Sunday, November 27, 2011
Delivering on the promise of democracy

Continued from The Three Pillars of Democracy

Open standards, open policy

In many ways, the political environment this creates has similarities to best practices developed over the past decades in the Open Source software community.

While policies of different communities and different regional levels need to be coordinated and harmonized to the point that they can coexist, such a three pillar system, together with the delegation of sovereignty and the principle of subsidiarity, provides no restrictions on the freedom of different communities to innovate with new ideas and follow their own bliss, entirely free of centralized control.

To the extent that different policies need to be compatible with each other, they will need to be negotiated within communities, between communities, and between different organizational layers to which authority has been delegated to. This harmonization process between the different entities will produce a multitude of consensuses that will effectively become a collection of open standards, developed at a certain level, and available for possible adaption by the more local entities.

Delivering on the promise of democracy

Non of what I've described is rocket science. Much of this is either already practiced to a large extent or is implied by the self-understanding of how the political system should work. In the case of Switzerland, as a result of the way the heritage and ideals of the old confederation were "marketed" to the Swiss citizens during the creation of modern Switzerland in the nineteenths century, and in many other places in the world, simply through the promise of democracy to be the means to define policies by the people for the people.

Evolving the Swiss system

Especially in Switzerland, all that is needed is a round of hardening of these principles, to solidify their real world implementation. Most notably, the consultation procedure offers an ideal opportunity for experimentation with different ways of institutionalizing the third, participatory pillar of democracy, finding the most effective ways to invoke participation and tap the collective wisdom of the people.

One opportunity in this regard certainly relates to further developing concepts and technologies for collective communication using the Internet, but offline gatherings of people have an important role to play in this as well. Certain forms of group facilitation can yield creative breakthrough consensus that we so far can not reproduce online.

Volksrat: The People's Council

While I've been experimenting with online concepts for collective communication since the early 1990s, I've followed the "offline work" of Jim Rough with great interest, originally in order to find ways of leveraging his Wisdom Council techniques for online tools, but I now think his ideas can be directly put to work as an important offline element for physical sessions of a People's Council in the context of the consultation procedure.

During the last few years, Manfred Hellrigl has in Vorarlberg started to apply these concepts in the spirit of what Jim Rough calls "creative insight councils". These experiments have yielded encouraging results, further evidence that this process can produce creative breakthrough results that are reflective of the consensus in general society.

For every People's Council session, the process would kick off by randomly selecting 12 to 25 citizens and inviting them to participate in a specific session, which could be of variable length, but would typically run for 2 days. The facilitation technique used during the session is geared towards creating an open minded and open hearted zone of thinking and talking, with solutions, concerns, data and problem-statements being collected thoroughly from each participant. In this way, the People Council can speak their minds and hearts, and achieve breakthroughs where unanimous conclusions naturally emerge. The People Council then creates consensus statements and presents these results to the public and the media. When the topic of a People's Council session was concerning a particular legal draft, the results also get submitted as feedback in the consultation procedure.

Beyond the context of the consultation procedure, there could also be sessions that are held without any predefined purpose or topic, with participants being entirely free to talk about what they think needs to be addressed. These open sessions could be held on a regular basis, with the public presentations of the consensus statements holding up a mirror to society and generating more collective consciousness.

At the most fundamental level, people council sessions could serve as a consensus factory, working on constantly evolving drafts of a totally revised constitution, from which parts or complete drafts can be moved forward for adaption in the form of initiatives. A perpetual revolution.

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If any of this sounds interesting to you, if you could imagine to help moving things forward in such a direction in Switzerland, or if you want to exchange ideas or collaborate in the context of similar changes in other places in the world, please get in touch with me or simply add yourself to this mailing list.