An open space for global conversation
Calls for direct democracy have recently become a lot more prevalent around the world in the context of the Arab Spring, Los Indignados and Occupy Wall Street movements. This begs the question, how direct democracy would practically work, not only on a local but also a national and international scope. Popular wisdom seems to be that electronic voting could be the silver bullet that would make this possible. However, not only is it hard to trust electronic voting whenever a secret ballot is required, but there is a lot more to making direct democracy work on that scale than simply dealing with the efficiency of counting votes.
In Switzerland, direct democracy has a long history, longer than the Swiss confederation itself, with some direct democracy roots going back over 1000 years. For the past 20 years, the Forum for Direct Democracy has been advocating the importance of preserving these aspects of the Swiss political system, and it is the only center-left movement with the objective of preventing Switzerland from joining the EEA and the EU, arguing from a direct-democratic, ecological and social perspective. Based on discussions I've had with fellow members of the Forum for Direct Democracy over the last few years, I would like to share some thoughts relating to how modern democracy in Switzerland in my opinion has yielded some additional institutional concepts, which are essential to its functioning. Extrapolating from that, I'm suggesting a direction for potential improvements to our system, which maybe should be taken into account from the beginning, when attempting to introduce more direct democracy elsewhere in the world. Consequently, what I am describing here is an entangled mixture of the current status quo and where I think we could be taking this with relatively minor effort.
Sovereignty and subsidiarity
Who makes the rules and enforces them is sovereign. Direct democracy is about the legislative decisions, the rules, being made by the people for the people.
The people that are affected by the rules should be deciding which rules need to be defined in that affected group. Rules that affect only a small group should be defined by consensus in that small group. For legislation that affects a larger group the consensus needs to be developed in that larger group. This is the essence of the Principal of Subsidiarity, which implies that authority should be with the most decentralized entity possible and more centralized entities should primarily support the decentralized ones.
Delegating authority from the most central to more decentralized entities makes subsidiarity a farce, since it implies ultimate central authority. If authority is to be with the most decentralized entity possible, as the principle of subsidiarity implies, then the authority can not be selectively delegated from a central entity. Instead it is to be delegated selectively from the most decentralized entity to more centralized entities.
In other words, the people are only free in a sovereign state, if that sovereignty is unconditionally delegated to the individual people, and the people maintain a consensus on what authority they give to the communities they belong to. The communities in turn delegate some authority to larger entities, and to the state, which as a result only exists because it is willed to exist by the people. The simple motivation for the people to provide such entities with authority is for the security one gets in return, in the form of solidarity and sustainability.
The state as a purely abstract concept
With the delegation of the sovereignty to the individuals, the state only continues to exist as an abstract concept towards the outside. The state is the entity that external powers respect as having sovereignty over a particular territory. With sovereignty delegated to the people, the state merely describes the conceptual borderline from which the sovereignty is delegated. For all practical purposes, if all the people of the world would be sovereign, there would be no state.
Free association to multiple communities
Communities are not necessarily always bound to a specific geographic territory. Multiple communities can share responsibilities or have separate responsibilities in the same territory or in overlapping territories, or even not be bound to a specific territory. In any case, all individuals should effectively be able to join any community they wish as an equal member, essentially without any preconditions.
Democracy is incompatible with centralized power
Rules are meaningless, if they cannot be enforced, and perhaps more importantly, the absence of a rule is just as meaningless, if it's enforcement can not be prevented. While the people may be able to delegate the enforcement of rules, the people must always be able to resist any unauthorized enforcement of rules on them. Effectively, this means that any police and military power needs to be as decentralized as the policy making. To be sovereign, the people must always have dissuasive power against any form of suppression.
Direct democracy: The people's power to mandate and veto
In the context of how sovereignty is delegated to the people and how the people grant authority to larger entities following the principle of subsidiarity, direct democracy becomes an insurance policy, that every entity which is receiving authority has to grant to its people, as a minimal guarantee that the granted authority will not be abused.
Direct democracy can only provide the people with an brut force instrument for correcting the direction and maintaining ultimate control. It does not provide sufficient fine grained control over the high volume work of drafting and applying legislation, nor does it ensure that issues are appropriately deliberated before new legislation is created and decisions are made.
