Cooperatives in the 21st century

 

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Image: sludgegulper

Kofi Annan has said: “Founded on the principles of private initiative, entrepreneurship and self-employment, underpinned by the values of democracy, equality and solidarity, the co-operative movement can help pave the way to a more just and inclusive economic order.” This quote outlines the opportunities for the co-operative movement as a source of empowerment for people as well as its underlying principles. The history of the cooperative dates back to 19th century Europe, mainly Britain and France. It is not new, and it has a rich history as well as a variety of examples, with differing levels of participation. Cooperatives are attractive, because they are appealing – they bring the idea of participatory democracy to the workplace. They are a strong example of how a mainly economic enterprise can be tightly linked to a democratic practice. This article addresses the role and opportunities for the cooperative in the 21st century.

An interesting research in this area was published in 2010 by The Community Inventors Lab, which is a part of MIT’s Department for Urban Studies and Planning, the name of it “Sustainable Economic Democracy: Worker Cooperatives for the 21st Century”. The paper examines two examples of cooperative practices – Mondragon in Spain and Evergreen in the US. The central idea of the paper is the importance of economic democracy, meaning that “local economic institutions are democratically controlled”.[1] Economic institutions include such sectors as businesses, finance, research and development, as well as education.

The road to economic democracy can be achieved through cooperative ownership of the local economy by those who participate, which in turn helps to root the wealth in local communities and prevents resources from going somewhere else.[2]

There are different types of cooperatives and this article focuses on the idea of the worker cooperative. Workers’ cooperatives still operate for business interests and capital investment is still relevant, however workers’ are involved to a much higher degree and the focus is on cooperation among them. Even though the profit making motive does not leave the enterprise, the involvement of the workers allows for a balance, workers’ interests get taken into consideration. However the report does point out that the successes of cooperatives have been varied, but that does not mean we should not at least discuss their potential.[3] Also it is pointed out that worker cooperatives can operate in a larger network, rather than as separate entities that most probably will suffer in the competitive global market.

The two examples examined in the research provide valuable lessons for the future of the role of cooperatives in a 21st century democracy. For example, Mondragon in Spain developed into a cooperative group, where different cooperatives were working closely together, it allowed for a sharing of a governance structure, pooling of profits and losses and allowed for the movement of worker-owners among different member firms of the group.[4]  The approach of Mondragon includes 4 elements to creating a cooperative group.

The elements are primary cooperatives, secondary cooperatives, spin off cooperatives and lastly the cooperative group. The primary cooperatives are created in the most important sectors, such as industry and retail. The secondary cooperatives along with the spin off ones are created to support the primary ones and expand the network. Lastly the creation of a cooperative group allows for risk and resource pooling, as well as increased mobility. In addition, it is important not to forget that these cooperatives were established in different sectors, such as industry, retail, finance and education.

This strategy of diversification allowed for Mondragon to remain competitive. The ability to move between different cooperatives allowed for flexibility and in a growingly competitive market, this is of importance – the ability to adjust and learn quickly. The amount of different cooperatives allowed for one to produce what the other ones could not and exchanging amongst themselves and thus eliminating the need for importing things. Of course, there are those, who argue that each case is unique and successes cannot be replicated one to one, but certain lessons do appear. For example, the necessity for an interconnected network and a diversified approach. One must also remember that the model of Mondragon was developed over decades and this kind of a strategy requires long term planning.

The Evergreen enterprise took the example of Mondragon, but adjusted it to their own specific circumstances, focusing on one central local institution and branched out from there. Different cooperatives are responsible for different aspects, the same as in Mondragon – one for finance, one for leading, another for funding and lastly one that is responsible for governing.  So it adjusts the model of cooperative networks for its own internal needs.

