Farewell, Dynamic Democracy

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

Back in April, the Digital Economy Bill was rushed through the wash-up procedure of the outgoing government without the due debate and consideration that I and others believe such a far-reaching bill deserved. My disillusionment with the government decision-making process over the following week led me to set up and announce a new site, called “Dynamic Democracy”. It was an experiment to see what would be discussed if everyone was involved – on an anonymous basis – rather than just our elected representatives that often do not do a good job of representing us anyway.

The site allowed all users to create and comment on ‘Bills’, encapsulated ideas or laws that they would be pushing for if they were in power. Registering gave users the ability to vote bills (and comments) up and down, leading to a list of highest-ranked bills that represented the users’ favourite potential policies.

Dynamic Democracy saw little success, possibly because writing a full, well-thought-out bill represented significant effort that a casual browser would be unlikely to commit. ‘Karma’, the point system that aimed to encourage users to submit bills and comments, did not prove to be a good enough incentive as there were so few users to compete with and no direct reward was ever implemented for reaching high karma levels.

What the site did bring, however, was a number of enquiries from like-minded individuals all over the world, keen to discuss the ideas behind the site and whether or not something like Dynamic Democracy could ever be implemented as a real government policy-making tool. One of the more notable contacts, Denny de la Haye, stood as a candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch in the general election and promised to implement a crowd-sourced voting system similar to Dynamic Democracy for his constituents to voice their opinions in Parliament through him. (Denny, who sadly did not win his seat, now represents the UK arm of political party DemoEx.)

I have decided that today is the day to close the Dynamic Democracy experiment, because today the UK government announced their “Your Freedom” website. While largely focussed on repealing or changing laws rather than the complete freedom to suggest anything you like, Your Freedom is certainly in the same vein as Dynamic Democracy, with the crucial extra feature that is endorsed and used by our government and thus ideas proposed there stand at least some chance of making it into official government policy.

Time will tell whether that really happens, or if like the No. 10 Petitions site, suggestions will be responded to with an e-mail from the Prime Minister’s office explaining why thousands of users are all wrong. But I do still hold out hope.

Did Dynamic Democracy influence the government in their decision to create Your Freedom? Almost certainly not. As my discussions with visitors to the site have shown, I am far from the only person to have come up with this idea, and neither am I the only one to have coded up a website around it. No – this is simply an idea whose time has come. A vast gulf exists between Westminster and the world outside, just as it always has, but these days the public are coming to question why that is and if we can do something to correct it. And nowhere is the desire to bridge that gulf stronger than among the tech-savvy youth that have the drive and the ability to use the internet to that end. Sites like these will come and go a hundred times over the coming years and decades, and slowly but surely we’ll reshape our government into what we want it to be.

So to everyone who contributed to Dynamic Democracy: thank you, and goodbye.

If you’d like to contact me about Dynamic Democracy (or anything else), you can still do that via email. If you’d like to help get the Digital Economy Act repealed, please vote up and comment on one of these ideas on Your Freedom. If anyone would like use of dynamicdemocracy.org.uk until my ownership expires in 2012, let me know. Stay tuned for the announcement of another project that bridges politics and the internet in the next few weeks.


What a great idea this is! I still think it has a lot of potential although I'm unclear who it is actually for as the gap between the man-on-the-street and the political class is so huge. I would target it more as a resource for political geeks.

Being a political geek, I suppose it's true that I'm not a good representative of the man-on-the-street. But we're largely a vocal breed, particularly online, and we make our opinions known much more readily than the public at large.

Of course, the government would have to be wary of taking opinions on Your Freedom as representative of the country as a whole, but before we start thinking about that, I think we need to see if they take any notice of what's posted at all!

Case in point, I suspect the Digital Economy Act is going to be Issue #1 on Your Freedom, and that's a bill that the government have suggested they have no intention to repeal. If the D.E. Act doesn't disappear, I don't hold out much hope for the rest of the site.

(Whoa, re-reading that, I didn't mean to be quite that negative! I apologise on behalf of my inner cynic. :P)

Hi Ian. I can't seem to get the contact form to appear but I'm interested in finding out more about this project and perhaps adapting it in a certain way for a Canadian context. Could you please send me an e-mail so that we might be able to chat about it?

Mark Dance
Parliamentary Internship Programme
Ottawa, Canada

Thanks for letting me know about the contact form - that's fixed now, and an e-mail is on its way!

Ward Kane 03 March 2011

Hi Ian, I am intersted in your project and I may be intersted in doing something similar. I would love to know you what you thought worked with your site and what you would do differently if you were to do it again.

Thanks, Ward

I think the core mechanics of the site (Digg/Reddit-style voting on 'bills') were fairly good, but obviously it failed, so there's a lot of things I'd do differently.

First off, no anonymous commenting next time. I thought it was a good idea to remove any possible barrier to entry, but I spent far too much time trying to fight spam (unsuccessfully, in the end). I should have forced some kind of authentication, but minimised the barrier to entry by including easier and more obvious ways to log in using Facebook Connect, Twitter etc.

As far as the software goes, the last few years has seen a real growth in software to generate this kind of site. Drigg on top of Drupal was functional but a bit rough around the edges - nowadays there are dedicated packages for this kind of site (largely Digg/Reddit/Stack Overflow clones, but still). One of those might have reduced some of the awkwardness factors involved with trying to turn a CMS into a rating site.

On the subject of Stack Overflow, a better-implemented Karma system with more obvious and more desirable rewards would have been good.

