How this woman led an open government revolution

By Charlene Chin

Interview with Pia Mancini, co-founder of The Net Party.

Indonesia’s haze affects Malaysia and Singapore, but citizens of these nations don’t have a voice in stopping the crisis. Pia Mancini, a former Argentian civil servant, has created a platform to change this.

She has built a digital social network that allows international communities to discuss issues in other countries.

Environmental problems have “nothing to do with the country, [and] everything to do with our civilisation - with us as human beings in this planet”, she says. So she’s built a new site that shows the way forward.

Impact on a global scale

The internet has created “a lot of room for experimentation, aspiration and designing new political institutions”, Mancini believes.

Her project is called Democracy Earth, and allows users to vote on global issues - regardless of their country of origin. Traditionally, citizens’ ability to participate in policymaking has been restricted to their home.

“Nowadays, what happens with our political system is that we get represented [by] a fixed and small group of people based on the territories that we happen to live in,” she says.

The site also helps break down big problems into smaller debates. Last year, Democracy Earth ran a pilot referendum in Colombia, gathering seven million votes on a historic peace deal between the government and the FARC guerrillas - the largest rebel group in the country.

Mancini and her colleagues separated the agreement into five different clauses, and all but one received support, with the other shown to be a deal breaker.

Ultimately, the Colombian people rejected peace, which Pia believes could have been prevented with better data on citizens’ preferences.

“A lot of aspects would have been approved, [but] because it was narrowed down to a yes or no situation,” she says, it was rejected.

Perhaps a similar situation would have occurred on Brexit - a narrow vote that has hit the whole of Europe, even though only UK citizens had a voice.

Sustaining online movements

Mancini highlights three components to sustaining online citizen participation. First, online discussions need to be regulated to promote a healthy discourse.

Her team is running an experiment where participants can use tokens to upvote and downvote comments. Broadly, the “best approach” is one where humans work with algorithm to moderate content, she says. Second, legislation needs to be broken down into plain language for citizens.

“The legislative and judiciary jargon that the government uses is designed to exclude people from the [voting] process”, she says. Mancini believes that online conversations have the potential to be “richer”.

“We can debate, [draft a] written agreement, put that agreement back to a vote, and then revise it”, she says. Third, online movements require funding to translate to action.

It is one of the reasons why Democracy Earth works on the Blockchain. Users earn a satoshi - the smallest unit of the bitcoin currency recorded on the public ledger - every time they place a vote.

“This is a type of institution that’s built on a network that already has economic power, and that economic power is emergent from the network itself. So that gives us the ability to activate actions anywhere around the world.”

How it all started

Mancini’s story starts in Argentina. Five years ago, her team started the Net Democracy Foundation with the idea to shift political power to citizens.

They did this by building an open-sourced mobile app - DemocracyOS - using the platform to break down complex legislation so residents were clear what they voted on.

The app allows citizens to vote on projects being discussed in their local parliaments, and also propose and vote on new laws.

“The idea is that - instead of only choosing those who would make decisions for them - [citizens] would also be part of the flow of the decision-making process”, Mancini says.

The foundation also set up a political party in Argentina built on the vision, and in October of 2013 they ran for election. Mancini had previously served as the Chief Advisor for political affairs for the City of Buenos Aires.

She wanted to put her new digital vision for government to the test: “Our representatives were always going to vote according to what citizens decided on DemocracyOS”, she said in a TED talk.

With the disruptive idea, the Net Party won 22,000 votes - 1.2 percent of the total, and came in second for the city of Buenos Aires.

It failed to get a seat in Congress, but built enough momentum to encourage Congress to use the app for public discussions on three pieces of legislation.

An honest conversation

Mancini believes the hardest challenge for opening up government is cultural. “How would I get people to understand that representative government and the nation state haven’t been around?

They haven't been around forever, and they are not going to be around forever.” She’s embarked on the journey to find “better” ways for governing.

But it requires first breaking communities out of their set ways of thinking, and having a discussion on “what we are for”, she says.

“It’s easier to be against something; the hard part is when you need to decide what you’re for, and who you’re going to make alliances with.” It’s a novel idea - voting on issues outside of your own country.

But is there really not a single international issue from the past year that you would like to shape?

Image by TED Conference