter has a sizable impact at a particular place, local councils from that area would want to get involved. And on top of that there would be a larger random selection of the population. This would not just be absolutely larger, but larger compared to the remainder of the group; since the issue is one of more general concern, the group making the decision should more closely approximate the general public.
So you run the same decision-making process with the larger group. One difference is that there would need to be more elaborate measures for reconciling similar ideas, because even with an STV method of deciding, you can't ask people to pick from a hundred options. And again, if some portion of those deciding think it really is important and of really general concern, the decision gets pushed out still wider, perhaps as wide as the whole public at large. Since this larger group is more dominated by a general audience already, less vulnerable to capture by experts, it might be that the threshold for pushing the decision still wider should be higher than the threshold for putting it out to this level.
If a decision goes as broad as the “public at large” level, proposed solutions would probably need to go through a petition-type stage, gathering approval “signatures”, just to get on the final ballot. Also, it seems reasonable for this to co-exist with more traditional ways of putting decisions “on a ballot”: If an organization had an issue they wanted dealt with, they could go around to people and get a certain percentage of the population backing the idea. If they got enough, they could put the issue directly to the public at large, bypassing smaller groups. But from that point, once again there would be a period during which people could add alternative solutions to the ballot.
I’ll walk an example through. So for instance, say some church group wanted to stop gays from marrying. Hopefully, our hypothetical social anarchist polity would have some foundational constitution-like documents that would rule such discrimination out of bounds from the start, but imagining it did not, there might be two paths they could take. Someone could bring it up in the “Religious Matters Working Group”; after discussion it would be pretty clear that this was a wider issue than whether to fund an inter-denominational community centre, and people would kick it out to the expansion pool. The expansion pool would be really clear that this issue dealt with something practically everyone has a stake in; it would end up voted on by the whole population. Alternatively, they could go around getting signatures until they had 5% or whatever and put the issue directly to the whole population. But in either case, they would not be able to put up a proposal for voting that defined who gets to get married and called for a yea or nay vote. Rather, they would have to pose a question like “Who in our society should have the right to get married?” And they could offer potential answers, such as “Adult males should be allowed to marry adult females, provided they are not currently married already”. But other people could put forward other possible answers, such as “Any group of more than one persons all of whom are both capable of giving informed consent and freely consenting”, “Any pair of persons both capable of giving informed consent and freely consenting”, “Adult males should be allowed to marry adult females provided they are both monotheist worshippers and not currently married or divorced”, “Nobody, the institution is inherently discriminatory and should be abolished”, and so on and so forth. Rather than being able to define the issue as “Do we exclude gays or not?” and busily demonize a favourite “other”, the movers would be forced to deal with a wide-ranging discussion of just what should be the basis of marriage and what sort of policies the society should have. And with the STV approach, nobody would be forced to support a flawed position for fear of worse positions. Rather, they could rank their top choice number one and less preferred but perhaps more popular options they could rank lower, with the knowledge that their preference would still get counted if their favorite position turned out to lack much support.
For the individual citizen, the idea would be that on average, most people would be a member of their local communal council or whatever, would be involved in decisions at their workplace which I would expect would be a co-operative or similar, would be in at least one or two groups doing decisions about specialized topics, and would be in a few expansion pools. They would compensate with a shorter workday in terms of their normal productive work. This should be feasible, because a large number of jobs not just in legislatures but in various sorts of bureaucracies would not exist; people who would have been doing those sorts of “co-ordinator class” things would instead be primarily doing productive work like everyone else. So day to day, everyone would spend some effort on tasks and decisions relating to their particular working group/s and their local council. And sometimes they would get an issue from some other group they were on the expansion pool for. Now and then a broader issue would come up for everyone to decide on en masse. And of course this approach wouldn’t need to be exclusive. At the local level, there’s a lot to be said for in-person meetings . . . particularly if there is a method like this one available in the background. With that alternative path available to anyone disenfranchised at meetings it would dilute any incentives to pull procedural tricks. I do think that such meetings, of local councils or workplaces or what have you, could profit by applying elements of the decision-making model my approach is an example of, by for instance arranging for choices among alternatives rather than up or down votes on individual proposals, and by encouraging inclusive processes rather than control by people who write agendas or have the procedural chops to move clever amendments at key moments.
The overhead of this approach to governance shouldn’t be out of hand, particularly if the society emphasizes localism—and there would be an incentive to do so, simply to reduce decision-making overhead. This is in fact an advantage of the scheme: Since there is no centralized group particularly responsible for broad-based decisions, the typical incentive for such groups to enhance their importance and build bureaucracies because doing so increases their status and power goes away. Instead, we have citizens finding that the more complex and interlocked they make things, the more decisions they will all have to be involved in with nobody in particular gaining extra compensation or consequence. In short, the decision makers (which is to say, everyone) would have an incentive to keep society fairly simple, which would generally mean keeping things local except in cases where that actually complicated matters (e.g. standards which keep things interoperable tend to make life simpler, not more complicated). Rube Goldberg bureaucracies would be against the interests of the people making the decisions and so would generally not grow.
Obviously, the details of this approach would need some working out and might vary from place to place. Would random members of a working group be persistent or different for each decision? How hard should it be to opt out of a random selection? What percentage of votes work out best in practice for the threshold to push out a decision to broader levels? How should serious initial definition of issues to allow reasonable response sets be enforced? Would formal methods be needed, or would slanted propositions be met with overwhelming votes in favor of “nothing needs to be done because the question is lousy, so pose it properly”? Lots of issues would have to be hammered out through practice. This is hardly surprising; there are endless debates over the best approaches to proportional representational government even though a number of such systems have already been implemented. And maybe it wouldn’t be workable at all. But it does in my opinion at least try to achieve the objectives and grapple with the problems of really grassroots-driven governance. It allows every member of society to initiate decision-making and keeps the barriers to participation very low. It makes it very difficult to control agendas, debates or outcomes using procedural tricks or barriers to entry. It does not involve levels over levels over levels, which inevitably stifle participation and create elites. It allows for the use of expertise, but curtails the dominance of expertise. It distributes decision making horizontally, so that no single group has overall control. Rather than bigger decisions being left to higher levels, bigger decisions are made by broader groups; i.e. popular control is more complete the more important the issue. It deals with the problem of scaling up in a way that controls decision-making overhead but leaves the citizenry in individual and collective control of just what decisions they need a voice in.
Since I’m proposing it, I suppose I should give it a name. “Parpolity” is taken. I’m not very good at names, but perhaps “Scalable Participation” would do. I’m open to suggestions.
I think it’s a good idea, at least in places where it’s practical to make internet access a right extended to all citizens, as they are doing in Finland. But this piece is as much intended to start a conversation about what features a progressive polity would need in order to avoid the formation of elite control as it is to advocate for this particular scheme. I welcome critiques, but I would be even more welcoming of alternative suggestions that also seek to seriously tackle the difficulties confronting attempts to create and maintain true popular power. To date I really don’t feel that enough creativity has gone into this problem, even though it’s a crucial Achilles’ heel that regularly brings down progressive movements and radical governments, transforming them into yet more “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.