How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation

Source: How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation

How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation.

Here is an important report on pro-coop policies in 10 cities. The full report is available to download through this link. Highlighting some of the most the important findings, the article we’re sharing below was written by and originally published at Grassroots Economic Organizing.

10 Cities Investing in Healthy, Sustainable & Equitable Growth

City governments are shaping up as key actors accelerating worker co-op development. It started in 2009 when the City of Cleveland accessed a federal guaranteed loan to help finance the Evergreen Cooperatives. Since then, nine more city governments have moved to promote worker cooperatives through municipal projects, initiatives, or policies because they want to reach people and communities often left out of mainstream economic development. Other city governments including Philadelphia are considering it now.

Getting worker cooperatives to the scale of being a real market alternative will take time, energy, and the sort of experimentation we are seeing from these ten cities. A recent Imagined Economy Project report, Cities Developing Worker Co-ops: Efforts in Ten Cities, explores how city governments are thinking about their strengths in making worker co-ops structural features of local markets.

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Traditional economic development, said Madison, Wisconsin’s Ruth Rohlich in the report, “isn’t helpful in creating really healthy communities, financially strong communities, in an equitable way.” Worker ownership may be a way forward, and city experiences right now will help municipalities decide how worker co-ops may become long-term features of their economic development agendas. To commit to worker cooperative development long term, the cities will need to see modest growth in jobs and business ventures resulting from their current efforts and may benefit from input and insights from worker cooperatives as they continue to adjust their sense of best practices.

Cleveland and New York Leading the Way through Distinct Approaches to Worker Co-op Development

The City of Cleveland ventured into worker co-op development in response to a Cleveland Foundation initiative to set up a network of worker cooperatives connected under a corporate umbrella that planned to supply needed goods or services to hospitals, universities, or other anchor institutions. “I heard about it just in passing,” said Cleveland’s Economic Development Director Tracey Nichols quoted in the report, and the word of mouth led to the first instance of a city getting involved in worker cooperatives in a big way.

The main way the City of Cleveland assisted the initiative was by accessing millions of dollars in federal guaranteed loans and some federal grant funds as startup capital for the Evergreen Cooperatives. In so doing, the city produced the contours of one municipal approach to worker co-op development, termed the anchor approach in the report, whereby the city government role is mainly to finance startups and resolve underwriting risks in what are considered unconventional projects. In Cleveland, Nichols used tax increment financing and set aside the non-school portion of payments in lieu of taxes as a debt reserve for loan repayment to minimize risks to the city.

New York City is the nation’s second large scale municipal effort to bolster worker cooperative development locally. Instead of helping build worker cooperatives as part of anchor institution supply chains, New York is one of five cities taking an ecosystem development approach in the vein of the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI). A worker cooperative ecosystem, according to a Democracy At Work Institute and Project Equity report, is a series of interacting elements including but not limited to cultural/entrepreneurial familiarity with worker co-ops, supportive laws, customers, capital, technical assistance, and professional service providers that help worker cooperatives emerge and survive.  As part of its Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, New York committed to funding a collaborative of cooperatives — there were eleven funded in 2015 and fourteen in 2016 — to spread general awareness of the worker cooperative business form, incubate new or converted worker co-ops, and support existing worker co-ops with matters like drafting by-laws, accounting, Board development, and employee participation strategies. The City itself also became part of the ecosystem when it began offering a “10 Steps to Starting a Worker Cooperative” course through its Small Business Services Solution Centers.

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The separate approaches have produced modest results, with the three Evergreen Cooperatives for-profit startups employing 113 people (38% member-owners) over several years and New York’s initiative leading to 21 new worker cooperatives involving 141 worker- owners in its first year. While the wage and earnings statistics specific to the co-ops developed through these municipal efforts are unavailable, a Sustainable Economy Research Project report found that worker co-ops in New York pay an average of $25.00/hour but apparently offer less than full time opportunities; the average annual income earned in New York’s worker cooperatives is $18,000.00 according to that report, mostly involving women of color. Current wages and earnings in the Evergreen Cooperatives are also unknown, but 98% of those employed by the three ventures are Clevelanders, 100% are racial or ethnic minorities, and 47% are returning citizens, Evergreen Cooperatives’ CEO John McMicken offered in an email.

Both municipal approaches have been inspirational to other cities. Rochester, New York and Richmond, Virginia are at various stages of planning for municipally-supported anchor-linked worker cooperative projects as part of broader poverty-reduction efforts, while Richmond, California, Madison, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas are working to bolster and expand worker co-op ecosystems in their cities.

Spread to New Cities Leads to Evolution in the Approaches

The ten city governments are attracted to worker cooperatives as sources of quality jobs, as well as ways to build wealth for individuals and divested communities. Accomplishing those goals will be a matter of “adaptive management,” assessed Berkeley’s Brandi Campbell, as they know they have much to learn. Ultimately, cities want sustained growth of individual co-op businesses as well as multiplier effects in the local economy to result from their investments in worker co-op development. These may be tall orders for geographically-dispersed cities with very different experiences with worker cooperative or broader social enterprise cultures, and the city governments are aware that they will need to readjust their approaches and planning as they learn how to develop worker co-ops by doing it.

