Note: This post was written for the GovLab on June 10. You can view this same post at The GovLab’s site here.
This week, Beth Noveck kicked off her talk at the Personal Democracy Forum conference by reflecting on the the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S), Italy’s 5 Star Movement, and their use of Liquid Feedback (LQFB), a software for policymaking and political discussion. After its initial deployment by the German Pirate Party, the software has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years, and most recently it has been adopted by several M5S groups in regions such as Lombardy, Lazio and Sicily. True to their principles of participatory democracy and free access to the internet and information (and in response to criticism about how they run their business), it is no surprise that these two parties have been searching for a platform to engage their members more directly. But is Liquid Feedback the answer?
Before we get into Liquid Feedback, lets introduce the concept of “liquid democracy.”
Think about how you would vote on where to go to dinner when hanging out with five of your friends. The five of you would sit around the living room, discuss what each of you are in the mood for and then vote on a place that would suit most people’s cravings. This is a very simplified version of a direct democracy. However, what if instead of 5 friends, you’re hanging out with 30 friends? You might not remember the last time you had to discuss and agree on where to eat with 30 people, and that would be because as a group grows larger, discussions get longer and reaching a consensus gets harder. Also consider that Billy and Jane are from out of town, and what do they know about local food?
Direct democracy — one person one vote — does not scale well. The voters might not always be knowledgeable on the matter being discussed. That is why today, many governments use a form of representative democracy, where people vote on representatives they trust who will represent them when voting on policy decisions.
As most voters can attest, however, your representatives may not have expertise on every topic and won’t always share your same opinions on every single issue. We don’t want Billy and Jane choosing the restaurant.
Liquid democracy tries to take the best of both direct and representative democracy by allowing the voter to decide whether to delegate her vote to a representative on a given issue or simply vote on her own. Say you’re an expert on education, wouldn’t it be great if you could have your representatives vote for you on all health care issues, but when it came down to education issues, you could cast your own vote? This is what liquid democracy attempts to do. This video, by German designer Jakob Jochmann, provides a great introduction to liquid democracy. Liquid Democracy would have been unworkable prior to the Internet but is becoming a reality today and ready for prime time testing.
Liquid Feedback – How it works
Liquid Feedback is an open-source software created to facilitate Liquid Democracy. It enables policy discussions and decision-making with this kind of proxy voting system. It allows participants to propose policy, revise anyone’s proposals or propose alternatives, and vote on issues themselves or by proxy (someone else vote’s for them).
Here’s how it works:
Any member can propose policy. For the proposal to be taken to a revision period, it needs to gather 10 percent quorum within a certain amount of time. Once in the revision period, any member can set up an alternative proposal and over the next few weeks members vote up or down on the available proposals until a winner emerges. The voting is where it gets interesting. A member can decide to vote individually on an issue, but it would be a daunting task to read and go through every policy paper available.
Liquid feedback allows you to give your vote to someone you trust would vote on your side of the issue. Additionally, the person you delegate your vote to can also give his vote, along with all of his votes, to someone else. Very quickly, people could gain a lot of voters and hence a lot of power, but the system allows members to reclaim their votes at any given time, so if someone wants to keep their voters, they need to keep constantly working for them. “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them,” says Ingo Bormuth, the spokesman for the Berlin Pirate Party.
Liquid Feedback allows members to delegate their votes in three ways. Global delegation is where members give their vote to a representative on every issue. The second is subject delegation, where people give their vote on specific subjects only, like health or education. The last one is issue delegation, where a member only entrusts another member with their vote on specific issues.
The software does have its limitations. In its mission statement, Liquid Feedback says it is an “online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision.” This means that the software is only intended to be used to decide on policy papers within a party, and is not meant to replace a legislative body’s core function. Germany’s Pirate Party is one of Liquid Feedback’s largest adopters. For now, the software is only used by the party to finalize position papers that then inform decisions at the party’s conventions. Some members would like to see it used to make decisions within the party, but for now, it seems the software is still in its trial period for the Pirate Party. This doesn’t mean only few users have tried out the platform. Almost 10,000 pirates are LQFB members. Yet for now, use of the platform is limited to condensing results and bringing them to a vote at the party’s convention.
