Collaborative governance is an emerging form of governance, based on direct democracy, supported by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). It enables any interested individual to collaborate in the creation/modification/deletion of policies and laws of a community. The name of this concept is a re-brand of the computing-specific term open source governance.
Collaborative governance is not directly comparable to traditional direct democracy, which is usually a majority rule system used on only a few major issues. By comparison, collaborative governance is a consensus system intended to be used on all issues affecting a community, with the implicit understanding that anyone not participating on a particular issue consents to allow others to decide the issue.
Collaborative governance is broadly inspired by the free and open source software (FOSS) movements. The derivative open content movement, a generalization of FOSS initiatives for every type of creative work, is an inspiration as well.
Programmers who adhere to them make available the source code of the programs they write, this way granting to the users the right to liberally dispone of the software's code, along with the possibility of contribution in its development. Any interested programmer can introduce corrections and innovations to its design, changing the code; even can depart from the original idea and adapt the program to its needs, reusing the code.
Thanks to its production model, FOSS tends to improve and evolve extremely rapidly, contrasting with privative or closed source software, which usually do not.
Speaking about communities, an analogy can be made viewing rules as 'code' and members as 'programmers'. When all the governed have the right of direct participation on every aspect of its government — in other words, rules are 'open' — then the community may benefit as FOSS users do, translated into democratic policies and up-to-date laws.
Use of technology
Implementing a successful governance system where participation is open and direct, requires solving some challenges — described next — that this concept naturally imposes and actual technology is mature enough to surpass. So, the huge importance of the role that technology plays in collaborative governance.
The inability to overcome these challenges leads to an impractical implementation, often impossible; depending on the size of the community.
The frequent gathering of the community members is needed for decision-making. Each member has to mobilize him/herself to the meeting point, which in turn, should be prepared to receive all the participants; not only at the same place, they need to be coordinated to be there at the same time.
Internet relaxes both conditions — spatial and temporal — letting us communicate across distance, asynchronously.
Key words: massive communication, one-way vs. two-way
A 'Practical direct democracy' is:
Participation is intended to be an every-day action, not a discrete and time wide-separated event...
Technology lets participation happen from (almost) anywhere, anytime.
Collaborative governance does not demand that every person participate in every decision. It simply allows people to participate as much or as little as they please in any decision.
When a member wishes to participate, he/she will provide a better quality contribution than a member who has the same information but is obligated (and so not self-motivated) to do it.
As participation is non-coercive, it is thus expected that people will tend to channel themselves into specific areas of expertise and interest. They will not be restricted to those areas, but they will have the opportunity to become "leaders" in those fields simply by their reputation.
Due to the notable quantity of subjects and its wide disciplinary spectrum that are covered by a government, the distribution of the tasks between the community may result in better quality decision-making.
As Collaborative governance uses computers, all the information passes through them. It is easy to archive it and make it available for auditing: the Radical transparency principle.
Transparency fights corruption, an inherent shadow in legitime governments.
Political issues of any kind are prone to contention and at times even violent dispute. In the face of this fundamental aspect of society, issues can be resolved through edict, compromise, or synthesis.
Authoritarian governance structures use edict, where rulers make decisions which are final. This can work well, but it is entirely undemocratic. It is extremely prone to corruption of the rulers, and just as likely to other human failures: a single ruler simply may not be able to think of the best solution.
Representative democracies use compromise, which ends dispute and produces results which are acceptable but not desirable. Quite frequently the dispute is quickly revived (particularly after a shift in party power) and a new compromise must be forged. In some cases, democracies also use edict, in the form of majority rule: the side which achieves a majority or sometimes even a plurality of votes wins the issue entirely. Again, unsurprisingly, majority rule systems often have to revisit issues when there is a shift in power.
Synthesis is a method of seeking long-term, mutually-beneficial solutions to problems. It seeks solutions which, unlike the proposals of conflicting sides, achieve the general aims of both/all sides of a conflict. Such solutions may take longer to produce than other methods, but they are more beneficial to all parties and thus more enduring. There is no downside to synthesis except the difficulty in producing it. Most collaborative governance systems are specifically designed to encourage, promote, and facilitate synthesis.
Collaborative governance fundamentally differs from most other forms of governance in that it removes any distinction between governors and the governed. Due to logistical limitations, previous forms of direct democracy (such as referenda) have only been applicable on major "hot-button" issues, and have not been more broadly practical on anything but a very small scale. All other forms of democracy have still maintained a leader-follower relationship which is nearly indistinguishable from feudalism. In all cases, citizens find that they have no voice in almost any social decision.
The result of this disenfranchisement on most or all decision-making is a tremendous apathy on the part of most citizens. What is the point, they ask, of debating an issue when my action is not going to have a real effect on the outcome of the legislative process? Actions such as demonstrating at rallies or writing letters to representatives feel participatory, but any single individuals' contribution is insignificant and not meaningful: remove that individual and the outcome is unchanged. Likewise, the act of voting is reduced to a single, very infrequent selection between a handful (often two or even one) of candidates who almost never universally represent the views of the voter.
Allowing everyone to participate in every decision is likely to fundamentally change the attitudes of members of a community. They will be able to see their thoughts and beliefs directly reflected in the active debate and decision-making process. They will know that if they do not participate in an issue, they will have no right to complain about it since they voluntarily ceded that participation. And they will know that if they think something is being handled poorly, they have the power to immediately get directly involved and work toward a better solution. Most importantly, they will know that if they are able to formulate a good enough argument, they can single-handedly completely transform an issue.
A community willing to adopt this method of governance must:
- hold democratic values,
- be literate, and
- ensure access to ICT for all its members.
Otherwise, part of the community will be excluded and the system will not be trully open. A simple solution to the latter two issues is to supplement collaborative governance software with regular physical meetings.
Ultimately, no system, no matter how thought-out can be sustainable without trust.