Leadership and Trust in Liquid Democracy-based Systems: Interview with Marina Weisband (part II)

—[continues from part I]–

Marco Deseriis (MD). Switching topic, I wanted to ask you how you became a leader in the Pirate Party. I am also interested in how people become leaders within LiquidFeedback. Because I believe there were emerging forms of leadership that were coming from within the system. Have you ever thought that the qualities of a leader within Liquidfeedback are perhaps different from the qualities of the leader who is good at talking in public or on television (like yourself)?

Marina Weisband (MW). I identified certain things that are exactly similar in the offline elections and LiquidFeedback, which are: the power of the word, a good speaker or writer would become a leader in LiquidFeedback (LF) easier. Also people who you just know and see. . . .  As soon as you do stuff, it doesn’t even matter what–you just have to do it very publicly and a lot of it–you become the most trusted person. Not necessarily because you are the most trustworthy, just because you are the person most people know. So people say: I don’t know what he is like, but I kind of heard the name before, or yes, he does a lot of good stuff, so he probably knows his way around. And that is an effect that the Pirate Party always had and LiquidFeedback kind of mirrored.

MD. So there is no difference between LF-based leadership and more traditional forms of leadership.

MW. Yes and no. For me personally leaders in LiquidFeedback were very much defined by their ability to explain their decisions, which is something that Martin Haase did a lot. For example, I had a global delegate [delegates to which users entrust all their decisions in LiquidFeedback, AN]. I didn’t necessarily participate all that much in the system, which was why, interestingly enough, I was extremely unpopular in the party.

I was on national tv, I did interviews, but in LiquidFeedback I hardly had any delegations. Because I didn’t do so much there and people noticed, so why would they give me delegations? It was very right.

I delegated my vote to someone who would always, when they voted, write texts about why they voted in a certain way. And I found that to be truly helpful because I could monitor, you know, “am I still on board with that?” I felt still responsible for my vote as I delegated it. Because of the possibility to take advantage at any time, I was responsible for that. You carry that responsibility, I had to know the arguments for voting in a certain way. So that’s why I always only delegated to people who would explain their voting style.

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Gender Trouble in the Pirate Party: Interview with Marina Weisband (part I)

A former Political Director of the German Pirate Party, Marina Weisband has been for many years the face of the party. Widely exposed in the media, Weisband fulfilled the important role of lending a prominent female voice to an otherwise overwhelmingly male party. The Pirates have often been accused of sexism for running very few female candidates and their farfetched attempt to deny the very existence and political significance of gender by declaring themselves a “post-gender party.” Infamous is the case of the Berlin state elections of 2011, where 14 out of 15 elected representatives were male. (As we will see, Weisband originally adopted the rationale that a party is truly democratic when it stops “counting women like cows,” but later came to regret that position).

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Direct Parliamentarianism Wins Best Paper Award at Cedem17 Conference

Der Best-Paper-Award ging heuer an Marco Deseriis, Assistant Professor of Media and Screen Studies an der Northeastern University in Boston (hier mit dem CeDEM-Leitungsteam, Prof. Peter Parycek, links, und Noella Edelmann).

I am happy to announce that my paper Direct Parliamentarianism: An Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the ‘Operating System’ of the Five Star Movement has won the Best Paper Award at the Cedem17 Conference for e-Democracy and Open Government, which was held at Danube University on May 17-19, 2017.

I want to sincerely thank the organizers for their hospitality and appreciation of my work.

You can read the paper here.

Il Manifesto on Rousseau

The Italian newspaper Il Manifesto has recently published an article based on an academic paper I am going to be presenting at the Conference for E-Democracy and E-Government (CeDEM17) on May 17-19 at Danube University Krems, Austria. The paper is titled Direct Parliamentarianism: An Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the “Operating System” of the Five Star Movement.

The article highlights the most critical passages of my paper, in particular the ones in which I argue that in separating deliberation from decision-making Rousseau does not allow for the internal debates that would allow for the formation of dissenting and potentially antagonistic points of view within the Five Star Movement.

