World Forum for Democracy 2013

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Following is a proposal for Metagovernment to participate in the Council of Europe's World Forum for Democracy to be held in Strasbourg, France in November, 2013. The submission is due by March 31, 2013.

Brief description of the initiative or idea (max. 200 words): goals, actions, scope, participants, partners.

The Metagovernment project is developing the tools and practices of collaborative governance. In collaborative governance, the citizens do not merely influence decision-making, but rather are empowered with guiding it in a controlled manner. The aim of this guidance is to fulfil the ultimate promise of democracy: a government of, by, and for the people.

New technologies enable us to overcome the limitations of traditional notions of democracy. Our tools support consensus building, deliberative decision-making, and at-will participation. Instead of merely increasing citizen involvement in traditional institutions, we are developing new institutions that enable communities to discuss, deliberate and decide without entangling themselves in authority.

Metagovernment is an umbrella group of diverse projects and approaches to the technology of deliberation and decision-making. In addition to advocacy and facilitation at the project level, we also support a cross-project “free-range voting” initiative for the benefit of individuals and communities. Its purpose is to free individual users to choose their preferred technical platforms, to overcome platform lock-in, and thus to help democracy take hold in communities. By building new institutions at a community level, we aim to gradually transform human governance from the ground up.

Since when the initiative has been implemented (in case you are presenting an idea which has not been implemented yet, please state the origin, sources of inspiration, relevant academic debate etc.)?

The Metagovernment project itself started in 2007. Some of our member projects had started earlier, and some more recently. Our work on free-range voting began in 2009.

The primary work of Metagovernment and its member projects has been in concept formation, advocacy, and most importantly software development. We employ the products of these efforts within our own community and on our website. Except in limited trials, however, we are not quite ready to expand to external communities.

How is this initiative/idea contributing to broaden and deepen democratic participation?

We intend to fundamentally transform the mode of democratic participation from one in which citizens merely interact with governments, to one in which there is no distinction between citizen and government. (Here "government" refers to the decision-making aspect of society, not to the bureaucracy that executes and enforces decisions.)

We do this by re-envisioning the archaic concept of direct democracy in the light of modern internet technologies. Traditional direct democracy has been hampered by technical limitations and procedural flaws. These may be summed up as: mob rule, demagoguery, issue overload, and tyranny of the majority. The Metagovernment project posits that, by careful application of sophisticated software, we can unravel this tangle of problems.

Simply put, mob rule and demagoguery result from focusing governance on a few hot-button issues. Issue overload is only a problem because of the demands of a majority rule system, a system that requires massive participation on each of these few hot-button decisions. By contrast, collaborative governance opens up decisions to anyone who wishes to participate. Not everyone is expected to participate in each decision, but those who do must come to a consensus, or no action is taken.

We realise there is a dichotomy between direct democracies of large communities and collaboration between a few technical people. One of our solutions is working to build a many-to-many integration between the knowledgeable and everybody else. In this way, the technicians provide knowledge outward to the larger group, while the rest of the participants provide feedback, ideas, and social buy-in.

Further, our focus is not limited to political governance (nor is that our initial focus). We support tools that allow the members of any community to fully participate in the governance of that community. We aim to vastly expand the democratic nature of any participatory organisation.

What have been the results so far?

Member initiatives are in various stages of developing their tools and practices. Development is continually influenced by learning from real-world experiments, and by theoretical refinements. Most of the tool deployments to date have been in small test groups; particularly in the community of people participating in the Metagovernment project itself. Using different tools at different times, we have successfully tested their efficacy in facilitating consensus. Often the consensus reached has varied substantially from what was originally proposed or expected, thus demonstrating the ability of our tools and practices to synthesise new from old.

How have results been assessed?

Almost all of our assessment to date has been informally conducted within the Metagovernment community itself. We therefore welcome the opportunity of critique and formal assessment in the laboratory environment of the World Forum.

What challenges have been encountered?

Our project and member initiatives have faced and overcome numerous practical and theoretical challenges. Designing a system that can effectively, securely, reliably, and positively act as a governance mechanism raises many issues. Some of the main issues to date are: whether anonymous voting and participation should be allowed, how to define consensus, how to know when a decision has been reached, how to authenticate participants, how to prevent fraud, scaling, and many others.

What lessons have been learnt?

We have learned to overcome problems through open dialog and experimentation with different approaches.

One of our vanguard projects, vote mirroring, allows us to try many different approaches in parallel while simultaneously facilitating dialog among competitors. It allows individuals to participate in whichever of our member projects they choose, and then aggregates that participation into a single cross-project view of the community. This not only helps individuals to express themselves more freely, but also allows us to test new techniques and determine which work best in real-world environments.

In another project, Vilfredo Goes to Athens, we have learned to automatically analyse voting behaviour to extract what we call key-people: social bottlenecks in the discussion that prevent the solution from moving forward. The software then asks these key people to take responsibility to rewrite that very proposal they did not like. This has usually resulted in a very dynamic process of building consensus.

Has this initiative been replicated by others? To what extent it may be transferable to other places and countries, other levels of governance?

Related projects are deploying software for use by political parties in Sweden, Iceland, and Germany, though they do not take as deep-rooted of an approach as the Metagovernment projects. Our projects do of course communicate and reach out to these others, and our vote mirroring initiative has done some work toward incorporating their approaches within its paradigm.

The work of Metagovernment projects is applicable in all places or countries, and at all levels of governance, including the governance of non-governmental organisations. Any organisation or community that wishes all of its members to participate in governance can benefit from our work.

Any additional relevant information/references

Metagovernment and its affiliated projects are constantly evolving. Each is in the process of continual transformation. By the time the World Forum takes place, some of the information above will need to be refreshed. We expect to have additional concrete progress to report by then.

Please indicate who will present the initiative (Mr/Ms, name, position, city, country, e-mail): it is KEY TO ENSURE GENDER BALANCE IN THE LAB TEAM

  • Ed Pastore, founder, Metagovernment project, residing in United States
  • Dr. Pietro Speroni di Fenizio, founder, Vilfredo Goes to Athens, residing in Portugal (will be residing in the UK shortly)
  • Dr. Rasmus Tenbergen, founder, World Parliament Experiment, residing in Germany

Unfortunately we had insufficient time to gather representation for additional member projects, but we could recruit more should the sponsor wish to bring in other constituents. Apart from bringing people to Strasbourg, additional members might be able to attend via video link if that were supported. We also welcome outside guests and critics; and/or we are open to splitting our current group into separate initiatives. Of course if we were selected we would be very happy to prepare a 2-3 minutes video before the event.