Part of learning by doing involves learning from each other. The city governments are motivated to apply lessons from other city experiences as well as from the broader cooperative or co-op developer community. Most of the ten cities active in worker cooperatives are connected with expert consultancies that are playing key roles in helping inform municipal efforts and also bringing insights from other local projects or initiatives with them as they help additional city governments develop their desired approaches to worker co-op development. Certainly, ideas about how municipalities can be most effective in worker co-op development are cross-pollinating, and this has resulted in some evolution of what can be called the Cleveland and New York models of worker co-op development as additional city governments work through the place-based opportunities and challenges related to emulation in their own local areas.

Evolution in the Anchor Approach — from Cleveland to Rochester

The city role in the anchor-linked approach to worker co-op development started in Cleveland as primarily financial, but the newer cities are taking on expanded roles. In both Richmond, Virginia and Rochester, city governments have initiated anchor-linked worker co-op projects from City Hall, so their roles have evolved to include finance but also conceptualization, planning, and active participation in setting performance targets.

Rochester is further along than Richmond in its planning, already having completed a feasibility study in consultation with the Democracy Collaborative or the main architect of Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. Working with the Democracy Collaborative, Rochester has been able to build upon the lessons from the Cleveland experience. Certain alterations have been built into Rochester’s anchor approach that, ultimately, may help minimize financial risk and potentially allow for quicker growth of the supportive infrastructure built through the corporate umbrella.

First, the City of Rochester is acting to influence the business mix. Said Henry Fitts, Director of Innovation for the City of Rochester, “A lesson learned from the Evergreen experience has been that high-capital startup businesses are a lot more difficult to accomplish through this model.” Rochester is interested in focusing more of its business starts on lower-capital, service-based businesses. For instance, only one of Rochester’s five potential worker cooperatives is a multi-million dollar venture, compared to all three of the Evergreen Cooperatives startups, according to a 2016 planning document released by the Democracy Collaborative. Additionally, the worker co-ops proposed in Rochester are planned to satisfy unmet consumer or anchor institution demands, instead of entering markets already served by existing vendors. Fitts believes this will minimize risk, as well as prevent duplication and competition within the local supply chain.

Second, the anchor approach in Rochester is conceived to build alliances with independently-forming worker cooperatives or conversions as a way of accelerating growth in the cooperative sector. Rochester’s planned nonprofit umbrella corporation — the equivalent of the Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation — plans to offer business services and back office support to other cooperatives. Potentially, this will facilitate profit pooling across a wider universe of co-ops that can be used to finance additional worker co-op starts. Speedy growth in the number and size of anchor-linked worker cooperatives is the best way to benefit worker co-op members, while also lighting a spark in the divested communities where they locate. The concept in Rochester builds a new avenue for growth into the approach.

The Ecosystem Approach in Motion in Madison and Richmond, California

New York’s effort to promote worker cooperative development happened by a collaborative of nonprofit co-op developers that provide technical assistance. As more cities have emulated New York, the ecosystem approach has shaped up, as cities think about the DAWI-inspired ecosystem concept in the context of the particular resources, strengths, and challenges in their cities. In New York, the collaborative of co-op developers organized itself, but this has not been the experience in every city. How to activate a community of worker co-ops or co-op developers is a challenge to overcome in certain places, and trajectories in two cities lead to different answers.

Richmond, California had a difficult experience getting worker cooperatives established through an education-focused program it funded for one year in 2011/12, finding that cooperative entrepreneurs needed more business and social supports than were available. Learning from those challenges, City Councilperson Gayle McLaughlin is helping the nonprofit Richmond Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund, spun off from her time as Mayor, establish a worker cooperative incubator. The planning is funded by the California Endowment and, if established, will provide heavier business supports than the initial City of Richmond endeavor. Incubators have not figured prominently in municipal understandings of how to promote worker cooperatives, but it may be useful in areas like Richmond without much local worker cooperative experience arising organically.

The path forward in Madison is different. Madison enjoys a comparatively rich cooperative history and business culture, but worker co-op development organizations did not join together to lobby for municipal funding as they did in New York. Instead, the Mayor initiated the plan to fund cooperative development through personal interest and more casual interactions with some of the city’s cooperatives. In the absence of a co-op developer collaborative like New York’s, the City of Madison is setting out to organize one itself. After approving budget allocations of $600,000 for each of the next five years, Madison has been encouraging a variety of existing local cooperatives, organizations, and lending institutions to come together to discuss how they can proceed in setting up worker co-op development capacity as well as loan funds.

The city is convening the local organizations, cooperatives, and lenders to decide together how best to divide responsibilities and, said Madison’s Ruth Rohlich in an interview, the group “may have to create new organizations to manage the program as opposed to just adding it to already existing programming.” While the participants have leeway in imagining how they can best make use of Madison’s investment in worker cooperatives, the city government has used its Request for Proposal to place some parameters on the planning process. For instance, Madison expects any organizations contracted for this initiative to work with University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives (a university-based research center), Shared Capital Cooperative (a cooperative lender), and to include labor unions in planning and implementation processes. Like New York, it will also require reporting so that the city can help troubleshoot if necessary.

Another element introduced in Madison is to make finance capacity an explicit focus for ecosystem building. Madison is devoting half of the funding allocated, or $300,000 per year for five years, for the development of a worker cooperative loan fund. The City of Madison expects whatever fund managers it contracts to be capable of growing the loan fund beyond the city’s contribution, mainly through fundraising plans, matching dollar requirements, or getting financial institutions to set aside percentages of loan capital.