The report points out the main things that are useful for the future of cooperatives in the 21st century[5]:

  • A defined geographic area
  • A local network known as the ecosystem
  • Internally driven economic development, where imports are replaced by the cooperative network’s participants supporting each other

Lastly the research outlines the values that should guide this kind of an approach – a strong, but democratic leadership, values of local ownership and solidarity, education as a tool for expanding networks and lastly cooperatives as organizing entities that help to organize people according to common interest, transcending, for example, racial or ethnic divides.

There are millions of people working in cooperatives in the 21st century, however, it is sometimes forgotten that they in effect are democratic entities. Maybe something can indeed be learned from these two examples. Because democracy is about people getting involved and where is it more appropriate than in the workplace, where many of us spend our daily hours? It is about having a stake and thus an interest into what happens to you in the workplace, as well as to your colleagues.

[1] Nicholas Iuviene, Amy Stitely, Lorlene Hoyt, „Sustainable Economic Democracy :  Worker Cooperatives for the 21st Century,”The Community Inventors Lab, October 2010, p 5.

[2] Ibid, p 5.

[3] Ibid, p 7.

[4] Ibid, p 8.

[5] Nicholas Iuviene, Amy Stitely, Lorlene Hoyt, „Sustainable Economic Democracy :  Worker Cooperatives for the 21st Century,”The Community Inventors Lab, October 2010, p 26.

[Alina]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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THUNDERCLAP – Is “the louder, the better” when it comes to social activism?

What is Thunderclap? Thunderclap is the world’s first ever crowd-speaking platform. It significantly increases the social reach of campaigns by posting the same message from many social media accounts at the same time. In terms of  numbers, Thunderclap has launched over 3 million campaigns since 2012, reaching more than 3.5 billion people in 238 countries. Mainstream campaigns are mostly about civic activism and charity.

But what is so special about it? What is great about the internet nowadays is that anyone has a voice. However, it has become hard for people to be heard over all that digital noise when they need to speak out for a cause they really care about. Thunderclap solves this problem by essentially working like a megaphone- it joins voices and shouts out your message. Thunderclap’s founder, developer David Cascino, took inspiration from the “human megaphone” technique used by Occupy Wall Street protesters:

“It was like getting punched in the face. I realised there was no way to do this exact thing online. There was no way that people could band together to amplify a message. I saw an opportunity that I had to fill.”

Initially a project within the global advertisement giant Droga5, Thunderclap eventually evolved into a separate company; today it counts with a tiny but  “thunderous crew” based in NY.

To create a Thunderclap you just need to visit the website, connect with your social media account and invite followers to support your cause. If you reach the pre-set number of followers within the deadline, the message is sent from all the accounts simultaneously.

Basically, anyone can create a Thunderclap, it is free and easy to use. Behind some of the most successful campaigns are brands and creative business, institutions and governments, like the White House, the UN and the UK Labour party, but also ordinary people with great ideas, like Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. The largest campaign in Thunderclaps’s history, #Phoneblocks calls for awareness over e-waste by launching the idea of a phone designed to last for a lifetime- the separable blocks which make the phone can be easily substituted when they stop working. However, the site also offers different customised paid plans to maximise the campaign’s reach and some worry that Thunderclap might be heading in the wrong direction and become just another advertisement tool. Notable brands like Discovery Channel, BBC, Durex and Levi’s have used the platform to advocate for relevant causes, like HIV, the extinction of sharks and the right to education. On the other hand, Thunderclap has also lent his voice to less charitable causes. For example, it helped generating enthusiasm before the revelation of 2012 People (magazine) sexiest man alive. Still, Thunderclap’s team insist that the most successful campaigns are the ones related to social activism because they connect people to a cause emotionally and, for now, numbers tell the same story.

There are some practical downsides as well. In order to support a Thunderclap people need to connect to the platform via other social media, like Facebook or Twitter, and especially be willing to give consent to Thunderclap to post on their behalf. Besides, timing is crucial. The “all-in” philosophy of Thunderclap means that if your Thunderclap fails to reach the target of supporters, it is as if it never existed. None of the donations are received by the organisers. Plus, if your message does make it to the walls of millions, you still have to take into account that only reach those who are connected at that moment.