At the same time, I want to underscore that a platform like Rousseau allows for a shift in the function of public opinion from that of judging the work of elected representatives (what Pierre Rosanvallon would call the counter-democratic power of the citizens) to a reflection on the emerging forms that the relationship between the governed and the government could take via the Internet. In other words, if Rousseau allows elected representatives to crowdsource their own bills of law, and leaves M5S members with almost no collective agency, it also allows the public (us) to reflect upon a non-asymmetric form of collaborative governance could really look like.

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Interview with David Ruescas of Agora Voting

In early February 2017, two large Internet-based consultations were held in Madrid, Spain. From February 4 through February 11, over 155,000 members of Podemos voted online to renew the party leadership and political line before the second party congress of Vistalegre. A few days later, 214,000 madrilenos voted in the first binding city referendums (76,000 of which via the Internet) concerning public transport, a sustainability programme, and the renovation plan for Plaza de Espana.

In both circumstances, Podemos party members and Madrid residents relied on Agora Voting, an open source software developed by a small team of Spanish programmers and tech activists that allows the members of any organization to vote online.

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Moreno Yagüe on Democracy 4.0

In this video (in Spanish with Spanish subtitles), Juan Moreno Yagüe, lawyer, elected representative in the state parliament of Andalusia, and candidate to Secretary General at the recent Congress of Podemos explains Democracia 4.0–perhaps the most advanced existing proposal to integrate Parliamentary democracy with direct democracy.  Yagüe wants to allow all Spanish citizens to vote directly on bills and government decrees via the Internet as those bills and decrees are presented, discussed and voted in Parliament.

The idea might sound a bit crazy but it’s actually quite realistic. Let me give you a bit of context. Article 23 of the Spanish Constitution reads:

Los ciudadanos tienen el derecho a participar en los asuntos públicos, directamente o por medio de representantes [Citizens have the right to participate in public affairs, directly or by means of their representatives]

Based on this passage, Yagüe argues that the Spanish Constitution already allows direct democracy and thus the right of all Spanish citizens to take part directly in the Parliamentary vote via the Internet. This does not mean that the vote of the elected representatives would be nullified. Rather, Yagüe argues that the weight of each representatives vote should decrease as the total number of votes cast directly by citizens increases.

Because approximately 35,000,000 Spaniards are eligible to vote, and there are 350 Members of Parliament, each MP represents roughly 100,000 citizens. Let’s suppose that 3,500,000 citizens participate directly in a Parliamentary vote on a bill of law. In this scenario, the MPs would only represent 31,500,000 electors–i.e. 90% of the electorate. It follows that the weight of each MP vote will be only 0.9/1, corresponding to an aggregate of 315 votes. If 7 million Spaniards vote directly, the MPs cast the equivalent of 280 votes (0.8 votes per MP), and so forth. Thus the more citizens participate, the less they need to be represented.

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Interview with Rouven Brües, managing director at Liquid Democracy e.V.

Founded in 2009 in Berlin, the Liquid Democracy association has been developing an impressive array of open source software tools that support civic and political participation in youth projects, urban planning projects, participatory budgeting, NGOs, political parties, and institutions.

The best known of these tools is Adhocracy, a modular decision-making platform that allows participants to collect ideas, discuss them, and refine them in text propositions that can be further amended. This modular structure has been mostly used in civic participation projects in Berlin, but also in political parties such as the Green Party, the SPD, and institutional contexts such at the German Federal Parliament.

Thanks to Adhocracy’s popularity the association became in few years a non-profit organisation that now employs full time twenty people working on a variety of projects. These include the third version of Adhocracy and platforms for youth participation such as Opin.me and Aula. Further, the association is currently managing a multi-purpose participation portal for the State of Berlin, which allows Berliners to take part in participatory budgeting projects, zoning decisions, environmental initiatives, and allocation of funds in their neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the new headquarters of the association located in the former Kindl brewery in Berlin’s Neukölln district, a massive red-brick building hosting the new Kindl Center of Contemporary Art. In the spacious and still largely unfurnished rooms on the second floor, I met Rouven Brües, a PhD candidate in politics at Goldsmiths, and currently one of two managing directors of the company. Our conversation touched on a number of topics, including different implementations of Liquid Democracy (also known as delegative democracy), the relation between online and offline deliberation, participation and representation, as well as the cultural impact of new technologies on the democratic imagination.

Brewhouse of Berliner Kindl Brewery Neukölln in its former glory. Public domain.

