Loomio to Bring Democratic Decision-Making to Our Daily Lives

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Loomio promises to bring democratic decision-making to our daily lives. Having been both inspired and frustrated with the Occupy movement’s consensus process, Richard Bartlett became one of the founding members of Loomio. After learning so much while in the Occupy movement, Richard Barlett brought his experience to Loomio and the motivation to make the consensus process run more smoothly. Loomio is an open software program that allows users to post proposals, comment on proposals, and make decisions. With a new crowdfunding campaign, Loomio hopes to continue its development and make the software more widely available. Revolution News was able to sit down with Richard Bartlett to find out more.

What is Loomio? Can you explain what the software was developed for and
how it works?

Loomio is open source software for collaborative decision-making. We’re working towards a world where it’s easy for anyone to participate in the decisions that affect them. The project came out of our experience of collective decision-making at Occupy, which was on the one hand tremendously empowering, but also frustratingly limited.

The decision-making process is really simple: a group of people have a discussion – just like any common web forum. When it is time to make a decision, anyone can start a proposal. When a proposal opens, everyone in the group has the opportunity to have their say (agree, abstain, disagree or block), and give a short statement explaining their reasoning. It’s a really easy way to see how a group feels, so you  come up with better decisions together than anyone could on their own.

We learned this process at Occupy, and since moving it online have found it to be effective for all kinds of groups. It bypasses the practical constraints of having to be in the same place at the same time, which means you can participate when it suits you, and because it’s online it’s easy to pull in the right people and the right information needed for an informed decision. The text-based format allows for much more reflection, and less opportunity for intimidation, as compared to in-person consensus meetings too.

Many people are worried about the NSA and surveillance. What security features does Loomio have? What is Loomio doing to improve security?

We’re pretty worried about illegal government surveillance ourselves! The current version of Loomio has similar security features to any online platform: you choose who sees your content, communications between our servers and your computer are protected by SSL. Additionally, we have a commitment to respecting your privacy, which means we don’t sell your data to anyone.

Frankly though, while we meet “industry best practice” – that’s not good enough!

Personally my interpretation of the NSA revelations is that* every online platform that gets popular will be compromised*. There is no easy “magic bullet” solution, but the best hope we have is decentralization. That means, instead of having one huge monolithic platform with everyone’s data in one place, we envisage a massive network of small pods. Some of them would be federated together, and some would be totally independent and hidden. Basically we want to avoid creating a huge target for surveillance, and empower people to take control of who they share their data with.

We’re crowdfunding right now love.loomio.org, in part to fund the development needed to make it really easy for anyone to install and manage their own private version of the software using a new technology called Docker docker.io.

What was your experience like being part of the Occupy movement and how has this influenced your work on Loomio?

Occupy was an amazing experience, it totally changed my life. It was also incredibly awful! There were so many instances of profound transformation, followed by so many instances of crushing dismay.

Like so many Occupations around the world, our camp in Wellington started with this wonderful commitment to inclusivity, a genuine respect for diversity. In practice though, inclusivity is a very complex challenge -there’s no such thing as perfect inclusion, because some people’s behavior excludes others.

That’s easy for me to sit and write now, but at the time, working it out in the middle of a series of crises and conflicts, it was an immensely challenging concept to develop together!

From my very first experience of the General Assembly, I was deeply moved by the power of a group of people working together as equals, making space for all voices, to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. Time after time, I saw people standing tall for the first time in their lives, confidently speaking their mind to a group of strangers, knowing that they were listened to with respect.

The rosy glow started to fade after a couple of weeks though, as it became increasingly clear that more and more people were being marginalized from the process. At that point, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to shift the process online, to make it accessible to more people.

Since then we’ve been motivated by this vision of democracy as a day-to-day practice, a skill that you practice with the people you work with and live with. Occupy for me was a heart-expanding and mind-expanding experience that I want to share with as many people as possible, because it was the first time I’ve ever felt hope for the future.

What is the Enspiral Network and how does it help Loomio?

So of the 6 founding members of the Loomio Co-op, 3 came from Occupy and 3 came from Enspiral. Enspiral is a network of individuals and companies who use the tools of business to create positive social change. Companies like BuckyBox who have a vision of local food replacing factory farms and supermarkets, and Chalkle who are reinventing education as a life-long practice.

Being pretty skeptical of business, we Occupiers were pretty surprised when we met with a couple of the folks at the Enspiral Space one morning and realized just how much common ground we had.

Enspiral is committed to being non-hierarchical, and they were struggling to find a way to include all their members in their decision-making. So we immediately joined forces: they donated us space in their beautiful office, introduced us to a huge array of amazing people, and supported us to get underway building the software, with copious amounts of good advice and practical help.

Enspiral operates on a sort of “gift economy”. Anyone in the network can choose to contribute a portion of their income to the collective, and then everyone collectively decides how the resources should be spent. Now we are a bit more mature, Loomio is officially an “Enspiral Company”, which means we contribute a percentage of our income to the collective: paying it forward for the next new social venture that needs early support.

What is Loomio’s business model? Software as a service? Technical support?

