The Killer Application for Liquid Democracy is not the Parliament but the Deep State

The e-democracy movement has long debated liquid respectively delegative democracy, and I personally find it by far the coolest way to upgrade politics into the digital age. It allows making dozens of informed political decisions per second while only actively engaging in politics once a month, or even less.

The core idea is that you can ask your good-hearted doctor friend to vote on your behalf whenever it comes to medical issues. The doctor friend can then decide to delegate his (and your) mental health vote to his trusted night nurse from the psychiatric ward, the acute care vote to the philosophy student who volunteers as emergency car driver and keep the cancer-vote to himself.

The core idea and architecture is to allow you to delegate your voting right on every issue you don’t care sufficiently about to engage yourself to a trusted friend who does, or who at least knows a third person who does. It also allows you to track down every decision made in your name. And of course withdraw your delegated vote any time you find it ends up being used against in your intent. Therefore you can ensure that your values are represented fully by your voting, in contrast to a paper-based election system, no matter if one or multi-party, representative or Swiss-style direct.

But when discussing liquid democracy, we tend to speak about law making. The point of this article is to argue that the legislative branch seems to be the wrong place to start. Power in government has more dimensions than just making laws and some of them may be even more important and at the same time easier to democratise electronically. Therefore I’d like to propose a different use case for delegative e-democracy:

The public sector work force, sometimes referred to as the “Deep State”, holds significant power in the execution of public functions. In our current democratic systems, sovereign oversight over the deep state is so indirect that you might call it inexistent: Elective choices determine a head of state or ruling party, who then proceeds to appoint ministers, who may or may not turn over some of the staff working in the public sector. The deep states power can be for the better if they resist the execution of unconstitutional policies, or for the worse if they prevent genuine reform. Independent of its merit, the deep states intransparency and lack of sovereign oversight make it troublesome to many of us.

Now, (assuming you live in a country with a public health system), maybe I could delegate to my doctor friend not a right to vote on medical laws in my name, but to vote on who is to be the new director of the hospital. And also delegate votes on hiring the director of the public transport company, the director of the department of public water works, their middle-managers and so on. Therefore decisions made in shaping our cities and the execution of public services, way beyond law making, could be democratised using the same basic liquid structures we debated and tools we developed for law making.

And then there is a second, closely linked core function of government: The power to impact our lives for different sections of the deep state (or public sector) is approximated first and foremost by their budget. In our current world, the state collects taxes to create a pool of public funding. It is then up to parliaments to decide on allocation of that pool to the various tasks and departments of the deep state. But in contrast to law making, when it comes to budget allocation, it is actually really easy to aggregate millions of different opinions: It’s just adding up numbers.

Therefore the second killer application of electronic democracy is just this: Instead of having a budgetary debate in parliament, we could allow citizens to directly allocate 1/n of the public budget to the departments of their governance unit, with “n” being the number of citizens — this can be a municipality, a kanton, a state, a nation, a multi-state unit like the EU or the global climate finance pool of money.

Eligibility for funding needs to be determined though — in the initial phase, eligibility could simply be historic public functions, so education, road construction, defense, and so on. Within these departments, the newly elected deep-state managers can define sub-categories for funding.

I will post a white paper outlining an experiment to allocate European climate finance to developing country climate actions through such a tool soon.


A high five to Timothey High from the Democracy Earth Slack for inspiring me to write this piece.

And let me add an example, that was inspired from a dialogue with Miguel Prados:

I’d like to delegate that kind of decision for my city to someone else. I (kind of) do when electing a city parliament guy from a party I fancy, but it’s not half as exact and specific as it would be with delegation. Let me be more specific in my example:

I cycle through something like 15 different streets on a daily basis… And, having lived in Copenhagen, they only became the most bike-friendly city on earth because a few people in city parliament fight over centimeters over and over and over again — or more precisely, really cool unelected people in mid-level administration do the fighting and hard work of finding an acceptable compromise, with parliamentary approval. One of the roads to my work place recently had it’s already 2.5m broad bike way extended by another 30 cm recently. I see a huge advantage in that kind of small things leading to great quality of life for the vast majority of the population in places with a more functional democratic process, when comparing different countries I lived in (e.g. when comparing Denmark or Switzerland vs. Germany). 
But even Switzerland could do a million times better if mid-level public sector executives making the “30-cm more or less” kind of planning decisions that later enter the “yes-no” decision at parliament btw. this type of decision is made twice, approval and budget, so the budget part gives the population another chance to say yes/no in a delegative system with democratic budget) where elected based on trust by the population and merit instead of having several layers of slightly corrupt politics in between.