Delegation and Responsibility in LiquidFeedback: An Interview with Martin Haase (Excerpt)

In late October, I interviewed Martin Haase in his podcast studio in Berlin. Haase is a linguistics professor, a prominent member of the German Pirate Party, and one of the most active users of LiquidFeedback, the decision-making software that has been closely associated with the notion of Liquid Democracy, or transitive delegation by proxy votes. The defining feature of LiquidFeedback is that users can delegate their vote to other users for a limited amount of time. They can choose three different kinds of delegations: a delegation for an individual initiative; a delegation for a thematic area (e.g. health care or organizational matters); or a delegation for everything (this is called the global delegation, and can be assimilated to a vote for representative). Those who receive delegations can in turn decide to transfer them to other people they trust. Every user has the power to take back a delegation when she decides to do so.

Haase hedshot

Over the past few years the German Pirate Party has steadily declined. But back in 2011-12, when it was a party on the rise, Haase made the news because of the many delegations he received through LiquidFeedback. He was, in short, “a superdelegate,” without having a formal appointment, or recognized function within the party. There is a political reason and a subjective reason for this. On a political level, whereas  LiquidFeedback was adopted to make binding decisions in Berlin, it was never adopted in a binding manner at a federal level. (A proposal to make a binding use of the software failed to win a supermajority by a slim number of votes at the Neumarkt Congress of May 2013). Because the party made binding decisions through traditional organisms such as the Governing Board and “real-life” party congresses, the role of delegates in LF was never an issue as the platform only had a consultative function.

On a subjective level, Haase refused to have a formal role within the party because he did not want to become a career politician:

I love my job, I want to be a professor of linguistics, and be able to participate in the political process from my computer at home, but not full time.

And this is where LiquidFeedback, and a whole new generation of decision-making software, really seems to have an impact on traditional political processes. By distributing the time needed for political decision-making throughout society such software seems to make the existence of a professional class of politicians redundant. In other words, we can all continue to do our jobs or what we like and contribute to politics without having to dedicate our entire life to it.  Wouldn’t that be much more democratic? And distributing the responsibilities throughout society wouldn’t also be a great way to eliminate the alibi we all give each other when we express frustration at the way society is run by simply pointing the finger at career politicians?

Nevertheless, this concentration of delegations in the hands of one individual raised many questions. If Liquid Democracy is ultimately about distributing responsibility, how comes that Haase received dozens of delegations? And what kind of use did he make of them? In the interview, which lasted nearly three hours, I asked Haase several questions concerning the inner workings of the LF system of delegation, how leadership emerges within LF, how trust is established and whether the use of LF led to the formation of a distinctive political culture within the party.

In spite of the recent electoral decline of the German Pirate Pary, Haase is still very enthusiastic about Liquid Democracy, which foregrounds for him two fundamental elements of the democratic process: delegation and responsibility. He started off by noting that everybody could participate in a traditional party congress such as the ones the Pirate Party would hold before the introduction of LF. However, those who participated did not need to read proposals nor to answer anybody for their choices. In contrast, LF forces users to take position and to explain, as soon as they receive a delegation, why they decided to vote in one sense or the other or why they decided to pass on the delegation to somebody else. In other words, it seems to me that Haase is telling us that Liquid Democracy exposes delegation as something that we can no longer do silently (as we tend to do on a daily basis by delegating our participation to a professional class of politicians) but that we need to justify and explain to our peers.

And of course this is something that creates all forms of resistance as delegation is much easier when it is not acknowleged, when it takes the form of a blank check given to a representative for a number of years, or when it occurs without being recognized.

Here is an excerpt of the interview:

Marco Deseriis. Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about responsibility in LF. Is responsibility something that is visible because when you give a delegation to someone you have to explain why you are giving it to her?

Martin Haase. No, it’s the other way around, it’s the delegate who has to be able to explain what he does, because the people who are unsatisfied in the end will come to you to ask for explanations. The minute you do not have a good answer they will revoke the delegations and you do not have the power to vote anymore. I sensed that very easily, I could observe that myself when I delegated someone on a decision that I considered to be an organizational matter, but turned out to be a political problem. (…)

The system works best if you always delegate. If you forget to take part, or don’t have the time to take part, then your vote is not lost because there is somebody you have delegated to. Before you start you always delegate to people and there is always a default delegation, a global delegation about everything, so it cannot happen that your vote is lost. It can only happen if nobody votes in the chain. But it’s good to have long chains because the people you delegate are always in your network.

