When a group of us got involved in the Occupy movement in Wellington, New Zealand, we experienced how massively empowering it could be when everyone’s voice is included in a decision-making process. There was a feeling that a new way of organising ourselves was in the air, and that this was democracy in its truest form.
We also recognised the limitations of face-to-face assemblies - these can never be efficient on a large scale. The best decisions are made when collective intelligence is pooled, and everyone affected by a decision can participate in making it. The flip side is that considering many voices in person or through lengthy email threads, can be at best time-consuming and inefficient, and at worst unclear, overwhelming, frustrating and tedious. This is the most common excuse given by public sector organisations for a traditional top-down approach to making important decisions - that there’s simply not the time or resources to open the space for meaningful citizen participation.
Middle ground between efficiency and inclusiveness
After seeing the potential of collaborative decision-making at Occupy, we got talking with Enspiral, a network of social enterprises based in Wellington. We realised that activists, businesses and governments actually had the same need - an easy way to make collaborative decisions online. We scoured the internet looking for a tool that would allow the sort of simple, democratic decision-making that we envisaged - but couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. So we decided to build it.
We joined forces with Enspiral and developed the Loomio prototype, opening it up for groups to use worldwide. Thousands of people in social change organisations, community groups and government departments have made decisions using this simple platform, designed to bridge the gap between efficiency and engagement. Loomio is driven by the vision that it should be easy for anyone, anywhere to meaningfully participate in the decisions that affect their lives. We’ve been so inspired by the positive change that people have been making through engaging in more participatory ways of organising, that we’ve just launched an international crowdfunding campaign to develop Loomio from prototype to a fully-featured, mobile tool for truly inclusive decision-making. This will open it up to developing countries where access to computers is difficult.
How it works
At its core, Loomio is simple. It’s an online tool that makes it easy for any group to bring people together to talk things through, share ideas, address any concerns, and determine a clear course of action that works for everyone.
This process is flexible enough for large and small applications. On the large scale, Wellington City Council has used Loomio to consult the public on what to include in their proposed Alcohol Management Strategy for the city. On a smaller scale, Loomio is being used to run community art galleries, to collaboratively manage democratic workplaces, to conduct multi-stakeholder collaboration, and many other forms of participatory decision-making.
Large-scale policy collaboration
Wellington City Council invited residents to participate in an alcohol-policy- focused Loomio group. The group included a diverse range of stakeholders - anti-alcohol activists, bar owners, policy experts, and interested citizens.
Council staff also took part in the discussion, providing resources like statistics and policy documents, and answering questions. When the conversation got to a point where expert knowledge was needed, specialists in different areas were invited in - emergency services staff, police and community workers. This resulted in an open conversation that invited people to think beyond any preconceptions they arrived with, and to have well-informed discussions that could lead to real solutions.
“One thing that’s truly unique about Loomio is not only the diversity of participation, but how this range of people of quite different backgrounds took each other seriously and communicated constructively. Loomio has a particular strength at bringing out a wide range of ideas from the community at the very beginning of the process.” – Jaime Dyhrberg, Wellington City Council
After the discussions had run their course on Loomio, staff drafted the Strategy and brought it back to the group for direct feedback on the document. The public were able to engage early on and go through an interactive process that saw their ideas develop and change as more people took part in the discussion. As themes, problems and solutions emerged, both the public and council staff were able to respond to new information. Flexibility was important, with people being able to change their position if their mind was changed by a persuasive argument or new information.
The key was that the council engaged with the public before they wrote the strategy. Unlike traditional “consultation”, which is too often a way for government officials to achieve due diligence by talking to communities after they’ve already made up their mind, Loomio is about collaboration and providing the space for ideas to grow collectively.
Loomio also levels the playing field, allowing people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to attend a town hall meeting, due to issues of accessibility, timing or geographic spread. While Loomio is not meant to replace face-to-face meetings or public consultations, it is another tool in the toolbox to bring down the barriers to participation in the democratic process.
Smaller scale participatory decision-making
Loomio isn’t just for large-scale public consultation, as democracy isn’t just about politics - it’s people getting together and making decisions for themselves. Groups currently using Loomio are democratic workplaces like Adobe Books, and the Enspiral Network that incubated Loomio.
“Loomio gave me the opportunity to hop on to a discussion about something that matters to me - without leaving my home, and at whatever time suited my schedule. I can’t come to public meetings, but with Loomio, I can just sit down for 10 minutes and participate in something which matters” - Lynsey Ferrari, Wellington resident
Adobe Books is a community bookstore in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district, which until recently was run by owner Andrew McKinley who had fostered a true community vibe around the store, often allowing struggling artists and musicians to sleep on the couch. When the store faced doubling rents due to the rapid gentrification of the Mission district, the community rallied around Andrew to save the shop and a co-operative emerged with 14 members.
Between the busy and divergent schedules of a comic-book writer, a web developer, a chiropractor, a filmmaker, several curators and a grocery store co-op owner, the co-op members used Loomio to keep everyone up to date and allow them to be involved in making important decisions about the operation of the co-op.
Enspiral was one of the first early adopters of Loomio, and now use it to co-ordinate some 200 members and contributors, spread around the country.
One of the most involved Loomio discussions we’ve had to date was about another internal piece of software critical to how we work every day. Everyone wanted something different, and everyone had an opinion. Over the course of a long discussion, a succession of four proposed solutions emerged – three ideas had to fail before the group came up with the right answer.
While this seemed to some like a large investment of time initially, ultimately it helped us reach a better decision that saved us both time and expense in the long run. The result was that a controversial issue ended up with a solution everyone deeply understood and agreed with.
Democracy is a skill we can practice with people wherever we are: in our workplaces, our schools, and our communities. It’s about coming up with the best solutions that work for everyone. As Former President of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso, once said:
‘Democracy is not just a question of having a vote. It consists of strengthening each citizen’s possibility and capacity to participate in the deliberations involved in life in society.’
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and openDemocracy.net.