Designing an Operating System for Democracy

Can an Argentine startup reinvent governance through a smartphone app?

BUENOS AIRES—Pia Mancini is the photogenic leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which she co-founded in May 2012 and runs on her MacBook Air—from airplane lounges, conferences in Europe, government ministries, and sometimes an office that her group shares in a Buenos Aires district known for its television studios.

As telenovela stars arrive in jeeps and crews unload props from double-parked trucks nearby, Mancini and her colleagues type away next to their officemates, a group of young architects. From this office, which could easily be in Berlin or Berkeley or Beijing, Mancini and co. have created DemocracyOS, an open-source platform for voting and political debate that political parties and governments can download, install, and repurpose much like WordPress blogging software. The platform, which is web-based but also works on smartphone browsers, was conceived as a tool to get young Argentines involved in city governance. But it has since spread as far as Tunisia, where activists turned to the software earlier this year after their own efforts to develop an online forum for debating a draft constitution had failed. “People in Tunisia just found DemocracyOS online,” Mancini explained. “We learned that they were using it through a Transparency International news article.”

Her team’s vision is to make DemocracyOS the “operating system of a more open and participatory government.” The party, which has drawn inspiration from Pirate Parties in Germany and Sweden, fell short of gaining a seat in the city legislature after standing for election last year, winning only 1 percent of the vote. But it still made headlines for its ambitious charter. Net Party candidates promised to cast their votes according to the will of DemocracyOS users, and introduce legislation based on user suggestions rather than those of industry lobbyists. They’ve proposed crowdsourcing the reading of bills to combat corruption and instituting proxy voting, where people who do not feel informed about a given topic can delegate their vote to experts in the system.

This past spring, city legislators agreed to take part in a five-month test of the platform starting in August. Residents of Buenos Aires will have the opportunity to discuss and vote on three upcoming bills, while lawmakers will report on the results during their sessions. “The members of parliament aren’t saying they will vote according to what the citizens tell them,” Mancini noted. “What they are saying is they want to see what this is all about.” In this way, the party has managed to gain a measure of influence in the council without getting a member elected to the body. Its technology, in effect, has been elected. As Mancini’s co-founder and boyfriend Santiago Siri observed last year, “The political party is the way that we have to inject this Trojan virus into the congress. We are making the political system believe that we are playing by the rules but actually we are inserting an entirely new logic into their system.”

Mancini describes DemocracyOS as a tool that will help citizens who don’t have time to attend local government meetings, follow new laws, and monitor elected officials. “We have a team of volunteers that goes to every committee meeting in the city legislature,” she explained. “They feed the app with updates and the legislation that is going to be discussed that particular week. We explain the rules, we try to strip out the legal jargon. We say, ‘This project aims to do this. Those who are against, argue this. Those who are in favor, argue this. Feel free to argue yourself and post your comments.’ And so there’s a discussion that is raised and you can vote how you would like your representative to vote.” At the end of every week, Mancini added, she and her colleagues can compare how people wanted their representatives to vote with how the representatives actually voted.

Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina's Net Party (Brian Flanagan/Flickr)

One recent debate on the public beta of DemocracyOS, for instance, centered on whether the house where Pope Francis spent his early childhood should become a protected historical site. The consensus among city legislators and DemocracyOS voters was ‘yes,’ though nearly 22 percent of DemocracyOS users abstained. It’s unclear, however, whether results on the platform and in the council would be as similar for more controversial and partisan bills—like, say, motions to erect a statue of former leader Juan Perón in the city center. I asked Mancini about the potential in the project for conflict of interest—after all, DemocracyOS was developed by a political party. She responded that since the software is open-source, anyone can audit it.

One of the most controversial aspects of the experiment planned for the Buenos Aires legislature is its lack of anonymity. Users of this official version of DemocracyOS must be of voting age, and must sign up using a national ID card and a second piece of identification (early plans to use Facebook as a means of authenticating users’ identities were dropped over concerns about making the platform overly reliant on a U.S. tech firm). And how a person votes on the platform is not secret.

“We had a 20-hour debate on the anonymity issue,” Mancini said. “We wanted to promote a healthy debate. When people hide behind an avatar, they tend to be much less responsible about what they say. We didn’t want to have a platform full of trolls. We didn’t want a Facebook- or Twitter-style debate. The only way we have to make it clear that we aren’t tampering with the system is to make everything transparent and public.”

A DemocracyOS page on a bill to protect Pope Francis' childhood home (Michael Scaturro)

When I met her, Mancini was preparing for a flight to Mexico, where she consults with both the country’s president and its net-neutrality movement. Mexico is using an iteration of DemocracyOS as part of its efforts to gauge citizen reaction to a new data-protection law. It’s the first of what she hopes will be several rollouts in Latin America and beyond. Last month, Brazil’s Open Knowledge Foundation installed the DemocracyOS platform to give Brazilians a place to discuss (and vent) their frustrations over the county’s massive investment in infrastructure for this year’s World Cup.

The point, Mancini says, is to bring democracy in line with other technological advancements. “We need to start thinking about whether systems that were developed in the 18th century, and fully implemented in the 20th century, make sense in a 21st-century societal context,” Mancini said. A tool like DemocracyOS, she added, can “help speed up that process.”

Still, for all the publicity Mancini and the Net Party have received, participation on the platform is low—debates on legislation rarely attract more than 100 voters—in a capital city with some 2.5 million eligible voters and an Internet penetration rate of 70 percent. After centuries of doing democracy one way, it’s not so easy to change course.