But what we really should be asking ourselves is this – is louder really better when it comes to social activism? It can be a double-edged sword. Most certainly there is the danger that engagement to campaigns is only temporary and superficial. Let’s not forget that Thunderclap reaches friends of friends on social media. Some may share just because it is cool and then forget about it. Once the Thunderclap is sent out, the campaign is considered “completed” and people move on supporting other things while much more needs to be done to operate change for real. Another way to find an answer to this, is try assessing the impact these campaigns have had. Not an easy task for, unlike for example change.org, Thunderclap is designed to spread a message, rather than achieve it. Thus far, Thunderclap’s case studies only measure campaign’s effectiveness. Besides, it is too early to tell whether the campaigns have the potential to determine change. The phenomenon is recent and many factors come into play. Yet, one way to quantify the impact more concretely is to have a look at the role of social media in allocating donations for non-profit organisations. Donations to non-profits have achieved change in some instances. A survey performed by the 2014 Case Foundation found that even though emails and websites still rule as tools of engagement compared to social media, the gap is closing. Social media is growing 3 times faster than email.

All things considered, the social media storm can create an invaluable window of opportunity. It is thanks to Thunderclap as well if Motorola, Sennheiser and others are working on prototypes of the #Phoneblocks right this moment. Let’s think twice before disdaining social media activism so easily precisely because it is social media, hence, no place for “serious discussions”. It would be great if more people used it this way! By capitalising on today´s dependence on social media, Thunderclap is a creative way to involve people- especially the youth- into civic activism and social responsibility. Thunderclap is not perfect, but it can be a significant push in the right direction. Ultimately, we cannot always expect a software to do it all.

[Alice]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Bite The Ballot

For most young people politics has never been a hot topic. A 15-year old Briton named Jeremiah Emmanuel said that before he took an interest in government to him it was just “a room with green seats and a load of men shouting at each other,” and sadly these kinds of statements can be heard from young people everywhere. It should be no surprise than that the youths involvement in politics is meager at best. Take Britain for example, in the 2010 general election, only 44% of people aged 18-25 voted, compared with 65% of people of all ages. And while young people might not know it, the consequences of their detachment can have a considerable impact on their everyday life. The most vivid example is the coalition governments decision after the 2010 election to increase tuition fees, which was seen by many young voters as a betrayal by the Liberal Democrats who just months before had signed a pledge vowing to vote against any such increase. It is events like these that lead to young Brits becoming frustrated with politicians and discouraged to participate in their countries decision-making process. That is why democratic youth organizations that mobilize the young voter are becoming evermore important and one of these organizations is called “Bite the Ballot”. Based in the UK, “Bite the Ballot“ is a non-partisan movement which empowers young people by educating them on government and encouraging them to cast their vote. Formed in April 2010 by a business studies teacher David Hughesman and Michael Sani,, “Bite the Ballot” does not lecture young, potential voters with the old argument “if you don’t vote, don’t complain” but rather shows them that they have the power to actually change things. The youth organization is able to appeal to young citizens by employing modern technology and demonstrating their own credibility and understanding of the subject.

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By explaining the primary functions of lawmakers in an engaging way, “Bite the Ballot” changes the way that young people look upon politics and politicians thus encouraging them to vote. This is most evident when playing the online game called “#TheBasics”, where young people are put into the shoes of the lawmaker and tasked with setting Britain’s budget. At first the player has to allocate £100 across key areas and then, due to a crisis, revise his spending and cut £25. In addition to this, the player is shown the consequences of reduced funding in a certain area and how people from different age groups will respond to his decisions. For example, if you were to decrease education spending, you would see a decline in the approval rating among young citizens as well as the amount of teachers that will be laid-off because of the cuts. The lesson – politicians cannot please everyone, all the time.  “Bite the Ballot” wants the player to understand this because it goes to show that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good and lawmakers are the ones making these tough decisions. It teaches the player that when it comes to politics, expectations have to be managed, otherwise politicians will always let you down and as a result you will distance yourself from any kind of involvement. In Britain this is a core problem because political parties are the top most hated brands, especially amongst young people. For instance UKIP, a political party, was cited by 58% of 18-to24-year-olds as the brand they most hated, closely followed by the other major political parties.

