“It’s time to massively distribute access to decision-making”
Without the Internet (obviously!) and without tools such as online cloud storage or task management softwares, distributed communities such as OuiShare could easily not exist at all. The Internet is an unprecedented tool for discussion, but there is still one thing at which it is incredibly bad: enabling collaborative decision-making. I discussed this issue with Ben Knight, one of the guys behind Loomio, a software born out of the Occupy movement whose main goal is to tackle this issue.
Can you tell us the story behind Loomio?
Ben Knight. The easiest thing is to replay the experience of the last two years in my mind, so here’s a fast-forward version of how we got from there to here!
My background is in academia, researching the evolution of collective intelligence. Somehow I ended up stationed in Texas, teaching chimpanzees to use touch screens. But seeing how rapidly things are going wrong on a global scale environmentally, economically, and politically, I got very frustrated with the painfully slow pace of translating academic research into real-world positive change. So I came back to New Zealand and got involved in community organising and social justice activism. When the Occupy movement happened in 2011, I got heavily involved, along with several hundred other amazing folks in Wellington. Seeing collective decision-making on a large scale was one of the most empowering and inspiring experiences of my life – where everyone can share their perspective on equal footing, and groups come to better decisions than any individual would on their own. That form of horizontal social organising just seemed to hold so much potential – and knowing that it was happening in many hundreds of cities around the world at the same time really felt like a global shift in what was possible. But we also saw the crushing limitations of in-person consensus decision-making, and it’s effect on a social group over time. When the loudest voices dominate the discussion and meetings last for many hours with nothing decided – and the inherent limitations that come with needing to be in the same place at the same time are enough to exclude most people from the process. So a bunch of us there had the same thought that people in Occupy camps all over the world were having at the same time – if the Internet does one thing well, it’s getting around the constraints of time and place, so surely we could put together a simple online tool to capture the empowering upside of collective decision-making while circumventing the limitations. Thinking back, we were in a total fantasy-land – we thought it would take us about a week to build it – then we could open-source it, put it out into the ether and the Internet would build it for us! That’s how open-source works right!? Luckily we encountered an amazing tech-focused social change hub called Enspiral, who had their feet firmly on the ground. They’re a horizontally organised network of about 150 people focused on scalable change through technology and social enterprise. Through the Enspiral network, the project reached people who had identified the same challenge in totally different contexts – reducing the cost of participatory decision-making in large community organisations, in business, in grassroots activism, and in open-source software development. An incredible team assembled around the idea and started building. Eighteen months on, we’ve got a fully functional prototype that’s being used by several thousand extremely diverse groups in 72 countries (now in 20 languages!), from social movements to government departments to schools and neighbourhood groups. Right now Loomio is optimised for groups of up to a few hundred people, which we chose as our starting point – helping relatively small groups with a clear shared purpose get shit done together. Our main focus has been building a tool that’s as flexible and adaptive as possible, so over time we can scale up to larger groups and more complex types of decision-making. People have done some amazing things with the prototype in the last few months – from government departments using it for stakeholder consultation about opengov, right through to the student protest movement that occupied the parliament building in Taiwan for three weeks earlier this month. And a constant flow of food co-ops, community garden networks, alternative economies groups, residents’ associations etc, using it as a daily work tool.
What is the typical decision-making process on the platform?
B. K. In one sense the process is all quite straightforward, and it’s crazy that a tool like this doesn’t already exist. Basically, it’s the way that well-functioning collaborative groups and teams already make decisions together every day, but shifted online. This is how we describe the essence of the process:
1. Talk things through
Start a discussion on any topic, and bring in the right people. Share diverse perspectives and develop ideas together.
2. Build agreement
Anyone can propose a course of action. People can agree, abstain, disagree, or block – so you can see how everyone feels, and why.
3. Decide together
Develop the proposal together so that it works for everyone. Every decision has a clear deadline, so you always get a clear outcome.
Our intention for Loomio is that it’s relatively ‘agnostic’. This means that it doesn’t have really strong opinions about how you should make decisions. Having said that, at a high level, there are principles that we’ve optimised the design for – things like making it easy to include a diversity of perspectives, decentralising power, balancing individual autonomy with collective purpose, etc. All those things are obviously features of culture rather than technology – we see our role as providing a neutral online space for these cultural processes to emerge. The key is to match high autonomy with high communication. When people have the freedom to follow their initiative, they tend to expand their horizons and take a holistic view of the project. So long as everyone has enough information, this dynamic process tends to be self-organising and coherent.
