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Old questions, new answers

Rethinking representation involves expanding the deliberative community and redefining not only who can decide on public issues, but how decisions are made. Español Português

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For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive - is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

"Together we can be wiser than any of us individually.

The only thing we need to know is how to take advantage of that wisdom."

- Tom Atlee

Today, the notion of citizen participation has become pivotal in the public discussion about the form our democracy takes as a system of government. Participation is now to be found in the slogans of political parties with quite different ideological backgrounds, as a basic demand of many social movements, and is actively encouraged by social activists and researchers who see in it a potential way out from the disaffection that currently permeates our social body.

But what practices and what phenomena are we talking about? The different devices, technologies and behaviours referred to as "citizen participation" constitute, in fact, an eclectic set. Neighbourhood meetings, citizen assemblies, parliamentary hearings, and referenda are just some examples of its diversity. And online developments are extending its frontiers further: the net offers new practices, values and metaphors, showing the way to a possible new architecture of power.

Today, the notion of citizen participation has become pivotal in the public discussion about the form our democracy takes as a system of government.

This situation allows us to get back to a basic question about our system of government: how is democracy to be defined, if not by who deliberates and who decides? In the context of rethinking representation (and the role of representatives and those being represented), we maintain that it is possible to expand the deliberative community and to redefine not only who can decide on public issues, but how decisions are made.

Since late 2012, in Buenos Aires, a group of activists, social entrepreneurs, students and hackers has been meeting to explore answers to these questions. We think: what democratic institutions can we build in the age of the Internet? What would its distinctive features be? What would be the practices, values, and profiles of the members of these political communities?

Driven by our research and willingness to experiment, Democracia en Red began working on designing accessible and versatile open source software tools to enable "expanded" participation. And it became clear to us that these tools were simply not sufficient to bring about a change in the connection patterns between representatives and those being represented. The other key element, of course, was the political community that would be using these new technologies.

Democracia en Red began working on designing accessible and versatile open source software tools to enable "expanded" participation.

As a result of this reflection, we worked in two directions: creating adequate online tools to facilitate these processes and, at the same time, developing strategies for the "institutionalization" of their use.

DemocracyOS (DOS) was born from these premises, as an online open source platform for helping groups of people and/or organizations to put forward, debate and vote on freely chosen topics. Being an open source platform, it can be freely used, modified and redistributed so that the best arguments emerge to achieve collective decision-making.

Designed primarily to assist the legislative procedures of local chambers of representatives, its main objectives are:

  1. Increasing citizen participation by offering information and opportunities to citizens, so that they can participate with other members of their community in public decision-making.
  2. Promoting deliberative democracy by strengthening interaction between public officials and citizens to debate and make decisions through dialogue and collective planning.
  3. Promoting the development of active citizenship through training and learning activities on the characteristics, practices and possibilities involved in the co-creation of the public sphere between representatives and those being represented.

From the perspective of DemocracyOS's development team, these objectives translate into offering citizens equal opportunities to express their opinions publicly (so that all voices can be heard) and encouraging unrestricted, unlimited dialogue. In this way, especially through the inclusion of politically marginalized groups, we expect that the debate processes and the results of this type of public decision-making can gain legitimacy and breadth.

The development of DemocracyOS as a specific area for deliberation and online voting is thus an answer to the concerns about the how. To achieve its stated objectives of expanding participation and deliberation, DOS shapes its design through continuous iterations and consolidates itself as a clean design participation tool which prioritizes usability. From the outset, we analyzed the complexity of handling a lot of information (for example, draft bills) and we decided to simplify the presentation of these fields to the limit and to always promote a colloquial language and an intuitive design allowing citizens to quickly get used to the platform.

On the other hand, it is crucial that the new decision-making communities be aware of the existence of these citizen participation spaces – in order to innovate on the basis of inclusive and equitable criteria. Participation biases (as a result of historical privileges and the corresponding silence by certain groups) should be taken into account when rethinking the practices, so as to avoid the continuing representation of certain social groups to the detriment of others.

Participation biases should be taken into account when rethinking the practices, so as to avoid the continuing representation of certain social groups to the detriment of others.

From our perspective, there are no exclusive methodologies: there are political problems and optimal solutions that depend on the social, historical and technological moment in which we live. Today we count on the networks to delve into the opening of institutions, the opening of decision-making spaces, and the free circulation of knowledge. This is why we are taking the networks - because they serve the purpose of emancipation.

About the author

Ana Lis Rodríguez es licenciada en Antropología por la Universidad de Buenos Aires, Magíster en Desarrollo Humano de FLACSO-PNUD e investigadora en temáticas de género y participación ciudadana, es directora de investigación de Democracia en Red.

Ana Lis Rodríguez holds a Bachelor degree in Anthropology from the University of Buenos Aires and a Master degree in Human Development from FLACSO-UNDP. She does research on gender issues and citizen participation, and is Director of Research at Democracia en Red.


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