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

Political participation platforms are becoming commonplace within political parties. But they have yet to result in scalable direct democracy. Unless the dice were loaded from the start?

Common positions have always been the glue holding political parties together. But where meetings and rallies used to be essential, the digital era has been shaking things up: a growing number of political parties across Europe – such as Podemos in Spain, the 5 Star Movement in Italy and the Pirate Party in Germany – have been empowering their members like never before with online, direct democracy platforms.

At first glance, these platforms are essentially tools that can help improve internal party democracy while allowing for clearly defined visions and objectives. But is it really that simple?

“Software is too often seen as a value-neutral and transparent means, just waiting to be used. The goal of SCALABLE DEMOCRACY (Can Direct Democracy Be Scaled? The Promise of Networked Democracy and the Affordances of Decision-Making Software) was to demonstrate that each of these software or participation platforms embeds a set of political values and assumptions about democracy, which will necessarily shape the nature of the decision-making process,” explains Dr Marco Deseriis, project coordinator.

Comparing party software

SCALABLE DEMOCRACY set out to demonstrate these biases by comparing how the different decision-making software used by Podemos, the 5 Star Movement and the Pirate Party conceive intra-party democracy, and especially the relationship between the ‘ordinary member’ and the party elites. Some software is indeed more oriented towards deliberation, while others put a strong emphasis on voting. None of these approaches is ideal: The former pose a threat to party unity by allowing members to exert greater rule, and the latter can be used to reinforce the party leadership and strengthen party unity – but only at the expense of internal democracy.

Participa (Podemos) and Rousseau (5 Star Movement) are the least deliberative platforms. The former renders its forums ineffective by making it impossible for members to advance proposals for initiatives that may be effectively turned into party initiatives, whilst the latter does not embed deliberative features such as forums and wikis. “These two platforms effectively divorce deliberation from decision-making and leave the former almost exclusively in the hands of the party leadership,” Dr Deseriis notes.

LiquidFeedback, the participation platform of the Pirate Party, is the most complex piece of software. It contrasts with its counterparts by embedding a deliberative conception of democracy. However, because its adoption was not uniform within the party, the software was ultimately unable to scale deliberation from the local level to the national level, igniting instead a conflict between users and non-users of the platform.

The software is deceiving

This provides for a largely negative answer to the question at the heart of SCALABLE DEMOCRACY: Can democracy be scaled? “Unless we limit ourselves to a liberal, or minimalist conception of democratic participation, such as voting, the impact of these platforms on the institutions of representative democracy appears to be quite limited. Such limitations are primarily of a political nature and only secondarily technological,” Dr Deseriis explains. “In all cases, the party in Central Office and the party in public office tightly control the strategic direction of the parties, consulting the general membership when needed and within certain boundaries.”

In this sense, SCALABLE DEMOCRACY’s major finding is that these platforms scale direct democracy only under a limited definition of direct democracy as preference aggregation (the model of the referendum). “Although the more challenging task of reimagining direct democracy as a widely distributed deliberative process is technically feasible, such endeavours require a level of mutual trust and a widely shared political vision, which cannot be provided by digital technologies alone, especially within political parties,” Dr Deseriis concludes.

SCALABLE DEMOCRACY was undertaken with the support of the Marie Curie programme.

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

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