When people have the freedom to follow their initiative, they tend to expand their horizons and take a holistic view of the project
Generally, a discussion will start at a stage of divergence, where people share diverse perspectives and bounce around ideas, followed by convergence as shared understanding and agreement build around a clear course of action. This is the critical difference between Loomio and other tools for online communication like email and social media – it’s purpose-built for bringing online discussion to a clear outcome.
One of the most common criticism addressed to the Occupy movement is the lack of leadership. When we pointed that out to David Graeber a few months ago, he laughed and answered : “But we had lots of leaders in Occupy Wall Street: over 100 000!” What’s your take on that? How would things have been different at Occupy if something like Loomio was available?
B. K. I think Mr Graeber is absolutely right! Which is unsurprising considering he’s given so much of the most insightful commentary and analysis of the movement. When people say ‘leadership’, I think they’re usually talking about two things: coordination, and motivation. ‘Good leaders’ are people capable of coordinating large numbers of people, and motivating them around a shared purpose – and really good leaders manage to do this without coercion or domination.
But if we can achieve coordination and motivation in a decentralised way, it’s far more powerful! In my mind it just makes so much more sense to talk about leadership as an act, which is sometimes consistently performed by one person, but in well-functioning groups is exhibited by different people at different times.
I think (and hope) we’ve moved beyond the idea that leadership should be centralised in one person or a small group of people
I think (and hope) we’ve moved beyond the idea that leadership should be centralised in one person or a small group of people, a mentality that so often stifles other people who would otherwise be directly participating in the motivation and coordination of the group.
Still, the idea that centralized leadership – though unfair most of the time – is the most efficient way to take decision seems deeply embedded within our collective mind… How can technology tackle this issue? How can we challenge this belief?
B. K. I think the critical role technology can play is in bringing down the cost of socially beneficial behaviours. When the best way of doing things is also the easiest way of doing things, that’s when you get seriously large-scale positive change.
The internet has dropped the cost of transacting information right through the floor – but translating that shared information into agreed action is still really expensive/hard. You see this is massively distributed social movements, where hundreds of thousands of people can be mobilised in a matter of hours – but translating that mobilised energy into sustained constructive action is something technology hasn’t cracked yet. To me, that’s the urgent challenge.
The internet has dropped the cost of transacting information right through the floor – but translating that shared information into agreed action is still really expensive/hard
In this case, bringing down the barriers to building shared understanding around an agreed action is the key leverage point to scaling up our capacity to collaborate on a huge scale. Over the last 150 years, we’ve massively distributed access to information – now it’s time to massively distribute access to decision-making.
Democracy, on the other side, is far from being perfect. Here at OuiShare, we usually seek consensus rather than majority: majority votes tend to generate compromises – not always the optimal decisions – and you can end up with 49% of your community dissatisfied with the final decision. How do Loomio deal with this problem?
B. K. Absolutely agree that majority-rules voting is a woefully inadequate way to make decisions. I feel like we should treat it as an absolute last resort. Think about the way a well-functioning team or social group makes decisions – when you’re out with your friends and you need to make a decision about where to go to eat or what movie to watch, generally there’s just an informal consensus process – you might throw around a few ideas then someone will make a suggestion people approve of, and unless there’s any serious objections, you just go with it. The only reason you need to resort to a vote is if there are very strongly competing interests that can’t be resolved by dialog – but that’s not the norm.
For some reason we’ve made the worst-case scenario the norm in everything we do in politics – so of course our politicians are hopeless! We’ve put them into a framework that’s inherently oppositional, and that treats decision-making influence, or democracy, as a scarce resource.
For some reason we’ve made the worst-case scenario the norm in everything we do in politics – so of course our politicians are hopeless!
By distributing decision-making, democracy all of a sudden becomes abundant – something we can all share in, rather than trying to monopolise it, or grab as much of it as we can at the expense of everyone else. I guess the way we deal with this in Loomio is by providing a framework that makes consensus easy. We don’t want to force people into a consensus model if it’s not appropriate for their group, but the whole mechanism is designed to gently nudge people towards it.
Most groups using Loomio don’t use strict consensus – they tend to use a fairly rough and ready process – we broadly refer to the typical Loomio process as ‘collaborative decision-making’, recognising that consensus is appropriate for some groups and some decisions, but not others. Treat consensus as a tool rather than an end it itself – meet people where they’re at. We only use strict consensus on really critical issues. Rather than aiming for 100% agreement on everything, we aim to hold a space that is trusting and open to diverse perspectives. In practice we find a lot of really fluid delegation takes place, without having to make it super explicit. — If you would like to back this initiative, there is an ongoing crowdfunding campaign here.