22 June 2023

It’s a Tuesday night just outside of Vienna. The teams are assembled. The hosts (Laura Giesen and myself) are prepared. And old rivalries start to flare up.

The Innovation in Politics Institute is gathered for its yearly team retreat, and as is tradition, the first evening is concluded with a classic pub quiz. Except this time, there’s a twist.

“For the last question of every round,” announces your dear host, “we will allow the teams to either answer themselves OR choose another group to answer on their behalf.”

“An exercise in delegation, otherwise known as ‘liquid democracy’” – more explicitly described as the ability to choose someone to make decisions for you and re-assign that authority dynamically, when and as you see fit.

There is a rumble of emotions. Amusement mixed with discontent. A few well-hydrated troublemakers voice their opinions.

“We are, after all, the Innovation in Politics Institute,” the hosts remind the crowd. “We should do things a little differently.”

The group settles down and the game commences. Here’s what happened next.

A liquid assisted experiment

Round one, question eight, for a good solid point – “In 1912 the ‘Progressive Party’ was founded by which former US President?”

Two of the five teams answer. Only one gets it right – Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt. The other three teams intuitively select team five, somehow knowing that they would have the answer. Four teams get a point. Liquid democracy wins the round.

Round two, question eight – “Adzuki, borlotti and cannellini are types of what?”

The teams are more confident this time. Three choose to answer for themselves. All get it right. Beans. Beans. Beans. One team abstains. No beans for them. The final team carefully delegates another – a beans team.

Is it luck? Or is it the power of delegation? They didn’t have the beans, but they knew who did.

Round three, question eight. A curveball – “Which animal species are the fastest and most effective ultra long distance runners, able to beat every other species over distances more than 50km?”

Five confident answers. Zero correct answers. I guess delegation doesn’t help when everyone is wrong. Humans. It’s humans. Sweaty, mostly hairless apes that spent many thousands of years chasing their prey to the point of exhaustion and collapse. Better luck next time.

Final round. It all comes down to this – “Zarifa Ghafari was one of the first few female mayors of what country?”

Two groups blunder forth with the wrong answers. Two groups finish on a high note with the right one – “Afghanistan.”

One group knocks it out of the park with strategic delegation. Liquid democracy wins again.

Look, I’m not gonna go over the winners and losers of the night. That would bruise too many egos and appease too many others. But let’s be honest – liquid democracy came out strong.

One hundred percent. That was the success rate of those who delegated. One hundred percent of answers that utilised delegation, did so to a team that in turn got it right, and everyone got a point.

That’s a quite frankly surprising result, even for a strong advocate such as myself.

Fluid dynamics

Once the hubbub had settled down and most people had left to head off to bed, those few that remained were caught up in debate. What did it mean? How significant was it that delegation seemed to work so well? What were the extenuating circumstances? And did it mean anything for democracy more broadly?

There were (of course) mixed opinions. Those in support (such as your author and co-host) would argue that liquid democracy or delegation represents a middle ground on a spectrum of political participation between classic representation and direct democracy – capable of addressing the issues at both ends.

With classic representation being stagnant and entrenching power around elites, liquid democracy can be more dynamic, allowing representative power to be shifted when performance falls or those in power cease to truly represent those who have handed them their authority.

The truth is, we already delegate power. We just do so at set times and to an institutionally backed set of individuals. Call it ‘jello’ or occasionally ‘concrete’ democracy. Liquid democracy frees that up, makes those in power a little less ‘comfortable’, and opens up the playing field to anyone.

Representative power accumulates in different places. We might delegate a friend. They in turn might delegate someone else. If we like where things are going we might leave things as they are. But if we don’t we can pull it back and reassign it. No need to wait four years. No need to choose the ‘lesser of evils’. Vote for someone you actually trust, or participate directly yourself.

It encourages political communication and incentivises trusting relationships.

An intriguing brew

Liquid democracy also allows those with the enthusiasm and capacity to participate more directly in the democratic process to do so, while not requiring it of everyone. Which brings us to the other end of the spectrum.

Direct democracy is laborious. Deep participation takes time and energy and that causes problems. For some it’s a matter of capacity. For others it’s accessibility. For others still it’s just a lack of enthusiasm. Truth be told, a lot of people just don’t care so much.

For those reasons, participation rates suffer. More so than with classic representation. Yet liquid democracy offers a path forward – the means to increase participation rates in more direct participatory forms, without overburdening everyone.

We get to have our beer and drink it too, so to speak.

Direct democracy can also be chaotic – particularly at more complex levels of governance. Going this way one moment, and the other the next. The result can be disjointed policy and decision making that makes coherent long (or even short) term governance a serious challenge.

Liquid democracy tempers that chaos. There is structure. There are representatives. They are just more accountable and can change more dynamically.

A spirited debate

But the problem (rightly pointed out by my colleagues over a few post-match rounds of ‘liquid’ democracy) is that most of this is hypothetical.

There are the obvious problems – tech, security, the capacity to implement these kinds of systems at scale. And there are the less obvious ones. The ones where we don’t know how much of a problem they would be until we try. An example being the precise ‘flow’ of power and how chaotic the end result would ultimately be.

Would we have millions of minor representatives, a few thousand medium sized ones and a few giants of social and political capital? What would the other institutions of democracy look like in such a scenario? Would we still have a ‘parliament’ made up of those above a certain threshold? Could political parties use it internally to simply democratise candidate selection? What sort of coercive methods might be employed to game such systems?

And perhaps most importantly – what sort of roles do established trust relationships, communication and networks play in determining its efficacy? It certainly worked in a tight knit team where people have good intuition about each other’s strengths. But at scale?

We don’t know.

In search of a solution


Yet, there is value in finding out. Because whether analogue or digital, democracy has a popularity problem at the moment and trust and participation are chief among the concerns.

Our best course of action would be to explore all those ideas that offer the chance to improve both. And there’s no need to go straight for the big time. We can start small. Experimentation at the level of digital participation in community, city and municipal projects (or even political parties) would be a great way to see how things play out – and might just be the ticket to driving those participation rates up.

I am not saying (however much some part of me might like to) that liquid democracy is the catch-all solution to everything. But after a fun (and surprising) night of liquid and democracy, the consensus seems to be – it’s worth exploring.

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