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Interview with Pia Mancini of DemocracyOS
DemocracyOS promotes civic engagement on both sides
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In part one of my interview with Pia Mancini, a political activist, I investigated the technologies and background of DemocracyOS, a project aiming to become the operating system of choice for government workers. In part two of my interview with Mancini, she discusses the challenges DemocracyOS faces and how her organization, Democracia en Red, is working to overcome them.
What have been some of the challenges in developing DemocracyOS and getting governments and groups to adopt it?
Using DemocracyOS represents a challenge for any institution used to make decisions in the traditional way. It is designed for governments to open themselves up to citizen engagement, but power is usually conservative. But the biggest challenge is probably to fight against the presumption that citizens are naturally apathetic and shun commitment. Our challenge is cultural, not technological.
The government in your home country of Argentina has been a bit wary of DemocracyOS. Why do you think that is?
I wouldn’t say it’s been wary, but they were certainly not comfortable with the idea. Power is conservative, and those in power want to stay in power.
What DemocracyOS does is innovate in one of the few areas of our lives that Internet wasn’t affecting yet: politics. We are opening up an entrenched system and that naturally generates resistance.
Do you think you can persuade reluctant lawmakers to adopt, or consider adopting, Democracy OS?
One of the best things about DemocracyOS is that it’s simple to use and to understand.
So, the best way to persuade politicians to adopt it is to get them to know it. DemocracyOS reinforces and revitalizes the channel for dialogue between representatives and represented.
What is more persuading than that? Of course, the fact that The Net Party in Buenos Aires, which ran for elections with DemocracyOS as its decision making tool, and it’s surprising performance showed the political system the interest this idea generates.
What have you found to be the more troubling barriers to open government?
The three key concepts of open government are transparency, collaboration, and participation.
Probably one big barrier for participation is that the costs are too high. Even if information is now better distributed, the language of the system is cryptic. Regarding collaboration: if the political system insists in consulting every three or four years, we can safely say that decisions are not taken in a very collaborative way.
How difficult has it been to get people to use DemocracyOS?
It is more difficult to make people aware of DemocracyOS than it is to get them to use it. We have a great reception, but it is difficult to get many to know us because we’re not paying for advertising. But in our experience, it does not represent a problem for users to understand the way in which DemocracyOS works.
How does a tool like DemocracyOS help to promote both open government and citizen participation?
By giving citizens the opportunity to join the conversation and participate in the design of decisions that will affect them, DemocracyOS promotes civic engagement. On the other hand, it represents an effective vehicle for transferring the demands of society to the political system, so governments have now a tool that helps them know what citizens want periodically and the real possibility of translating citizen participation in public policy.
Your political party, the Net Democracy Party, advocates delegative democracy. How does Democracy OS promote and encourage that?
The delegation feature has not been built yet, but here’s how it will work: If someone feels they are not sufficiently informed to cast a vote on certain topic, he/she can choose another citizen as their proxy on a that particular topic. Proxy delegates are allowed to delegate their vote (and therefore those votes delegated to them) to someone else. They can always take back that delegation at any time.
A major component of DemocracyOS is transparency. People using it can't vote or interact anonymously. Why did you choose to do this, and what has the reaction to this decision been?
Freedom of expression and responsibility should be closely tied when it comes to public policy issues. There is a lot to say about anonymity and we understand it helps freedom of expression, but we decided to remember that there are people behind the computer and not androids. It fosters empathy and mutual respect.
We did not have any negative reactions to this.
What has the reaction to DemocracyOS from groups who have adopted it and from citizens using it?
The Spanish political party Podemos gave us very favorable feedback about DemocracyOS. They used it for internal decisions so in this case, the adopters and the users are the same people.
We’ve seen the reaction of citizens over time and we are happy to say that the tool has begun to function as expected, encouraging participation and discussion in a framework of respect.
The Mexican government had such a great team which did a very nice job using DemocracyOS to discuss their open data policy. Over a thousand citizens participated in the discussion, and we consider it a success. You can learn more about this at http://datos.gob.mx/ (the site is in Spanish).