Lastly, exposure is everything. Because creating on DD is relatively hard (it's easy to rate and comment, but comparatively difficult to write a well-thought-out bill), a site like this needs a lot of attention in order to have a reasonable base of content. Probably less than 1% of visitors will create a bill (certainly the case with DD), so to have 100 bills, you might need over 10000 visitors. DD never got much exposure, mostly because I don't really know how to do that sort of thing. The lesson there for "next time" might be that programmers are all well and good, but you need someone who's good at PR to spread the word.

Hi Ian,
I was very sad to find your site only after it ceased functioning as I certainly would have posted a bill! I agree entirely with your last comment that exposure is everything. I'm interested in your project as I'm working on something similar - how did you guard against people voting numerous times for their own bill?

Voting was locked down as follows:

  • Registered users can only vote once per bill

  • Unregistered users can only vote once per bill -- limited to 1 per PC by cookie, and to 5 per public IP address. Not an exact science, but probably as good as you can achieve while still allowing unregistered users to vote

  • Account registrations have a cooldown time (per IP address) to limit users' ability to create many accounts to bump up their own bills

None of these are sure-fire ways of preventing abuse, so as configured it wasn't appropriate for an official site -- though arguably, the government's own Your Freedom site suffered from a couple of the same weaknesses.
As always, there's a trade-off between accuracy and ease of use. My experiment was to push for ease of use as far as possible (i.e. the minimum possible barriers to a user interacting with the site).

Ward Kane 21 April 2011

Hi Ian,

I am still wondering about the potential of this concept. Here in the United States, there is great frustration with our current system. Most people feel disenfranchised and that voting in regular bi-annual elections are not worth their time. If there was a way for citizens to discuss issues and vote on solutions how many would really join? You have said in England that not many proved to want to. With the right marketing campaign and with the right incentive program for users do you think something like this could take off? Or is it that, even with a perfectly created and marketed site, people in general are just to busy, uninterested or apathetic to really make something like this work. Are we doomed to business as usual?

A bit of both, I think. The marketing campaign -- actually getting the word out in the first place -- is important, but I think the most important thing of all is for users to know that they stand a chance of making a difference.

With hindsight our government's "Your Freedom" site was also a failure, as to some extent was the No. 10 Petitions site that preceded it, even though the government was on the other end, listening to what people said. The problem was that few people believed that Government Listening = Government Acting. Getting past the initial barrier of cynicism might be the most difficult job of all.

The No. 10 Petitions site had a time limit for each petition, and if a petition had gathered enough signatories at that time, it received an official response from the PM's office. The reason it was disheartening to use the site was that often this response was along the lines of "Thanks for your input, you make a good point, but this is why you're wrong". To keep people engaged in an official version of a site like DD, I think the government would have to keep their own opinions out of it as far as possible -- but that's very much at odds with the way politics is conducted today in both our countries.

Rambling diversion over! :) When I say "a bit of both", what I mean is that there are many types of potential user -- 99% will be apathetic, and all they will ever do is vote up / digg / 'like' a page that says something they agree with. I think a designer of a site like this needs to really cultivate the other 1% that are prepared to put the time in provided they're sure their effort will be useful (they do exist, look at Wikipedia!), while acknowledging that by and large, the other 99% are a lost cause. Turning the 1% into 2% could be a massive effort compared to making the site really good for the 1%.

Of course, then you run into the problem that if the site becomes important in policy-making, your policies are being decided by 1% of the population that care, and the other 99% who just vote up suggestions that you legalise marijuana.

Ward Kane 21 April 2011

If we want to make a difference in this world we need to make sites like these accessible to more than 1% of the population. If 1% is defining the issues and creating solutions how to you get many more people to vote? We are thinking that if we make our site a vehicle in which large national groups can promote their ideas, then they will use their networking power to attract their members to our site. Why would they do this? Because most national groups have maxed out the number of members they can attract as they are preaching to the choir. We think a neutral, non-partisan, non government, site that creates a level playing field where all ideas compete against each other, might be an attractive way for these organizations to spread their ideas to a wider audience.

Furthermore, we would let citizens organize themselves into groups (neighborhood, issue, profession, etc.) and use their social media connections to spread their ideas.

We would maintain one-citizen-one-vote so grass roots organizations would have an advantage over astro-turf groups.

We have been thinking about a site like this for 6 months and are still debating the viability of the idea based on the shaky premise of a circular logic argument: People will play if: Many others are playing and there is the perception that their efforts are making a difference: Their efforts will make a difference if people play in great enough numbers so that policy makers cannot ignore them.

This is where we are stuck. If you make the assumption that people are frustrated with our current system and would be willing to participate in a more inclusive on line system then how do you get the first million to do so?

This is probably the core issue facing new social networks and other new sites that depend for their functionality on having a reasonable number of users. And, as you can probably tell by the fact that Dynamic Democracy folded after a few months with only a few dozen users, that side of things isn't exactly one of my strengths!

Whether users' efforts make a difference may be almost secondary to the general problem, "users will play if many others are playing". To get the initial rush of users that kicks it all off probably involves some marketing voodoo that is beyond my understanding :)

As a suggestion, based on DD's failures, maybe try to introduce a level of interaction somewhere between voting and bill-posting? With DD, bill-posting was a hook that got people coming back to the site -- but it was a level of initial investment that most weren't willing to put in. Voting was at a low enough level that everyone did it, but it provided no hook to return to the site later.

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