Tom Atlee: DemocracyOS and Public Wisdom

Access, Crowd-Sourcing, Governance, Transparency
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Dear Ana Lis,

It was great to meet you, to talk for hours with enthusiasm and humor, and to establish a connection with Argentina's DemocracyOS movement.  (For the info of those on the To and Cc list above who are not familiar with DemocracyOS  it is a grassroots open source system in Argentina for online proposals, discussion, and voting on legislation.  It is connected to a separate political party – the Net Party  – which runs candidates committed to voting on legislation according to what citizens decide on DemocracyOS.  Both DemocracyOS and the Net Party have some parallels elsewhere in the world and are themselves spreading their memes to other places.)

As we discussed, developing the capacity for online discussion and voting – which DemocracyOS seems to be doing well – is a necessary but not sufficient resource for democratic *wisdom* to emerge and be empowered.

My research on collective intelligence and wisdom in democratic systems suggests that a primary principle for the generation of wise decisions is to creatively include a relevant diversity of perspectives and people who bring to the conversation diverse facets of the larger picture that needs to be taken into account for any resulting decision to adequately address the full spectrum of needs held by the lives and systems that are involved in or will be impacted by the decision.

This has two primary parts:  (1) including such people and perspectives in the conversation and (2) using conversational processes which assist those people in using their diversity creatively (instead of adversarially).

So I see two opportunities, in particular, for DemocracyOS to evolve in a wisdom-generating direction:
1.  Incentivize the inclusion of diverse citizens
2.  Upgrade the capacity to generate consensus proposals from that diversity

I don't have certainty about how to do this online, but I do have some thoughts to offer from my experiences both online and in face-to-face deliberative processes, that may stimulate DemocracyOS programmers and site developers to craft some experiments to test.

1.  DIVERSITY:  In many online environments participation is incentivized by a system of reputational points or credits that users earn by engaging in specific behaviors that make that particular online environment more vibrant, productive, and/or profitable.  DemocracyOS – or a parallel system integrated with DemocracyOS – could give participants reputational points for recruiting into the system people different from them in political orientation and any other demographic criteria (e.g., class, race, gender, district, etc.) which DemocracyOS wishes to draw into its participatory activities.  (This would entail participants identifying their demographic categories when they register.)  Users could also get reputational points by being part of a group of proven diversity who produce “transpartisan” consensus policy recommendations (although such recommendations can also – or alternatively – be validated by being given privileged visibility in the ecosystem of recommendations).  Users could also get reputational points by taking actions that help other users and groups move productively towards consensus.  Having certain amounts of reputational points could trigger a user's achievement of certain named statuses that grant particular special rights or simply recognition as special.

2.  WISDOM PROCESS:  In the most potent face-to-face decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict-resolving processes I know, one of the most important factors in moving towards consensus or shared realization is participants being heard, respected and taken seriously.  The experience that who we are and what we think, feel, and say are understood and matter to those around us frees us from feelings of isolation (with all the associated defensive and offensive urges) and draws us into the flow of interaction with our peers.  This openness, in turn, draws from us our particular pieces of the larger picture that needs to be understood and addressed in order for a wise decision to be made, a wise solution to be found, or a wise resolution to emerge.

In face-to-face interactions, the most potent form this takes is empathic reflective listening, through which facilitators or fellow participants ensure that all participant have the opportunity to express themselves and then make a good-faith effort to say back to each speaker the essence of what they said, checking to see if they got it right, until the speaker feels well heard.  I don't think this is possible online except through a well-structured audio or video conferencing system.  In the predominantly written interactions used in systems like DemocracyOS, some other form of this dynamic needs to be found.

I see a key alternative which exists more in the realm of content than process:  From my observation, the most powerful factor leading to wise consensus is creatively addressing concerns people have about what is being proposed.  To explore the dynamics of this, I'd like to briefly examine how it plays out in three particularly powerful processes.

In the best forms of traditional consensus process, as an agreement seems to be emerging, the facilitator will not call for a vote, but will state what that emerging agreement seems to be and ask “Are there any concerns about this?”  In a healthy consensus group, this is seen as a moment for each member to really reflect and to come up with any concerns they may have because those concerns are usually tied to something that really ought to be taken into account when making the final decision.  Any concern is then taken up by the group in an effort to find a revised or reframed solution that will address it.  The process repeats until no more concerns are expressed, which indicates consensus has been reached.  (In some cases, where only one or a few people in a group have a concern that doesn't seem to be readily resolved, the dissenters will “stand aside”, meaning the supermajority resolution can move forward in a way that does not require their participation or endorsement, often with the larger group's reluctant acknowledgment that they have arrived at a less-than-fully-satisfactory – if necessary – decision.)

