Direct Democracy in the Digital Age

A conversation with the Mayor of Seoul

Me on the far left, speaking with Mayor Won Soon Park at right.

For the past five years, the little co-op I co-founded has been working on a tool called Loomio. Workplaces, government departments, co-ops, and political parties around the world use Loomio to involve members and citizens in bottom-up decision-making. We focus on small groups, usually less than 500 people. At that scale it’s possible for people to listen to each other and benefit from the experience of deliberative democracy.

On a recent visit to Seoul, I met with Mayor Won Soon Park to discuss the possibility of scaling up the experience of deliberative democracy from small groups to a megacity with millions of residents. Our conversation was moderated by journalist Ki Beom Kim, and reported in the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper. We covered my impression of Korean democracy as it undergoes dramatic shifts; analysis of Seoul’s digital citizen engagement platform; some thoughts on how to change the bureaucratic nature of the city government; and some consideration of Seoul in a global context, with a special reference to Taiwan.

I first came to Korea in 2015 for an event on Jeju Island called “Camp By The Crowd,” which was hosted by WAGL (We All Govern Lab). The gathering was inspired by the global wave of pro-democracy movements that started in 2011: First the Indignados in Spain, then Occupy in the West, followed by the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. Our discussion focused on how we might prepare for a similar movement in Korea. Could we anticipate the surge of energy and translate it into real systemic change?

It was tremendously encouraging to see our local struggles connected to a global movement that keeps growing, evolving, and learning, but my optimism took a hit when I left Jeju and I visited Seoul for the first time. I saw small, isolated protests violently repressed by police; Baek Nam-gi, an elderly farmer protesting changes to agricultural policy, died at their hands. I left Korea with new friends, but not with great hope for their democracy.

I returned one year later, in December 2016, to a completely different atmosphere. The day I landed in Seoul, I dropped my bags at the hotel and then walked out into a crowd of 1.6 million people. I had arrived at the height of the Candlelight Protests: Whole families, children, old people surged through the streets, with music, street food, laughter, satirical flags, revolutionary songs, and tears of hope and joy. It felt more like a street festival than a protest. The citizens were celebrating the downfall of their corrupt president before she had even been impeached.

The weekly protests started on November 5. By December 9, the National Assembly voted to impeach the president on corruption charges. The decision was finally ratified by the Constitutional Court on March 10 this year.

These events were at the forefront of my mind when I met with Mayor Park.

The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. This story was originally published on Civicist, the excellent civic tech news and analysis site.

Translating the Energy from the Streets into the Institutions

Kim: The issue now is how to establish space for more public opinion even after the Candlelight Protests. We really don’t have an online platform to express and share public opinions. What is the mayor’s take on online platforms?

Park: Representative democracy is inevitable, but I believe demand for direct democracy that allows you to directly listen and respond to the citizens’ voice is on the rise. Switzerland does this quite well, but modern societies are too complex and it is difficult to make time to physically gather people. Instead, I think online platforms are an excellent replacement that solve such problems. Of course we need to have online platforms, but for Daum Agora, there was much political pressure. I think the problem was with the politicians, especially ruling parties and administrations, who were afraid of such platforms. More specifically, they were afraid of directly responding to citizens and of such voices becoming an organized movement. In the end, I think the level of online democracy really shows the level of democracy in a given country. I think the Candlelight Protests and the citizens’ voice show a demand for an online platform that provides a convenient way to voice opinions and to encourage governments to respond.

Kim: Mr. Bartlett, Seoul is now developing an online platform to gather citizen opinions. Do you have any advice?

Bartlett: Many cities are experimenting with online participation platforms. With an experiment you can expect a few successes and many failures. We are trying to replace a system that is hundreds of years old, so we can’t expect overnight success.

I think it is important for cities to learn from each other. In Europe for instance, D-CENT (Decentralized Citizens ENgagement Technologies) is the glue between decide.madrid.es, decidim.barcelona, and betrireykjavik.is.

Taipei is the city that is probably having the most success with participatory governance, due to the vTaiwan project that emerged from the 2014 Sunflower Movement. What they understand is that technology is the easy part. I think there are two much more difficult challenges, which vTaiwan have made great progress on.

