Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 3)

After their failed attempt to turn Plaza Podemos into a real engine for the development of Podemos’ political program Arana and other tech activists such as Pablo Soto and Yago Bermejo Abati joined the electoral platform of Ahora Madrid, which managed to win the 2015 city elections through a highly participated, citizen-driven political process known in Spain as the confluencia, which Arana briefly discusses in the third part of this interview.

Since September 2015 Arana has been in charge of  Decide Madrid the city participation portal, which has over 300.000 registered users. Through this website citizens can propose their own initiatives, engage in collaborative legislation, and vote on participatory budgeting projects for which the City has allocated €100 million in 2017 alone. As I previously reported, the first binding city referendums based on the new system were held in February 2017, and were a mixed bag of citizen initiatives and consultations that were launched by the city.

Screenshot of the Participatory Budgeting landing page of Decide Madrid (as of January 2018)

The two citizen initiatives on making Madrid 100% sustainable and the introduction of integrated ticketing for public transportation were based on proposals that passed the 1% support threshold an initiative must collect on Decide Madrid in order to be put through a city referendum. Because Madrid has 2.7 million eligible voters, the two proposals were initially backed by 27.000 city residents. It is Arana himself and his colleagues that have set this threshold after they had tried to introduce it without success in Podemos.

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Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 2)

In the first part of this interview, Miguel Arana made some critical observations about the limits to the scalability of direct democracy via digital tools. In the 15-M the penetration of ad hoc tools such as Propongo and N-1 was quite limited as compared to mainstream social network sites. For a mass movement with a radically inclusive ethos such as the 15-M this must have been an issue because the vast majority of participants would not accept decisions coming out of contexts they were unaware of or unable to participate in.

I would add that all social movements of the 2011 wave had trouble taking collective decisions because of the lack of a stable membership, the constantly evolving configuration of assemblies and working groups, and the emphasis on consensus. (By this, of course, I do not mean that these movements were unable to make collective decisions–just that arriving to common decisions was a very elaborate process).  If we add that websites such as Propongo and N-1 did not embed any identity verification protocol, it is easy to see why this informal digital layer could exist in parallel to the movement on the ground but without having any real decision-making power.

This is how Arana put it:

[In the Indignados] even when you say, “ok, these are the ideas”, it’s difficult then to say what we do with these ideas, because there is not like the head of the movement or an executive group that takes the idea and does something with it. . . . Even when we agreed that these were the ideas of the 15M (and they were not) it’s difficult in such kind of movements to do something. If we could have something more complex than Propongo, that maybe was not just focused on the proposals, but also helping to organize us all every day maybe it could have been used as some kind of organizational method, like ‘what can we do now?’ and then people propose, vote and do it. Maybe if it was structured like a kind of a permanent global forum of the movement to take decisions, it would have had more impact. Continue reading “Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 2)”

Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 1)

Last year-–on March 16, 2017–I had a chance of interviewing via Skype Miguel Arana, who directs the Participation Project of the City of Madrid  (Proyecto de Participación del Ayuntamiento de Madrid) and overviews the participation portal Decide Madrid.

Image result for miguel arana
Miguel Arana, director of the Participation Project of the City of Madrid

Our conversation lasted 2 hours and half and touched on many topics, including the role that Arana played as a member of the Participation Team of Podemos back in 2014, when he, along with a few others, tried to convince the party leadership to transform the political proposals that were emerging out of Plaza Podemos (a highly participated discussion forum based on Reddit) into binding initiatives for the first Podemos congress, which was held in Vistalegre in October 2014. As I have previously noted on this blog in relation to the use of Loomio within Podemos, this attempt to let ordinary members determine the political direction of the party was openly rejected by the party leadership, which preferred to control the political process from above.

Of course this tension between what Richard Katz and Peter Meir call the party on the ground and the party in central office exists within every party, and I challenge anyone to find a single party where the party leadership voluntarily gives up its leading function. But the Podemos of 2014 appeared to many as a movement party, that is, a party that inherited, at least in part, the extraordinary participatory experience of the 15-M movement. Indeed not only many who had participated in that movement were now ready to engage in party politics, but also saw the Internet as instrumental to scaling up the Indignados’ assemblies from the local to the national without necessarily reducing the complexity and diversity of mass participation.

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Loomio and the Problem of Deliberation: An Interview with Rich Barlett

One of the frustrations within the current political system is that most people are alienated from deliberation. The founders of decision-making software Loomio want to give everyone access to that essential skill. 

The Loomio team on a retreat.

Loomio is a decision-making software developed by a group of activists and programmers based in Wellington, New Zealand, since 2012. Widely used within the Circles of Podemos in Spain as well as hundreds of cooperatives, social enterprises, municipalities, and activist groups around the world, Loomio’s main feature is to nudge groups towards consensus. After discussing a proposal, every member of a Loomio group can in fact make one of four choices: agree, disagree, abstain, or block. The latter is a form of veto power, which forces the group to reconsider the initial proposal and amend it until consensus has been reached.

Even though endowing individuals with such power in an online environment can be risky, Loomio groups are often extensions of preexisting offline relationships, and thus of preexisting networks of trust. Indeed, Loomio had been originally conceived by activists involved in Occupy Wellington in 2011 as a tool that could help turn the open-ended meetings of assemblies and working groups into action-oriented proposals. The four-hand signs that appear in the Loomio interface are in fact borrowed from the hand signals adopted by the Occupy movement around the world.

“Ben Knight and I were in the communications working group [at Occupy Wellington],” recalls Richard Bartlett, a co-founder of Loomio. “We had a lot of people and work to manage, so we were looking for project management software, but everything we could find was based on a hierarchical attitude to organising.” Thus, together with Hannah Salmon and Jon Lemmon the two decided to contact Enspiral, a network and incubator of social enterprises based in Wellington. In 2012, Knight, Barlett, Lemmon, Alanna Krause, Aaorn Thornton and Vivien Maidaborn went on to found the Loomio cooperative, which is part of Enspiral, and currently employs eleven worker-members who have made a long-term commitment to the project.

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