Book review: Crowdocracy, by Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus

Can America's two-party system evolve to crowdocracy?

"Crowdocracy" is an idea whose time may have come. Open principles are proof it can work.

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Since I've studied civics and governments, I've never thought a two-party system of elected officials in our executive and legislative branches was the best form of democracy. It worked for a time, but now it's time for change. In the United States, our representative democracy has become polarized and plagued with raising money for re-elections instead of focusing on the issues—issues that are largely influenced by lobbyist and corporate interests.

So when I read Crowdocracy: The End of Politics by Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus, I approached it in a spirit of exploration, trying to understand how concepts and values of open culture would fit into their proposal.

"Crowdocracy" is the idea that we can evolve current forms of democracy to end politics as we know them today. As the authors write:

Crowdocracy offers a radical new way forward, one that allows all of us – not just some of us – to participate in how we are governed. It offers a compelling examination of the contemporary relationships between people and politics. Crowdocracy suggests a new model for how people can decide their own future, create a new political landscape, and ultimately shape and govern their communities.

As I read, I was also curious about how ideas from The Open Organization (and open leadership thinking more generally) would come into play in a crowdocracy. I wasn't surprised when the authors first mentioned Linux as a "classic example of what's possible when the crowd is decentralized." Watkins and Stratenus argue that we have the technology and organizational skills to evolve democracy. And I see many of the concepts from open organizations fitting nicely into how we could organize citizen participation in government.

Let's first take a look at this evolution and see how the crowd could start addressing complex problems, problems that no one individual or organization can solve on their own. Then we'll see how participation in the crowd could be applied to government through the lens of open source and open culture.

Evolving democracy with more openness

The challenges humans face are getting more and more complex. We live in a world where no one person is smarter than the collective wisdom of a crowd. Crowdocracy embraces the idea that we need to evolve the current form of democracy to solve these complex challenges. As the authors say, "the current variant of democracy is no longer able to deal with today's challenges of complex and challenging global problems."

The world of open source has figured out how to organize people in a distributed way to create better technology using an open model. Look at projects like Linux, OpenStack, Wikipedia, and Drupal and see how they've solved the innovation problem. Each of these projects has grown more and more complex over time, building on the previous versions and emerging better able to tackle the problems we face today. They are also organized specifically to tackle the form challenges of the future will take.

But open communities typically don't rely on democracy in order to be successful; they tend to rely on a merit-based system. A inclusive meritocracy is one in which the best ideas rise to the top (where only the best code is accepted to an open source project, for example).

Can you imagine a system of government that would allow the best ideas to come from anyone in our society and become law, free from the influence of money and power?

Open organizations understand that the best ideas can come from anywhere—even outside your organization. That'd be a true form of governance for the people, by the people.

We often distinguish between democracy and meritocracy on that grounds that, in a meritocracy, not everyone gets a vote. Yet even in our representative democracy, citizens don't get a vote on each and every piece of legislation or decision. But this meritocratic governance works for open source communities, and it could work for government in the form of crowdocracy. It might be hard to imagine this, but the core principles of open source—transparency, participation, and collaboration—are already in use at various levels of American government. Crowdocracy allows these principles to work in concert with one another.

The keys: Participation and diversity

Participation in open source projects goes beyond code contributions. Successful projects include a diverse set of participants, from project managers to community managers, designers, marketers, writers, and many other roles that don't require coding skills. It's the invitation to participate and shared purpose that make open source projects so enticing and inviting. Those same ideals can work for government.

Many open source projects start with a single person making top-level decisions, commonly known as a benevolent dictatorship. Then projects reach a certain point where they grow beyond the control of their benevolent dictators. Projects will instead rely on several maintainers or project leads with defined decision-making procedures. In our current democracy, this would be the equivalent of an elected official. So how do we evolve?

I think the concept of a benevolent dictatorship is where we stand with democracy today, and it's time to move beyond this form of governance.

I no longer want an elected official representing me. I want a better way to participate in creating, modifying, and removing laws that affect me and my community. I want to vote on the outcome, a true vote—from me and from my neighbors—and I don't want to rely on a representative who may or may not share my beliefs or understand the nuances of my community.

If you dip into Crowdocracy, you'll see how the authors propose ways of creating and modifying laws that foster more engagement. The process moves beyond direct democracy, because citizens actually have a way to shape the laws, craft them, and debate them. Examples in the book walk you through how citizens could propose an idea, then leave it open for further shaping and vetting. Once it reaches a certain threshold, it then goes out for public comment and voting. Elected officials don't exist anymore, but those public servants take on a new role to guide citizens through the process, free from the spoils of campaign commitments and fundraising.

For both open source and open government, the power of participation has many benefits. The one that stands out to me is the buy-in you get with co-creation. The authors describe this benefit this way: "This participation would also increase the legitimacy of governance, because people tend to believe in and support what they have a hand in creating."

From an open organization perspective, I've learned that people are more accepting of a decision that's been made if they had an opportunity to participate and understand how the decisions are being made. They are more likely to be engaged in the process and even more understanding of final decision, even if they don't agree with it.

Casting your vote

Crowdocracy offers the promise of true participation in government with a collaborative process based on the concepts and value of the open source model. If we can build software and create amazing technology in an open and transparent fashion, then why can't we govern ourselves and collaborate to solve some of the toughest challenges we face today?

We're already seeing the ideas of Crowdocracy play out in some countries. Although it stalled, the movement in Iceland to crowdsource the rewriting of their constitution was a huge milestone for open government. It's one of the best examples of how Crowdocracy might work, but with the reality that current leadership was unwilling to relinquish power.

And that's the greatest challenge I think we'll see: the current regime not willing to let open win in favor of the crowd. Maybe crowdocracy can find a few small wins and begin to catch on as the next evolution of government. Or maybe it's just a concept in a book, and the world will be satisfied with what we have today. Open is a better way, and I hope crowdocracy gets a fair chance.

About the author

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets - Jason Hibbets is a senior community architect at Red Hat which means he is a mash-up of a community manager and project manager. His current role involves building community interest for #EnableSysadmin--a watering hole for system administrators. He is the author of The foundation for an open source city and has been with Red Hat since 2003. Follow him...