Berkeley and Oakland Join the Wave with a Third Approach to Worker Co-op Development

A third approach aimed at incentivizing worker cooperatives through preference bidding is taking shape in Oakland and Berkeley in consultation with the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Both cities passed resolutions to establish bidding preferences earlier in 2016 for implementation in the coming months or year. Oakland just sent a follow-up ordinance for City Council consideration in October 2016.

While the details are still being worked out for eventual implementation, the resolutions or planned ordinances in Berkeley and Oakland involve worker co-op certification protocols intended to make sure preferences go to truly worker-owned and managed businesses; informational materials to be displayed by the city to incentivize worker co-op starts; and discounts or points for worker cooperatives competing for city bids. Additionally, Berkeley’s ordinance includes some tax and registration exemptions or reductions, as well as expedited land use review.

As preference bidding proceeds, city governments are likely to adjust their approaches. Said Oakland Councilperson Annie Campbell Washington in an interview, “There will be a limited number of worker cooperatives right now who will be able to take advantage of (bidding preferences).” Getting worker co-ops to form in the areas of city purchasing and contracting may prove to be the main puzzle to be solved in growing the worker co-op sector through bid preferences and, ultimately, a focus for experimentation as the approach unfolds over time.

Making Worker Cooperatives a Permanent Urban Economic Development Focus?

In her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths, Mariana Mazzucato made the case that government spending is often implicated in cases of transformative innovation, such as that motivating the advocates of worker cooperatives as engines of market change. The spreading municipal commitment to worker cooperatives is notable, not only for the resources city governments bring but also for the connections they can make between worker cooperatives and business, financial, and nonprofit communities as well as other scales of government. Institutionalization or making the city commitment long term or permanent could help produce the sort of sustained attention, effort, and patience needed to scale-up worker co-op sectors.

At this time, the ten city governments have not taken steps to make support of worker cooperatives routine. Rochester’s Fitts expressed in the report a sentiment common among the cities. In Rochester, ongoing municipal commitment will depend on showing, he said, “that this is a feasible and effective method of capturing some of the economic energy, that it can be replicated, and that it can continue to grow businesses of this kind.” New York City has decided to fund year by year, although it could decide to make multi-year commitments in the future.

Worker cooperatives may have additional ideas for measuring and enhancing performance of these municipal cooperative development efforts, as well as deciding collaboratively how city governments can improve their support. But, assuming worker cooperatives perform as desired, city governments cited additional challenges to asses before deciding whether or how worker cooperatives will fit into their economic development plans. First is duplication or displacement of existing small businesses. Oakland’s Campbell Washington relayed a sense that city officials like herself are to “advocate for local independent businesses at the same time I am advocating for worker cooperatives.” Displacement of existing local businesses and the jobs they support are risks in all types of economic development, but innovative cities want to see net growth of opportunity, especially for people at the bottom of the wage hierarchy. Advocates of worker cooperatives can allay some of this challenge by focusing on growing or emerging market sectors when possible, or in areas of unmet demand.

A second challenge to routinizing city commitments to worker development concerns resources. City governments cannot always count on slack budgets and reported needing to make hard choices at times between competing projects. Cities have been important allies to worker cooperatives, but the federal government role could be bolstered, helping cities access an adequate resource base from which to co-create innovations with community.

Finally, some cities are curious to see how well worker cooperatives balance social and business purposes. There is possible tension between getting to social inclusion and remaining competitive in the market, noted Minneapolis’ Daniel Bonilla. Cities want to see outcomes in both areas and, if both can be accommodated, worker cooperatives may become more permanent features of city economic or small business development planning.


[Editor’s note: attempts were made by the author to elicit feedback on the various policies discussed in this article from co-op worker-owners, but none have so far responded.  However, as our mission at GEO is to amplify the voices of worker-owners specifically, we are asking again for feedback from practicioners on these municipal policies. It would be especially helpful to hear from worker-owners in the cities discused about their experience of the programs so far.  We encourage everyone, but especially worker-owners, to respond in the comments section.]

Photo by smata2

 

vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy | Civic Hall

In the midst of the signal failure known as the US electoral season, here’s something to be inspired about: a true story about rational deliberation on a national scale.

In April 2014, I walked through Taiwan’s massive Sunflower Demonstration, a student-led movement in opposition to the government’s attempt to ram through a new trade deal with Beijing that erupted into a weeks-long occupation of the country’s parliament. I watched as groups of strangers armed with post-it notes intensely deliberated policy points and DIY antenna-wielding tech crews broadcast those street deliberations to millions. Amidst the hand-painted banners, giant puppets, and stacked bedrolls were weather-proofed racks of servers, broadcast equipment, and dishes powered by thick electrical cables running out of the open windows of the occupied legislative building.

Article vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy | Civic Hall 

I came to a stop amid a quietly buzzing expanse of self-organized civil society tents: every non-roadway open space for three city blocks was neatly yet completely packed. People explained to me that, at the beginning, environmentalists, unionists, reformists, separatists did not really have a consensus, so they each picked their own place in the occupied area, but because it was peaceful, people started to cross-pollinate, and by the end of the movement, a stronger consensus emerged. Formally, on the last day, the students explicitly declared that bringing deliberation in the street to home/school/community was the movement’s aim—so it was a large part of the agenda if not the only one.