However, “#TheBasics” does more than inspire empathy. The main message comes at the end of the game when a bar chart appears and shows the maximum number of young voters in the UK (10.9 million), the number of young voters that actually bothered to vote in the last election (3 million) and the number of young voters who would support the players spending decisions. The trick is that even if the player made a perfect budget that was supported by all 10.9 million young voters, only 3 million would cast their ballots and try to put him back in office.  Now, the player asks himself: “why did I even try?” and for young citizens, this realization is crucial. It explains why in the eyes of politicians they are more or less expendable, and makes them understand that this can only be changed by showing up on election day. It also appeals to an especially important aspect of a young persons life – independence. Rather than using the old argument “if you don’t vote, don’t complain”, “#TheBasics” shows that if you don’t vote, you don’t matter. This gives the player an actual incentive to go and vote, because it will show that he is capable of deciding what is best for him and his community. However, if he stays home on election day, he is allowing others to determine what his life should be like, and there is nothing that a young person hates more than being told what is best for him.

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But “Bite the Ballot” does more than encourage young voters to vote. It also provides credible and easily accessible information about political parties and their agenda, in a way that is captivating to the young audience. The perfect example is the recently released digital tool “Verto”. “Verto” is the worlds first voter advice application for young people created by “Bite the Ballot” and “Demos”, a cross-party think tank. It matches a person’s beliefs with the policies of different political parties, by analyzing their responses to statements about multiple issue areas such as jobs, healthcare and the economy. For young, inexperienced voters this is helpful because from their perspective the landscape of modern day politics is extremely complicated. A lack of political schooling, confusing, oftentimes impartial media coverage and convoluted speeches given by politicians are the main barriers that prevent young citizens from fully understanding each party’s agenda. As a result they are less likely to vote, and more likely to make an ill-informed decision when voting. That is why “Bite the Ballot” focused on two things when making “Verto” – simplicity and credibility. By working with focus groups all through development, “Bite the Ballot” has ensured that the app is simple, fast and intuitive which is incredibly important if your target audience are young modern-day citizens whose attention is hard to grasp. Therefore, when using “Verto” it does not feel that you are using a complex political tool, but rather a lifestyle app which tells you which restaurant is most likely to satisfy your wants and needs. To ensure that the information about each user’s beliefs is accurately analyzed and matched against a political parties agenda, the youth organization researched statements, speeches, policy documents and even hosted a 10 person academic panel in association with the political studies association. After that they presented their arguments to policy managers from all 7 parties to ensure that their agendas are accurately presented. It’s this kind of social responsibility and innovative thinking that convinces young people that participation in their countries decision making is easier than they thought.

“Verto” and “#TheBasics” might seem like small projects, aimed at mobilizing young voters, but they are a part of something much bigger – a change in how citizens involve themselves in democracy. Politics is the last frontier in civil life which has not experienced a surge in technological innovation and now that is changing. With only an internet connection, people can access digitalized tools such as “Verto” and “#TheBasics” and learn about the intricacies of government. As these applications develop, the social mobility of citizens will increase exponentially and the disconnect between the voter and the politician will decrease. Young people will be at the forefront of this and they will be the ones to change the way future generations look upon politics. That is why organizations such as “Bite the Ballot” are so important. They shift the narrative and teach young people that participation and social responsibility are the cornerstones of any democracy.