The details of our business model are still emerging, but generally speaking we sell services to well-funded organisations so we can afford to give away the tool for groups without a budget.

So for instance, we worked with the Wellington City Council (who 12 months earlier were trying to evict our tents from Civic Square…) to facilitate a collaborative policy-development process involving
councilors, citizens, and experts.

As part of our crowd-funding launch, we’re offering a customized version of the software, so it can be tailored to the identity of any group or organisation.

Developing a business model that fits with our values has been a really interesting challenge. We’re guided by two principles: 1) money should never be a barrier to entry for people that want to participate in a democratic process and 2) the project should be financially self-sufficient to keep it independent of corporate or political interests. So we’re finding ways of selling additional services to people that can afford to pay, without marginalizing people that can’t.

In the long run, I think it will be realistic to run the whole project based purely on voluntary contributions of individual users (e.g. the Wikipedia model) – but this requires a huge user base so it will be a couple of years away for us.

Loomio is one of the few workers’ cooperatives, especially in technology. What is it like to be part of a workers’ cooperative? How is it similar or different from other places you have worked? How is it similar or different from other technology companies?

Being in a worker-owned co-op is amazing!

Dr. Richard Wolff  writes about this really compellingly. We’re all proud to live in a democracy, but most of us spend 40+ hours every week in totally un-democratic workplaces.

Introducing democratic practice to your work-life is so liberating. I get to bring my whole self to work every day. If I have concerns about the direction of the company, or if I feel something is unfair, I have immediate recourse to do something about it. In fact, it is my responsibility to do something about!

We don’t have bosses or titles or rigid team structures, so everyone is always learning, and always teaching. It’s incredible to wake up every morning and be totally engaged in my work, to feel connected with others and directed around a shared purpose that’s bigger than any of us.

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Your title at Loomio is Director of Autonomy. What is the the purpose of the title and how does it impact your day-to-day work?

The title is mostly a joke, because we don’t really do titles. Everyone has their own particular focus though, and one thing I am sensitive to is the level of autonomy in the organisation. There is such thing as too much collaboration, and I’m often the one to call it out when I see it :)

We’ve seen time and time again that if you combine high autonomy with high communication, you get fantastic results: people continuously extending themselves to achieve more all the time. We’ve got a wonderful balance of solidarity and agility as a result.

If Loomio raises $252,108 in its crowd funding campaign, it is eligible for a matching grant from Callaghan Innovation (supported by the New Zealand government). Are there more ways government can help open source technology and workers’ cooperatives?

There’s a lot that government can do to support open source and worker co-ops. An easy way for government to stimulate the kind of initiatives they want to see is with procurement policies: i.e. directives that make sure public money is spent with ethical companies. Our government does some
good here, e.g. they recently backed NZ-based open source giant SilverStripe.

As for co-ops, there’s a really interesting initiative in Italy called the Marcora Law. This allows groups of unemployed people to get together and cash out all their welfare benefits in a single lump-sum payout *on the condition that they use it to start a cooperative.*

What is your advice to anyone who is starting a workers’ cooperative?

My advice would be DO IT! Lawyers may advise you not to start a co-op, but that’s due to ignorance rather than rationale. There is a really strong network of cooperatives around the world, so find yourself someone with some experience of co-ops in your particular jurisdiction and talk to them. For me the key ingredient to success is the same as for any collective: start out with a clear statement of your purpose and your shared values. Working together with a group of people can always get difficult at times, but if your purpose and values are clear, that will guide every decision you make.

Also you probably want to start a Loomio group to help with your decision-making 😛

What will Loomio do with its funding from the crowd-funding campaign? How will it help Loomio’s development? How can people donate?

The campaign is to fund development for a whole new platform we’re calling “Loomio 1.0”. We’ve learned a lot from the prototype (Loomio Beta), and we know there is a really strong core at the center of the software. However there are a lot of barriers to entry, so development is focused on removing them, to make a truly inclusive decision-making tool. That means it needs to be *mobile* (using open technologies so it works on any web-capable device), super *easy* to use, and *accessible* to people of all abilities.

We’re building full *email integration* into Loomio 1.0, which means it can function like a drop-in replacement for mailing lists, with the additional functionality of decision-making without having to configure anything.

As mentioned above, we’re also funding the development of a “Docker” for Loomio, which will make it easy for anyone to *host your own secure installation* of the software.

We also have big plans for extending the software, through a *plugin architecture* to enable alternate decision-making protocols (e.g. I’d love to have a spokes council meeting on Loomio), and an *API for interoperability* with other platforms. Finally, we’d love to develop *an SMS interface*, so anyone with a cellphone can participate in decision-making, even if they don’t have access to the net.

People with credit cards can donate at love.loomio.org, or if you prefer crypto-currencies, go to loomio.org wallets. If you don’t have any money to spare, that’s okay too! You can help by spreading the word. A general message posted on your social media channels can help a lot, but even better is if you can think for a second of 3 or 4 people you know who would really like to support this project, and send them a personal message.

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Jennifer Baker is the founder and editor of Revolution News - Contact us with inquiries, tips, corrections at - revnewsmedia@gmail.com