Overall, the occupation was operating as a new model of democracy at scale by 1) demonstrating (double entendre intended) scalable listening, empathy-building, and consensus-making on the Cross-Strait Service & Trade Agreement among thousands of people in the street, and 2) broadcasting the events to a nation of remotely participating citizens. (For more on the Sunflower Movement in English, see @jmichaelcole1‘s Black Island.)

In late April 2014, after the Sunflower Movement had ended, the same “deliberation in the street” (dstreet) team held another round of public deliberations on nuclear energy, and yet another set on constitutional reform.

By May 2016, when I was back in Taiwan to speak at Summit.g0v.tw, I discovered that ever since the Sunflower Movement, members of the open source community and Taiwan’s government had been collaboratively developing a novel, effective conglomeration of civic technologies, government commitments, and mass media dedicated to the public conversation needs of a nation’s democratic process. They call it vTaiwan. Taiwan—a 30-year old democracy that just went through its 3rd change of power by election this May—is on the way to creating something new under the sun. If the rule, born of hard experience, is that all the code written for deliberative democracy will never find traction in formal government, here finally is an example that disproves that rule.

The vTaiwan process now routinely leads to passage of laws by Taiwan’s national legislature. And it’s gaining momentum: on July 26, Taiwan’s new premier declared in a cross-ministry meeting that “all substantial national issues should go through a vTaiwan-like process.” There are many reasons why Parliament has been willing to embrace this process, but the primary one is that it had been occupied for 22 days in 2014, and the government had lost its credibility as a governing body to an occupation who had outperformed it at demonstrating democracy. Legislators wanted to show goodwill.

Other democracies, prick up your ears.

What is vTaiwan and how it works

Originally vTaiwan — v is for “virtual” — was used only for developing cyberpolicy (e.g. sharing economy apps, telework, crowdfunding, etc) but it is now being expanded into other domains. Over its two years of development, vTaiwan has matured into a four phase process with a set of methods that integrate technology, media, and facilitation:

  1. First, an artificial-intelligence facilitated conversation tool called pol.is is distributed through Facebook ads and stakeholder networks;
  2. Then a public meeting is broadcast where scholars and officials respond to issues that emerged in the conversation;
  3. This is followed by an in-person stakeholder meeting co-facilitated by civil society and the government, and broadcast to remote participants;
  4. Finally, the Government agrees to bind its action to points that reached consensus, or provides a point-by-point explanation of why those consensus points are not (yet) feasible.

The first issue tackled by vTaiwan, how to regulate “closed companies” (similar to Delaware LLCs), took three months and involved about 2000 viewers on livestream, about 200 suggestions, and about 20 face-to-face contributors. Public consultation began February 1, 2015 and on May 1, 2015, the consensus position was signed into law by parliament.

vTaiwan’s first stakeholder meeting was facilitated according to Cornell’s RegulationRoom methodology. RegulationRoom offered important insights even to a group already well-versed in facilitation: a process for stakeholder discovery, lexicons to avoid pointless wars over definitions, and a dedicated moderation team. To this, the Taiwanese cyber democracy activists added working groups composed of stakeholders, and made sure that the participants themselves wrote the final synthesis document. They even experimented with IETF-style “humming” for non-verbal signaling. A multimodal livestream+transcription+chat format was used to bring in-person and remote participants into the same conversation; mixed-reality is currently the most active development area for the vTaiwan team.

This first version of vTaiwan used Discourse, a forum-based technology that emerged in 2011. Each ministry had its own @username and agreed to reply within seven days when cued by moderators. Ministries could cue other ministries, enabling direct cross-ministry conversation. To operate Discourse’s discussion board on the scale of Taiwan (23 million people), three volunteers worked fulltime to moderate new posts and responses. Despite that investment, results were mixed: the number of people being consulted averaged in the tens (10s) and the complexity of topics about which public opinion could be gathered was limited.

Above: the Discourse accounts of Taiwan’s various ministries https://talk.vtaiwan.tw/badges/101/-

While vTaiwan was finding its legs, open-source conference organizers in Taiwan were dealing with a divisive issue within their own community. Chia-Liang Kao, a co-founder of the g0v.tw community, introduced pol.is and found that it visually defined and gave space to divergent opinion groups and broke the community’s deadlock by identifying the points of consensus.

Based on that success, the second and current version of vTaiwan now uses pol.is. Pol.is is a survey technology where the user clicks “agree,” “disagree,” or “pass” in response to statements others have contributed. The user can also enter their own statement for others to take positions on. Pol.is clusters users who voted similarly into opinion groups using realtime machine learning (artificial intelligence), and visualizes those groups in real time. Once vTaiwan deployed pol.is, participation scaled a hundredfold, the complexity of issues grappled with increased, and the volunteer moderators were no longer needed during the “crowd-sourced agenda setting” phase. After years of closely iterating with the vTaiwan team, pol.is was recently open sourced, greenlighting its longterm integration into governing processes.

