The German public has just gained a new voice. A new open source policy-making tool was given the go-ahead to bring everyday citizens into the political forum.
Germans will be able to have their say in government online
German citizens have been invited to take part in shaping their nation through a new initiative by the federal government. On Thursday, the Inquiry Commission on Internet and Digital Society approved a new tool to allow the public to influence policy through online discourse.
Wikipedia is probably the most well-known tool that enables people to work on documents together to create a resource for everyone.
But now these kinds of software tools are also being used to facilitate public participation and transparency in everything from NGOs and political parties to the German government's Inquiry Commission on Internet and Digital Society.
In May 2010, the German government set up this inquiry commission made up of 17 members of parliament and 17 independent experts tasked with drafting Internet policy recommendations for the German government. They discuss and debate issues such as media literacy, net neutrality and data privacy and protection.
Since the commission was formed, they have also been trying to find a way to include input from the German public - and now they've decided on a particular software tool called Adhocracy to make this happen.
A wiki for political opinion
Adhocracy was created by Liquid Democracy - a German association dedicated to developing and exploring new modes of democratic decision-making. According to Friedrich Lindenberg, one of Adhocracy's developers, it's basically a policy-making tool for large groups.
Websites such as Wikipedia have shown that the public will participate in similar projects
The commission has just given the go ahead for this kind of "online brainstorm" where people and lobby groups can introduce ideas, post position papers and then vote on them.
"These can be discussed, reviewed, [and] can be improved. And the idea is therefore to have a process where the commission does some work, the public does some essential work on the policy stuff and this goes together into one result," Lindenberg told Deutsche Welle.
The commission took some time to find the right tool. One of the design features that tipped the balance in favor of Adhocracy is what's called "voting delegation."
"So you can say 'I don't have the time. I don't have the knowledge necessary to involve myself in this or that debate and therefore I want to delegate this debate to someone else,' someone who you think has more time or is more competent than yourself," Lindenberg said.
If you've ever been on an Internet forum, you know that they're a great place to share your views on a particular topic, but they can get sidetracked by people going off-topic and petty in-fighting. They can also get hijacked by Internet users who are known as "trolls." Trolls post intentionally inflammatory messages and disrupt discussion.
Adhocracy has features to prevent Internet trolls from derailing progress, developers say
Software developer and IT expert, Alvar Freude is one of the 17 external experts on the commission. He said that one of the advantages of Adhocracy is that it prevents this kind of disruption.
Lindenberg explained that, through the voting process, discussion points are prioritized:
"People can decide whether some opinion that's been voiced is really relevant - relevant in general, and relevant to the point that is being discussed. And we hope that this will lead to debate that is very centred on some very good points, on some leading arguments, rather than going into many, many directions without ever progressing."
While Adhocracy might sound like a fair and foolproof method to enable public participation in a political discussion process, not everyone was so convinced.
Commission expert Alvar Freude said that some conservative politicians in the upper echelons of the German parliament argued against Adhocracy on the grounds that Germany already has a representative democracy. This means that every four years the public votes and elects the members of parliament, who then make the decisions on behalf of the people.
Some conservative politicians were also worried that the public would have the power to make a decision on a particular issue. But Freude explained that the inquiry commission has the final say on a particular discussion point.
Germany's representative democracy already includes the public, according to critics
"The public propose a text and we decide if we take it, or if we take parts, or if we take our text, or if we take a text from one expert from our group or from other experts in our group. So the decision is not made outside, the decision is not made in the crowds, the decision is made in the commission," Freude said.
In any case the commission itself is an advisory body for the German government. This means that they make recommendations, but they don't make laws - so, according to Freude, there's no harm in inviting the public to give their opinion.
CDU parliamentary member Axel Fischer is the chair of the Inquiry Commission Internet and Digital Society. While his party was more hesitant in adopting this tool, he said it is an important step in terms of public participation.
"It's important for us in the inquiry commission to work on recommendations for the German parliament on the one hand, and to include the general public on the other hand," Fischer said. "We move in small steps, but consistently, piece by piece. We started with forums, now we are working with blog entries and the next level of public participation will take us forward."
Adhocracy developer, Friedrich Lindenberg, said that the adoption of this tool is a significant step for the German government's inquiry commission, and ultimately for Germany.
"I hope that this will help [politicians] actually form better opinions, form a more informed overview and then get to a better decision," Lindenberg said.
While it is important to use progressive tools like Adhocracy to move forward, its ultimate success or failure depends on the people, according to Freude.
"I hope we have good results, but it depends on how much it is used," he said. "If there are thousands of users who write texts and vote for texts or against other texts, then it would be very cool."
Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Stuart Tiffen