MD. The developers of LF talk about “networks of trust.” How deep were these chains on average?

MA. It depends. There are people like myself who have a lot of trust in the system. I tried to delegate to people who delegated or sometimes, if I found someone who had no delegations [to others], I refrained from delegating because I thought “if this person doesn’t take part in the vote, then my vote is lost.” So I preferred people who had themselves delegations to others. In my case, I think there was an average of 5 or 6 hops whereas other people didn’t do that, so sometimes you had an average of 2 hops. The global average was rather low, I would say, but you can look it up.

MD. On average, were you closer to the beginning or the end of those chains?

MA. I would say that I was the second in the chain most of the times. People delegated to me and I delegated somebody who had a long chain. And sometimes the chain came back to me…

I was a sort of hub. In other structures you have a leader who does not give away things. He gets to the top not so much out of confidence (although confidence may be important too) but because he is somebody who can present himself well in such a position.

[In LiquidFeedback] people tend to delegate someone who takes part in the system, who knows how it works. So I would say that trust and competence are the two main factors. There are different kinds of competence. First of all, you have to know how the system works more than to be competent in a certain field of politics. Although the general principles of LD seem to be easy a lot of people found it difficult to handle. The so-called Superdelegates were people who understood the system and were rather competent in using it, that’s an important aspect.

MD. But, according to other Pirates I have interviewed so far, the LF interface is quite user-friendly. What is exactly that is difficult to handle?

MA. It is difficult to handle the delegation aspect. Who is the person I want to delegate to? Has this person delegated to other people? And what happens if I don’t take part in this ballot? You have to think quite a lot about it. So even if it is simple in principle, the implications are difficult. For example, you can ask anybody what happens if I delegate to somebody who delegates to someone else who delegates to me? So you have this circle delegation, what happens there? A lot of people would find it difficult to explain this.

MD. Would this produce a certain amount of anxiety that was openly expressed in party meetings?

MA. Yes, we had all these discussions and people said “I want to delegate to you, but I don’t want you to delegate to this or that person…”

MD. Isn’t this a legitimate concern?

MA. Of course it is.

MD. Did you ever discuss with the developers the possibility of limiting the number of times a delegation can be passed on?

MA. Yes, this was discussed quite a bit. There were other versions, such as the Bavarian variant of LiquidFeedback. It was called Pirate Feedback and you could choose up to five delegates. If the first person does not take part, then there is a second person, and so forth. You could designate up to five delegates, but none of them could pass your delegation to somebody else. This has other effects of course. If you get a lot of delegations you have the responsibility to really vote, because if you don’t vote, the delegations pass to other people and you are no superdelegate anymore.

MD. But the delegations still pass to somebody else, they don’t get lost.

MA. Yes, actually this vice-delegation aspect exists in LF as well. If I delegate somebody on an individual subject matter and this person doesn’t have further delegations and doesn’t take part, then my delegation takes the way of the person who has my thematic delegation, along with all the delegations on that theme. If the person who has my thematic delegation doesn’t take part (and doesn’t have further delegations), then my vote takes the way of a global delegation.

MD. So it goes from the particular to the general.

MA. Yes, of course, but all my delegations go with it, that’s the important point. I just gave you a simple example. Let’s say that the person I delegated, the second step in the chain, delegates all the votes to another person and that person doesn’t take part and doesn’t have any further delegation. Then the vote goes back to the second person, who may have a thematic delegate, so everything goes to the thematic delegate. If that doesn’t work it goes to the global delegate. If that doesn’t work, then it’s backtracked to me.

MD. So the goal of the system is to ensure that a decision is made, that you participate in one way or the other. But this creates a very elaborate network of distribution of power and sometimes people find out that decisions were made in a way that they had not foreseen.

MA. Yes, of course, this can happen. This is a problem in the system. That’s why people say “I prefer a system where I have more control.” Although if I have a list of delegates, and I don’t know which in the end takes the decision, there isn’t much control either.