The Fourth Estate has also gotten involved in the cause. Talk to Taiwan is a sibling project of vTaiwan, a broadcast talk show where government ministers, mayors and scholars show up to respond to citizen ideas and concerns expressed via pol.is. It’s another project born out of a g0v hackathon, with its own governance structure but many principles and project contributors that overlap with vTaiwan. Media continues to be a site of experimentation; so far six shows have been broadcast in virtual reality. For instance, here’s an episode with Mayor Ko Wen-Je that the viewer can rotate with a phone.

Above: Monocle’s coverage of the show in April https://monocle.com/minute/2016/04/27/#3

Above: Monocle’s coverage of the show in April https://monocle.com/minute/2016/04/27/#3

Combined, vTaiwan and Talk to Taiwan are hearing from an average of 1,000 people per issue as a result of distributing Pol.is surveys to a couple thousand people through Facebook ads on the Talk to Taiwan page (20,000+ members) and through other groups. The survey outcomes are then deliberated through live video broadcasts, attended by around 20,000 participants per issue. There’s a cohort from g0v who participates in most polls, continuously evaluating the system.

Post-Sunflower partnerships

vTaiwan couldn’t have emerged without the prior development of the g0v community, which describes itself as a “civic movement by informed netizens toward participatory self-government, borne out of frustration at the government’s blithe lack of transparency at the end of 2012.”

Attendees of the biennial Summit.g0v.tw include a wide age range of mid-career technology and creative professionals with a high level of technical proficiency. This excerpt from a 2013 report reveals that Taiwanese civic hacking has long taken an all-terrain approach toward supporting rational public discourse, including crowdsourced browser plugins for identifying erroneous news, gorgeous (and revealing) interactive visualizations of government economic data, and iterations on leaderless public deliberation processes (Loomio, airesis, occupy.here, and other liquid democracy platforms). As of August 2016, there are almost 2,000 members in g0v.tw’s Slack channel.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sunflower Movement, this civic technology community had higher public credibility than the government itself due to its having successfully demonstrating how to conduct transparent democratic process at scale. (Public opinion polls showed that confidence in Taiwan’s president was barely above single digits, by contrast.)

Taiwanese g0v activists such as Audrey Tang, who grew up among Tiananmen exiles in Germany, view governance failures as a “noisy signal” problem. She has been working with active listening and leaderless groups since 1989, e-facilitation since 2008, and psychoanalysis since 2011. A key collaborator, Chia-Hua Lü, has been working as a f2f facilitator since Taiwan’s 2002 national healthcare deliberation. In Tang’s recent manifesto published in France’s national paper Le Monde “Une expérience pionnière de démocratie numérique » à Taïwan” (and in English on Medium), she expresses how in Taiwan, “internet and democracy evolved together, spread together, and integrated with each other.” She continues:

The year 1988 brought freedom of the press and personal computers.
The year 1996 brought the first presidential election and dot-com websites.
There are so many civic hackers in Taiwan volunteering to work on democracy […] because our generation is the first to speak out freely—free speech was banned for 40 years during Martial Law under the Chiang dictatorship.

Tang worked with the community to welcome government officials to participate in these improved modes. But she and her g0v colleagues wouldn’t be succeeding as much as they are without enlightened partners inside government like Minister Jaclyn Tsai, who has led the government’s ongoing participation with the community. Previously Minister Tsai was a lawyer—General Counsel of IBM Greater China Group (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan)—and had joined the Taiwanese government as “Minister without Portfolio of the Executive Yuan” to manage national government policy around tech. Crucially, she also was charged with coordinating cross-ministry issues, meaning she saw that even for the government to successfully talk to itself there was a need to organize processes for rational deliberation.

At a December 2014 g0v.tw hackathon, Minister Tsai upped the ante with a big ask: “Could g0v.tw create a platform for rational discussion and deliberation of policy issues that the entire nation could participate in?” In return, she offered binding consultation—that government decisions on issues discussed on the platform would be bound by the popular will expressed there. Dozens of volunteers at the hackathon accepted the challenge, and vTaiwan was born.

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“We should say, vTaiwan is something of an experiment.” – Minister Jaclyn Tsai

Minister Tsai reflects on vTaiwan on this interview on Talk to Taiwan: (translation by Audrey Tang):

We should say, vTaiwan is something of an experiment. Because at the time—if you remember the post-Sunflower days—the entire society was very chaotic.

When I worked on cyberspace regulations, often I heard people saying “Minister, this is impossible, you need at least 3 years or 5 years to make progress.” But in the business world, because I’ve been in the technology industry, technology moves much faster. We are in a world of rapid change. How is it possible that each policy always takes 3 to 5 years? That’s just not workable. When we think about today’s Taiwan, we are a pluralistic society; it’s almost certain that there will be different voices for any policy issue. So when there are so many different voices, how can we efficiently reach all the stakeholders, so that we can quickly draw a consensus? We need to have a mechanism.

So I went to the g0v hackathon and proposed this project. I said I’m working on these bills and I think we need to have a platform to allow the entire society to engage in rational discussion. Luckily, Audrey Tang and many volunteers felt this idea was worthwhile, so the platform was set up in just a few weeks.

Minister Tsai continues with details on the government process:

So how do we make a platform for rational discussions? Our consensus is that all discussion procedures are to be determined and maintained by g0v volunteers; they have their own rules of the game, all of this is developed in g0v.