 [Miķelis]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Debating Europe

In the post about European Parliament elections we talked about how online platforms help to make European politics more comprehensible and engaging. However, the roots of any position of a political party or MEP – be it national or European – still lies in that uneasily definable space of news, opinions, commentary, trends which constitute a public debate. In other words, it is difficult to have politics without a space where those different positions are established in the first place and which then are crystallized into concrete political decisions. It also highlights the issues that are of most concern to the particular society.  Europe is said to have limited space for such debate, as reasons accounting lack of common language, institutions (e.g. European media) as well as the fact that the citizens’ deepest interest and understanding belongs to national politics. Can the online platform Debating Europe, which allows anyone to start a discussion on basically any topic as long as it remains connected with Europe, be a significant step in the direction of creating such space?

Idea of how Debating Europe works is quite simple: anyone who is interested and has prepared a question or comment that has significance in European context can submit it in written form or via video message. Then ‘’Debating Europe’’ team takes up a pertaining question and reaches out to politicians and experts that are associated with this particular issue. Sometimes publicly heated topics are first posed in the platform for users’ response, most popular are then taken for policy-makers and experts to discuss. In the result, the impetus given by any platform user can be developed in a full-scale debate where the opinions of different sides are introduced, creating better insight into a particular matter and giving more solid base for further discussion in the comments section.

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Themes that have been discussed in ‘’Debating Europe’’ are very diverse and it shows that European public sphere can be very much alive as there are so many aspects – political, social, economic, environmental, ethical, and cultural – to be examined in reference to the communal life of Europe. One of the recent examples concern the Greek economic crisis and the referendum in which the Greek people voted ‘’no’’ to the debt refinancing plan prepared by the European institutions and the IMF. This event sparked a serious debate about the member state’s sovereignty and the rules of the EU as a political system itself. ‘’Debating Europe’’ has closely followed the developments of the Greek debt crisis, inquiring its users about its possible solutions, heeding on the conversation whether the Greek debt should be forgiven as German debt was in 1953 (attracting great interest by the users which posted more than 1500 comments in response), asking should the Greece leave the Eurozone. Here, for example, their differing opinions expressed Manfred Weber, a MEP and Chair of the centre-right European People’s Party, American economist Barry Eichengreen as well as Stelios Kouloglou, a MEP from the Greek governing Syriza party. There were several other discussion threads about Greece which all were very actively received by the users, and presented both viewpoints of experienced observers and participants, both opinions of ordinary people across Europe.

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On ‘’Debating Europe’’ radar are various issues, and the most acute political issues are just a part of them. One of the more sociologically reflective debates that highlighted the gap between expectations and reality in the former Soviet bloc countries was dedicated to a theme-debate series ‘’25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall’’. Debate Have living standards in Eastern Europe decreased after Communism? was initiated in response to the comment of one of the users Hrovje who argued that ‘’Life in many former-Communist countries is worse than 25 years ago, especially countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They have many social problems, including huge corruption, nepotism, and fake democracy.’’ His argument was discussed by Czech academic, a journalist, and the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the EU as well as debated by other users.

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Along conversing on the EU political topicalities and the broader socioeconomic tendencies of Europe, ‘’Debating Europe’’ gives quite a lot of attention to social, cultural, and also ethical questions for people to talk through and see different sides of the issue. There have been debates about whether the euthanasia should be legalised across Europe or should all EU states recognise gay adoption. This is significant if we consider that in the more regular debate social and ethical questions are more accounted to the national than European perspective. Thus an online platform as ‘’Debating Europe’’ can be one of the few well-equipped channels to discuss these issues.

‘’Debating Europe’’ is a unique platform in Europe and probably even in the wider scale. In regard to Europe it gives a platform to discuss important issues from a starting-point which is unmistakably European as it engages participants from different professions, interests and national positions. But also beyond, online debating platforms can prove to be a tool with increasing importance in today’s democracy.

[Lelde]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Building the European democracy in the web or how to engage citizens in politics?

