Grass Roots Democracy through Social Networking

Update 9/18: recently came across CitySourced (presentation).  A tool that helps people collaborate with the government.  Directly related.  Tim O’Reilley mentioned: Open311, FixMyStreet (in UK).  I liked Kevin Rose’s response suggesting actionable items that people can take themselves.


Spent several weeks ago with family…  very good times.  Had an interesting conversation with Garik and Lena about the state of politics in Russia, which tied in nicely with previous thoughts and discussions of government failure and how to deal with it.

The premise was that federal government is an entity that does not have serving its people as its primary goal.  This means that governing structures on both the federal and local levels are inefficient and do not function as they should – meaning that they do not provide services and represent/provide for those whom they “govern”.  That naturally leads to the question: if the government is not performing its function on the local level, can you enable self-governance?

For example, in Hawaii, there was an instance when a road + bridge needed repair due to mother nature (Full story on CNN) with the repair bill estimated at $4 million.  The government didn’t have the money to spend at the time, so the residents got together and fixed everything up in 8 days and, while to say it was done for “free” I think is naive, the total tab is significantly less than the estimated $4 million.  So what’s the moral of the story?  That people who stand to benefit from something directly are much better at getting things done.

So, whenever possible, we should strive to reduce bureaucracy and facilitate self-organization.

Assumption: the cost of self-organization, in the past, has been prohibitively high.  However, with internet gradually becoming ubiquitous, it may be possible to push people to organize themselves to perform functions necessary for a successful local operations.

All this might sound nice in theory, but what does this mean in practice? 

So what would be necessary to create a “social-network” originating grass-roots governance?  Well, the first thing that would be necessary is for everyone (majority) on the local level to agree on fundamental principles.  Then, once you have people’s attention, you would need to establish priorities for what needs to get done.  Then you need to identify action items and implement them.

In case of a local community in Russia, I would propose the following principles, which are the essential fabric of every democratic society.

  1. Freedom and Respect: Everybody is to be respected.  There will be disagreements, however no matter how different opinions may be, everybody has a right to voice their opinion.
  2. Transparency: unless otherwise agreed upon by a majority, everything is to be done in a completely transparent manner.

The purpose of (1) is to establish a framework where participants acknowledge that the organization will be ideologically multifaceted.  (2) is to prevent the standard problem in Russia of “steal and bring home”.

Then let’s take a hypothetical situation – what needs to get done:

  1. We need a new road
  2. We need a store that is closer to our location.
  3. We need stable electricity

Then everybody votes on their priorities and (3) is selected.  The action items may be:

  1. We need to purchase an electrical generator
  2. We need some place safe where we can place it without fear of it being stolen
  3. We need to run wires at specific locations

Once the plan is in place, execution can commence.  Purchasing requires people to put some money into a collective pool.  When people give contributions, the collective can accept or reject a contribution based on contribution size.  If someone is rich and gives too little in opinion of the majority, then they don’t get the benefit IF the local community is able to purchase the generator without the rich individual.  In the same manner, if a poor person is unable to give more than X, then the majority may agree to accept the poor individual based on a small contribution.  And individual may also compensate work-hours for monetary payment.

All this may smell suspiciously of communal living and, in a way, it is.  Except that it is communal living by choice rather than by force and it is communal in the sense of “local governing body collects taxes and provides services”, which is a model which is functional in every capitalist democracy – the only difference is higher transparency and socially-decided taxation.

Socially-decided taxation, by the way, I think is only necessary/possible in small local communities where there is trust among members.  When smaller communities will begin to interact with other smaller communities as units, I would imagine that the model would have to be far more rigorous.

The purpose of the discussed model is only to create a framework and to enable small local communities provide local services without having to rely on local government, which may be corrupt and/or grotesquely inefficient.

So what are the possible negative consequences?  Ignorance and mob mentality on a major scale…  How does one prevent this?  I don’t know.  I also don’t know whether this is a real danger or if it is something resembling the counter-arguments people gave when wikipedia and similar systems were suggested.  Having said that, I think once this is attempted in a small community, a lot of questions will be answered and more will be raised.  So, as Salva once said “There are things we know.  There are things we don’t know.  And then there are thing we don’t know we don’t know.  And it’s the third one that usually makes the most difference.”  (I am paraphrasing – Salva, my apologies if I got it wrong.)

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Filed under Ideas, Info Management, Politics

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