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In Utah, Participatory Democracy Powered by Loomio and NationBuilder

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, March 26 2015


Earlier this week, The People's Lobby launched their first participatory democracy experiment in Provo, a city of just over 115,000 people in north-central Utah. Incorporating tools from both Loomio and NationBuilder, the process is meant to foster increased community participation in city government.

“People don't feel like the government listens, and the government doesn't feel like the people talk,” says Jeff Swift, who began working on People's Lobby while studying digital media and communication at North Carolina State University. He published a paper on the concept in 2013, before receiving his PhD last year. The Provo People's Lobby is the first real-world test of the idea, which is meant to bridge the disconnect between people and their representatives, and counter the disillusionment on both sides.

First, using the NationBuilder platform, city residents are polled on the most pressing issues facing their community. (Jeff Swift is also a NationBuilder employee, but People's Lobby is an independent project of his.)

In the second stage, representatives of the community are selected from those who contributed in the first stage, and collectively the group chooses an issue to address in a policy recommendation to the city council. Using Loomio's decision-making platform, the representatives work together towards consensus and a recommendation.

The exact specifics will change from city to city, but Provo will have 34 participants, one from each city neighborhood. Selection is random but meant to be a diverse representation of the community. Per The People's Lobby website: "The group will be selected through stratified random sample governed by various demographic or geographic quotas as decided upon by local organizers."

Swift received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Brigham Young University, which is located in Provo. He used his connections in the area to get Provo's city council interested in the project, reaching out to city council member Hal Miller, on whose campaign Swift had previously worked. He also contacted Christopher Karpowitz, a professor of Political Science at BYU, who is interested in studying The People's Lobby.

To encourage fair and representative participation, Swift has enlisted two people (Christopher Karpowitz's research assistants, as a matter of fact) to act as moderators or facilitators during the second stage.

Explaining this decision, Swift observes that “people can do amazing things with technology, but the technology doesn't do it for them.”

Moderators will step in, for example, to encourage reticent or quiet participants to share their thoughts, or to point out that a point of contention is small and should be put in perspective. Loomio U.S. lead MJ Kaplan, who has a background in community organizing and in-person facilitation, will train them.

“We [at Loomio] think of moderators as really holding the space for diverse and inclusive participation,” Kaplan explained to techPresident. She added that it is important that the moderators are not coming from a position of power or authority.

There are still quite a few question marks when in comes to specifics. For example, Swift wants the process to be both transparent but protective of participants' privacy, in the case that a hot-button issue is taken up. His current plan is to run everything by the group of participants and receive their approval before publishing excerpts of the deliberative process or personally identifiable information (race, gender, or educational or financial backgrounds, to demonstrate diversity, for example).

For now, the use of Loomio and NationBuilder is being covered by an anonymous donor. But if the process is to continue the council will have to incorporate it into their budget. “Hopefully government will see the wisdom of [this project] and value it,” says Kaplan. Swift says that they still need to work out a payment package that scales depending on community size that could be used in future iterations.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Provo city council is paying for the use of Loomio and NationBuilder.