Nothing makes the idea of transnational democracy more real than the European Parliament. However, the persistent concern about its legitimacy has brought into the question whether a Europe-wide democratic system is really possible. Turnout of the EP elections has steadily decreased while the focus of the election debates has remained on national rather than European issues (hence the often mentioned ‘second-order’ character of elections). For the 2014 EP elections things were to change as the slogan – ‘’This time it’s different’’ –  indicated, launching a campaign with goal to increase citizen participation and interest in the European Parliament politics. An important part of these efforts were several online platforms that gave the opportunity for voters to find the party and MEP that best matched their political stance, get insight into issues MEPs are debating and follow analysis by experts. If indeed development of European democracy is hampered by its citizens’ lack of interest and knowledge about it, online tools definitely provide significant possibilities to address these limitations.

Here we will take closer look on three voting advice applications that were created for the 2014 EP elections and each of whom had a separate twist. Two of them were developed by the online platform VoteWatch Europe which is a very interesting initiative itself, shedding the light on complex processes inside the European Parliament not only during  elections.

If anyone was confused for whom to vote in the European Parliament elections, he or she just had to answer a set of questions and a web application advised the right party. EUvox , as the preceding application EUprofiler from the 2009 EP elections, compares to many similar platforms across the world.  The principle of EUvox is simple: one had to evaluate statements that target the central issues of the European integration such as ‘’should [your] member state should drop the Euro as currency’’ as well as respond to statements like ‘’the state should intervene as little as possible in the economy’’ that located one’s preferences in more traditional left-right spectrum. The party positions earlier were determined by a group of academics in each member state. The results then showed the political party with which the user had the best match. Yet as in these tools the political parties were set in their national context without referencing the big European party families, for those well accustomed to their local politics big surprises could not arise. However, along getting more information on positions of the small and niche parties that sometimes kick bigger campaign for European than national elections, such ‘testing’ could also be chance to see the national parties in a new light through their stances on the EU issues.

Slightly more informative was a complementary project, the Votematch Europe, that not only gave chance to find specific voting e-tool in your country (if it had one) but, as these different country projects worked with the uniform set of twenty statements designed by the Votematch team, to also see how the party stances matched across the EU.

 

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Another voting tool for the EP elections was MyVote2014.eu, orientated on the younger generation of voters. Yet it had another exceptional difference. Whereas EUvox used a well-known mechanism of using party manifestos and statements for determining the party positions, in MyVote2014 their actual voting behaviour was used. MyVote2014 was based on VoteWatch Europe data (about which in a brief moment) and matched the vote ‘casted’ by the user with actual MEP votes on various issues. Example includes ‘’ should the EU strengthen and extend its internal market for services?’’ In such way you could find out your most like-minded member of the European parliament! It therefore was more introductive to European political scene, by asking to value statements that MEP’s are voting on and see stances of politicians across Europe not just national candidates.

 

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The third platform Electio2014.eu, as the EP 2014 election hub of sorts, integrated elements from both EUvox and MyVote2014 to supplement it with up-to-date commentary by academicians, civic activists and politicians themselves. It also provided possibility to match your vote with the MEPs, evaluate and vote for the European Commission presidential candidates (main innovation of the 2014 elections) and follow news and analysis on elections. Interesting feature of the site was chance to compare votes submitted by users to outcome of the actual vote, giving a glimpse on how direct democracy would look like on a European scale.

Thus, the 2014 European Parliament elections showed some considerate and promising approaches in e-democracy tools to advance voters’ knowledge about European politicians and parties, and to increase overall interest in the elections.  While the low turnout trend was maintained in these elections, the crucial idea behind the Europe-wide democracy – to connect European citizens with the parliament – was quite admirably realized through these internet platforms. Their potential is only unfolding.

 

 

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Little of that would be possible without VoteWatch Europe. A NGO, started in 2009 by group of academics from London School of Economics and New York University, has developed an internet platform that allows to follow the voting and attendance in the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. Collecting the information from institution websites directly, it makes the EU political decision making more accessible for both specialists and the wider public. The 2014 EP election vote-matching platforms was a great example how the VoteWatch data can be used to bring the seemingly abstract work of the EP closer to the general public. It is even more so when these data catch attention from the media, such as in this The Guardian article about  UKIP’s as the ‘laziest party in the Europe’ , inquiring into party’s attendance and voting practices.