The first is to deal with the political reality of existing institutions. Power tends to grip very strongly, so you need a good analysis and a strategy for shifting it. You need to build coalitions with people that you don’t agree with 100 percent, you have to grow shared understanding and work together.

Second, you need to put a lot of resources into facilitation. Deliberative democracy can be an incredibly empowering, creative, efficient, inspiring process, so long as the facilitators have the resources to support citizens through a good process. Citizens need to be involved right from the agenda-setting stage, all the way through a deliberation, and finally in some kind of accountability stage after the decision is made. Partial involvement can be worse than nothing, if it feels like you contributed your ideas but then the city government ignored you.

Chia-Hua Lü and ETBlue from Taiwan have proven their deep understanding of both of those challenges. Now they have many successful participatory projects underway.

Another thing I’ve learned from our experiences working with Loomio in citizen deliberation, is to set a very clear scope. Inviting everyone to have an opinion about everything is probably not going to get great results. The projects that have worked well for us are like, 300 people discussing the alcohol management strategy for Wellington, New Zealand, with experts and officials and citizens deliberating together for six weeks.

I think democracy is much more than gathering opinions: It’s about people genuinely listening to each other and learning from diverse perspectives. By practicing genuine democracy in your workplace, community group, or sports team, you have a lived experience of collaboration. It proves that competition, corruption, and domination are not irresistible forces of nature. We are so used to relating to each other within a hierarchical context — at work, or school, or in civic life. Sharing power and practicing small scale democracy gives one hope that we can do things differently at a large scale, too. Once people have hope, then they demand change.

Mayor Park and I discussing the use of Loomio for small-scale digital democracy

Park: Loomio is a platform for a small groups. We need to think about how such platforms could be applied to big cities like Seoul. Until now, we have focused on systems that allow citizens to set and vote on agendas, like M-Voting, or to suggest various ideas that the city responds to with simple feedbacks. We haven’t had a platform for true discussions. We would need an upgrade, but the problem is whether or not we have the capacity to carry out rapid, real-time discussions. It’d be a big burden on our public servants. So there is one problem with the responsiveness and another would be with people who become impolite and violent when expressing their beliefs. These are real challenges.

Loomio has been tackling such problems from the start, so we need to consider how we can apply Loomio’s solutions to our systems. So, I’d like to invite Mr. Bartlett to be an advisor on that project.

Bartlett: It would be an honor. But the real experts are in Taiwan. The 2014 Sunflower Movement successfully transitioned from a dramatic protest mobilization to a sustained civic engagement process through vTaiwan.

For instance, last year, there was a controversy on how to govern Uber drivers in Taiwan. Naturally, people had a lot to say on this topic: people enjoy the convenience of Uber, but there are concerns about workers rights, safety, regulation, and the jobs of the existing taxi industry. vTaiwan gathered around 2,000 people to discuss it. First, through online discussions, they identified key opinion groups: cab drivers, Uber drivers, government officials, and interested citizens. Then they invited representatives from each interest group to a face-to-face deliberation, which was broadcast online. The aim of the deliberation was to discover agenda points that at least 85 percent of the participants could agree on.

The first point that people agreed on was that not all cabs have to be yellow. It seems trivial, but it shows that we can find agreement, even from within very oppositional groups. As the deliberation progressed, they negotiated increasingly complex and controversial points, e.g. How should we audit the drivers? How should rides be taxed?

In the end the process generated six policy points, all of which had at least 85 percent agreement from the participants. They were delivered to the transportation authorities, who simply stamped their approval on the recommendations, resulting in actual policy changes. I think this is one of the best cases in which direct participation led to actual results.

Park: We have had similar approaches. We aired a discussion about food trucks online. We still maintain communications with food truck owners. We are also continuing to communicate online for agendas like unemployment or childcare. The challenge now is to integrate various independent discussions into a single platform. Perhaps we could utilize the independent discussions as branches. Seoul generally airs most of our meetings or discussions, which anyone can watch. Maybe we should air this discussion as well. [At the touch of a button, Mayor Park starts broadcasting the meeting.]

