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Can Direct Democracy Be Scaled? The Promise of Networked Democracy and the Affordances of Decision-Making Software

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SCALABLE DEMOCRACY (Can Direct Democracy Be Scaled? The Promise of Networked Democracy and the Affordances of Decision-Making Software)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

Scalable Democracy compared the design and use of digital platforms for political participation within three European parties: Podemos in Spain, the 5-Star Movement (5SM) in Italy and the Pirate Party in Germany (PPG). The project assessed whether these platforms allow ordinary party members and citizens to have an impact on high-level decision making by lowering the costs of participation to political life, that is, without having the need of participating as full-time activists or career politicians. In other words, the project aimed at understanding whether digital platforms can scale political participation from the local to the national level without passing through traditional forms of delegation and representation.

The question of scalability of direct democracy and of political participation via digital platforms is of particular importance for European society and institutions. Indeed the EU encourages the e-participation of all citizens in public affairs and legislative activities through various initiatives such as the ECI. Because parties such as Podemos, 5SM and PPG have pioneered the use of online participation platforms aimed at empowering their members European citizens can learn a great deal from these experiences about the potential and challenges to digital democracy and e-participation.

The overall objective of Scalable Democracy was to understand whether the introduction of digital participation platforms within political parties may help democratize the relationship between the represented and the representatives, ordinary party members and party leaders. This objective was achieved via a two-step process. First, the project sought to assess how different conceptions of democratic participation are embedded in the design of the participation platforms Loomio, Plaza Podemos and Participa (Podemos); Meetup and Rousseau (5SM); and LiquidFeedback (PPG). Second, the project explored the alignments and gaps between the political values embedded in the software design—that is, the imagined conditions of its use—and its actual uses.
"Based on 45 in-depth interviews with software engineers, political activists, and elected representatives of the three parties, and a total of 500 surveys distributed at the party conventions of Podemos and annual meeting of the 5SM in 2017, Scalable Democracy has already achieved substantial results in highlighting the challenges to the participation of ordinary members in party decisions via online platforms.

The research fieldwork begun with a series of in-depth interviews with software developers, which were published in the online magazine Open Democracy. These interviews showed not only how different decision-making software embed different conceptions of democracy, but also how the adoption of each software set in motion distinctive political processes. At the same time, interviews conducted with party activists both in Podemos and 5SM revealed a deep disconnection between the deliberative processes oriented towards consensus that drive activism at a local level and the decision-making protocols of the online participation platforms Participa Podemos and Rousseau, which foreground the voting moment as expression of their members' ""sovereign will."" In a paper that won the Best Paper Award at the Jedem Conference of eDemocracy and Open Government of 2017 I argued that Rousseau engenders a form of ""direct parliamentarianism."" While the platform allows ordinary citizens to contribute directly to the legislative activity, it also separates deliberative capacity from decisional power, leaving the former almost exclusively in the hands of elected representatives.

The case of the PPG partly differs from the previous two because LiquidFeedback (LQFB) lays a greater emphasis on deliberation, allowing users to propose initiatives, discuss them, amend them, and vote them on. Developed in Berlin in late 2009, the software was quickly adopted by the Berlin branch of the Pirate Party to develop the program leading to the Berlin state elections of 2011. However, interviews with the developers of LQFB, Berlin activists, and elected representatives revealed that the use of LQFB did not scale from Berlin to the federal level because of a fundamental lack of trust among users and non-users of the software. Indeed, the introduction of LQFB led to the emergence of a distinctive technopolitical culture, which created a strong group identity among its users. In this sense, the broader lesson to be learned from the experience of the PPG is that because the introduction of a participation platform is a highly sensitive matter, its adoption can be successful only if it is adequately socialized with all components and branches of the party.

Scalable Democracy’s major finding and scientific advancement beyond the state of the art is that participation platforms scale direct democracy only if we accept a limited definition of direct democracy as preference aggregation. To be sure, software that support deliberation within small groups are not incompatible in principle with software that privilege large-scale preference aggregation. However, for these software to work in concert there has to be a political will to integrate them. The project’s main finding is that this is precisely what has been lacking in these three parties, and that therefore the main challenges to the scalability of direct democracy are primarily political and only secondarily technological.

In the case of Participa Podemos and Rousseau, the lack of deliberative features and the emphasis on voting have prevented the emergence of communities of users who may cooperate through such platforms. This lack of social features may also explain the steady decline in voter turnout both in Rousseau and Participa, which goes hand in hand with the plebiscitarian results of the vast majority of consultations. In the case of LQFB, the more challenging and ambitious task of implementing deliberation on a large scale—what the Pirates refer to as Liquid Democracy—also does not meet in itself major technical limitations. However, such task requires a shared political vision and a shared set of decision-making protocols, which cannot be provided by technology alone. This is especially true within organizations that often embed competing visions and competing aspirations for leadership such as political parties. From this angle, recent experiments with participation platforms at a city level may suggest a potential path for rethinking the question of scalability from a non-partisan municipal perspective that is closer to the citizens’ daily needs.

In terms of expected outcomes, Scalable Democracy's research output has led to the publication of an article in the JeDEM journal, of two forthcoming articles in Media, Culture & Society and the International Journal of Communication, and of a Special Issue in IJoC on Platform Politics in Europe in 2019. The PI also plans to submit a fourth article on the affordances of participation platforms in Spring 2019 to a top media studies journal and to complete the first draft of a book manuscript by August 2019. Finally, the PI will revise a ERC Starting Grant application submitted in 2017 and for which he was selected as a finalist in 2018.