15 February 2023

First, let’s clear something up.

In political science the concept of a ‘Delegative Democracy’ means something quite specific. However, there’s a bit of a problem. In the academic version, it refers to an authoritarian quasi-democracy with not a lot of actual delegation going on. In the real world however, a more innovative, more ambitious idea, or group of ideas, have been gaining a bit of traction, and using the term in a more unambiguously democratic way.

What those ideas have in common is basically this:

You get to choose how much, or how little, you participate in democracy, by doing it yourself, or ‘delegating’ someone to do it for you. A version of this already exists in the form of ‘proxy voting’ for legislators. New Zealand, for example, allows parliamentarians to nominate a stand-in during absentee votes. Yet the same privilege is not afforded to the general public. Not yet.

The Spectrum of Representation

Let’s imagine a spectrum. At one end is Representative Democracy. There’s a representative body, like a parliament or a congress, or a house of something or other. And the people in that representative body are elected once in a while, by a reasonable chunk of the population. You and me, as citizens, get to go out and vote on who we want to represent us. They show up to work for the next few years and do their job, hopefully. Then, when the time rolls around again, we get to decide whether they keep it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Direct Democracy. In this mode, rather than choosing someone else to represent us, we do it ourselves, all the time. There are no intermediaries. And probably no time to do anything but pour over legislation and important bits of paper. The two most popular contemporary forms of direct democracy in practice are Deliberative Democracy and Participatory Democracy – subjects we write a lot about here. The former being more focussed on the discussion (deliberation) leading up to a decision, while the later is focussed on the decision itself. Both engage citizens directly in the process.

Representative and direct democracy are great ideas, but as with anything, imperfect. Experience has taught us that there are always constraints and issues that pop up.

Among other things, representative democracy, while simple, can be stagnant, ineffectual, illegitimate and unaccountable – progressively creating a ruling class of representatives that is more focussed on getting re-elected than on doing the actual representation, and a body of law that represents the interests of the legislative body rather than the people they ostensibly legislate on behalf of.

Direct democracy, on the other hand, demands a lot. Being involved in a single participation or deliberation exercise can be time consuming. Let alone being involved in all of them. The result is low participation (as if that wasn’t already a problem for representative democracy) or perhaps more acutely, participation predominantly by a privileged group. It’s a fantastic way to engage the public, but begins to lose momentum at scale. In the context of a legislative body, direct democracy can also be a little, shall we say, erratic – risking sudden leaps one way or another, based on cascading public sentiment that makes stable governance (and cohesive legislation) a challenge.

Meanwhile, languishing in obscurity, somewhere in the middle, and with the most obvious name already taken, is a group of ideas that, as mentioned earlier, share the notion that you shouldn’t have to pick one or the other.

Delegating Political Authority

The broadest and perhaps most ‘fluid’ implementation of delegative democracy (so described) is ‘Liquid Democracy’. A system whose origins are a little vague, but which has been around in some ideological form or another for the last hundred years.

Just recently (beginning in Germany) the concept has started to get a real hearing via organisations like the German Pirate Party and Liquid Democracy e.v. which perhaps confusingly, for the time being, has chosen to step back from implementing delegation in their platform.

On paper however, Liquid democracy occupies the exact centre of the spectrum. It says to citizens and participants of all kinds and at all scales, “Hey, if you want to be involved and do it yourself, you can. But if you want to just get someone else to do it for you, then that’s cool too.”

The idea is that it helps (although again, imperfectly) mitigate some of the hazardous elements at either end of the spectrum. Whether it’s a participatory or deliberative project at scale, or a parliamentary body, participation is maximised and in some way further democratised by giving people the freedom to engage however they feel most comfortable.

For projects in direct democracy, it means the potential to bring in a huge number of individuals who might not otherwise have had the time or capacity to engage, but probably know someone who they are willing to trust to act on their behalf. One might say, “Well, I don’t know much about climate science, but my friend Laura does, so she can carry the weight of my vote. And if she knows someone even more knowledgeable than herself and wants to pass both of our votes on further, that’s fine too. I can take my authority back at any time.”

For a legislature, it means introducing a level of dynamism and accountability without going totally off the rails and losing the representative body altogether. In this instance, one might say much the same thing, “I don’t want to vote every other day, but I know someone I trust who does.” Yet similarly, it means people can withdraw and reassign their authority, akin to moving around a physical or digital token, allowing authority to flow, like a ‘liquid’ between representative groups and individuals. If someone does a good job, they get to keep it. If not, then we don’t have to wait 4 years to tell them so.

Of course, Delegative Democracy has issues of its own. There are no guarantees against seismic changes in a representative body – just a greater incentive among representatives or ‘delegates’ to do a better job. There are also concerns around how we might securely enable individuals to dynamically shift their voting authority without endangering their privacy or safety, as well as technological and human challenges to overcome, which explains why organisations have found it difficult to implement. The infrastructure for delegative or liquid systems are a little more complex than a single vote once every cycle, or constant direct engagement. But that’s the beauty of democracy technology.

We get to experiment.

For the time being, delegation in some form or fashion may simply offer a solution to participatory projects searching for a way to increase participation and diversity in representation.

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