Digital Tools for Democratic Civic Empowerment
In the current political system, a population's voice is represented via a proxy delegate, while at the same time the tools of the internet are enabling individuals to represent themselves and participate in conversations previously only managed by these proxy representatives. As a result, the capacity to express issues is increasing while the satisfaction of expressing these issues through limited binary choices or reductionist proxies is decreasing. The system of representation via proxy is continually clashing with individuals who insist on representing themselves. The consequences of this clash between a proxy representation system and a global citizenship are current: the Occupy Movements, Indignados, the students in Chile, the Arab Spring, Gezi Park in Turkey, Brazil, 8N in Argentina, just to name a few examples of this crisis of representation. It no longer makes sense that the political system insists on excluding citizens from the conversations that matter, those where decisions are made that affect our lives. Note that those societies that are out on the streets are, in most cases, democracies. On closer inspection, most of these systems are majoritarian democracies, governments that take an electoral triumph as a blank check to do as they please. The challenge as a generation is to imagine how technology can be used to discuss and build new and participatory institutions for the 21st century.
Technology has a strong democratizing potential when it is put at the service of the citizens. It can develop new civic habits and accelerate the building of networks that amplify their reach in time and space. At the same time, it promotes a more inclusive, open and intelligent democracy based on collective wisdom and plural and diverse points of view. Citizens now have the opportunity to stop choosing between pre-set options and start designing those options. Thus, there is a need to move from agitation to construction; from protesting to institutional-building and from taking to the streets to taking part in meaningful discussions. The first step to deal with these challenges is access to information. In the city of Buenos Aires, the only way citizens can access the current state of projects is going personally to Congress. Digital access is only available for original or passed bills. The changes made in Commissions and the statuses of bills are not digitalized. A more active citizenship that participates in legislative debates needs clear, transparent, user-friendly access to the existing laws and the status of bills in Congress.
DemocracyOS is an open-source, free software that works on the most simple and intelligent way to deliberate online. DemocracyOS seeks to recover a robust public debate as a collective cause. It is designed to maximize interaction and debate, defies information hoarding and enables collective intelligence with an effective impact on the political system. It empowers citizens to bring about a more inclusive, collaborative, open and intelligent social system. It is the first system that builds a bridge between the two formal kinds of code known to man: digital software (the net) and the legal contractual system that currently operates most of the governmental processes. This is an innovation on its own that will enable the team working on this task to discover the most optimal path to modernize democracy as a system of representation.
DemocracyOS is designed for parliaments and other collective decision-making institutions. It allows citizens to get informed, join the conversation and vote how they want their representatives to vote. It is a hybrid between direct and representative democracy. Each citizen can either cast their vote or can delegate it on a trusted peer. A key goal of the application is to provide a very simple User Interface so it can be approached by anyone and focus on the key aspects for a Net Democracy to effectively emerge in any online context.
The system will represent the act of voting. The debate component includes: a description of the problem being deliberated or the bill currently in debate. It limits the issue in time (urgency) and geographical region (from neighborhood to globe).
Two key aspects of DemocracyOS that need to be developed and will significantly improve citizens’ access to information, non-governmental control capabilities, and accessible knowledge on each stage of the legislative process are:
- Bill-tracking allows citizens to track the current state of the bill. This component will add value to citizens’ access to information, since today online access is only granted to the original bill before it passes through commissions or the final project as it is being passed.
- DemocracyOS identified the need to develop a law markup language for legislative data (similar to HTML for hypertext documents). Legislative sources normally have different formats, PDF, DOC, even JPEG (images), which makes it very hard to extract, index and organize in a user friendly way (search engines, visualizations, etc.). Doing this is key to improve citizens’ participation in public debates and formulating opinions. This data structure will work as a standard that enables the incorporation of data compiled from legislative sources around the word. The goal is to build an LML to be read by DemocracyOS, as well as other apps that accept this open standard.
The source code and development activity of DemocracyOS can be found at github.com/democracyos.
There are three categories of beneficiaries of this project:
- The final beneficiaries are citizens of Argentina who will have a new tool to empower themselves as valid participants in public debates. Citizens will benefit from having an effective tool to control the changes their representatives make to legal bills while they go through the different commissions. This is now only possible if citizens present themselves in the City Council and ask for a copy of that information.
- Intermediate beneficiaries are NGOS who will be able to profit from this tool, especially those who act as legislative and corruption watchdogs.
- Developers and hacktivists around the world will profit from the law markup language as it will standardize data from legislative sources, making it easier to develop further applications, information visualization and other uses for this data.
In terms of the Rule of Law Index, the project will have an impact on the Absence of Corruption factor (2), in particular the sub-factor: “government officials in the legislative branch do not use public office for private gain.” Having better access to information and visualization of the bills passed in city council will improve the legislators’ accountability and civic watchdog capabilities. Argentina ranks particularly low (2.8) in this sub-factor. Secondly, this program will impact the Open Government Factor (3). It fosters engagement, access, participation and fluent collaboration between citizens and government with the end result of promoting accountability and improving the quality of decisions taken at the city-council level. Finally, this program impacts the Limited Government Factor (1): “government powers are subject to non-governmental checks”, by providing citizens and NGOS with a better tool to oversee the legislative process.
For the development of the bill-tracking component, DemocracyOS will work with the Modernization Director (Director de Modernización) of the City Council of the City of Buenos Aires. It will also consult with ACIJ (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia) and CIPPEC (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento).
Region:Latin America & Caribbean
Rule of Law Index Factors: Constraints on Government Powers (Factor 1), Absence of Corruption (Factor 2), Open Government (Factor 3), and Order and Security (Factor 5).
Issue Areas: Government, and Science and Technology.