On behalf of the government side, I make sure that whenever anyone raises a question, the relevant ministries must respond within 7 days.

If a consensus forms online, then the issue is settled. If there is no consensus, we hold livestreamed consultation meetings. The consultation meeting invites various related ministries and commissions, government representatives, academics, all stakeholder representatives from industries, and participants from the online community. The entire meeting is live online. Everyone voices their opinions, but they are all recorded, open and transparent. Friends in g0v set up a transcription infrastructure, so 2–3 hours later, a stenographic transcript is available to everyone online.

We worked with this platform on closely-held company law, equity-based crowdfunding, selling medical material over internet . . . . All these things were deliberated on the platform, with different views recorded at the same time.

To us policymakers, what are the benefits? For each policy, I post all background material I have online. So if you want to delve into this issue, you can see the same data as I do. When everyone is on the same page, we can have a real discussion. Otherwise, the dialogue would be out of focus.

So if we can all take the time to understand the problem, read the data, while also listening to the views of the people—and enter a discussion, we are much more likely to reach a consensus.

vTaiwan’s recent successes

A year ago, vTaiwan started tackling its 12th topic: how to regulate the entry of Uber into Taiwan. The process played out—people offered statements for others to agree or disagree on, government ministers addressed the points of consensus on television, co-facilitators from the government and g0v held mixed-reality stakeholder meetings, and the government pledged to ratify the consensus points:

  • Taxis no longer need to be painted yellow.
  • High-end app-based Taxis are free to operate, as long as they don’t undercut existing meters.
  • App-based dispatch systems must display car and driver identification, estimated fare, and customer rating.
  • Per-ride taxation is required to report to the Ministry of Finance.

With city-level pilots expected in August 2016, the new regulation would allow other Uber-like apps as well as some created by the civil society to enter the market. Full story here.

 

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Above: vTaiwan’s pol.is conversation on online sale of alcohol

 

This success in regulating Uber was followed by another success in March 2016, when vTaiwan’s consensus building methods overcame a six-year deadlock on online alcohol sales. The constituents had been yelling at each other across the divide; using pol.is, the vTaiwan was able to break the deadlock in 3 to 5 months.

How Occupy Wall Street led to Pol.is

In 2011, I spent some time in Zuccotti Park. Back then, public conversation tech in OccupyWallStreet utilized classic forums with topics and replies (see Nycga.net and Occupywallst.org/forum). There was some prototype location-specific anonymous messaging, a preface to what FireChat would become in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Briefly, an anonymous txt2projection installation “Our Wall,” sought to “amplify thoughts and ideas in and around the park […] without actually being loud.”

The iconic technology of Occupy was the People’s Mic, by which the crowd turns themselves into a speaker system to have a conversation at scale: Mic Check! + twinkling fingers to indicate agreement. The modes of interaction in Occupy amplified individual voices into a cacophony, and out of that noise, the loudest discernable voices were the ones jockeying to speak on behalf of everyone else. Not a big difference from US speech-making personalities. Fewer provisions were made to pick up signals from a broader base of quieter folks, or to identify points of consensus within complex, divisive issues.

Colin Megill, one of the founders of Pol.is, has said that watching the People’s Mic in action, as well as the communication challenges faced by Arab Spring organizers in Egypt and Iran, inspired the creation of Pol.is. As he says,

We wanted a comment system to be able to handle large populations and stay coherent, while preserving minority opinions and producing insights automatically. AI made that possible. We wanted people to feel safe, listened to and be able to jump in and out as they please. Overall, we wanted to make it easier to successfully decentralize power in organizations of all kinds.

Public participation methods that scale

Pol.is is a way to gather open-ended feedback from large groups of people. The polls can be anonymous or linked with social media accounts. A graphic interface shows how opinion clusters emerge, cluster, respond, divide, and recombine; this is possible because pol.is creates and analyzes a matrix comprising what each person thinks about every comment. Minority opinions are as well-defined as the majority opinions are, “dissent is data.” Check this illustrated blog post about the evolution of their user interface.

This technology only became possible in the past 5 years or so with the advent of near ubiquitous mobile connectivity, the real-time web, web-based data visualization, and neural networks (where the computer learns the rules itself instead of being hand-coded by software engineers; recommender engines like Netflix/Spotify and machine vision both use these kinds of algorithms).

Because anyone can enter a new statement, the agenda-setting power is held by the people, a critical advance on a very sticky sticking point for mass decision making. I think of this interface as the online counterpart of paper-tech methods of “open space technology”—you may have experienced a more popular but watered-down version called “unconference,” which maximizes the number of presenter-audience relationships, but does not attempt to support group decision-making.

Above: open space technology “marketplace” of people generating and clustering topics See https://publiclab.org/barnraising

Above: open space technology “marketplace” of people generating and clustering topics
See https://publiclab.org/barnraising

In the 40-odd-year tradition of open space technology, individuals write the topics they want to address on pieces of paper, then the group works together to cluster the topics and place them into a schedule for dedicated discussion time. This analog method is in wide use today by groups self-organizing meetings, and should be given credit for being able to scale to many hundreds of people with a single ream of printer paper, some markers, and a bit of tape. Pol.is, however, is made for the masses.

Implications for democratic process

Here’s a mic drop quote from Audrey Tang: “vTaiwan and pol.is mean a rethink of the political system at the constitutional level.”