There also seems to be a small tech literacy barrier. As is typical of open-source software, the interface and user experience are far from award-winning. Political science professor, Christophe Bieber, says the interface may be “seen as ‘nerdy or geeky’ by many new recruits, especially when compared with the familiar mechanisms of wikis and collaborative text editors. It has an interface only a developer could love”. If Germany, with a high digital literacy might find it a little challenging to gather participants, countries with low digital literacy might be long ways away from adopting such technology.
In a NY Times op-ed, Steve Kettmann wrote that on some level, Liquid Feedback “is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is,” Kettmann writes, “ it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.” Simon Weiss, a Pirate politician in the Berlin Parliament is more sceptical of the idea that the platform might be attracting voters. Weiss says that while the average person might know the Pirate Party is a grassroots movement with a strong internet presence, many are still unfamiliar about LIquid Feedback.
If Liquid Feedback did draw in a crowd, it didn’t last. Last month, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, reported that the party’s popularity had sunk from 13% to 3% in polls, and four out of five Germans do not believe the party will gain the 5% vote necessary to gain a seat in German parliament. If Liquid Feedback did attract young audiences a year ago, it seems the hype was not sustained through this year and the Pirate Party has major issues to address.
Whether this platform can scale or not is difficult to say, and we might have to wait to see more results. Christophe Bieber says the data on the system’s performance remains scarce, so it might be too early to tell. Simone Weiss says Liquid Feedback has always been “intended as a prototype for a future version of democracy” and they are currently experimenting with it themselves. But Liquid Feedbacks problems might be evident already. By October 2012, Der Spiegel wrote “In North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, the Pirate Party’s parliamentarians have used the software to gather general opinions on just two issues so far. A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed … 20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants. It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.” It seems that we cannot know for certain whether the software can scale or not because we have not seen a large enough participation by LQFB members to know for sure.
While no new technology has made it really possible to democratize lawmaking at a large scale, people have certainly been trying. Liquid Feedback isn’t the only software trying to democratize political processes and lawmaking. Germany’s federal parliament is using Adhocracy for a commission on digital policy and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been another similar platform for its party think tank.
Liquid Feedback and M5S
In the latter half of last year, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) decided to adopt the platform in response to criticism on its lack of internal democracy. Because M5S has a much larger representation in Italy’s senate and chamber of deputies than the Pirate Party does in it’s own country, we might see much wider adoption of the platform in Italy than in Germany. Here is where we might see whether the platform can scale. The issue of security might prove to be the bottleneck in the scaling process. In order to ensure that a person can’t create multiple accounts, vote more than once, or cheat the system, people have to go through a verification process before they are allowed to join. The M5S movement has tens of thousands of members, and verifying all of them and allowing them all to participate in discussions might be a huge undertaking.
However, the platform has been already adopted at a regional level. Recently, the M5S chapters from the regions of Lombardy and Sicily were able to elect candidates for the presidency using only Liquid Feedback. So far few issues are being discussed in the Lombardy and Sicilian Liquid Feedback portals, presidential candidates being the major one (although the Lazio LQFB seems a bit more active). Yet the platform is still in its infancy and given the success in its ability to chose candidates online, we might expect more issues to be brought up via LQFB.
Online platforms that attempt to democratize political processes such as policy making are still in their infancy. Liquid Feedback is only one such experiment and we can expect to be hearing more of it in the news in the coming years. While it’s shortcomings won’t necessarily mean its demise, if Liquid Feedback doesn’t evolve to solve the challenges of security, scalability, and user experience, then it might end up fading away with all its promises of liquid democracy.