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Open source governance is a political philosophy which advocates the application of the philosophies of the open source and open content movements to democratic principles in order to enable any interested citizen to add to the creation of policy, as with a wiki document. Legislation is democratically opened to the general citizenry in this way, allowing policy development to benefit from the collected wisdom of the people as a whole.

Some envision this form of governance as a post-national "virtual state" governing structure, where policy-setting is decoupled from territorial management. Some models are significantly more sophisticated than a wiki, incorporating levels of control or scoring to mediate disputes. In any event, the idea demonstrates the still untapped potential of how open source philosophies can merge with government.

A typical core principle is the concept of a "central codebase" in the form of a set of policies that are maintained in a public registry and that are infinitely reproducible. "Distributions" of this policy-base are released (periodically or dynamically) for use in localities, which can apply "patches" to customize them for their own use. Localities are also able to cease subscribing to the central policy-base and "fork" it or adopt someone else's policy-base. In effect, the government stems from emergent cooperation and self-correction among members of a community. As the policies are put into practice in a number of localities, problems and issues are identified and solved, and where appropriate communicated back to the core.

Because so much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, however, technology may provide important forces leading to the type of empowerment needed for participation in this kind of government, especially those technological tools that enable community narratives and correspond to the accretion of knowledge.

The open politics theory combines aspects of the free software and open content movements, promoting decision making methods claimed to be more open, less antagonistic, and more capable of determining what is in the public interest with respect to public policy issues.

While it can be confused with the newer idea of open source politics, open politics is not so much a movement as a theory based on participatory democracy and deliberative democracy, informed by e-democracy and netroots experiments, applying argumentation framework for issue-based argument as they evolved in academic and military use through the 1980s to present. Some variants of it draw on the theory of scientific method and market methods, including prediction markets and anticipatory democracy.


Open politics can be reduced to a list of criteria:

  • anyone can participate, including anonymously
  • all participants are equals, and resolve disputes via equal power relationships
  • all actions are transparent, and no one has more power to review them than anyone else
  • all contributions are recorded and preserved, and these records cannot be altered
  • all deliberation is structured, or can be put in structured form to resolve disputes
  • all content is re/organized and refactored by participants
  • partisan behavior is limited by the format, rules set by factions themselves, and laws extant in the society or community which will be affected by the political decision
  • control of the forum can, at least in theory, pass to the most trusted users, not the ones who started the forum

Some experts apply strict criteria of democracy, rootedness, legality, equality of access, and even ecological integrity, so as to ensure that there are absolutely no rights lost in moving polity into an online arena. In other words, they wish to expand participation to mobile and remote persons, including disadvantaged ones, and undo some of the inequities inherent in using electronic media.

Underlying preferences and ideals

Underlying these criteria in turn are ideals and preferences that resemble those of other democratic political movements:

  • decentralization of authority: giving the widest and most potent franchise to citizens is thought to minimize what economists call the principal-agent problem, or the tendency for managers to abuse authority.
  • centralization of information: the use of information technology to facilitate communication challenges is key to the practicality of the process.
  • equality of opportunity: anyone can participate in deliberation, with the expectation that people themselves select to participate on issues in which they have the greatest stake, expertise or both. Open politics treats the expert and the citizen as equals, implying that the experts are obliged to convince the citizens directly, rather than using representatives as intermediaries/brokers of policy. This use of peer review is emphasized as the best method to determine what is true or good (with the understanding that this should change over time).
  • encouraging diversity of thought, such that multiple positions and arguments are created, refined and compared; usually the more the better, provided they are succinct.

Some theorists describe the ideals as similar to libertarian and green politics with the emphasis on peer review and scientific method within political science. However, the idea that political science could apply falsificationism is controversial, and despite an invitation to contradict and counter arguments, the rigorous application of scientific method is not part of every open politics service.


Open politics theory grew from earlier work in online deliberation and deliberative democracy, which in turn drew on research in issue-based argument and early hypertext and computer-supported collaboration research of the early 1980s.

The "Imagine Halifax" project was designed to create a citizens' forum for elections in Halifax, Nova Scotia in fall 2004. Founded by the widow of the late Tooker Gomberg, a notable advocate of combining direct action with open politics methods, IH brought a few dozen activists together to compile a platform (using live meetings and email and seedwiki followup). When it became clear that candidates could not all endorse all elements of the platform, it was then turned into questions for candidates in the election. The best ideas from candidates were combined with the best from activists - the final scores reflected a combination of convergence and originality. In contrast to most such questionnaires, it was easier for candidates to excel by contributing original thought than by simply agreeing. One high scorer, Andrew Younger, had not been involved with the project originally but was elected and appeared on TV with project leader Martin Willison. The project had not only changed its original goal from a partisan platform to a citizen questionnaire, but it had recruited a previously uninvolved candidate to its cause during the election. A key output of this effort was a glossary of about 100 keywords relevant to municipal laws.

The 2004–05 Green Party of Canada Living Platform was a much more planned and designed effort at open politics. As it prepared itself for an electoral breakthrough in the 2004 federal election, the Green Party of Canada began to compile citizen, member and expert opinions in preparation of its platform. During the election, it gathered input even from Internet trolls including supporters of other parties, with no major problems: anonymity was respected and comments remained intact if they were within the terms of use at all. Despite, or perhaps because of, its early success, it was derailed by Jim Harris (politician), the party's leader, when he discovered that it was a threat to his status as a party boss. The Living Platform split off as another service entirely out of GPC control and eventually evolved into and a service to promote wiki usage among citizens and political groups.

The Liberal Party of Canada also attempted a deep policy renewal effort in conjunction with its leadership race in 2006. While candidates in that race, notably Carolyn Bennett, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, all made efforts to facilitate web-threaded policy-driven conversations between supporters, all failed to create lateral relationships and thus also failed to contribute much to the policy renewal effort.

See also

References and external links

General resources

Specific projects

  • Metagovernment — An umbrella group of numerous open source governance projects; now using the term collaborative governance
    • Related projects — An extensive list of projects around the world, most of which are building platforms of open source governance.
  • Aktivdemokrati (Swedish) — Direct democratic party, running for the parliament of Sweden.
  • DemocracyLab — A Portland Oregon based nonprofit organization seeking to connect the values people hold to their positions on issues and the policies they advocate. Currently partnering with the Oregon 150 Project to help high school students create a collaborative vision for Oregon's future.
  • White House 2 - Crowdsources the U.S. agenda, "imagining how the White House might work if it was run completely democratically by thousands of people on the internet."
  • Wikicracy, developing a Mediawiki-based platform respecting most of Open politics criteria
  • [1], Spanish Open Politics

Government initiatives

  • Future Melbourne — A wiki-based collaborative environment for developing Melbourne's 10 year plan, which, during public consultation periods, enables the public to edit the plan with the same editing rights as city personnel and councilors.
  • New Zealand Police Act Review — A wiki used to solicit public commentary during the public consultation period of the acts review.

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