Italy, a Test Lab for Participatory Democracy
BY Carola Frediani | Wednesday, November 6 2013
Online platforms for participatory democracy are flourishing in Italy and they are being initiated by civil society and local governments alike. Some of these tools are limited to 'social reporting,' where citizens are asked to recount problems and disruptions; others strive for empowering people with some sort of liquid democracy that allows people to debate and even propose legislation. But all of these platforms grew out of a deep dissatisfaction toward Italian politics and politicians, as shown by the high level of abstention in the 2013 national elections as well as the contemporary success of the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that suddenly became the second most popular in the parliament's lower house. In the last few years, the economic crisis, the corruption scandals and the governments' inability to make structural reforms — such as changing the current electoral law, which establishes a proportional voting system that does not allow citizens to vote directly for individual candidates — fueled anger as well as political will among the public to demand that government give them a say on all levels of decision-making.
Thus, despite the country’s low broadband penetration rate — 55 percent compared to a European average of 72 percent — Liquid Feedback has been trending in the Peninsula’s politics and media, particularly in the last year. Liquid Feedback is an open source platform that was launched a few years ago by the German Pirate Party in order to foster a more interactive democracy. It has been enthusiastically adopted by civil society groups, politicians within the Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement, and even by a T.V. talk show, Servizio Pubblico, that briefly used the platform to interact with its audience. The Liquid Feedback platform is only one of many; a variety of tools to enable bottom-up decision making are now being tested by local municipalities in Italy and being developed by small groups of volunteers.
“Right now Italy is a lab for participatory online platforms since there is a strong need to rebuild trust into politics and politicians,” Fiorella De Cindio, Associate Professor at the Computer and Information Science Department of the University of Milan and an expert on e-participation technologies, told techPresident.
The Five Star Movement, a grassroots initiative led by comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo, is the most vocal supporter of these new online participatory tools. The movement started in December 2012 by selecting candidates for parliament through an online voting process, selected among 1,400 activists who had to introduce themselves through a campaign video. It was an unprecedented move. However, only 31,612 activists registered to vote and, of those, only 20,252 actually voted. Moreover, Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, the co-founder and tech-master of the Five Star Movement, were accused of not submitting the online selection to independent verification.
In March 2013, the movement went on to hold online consultations to select their own presidential candidate and promised a more complete tool to allow members to participate. However, reflecting the party's own fragmentation, the Five Star Movement has been unable to focus on one single participatory project, and the national Liquid Feedback platform called for by activists and promised by Grillo never materialized, at least not as an official party project. As we'll later see, a few local Five Star groups have been boldly experimenting with different tools and philosophies.
Meanwhile, in January 2013, Laura Puppato, a senator of the Democratic Party, launched her own Liquid Feedback platform, Tu Parlamento. It allows any citizen to propose, comment and vote on policies and bills. The votes are not really binding, but Puppato and the other 14 parliamentarians who adhered to the initiative committed themselves to incorporate the bottom-up ideas put forth on the platform into their legislative activities. Around the same time, another Democratic politician, Umberto Ambrosoli, who ran unsuccessfully for president of the Lombardy region, adopted a Liquid Feedback platform to gather proposals during his campaign but later abandoned the tool.
Despite the bipartisan interest for the Liquid Feedback software originally developed by the German Pirates, other platforms have emerged. Just a few weeks ago, the Parma municipality, which is run by the Five Star Movement, decided to test Airesis, a tool that allows groups and communities to better organize and reach decisions. It was developed by an independent group of volunteers scattered across Italy. The municipality’s intent is to invite citizens to join the platform and allow them to discuss and vote on local issues.
“Airesis is not based on Liquid Feedback. Its code has been developed from scratch," Alessandro Rodi, a 27-year-old web developer who co-founded the project, explained to techPresident. “We want to build not just an online voting system, but a complete and flexible tool, where public discussion is helped through facilitators.”
I met Rodi during a unique workshop organized by the University of Milan called The Codes of Democracy. It was a dense gathering of coders and anti-establishment politicians, including Paolo Coppola, a lower house deputy for the Democratic Party, who a few years back launched an online platform to field citizen ideas and complaints within the Udine municipality where he was the Councillor of Innovation and e-Government at the time. Coppola has shown interest in the local implementation of Airesis and says he is studying the tool along with other parliamentarians.
Despite the proliferation of participatory democracy platforms, it’s not clear yet if any of them are working. De Cindio, who helped both Ambrosoli and Puppato build their own Liquid Feedback platforms, notes some shortcomings: “I think there are mainly two challenges: first, since there are many different platforms, we probably need to take the best from each one of them; secondly, politicians, even the ones who are willing to engage in these participatory experiments, must understand that they have to give up some of their power and control." Ambrosoli, for instance, only replied to 27 percent of the proposals selected by citizens through his own platform. After the end of his campaign, he appeared to have lost interest in these kinds of tools.
Among the many online platforms, the most radical ones are emerging from the Five Star Movement. A few weeks ago Grillo launched a web application to enable the party members to discuss the bills put forward by its parliamentarians. Users write comments and vote through a five star rating system which has already been criticized for being too simplistic. So far the application, bombastically labelled the Five Star operating system, is still in beta mode: only one bill has been uploaded. The application is open to the movement activists who registered before June 30 to participate on the platform. According to Italian journalist Fabio Chiusi, who has closely followed Five Star's online activities, it has drawn “a few tens of thousands" of users.
But the most revolutionary platform is coming from a local group of the Five Star Movement. Last July a branch of activists led by Lazio regional councilor Davide Barillari introduced Electronic Parliament, a Liquid Feedback-based platform which allows its users to write and vote on bills. Proposals that receive the most votes will be binding. The platform makes the users’ will sovereign, although three online expert commissions will be set up in order to assess technical, economic and constitutional feasibility.
“The commissions are made of activists randomly chosen among a pool of field experts,” Emanuele Sabetta, another Lazio regional councilor, told techPresident. “We wanted to overcome the old e-democracy problem of receiving proposals that are impossible to implement.”
However, the citizen users, and not the commissions, have the last word on the bills. The experts give their opinion and warn about possible technical problems, but users may decide to vote for the proposals nonetheless. Electronic Parliament is now in its beta phase: about one thousand users equipped with security tokens are testing it. By February 2014 the number of users should grow to about ten thousand.
“We have been contacted by many European groups working on direct democracy, such as Swedish Aktiv Demokrati, Icelandic Citizens Foundation and Spanish Movimiento 15-M,” says Sabetta. “Our idea is to found an NGO to promote e-democracy tools all over the world”.
The Electronic Parliament’s main challenge seems to be scalability. But to its credit, it is a platform that is truly based on the idea of transparency: from the open source software to the open vote system to the way the security is implemented and guaranteed. The fact that its decisions are binding avoids the risk of having them manipulated or frozen by politicians. The Electronic Parliament is probably the most radical experiment in direct democracy so far in Italy. Maybe it is too radical though. Even for Grillo and Casaleggio.
Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.
Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.