A Preliminary Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the Decision-Making Platform of the Five Star Movement (Part I)

First of all, because this is my first post on this brand-new blog, let me say welcome! If you are a reader who is interested in the “scalability of direct democracy,” well, congratulations, you and I share a quite specific interest. If you are a bot, I respect your automated intelligence, so Welcome Bot!

So my first post is about Rousseau, the decision-making and organizational platform of the Five Star Movement (M5S). I have just returned from Palermo where the M5S convened its third national meeting, Italia5Stelle, on September 24-25, 2016. Over the course of two days, various M5S representatives (or, as they prefer to call themselves “spokespersons”) introduced the various functionalities and affordances of Rousseau to an audience of M5S members and sympathizers.

Because my research focuses on the political values that are embedded in decision-making platforms such as Rousseau, LiquidFeedback, Loomio, and the like, I have spent most of my time listening to these presentations. I have also interviewed a few M5S activists, but this is the subject of the second part of the research, which focuses on the uses of such software. For now, I limit myself to a description and analysis of Rousseau’s functionalities and affordances. I will close the post (part II) with some preliminary reflections on the conception of democracy that Rousseau intends to convey and embody.

Source: beppegrillo.it

With over 100,000 declared registered users (no independent data is available) Rousseau is arguably the largest experiment in online participatory democracy within a Western political party. Launched in April 2016, Rousseau is currently divided in nine areas: Voto [Vote], Lex Iscritti [Lex Members], Lex Europa, Lex Parlamento, Lex Regionale, Scudo della Rete [Shield of the Net], Fund Raising, E-learning, and Activism. Of these nine areas, the only one that it is still not active is Activism/Meetup. A tenth area, Sharing, will be launched in the upcoming weeks, presumably before the end of the year.


Before delving into the areas I want to first pause on two preliminary tehnological issues that have not been discussed at the meeting. First, the source code of Rousseau is not available. Rousseau is based on Movable Type, a proprietary blogging platform developed by the Californian company Six Apart. Even though Six Apart has released an open source version of Movable Type, Rousseau runs the proprietary version (the content of the platform, however, is released under Creative Commons).

Second, as far as I know, Rousseau does not have a system in place for the verification of the vote, that is, to guarantee its trustworthiness. This is in my opinion a critical question, which has clear political implications. For example, in order to ensure vote verification, the German developers of LiquidFeedack have decided to make all users’ decisions visible to all other users, and thus public. This means that LiquidFeedback privileges the verifiability of the vote at the expense of the secrecy of voting. Rousseau, on the other hand, does exactly the opposite. Far from being merely a technical question, the poles transparency-verifiability vs. secrecy-unverifiability reflect in my opinion different conceptions of political participation and democracy. But this is the subject of a different post.

Coming to the platform’s functionalities, even though Rousseau has been depicted as a “top-down” platform, I would say that Rousseau embeds in fact three different information flows: a top-down flow (in the three areas in which M5S members are invited to discuss bills that are currently being proposed by elected representatives such as regional councillors, national Members of Parliament, and European MPs); a bottom-up flow (in the area Lex Members, reserved to the bills proposed by the members themselves); and an horizontal flow (in the areas Shield of the Net, E-learning, and the soon-to-be-launched Sharing, which are dedicated to the sharing of information and co-education of elected representatives, with a particular eye to local legislative bodies such as City Councils and Regions).

As I said, each area of Rousseau was introduced by different spokesperons of the M5S. I will divide my account in points, focusing on three areas:

1. Lex Members [Lex Iscritti] is perhaps the most ambitious area of the entire platform because it allows the M5S members to draft their own bills and to put them up for vote. First the members have to draft a simple proposal. A form asks for a brief description of the proposal and of its objective, an analysis of preexisting legislation, a comparison with similar legislation that may exist abroad, and the expertise of the proponent. A cursory look at the proposals that have been uploaded and voted on so far clearly shows that the members do not care much about researching preexisting or comparable legislation. Ultimately what matters is a clear description of the proposal and of its purpose. So I would say that the threshold of access is really quite low, which meets the stated objective of making Rousseau accessible to all citizens with an Internet connection (and an M5S membership).

