Parliament Everywhere: designing a legislature for the 21st century

Parliaments are in trouble. Invented – in the form we know them – nearly 800 years ago to prevent the abuse of executive power, they struggle today to meet same goal. In the 21st century, executive power is no longer exercised from neat, single locations that are reflected in legislatures. If the democratic control of power is to be reasserted, alternative democratic innovations must be considered. This post looks at such potential innovations – and considers some of arguments for why they’re necessary. It argues that the location-less nature of the Internet may suggest a solution in the form of a multi-layered platform – a ‘parliament everywhere’.

First – on innovation – there is a growing buzz around digital, collaborative or participative government. Two recent TED Talks are worth watching: Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everyone, Cognitive Surplus) brilliantly imagines an open-source government, which could take the form of the kind of collaboration-without-coordination seen on the open-source software development site Github, while Beth Noveck (the first head of Open Government for the White House) argues for more immediate government adoption of open data and participatory methods such as the use of hackathons and crowdsourcing. Further, the official e-petition websites for the US and UK governments are taking off. The US ‘We the People’ site has had 5m visits. The UK’s e-petitions site has had an astonishing 13m unique visitors – equivalent to a quarter of the UK’s voting population.

More practically, there are a couple of ambitious startups just getting going in this field: watch the progress of both UDEMI, a website coming out of the Oxford Internet Institute that aims to ‘lower the barriers to political participation’, and LoveGov, which aims to match US voters up with political causes.

LoveGov’s one minute introduction

But these all focus on creating more participation within existing institutions. They take it for granted that the existing structure of political community is unchanged.

In the mid-1990s, however, a group of academics wrote that if we believe that democracy is about having a say in the exercise of power that affects you, then there’s no reason to start at a national level. Globalisation, they argued, meant that anyone could be affected by the exercise of power almost anywhere else in the world.

They suggested that the appropriate response was a new conception of democracy – one that gave every human a voice at multiple levels of governance. Not only local or national, but regional and global. Wherever decisions are made that affect someone, that person should have a say. The result would be multiple overlapping fields of governance and democracy.

They called it ‘cosmopolitan democracy’. The best work was done on the theory and moral case for cosmopolitan democracy – the scholars never quite worked out how it could be realised.

I think digital platforms are beginning to solve this problem for us. Cosmopolitan democracy recognises that power is exercised at multiple levels – from local to global. So any kind of parliament or democratic discussion and decision-making platform must reflect that. The Internet, in its ideal form, isn’t concerned with borders or space. As a result, there is no need to replicate national democratic structures. We can start building institutions afresh – reflecting the needs of cosmopolitan democracy through many thousands of overlapping political communities – each with their own discussion and decision making space.

The word ‘parliament’ is derived from old French – parlement – simply meaning ‘talking’. This doesn’t require a centralised body. It doesn’t even need a building. In the UK, there’s a national ‘talking-place’ in Westminster and then smaller regional or local assemblies. As digital democrats might enthuse about – these existing institutions are becoming more open and more engaging. At the national level, a majority of MPs (409 of a possible 650) are on twitter. (In the US, every senator is on twitter.) The public can use this tool to join political debates at a level to which they would have had less access to before – they can directly ask ministers questions and they can badger their MPs more easily. In the debates on the Digital Economy Act in 2010, much of the public debate around the bill was happening online. MPs were involved in the online discussion and in some cases were guided by their digitally-wiser constituents. A network of online activists, not MPs, were the main opposition to the bill. Unfortunately, the official debate had to take place in a physical location with strict time limits – it was rushed through effectively unopposed.

So existing parliaments are already (slowly) digitising themselves. But what if there’s something the public wants to debate that doesn’t fit the set up? A Greek voter might influence their MP in their national legislature, but decisions about the country’s future are partly made in Berlin and Washington. The voter and the MP have no say there. Greek democracy is substantially weakened by this. Power in the 21st century does not observe political boundaries.

Attempts to control power are multipolarmultiscalar or polycentric, exercised by private institutions, public institutions and institutions somewhere-in-between. So a parliament that gave the people democratic control of power would work at all of these levels. Across national borders. Across institution-types. Globalisation necessitates different political communities.

If we were building a new type of democratic platform – a new ‘talking-place’ from the ground up – what would it look like? If it was built upon the principle of ‘nothing about me, without me’, individuals would have a say in every exercise of power that affected them. It might be local or global. Or somewhere in between. The platform would allow for a discussion to arise around any area, whatever the size of the community. Digital platforms are far more suitable for this than physical institutions. You can’t fit a million people in the Bundestag. You can fit them on a website.

Every subject, every area, every thing you can imagine already has a discussion space on the Internet. If it doesn’t, you can create one. But these tend to be privately-owned spaces, where free discussion sometimes comes under threat (e.g., e.g., e.g.). And parliaments do more than debate, discuss and scrutinise: they make law. That law will be binding upon the executive or the public in general and is ultimately backed up by force.

On the internet – should a majority of people agree on a way forward – there’s no authority behind them wielding a big stick. (Except possibly Anonymous, but that’s another story). Fortunately, that’s not as big a problem as it seems. Lawful societies don’t often require the threat of force to keep them lawful. Rules are followed due to social norms, understandings of the social contract and so on. A lot of people might want to pay lower tax rates, but they recognise that the rate has been set by a legitimate government – so they pay up. They recognise that in complex societies there is constant compromise. It’s not the threat of the taxman that forces them to pay up – it’s the understanding that it’s the morally correct course of action.

Legal philosophers will debate what ‘law’ is, but it’s not absurd to suggest that if there was extensive online voting – if there was a platform where decisions were made in which everybody affected had the opportunity to debate and vote – people might largely consent to be bound by that decision. It would have significant social norming power. It would change behaviour. It would not need to be supported by the threat of force.

