The engineering of deliberative democracy

The engineering of deliberative democracy

Just as the architecture of a meeting room affects who can be heard, the design of our digital tools both offers and prohibits certain political possibilities

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the Medium "Participo", an OECD publication. To read the original article by Jessica Feldman, click here.

Recent deliberative democracy projects have shown us that humans are remarkably good at collaboration, empathy and collective decision-making, even with complete strangers. In these times of physical distance, can we use networked digital tools to continue and even expand these projects? Can they take us even further into a future where deliberative democracy 'goes global'?

One of the keys to implementing true democracy will be a careful connection between engineering decisions and political values. We need to think carefully about 1) how and when to use different tools, and 2) how to build them. In this post, I focus on this second question: How can we proactively design for the needs of deliberative democracy? Below I sketch some areas where engineering decisions will need to be made and mention some possible concerns and solutions.


An algorithm is an automated process. When we think about algorithmic governance and deliberative processes, two sets of questions arise. First, where and how do we use digital technology in the deliberative process? For selecting participants? For occasional votes within a meeting? To collect, or even rank, the proposals to be deliberated on? There are many possibilities and many pilot projects. Secondly, how should these algorithms be written? The code itself will affect the conditions of decision making, just as any political protocol constrains our options.


While face-to-face voting is uncommon, it may be necessary in the context of online voting. If the deliberation leads to a vote, should the public be able to see the voting tables in real time? Should the identity of a participant be visible during comments or voting? Digital tools make it possible to record, compile and present this data quickly.

At the level of the code itself, we need to decide whether it should be visible, and to whom. We can learn from the recent Iowa Democratic primary scandal, where a closed, privately designed application was used to report vote tabulations and a "coding problem" resulted in only partial data being reported. For code to be reliable, it must be public: transparent and open source, and funded by the people.

Privacy and security

Computer scientists are taught to evaluate the security of a system on the basis of criteria they call the "C.I.A.". - Confidentiality, integrity and accessibility. In other words, communications/data should only be seen by those for whom they are intended. Data must not be compromised or falsified, and communications and information must remain accessible to those who should be able to access it - without being blocked, denied or deleted.

This is perhaps the most pressing issue: as many decision-making bodies move online, using pre-existing tools, we need to take seriously the threat of conversation monitoring, metadata collection, 'zoom bombing', server crashes (e.g. a cyber-attack) and online vote hacking.

Finally, participants working from home may not be able to speak or vote as they wish. This is not to say that digital tools should not be used, but that they should be designed to be secure and robust. In the short term, democratic bodies need to be carefully advised on which tools to use and make strategic and perhaps conservative decisions on how to use them.

Digitisation beyond quantification

While many debates about digital democracy focus on vote counting, deliberative democracy is much more concerned with conversations and consensus. We need to think carefully about how digital tools can help facilitate this process, rather than replace it. Some tools, such as Loomio or the consul software, have been developed from consensus-based communities, with the idea of helping discussions throughout the process.

Deliberative assemblies have always provided the affective conditions for developing empathy, derived from time-tested traditions of listening. As we move online, we need to ask whether - and if - these experiences can be achieved using digital tools. If so, what tools are needed, and how are our practices changing? If not, what role should digital play in supporting 'in person'?

In answering these questions, we need to keep in mind three key concepts:

Path dependency :

Once an infrastructure or a tool is built, we get used to using it, we start to organise our activities around it and build new technologies on top of it. We have to design things with that in mind.

Open Source :

As an engineer once told me, "open source is honest source". The code that underpins our decision-making and deliberative procedures should be publicly available.

Participatory design :

The best way to build these tools is through 'participatory design', in which the communities that will use and be affected by the engineering are involved in every step of the decision-making and testing process.

One of the great achievements of deliberative democracy is that it has been evolving and testing non-digital codes and processes for (at least) thousands of years. It offers many protocols that can be drawn upon for imaging digital processes.

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