VoteWatch makes possible to observe the political process in the EP: from individual MEP activities in drafting laws, making reports, attending and voting to party politics by seeing what coalitions are formed in what issues. As in the most traditional conception of democratic accountability, VoteWatch checks and provides information on actions of the parliament. Only now it refers to European level.

 

[Lelde]

Deliberative Polling

James Fishkin’s interview with the European Magazine contains probably one of the most exciting views on democracy that I’ve come across lately. It is the perfect antidote for someone who feels equally dissatisfied with over-optimistic expectations of what people should be capable of doing and the resulting cynicism when the unrealistic expectations fall short. It is an incredibly refreshing experience to read how Fishkin reframes the standard issue of what to do with an uninformed and seemingly disinterested public in a democracy.

Below Fishkin sets out the bog-standard way of approaching the issue:

“The choice seems to be between politically equal and uninformed masses, or politically unequal and more informed elites. The latter undermines the idea of popular involvement in politics, and the former involves people only under conditions where they cannot think very much about the choices they make.”

I’d say it’s a fair judgment that most people overestimate their own (and other’s) capacity for staying informed. To actually sit down and read the news we need to have enough energy left over after performing our daily chores. Here it may help to remember the concept of ‘ego depletion’ that refers to the phenomenon of our willpower being an exhaustible resource. After strenuous mental tasks we are less able to make considered decisions, or simply put, most people will agree that after a long and stressful day it’s much more tempting to sit down with a sitcom rather than read complicated current affairs articles. Therefore, instead of expecting people to overcome this inherent laziness by relying only on their inner calling for civic life, deliberative polling aims to create controlled conditions that would allow anyone for to come up with informed opinions.

What they do is the following. An initial poll is performed on a random sample of citizens (usually from around 200). Following the initial poll, the citizens are gathered together for a weekend of deliberation – they are given reading materials on all sides of the issue at hand, they are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with experts or politicians as well as to take part in moderated group discussions. All of the activities are recorded and translated live or edited on television. Afterwards the participants are polled again on the same issue or issues, which allows to observe what kind of opinions the public might form given the opportunity to fully engage with the policies being tackled by the government. Stanford University’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy gives a clear summary (that I’ve relied on above) as well as outlines a couple of selected results from deliberative polling exercises in Korea, UK, and Poland.

I could go on for quite a while listing all the reasons why deliberative polling is a great idea. My inner social scientist is delighted by Fishkin‘s belief that ‘democratic reform should be based on evidence,’ and not just observational data but data derived from experiments. Their approach is also praiseworthy for using sample sizes which can be used for sufficiently accurate statistical estimates while engaging with the participants qualitatively at the level of discussion groups (it must be noted that this is an expensive undertaking, not available to everyone who shares their scientific ethos). At the same time, it’s not just a social science experiment, but also a learning tool for the participants and the wider public given that the process can be broadcast on television or online as well.

Further on, the practice can be used for gathering public opinion in the initial stages of policy design or as an alternative to referenda. It would be difficult to argue against referenda as such, but deliberative polling is a better tool for an egalitarian democracy in a non-trivial way. According to Fishkin:

“The problem is that once you open deliberations to everyone, special interests can exert a larger influence than in a randomized sample.”

While active interest groups are a great part of a pluralist society, public referenda can turn into a tool available only to powerful special interest groups instead of empowering all members of a community equally. The example of California is used by Fishkin to illustrate the point – while it is a welcome development that referenda have become an intrinsic part of political life, the resources needed to initiate them and rally supporters around one’s cause favour established and well-financed interest groups. Through deliberative polling a random sample of citizens are inserted in a controlled environment where what matters is what they think not how much influence someone has been able to buy. Admittedly, while I’m writing this it’s hard not to think that it’s impossible to completely isolate such influence or that in many cases there is nothing wrong with the way interest groups advocate their cause. Yet, I’m inclined to think that deliberative polling should constitute a bigger part of civil society activities.