In Dynamic Facilitation (DF), any participant's expression of disagreement with or antagonism to what another participant has said is met by the facilitator with energetic curiosity communicated by the authentic inquiry, “What's your concern?”  When the upset person describes their concern, the facilitator reflects it back (as in empathic reflective listening, above), writes it on a chart pad (where all “concerns” are being recorded) and then asks “What do you think should be done about that?” and reflects and records the speaker's answers.  (That is only one part of DF, but it is a key part, and happens whenever disagreement or antagonism show up.)  Unlike in consensus process, the concern is not addressed in a direct linear way, but it is acknowledged as a legitimate part of the larger picture and a creative solution-oriented attitude towards it is encouraged by the facilitator – specifically on the part of the person with the concern and more generally by the whole group who are witnessing the growing list of concerns and participating in the increasingly creative group dynamics that surface as they begin to appreciate the big picture that's emerging – dynamics which ultimately lead to a breakthrough.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) does not explicitly ask for or address concerns, but it carefully attends to that realm embraced by the term “concerns” in Dynamic Facilitation and consensus process, and adds a valuable dimension.  NVC addresses the dissonances – conflicts, upsets, problems, etc. – which show up in an individual and between people (and, more recently, in a group or organization).  Using empathic reflective listening, the negative emotions associated with the dissonance are heard and acknowledged and then the underlying unmet need or needs which triggered those emotions are identified, explored and acknowledged.  When the people involved are clear about what needs are involved, they seek new and better ways to meet those needs – satisfiers or strategies – that are less likely to lead to frustration or, in the case of a conflict, which are more likely to meet the needs of all involved.

Reflecting on these diverse process dynamics, I wonder if an online participatory wisdom-generating system could be built that, in addition to rigorously seeking diverse people and perspectives, utilizes the expression, clarification, and addressing of concerns as a fundamental operating principle.  I imagine this being embodied in a parallel system to DemocracyOS (perhaps WiseDemocracyOS) made up of citizens who commit to seeking diversity and using it creatively to achieve wiser decisions by addressing each other's concerns.  (The name of that network might be Union of Concerned Citizens, where “union” expresses the intention to bring diverse people together to generate creative consensus and “concerned” expresses both their concern for their community and country and their commitment to understand and address the concerns of their fellows citizens.)

The energy of such an enterprise would not be the quasi-rationalistic and adversarial energy of debate and discussion, but of co-creative problem solving.  What shows up in most political discourse as pros and cons (seeking to convince others to support or defeat a proposal) would show up here as concerns and authentic efforts to address those concerns.  Therefore, the more difficult it seems to address a concern, the more community status (and/or reputational points) would be earned by someone(s) helping to resolve it.  Here is where NVC's insight into addressing underlying needs could play a major role – either by having the need-identification built into the software and/or by having NVC-trained people gain status by generating breakthroughs that earn them appreciative votes from the WiseDemocracyOS community.  Regardless, any online system for addressing needs to help resolve concerns should be designed with participation from sophisticated NVC practitioners like Miki Kashtan and John Abbe (cc'd above) or others.

I imagine that the concern-addressing system would have a branching structure.  If someone has a concern, it creates another branch.  If and when the concern is resolved, that is indicated in some way, perhaps by a change in the color code (from red to green?) at the portal for working on that concern.  It would be common for someone to be concerned about a proposed solution to a concern; this would create a further branching in the discourse.  Participants might also vote on whether they shared the concern, how important they considered it for a wise solution, and how well they think it has been addressed. (Although we need to realize that this risks falling into majoritarian dismissal of minority concerns – which could undermine the system's wisdom-generating power.  However, there could be ways to decide to stop at 80 or 90% diversity-weighted support for a proposal if the discourse on it has not resolved all concerns within a particular time frame, just to keep things practical.)

Once concerns about a proposal have been addressed (adequately; according to whatever standards are established by the system or the participating online community) – and the proposal has evolved thereby (sometimes into a totally different proposal) – that proposal would be fed into the existing DemocracyOS system for consideration (among other proposals for dealing with the relevant issue) – perhaps with special status (granted because of its special efforts attempting wise consensus) or not (so that it has to prove itself as a peer proposal in the debate-based political world).

The intention here is not to replace DemocracyOS, but to add something that will increase the likelihood that the DemocracyOS system will generate truly wise public policy rather than just majoritarian decisions among self-selected (and to some extent often homogenous) people.

Finally, I want to note a resource that could be used in a variety of places in such a system:, or some comparable co-creative evaluation and prioritization system.  The CoDigital process starts with an inquiry, such as “What should be our policy on GMO crops?”  Participants propose solutions or answers (limited, I think, to Tweet-length; they could also be active links leading to further information, although I don't know if CoDigital offers that functionality) which accumulate in a list of such solutions or answers (let's call them “options” here).  The software then offers participants/visitors two of those options at a time, asking for their preference (according to best, or most wise, or whatever).  Once answered, CoDigital presents them with another paired choice.  The process repeats with new choices each time, with CoDigital digesting and integrating their votes into an evolving list prioritized in this way by all participants.  I think the options offered are chosen randomly by the software, with possible preference for more recently posted options (so they get adequate comparisons with their earlier cousins); if not, I believe the system SHOULD work that way.  CoDigital also offers participants a chance to edit any of the options (the idea being to make it clearer or fuller rather than to make it into something entirely different) and then treats the different versions the same way it treats different options: participants vote on them in pairs.

I see CoDigital (or its open source equivalent) possibly being used wherever voting is used in the DemocracyOS systems but where (a) user participation is desired to create options and/or (b) there are too many options for late or lower-ranked options to be fairly considered by late-coming voters.  HOWEVER, the use of ANY voting system runs the risk of dismissing minority viewpoints.  This may be workable for ordinary majoritarian systems, but it is contraindicated for any system seeking true inclusivity and/or wisdom.

Do you like the general inquiry/intention underlying this proposal?  If so, what concerns do you have about this particular proposal?  And what creative ideas do you have for addressing those concerns?  Or what totally different proposal would you offer to address the intention of bringing more inclusive, wiser solutions into political discourse?


With tremendous respect and affection and appreciation for the work that you do and the transformational openness with which you do it…



Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
“Engaging the wisdom and resources of the whole for the well-being of the whole”
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