Sadly, that road is littered with failures. Most efforts at collaborative legislation drafting have failed either because the power-holding body wasn’t involved, or because it decided to reject the recommendations of the people—see for example Iceland’s experience with its crowdsourced Constitution. Only occasionally have legislators embraced crowdsourcing of legislative commenting (see Utah’s experiment in Politicopia  or US Senator Durbin’s Legislation 2.0).

The fact that these methods are working at a national scale in Taiwan suggests that, in an age of mass digital participation, we can reclaim the democratic process for including the people’s voice in creating laws. Any permanent change in the way that laws get made—who has responsibility and the power for making decisions—would refer to the constitution. The ambiguous space that opens when consultation begins to function more efficiently and politicians voluntarily agree to abide by the will of the public is where new patterns can emerge.

In early May, an interviewer on Talk to Taiwan asked Minister Tsai if vTaiwan could continue into the new administration:

Tsai: This is my hope, of course. I think this is a solid platform for civil collaboration with the government. The platform has operated for a period of time. People generally trust this process of policy formulation—early-stage communication and transparency really helps. I think it should continue. I really hope g0v friends can work with the new administration after May 20 [2016].

Three days later, the very first political move made by Taiwan’s new administration was to withdraw criminal charges filed by the previous Cabinet against the 2014 Sunflower organizers.

On June 19, 2016, Audrey Tang sent this update: “The use of pol.is at the national level is sufficiently convincing that an MP just asked the current premier and minister of economy whether substantial rulemaking—like the reworking of the joint-stock company law—should be deliberated on vTaiwan.”

Above: @twccly is a bot posting all video feeds from the parliament, made by the http://www.whomakelaws.org/ project

Above: @twccly is a bot posting all video feeds from the parliament, made by the http://www.whomakelaws.org/ project

On July 26, as mentioned at the top of this piece, Taiwan’s new premier declared in a cross-ministry internal meeting that “all substantial national issues should go through a vTaiwan-like process.”

Now with plans to include non-net-enabled citizens, the process is spreading to other levels of the Taiwanese political system, including the city of Taipei, and multiple countries outside of Asia. Audrey Tang says she has been “non-stop running training camps for public servants. We—the 3 civil society advisors to the National Development Council’s civic participation team …—trained 37 ‘seed’ trainers as a joint effort between the academic Taiwan E-Governance Research Center (TEG) and the NDC operation team. Then we work with the seeds on another wave of 6 training classes, after which they can hold their own training camps.” Public servants describe this experience as “eye-opening” and/or “revolutionary,” with a 97.2% satisfaction rating in post-class surveys. Here’s the whole curriculum .

The vTaiwan project is focused on scaling human facilitation skills as a critical component of this massive democratic participation. In the early days, they went through several generations of electronic whiteboards—first with eBeam, eventually re-training folks who facilitated with whiteboard-and-paper to use iPad Pro + Apple Pencil + GoodNotes (taking photos; splicing them on a virtual wall for remote participants to more clearly see). Now they are onto VR and wearables. They are experimenting with 360° recording to possibly replace the labor-intensive livestreaming of stakeholder meetings that currently requires a crew of volunteers. Here’s TonyQ in April testing HugVR (WebRTC) before YouTube 360° was available. In the past couple stakeholder meetings, Audrey has tested a POV shoulder-mounted Theta S and also a PixPro 4K to stream her facilitation to YouTube VR-360 “all in the name of science, to some day train a robotic in-person facilitator guidance system—not to replace facilitators, to augment them.”

 

14-AudreyT wearing participant gear 15-AudreyT-facilitatorKit
Above: Audrey Tang wearing the facilitator’s kit.

 

Meanwhile, the team behind the consensus-building technology inside vTaiwan—Pol.is—has been approached by academics working with the municipal government of Rome and multiple US agencies at the state and federal level have demonstrated interest. Colin Megill, one of the founders of Pol.is, says:

We’re working to change the relationship between citizens and governments in all levels in all places by making feedback something that happens automatically, not something governments have to “go get.” We’ve worked to make it so simple to deploy on a daily or weekly basis that there’s no excuse to not find out what a given population thinks. That’s been really time consuming and labor intensive until now, but leveraging AI will dramatically change the calculation for robust social research.

Getting high dimensional, organic feedback from the population during a problem identification phase—as early as possible in the formation of rules—is categorically different from voting. In voting the cake is baked, and there are literally hundreds of issues at stake. The goal is to engage citizens far earlier, when everyone is arguing over the ingredients. At that point, it’s not legalese yet. It gives citizens much more leverage in shaping policy, and involves them at the phase the process is most accessible, and their input is most valuable as well.

As the complexity of our economy increases, it’s critical to increase the speed with which governments are able to respond to regulatory demands in a collaborative, transparent, and sophisticated way. We’re working to help governments move faster and with more confidence to meet complex challenges posed by new technologies, while embracing diversity of thought and balancing interest groups.

Watch Colin’s presentation at Summit.g0v.tw or read the transcript here.