Parliament Everywhere

So, bearing all that in mind, here’s a sketch of a platform that would attempt to solve some of those problems. I think it would start with three basic elements: parliaments, motions, and votes.

  1. A parliament would be an online space for a geographic area or a subject or topic. Anyone could create or join a parliament for anywhere or everywhere.
  2. Motions would sit within a parliament. Motions would be the main substance of the platform. Anyone with an idea for something to happen could suggest a motion – in the form of an imperative statement or a question with a limited answer set.
  3. Votes would take place on those motions. Rather than an ongoing voting process, the debate would take place first, and – at a predetermined time or as the debate slows down or when the sponsor decides – a virtual division bell would ring. Everyone in the parliament would be notified of the impending vote. Results would be publicised and a clear statement of moral or social expectation would be set.

A user-journey on the platform might look something like this:

1. Create a parliament for a place or a topic

These could replicate existing locational-structures, or not. Annoyed that there is no English parliament? Create one. The [insert disenfranchised group] don’t have a parliament? Create one. There’s no world parliament? Create one. You want to make your workplace more democratic? Create a parliament for your office. There’s a local street you think could be improved? Create a parliament for it. Worried about the health of bees? Create a parliament about them.

2. Create a motion within that parliament

These could be binary statements – to be agreed or disagreed with – or statements with a range of answers to be arranged in preference order. Different voting schemes could be chosen for different motions. Want to prevent environmental pollution in a river? Start a parliament for the river, and a motion that ‘Acme Co. should stop dumping chemicals in the river’. Want to improve a local park? Create a parliament for the park and start a motion that ‘Residents of Smith St should contribute $100 towards restoring the park’.

The better crafted the motion, the better the debate would be. The platform could automatically advise people on writing motions, as something like Stack Exchange (a question-and-answer site) advises you as you write questions. Once a motion were laid down, a discussion space would open. This would take the form of a linear discussion, as seen in Twitter, Branch, Quora or Reddit, or a nuclear discussion like Debategraph.

3. Invite participants

Once a parliament and motions were created, participants would be needed to debate them. This would have to deal with the issue of how to get people to go beyond clicktivism. One method could be to encourage participants to request participation from other people they know will be interested or might have specific expertise in an area. This would use peer pressure to encourage people to get involved. Experts might get an email saying ’10 people have requested your advice on xyz’ – who could resist? Offline parliamentarians or representatives could be invited to join in – they themselves could start motions and invite their constituents to join them.

4. Debate and discussion

The platform design could encourage evidence-based discussions – allowing branching or forking for discussion of sources and referencing. A motion on river pollution might branch into the responsibility of the company, the science on the effects of the pollution, and the potential solutions. Debates on the quality of sources might fork from each of those, and so on. Unlike a physical parliament, large numbers of people could debate at the same time, there would be ability to properly reference statements, and people could spend as much time on a subject as they wished. Statements could receive instant feedback in the form of upvoting and downvoting, which would in turn lead to a kind of ‘front-page’ for a debate – allowing a good summary of the best arguments and evidence for a decision. Plenty of advice on argumentation could be prominently displayed to improve the quality of debate.

5. Voting

The platform would aim to fill the gap in discussion sites that already exist. Despite all the online debate everywhere, there’s no one space where people gather and vote. This would be the USP of something like Parliament Everywhere. The idea would be for endless internet discussion to actually reach some sort of resolution: a vote. The platform could allow the person who brought the motion to call a vote, or it could be done on a timed basis, or when enough people in the parliament call for it. An alert would go to all users of that parliament – giving them time to read the debate and vote. The alert could summarise the most upvoted comments and evidence on both sides of the debate.

If they felt they weren’t interested or didn’t know enough about a debate, users could delegate their votes to other users (and so on) – creating trust-based representation networks à la the Liquid Democracy platform.

6. That’s it

Users would be notified of the results – which would shape their behaviour or commit them to further actions, and so on. Eventually you might have thousands of issue and location-based parliaments, all overlapping at different scales and in membership, with votes determining public views and driving action.

The platform might benefit from:

  • A speaker — parliaments have speakers and deputies and staffs to organise, schedule and enforce order in a debate. Would this be necessary in an online equivalent or do moderators naturally emerge from any group? Community managers probably know the answer to this.
  • Weighted voting — someone who is more greatly affected by an action or inaction should have more of a say in the decision regarding that action. How a system is designed to reflect that principle is difficult. Perhaps users when joining a parliament should say why an issue matters to them and their vote could be weighted by other users? A vote engine could weight votes by the predicted effect on a user, their location and interests. But this would always be contestable, and delegated voting might be a better way of realising the same goal.

Realistically, a successful digital democracy platform that did all these things – and created the critical mass sufficient for a social norming effect – is a long way off. But it could be done. And that’s the point, really. We could build a better democracy. One that reflects the needs of 21st century governance.

When people disengage with offline parliaments, it increases the imperative to start redesigning our democratic systems and institutions. Most likely, something like this platform would evolve following various experiments – like those of UDEMI, Lovegov and numerous petition sites – rather than move in a giant leap forward.

It would be interesting to see existing institutions getting more involved in this. Privately-owned corporations cannot and should not be relied upon to provide robust digital democracy platforms. A digital parliament would have to be publicly or cooperatively owned. Perhaps existing legislative bodies ought to be spending a part of their outreach budgets on experiments in this area – some local councils have done. But it could go so much further.

The 800th anniversary of the UK parliament – that ‘mother of parliaments’ around the world – will take place in 2015. It’s an ideal time to start thinking about institutional innovation.

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