[pp.int.general] Fwd: [liberationtech] Fwd: Democracy crowdsourcing in Estonia

Märt Põder boamaod at gmail.com
Wed Apr 10 21:15:09 CEST 2013

It's a long story with lots of details, but we can start from the fact that
the process was split in phases [1]:

1. Gathering the proposals (so called co-creation or crowdsourcing,
everybody eith eID and Internet could participate).
2. Sorting/analysing the proposals from a strictly neutral/impartial
perspective (experts).
3. Neutral/impartial impact assessments of the sorted proposals (experts).
4. Seminars with selected experts to rank the proposals (another set of
5. Deliberation day to select the proposals to be handed to the parliament
(unbiased sample of population).

1. The proposals were gathered using a flavour [2] of Your Priorities
software [3]. You could log in with national eID service. In the end there
were about 2000 proposals (from which 1300 were analysed). They were voted
up and down, commented on etc. There were lot of duplicate proposals and
there was no real possibility to discuss the proposotions because of
duplication, bugs and the format that encouraged making self-sufficient
points (arguments) instead of threaded discussions or something similar.
So, from my perspective it was just mass posting proposals, that could be
done with random forum software. The topics were agreed to be (1) funding
of political parties, (2) laws about political parties, (3) election
mechanisms, (4) participation processes, (5) forced politization of
society. Not relevant proposals were sorted into section "varia".

2. This was the point where I started to severely doubt the process. Some
of my own proposals were already lost in this phase and there was already
some kind of prioritizing, although this wasn't what was promised. Some
people complained about these problems, but since the results were
published in an obscure manner and in several parts, not many people
bothered to pay attention at all. The original proposals had pro/against
votes, pro/con arguments and duplicates (had to be detected by analysts).
Somehow the analysts explained that they treated duplication of proposals
as main criterion to evaluate "prevalence" of the proposal, although this
is counter-intuitive (spamming was the way to success). Besides that, some
of the proposals were sorted into section "Overall state issues" which in
fact meant that they were just censored from the next phases. Note, that
among others all the proposals to use liquid democracy or something similar
were put into that pile of proposals by "the experts".

3. The impact assessments were the next step to censor the proposals,
because the experts brought their understanding and presumptions of those
general political issues and although the resulting assessments were not
stupid, some of them were highly debatable.

4. In this phase another set of chosen experts and some makers of proposals
were invited to live seminars to select the most important topics to be
discussed in deliberation day phase. From each of the five categories 2-4
most important issues were sorted out to be voted on later. They used the
materials produced by 2nd and 3rd phases.

5. On deliberation day there were 550 people invited who should have
represented all areas of the society. Only a bit more than 300 came. Those
2-4 most important issues of five categories were voted on using the
prescribed multiple choice answers (whoever created those). This made the
process highly manipulative, the participants were there just to discuss
the topics using the materials provided by organizers and vote on
predefined options. After the last vote the organizers were all rejoicing
on Twitter and Facebook that the crowd was so "intelligent", since it
didn't vote for direct election of the president, although the public
opinion in Estonia is for direct election. If this is not an example of
manipulation, it's at least clear indicator of the will to manipulate. But
some people who were present actually say that it was good company and the
discussions were led professionally, so it wasn't that bad either.


There is also a background story to this. There were anti-decitfulness
protests in Estonia in November 2012 [4], which were sort of benevolently
hijacked by certain group of intellectuals and political activists under
the name of Charter 12 [5], which led to the crowdsourcing process under
the presidental blessing. I was in touch with the organizers of the
protests as well as later took part of some of the meetings to start the
crowdsourcing process.

Although I was a bit disappointed by the hijacking part, I didn't really
make an issue of it, because the organizers of the protests didn't have
better plan anyway. On the first meeting of the crowdsourcing initiative I
proposed to have an intelligent discussion evironment with the process that
would contribute to the quality of proposals and discussions. But the
initiative group didn't care much about that. Instead they already had the
proposals that they wanted to see handed to the parliament in the end and
they wanted to create a process that would lead to the desired result. And
they were more interested in numerically gathering more proposals (lot of
participants as some kind of mandate) than enabling intelligent process. My
argument was that if the process were designed well enough, the need for
experts would be minimized and everybody would be in the same position to
gather support for a proposal. We even managed to discuss Lessig's "Code is
law" argument, but in the end that was just intellectual entertainment for

Since the organizers had their own plan to influence the political regime,
I dind't try to engage in the process later on. Some Estonian pirates who
wanted to do that anyway, they were kept away from mailing lists etc, so I
might have been blocked too, I'm not sure. The process was said to be open,
transparent, grassroots etc, but it really was (and still is, because it
hasn't ended) a regular manipulative political process. Anyway, I didn't
want to undermine their project, I kept low profile and just criticized
some parts of the process in discussions on social networks, university
seminars etc.

In the beginning we reported on the progress of People's Assembly in our
Pirate Party channels, but after the 2nd phase ended, I stopped doing that.
Some of our members have criticized the process in their blogs and
suggested that in the end it is just poll of public opinion and as that
even not a decent one. I'm also on a position that the process had very
little to do with democracy, I cannot even agree that it was an experiment
in direct or participative or deliberative democracy. Actually, they could
have skipped all the phases from 1st to 4th and just organized a nice
manipulative deliberation day.

You should also know that most of the public criticism of the process is
either that (a) it doesn't lead to the changes promised because the
proposed changes suck and parliament won't agree with them anyway or (b)
the crowdsourcing and Charter 12 hijacked and discharged the protests
against our neo-liberal+conservative government which may have led to
something better and besides that the fake crowdsourcing is actually
election campaign for our social democrats.

For me the main problem is the non-democratic nature of the process which
noone outside the Pirate Party really seems to care about. And from that I
also have some kind of ethical dilemma, if I should remain silent on the
issue and therefore silently support the process (hoping that parliament
will take some of the good proposals and implement them, for example
lowering the threshold used in elections) or publicly condemn it (joining
the conspiracy theorists and doomsdayers) with the chance of helping to
stall the initative and ruin the chances of public support to whatever
direct democracy initiatives that might appear in the future (we have two
of them failed already, besides the one we're discussing now).

So our People's Assembly is not totally evil, but nothing to be proud of
either. That should be enough for the start. Anyway, some notes and trivia
for the conlusion...

* The Charter 12 people composed their manifest and vanished giving their
place to some ad hoc group of activists who were hanging around at the
president's place anyway.
* The preparation of the crowdsourcing process by these activists was
rather non-transparent.
* Everything was done in a hurry and therefore resulted lots of problems,
technical as well as substantial.
* The rhetoric that it was first implementation and therefore had flaws and
next time we do even better is not to be taken seriously, because there was
no intention engage specialists from universities to make it better etc.
* There was no proper definition of the process, it constantly changed, 4th
and 5th phases were invented/decided ad hoc after the 1st phase was over.
* Although the 1st phase of the process was quite open in a sense (you can
exactly see who voted, argued, proposed what), rest of the process was
rather untransparent and there was no way to participate in it.
* There were also problems with AGPL licensed source code, which was not
published because of "intensive development process" as they explained it.
* One of our members (I think he's also reading this list) even used
presidental reception to put on an artistic performance for writing citizen
initiative into proper law to making our People's Assembly really binding
and transparent. [6]

[1] http://news.err.ee/Politics/f1fb8b53-d0ff-4582-99f0-83de232b9201
[2] https://github.com/cenotaph/rahvakogu
[3] http://www.yrpri.org/home/world
[4] http://news.err.ee/politics/64bff71c-3716-42a0-ad54-7724b8c43555
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