Reflections

Thanks to the rise of the internet, many people around the world are today sending many signals to many other people and/or governments with many tools, most of which were never designed for diverse constituencies to democratically govern themselves at scale. The tools we’re using at scale generally accentuate polarization and conflict (see work by Stanford’s Emma Pierson, 1 & 2, as well as Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim’s talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2016). Taken as a whole, the process vTaiwan has created amounts to a rethinking of how citizens send signals on complex issues, and how government listens and decisions result. Consensus-building combined with facilitation to derive “coherent, blended volition,” (as worded by Audrey Tang) can renew the value of public discourse, and leverage the true strengths of diversity in a civil society.

The bit about bringing agenda setting to the public brought back some fond memories for me personally. Flashback to 2002 when I sat next to a sign that said Talk to Me, and once a year my friend and I would hold “Talk to Me” parties so that all of the strangers we met could meet everyone else. Our method was to fill Bryant Park (if you’re reading this, Bryant Park BID, thank you again!) with an assortment of questions and invite thousands of strangers to self-organize into talking about whatever they wanted. We had some light-hearted DIY moderation in the style of Antanus Mockus, and one key rule: no one on mic. Our goals were multiple, but chief among them was a sincere desire to use the potential offered by this incredibly diverse, international city to rekindle the “talk of the town” without status or pre-determined agenda.

The internet is everywhere-ish, yes, but it’s geographically-organized public conversation that generate political impact. Our sense of place is inextricable from politics. I admit I am guilty of musing about what is possible in democracies at the scale of island or “island-like” internet-enabled city-states like Taiwan, Hong Kong, ancient Greece, Iceland, even the tri-state area.

This vision, however, only makes what’s currently happening in Hong Kong all the more painful. In a region where the stakes for these young democracies are so high, freedoms are being revoked: this month, in contrast to the pardons received by Taiwan’s pro-democracy Sunflower organizers, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella organizers—who were advocating for their right to nominate their own candidates and vote them into the top position—were found guilty on illegal assembly charges stemming from the 2014 occupation. It is no coincidence that new innovations for democracy are coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, polities feeling the real possibility of losing theirs.

I say this as someone committed to face-to-face organizing and the offline (you might say, vernacular) technologies that make it possible: while I don’t think any one piece of technology could save democracy, I do think this one solves a big problem with it—which is to say, what happens when we disagree? How do we live with—or live as—the losers? Consensus building reduces the losing-ness of democracy by finding the points we all agree on without erasing the camps we stand in. Consensus building technology that works at large scale could be the internet’s missing link—the app we need to help us past just yelling ‘stop’ and figure out how we get to ‘go.’ Arguably, Taiwan’s more homogenous population makes the vTaiwan process more viable. Could it work in a setting like the United States, where people seem to have completely different versions of reality?

I am looking forward to voting in the US presidential election this fall, but I just can’t call that single opportunity to signal—especially when it’s merely to choose a representative, not to make any particular decision—democratic. Especially not since encountering a functioning set of tools that we could be using instead of listening to speeches. So, as surprised as I am to hear myself utter this rather unlikely phrase, if massive mixed-reality facilitated deliberations built on top of a consensus-building neural network can help us all talk to each other—I’m in.

The author wishes to thank Audrey Tang, Colin Megill, Christine Cupaiuolo, and Greg Bloom for their assistance on this article. To join the g0v community on Slack, go to join.g0v.today. To learn more about Pol.is for governments, sign up here: pol.is/gov. And for informal vTaiwan updates, follow Audrey Tang’s (mostly English) Twitter handle twitter.com/audreyt.

Article vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy | Civic Hall 

What is “Municipalism”?

The definition of “municipalism” is still up for grabs. If you Google the word you’ll be given a snippet from Wikipedia about “libertarian municipalism”,  a compelling but very specific utopian political philosophy of Murray Bookchin. Surely “municipalism” can and should mean something more.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of people around the globe living in urban areas has increased from 30% to over 50%, but cities have not seen a corresponding increase in political power. Instead, nation-states and transnational institutions that network them have become the centers of power relations. Many people predict this dynamic will change: and it is. Efforts like UN Habitat III created space for cities to represent themselves at the UN for the first time in that organization’s history. The C40 Initiative has brought cities together to fight climate change by making significantly more aggressive emission reduction pledges than nation-states did at the Paris Summit. The Global Parliament of Mayors is provides a venue for municipalities to share knowledge and make collective decisions. You can find more entities in our directory.

Over the last two thousands years, cities have frequently been more politically powerful than the nations and empires in which they’ve been located. Cities, municipalities and regional governments have performed many nation-state like functions such as building trade networks, engaging in foreign relations, waging war, completing massive public infrastructure projects and protecting their residents from state violence.

Municipalism should refer to the idea that cities and regions should have more autonomy from the nation-states in which they’re located, while also being active participants in a global network of peer municipalities that upholds human rights and humanitarian standards.

It should be an idea that incorporates old and new concepts from all over the social, political and economic landscape, including urbanism, bioregionalism, paradiplomacycommunity-based economics,  civic technology, participatory democracy, social ecology and more.

It should help mobilize residents to participate deeply in local problem solving and inspire municipal governments to share solutions with cities around the world. 

Most of all, municipalism should provide a positive alternative to the failure of the nation-state and an affirmation that we can recenter political control at the local level while advancing human rights and humanitarian standards globally.

What does “municipalism” mean to you now? What do you think it should mean in the future? Let us know below.

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