According to MP Danilo Toninelli, who is responsible of this area, Lex Members has received so far 2.000 proposals. However, only 322 proposals have been put up for vote in the first two rounds of voting (129 and 193, respectively). A team of MPs screens in fact all the proposals and throws out those that are either clearly unconstitutional, should be addressed to different legislative bodies (e.g. Region or European Parliament), or do not meet basic financial pre-requisites. On this last point, Toninelli made the hyperbolic example of a proposal that may want to send all citizens to the moon at the expense of taxpayers.

All the proposals that meet these three criteria (consitutionality, jurisdiction, financial feasibility), that do not match proposals that are already being discussed, or that reverse proposals that have been approved on Lex in the prior 24 months, are put up for vote. The M5S members who are eligible to vote on Rousseau (at the moment those who have joined the party before January 1, 2016) can cast five preferences and distribute them among the approved proposals. There are two main issues here. First, the email that announces the opening of the voting is sent out to all members without warning and gives them a short time frame (usually from 10 am to 7 pm) to complete the operation. Second, the proposals are simply listed and not organized following any apparent criterium.

On the first issue, Davide Bono, who is responsible for the area Lex Regione, told me that the reason of the lack of warning is to reduce the likelihood of an electronic attack. Because all Web servers are potentially vulnerable a last-minute announcement gives less time to those who intend to hack the server (or to make it unavailable via a DDoS attack) to prepare an attack. Again, a technical question has immediate repercussions on political decision-making in that the members are given a really short time window to vote. To mitigate this point, it should be noted that the proposals in Lex Members are made available days or weeks prior to the consultation (presumably they are uploaded to the site as they are received and screened). On the other hand, it should be noted that people tend to be more efficient and do their homework when a deadline is approaching (i.e. “I have to vote next week, let me check the proposals”). So the lack of an anticipated deadline is likely to reduce engagement.

On the second issue, the lack of any taxonomy which may help voters to access proposals at least by subject (e.g. environment, health care, transportation, and so forth) ends up favoring those proposals that show up on top of the list. Indeed, the two most voted proposals at the first round of voting on July 5, 2016 are listed in position number 5 and number 21 (the proposals are unnumbered, I counted them by hand) out of 129. (The results of the second consultation, which occurred on September 23, 2016, the day before the national meeting, are unknown as of this writing).

Once voting is closed, the two most voted proposals move to the second phase (whereas the 30 most voted automatically qualify for the next voting round). At this point, the two winning proponents are invited to Parliament and are assigned a tutor whose task is to transform a proposal written presumably in a non-juridical language into an actual bill (disegno di legge). According to Toninelli, the tutor’s function is exclusively to facilitate the translation into legalese. The translation fixes some boundaries (referring, for example, to previous legislation) but it is supposed to respect the core of the proposal and cannot in any way change its sense and intention.

At the end of the presentation, I asked Toninelli, “Let us suppose for a moment that the most voted proposal is something the M5S spokespersons disagree with. How will the spokespersons behave, considering that ultimately they are the ones who are supposed to present and push the bill through Parliament?”

He answered that in these cases the proposal is labeled “complex matter,” which requires more research and a longer discussion among the MPs. The label complex matter is attached not only to controversial proposals, but to all proposals that are deemed in contrast with prior or unfolding legislative activity of the M5S Parliamentary groups, which retain in this way their autonomy. This point is important because it goes in my opinion in the direction of protecting the representative function of the MPs.

I will develop a further reflection on this tension between direct democracy and representative democracy at the end of part two of this article, where I will analyze the other functionalities of Rousseau.

Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

PS. If you are interested in watching Toninelli’s presentation (in Italian) you can find it here (he starts at minute 13):

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