A final half-baked idea that has has been nagging me since reading the interview is the possibility of relying on insights from deliberative polling to transform the way that we use media. Instead of, again, either hoping that everyone will have the willpower and the necessary interest in reading traditional media formats or concluding that our fellow citizens are a lost cause and essentially qualifiable as manipulable automatons, why not consider presenting media content in ways that makes reading current affairs an accessible learning experience. It might include a combination of traditional approaches and the practices developed in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), or it might involve some sort of life-long learning programs.

In any case, it’s worth the time to think over what James Fishkin says in his interview on deliberative polling. The practice has the potential to, pardon the cliche, disrupt our way of understanding democratic participation and help us move beyond dead-end debates. Read it.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el

Change.org: the business savvy changemakers

A $25 million investment from around twenty different tech figures, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, former Facebook CFO Gideon Yu and others, is not the typical funding source for the ordinary organisation supporting civic activism. Yet Change.org is not your ordinary civil society organisation as it is formally a for-profit corporation. Citing the advantages of “speed and scale” Ben Rattray, the chief executive of change.org, founded Change.org as a profit-making business while committing to reinvest all of its profits.

Technically Change.org is registered as a Benefit Corporation or B Corporation (or simply B Corp), which means that in addition to maximising shareholder value a corporation commits to making a positive social and environmental impact on the world. Instead of relying on donations or member contributions, the global petition giant relies on investors and sponsored petition recommendations.  Petition initiators will pay Change.org to display their petitions as a suggestion after users sign other thematically related petitions. To borrow from Klint Finley writing for Wired,

“the company is letting nonprofits target potential donors in much the same way Google lets partners target customers through contextual advertising.”

Change-bilde

The incoming money has allowed Change.org to become one of the go to sites for petitions (with the non-profit Avaaz only generating half the traffic), the website attracts around 20’000 petitions per month and they have offices in 18 countries. Notable successes include petitioners convincing Southwest Airlines to cut ties with SeaWorld on the grounds of animal cruelty charges, and a recent petition contributing to the FDA allowing Tekmira Pharmaceuticals to fast track drug and vaccine research for Ebola. Having said that, there is still some way to go in measuring what impact their petitions actually have. One way of going about this is to look at the number of people signing successful petitions, which reached 1 million in 2013 in the US alone. Yet it would be even more important to measure the responsiveness of businesses or governments. One step in this direction is the company’s plan to implement a voting system for petition responses, but commissioning case-by-case impact reviews for the bigger petitions would be a welcome development.

There are those that express concern over the ‘email industrial complex’ that sites like Change.org are creating. Given the suffix “.org,” which is usually not used for commercial enterprises, it’s not hard to imagine that many signatories are not aware of their petition-signing histories and emails being sold for profit. Just the same, the recommendation system isn’t without its flaws. It fosters users to gravitate towards petitions that they would agree with anyway and favours big non-governmental organisations with the funds to promote their petitions.

At the risk of enraging the traditional left, there’s nevertheless something great in the way that Rattray talks about what he wants Change.org to become:

“The psychological effect we want to have,” Rattray said, “is when someone walks outside right now and says, ‘I want to rent an apartment, where do I go?’ Craigslist. To buy a book? Amazon. To address child slavery or climate change or stop the closure of the local park next to me? Change.org.”

His main point here is clearly about him wanting Change.org to be the go-to place for petitions. However, I like the mental image he creates. That in our consumer society civic activism would be in the mainstream, that keeping companies and governments in check would be just as casual an activity as purchasing underpriced books online or overpriced coffee at Starbucks. On that note, go and watch this inspirational video with all the good that people managed to accomplish using Change.org in 2014.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el