Representative democracy: The people's meritocratic secretariat
The mountain of work that is today's legislative process is something that the people need to be able to delegate to a group of volunteers, willing to labor over legal drafts with more dedication than the average citizen. That is the role of representative democracy. The people elect their representatives based on merit, with a motivation of efficiency and feeling represented in the best possible way. To the extent that these representatives do not directly draft legislation themselves, they, by choosing the executive branch, select the experts that do, and are responsible for their oversight.
The ability for the people to meritocraticly empower certain individuals to get heavily involved in overseeing the creation and application of legislation is not to be underestimated. When integrated into a framework with direct democractic control the way I am describing it here, representative democracy becomes a sandbox for leaders. They can do their good, but they can do no harm. The representative aspect of democracy is important, but has relatively little actual political power. In a sense, it merely provides the direct and the participatory pillars of democracy with administrative support.
Participatory democracy: The people's collective wisdom
On a large scale, such as a state or national level, where people can no longer meet all together to discuss the issues and vote, direct democracy can only work efficiently inside a framework that ensures issues are widely discussed by both experts and the general public and that these perspectives are taken into account before any proposals for new legislation come to a popular vote. Direct democracy requires a surrounding framework of a fine tuned political system, grinding political issues towards a consensus where all qualified minorities refrain from using their de facto veto power. With the ability to collect signatures in order to block a proposal and require it to go to a popular vote, even a relatively small minority of the people will often be able to mobilize the sympathy of the majority of the people that actually go and cast their ballot, getting the solidarity required to block new legislation.
In other words, if minority views and sentiments of the people are not taken into account when considering new legislation, the proposal will likely be vetoed into thin air in a referendum, after it has successfully passed through the entire legislative process of the federal government, the commissions, and the two chambers of parliament. This threat of potentially destroying years of work forces the legislative process to make all the efforts to attentively listen to what the people want from the very outset, and to carefully consider all minority views. Without such a practice, the direct democratic controls would bring the entire system to a grinding halt. Direct democracy, by making public participation in the early process a manditory requirement in this way, becomes the enabler of participatory democracy. The history of the consultation procedure in the swiss system illustrates this perfectly.
Relative to Switzerland's long history of democracy, the consultation procedure has only recently evolved out of pure necessity over the past century. However, it could become the most essential pillar of democracy, with the other two, representative and direct democracy merely ensuring efficiency and control.
During the 20th century in Switzerland, the threat of a qualified minority being able to potentially kill new legislation after it has been drafted and revised for often many years in the legislative process, has forced the government to listen to minority input early on during the process, submitting drafts for public consultation and revising them based on the obtained feedback, in order to avoid a referendum or to increase the chance of new legislation to survive a referendum and be approved in a popular vote. This process has become known as the "consultation procedure" and had become common practice many decades ago, before that there ever was a formal legal requirement for it.
At the end of the twenties century the Swiss constitution was rewritten from scratch, basically a complete cleanup of it's language without changing it's meaning, bringing its text inline with the legal practice of how it was interpreted. As part of this total revision, passed by popular vote in 1999 and in force since January 1, 2000, the consultation procedure has formally become a binding part of the legislative process, with its own article in the constitution: "Art. 147 Consultation procedure: The Cantons, the political parties and interested groups shall be invited to express their views when preparing important legislation or other projects of substantial impact as well as in relation to significant international treaties."
Since 2005, when a new law and detailed regulations on the workings of the consultation procedure went into force, the draft legislation and supporting expert documentation effectively became public record and all citizens are invited to provide feedback as part of this process.
As it stands, the consultation procedure can be taken to provide the ideal platform to plug a much more sophisticated system of participatory democracy into the Swiss system, offering ample room for new innovations and solidifying this three pillar system.
Three pillars, resulting in scalable, deliberative democracy
Direct democracy, representative democracy, and participatory democracy together form a balanced and scalable system of deliberative democracy. Direct democracy and representative democracy primarily providing a stable infrastructure, with participative democracy being responsible for shaping the quality of its output. While the two other pillars must be carefully designed and enforced, participative democracy can be more freely experimented with and can be continuously re-adjusted and organized much more flexibly.
Due to its decentralized structure and stability, such a system provides vast opportunities for innovation, where new ideas can be locally experimented with, good ideas can spread, mistakes can be absorbed and lessons learned.
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 predifined 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.