Kim: I’ve heard that there have been cases where Loomio was utilized to commence online political parties. What characteristics of Loomio made this possible? Was Loomio used as a means for organizing such parties?

Bartlett: We’re seeing many political parties experiment with Loomio, and other platforms. This is most common with the parties that are engaging younger people, like Momentum in the UK, Podemos in Spain, the Internet Party in New Zealand, the Greens in Australia, and many Pirate Parties around the world.

The best experiences blend the online and offline together. Local face-to-face meetings build community. Digital discussion and decision-making makes those processes much more accessible and efficient.

Parties that are willing to support local democracy do very well with Loomio (the Netherlands Pirate Party, for instance). It’s a lot simpler than other platforms, designed for maximum accessibility not maximum sophistication. Any member can start a discussion, so the grassroots participants have agenda-setting power. Anyone with an idea can test support in the group by raising a proposal: ’I think we should do X, what do you think?’ Everyone is explicitly asked for their opinion on the proposal: participation is encouraged with timely notifications. You can change your mind after you have voted, so people are encouraged to listen to each other and grow a shared understanding of the topic.

Unfortunately, as parties gain power, they tend to centralize. They want to run everything from the top down, with a clear strategy, a single message, a committee for each topic, and nobody deviating from the party line. In short: they are allergic to direct democracy.

Predictably, this happened with Podemos in Spain. At one stage, there were 2,000 independent Podemos groups all using Loomio to support their local face-to-face meetings. When it came to election time, the party gave more power to the central committee and less to the local circles, and suffered a huge loss of support as a result. Still, a good experiment, and not the end of the story for participatory democracy in Spain!

Podemos is Spanish for “We can”, the name chosen by the most popular political party to emerge from the 2011 Indignados movement. This graffiti in Barcelona reads “Podemos (Sin Podemos)” as in, “We can do it without the political party.”

Kim: Mr Bartlett, if you were the mayor, how would you try to topple down the hierarchal structure of the municipal government, to establish a more horizontal, democratic organization?

Bartlett: I’ll quote my co-founder Alanna (Krause) Irving: “Internal culture matches external impact.” In other words, the shape of your organization determines what effect you have in the world.

So if the city government wants deep engagement, innovation, and participation from citizens: how well are they practicing that within their institution?

I don’t know if I could become Mayor, since I don’t like voting! But if I were, I would do what I already do at my daily work: I help my colleagues to better cooperate and to play to their strengths. I would encourage colleagues to be responsible to each other through a more transparent and less hierarchal structure. I think all this could start with a small team. A small department within Seoul government, if you will.

As a small example: there is a management system called “agile product development,” which many companies are adopting now. This process includes every team member in planning, delivery, and review of projects. The process also allows members to reflect on each others’ work. Members foster a sense of responsibility as a team, and by sharing open and constructive feedback, the team becomes stronger and stronger.

Once you have a very highly functioning team within the organization, it will start to spread to the others. People see their colleagues coming to work on Monday morning with a happy smile and they will think, “I want what they’re having!” The way to reform a big institution is to start with a small team and propagate the change from there.

Entrepreneurs know the “lean product development” cycle: build, measure, learn, repeat. We can apply the same mentality to our organizations. Get all the staff together and gather everyone’s best intentions for how they want the organization to run. Then design small, quick experiments to take us one step closer to that ideal. Expect many failures, and the occasional success. Celebrate failure, and build on the success.

Once you have a highly functioning, democratically organized institution, more participation and engagement of citizens will come naturally.

Kim: Any last words from the mayor?

Park: I think the citizens have to be patient as well. When the city is not able to give immediate answers, some citizens become anxious, and they resort to protesting and blaming the government. Automatically, public servants become quite hasty. I think democracy is something that works on mutuality. Both parties have to be patient in creating a better culture. Mutual respect and tolerance are necessary for democracy.


Thanks to the fabulous work of the team at C. for making this meeting happen, and to Wonjae Kim for translating the transcript.

You can read more of my stories from Korea here. If you want to support me to write more things like this, you can contribute here. 😍