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draft proposal for a web site to facilitate the democratic process

This is a living document. Last updated 2011-10-04. Comments, critiques, offers to help, etc. welcome, as are pointers to sites that are already doing what I am proposing (and I don't think there are any, although there are sites that implement pieces of it).

Note: TBD == to be decided


premise:

Democracy can be defined separately from the structure of the government. It has generally been impractical for a large organization to employ a direct democracy in which all decisions are voted on by all of the people. It is tempting to think that the internet may theoretically allow this to change, but in reality I suspect there are too many decisions to make to allow people to effectively bote on all of them and live the rest of their lives. Anyway, democracy is defined as "rule by the people," so a society can be said to be democratic if the will of the people is reflected in the laws and structure of the society. However, talking about the will of the people only makes sense in so far as the people are informed about the issues at hand. For instance, I have read (source?) that most people think that we spend too much money on foreign aid and that people think that about 20% of our budget goes to foreign aid and it should be about 10%, yet less than 1% of our budget goes to foreign aid in reality. Thus, people cannot simultaneously want to cut foreign aid and want about 10% of our budget to go to foreign aid. I similarly wonder if asking "do you feel that our defense budget should be increased, decreased, or kept at its current level" would yield the same results as asking "would you support reducing our defense budget to twice the combined budget of China and Russia if it means reducing the national deficit?" Thus, polls cannot be relied on as an indicator of the will of the people, for instance, since peoples' wishes may be affected by the degree to which they are informed about the issues.

Therefore, facilitating democracy would seem to necessitate a two-prongued approach: facilitating the flow of accurate information and assisting in translating the will of the people into public policy. Facilitating the flow of accurate information would be done by providing forums to discuss various proposed pieces of legislation, and/or a wiki with talk pages as with Wikipedia. Integrating with Facebook and providing the option of posting activity as status items would also allow people to share their causes with their friends, hopefully encouraging them to take action as well. In order to translate the will of the people into public policy, we need to work with the systems and structures that are in place that affect public policy. We must keep in mind that this includes invisible structures. Civil unrest, direct action, etc. may have at least as much of an effect on public policy as calling or writing to congress will. Thus, we should not only facilitate calling and writing congress but also provide a way for people to enter local groups that are taking action on the issue, and users should see these groups depending on where they live. The site's function is to promote effective democracy, not to promote any particular ideology (aside from that of democracy). Finally, the site should be bottom-up; users themselves should decide what issues are important (as opposed to, for instance, being given a survey in which they select from a number of broad categories of things that are important to them from which the site administrators make decisions).

wiki

Each bill would have a wiki page, maybe using Mediawiki. A template would include a section for background information on the situation, a section for arguments in favor, and a section for arguments against. TBD: Should this structure be enforced/immutable? Arguments should be sourced with links to factual information, studies, etc. when possible. This would hopefully aid with transparency / allowing people to see who is doing the debating. If something is sourced from a group with a stake in the outcome of the issue, then this could be pointed out on the wiki. TBD: Is this even doable / how to prevent someone on one side of the issue from arbitrarily removing arguments of the other side? TODO: Research Wikipedia's policies.

forum

This would be a supplement to the wiki, where users could discuss things in a more free-form manner.

A person could post an argument for or against, and people could "like"/+1 the argument. (Vaguely similar to reddit?) Arguments would be presented in a view sorted by the number of likes. There would be another option to sort by date.

writing letters

  • Make this integrate with Facebook, so that, when people send a letter, it will optionally post a note in their status. Since many people often check facebook anyhow, this will automatically provide a way for them to see ways to take action. Also allow users to indicate if they call, hand-mail a letter, or generally have an easy way to share a link to the bill with a custom message.
  • Give people the option of making their letter public. People can then "like"/+1 the letter, and letters are provided to users as templates, in order of rank. Users can also write their own letter. I think it makes sense to only provide the option to share for users who write their own letters, to prevent many similar letters from being liked and affecting the numbers in a weird way. Having pre-written letters might be less effective than people writing their own letters (just a guess), but it would also make it easier, which would increase the number of people writing letters, so a tradeoff. Probably worth it since writing letters would also optionally post on Facebook, allowing people to make their friends aware of the cause and encourage them to take action.
  • Would be desirable in a sense to present the most-liked posts from the issue's forum when users are writing letters. This would give the user an opportunity to change his/her mind as a result of reading posts. TBD: Is there some way to guard against inaccurate information?

misc

When a user logs in, we may want to present a list of bills/issues that s/he may be concerned about. To do this, we could allow users to "like" an issue, and items would be ranked to some extent based on number of likes, but we could also correlate a user's past actions somehow to help guess as to what s/he may be interested in. The site could email people when the number of likes for a bill reaches a certain threshold.

We may want to allow people to write their own bills with in the system. To do this, we would first have a period for amendments. TODO: Research the way this is done in the US and other places. Once amendments have passed, users can indicate "support" for a bill. This could be used as leverage with politicians (TBD: Would need a way of ensuring that one person gets only one vote for this to be effective). The site could aid users through the political process. Ie, keep track of cosponsors, let people know who they need to call to ask to cosponsor or that it be moved out of committee, etc. This would be true for both existing bills and bills created within the system. Integration with thomas.loc.gov (for the US) would be desirable.

Would be desirable to partner with advocacy organizations. However, this site's mission is to promote the democratic process, and an advocacy organization is to advocate for change in a particular direction. These missions, while overlapping, are not the same and may conflict; a group may be reluctant to send users to a site that it does not control / that may have arguments contrary to their position, especially if said arguments may be inaccurate. That underscores the need to ensure that the wiki has accurate information, but how? On the other hand, it would benefit a group to advertise local events on the site; it could be a way that a user finds out about such events. For instance, s/he may see on Facebook that a friend took action, go to the site, and then learn of the event. Of course, this does not substitute for people publicizing events in other ways; it merely provides another channel by which users may learn of things through their normal flow of activity.

business model

TBD. TODO: Research model used by Wikipedia, democracyinaction.org, and anything else that we can think of. Placing ads would be an option, but I'm worried that this would lead to conflicts of interest or the appearance of such. If we took a controversial or misleading ad, then this could be seem as a negative and hurt the site's image. Same if we refused to take a controversial ad (ie, networks refusing to air particular ads during the Superbowl). Should maybe be a foundation but would still need to figure out sources of funding.

Comments

July 2014

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