E-POLITICS FOR “THE PEOPLE”?
THE CASE STUDIES OF ROUSSEAU AND PODEMOS
by Francesco Berti
During the 18th-century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that every citizen shall exercise his or her political will without any intermediation. After less than three centuries, some political parties took it to heart…but what is the drawback of digitalized democracy?
E-democracy is constituted from the possibility of the usage of ICT in political processes concerning information, discussion and decision-making […] (Gustav Lidén, Department of Social Sciences, Mid Sweden University)
Is e-democracy a true game-changer? Nowadays, the expectations are high. Political parties and intellectuals in Europe and around the world are constructing a myth: a radically different policy making process, in which each individual can have his or her say, by creating a bottom-up legal order by simply using a voting platform on their smartphones or tablets. Of course, e-democracy is not just about voting: it’s also about making political information more accessible, intelligible and disseminated.
Nevertheless, what fascinates me about digitalized politics it is the possibility to re-shape the political action. The experiment of Liquid feedback by Pirate party is a cornerstone of digital democracy. Among other features, users of liquid feedback could experiment delegated voting, by appointing delegates instead of representatives, and therefore maintaining a stark control above “the few”.
But experiments of digital democracy are not limited to pirates. Two case studies that both took place in Southern Europe stands out from the crowd, in terms of both quality (usability, affordance, salience of the decisions taken by the users) and quantity (number of active and registered users).
Shared problems, shared solutions?
According to Standard Eurobarometer 85, the European political institutions are not listening its own citizens’ needs and desires. The Commission’s survey highlights that the majority of political institutions in Europe (including the Union) are not taking “the voice of the people” sufficiently into account. In economics lexicon, we may rephrase this by saying that the institutional decision-making process does not include the “preferences” of its citizens enough. Here, we show two examples of how two European parties managed to engage hundred thousand of citizen.
The platform Rousseau belongs to the Rousseau association, an operating arm of the Five Star Movement, an atypical grass roots party founded in 2009 by the stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo and the visionary manager Gianroberto Casaleggio. The platform was launched in mid-2016 after the death of the co-founder mr. Casaleggio, who firmly believed in the paramount importance of “networks” to enable individuals to shape their destiny as communities, both online and offline.
In short, it is very difficult to define Beppe Grillo and ‘his’ Movement, since this political entity is not representative of a ‘specific model’ but is, rather, an accurate reflection of the ongoing crisis European democracies are now experiencing (Ilvo Diamanti, professor at University of Urbino)
The declared goal of Rousseau is to enhance the direct participation by citizen to politics, reducing at the minimum the power contained in the delega, the political mandate by citizens to their representatives. This platform is therefore the ultimate device to fulfil the ambitious promises of the movement, namely, the progressive reduction of the intermediation of parties and institutions in shaping the volonté générale.
Propaganda or political method?
Despite the design of Rousseau arises many questions (centralization, secret ballots, unknown identity of designers and moderators), yet the number of registered users is literally skyrocketing year after year.
In 2017 the son of mr. Casaleggio, Davide Casaleggio, member of the steering committee of the Rousseau Association, declared that the platform had more than 170000 registered users. In 2016, DNV GL, a third-party independent organization, certified that the registered users were 135023.
However, it is important to highlight that registered users does not mean “active users”. Up until today, we count an average of 31.000 unique voters for each round, mostly because the mails that announces the opening of the voting are sent out without any warning, and provides a really short time frame to vote, usually from 10am to 7pm.
Nevertheless, since the 1st October 2016, the users of Rousseau have casted more than 1,6 million votes. The issues put to vote relate to both the internal affairs, but also the political agenda of the Five Star Movement. As a matter of facts, all decisions taken by the users were binding for the party members, except the controversial case of the primary for mayorship of Genoa.
A grass-roots (and gamified) legislative proposal
Among the many functions of the Rousseau Platform, the most interesting is Lex iscritti (Law members). This function has enabled more than 2000 users to put forward their own law proposals, by submitting the description of the proposal, its scope, the competent institution, the analysis of pre-existing legislation, a comparison with similar legislation that may exist abroad and the expertise of the proponent.
About once every two months in average, the users are asked to cast five preferences among the many proposals (usually 100), afterwards the ones with the most votes are screened by a team of MP’s, designated to facilitate the process without influencing the policy positioning. The facilitators are in charge of evaluating the adherence of the proposal to the constitutional values, the financial feasibility and the correct jurisdiction. If the proposal meets all the criteria, the MP’s will draft a real bill of law based on the proposal written by the user.
- Portal of participation and transparency by Podemos
Podemos is a Spanish political party founded in 2014, by lecturers from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. After the mass-protest of 15-M movement, the indignados found their political form into Podemos, which inherited its political values. Unlike the Five Star Movement, Podemos declares itself as left-wing party, and has a sound political structure defined at the Constituent assembly of 2014, just months after the European elections.
Agora Voting as an instrument of primaries
In 2014 Podemos’ selected its 5 MEP’s through Agora Voting, a third-party platform, which enabled 33.000 Spanish citizens to the participate at the primaries. This application reads the location of the user and allows Podemos to hold local, regional and state level elections, and it has been used in all the 30 votings that Podemos has held.
Along with Agora Voting, Podemos’ has developed its own platform, which is divided into two main branches: Participación and Transparencia
Podemos’ platform enables their registered members to support and to write initiatives in the same way legislative proposals work. Plaza Podemos enables the users to start a Debate or a ICP (iniciativa ciudadana de Podemos, citizens initiative of Podemos). To submit a proposal, the user has to write a title and a text, and then the other user can comment and vote about the contribution of other users. If the proposal receives enough support, an internal referendum is launched. This could transform the digital proposal into a real legislative proposal.
Podemos has integrated a digital Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a business-wise instrument, in order to enhance the transparency and accountability of the party. Furthermore they implemented interactive infographics, in order to facilitate the understanding of this complex information. Here you can appreciate how Podemos can make party politics more accountable and open, by processing a vast amount of private and complex data via the Open ERP (Opensource Enterprise Resource Planning) accounting system.
Three reason of success and possible downsides
We can understand the impact of e-democracy under the lens of a game designer. While using the platforms listed above, we distilled some interesting features:
- Aesthetics: the platforms are user-friendly. Big buttons, striking colours and few options available make the user experience easy and rewarding.
- Ease of access: every Italian and Spanish citizen with a valid ID-card can subscribe electronically, without paying any fees. For some platforms, an ID-card is not needed.
- Feedback: the platforms give immediate feedback, since results of voting are published just minutes after the voting rounds are closed. An horizontal feedback is also implemented, since some functions allow the users to evaluate the contributions of others users.
Along with those features, e-democracy arises acute systemic issues. When it comes to online voting, cyber-security is not an option. Informed citizens-users are required to evaluate the capability of the platform to protect their sensitive data from the usage by third parties. Again: how could the platform certify that the preferences are not manipulated, without sharing sensible data with third parties and without losing its independence?
Examples of e-democracy are not limited to the Italian Rousseau and the Spanish Podemos: platforms for e-democracy are arising in Europe and in the world. In the current scenario, could platforms that engage citizens in meaningful activities revitalise our democracies? Or, on the other hand, are they are just a digital distraction that creates distance between active citizens and the control rooms? Despite the fact that the penetration rate of internet in Europe is 50%, we are still far from a culture of digital democracy.
* Francesco Berti
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.