MD. So you are saying that people seem to have a lack of trust in the system because it does not allow them to control whom they are delegating to. Do you think that this problem could be addressed on a technical level, and solved by simply reengineering the software? Or do you think that this is a more eminently political problem? Some say that the Pirate Party had many young members who did not seem to trust any form of authority and perhaps should have not joined a party, or any political association, to begin with…

MA. It is a mixture of things. For some people, the party and delegation aren’t the right thing because they want to decide themselves about everything. This fear of releasing control is enhanced by social media where it feels you can have a say on everything and reach people with your opinion. Although this may not be true, social media give you a sense of empowerment. There were lots of people in the Pirate Party who said “I don’t delegate because I have to decide,” but this isn’t the way democracy works. Democracy is all about delegation and responsibility. The other aspect is responsibility. There were people who did not like to be responsible. This was a problem of the Pirate Party on several levels. For example, there were people who were members of the governing board of the party or who were in parliament, and a lot of them did not want to be responsible towards those who elected them. So many of them stepped back from the governing board before the membership meeting so they did not have to explain their wrongdoings. And a similar thing happened with parlamentarians who left the PP and did not want to be accountable.

MD. Was this problem of not wanting to be responsible something that existed also within LF?

MA. Yes, there were people who did not want to get delegations, but they got them, because they could not refuse them.

MD. Did they express their uneasiness in some way?

MA.There were people who did not want to take part in the discussion because they feared they would get delegations. Many people did not register, some registered and did not use the system, used it only for a short time, or stopped using it, because of these fears.

(…) 

MD. Would you agree that the refusal to adopt LF as a binding decision-making platform at a national level was due to political resistance that came from within the party because LF undermined forms of authority that had been established through “traditional” party channels?

MA. Yes, that’s the point. Those who had authority through different channels were against LF. Other people were against LF for other reasons. But in the end, at Neumarkt, a majority of voters, not a supermajority, but still a sizeable majority was in favor of adopting LF.

MD. From what I read, you had so many delegations in LF that this allowed you to defeat the party leadership in a couple of circumstances. But how was it possible considering that LF was not binding?

MA. My power was informal. I had, let’s say… a factual influence. Even an informal power can be very powerful. If there is broad consent around certain issues they will be accepted at the national convention even if it is against the official party leadership. I promoted certain issues, which received massive support in LF, and were later adopted at the party convention. These issues were so important…

MD. Can you talk about these issues?

MA. The most important was the proposal for “unconditional income” or “basic income.” Of course “unconditional income” is a strange term because nothing is unconditional, there are always conditions. Unconditional means that it doesn’t depend on the income you already have.

MD. So this was pushed through LF.

MA. Yes, and a very interesting text came out of it. The text was in a way a compromise, that many many people could adhere to. At a meeting at the national convention of Offenbach, in Frankfurt [in December 2011], the leaders of the Bavarian section of the party, especially Stefan Körner (who later became President of the Pirate Party in Germany) tried to organize a campaign against it, but they realized it was quite difficult to do that. At a certain point they distributed an online survey on the basic income with the purpose of demonstrating that only a minority of the real members were in favor of it. The idea was to demonstrate that the decision made through LF did not correspond to the opinion of the majority.

MD. And what did they find out?

MA. They found out that the majority was in favor. And that was the end of the story. But since you asked about the dynamic within the party, this shows that there was a strong group within the party that did not want LF, and thought it was undemocratic.

MD. And this group argued that LF was only used by the most progressive faction of the party, that came out of Berlin, and Berlin is not Germany…

MA. It’s not Bavaria and it’s not Germany. The interesting point is that they didn’t succeed in that respect. They later succeeded in switching off LF, but that’s a different story.

MD. Since you had this informal authority through LF, and since you contributed significantly to the national program, why did you not take up a more formal position within the party?

MA. I became active in the Pirate Party because it promised that you could do things without engaging that much. To be one of the party leaders is a full-time job. I love my job, I want to be a professor of linguistics, and be able to participate in the political process from my computer at home, but not full time.

MD. So do you think that the idea of distributing the costs of political participation throughout society, rather than having a professional class of politicians, is a foundational principle that has driven your use of LF?

MA. Yes, that’s precisely the point. Even within the Pirate Party everybody thinks that it is better to have a distributed way of making decisions online. Even those who were against LF said we must have such a system. That’s why there was this proposal of having an alternative voting system, because the idea that you can sit at home and influence political decisions is very important. I think there is a really broad consensus about it. There is more resistance to the idea of Liquid Democracy, with its delegates and clustering of power. That’s perhaps what is seen as a problem by certain people. But there is consensus that one has to have the possibility to easily participate from his couch.

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