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DemocracyOS, an Interview with Guido Vilariño

Governments, endogamic institutions since forever, are not used to opening up. But now there’s political will for it to happen, if a lot of trial and error in the process.


DemocracyOS team at work. The Politics of Code is an interview series curated by Marco Deseriis for openDemocracy with software engineers and political activists about a new generation of decision-making software that allow movements, organizations, and parties to make collective decisions online. Rather than reducing technology to the status of a tool, the interviews explore the different conceptions of political participation and democracy embedded in each software, the relationship between online and offline deliberation, as well as questions of authentication, verifiability, ownership, trust, and leadership.

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Pseudonymity and Liquid Democracy: Interview with Martin Delius

Martin Delius, former state representative of the Berlin Pirate Party

One of the thorniest questions the Berlin Pirate Party had to face as soon as it decided to adopt LiquidFeedback in January 2010 is that some of its members had created pseudonymous accounts on the platform. This created multiple problems. To being with, the party had to verify whether these pseudonymous accounts were owned by actual party members. Second, because LiquidFeedback (LF) allows users to vote, it was necessary to verify that each user had one and only one account.

Third, a decision had to be made on whether pseudonymous accounts could receive delegations or not. Because the software does not distinguish between pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous accounts this was a political, or human, decision. A discussion began within the party. Many arguments for and against pseudonymity were heard. Eventually (that is, almost five years later) it was decided that members could use a pseudonym in LF on one condition: they had to introduce themselves at a party meeting with their pseudonym. In this way, pseudonymous accounts with delegations could be held accountable for their decisions within LF, which functioned in Berlin as the equivalent of a permanent party Convention. As I noted in my previous post, because LF blurs the lines between the represented and the representatives, the delegating and the delegates, it is difficult to extend the anonymity of voting (the secret ballot) to such system. But it is also difficult to expect total transparency of its participants as some political decisions may be too sensitive to be exposed out in the open.

In order to strike a balance between the transparency we all expect of representatives and the private nature of voting the Berlin Pirate Party took two separate steps. First, it decided that LF could be accessible only to regular party members, that is, all political discussions and decisions were not going to be accessible from the rest of the Internet. (If this may sound obvious to many, it wasn’t for a party that had made of “radical transparency” in politics one of its talking points). Second, as noted, the party decided that those who wanted to use a pseudonym within LF had to be identifiable qua party members. It sounds like a reasonable compromise to me. Yet it is interesting that the developers of LF and the Berlin Pirates I have interviewed so far (all influential members of the party) found the pseudonymity issue… stupid. In other words, they all seem to agree on the fact that pseudonyms are pointless in a system like LF. Here is an excerpt of the interview with Martin Delius, former Pirate Party representative at the Berlin House of Representatives and recently reelected with Die Linke.

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The Political Implications of Diffused Parlamentarianism

At the end of our interview (see my previous post), Martin Haase made me reflect on a key point concerning the changing nature of accountability in a Liquid Democracy system. One of the most divisive issues within the Berlin Pirate Party since LiquidFeedback (LF) was implemented in 2010 concerned the identity of its registered users.

Since the beginning, some Berlin Pirates registered on LF using a pseudonym. This created quite a few technical and political issues. To begin with, the party had to verify whether these users were actual members as only party members were allowed to use LF. Once this verification was made there was still the issue of whether these pseudonymous users could receive delegations from other users. LiquidFeedback is in fact designed to make all individual decisions visible and thus verifiable. There is both a technical and political rationale for why the platform has been designed this way. On a technical level, the developers of LF believe that secret voting online is not trustworthy–i.e. it can be manipulated.

On a political level, if you give a delegation to somebody this person must vote publicly so that she can be held accountable for her decisions. Haase notes that the publicity of voting is a basic operating principle of modern parliaments. At the same time, LF blurs the line between the public nature of parliamentary decisions and the private nature of voting at the electoral level. This is because LF users can receive delegations at any given moment, assuming a de facto representative role, or remain members who vote without receiving any delegations.

The question is what do you do when an average citizen can be a member of parliament at the same time. Sometimes he is a member of parliament and sometimes he is not. Because members of parliament have to act in the open, there has to be records of what they did. On the other hand, the individual citizen has a right to privacy.

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