Liquid Friesland – citizen participation, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day?

When we hear buzzwords like ‘digital revolution’ and ‘transparency through e-democracy’  in Germany, we usually think about the Pirate Party. Last year, the newcomer party astounded citizens and political observers alike, overcoming the 5% hurdle in local elections in Berlin, Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine Westphalia. Their party platform has included ideals such as greater transparency in politics, stronger citizen participation in politics and finding a better mix between direct and representative democracy.

But with all eyes on the Pirate Party – where analyses range from awestruck fascination to more sober accounts concerning its future – another new and exciting phenomenon in Germany has obtained much less attention.

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Otherwise known as a summer tourist destination for German families, tiny Friesland now has Germany’s first participatory platform.

On November 9th 2012, the small district of Friesland became the first in Germany to use the software Liquid Feedback in local politics. Initially developed by the Pirate Party, Liquid Feedback is a web-based open source decision-making tool which, in the case of the Pirate Party, allows members to delegate their votes to other members whose opinions they trust. But Sven Ambrosy, the District Administrator of Friesland, decided that this software could be adapted and used at citizen level, as a way to better involve local views into political decision-making. Following approval from the county council, Liquid Feedback was thus implemented in Friesland in early November as a ‘test case’ for one year.

So, what are the implications of Liquid Feedback for politics in Friesland? Using the web portal, registered citizens can discuss relevant issues of interest, make concrete suggestions and amend others, as well as vote on fellow citizens’ initiatives. Given a certain number of votes around a given topic, a citizen’s initiative must by law be discussed by the county council, the Kreistag. As one local newspaper ambitiously wrote, Friesland’s implementation of Liquid Feedback is ‘a world premiere for citizen participation.’

Proponents of this so-called Liquid Friesland applaud the direct link between online participation and real decision-making. With a mere mouseclick, personal ideas can be suggested, debated and sent for discussion at the political level. Citizens can then verify online when and how the Kreistag has discussed the specific matter and what decisions were made. In the words of Sven Ambrosy, ‘for the first time, citizens know that their views and perspectives are being heard and taken seriously by politicians.’

Two and a half months after its implementation, we wonder: how has Liquid Friesland fared so far? The results are somewhat sobering. A few weeks ago, Friesland counted its 500th registered user – a figure far from overwhelming in a population of 100,000. And whilst several topics have already been discussed in the portal, such as the construction of disabled-friendly access to the beach, a maximum of 15-20 people have participated in each debate. Many observers are skeptical: is this really revolutionary compared to traditional politics? Doesn’t this prove that citizen participation rates are just as low online as they are offline?

We don’t have answers to these questions and, besides, it’s probably much too early to tell. But we wonder whether these questions are perhaps missing the point. In any case, should we really expect online methods of participation to ‘revolutionize’ politics? Or doesn’t it just represent an additional channel for people to involve themselves in politics, with the hope of creating a more inclusive system in the long-run? And aren’t we still at the learning stage? Personally I find it very exciting that classes teaching Liquid Feedback at the local Volkshochschule (community college) have been booked out for months, and that computer-savvy Friesländer have volunteered to help teach others the software.

Who knows what Liquid Friesland will bring…but we’re looking forward to tracking its developments!

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